I will always be indebted to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) for its culture of developing the Christian intellect. It isn’t that I had come from a brain-less community. My undergrad studies were rigorous, if anything my church culture had been too weighted on teaching and doctrine.
When I stumbled in the IVCF world, first as a volunteer and then as a staff member, it wasn’t that they thought more or harder about life, the universe, and everything. It was that they thought about these things while at the same time asking two key questions:
- How do we know the things we know?
- What can we learn from and inform culture?
I am still, fifteen years later, working on these two questions.
I encountered IVCF in the heady days of “Generation X” conversations. Though at first looked like a generational divergence from its parental norm, in the 1990s we began to understand that we were actually experiencing a revolution in the way we as a culture think about the world. I don’t remember exactly how that awakening occurred in me, but by the year 2000 I was using the word “Postmodern.”
And I meant it.
Even though GenX have slipped out of cultural interest, the movement of postmodernism is still very important.
One of those early resources was a little book by Stanley Grenz called A Primer on Postmodernism. I don’t know that I actually read this when it came out 20 years ago. It has sat on my bookshelf ever since with no creases in the binding. Recently I decided to pick it up.
I have been reading for the last couple of years some of the great minds that contribute to the postmodern conversation, such as Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Ferdinand Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Stanley Fish, and the existentialists, including Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche. These are incredibly difficult authors to work through. What they all have in common is that they are working out a new way of thinking about our relationship to “truth.” In the past—in the “modern” world—we have had an assumption that there is such a thing as reality or truth, and that we have reasonably good access to it. Postmodernism, built on the foundations of these thinkers but also emerging from our exploding, diversifying, digital world, pulls the rug from beneath these assumptions. It questions whether there is an ultimate reality or truth, and it doubts that we could know it anyway.
It’s pretty heady stuff, and it sounds completely upside down. If we can’t know reality, how can we assert that we can’t know? And if there is no ultimate truth, how can we say there isn’t in the first place? This conversation leaves some kernels in our teeth.
In picking up A Primer on Postmodernism, it was intriguing to see how far I’ve come in understanding this shift in human understanding. In the 2nd through 6th chapters, Grenz slowly lays out the key philosophies of the modern and postmodern world. In particular, in ch. 6 he narrows in on Rorty, Foucault, and Derrida, giving postmodernism it best shot at being understood before critiquing it in ch. 7. Even now, 15 years later, I found that Grenz was helpful in phrasing some difficult things. Experts in each of these thinkers may quibble, and Grenz’ focus is narrow—just the question of postmodernism. It is in serious need of updating. But for people who are able to read and think at a university level it is still a great introduction.
Probably the best chapter is the first one, “Star Trek and the Postmodern Generation.” This short chapter is a very clever introduction to postmodernism at its simplest. It is a good resource for anyone, Christian or otherwise, in trying to grapple with shifting foundations in culture.
Even more than the ideas in the book itself, however, is how much it reminds me that I think the way I think not just because of philosophical choices, but because I am in the midst of a cultural shift. Ideas about truth, relationships, teaching style, writing, storytelling, and morality are all being formed in us by our culture as we wrestle with the ideas themselves.
I’ll use teaching as an example. I refuse to pretend in the classroom that I am an unbiased observer to the material. I have shed off the modernist assumption that I can come to my subject matter—whether science or text or the human experience—and observe it without inserting my own belief into the experiment. So I don’t pretend with students. I tell them up front what my biases are, and then I ask them to critique both me and the material I present.
Even more than that, I am exploratory in my approach. I intend to deconstruct the patterns of thought we expect, and suggest no possibilities of viewing the world. My classes are not info-centric; they are student-centred. I am not downloading information to students; instead, I am inviting students into the story I am telling, allowing their stories to encounter mine, and then together we form a new narrative.
In all of this I am a “postmodern” teacher. I intend to be.
As I reread Grenz, though, I wonder how much I have really been successful in charting my own course, and how much I am bound by the riverbanks of thought in my world–as modern people before me were bound by theirs. It is a startling question, and I am grateful to Grenz for helping me think it through.
I met Stan Grenz only briefly, at the back of First Baptist Church in Vancouver. He died not long after, leaving his theological legacy unfinished.
As helpful as this little book is, the eager reader who wants to think more about these things will come up short. For students who want to follow up on Grenz’ work, his Renewing the Centre: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era lays a foundation for how to do Christ-centred thinking in a postmodern era. It is only the beginning of this project, but it is an important work that hints at the deeper currents in North American Baptist thought that is not caught well in media sound bytes.
A second resource I would recommend is Crystal Downing. I would start with How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth In Language, Philosophy And Art. It is an IVPress book, and fairly approachable. I first met Crystal at a conference when someone made a comment about “our postmodern world,” equating it with an attack on faith. Crystal kindly suggested that the postmodern world offers us a tremendous advantage in embracing Christian faith. This book works that tremendous truth out for introductory readers.
Her real gem, though, is Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication. It is a little more challenging, putting her argument into a philosophical and literary context. Crystal plays with the idea of “signs.” Words are symbols of thoughts, and we are always creating and using symbols in our speech. Crystal shows us not just how those symbols are shifting in this new age, but how we can “re-sign”—communicate in today’s language.
As a critic of culture and Christian thinker, Stanley Grenz helps me get started in the conversation with our contemporary world. Crystal Downing’s work, however, takes it to the next level. For those who are able to receive its truth, Downing shows the tremendous opportunities we have as faith-sharers, intentional teachers, and loving neighbours to tell our story in authentic ways.