Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

14105347421961_700Seems to me the so-called ‘Islamic State’ is having wide-reaching effects on our society. One of them is to undermine the world-view called ‘postmodernism’ which is so popular especially among our university-classes and inner city dwellers. Here’s how.

At the heart of the postmodern worldview is the idea that everyone has their own story, their own voice. Each of these stories is valid and deserves a hearing. The thing postmodernists (PMs) detest is when one story attempts to dominate another, whether to silence it or to absorb it in some way, resulting in a loss of diversity. For postmodernism, diversity is the ultimate good. The worst thing of all is the ‘metanarrative’, an overarching story which claims to interpret life more generally, with all its little local stories included. A metanarrative is a tool of repression and coercion by which the vocal can control the rest. Think of ’empire’ or ‘progress’ as examples.

With other Islamic terrorist groups its been easy for PMs to write them off for pushing a dangerous metanarrative. But the notable thing about the IS is how local it is. These guys have a vision to set up an Islamic state in the territories of Iraq and Syria, and impose a certain kind of medieval administration there, to the glory of their god. They’re telling a story that’s tied to a particular patch of land.

And the story is utterly abhorrent to westerners like me. Involving as it does invasion, murder, theft, rape, forced marriage, punitive amputations, beheadings, destruction of ancient artifacts etc.

So, the question is, what resources does the postmodernist have at her disposal to deal with this situation? We are not willing to just sit by in silence and watch it happen. So then a critique is required. The PMs of the West find themselves using their own voice to condemn the voice of the IS, their own story to judge the IS’s story.

It seems not all stories are equal after all. Not even all local stories. It is true that this reality has confronted us many times, but seldom in so forceful a way as it does now. For now we feel compelled to say that this story is evil and has no place among humanity. This story must be smashed and silenced. And we are ready to act out our judgement using planes and bombs, to actively seek the destruction of the IS story and of the people who live it. And here is Obama, PM hero, actually dropping the bombs.

The fact that this is not a global metanarrative we are attacking is emphasised by the geography of the thing: the West is bombing one small patch of land in the Middle East, which is home for the objectionable story. It’s a very local matter. This is one bit of diversity which is not a good thing.

What resources do you need, to judge someone’s story? You need a higher level story, from which you can look down. You need a story that has more weight or truth about it than the other one. It’s one thing to say ‘I don’t much like your story’, but if you’re going to go dropping bombs on the storytellers, you need more than that. You need to be standing somewhere solid, on ground that is uncontestable. You need something that gives you the right to actively silence that voice.

You need a metanarrative.

There are very few PMs speaking out against Western military action in Syria and Iraq. It is widely felt that this action is justified and necessary. But we have seen that the resources needed for such a stance strike at the heart of postmodernism.

My point is not, “see how inconsistent PMs are!”. Who can throw the first stone there? No, my point is to consider the spiritual shift involved for the PMs of the West, as we try to deal with the threat posed by the IS. We are morphing into people who hold to a story that is big enough to condemn and silence certain narratives we judge to be a threat. Perhaps we have always held to such a story secretly. But now, after 40 years hidden it is back out in the open. We are publically shedding our postmodernism, under the pressure of this strange new phenomenon, the IS. IS is pushing us to a place where we rely more and more on metanarrative to do and say the things we feel are needed.

FoodMcworldThis is a small, non-technical and fairly easy to read book on the subject of mission, by one of the great Christian scholars of our generation. That’s gotta be good, hey?

Bauckham is a bit of a genius when it comes to writing short books that have a big impact. His God Crucified changed the face of Christological studies, in about 70 pages. This one weighs in at 110 pages: my sort of book!

The subtitle, ‘Christian Witness in a Postmodern World’ gives a clearer sense of what the book is about. What place can Christian mission have in a world where truth itself (and therefore mission) itself is frowned upon?

Chapter 1:  A Hermeneutic for the Kingdom of God.

That’s not a very friendly title for what is actually a ripper chapter. In fact it isn’t a good guide to the contents either.

1. Between McWorld and Jihad

September 11 2001, could be seen as the clash of ‘universalist cultures’ – those of Islam and of Global Capitalism. ‘Universalist’ means cultures that seek to impose themselves on the whole world in a way that crushes difference. Universalist cultures ‘threaten all things local, traditional and particular.’ Bauckham tells us his book is going to be about these issues – the local and particular, and the universal – as they relate to Christian mission.

