Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Thoughts on Postmodernity

What follows may be turned into a thesis for my Masters Degree:

I have been challenged in my thinking about postmodernity. When I first started learning about postmodernity and emerging worship I drank it in. It thrilled me that I was not the only one thinking that there must be a different way to do things and that the reasoning behind it isn’t just marketing to a new generation but adapting to a new culture. But recently I have been challenged by learned people to rethink my view of postmodernity. Fads have come and gone and many of them, at their zenith, were considered to be the next epoch shift – then 20 years later they were a faded figment of a previous generation. What then sets postmodernity apart from the myriad of fads that have come and gone before?

Nothing. Postmodernity is a fad. It is a passing craze that will be remembered along with bell-bottoms and stove pipe hats. There are postmodern styles in art and architecture, drama and literature. Christian worship is no different. The so called ‘emerging church’ is a faddish attempt to engage a younger generation. It is 90’s youth ministry applied to twenty-something’s now. Dim lights and candles, art and stained glass are the stuff of emerging worship and they are passing fads. Postmodernity defines itself by what it is not: it is not modern, it is not rational, it is not linear. It is a fad.

What sets postmodernity apart from the myriad of fads that have come and gone before?

Everything. Postmodernity, as it has been called, is indicative of a radical shift in the way that people think and communicate. The term ‘postmodernity’ is not particularly helpful in describing the concepts in question. But there is an epistemological change in progress that must be addressed. How can I make the claim that the very nature of knowledge and thought are changing?

Human thought is expressed in language and language is defined by the thoughts of the people that use it. Language is subjective and ever changing due to its intertwining with the thoughts of people. Historically there have been four major types of language use: oral, script, print, and electronic. During the eras when each of these types of language has been prevalent there has been a very different epistemological perspective. As each new type of language use has been added to the repertoire of humanity the others have changed their roles to fit into the new structures.

Oral societies were very focused on the story. The elders kept the stories and related them to the rest of the society. Wisdom and knowledge were only able to be passed on to a limited group and were dependant on their continued use to survive. Stories are treasured repositories of the collected knowledge of a society.

The invention and proliferation of written language gave rise to the script society. Knowledge became available to a wider audience and it did not require the survival of people to remain intact. This change allowed for great advances in knowledge for those that could afford the expensive scrolls and books. I believe this increased the gap between the rich and the poor by concentrating the knowledge in the hands of the rich. Books are the rare property of wealthy.

Gutenberg changed the world. Books became less expensive to produce and obtain. More people had access to the collected knowledge of the world and more people had an opportunity to add to the knowledge of the world. The knowledge of the world began to change and grow more quickly as more people had more access to more knowledge.

The invention of electronic media is no less important to the epistemological history of humanity than that of the printing press. Words became at once cheaper to produce and more ubiquitous. Radio, Movies, Television, and the Internet have radically reshaped the nature of words and communication. Therefore, they have also reshaped the nature of thought.

Thought has become a network of ideas rather than linear and reasoned. Our knowledge has become ‘hyperlinked’ in that one concept need not logically flow out of another. Images are as important to communication as the words. Through the internet everyone has the ability to add to the sum total of human knowledge.

This is the epochal shift that is sweeping over the world. If people choose to call it ‘postmodernity’ that’s fine, but it is important to note that philosophies come and go. Huge changes in the way the world thinks, however, only happen a few times in history.


Tim said...

Jason Campbell (our lead church planter) thinks that this emerging church stuff with the candles and turtleneck sweaters and goatees is a passing thing. He feels it's just as much a reaction to the way church is done as was WWJD bracelets and the mass purchasing of Purpose Driven Church (examples are not necessarily his). I tend to agree with him.

I've experienced some of the cool emerging worship (if that's what it's called) and those experiences have been very meaningful, but that doesn't mean they are lasting. In fact, if this emerging church thing does last, I would think that being in a postmodern context it would be willing to look differently each time, which includes all ways of "doing church" including the way it's been done. If postmodernism champions speaking everyone's language and allowing all voices to be heard, then 80-year-old moderns need to have their language spoken as well.

The thing I think is most important to notice is the way in which culture is shifting. This is the thing that I feel is properly labeled (until there is a new one) postmodernity. It is a change in thought, in connectiveness, in language, in science, in everything.

I have said before that things that are lasting will last, and those that are fad will fad[e] away. The mistake would be to ignore it completely. If it lasts another 10 years and that's the end of it, we've still missed out on an opportunity for speaking the language of a generation of people. If it lasts longer, then there is an even bigger problem.

Anonymous said...

Certainly a pile of good thoughts and insights. I suppose I tend to a "soaker" in postmodern thought and lingo. I certainly don't think I buy into anything entirely (Tim can correct me here if needed), but I'll be the first one to say that YES, there are epistemic changes taking place around the world (although our world is one that is filled with plenty of epistemic assumptions that are pre, post, and everything in between).

James, I like your linkage between epistemology and the use and function of language in given eras of history. Definitely helpful. Personally, i donn't care what we "label" the current changes taking place as much as how we adapt to them as communities of faith. As people of God, we bear an incredible responsibility to "incarnate" Christ to people in given social constructs and functional languages. To ignore language (and I mean that broadly) is to ignore a fundamental feature of the character of God.

I wonder...what will the next big language shift be? What will it mean? How will it change the world?

I wonder...in more practical terms, how can we be Christ incarnate to an American culture that is filled with different language? Different assumptions? Different epistemologies?

Thanks for the great blog.