Postmodernism: Dead But Not Gone

No obituary appeared in The New York Times. Television newscasts offered no tribute. But make no mistake: postmodernism is dead. Even those who could foresee this end could do nothing to prevent its suicide. Demise was built into its very DNA.

If you’re a church leader, you probably missed this news. Many of our publishers, culture gurus, and so-called futurists have been touting postmodernism as the next big thing, an unstoppable force. Adapt or die, they told us for much of the last decade, neglecting 2,000 years of history when the church built by Jesus Christ has withstood nearly every imaginable assault. But next month you can attend the funeral for postmodernism at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. That’s when the art exhibit “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990” will open.

Criteria Absent

Christians tend to think of postmodernism as a revolution in philosophy and ethics. This view of postmodernism—an all-encompassing, coherent alternative to the arrogant certainty of modernism—stands on shaky ground. Postmodernism has always been applied selectively and often resembles a hyper-modernism, not a radically new enterprise. Indeed, postmodernism can only be explained in relation to its predecessor. The postmodern schools of art and literature represented a scattered protest against the conventions of modernism. The London art exhibit’s curators explain:

The modernists wanted to open a window onto a new world. Postmodernism, by contrast, was more like a broken mirror, a reflecting surface made of many fragments. Its key principles were complexity and contradiction. It was meant to resist authority, yet over the course of two decades, from about 1970 to 1990, it became enmeshed in the very circuits of money and influence that it had initially sought to dismantle.

Here we see several key elements of what has led so many Christian observers to take notice of postmodernism. We have grown skeptical of grand theories that purport to explain the way things were, are, and will be. Unlike modern schools of thought—say, Marxism—we recognize the complexity of human motivations. We have learned to live with contradiction, to embrace paradox.

All that may be true, albeit misleading if described as a sudden, decisive shift between then and now. But postmodernists sound suspiciously like modernists when they visit the hospital or seek justice. In fact, there is a strong family resemblance between modernism and its prodigal son. The son swore he would never grow up to be like his father, who lusted after money and power. Then postmodernism looked in the mirror one day and recoiled at the likeness.

Journalist Edwards Docx drives home this point about the collapse of postmodernism into consumerism for Prospect magazine. He describes the postmodernism rebellion in literature against authorial intent. What seemed at first liberating to some—opening the door for marginalized voices seeking feminist and queer interpretations, for example—turned into anti-intellectual anarchy. Docx writes:

For a while, as communism began to collapse, the supremacy of Western capitalism seemed best challenged by deploying the ironic tactics of postmodernism. Over time, though, a new difficulty was created: because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills, and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognize the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded.

By this analysis, we begin to understand the ironic outcome of postmodernism. Take one artifact from the era: Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Here we see a scholar poseur enabled by allies in the academy pass off his irresponsible money grab as speaking truth to power. He begins with the largely accurate premise that winners write history, an observation enabled by postmodern currents. Ignoring the standards of credible scholarship, he proceeds to exalt strange heterodox sects as somehow more trustworthy than their orthodox opponents in the church. He takes his low-brow thriller to the popular market and capitalizes on widespread ignorance of true history to rake in millions.

No wonder postmodernism is dead. The market can be a poor judge of quality. Now, according to Docx, post-postmoderns don’t know where to turn for deliverance:

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinizing, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. . . . If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

And church leaders won’t have anything to tell them if we continue to seek so-called relevance in a futile attempt to adapt. Postmodernism is finished, and no one knows what’s next. While postmodernism might be dead, it’s not completely gone.

There Must Be Some Basis

Wise church leaders will recognize that some things have indeed changed in recent decades. We wouldn’t even want everything to revert. To cite one example, epistemic humility can check our sinful arrogance and even reflect the biblical wisdom of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Thanks to the effects of postmodernism, no longer do Enlightenment philosophes claim they can compile all human knowledge by means of reason apart from revelation.

The problem is that the end of our human quest to know everything has left some wondering how we can know anything. Commenting about the Docx article, Tim Keller told me:

For two years I’ve been hearing echoes of this basic message: Postmodernism was helpful in that it made us more open to how conditioned we are by culture and history, it showed us how easy it is to make truth claims into power plays. But postmodernism in the end eats itself. In the end there must be some basis for truth, justice, authenticity—or we can’t live.

