Much has been written in recent years on postmodernism. It’s a term that pops up regularly in newspapers, magazines, talk shows and other media. You may have heard it mentioned even from the pulpit on occasion. What is postmodernism? The word itself suggests that it has to do with something that happened post or after modernism. Modernism refers to the modern way of thinking about, looking at and living in today’s world as opposed to an older way of doing this.
Before modernism the prevailing world and life view in Western civilization was shaped by the Bible and Christianity. Everyone knew there was a God who had created the world and also governed it by His providence. There were atheists back then too, of course, but even most of them agreed there was something beyond the visible reality that gave sense and meaning to life. Through these communal “faith spectacles” one looked at the world and tried to find an answer to life’s big questions.
Gradually, this way of viewing reality changed. People began to try out differently-coloured glasses when looking at the world around them. Beginning with the Renaissance in the 14th and culminating in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the “great minds” of the West began first to question and then deny the authority of divine revelation as the basis for interpreting the world. Replacing traditional beliefs in God and the authority of Scripture, they established a new authority centred in man and his rational powers to create a new, scientific paradigm for understanding the natural order.
Characteristics of Modernism
Characteristic of modernism was its high regard for man’s ability to reason things out without the aid of divine revelation. Man was increasingly seen as autonomous with the ability to create a good society and through science solve all his problems. Another characteristic of modernism was to construct grand ideas and over-arching philosophical systems whereby all of reality could be explained (metanarratives). Each of these successive systems claimed to possess the key to understanding the world and the universe and hence the method to create the ideal society. Also, it was believed that scientific research and experimentation could take place in a neutral environment and in an objective and unbiased manner.
The End of Modernism
Human reason did not bring the “salvation” many expected. Modern science, despite its many accomplishments, failed to meet man’s basic needs. By the end of the Second World War, faith in the inevitable progress of humanity had largely vanished. As a result, today’s society faces a host of problems, partly as a result of the very technology that was supposed to solve them. Pollution, climate changes, poverty, communicative diseases, social injustice, racism, terrorism, etc., etc. are on the increase. Purposelessness and meaninglessness have replaced optimism and hope.
Essentially postmodernism is a reaction to the failure of modernism, but without replacing it with something better. Many of the thought processes of 21st-century man are still very much shaped by modernism. Yet, at the same time, there has emerged a new way of thinking. One could say that modernism and postmodernism continue to live side by side.
Characteristics of Postmodernism
Among the main tenets of postmodernism are the following. It rejects all universal systems or ideologies (ways of explaining reality). Christianity has failed but so have its competing ideologies of communism, Marxism, capitalism, and liberalism. There is no absolute truth and authority. Not only faith in God but also faith in science has failed to provide certainty. Scientists are as prejudiced and biased as theologians. All truth is subjective and relative. There are no absolute norms and values. Everyone is free to decide for himself what is “good or bad,” “right or wrong.” Therefore, all world and life views are to be given equal status. Related to this is the emphasis on feelings and experience. When judging and evaluating things, the question is not whether something is true or false but how it feels. If it feels good it is good and what is experienced must be true.
Postmodernism and “Lowbrow” Culture
Beginning with modernity but greatly accelerated by postmodernity is the break up of culture into what some have called its “highbrow” and “lowbrow” expressions. Examples of highbrow culture are the arts, painting, sculpture, stage plays, classical music, poetry and literature. The mainstay of lowbrow culture is entertainment: television, soap operas, movies, popular music, commercial art and cheap novels. To appreciate highbrow culture one needs some level of education and for that reason it is generally seen as an elitist pursuit for the affluent and sophisticated. Lowbrow culture, however, is accessible to the masses. It is popular culture requiring little or no education or art appreciation. Today “low” or popular culture is definitely the culture of the masses in North America, if not the entire world. Advances in communication technology have made it almost universally accessible. As one art critic has written,
Popular culture is something like a computer virus that insinuates itself into every nook of society, overwriting what is there with its own program, replicating itself, corrupting existing files, and causing untold damage to the world of high culture. (Quote by Chuck Smith, Jr. The End of the World As We Know It, p. 65).
Image and Information Culture
Today we live in an image and information age. TVs, VCRs, DVDs, and computers with Internet have become our living room, and even bedroom companions. We, and especially our children, see and experience the world around us mostly via the media. Producers of television programmes are presenting image and fiction as reality in contemporary music, sitcoms, TV movies and even documentaries. They understand the power of visual images to create fictional or virtual realities that young people find difficult to distinguish from “real” reality. Postmodernists justify this dissolving of distinctions between fiction and truth by their claim that truth is basically fiction. Reality is what we perceive it to be. As philosopher Richard Tarnas says,
The mind is not the passive reflector of an external world and intrinsic order, but is active and creative in the process of perception and cognition. Reality is in some sense constructed by the mind, not simply perceived by it, and many such constructions are possible, none necessarily sovereign. (The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 396).
The Music Scene
The most striking example of postmodern media deception is MTV (Music Television). The following is a quote from an article by R. Wesley Hurd, founder of the McKenzie Study Center, a Christian organization that seeks to help students cope with the harmful influences to which they are exposed at secular institutions of learning.
From its fast, fragmented production editing to its underlying visions (sexual moral relativism, for example), MTV represents “the cutting edge” of postmodernism applied to consumer media. MTV’s editors “collage” the shows together into a jumpy, stream-of-consciousness presentation that leaves older viewers baffled by its pace and apparent incoherence. But to the postmodern “generation-X” crowd who make a steady diet of it, MTV’s randomness is normal. MTV’s twenty-four-hour parade of blatantly sexual images, pseudo-documentaries, hedonistic dating scenario, game shows, music videos, and cutting-edge advertisements relentlessly assault one’s visual and auditory senses, leaving viewers feeling fragmented and transient within a decentered pluralistic reality: the postmodern world.
