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F or as long as I've been interested in things, I've been interested in Christian thought, especially as it exists in and comments on our culture. What's interesting to me is how things filter down to the mainstream. Last year's buzzword among Christians — along with everyone else — was Generation. (Specifically, of course, the much-commented-upon, though comically ill-defined, Generation X.) A couple of years before that, Community. Somewhere in there we also heard a lot about being Interactive — and naturally there's the recent madness for Mission Statements and Vision Statements (all hypnotically worded in the blandest possible manner of Corporation English, and identically full of Excellence and Goals, and inevitably suffixed with 2000).
But you know where I'm going with this. For what would the late 90s be without our old friend Postmodernism? The term was coined at the beginning of this century, but it has gained momentum only recently, and it's been all over the desks of preachers, ministers, consultants, deacons, musicians, barnas, and everyone else in the Christian subculture. As with more venerable define-as-you-wish words like Jazz and Feminism, it usually communicates little other than "I like what's going on around me" or "I don't like what's going on around me."
Postmodernism has been praised as an escape from reason, blamed as an escape from reason, praised as a corrective to harsh modern secularism, blamed as a decline into paganism, embraced, warned against, invoked by bleeding-edge java churches and their desperate elders alike.
And, like virtually everything this summer, it was found responsible for the Littleton massacre. (We can thank the vigilant Charles Colson, though certainly someone would have made the connection if he hadn't.)
The mainstream rarely adopts a movement as is, though. More often, they just adopt that movement's jargon and a few of its inflections, and call it victory. Add horns and a jumpy beat, and suddenly everything's ska. Or, remember when Disney promised us a "reggae-singing crab?" What we got were a couple of delightful calypso numbers: delightful indeed, but hardly reggae, though if you cut the bpm in half and gave the chorus to several hempishly out-of-tune rastos, "Under the Sea" would in fact be reborn.
Similarly, I've heard people toss around the term "Postmodernism" with an abandon previously reserved for "Internet," but with only the most voodooistic — and sometimes downright false — notion of what it actually is. So. Here I come to set you straight.
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O ne of the key subcatchphrases in discussions of postmodernism is "non-linear." Modernism wanted to be (and often claimed to be) non-linear, but failed, where postmodernism succeeds. For instance, looking at it just in terms of tradition, modernism involved a rejection of all that had come before, and ironically, that's what it had in common with all before. Haydn had to reject baroque, Wagner had to reject Haydn, Stravinsky had to reject Wagner. But in the postmodern view, we don't have to choose: we can enjoy them all, even though they at times contradict each other.
Watching "Singin' in the Rain" (which you should do), we're puzzled by what we see as the false dichotomy: the poor girl feels she must commit to high art and reject low art or pop art, but eventually decides to leave the phony, pretentious highbrow world behind in favor of the low; for her, they are incompatible. Today we don't see that as a choice at all. I can go to a rave one night and Willie Nelson the next, and an opera the next, and that's not considered odd. (Well, ok, that is considered odd, but for a different reason.)
In explaining the differences between traditional views, modern views, and post-modern views, I like to use examples of how it all looks and feels, because we can begin to recognize it better that way, and I really do believe that world-views express themselves in the kitchen and bathroom and closet as well as the bookshelf.
"Classical" dress (to use a broad term) is Brooks Brothers. Modern is Giorgio Armani. Postmodern is Gianni Versace.
Traditional is pencil and paper. Modern is word processing, DOS-style. Postmodern is word processing á la Macintosh and its knock-off Windows. (DOS is sleekly advanced and to a certain degree non-linear — in that you can nondestructively edit, adding and subtracting and moving text without rewriting — but also by its very nature bound to the linear notions of command-style computing. By contrast, Mac and Windows embody, and may have helped hasten, postmodernism, with their emphasis on surfaces (rather than code), multiple windows, and appropriation of a jumble of tropes from every previous era — industrial-era fonts and points, preindustrial cutting and pasting, and, of course, icons).*
Picture how different movies imagine the "tribunal of the future." In a Star Trek movie, we see it in terms of high modernism: a sleek, huge, blank, quiet hall of justice, all full of straight or gently curved lines, solid colors, little ornamentation, people wearing simple uniforms or even robes. The guy on trial is standing alone in a focal space. Contrast that with the tribunal in "Twelve Monkeys:" Bruce Willis is off in some corner on an elevated chair, wires all over his body, with ten or twenty screens in his face, all showing something different, with the voices of his interlocutors piped in from somewhere else, along with sounds and recordings and other "evidence" all going on at once. Postmodernism. (Note that "Twelve Monkeys" was created by Terry Gilliam, whose animations for Monty Python in the 70s were postmodernism incarnate.)
Modernism says that everything that has been done before is outdated, and must be replaced by something new, or, thrillingly and shockingly, by nothing at all. Postmodernism says that it's all been done before, so the only thing left is to take pre-existing things and manipulate them in new ways. Beethoven is classical: he takes four stringed instruments and writes a quartet for them, with elements of rhythm, harmony and melody expressed in a beginning, middle, and end. Phillip Glass is modern: he takes the same instruments, puts them together with some synths and other electronic instruments, and writes a piece of "minimalism," in which key phrases get played over and over with little development. Beck is postmodern: he takes a recording of the Beethoven and the Glass, and a sample of some drums, and puts them all together, along with sounds of traffic horns, radio shows, a bossa nova from the '60s, and his own lyrics, to create something "new" from the pre-existing musical pieces.