God’s Word tells us where to find that basis. But advocates for postmodernism within the church have sometimes missed how Scripture teaches us to deal with these cultural shifts by way of negative example. Consider just two. Pontius Pilate mused about truth when faced by competing claims. He couldn’t even recognize it when standing right before him (John 18:38). Only when God give us ears to hear can we recognize voice of him who bears witness to the truth (John 18:37).

Solomon despaired of life itself even though he had all the money, power, and sex anyone could want. Like a good postmodern pluralist, he welcomed new gods from foreign nations (1 Kings 11:1-8). All this did him no good. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Sounds a little like Docx’s lament. The end of Ecclesiastes, though, reveals the only reliable basis for justice. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

Our cultural circumstances may change, but human nature does not. Though dead, postmodernism remains with us, in so far as it reflected universal human despair apart from God, the only fully reliable source of truth, justice, and authenticity.

The church should learn about whatever replaces postmodernism, but we need not worry. We need only trust in God and proclaim the good news that transcends every culture and epoch. This Truth makes no empty claims and grabs no power except what properly belongs to him as Creator and Redeemer.

“It is finished,” he cried from the Cross, the beautiful paradox of divine justice, when the death of God’s only Son gave birth to everlasting life for sinners.

  • Dane

    Excellent, Collin.

  • Robert

    If you limit your definition of post-modernism to what the (so-called) Emergents have described than yes it is a silly prospect to think it will have a lasting impact. The pop-philosophical circles which get a lot of play in our culture really do embrace a concept more rooted in hyper-modernism than it is fully postmodern.

    Yet the epistemological revolution that is underway in our society is, like so many other aspects of cultural evolution, slow in coming but still coming. The post-structuralist answer to the failure of Cartesian modernism over the past century is becoming more and more clear. Particularly rooted in the non-foundationalist approach that is being promulgated by most of the civilized world when it comes to moral, ethical, and philosophical decisions there is little well formed reply from the strong foundationalist position. Perhaps both camps could regress to some form of mute fidiesm, but the movement away from the modernist paradigm continues.

    Maybe in another couple generations someone will drudge up this article citing the death of the movement and talk about how, at the turn of the millennium, we were foolish enough to think that it was possible to challenge our epistemological shift. One brief glimpse of hope to see where theology is going under this shift is from authors like Murphy, Grenz, Shults, and Pannenberg. It is possible to provide a post-foundationalist theology that adequately compensates for the shortcomings in the modernist project. Their answers, though admittedly ranging and roughshod, are beginning to formulate a rather coherent theological approach.

    Perhaps we should be thinking more globally when considering groundshaking (ah, yes no pun intended for the earthquake today) epistemological shifts. While the paupers’ postmodernism of McLaren, Bell, Pagit, Jones, and their kin is actually weak foundationalist (at its best) the actual theological work being done from a postmodern perspective provides a rather hopeful framing for the next several generations.

  • Paul Prisn

    Post-Modern epistemology is going no-where. Sorry everyone.

  • Michael Graham


    I think I agree with your central points, but some clarity of terms might be helpful.

    I concur that “post-modernism” as defined as a reaction against the arrogance of modernism and the Enlightenment Project is indeed dead. At best, that philosophy was a tick requiring the host of modernity for its lifeblood. Post-modernity in this sense came with an expiration date already printed on the jug and its fate was also ironically intertwined with that of modernity and the Enlightenment Project.

    That said, I’ve tried to decode some of the semantics by introducing a new term “post-modern-pragmatism.” At its core, post-modern-pragmatism is/was/continues-to-be Richard Rorty’s attempt to make post-modernity a stand alone philosophy that no longer requires modernity as its foil and host.

    Here is a brief excerpt from a piece I wrote on Rorty on my blog summarizing his text, “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”:
    Here is a brief outline of Rorty’s thought:

    1. Propositions are true if they are helpful, and not because they have a one-to-one relationship with facts.

    2. Language is a game, because words are defined by other words, which are defined by other words, which are often defined by the original word in question (heavily borrowing from later Wittgenstein and post-structuralism)

    3. All language is contingent. There is no link between language and reality.

    4. Therefore, Truth is incoherent and pointless. No Final Vocabulary exists (Rorty’s way of denying the existence of absolute truth)

    5. The ideal person is the ironist – a person who: 1. skeptical of final vocabulary 2. Argument within ones current vocabulary cannot dissolve such skepticism 3. As they philosophize about their situation they do not think that their vocabulary is somehow closer to reality than others. People that have exhibited these traits according to Rorty – Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, Proust, and Derrida.