Parents, are you aware of this danger that threatens your children? I’m afraid Chuck Smith is right when he observes: “Postmodernism has become the essence of popular culture – which means our children are exposed to it every time they turn on a television, read a school book, or skim through a magazine (Ibid., p.66).
Perhaps your teenagers have no access to MTV in your home but they can – and many do – listen to the same immoral, hedonistic anti-Christian poison on their CD players and Ipods.
Vision Based Education in Schools and Churches
Postmodern ideas and methods are also infiltrating our educational system. The emphasis in many schools is on the visual rather than the audible and written word. Students are being conditioned to process only study material that is presented to them through audio-visual means.
This is also becoming a problem for ministers and elders who teach catechism and youth workers and Bible study leaders in church. It is to be expected that what goes on in the larger educational world will also impact the church. Consequently, many churches are adopting methods of teaching and even preaching that rely on visual aids. The argument in favour of this approach is that our mass media, especially television, have conditioned viewers to expect packaged, organized, varied, and pictorial communication and that the church should capitalize on these new opportunities to communicate the Gospel.
Some churches go to great lengths to satisfy this human, but immature craving for visual, rather than audible instruction. According to Scripture, God’s truth is to be communicated primarily by the spoken or written word. Why this emphasis in Scripture on the word? Because it is by words that God communicates ideas to man. One of God’s greatest gifts to man is the power of speech. By means of words human beings can communicate with each other. Written or printed words are sound symbols translated by the human mind into hearing. Thus words are a medium for the communication of ideas – also divine ideas. It is not by accident that God has couched His redemptive revelation in words. “And God spoke all these words, saying, …” perfectly sum up the Bible’s own account of how God communicated His saving truth to His people. “Thus saith the Lord” is the constant refrain of the prophets. Very significant is what Jesus said to His hearers: “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Also, “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life” (John 5:24). The apostle Paul connects words to faith this way: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). “And how shall they hear without a preacher?” he asks (v.14). Pictures can illustrate and clarify spiritual truth but they cannot create faith. As A. W. Tozer wrote
No vital spiritual truth can be expressed by a picture. Actually, all any picture can do is to recall to mind some truth already learned through the familiar medium of the spoken or written word. Religious instruction and words are bound together by a living cord and cannot be separated without fatal loss. (The Menace of the Religious Movie, p.8)
Communicating Spiritual Truths
Experts claim that the human mind receives five times as much information through the eye as through the ear. But that does not apply to spiritual instruction. Teaching geography, physics, or biology by means of visual aids, no doubt, helps students to understand these subjects better. But this does not hold with respect to religious teaching. When it comes to spiritual truth, we are in a different world. In that world the physical eye is not nearly so important an organ as in the world of sense. In the spiritual realm God addresses His message to the hearing ear. In fact, it is only by withdrawing our physical eyes from looking at visible things that we learn to fasten the eyes of our heart upon God, while we reverently listen to His spoken Word.
I do not deny that by a visual presentation of the Gospel we can receive useful information. But the knowledge thus obtained only concerns outward things: facts about the Bible, names, places, events, etc. But no profound spiritual truths can be communicated in this way. In fact, as Z. Rittersma has shown, visual aids can even hinder a person from obtaining a clear understanding of spiritual truth. Pictures, instead of illuminating the deep things of God, rather obscure them. They tend to becloud the mind, leaving the sinner in greater darkness than before (Dramatizing Biblical Stories, p.130).
The recent film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, is a case in point. In this film the depiction of our Saviour’s suffering is apparently very graphic and evokes great emotions in the viewers. But what is completely missing is the real meaning and significance of Christ’s death, namely the aspect of substitution – that He was bearing the sins of His elect and that His main suffering was one of soul and spirit rather than of the body. That cannot be depicted in a film.
Religious films will always miss the essential meaning of what is portrayed. That is also why the effect of such films upon the viewers can only be superficial, touching the emotions perhaps, but not the heart and life. Tears may be shed but they are not the kind that reflect godly sorrow and produce vital godliness. A careful study of history shows that not much good, if any, has ever come from religious drama. That is why whenever God revived His Church, He raised up preachers, not actors. Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Whitefield, as well as Spurgeon and other great men of God, have proclaimed the Truth and many were saved. Conversely, history also shows that whenever spiritual life in the Church declined, religious drama flourished.
Discerning the Spirits
Could it be that history is repeating itself today? Could it be that the popularity of religious films and other visual presentations of the gospel is symptomatic of the low state of spiritual health in our time? I cannot escape this conclusion. As Tozer says:
Only the absence of the Holy Spirit from the pulpit and lack of true discernment on the part of professing Christians can account for the spread of religious drama among so-called evangelical churches. A Spirit-filled church could not tolerate it (p.17).
What our Heidelberg Catechism says about images in the church was also applied to religious plays. Such “books to the laity” were condemned on the ground that we must not pretend to be wiser than God, “who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word” (Q.& A. 98).
Today, perhaps more than at any other time in history, we need to discern the spirits whether they are of God (1 John 4:1). Postmodernism, like the modernism it is replacing, is only one of many manifestations of anti-Christian attempts to oppose and change the unchangeable and absolute truth of the Word of God and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us stay with this Truth and teach also our children to live by it. What Jeremiah urged the people of Judah to do we need to press upon our covenant youth as well: “Ask for the old paths, where is the good way and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls “ (Jer.6:16).