Bauckham identifies two key concepts involved in the story of 9/11: metanarrative and globalisation. A metanarrative is a story about the meaning of reality as a whole, encompassing and integrates all its diversity. E.g.  ‘progress’ and Marxism. The new metanarrative of the West is Globalism with its story of economic salvation.

Postmodernism suspects and rejects metanarratives as tools of domination and oppression. It promotes instead particularity, diversity and localism. One Jewish postmodernist, Sacks, pleads for an approach to religion which distinguishes it from God. God is universal, but all religions are particulars and should remain so. I.e. give up universalist dreams such as those of Islam.

So where does Christianity stand when confronted with McWorld and Jihad? Bauckham points out that “almost certainly Christianity exhibits more cultural diversity that any other religion, and that must say something about it.” But are God and religion are fundamentally different, one universal and one particular? RB points out that the idea that God is universal is itself particular to the Judeo-Christian tradition!

It is more accurate to say God is both universal and particular. ‘We find the universal God in his particularity as the God of Israel…and of Jesus’. Bauckham wants to examine how these two things – the particular and the universal –  are related, ‘because it is in that relationship that the church’s universal mission belongs and has its meaning…Mission takes place on the way from the particularity of God’s action in the story of Jesus to the universal coming of God’s kingdom.’ And here we have the thesis of the whole book.

But can Christian mission be justified at all? Is it not just ‘a tidal wave of religious homogenisation sweeping away all the diversity of the world.’

That would have been a great place to finish the first chapter – one suspects the book has retained the structure of the lectures on which it is based. We will stop here and reflect.


Bauckham writes beautifully. His style is clear, concise and eloquent. 9/11 offers a compelling, if somewhat overused, way into the subject. He uses plenty of illustrations, making for easy reading.

He has introduced his key themes and terms: mission in the light of postmodern concerns about the universal and the particular, about metanarrative and globalisation. Each of these is explained clearly. He has raised his main issues cogently and compellingly.

If I have a criticism it would be that Bauckham undersells his product. The question he has raised here about the legitimacy of mission has not been a small one. In fact it has been massively powerful in the modern history of the church. Over the past 60 years this critique of universalist narratives (like the Christian one) has seeped into the bones of the churches and sapped their missionary zeal. It has come to seem arrogant and presumptuous to try to make ‘converts’ (i.e. disciples for Jesus). Church groups, under the influence of postmodern ideas, have lost confidence in the whole missionary endeavour, and often given it away. This has been a fundamental change in the outlook and action of Christians in the modern West. It would have been helpful for Bauckham to unpack this a bit, give some of this wider context, and explain what is at stake for the church, in the issues he is discussing. These things may have seemed obvious to Bauckham, but many of us don’t know even recent history or the history of ideas. Words like universalism, particularity and metanarrative can seem big and abstract and academic to readers unused to such vocabulary. They can mask the fact that Bauckham is actually dealing with a red-hot topic: Is mission an intrinsically violent movement? 

I think the average reader just needs a little bit more reason to care about the themes of the book, before diving into Bible-land with RB. Brief is good, but at this key moment in his book I feel he’s been a bit too brief! This book is so good I’d like it to be more accessible at a ”thinking reader” level, not just an academic one.

4. Postmodernism has opened the door to radical individualism.  It is paradoxical that we could live in McWorld and yet be individualists – and yet it is undeniably true. It works like this. Postmodernism tends to undermine any larger story or cause that I might identify with. Tolerance is not a cause, just a low-grade ideal. There is no shared bigger picture or larger group that gives meaning to my life and yours.

Trouble is, this dynamic doesn’t stop when it gets down to the level of local community – it keeps on destroying the narratives that hold people together.  We learned it from Inception: if an idea is planted deep enough it will control your whole life. If big stories are suspect and relative, then smaller ones are too, and in fact any story.  In the end the only meaning I can access is the meaning I construct for my own life.

In which case there can be no real ‘us’. For the thing that used to maintain ‘us’ was the narrative. It’s only a short step from this to ‘life is all about me.’ The large metanarratives which postmodernism attacked did not break down into local narratives – they broke down into the individual story. Nor is there any narrative we are following that might give much importance to my neighbour’s life. This leaves radical individualism as the only available option.

The results have been catastrophic. We have seen our communities break down to the point where there is very little left. We no longer know our neighbours. Nowadays when people die, they are lucky if anyone notices. Or cares.


In finishing, let me say I’m no big fan of modernism either. But in exorcising that demon, seems to me postmodernism has left the house swept and available for seven even worse demons to take up residence.

I am looking for something better.