Is Post-modernism Passé?

On Monday I’m going to be talking to PGP Students about how we teach the Bible to people with a post-modern worldview. The seminar is called “The Written word in a Visual Culture.” This is a seminar which I’ve led for the last few years, having inherited the subject (and borrowed most of the material) from Dr Sarah Dunlop, who was much more qualified to speak on the subject than I am.

This year I’m armed with the same script and Keynote presentation, but there are two questions buzzing around in my head. Neither of these will radically change what I’m going to teach, but they both challenge the received wisdom which we usually pass on in this sort of seminar.

The first question is one I’m going to leave for another post, and it concerns how Christians respond to post-modernism, especially when it comes to our Bible teaching.

The second question is whether we are just playing catch-up, as society moves away from having post-modernism as it’s predominate worldview.

I began pondering the second of these questions last week at a Diocesan training event. The topic was preaching, and one of the sessions was looking at how preaching needs to adapt to the culture of those we are speaking to. As an introduction to this session, the speaker said “This afternoon I was going to talk about post-modernism, but I’ve just had a conversation with someone who told me that his daughter was convinced that post-mordernism is being replaced by a sort-of neo-conservatism”

Now maybe this isn’t quite the right way to describe the culture that is emerging, but as a discussion starter I think it has some merit. Are we moving away from a culture which genuinely values diversity and whose catchphrase has been “this is my truth, tell me yours” to a culture which is much more insistent on conformity with what is right and wrong and whose refrain might be “you can’t say that!”?

To illustrate what this shift in thinking looks like is practise, I’m going to look at three examples and try and draw some preliminary conclusions. As I write, we are sitting midway between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, and like many of my colleagues up and down the country, tomorrow we will be holding a two minute silence at 11am as part of our Sunday morning church service. This act of remembrance, along with wearing a red poppy, is a tradition which has been going for the best part of a century, but in recent years, those who have opted not to join in have found themselves increasing unpopular. Take, for example the furore caused in 2006 when John Snow refused to wear a poppy on the Channel 4 news or when (a day earlier) Jonathan Bartley from the think-tank Ekklesia suggested that people should adopt white poppies as a symbol of peace instead of the traditional red ones. More recently, we have both government and the royal family lobbying FIFA to allow the England team to wear poppies on their shirts and Ken Clarke attracting attention for his lack of a poppy at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Sociologists seeking to describe post-modern trends point to the fragmentation and re-tribalisation of traditional society. Put simply, this means that people no longer look to family and neighbours (or the church) for community, instead they see themselves as individuals who connect (predominantly online) only with those who hold similar beliefs and values. The hashtag could be said to be the apotheosis of the tribal culture, catagorising every statement and viewpoint in a searchable library of soundbites with each tribe competing to top the ‘now trending’ list.

Yesterday the top trends, however, were mostly variations on the theme of remembrance (#lestweforget, #armistaceday, etc.) and it seems that on days like these we are seeking solace in our national identity, rather than the tribes of post-modernism. As part of this, conformation to the rituals and symbols of the tribe may be optional, but those who choose not to join in become objects of ridicule and controversy.

A less emotive example of this might principle also be the recent row about the security checks at British airports over the summer. Anyone who has returned home from holiday to be greeted by the queues at border control checkpoints will have some sympathy with the decision to relax biometric checks during busy periods, but the political capital which has been sought on the back of this row all appeals to the public desire to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those whom we trust, and those we do not.

So, from the first example, re-tribalisation seems to be aligning itself with national identity rather than the global or value-based tribes of post-modernism. Also, this tribe seems to speak with a common voice – the voice of self-preservation. In order to protect ourselves, we are happy to accept limitations on our freedom and to impose limitation on others.

My second example of the change in thinking concerns the recent media attention given to Christians who have faced discrimination or legal action for acting in line with their religious beliefs (for example Peter and Hazelmary Bull & Adrian Smith). A genuinely liberal, post-modern, society holds tolerance as its highest value, and those who genuinely uphold this view allow for the tension caused when the rights of different people conflict. But this is not what we are seeing in the way these cases are reported or dealt with in the courts. Increasingly the right to act in line with your beliefs seems to be being replaced with the demand to conform to the consensus view, or (more worryingly) with the view of the loudest or most well-funded voices. As with the poppies, the dissenting voices are also vilified or silenced.

From this second example it would seem that the post-modern holding together of conflicting views (and the defence of the other person’s right to disagree with you) are being replaced by a new orthodoxy where some rights trump others. The important question is who is driving this process, and how do those who have conscientious objections to the conclusions exercise their right to protest?

My final example attempts to bring this question home to the church. We may well be playing catch-up in our attempts to be relevant to the culture, but this is one area where culture seems to have well and truly embedded itself in the church. I refer to the way in which theological principles are being debated, and to the way dissenting voices are treated, especially in the current debates about women in leadership.

