Amongst theologians and churchmen today talk of “postmodernism” is legion. Everywhere people are trying to figure out what it is and how to deal with it from a Christian perspective. This is particularly seen amongst evangelical Christians who certainly spill more ink on the cultural and philosophical issues of modernism and postmodernism than Christians from other traditions (perhaps due to Protestantism’s inherently more pliable nature as a tradition vis á vis the wider culture).
However, one of the largest problems with how such issues are approached theologically has to do with the way in which theologians often assume that “modernism” and “postmodernism” stand for philosophical ideologies and their attending effects on culture. In other words, when people talk about “the culture of modernity” or the “postmodern culture” most of them are talking predominately about ideas and their impact on culture. What is assumed in discussions that take up the grammar of modernism versus postmodernism is that the perceived shifts in cultural and philosophy are predominately intellectual shifts that trickle down as it were into the culture. Perhaps we can call this way of narrating contemporary culture and thought as philosophical Reaganomics (or Thatcherism, if your a Brit).
The point of all this is that the notion that contemporary cultural shifts (such as those that the emerging church movement seeks to engage) are brought on by the trickling down of “postmodern” ideas in contrast to the old ideas of “modernism” is naive and, well, simply wrong. The idea that the constellation of philosophers and philosophical trends commonly called postmodern are somehow actually “beyond” the modern is simply silly. Derrida, Foulcaut, Lyotard and company are nothing if not the progeny of modernity. Only if “modernism” is clumsily equated with a radically Cartesian philosophy could we ever imagine that “postmodernism” takes us beyond it.
It seems to me that a more fruitful way to think about the cultural and philosophical shifts that have been taking place since the later 20th century is to view them under the rubric of (as suggested above), economics. What are commonly identified as modernism and postmodernism are better understood as early and late capitalism. In early capitalism, emerging as it does with the breakdown of Christendom and the rise of the Enlightenment self we have the beginnings of the creation of the capitalist subject: the isolated individual who produces and consumes. The notion of the self that is informed by the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is precisely the nascent self of capitalism. This is the birth self-contained individual whose goal is to secure happiness, flourishing, and safety through production and acquisition of capital, making social arrangements by means of a social contract.
What is commonly called the postmodern, then is better understood simply as the flowering of the capitalist self. The transition from stable, self-defined individuals to the ever-illusive, hypermobile self of postmodernity is simply one of maturation, not rupture. The self-contained individual of the Enlightenment must inevitably come home to roost as the infinitely constructable self of contemporary western culture. And this is nothing new. In evaluating modernity, one should never forget that romanticism, just as much as rationalism is a thoroughly modern philosophical mood, both of which are birthed in the waters of capitalism.
The hipster who lives in a loft appartment (paid for by his parents) doing art and doing his best to be “authentic” and a “non-conformist” is but the current incarnation of the decadent romantic self. Such cultural realities are not indications of a postmodern culture that is displacing the old, modern culture. Rather they are just further examples of the way in which capitalism produces and sublimates its own antibodies. The hipster artist who drinks organic espresso and local microbrews and carries a copy of Of Grammatology in his backpack is precisely the product of capitalist discipline. The erratic identities and social fragmentation of contemporary youth culture in the west has nothing to do with a shift from modernism to postmodernism. They are simply the products of global capitalist hegemony bearing themselves out.
For the Christian theologian then, the order of the day is for us to stop yammering about “postmodernism” and start talking seriously about the demonic nature of the social relations engendered by the global capitalist order and how the church must manifest a different form of sociality from that of the world around us. However, until we are able to talk openly about the fundamentally economic nature of how culture is constructed we will simply be spinning tales that serve no purpose other than to satiate our furtiveness about “kids today”. Of course it is easier just to rabble-rouse about how these young punks are destroying our traditional values than to look seriously at how such cultural realities are constructed in the undulations of global capitalism. Because if we do that then we may actually have to change the shape of our lives. And that’s just far too self-implicating, isn’t it?