    6. Final vocabulary leads to cruelty, therefore it must be rejected.

    7. What is true is what works. What works is what is true.

    The rest of that post challenging the evangelical attempts at dissecting/defining post-modernity can be found here:

    I would be interested if you would apply your thesis to post-modern-pragmatism as well, or if this may be a new direction or helpful clarification that could be discussed.

    • DinRL

      What’s true does correlate with what works. And what’s true is definitely helpful — medication that actually kills a virus is indeed helpful. Driving one’s car in a way that doesn’t run afoul of the principles of friction or momentum vs inertia is certainly functional and helpful.

      However what’s true also correlates with facts. A dead virus is in fact dead: the host’s fever abates, symptoms fade away, and bodily functions return to previous norms. These aren’t mere relative words that have no connection with external realities, either. This is being realized by the masses through common sense (why even bother having a conversation, after all?); but is also being seen in recent approaches to language and meaning.

      Simply put, language does in fact appear to be linked directly with reality (what a crazy notion!). Point (3.) above is one that is most readily disagreeable, and that appears to collapse when viewed in light of where linguistic studies have progressed since the heyday of Derrida et al.

      The notion that word meanings only take their shape in relation to other words whose meanings are equally relative, eschews some pretty significant bodies of study in neurolinguistics and cognitive linguistics. These fields are literally booming and full of things that easily overtake more simplistic approaches to word meaning that are driven only by consideration of linguistic context.

      Language computation does actually seem to be directly related to extra-linguistic reality. Words uttered and received connect with *something* in gray matter. And that “something” is itself generated from internal sensory processes interacting with external stimuli/objects. And finally, the sensory-stimuli interactions that generate the “something” in gray matter are not as subjective or individually distinct as post-modernists tend to assert.

      We observe or sense, our brain encodes and stores, and when we speak we neurologically draw upon the brain’s stored objects while simultaneously seeking to direct others to access similarly stored objects in order to understand us. We sense stuff (and not entirely subjectively), our brain stores the stuff (again, not entirely subjectively), and we draw upon what our brain stored about the stuff in formulating language as well as understanding the same (else there would be no mutual comprehension of communication: speaking would be “unhelpful” and non-functional, i.e. wouldn’t “work”).

      While still leaving room for subjectivity in communication (data transfer), this actually establishes far more objectivity in the process than subjectivity. Value judgments (for instance) introduce subjectivity, but the language meaning employed by language-sharers while formulating or debating them largely does not. Put into more classic, lexico-semantic terminology: not every word meaning has a referent (consider the generic meaning of “change”), but every word meaning is understood by the human brain in relation to referents — referents that are directly connected with memory-encoded stuff that has arisen as a byproduct of sensory interactions with extra-linguistic context.

      This further means that in the process of communication, words are placed in the context of other words by a language processor (speaker/writer) to serve as signs, indicators, or pointers that direct a listener to access non-linguistic data (encoded, not subjectively!, in their brain), which then fills the bulk of remaining, listener-understood word meanings (as well as sentence, paragraph, and discourse meanings). The linguistic context (words in combination with other words) does not so much serve to establish or determine word/language meaning, but rather to point to extra-linguistic context(s) (previously sensed external realities encoded by the brain) which establish/determine language meaning. We draw on what our brain has stored in order to utter language; so too we draw on it, based on where another person’s words “point” us, in order to understand their language utterances.

      It sort of brings us full circle to the rejectionism of so-called “modernism.” The modernists, after all, didn’t have everything wrong: the computers, transportation, electrical generation, and many other things we now rely on, are all products of principles that correspond with something real. Perception is not completely subjective, nor is it even mainly so. Neither are language and word meanings (anyone who claims to think otherwise, but who spends time blogging or writing posts for the public to read, obviously doesn’t believe in the very theories they’re peddling). Some kind of neurological functions underlie language, and the brain’s storage of sensed realities relates to these neurological functions.

      Language and reality do connect. Lack of complete understanding of “how” does not imply a disconnect between the two on the order that is implied by the statement: “There is no link between language and reality.”

      It only makes sense that this would be ordained by God who designed creation and humanity, and who speaks to us through means of human language (and Grenz et al. do not represent anything promising in theological breakthroughs or so-called “relevance” to post-modern culture, which in agreement with the author of the article here, can be said to be on the de facto decline).