I’ve already mentioned Twitter, and in my seminar I use Twitter an an example of our post-modern fascination with the personal story and experiences of others, and the expectation that others will find our story equally gripping. Maybe its just the sort of people I follow, but since getting more serious (obsessive?) about checking my Twitter feed, I’m seeing that these 140 character comments are less about sharing the story of your life, and more about peddling ‘ideas, opinions and recommendations’ (not my words, but quoted from a recent tweet from @Tanya_marlow). Also, 140 characters do not allow for much in the way of nuance, so debate is reduced to soundbites, which betray certainty rather than mystery.

Generally speaking, the debate in the Church of England has seemed to include plenty of opportunity to listen to others view and exchanging ideas with those with whom we disagree. But the end result (as it currently stands) does not reflect this process. The listening process has revealed that there are widely divergent theological and pragmatic stands on the introduction of women bishops. The voting from diocesan synods around the country, however, seems to favour legislation which some claim leaves no room for them to hold their position. If they are right, then post-moderen tolerance is no longer a feature of debate in the Church of England.

I might comment in more detail on the theology of the women in leadership debate in a later post, but for now I’m just using this an example of how post-modern ways of understanding seem to be being replaced by something else. It isn’t a return to modernism (where reason and logic are the final authority), so what is it?

I quite like the description of this new worldview as ‘neo-conservatism’ but I’m sure there is a more precise way of defining it. What do others think?

6 thoughts on “Is Post-modernism Passé?

  1. Where do you think that ‘political correctness’ fit in – surely this has long since replaced true post modernism. In a truly post modern society we are pretty accepting of others thoughts, values, beliefs and needs. But for the last 10 years or so I would suggest that the new mantra has not been – ‘this is my truth, tell me yours’ but rather ‘do you beliefs fit into what is acceptable?’

    What is acceptable is pretty liberal, which fits into the post, post modern society – ie it’s the natural progression from it. However if you have a more conservative thought process then you are still considered to be something of a bigot.

    But at the same time as having a ‘freedom’ born from the post modern world, those freedoms are limited by what is now thought to be acceptable behaviour. Then there is the affect of the nanny state which tells us what we can and cannot do what is a good thing to do and what is not.

    Consider the couple with a b&b who were forced through the courts to allow gay couples, who then besieged their b&b in an attempt to put them out of business – yet the media were sympathetic to their plight on the grounds of their christian conviction – here we see a post modern media against what you might term a neo-conservative judiciary. On this subject the law of the land has taken an unhelpul turn, along with the religious hatred bill.

    The UK system of law has been based on allowance unless we tell you otherwise, ie you can do anything you like unless we have a law that says you may not. (You may not kill someone, you may not drive faster than 30 miles and hour etc) However recent legal changes have meant that now it is possible to do something that is not prohibited in law and then be taken to court and be found to have done something wrong because somebody has taken exception to what you have done. Personal liberty no longer truly exists.

  2. Wikipedia – I know everything

    Google – I have everything

    Facebook – I know everybody

    Twitter – Everybody follow me

    Amazon – you can have anything you want

  3. I have been thinking about this and the fact that so many of the changes that you (and Tim) outline are political in nature rather than a definite shift of ‘worldview’. I also think the term neo-conservative is probably unhelpful as it suggests a right-wing politics, whereas many (though not all) of the changes to the law are more left-wing (in the UK).

    But there is definitely something in the air that seems different. The subtle shift in popularity of Twitter, the repeated refrain of ‘you can’t say that’, the sense of a desire for certainty (cue the rise of the New Atheists) rather than a celebration of uncertainty, and perhaps the riots and Arab Spring rebellions pointing towards a slight shift in our sense of identity. A characteristic of postmodernism was a desire for community and splintering into tribalism – there seems to be a subtle change to the desire to be part of a ‘movement’: a desire for ‘participation’ over a desire for more genuine community? A ‘follower’ rather than a ‘storyteller’?

  4. Warning, there will be some rude words in this comment.

    “You can’t say that” is a vrey good way of summing up the attitudes of our times. Maybe we are moving on from post-modernism. Post-, remember, means after, so the age was described simply as the time after modernism, but it was widely noted that we didn’t know what we were moving on to. Perhaps Neo-conformity is a better word for the times. This perhaps is echoed in the look and style of Facebook (everyone’s page looks the same) compared to the outdated myspace which was very individual, and often messy. Even the way Facebook and Google use targeted advertising is trying to get to you conform to the idea of ‘you’ that they think you have. By freely partaking in and responding to the advertising are we becoming more ourselves? or simply more like the ‘ourselves’ that they expect us to be?

