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Postmodernism The Church's Challenge and Opportunity
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Myron B. Penner
Christianity and the Postmodern Turn (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2005. 240p.)

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This book is a collection of essays presenting different analyses and views of what is called "Postmodernism," and various Christian responses to it.

The contributors all write as Christians, but represent quite a range of attitudes towards Postmodernism in regard to how Christians should relate to this broad movement.  Four of the contributors are philosophers and two are theologians.  The editor is a professor of both Philosophy and Theology.  All seven are professors in Canadian or US universities or seminaries.

Characteristics of Postmodernism
This collection represents an excellent set of perspectives and serious critical reflections on the characteristics of the current cultural and philosophical movement called Postmodernism.  In the process of their critical presentations and criticisms of each other, they present a good review of the serious philosophical roots and trends on modern European and American philosophy and popular culture.

This is a challenging presentation of ideas and themes that few in the churches will be consciously aware of, but that many are dealing with in various ways.

These articles tend toward the philosophical, rather than the practical.  Some of the writers offer some really practical insights and suggestions for actually adapting or communication in the new setting we find ourselves in at this era of history.  They are not esoteric; they are thoughtful, reflective, and in general, constructive.  Some are more accepting, accommodating or sympathetic to the mind-set that is called "postmodern."

In general they point out that the Postmodern concepts are closer to the tone and approach of the biblical writings and eastern culture these came out of.  I find that also.  I find the postmodern post-literate, relational, group-oriented, modern western culture is more like the traditional tribal, family-oriented focus on relationships, group identity and caring.  African cultures are event-oriented, not task oriented, they are concrete and practical in thought, dealing more with immediate life matters.  Not so abstract, not like the west, which values ideas over people, principle over unity.

Wrong Approach
I was surprised that some of the writers, seemingly the more philosophically oriented, tried to tell us why Postmodernism is wrong, or inadequate.  This is OK for a discussion at the level of philosophy, defining possibilities and dealing with metaphysics.  But it is never going to help church leaders or Christians in everyday life learn how to communicate with their neighbours who are outside some Christian tradition.  We cannot determine the thought of the age.  That is what it is, and there are complex factors sub-consciously guiding or interacting and stirring, interacting in an unguided manner through the stream of history.

If the church, — or any other "Modernist" thought-structure — wants to communicate, they will have to learn how to communicate to people — and the culture(s) at large — where those people and cultures are.  It is ludicrous to follow the illogical traditional "missionary" methods of teaching people to think like they do, so that what they want to tell them will then make sense and they can then convert them!  Haa!  It never did actually work.  The primary result of all that kind of thinking — making the "converts" into little Europeans — has resulted in much of the syncretism that those same missionaries or their successive agencies now decry.

Indigenize the Message
If the message is not indigenized from the beginning, the task is doomed already.  Do they want to communicate, or re-mold the underlying worldview of the culture they want to address?  Why can't the church talk like regular people?  The Communicator will analyze, learn, become competent in the forms of thought and communication available in the modern media-visual-action culture.  The Communicator will creatively recast the meaning of the message into those terms.

In short the Communicator will try to make sense in the context of the hearers.   Otherwise communication definitely will not occur.  the message will be lost, rejected or twisted by misunderstanding in the miscommunication that focuses on the form rather than the meaning.

These essays are pretty technical.  They address academics, reflective pastors, and educated teachers or laity.  But they provide a good reflection of the uncertainty, perhaps confusion, tentative progress or other attempts to recognize, define and deal with the world that some are just now waking up to, realizing it has changed in the last half-century while the church was having fun and busy with its institutional activities and denominational infighting.

Wake up and get with the program, people!  These essays can help you get a clue!

Postmodern Reality
After reading these essays, no one can claim that "postmodernism" is simply a passing cultural fad.  The forces that have led to the characteristics now identified as Postmodernism do indeed appear to represent a new era in cultural worldview for the western world.  These characteristics did not just suddenly show up in popular culture and the term did not just suddenly start appearing in popular publications.

Growing Awareness
More and more commentators since the 1950s, both popular and academic, identified to various degrees and in various ways the developing shift from the Modernist characteristics of Enlightenment rationalism and the resulting assumptions of an ultimate knowledge based on objective external facts that assumed the human reason could somehow step outside its own bounds to see beyond itself and analyze without becoming part of the analysis.

Inherent Uncertainty
This prideful arrogance was shown in some ways to be at least inadequate, if not totally fallacious.  In the world of science, quantum physics was a great reality check on the objectiveness of our knowledge.  Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty concerning Observation warns us that at certain minute levels of reality, the observer and her limitations actually introduce verifiable differences in what is being observed.

Dr. Heisenberg showed that the information would be partial, because specifying position would result in the uncertainty of our measurement of speed of a particle, and vice versa.  The measurement, our observation, become a new factor in what we are observing.  Human awareness was at least misleading, and the great burst in objective factual knowledge produced ironically by this scientistic worldview, in itself highlighted the limitations of perspective that constitute the human condition.

There is too much to know, for anyone to be sure they know it all.  But the question is when do you know enough to make absolute definitive statements and come to inalterable conclusions on any topic, idea, concept, or principle?

This certainly leads to the need for humility in our ongoing attempts to understand ourselves, our universe and the Ultimate reality called God or other names.  Likewise it would seem to advise caution in judgement of others and their motives.  Perhaps this is involved in what Jesus meant about not judging others?

"Postmodernism" sums up the growing dissatisfaction with such absolutist views that have characterized the Modernist worldview, whether liberal or conservative.

The term Postmodernism is used to identify consistent lines of development and change through the 20th century in every sphere of human endeavour and artistic expression as well as academic thought and philosophy.  This set of essays will provide insight on to the shift of perspective that has gradual but surely occurred in the past two to three generations of western society.

I discuss many aspects of this further in various reviews and articles on postmodernism, orality, media and cross-cultural communication.  See the links below to related topics on this website.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] Capturing Hebrew Orality
[Review] Dialogue Church to Non-Church - Let's Listen
[review] Dialogue on Emergence
[Review] Graduation to Reality:  The Church Emerging
[Review] Liberal Protestantism:  History and Personality
[TXT] Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
[Review] Mysticism and Christian Unity
[TXT] Orality and the Post-literate West
[PPt] Orality and Post-Literate (Postmodern) Culture
[TXT] Orality in Christian Mission
[Review] Postmodern Challenges to a Rising Evangelicalism
[txt] Postmodernism and the Emerging Church:  Some Thoughts
[Review] Progressive Foundations for Postmodern Christianity
[Review] Resources for Diversity
[Review] The Rich, Persistent Centre
[review] Worldview in the Disciplines

For More
Quantum Theory
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle

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First reading notes written 29 October 2006
Review Finalized and Posted on Thoughts and Resources and Amazon.com 27 November 2006
Rewritten 10 November 2008
Last edited here and posted on Amazon 2 March 2009
Last edited 24 Janaury 2012

Copyright © 2006, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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