      In reference to the article, it’s refreshing and enjoyable to finally see evangelical leaders “pay attention to the man behind the curtain” of post-modernism. The entire enterprise of the post-modern has been overhyped, overtaxed, overplayed, and under-relevant. Few actually adhere to its axioms in most of their daily lives: most simply appeal to it to try to pretend to be intellectual and polite while incoherently dismissing something that is either uncomfortable to them, or disagreeable with them.

      Post-modern idealogues have become as lofty and detached from everyday reality as their modernist forebears: they’ve lost touch with the world outside their ivory towers (or towers that are no doubt made of whatever stone one wishes or prefers to believe they are). Further, their ideas and ideals fail to be “helpful” or to “work” in any sense of either of the words. The metrosexual, confused, dilly-dallying, tendentious, narrow-minded, helpless, utterly dependent, video-gaming culture that has arisen from it is as lost as ever. And their frustrated, and sad, sense of “what hit me?” grows with every day that passes in the post-2008 economic milieu, where the comforts of the posh living room and 50+ inch flat screen TV, and mom and dad’s savings, no longer insulate them from the harsh realities they could pretend to be “above” in the 1990s and early 2000s.

      The insulated can speculate quite well about what is “subjective” or “just your opinion” or “not applicable to me.” The uninsulated quickly discover that reality quickly vets and disposes of idle speculations: if your apartment’s air conditioning breaks and you don’t want to sleep in your sweat, you either earn enough money to pay a repairman or learn to fix it yourself. Either way, you’ll find plenty of absolute “right and wrong” along the way, even if only related to the air conditioner.

      But bigger things in life will also become much clearer. The Great Depression impressed such things on a generation that to this day is still called “the greatest generation.” While this might not be appropriate in a moral sense, it is appropriate in referring to the fact that men who had learned to scrape their livings in harsh conditions were able to learn to solve real problems, when real lives were on the line, in hot wars and in cold war standoffs. Silly pontificating about personal feelings and subjectively preferred approaches to combat could never have substituted for sound doctrine, diplomacy, strategy, or tactics in defeating Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the USSR. Post-moderns didn’t win WWII or the Cold War (and neither did “rock ‘n’ roll”). That in itself could speak volumes about the utility and helpfulness of post-modernism.

      The preacher is similarly entrusted with connecting real, Christ-centered solutions (the gospel!) with the real world’s sin problem in order to participate in God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself — by proclaiming a gospel that is communicated via linguistic means (starting with Scripture), which connects with extra-linguistic realities (Christ’s cross and resurrection), and which brings about concrete results (faith, repentance, forgiveness, and eternal life). As with most solutions to major real world problems, ideologically pure post-moderns (whether “pragmatic” or not) won’t pave any useful ground theologically in service of the gospel of Christ.

      If we are lucky, when the empty “comforts” of this life are stripped away by unforeseen and unforgiving circumstances — and with that, we abandon the false notions about what is/isn’t true (or what can even be known about truth) — then through someone’s faithful proclamation of the gospel, the truth of God will burn through all the clearer, and will outshine and overwhelm the lies of this world (post-modernism included).

      Many thanks to the Gospel Coalition for striving to operate in service of this gospel with every posting.

      • Michael Graham


        I agree with your points. Well stated.

        I think I agree with Colin’s contentions as well as they relate to the definition of post-modernism laid out in the article.

        My question pertains to whether or not Colin (or others) think that post-modern-pragmatism is dead.

        For reference on how I define post-modern-pragmatism see this post:

        I am hesitant to party on the grave of post-modernity if it has mutated its DNA and spliced the genetic material of pragmatism into its genome. And while the CDC is celebrating the death of the virus, a new more virulent strain has formed and is incubating in the minds, hearts, and hands of the West.

  • Don Sartain

    Love it! Still processing everything, but I love how this post addresses philosophical concerns with both philosophy and theology.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Paul Clutterbuck

    D.A. Carson’s book “The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism” dealt with this subject fairly comprehensively in 1996. I found most of his argument fairly opaque, TBH, but I think he rather neatly summarized the predicament in a chapter heading from Romans 3: “Let God be true, and every man a liar.”

    Tom Wright has often spoken of what he calls post-postmodernism, by which I suspect he actually means the critical realism of Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy” (1958). Part II of Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” gives a very clear discussion of the subject, even for those who would disagree strongly with Wright’s interpretation of the NT.