    I’ve also been struck in the past few weeks at the footballers who have been in trouble for racism. John Terry was alleged to have called Anton Ferdinand a ‘black c*nt’, and there was a similar exchange between Louis Suarez and Patrice Evra a couple of weeks earlier. Of course, the media and everyone else reacts with “you can’t say that” – everyone on message. I am not condoning their words in any way, but it struck me as ironic that calling someone a ‘black c*nt’ gets you into trouble. Simply calling them a ‘c*nt’ does not.

  5. Thanks for this, Jon: Really interesting. I think part of the issue as to where we are is that people only really begin to understand cultural shifts when we are actually quite a long way through one as it often takes a long time to understand whats going on . I would actually suggest that we (meaning society at large rather than sociologists) only really started talking about post modernism towards the end of the post modern era. I also wonder if the other thing that muddies the water is that we actually have something more akin to a mosaic because people are at different places in the cultural shift in society anyway- some more fixed in their worldview than others.

    All of that said I think that the current tension is between the liberal’s and the post liberal liberals who want to hold the best of what a more liberal world view offers while also reacting against the more some of the expressions of it , but who don’t want to be labelled “neo conservative” as that would be the contrary everything they stood for (ironically only serving to underline to fittingness of the term….). Make sense? Probably not. (Nothing new there…. :))

  6. your post is not without merit 😉

    just thought i would note that the liberal post war consensus, in Britain and America at least and possibly some western european countries, emerged as part of the modernist project to ground political institutions on a rational basis, i.e. individuals are free to determine their own ‘conception of the good’ (goals, life plans, including. religion) so far as one individual does not thwart another individual’s freedom. it is argued that there are ‘thin’ and ‘substantive’ goods, the thin goods are goods that all reasonable people recognise as important for the fulfillment of any (reasonable) life goal – partly things determined physiologically like health, shelter, food etc, but also the freedom to revise one’s goals, the freedom to partake in government, to form associations, and so on; the substantive goods are the goods that make up the particulars of a person’s conception of the good, e.g. what they do for a living, what music they like, whether they go to church or not, whether they get married, have children, devote their lives to the ecology movement etc. the whole thing is usually justified as part of a Kantian project, whereby one should never treat another person as a means to an end, always ‘as an end in them selves’ (the determiner of there own ends), and whereby we treat each other as most fully human where we respect the individual as a rational chooser, reviser, possibly even a priori not constituted by any thing other than it’s rational faculties. if this sounds an implausible depiction of a person, it did to various political theorists in the the 80s and 90s (after John Rawls wrote it all down in a Theory of justice in the mid seventies) but the fairly strong comeback is that these are not metaphysical (ontological) claims about the self but the best model for thinking about the formation of a free, democratic, just state.

    there are considerable new projects which try to reframe theory less in terms of an abstract theory of the person and more in terms of democratic participation (advocating that this is in fact a better way of respecting the autonomy of persons than imposing a theory of the autonomous person), and I also think Aristotle is making a come back e.g. Martha Nussbaum and the capability approach. But generally speaking the individual takes priority. Notably, this is the way things have been going for around 300 years since Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and it’s pretty deep in how we conceptualise politics in the West.

    this is theory. with respect to REAL WORLD considerations people don’t behave as tolerant, rational choosers all or even most of the time, but my hunch is that most people in government, and influential lawyers and judges, know and respect the theory to varying degrees. anyone who did PPE (50% of the cabinet) would know it, my personal experience was that UCL taught it like it was the gospel, human rights lawyers would know it. partly because of the need to deal with real world situations – crime, illness, housing, poverty, 3rd world debt, human rights abuses, war, sustainable living, political theorists were not much influenced by the philosophical undercurrents of postmodernism, e.g. the retreat from universal reason, the possibility of clear and meaningful communication, the ‘death of the subject’, the belief that there is such a thing as the world and that we can know and talk constructively about it, and – though this is not my area – I think relativism was a dirty word in pretty much all philosophical circles throughout the last half of the century and to date. (even Richard Rorty, who called for a moritorium on the use of the word truth by philosophers, refused the label relativist, and called himself bourgeois liberal; though many of his detractors liked to call him a relativist).

    i would say there is a threat to liberal political theory (which is basically what the above is) from globalisation, failed states, interconnectedness of economies, climate change, terrorism, nuclear weapons, possibly over population although I am not sure about this one, perhaps demographic shifts, whereby centralised planning becomes more important to sustain the conditions that human beings can prosper in (e.g. Greece, Italy). but this isn’t really to do with philosophical considerations regarding certainty, postmodernism, neo-conservatism, religion etc.

    i basically offer this as an alternative perspective on ‘the demise of postmodernism and toleration’ i.e. postmodernism was not the thing that made liberal toleration possible. if anything postmodernism undermines respect for the individual and silences debate and the free exchange of ideas, so i think, because it obscures clear and rational communication (see Jurgen Habermas on this). cheers, S

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