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  • Tim

    In a sense, Postmodernism was always ‘dead’ because Postmodernism, at least in any interesting form, was never alive as a monolithic entity or a formal set of doctrines. We might think of Postmodernism as an all-too-homogenizing label to describe a posture rather than any sort of formal system or method. From this angle, the suicidal tendencies of ‘Postmodernism’ (Collin cited Dan Brown’s consumerism as an example) may merely reflect Modern society’s reification of the Postmodern posture into formal doctrine (e.g. pluralism and anti-realism and veriphobia, etc.) and the subsequent commodification of this ‘Postmodern doctrine.’ So, Postmodernism as a posture can’t die because it is not a thing which can fail to exist, although it may morph and change into something else due to contingent circumstances (it surely will no longer be necessary at one point or other in history). But that is certainly nothing spectacular. The spectacle of the ‘death of Postmodernism’ is as remarkable and appropriate as declaring the ‘death of the BandAid!’ after the removal a bandage from a cut that has been healed. Despite the immediate uselessness (because the cut has healed), BandAids may always be useful insofar as there are still cuts (until something better comes along with which to treat cuts). Similarly, Postmodernism (though wildly imprecise as a label) may always be useful insofar as there are totalizing systems in the world, etc. until something better comes along with which to cope with oppression, etc.

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  • Jim Thomas

    Some thoughts can be argued but cannot be lived.

    • Brad Griffith

      Best comment in this entire thread. Some people might truly believe that there is no objective truth or purpose to existence, but really, who lives that way?

  • Steve Cornell

    Part of the dilemma over “postmodern theory” has to do with the deeply inherent contradictions used to postulate and promote it. For example, how do you respond to one who promotes anti-theory by using theoretical tools to neutralize all theories and then demands a kind of uniformity to anti-theory in an effort to resist uniformity? Worse yet, how do you rationally engage people who use propositional statements to negate truth based on propositional statements? If you try to expose these inconsistencies and contradictions, after several facial twitches, you’ll likely get a postmodern smirk that says—“poor soul, you’re so bound by modernity.”

    “Conversation” over!

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  • Steve Galt

    Thanks, Collin, for the post. You’re absolutely right about God’s Word serving as the reference point which postmodernism has denied.

    However, I wonder if this announcement is a bit premature. Perhaps what has been labeled postmodern in terms of art or literature or whatever else is on its way out, but the question is, is postmodern thought on its way out? Often we seem to think about postmodernism in terms of what it rejects, namely modernism. But as you have well-stated, postmodernism’s rejection of modernism is actually based upon modern thought so that postmodernism is not as post as we would like to think. But more than simply rejecting modernism, it seems that postmodernism is really just ecclecticism–a blending of ideas from various worldviews (which vary according to the dictates of the postmodern person in question). It seems that this mindset remains prominent within the ethos in the Western world as it is reflected in editorials, blogs, interviews, and other places.

  • Tom

    A good “postmodern’s” response: “So.”

    With due respect, I get the sense that this article is like accusing someone of being a contrarian… “No I’m not.”

    Possibly a more helpful discussion would be toward the idolatry of relevancy in churches that you attack, your categories of foundationalism, nihilism and counsumerism, and new tribalism.

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  • Brett

    Its interesting how much negative reaction this article has gotten from the academic bloggers, and how much they have taken this article to be representative of “evangelical attitudes” towards postmodernism.

    I think the critiques are mostly justified. But can you give the writer a break? If you had asked him, “What about these other aspects of postmodernism?”, I’m sure he would have agreed that they are still alive, that it is a much more complex movement than he stated.

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  • N.Purazella

    The mind of man can’t comprehend the things of God without the Mind of the Holy Spirit.Only the Holy Spirit can reveal truth.
    His ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
    It’s not through the works of man but the works of God that is truth and grace.The finished works of Jesus.
    God gives- Grace supplies -faith gets.
    It is a system that is made in heaven to provide for man who was lost and without understanding.
    We are the seeds of Abraham who walked by faith to recieve from God.It is impossible to please God with out faith.In the greek faith and believing are one of the same.Abraham believed God and recieved the promise.It is through knowing God we have his blessing on our lives.Not though man’s works but Jesus the finished works of Jesus.He was both God and man.He connects with God the Father and connects with man through faith.Believing in what you cannot see but believing in what God sees.

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