Or, take cooking: when your great-grandmother wanted to fix a treat for the kids at Thanksgiving, she took some extra flour from the pie she was making, rolled it up with some butter and cinnamon, and gave it to them to tide them over till the meal. Folk culture, there. Traditional. (Its "classical" counterpart would be a croissant.) On the other hand, your mother very likely bought a pre-assembled set of ingredients from Betty Crocker, stirred them up, and stuck them in the oven — a perfect example of technology-inspired modernism. My sister-in-law, last Thanksgiving, gave us all little "turkeys" made from half an Oreo with candy-corn stuck to it to form the fan of back-feathers, and other candies to make the body, etc. Manipulation of surfaces, combination of pre-existing manufactured items to form a new whole. Postmodernism in action.
Clothes: When our ancestors wanted to sew, they wove fabric or bought it from someone who wove it, and sewed a new dress based on a traditional pattern. Our grandmothers and mothers, when they wanted to sew, bought fabric at Cloth World, and sewed it based on patterns from Better Homes & Gardens — or even bought pre-cut pieces at Cloth World for those patterns: a case of modernism as merely a new form of traditionalism updated for the machine age. But the sewers among us, when they want to sew, they might very well buy a T-shirt, and some buttons, ribbons, or other decorative items, and sew them onto the T-shirt to form a new, "creative" combination of prefabricated elements: the mass-culture version of 'individuality.' Postmodernism again. They're doing the same thing with fabric that Beck and Puff Daddy do with music.
Another aspect of postmodernism is that, because of this feeling that it's all been done before, and all we can do is collect things already done and stick them together, there is a necessary feeling of irony toward everything. A generation ago, if someone was wearing a cross as jewelry, we could assume that either they meant it as a believing Christian of some kind, or at least they were taking part in a generalized American feeling that a cross is a good ornament. Nowadays, we could possibly gather, based on other cues from the person, that the cross might be expressing an ironic commentary on those things. This is why it's possible to see someone with a cross and a yin-yang symbol, and a japanese letter related to shintoism, and a kokopeli — the hunched Santa Fe/Native American flute-player — all together.
Other aspects of irony: "A Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare's play full of wacky misunderstandings, cross-dressing, mistaken identities, outrageous altercations, etc, is classical in the sense that it follows the Aristotelian concept of drama: it takes place in the space of one day, using references from the characters to tell of the events years ago that led to this situation, and it takes place in one city, using those same references to tell of other events in other places; and, being a comedy, it ends in a slew of marriages. Further, the laughs are derived from the situations themselves. "I Love Lucy," on the other hand, is modern: a 30-minute episode takes place in several different locations, or even in different countries, and it can span weeks or even months. The comedy consists of the same type of wacky misunderstandings, costumes, and fights, but takes place in a modern world of machines that go wrong, factories, television sets, etc. Again, the comedy most often arises from the situation. "Friends," on the other hand, is more than just 'modern' in that it takes place in the modern world and doesn't observe the classical unities: it is postmodern in that the comedy very often arises from ironic references to other cultural events — movies, politics, even other television shows. You'll find, in an average episode of "Friends," a winking reference to Isaac the bartender from "Love Boat," all the friends piling up to get the ice-tray in a pose that resembles the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, a character comparing another character to Bert Convy, and on and on. They never come out and say those things are ridiculous, because they don't entirely think that: we do have a geeky fondness for Isaac and Captain Steubing, and, more importantly, for the childhood in which we experienced them. Nostalgia is a necessary implication of a disposable pop culture, and the irony is a means of indulging in it without being maudlin.
All this could have been done earlier — Lucy and Ricky could have made sly references to "The Wizard of Oz," just as the Beatles could have made tape-loops of Benny Goodman and Mantovani (and Beethoven) — but it wasn't done because they were too busy coming up with something "modern," even if those modern things were deliberate riffs on what had come before (Shakespeare, English folk songs). Could a record collection called "Totally Thirties" have been conceivable, much less marketable, in the Forties?
We can picture an episode of "Friends" in which Kudrow and Cox find themselves on an assembly line, trying to gobble up chocolates to keep pace — but that scene could never be simply an imitation of the famous Lucy scene, the way that "Three's Company" episodes are often imitations of something like "As You Like It." That scene would, by necessity, have to be a quote, or a tribute, or an ironic commentary on the Lucy scene. It isn't going to be a print dress that resembles the older fashion of print dresses, it's going to be that print fabric ripped up and sewed onto a T-shirt.
So, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are being, true to form, clunkily modern when they say "I love you" by email; Hugh Grant, on the other hand, is being trendily postmodern when he says to Andy McDowell, "In the words of David Cassidy, 'I Think I Love You.' "
There you have it: the idea that there's nothing left to say because it's all been said before, the pasting of a mass-manufactured product (a pop song) onto a present situation, the ironic/nostalgic reference to a previous period. The awareness that we are, as Harold Bloom puts it, "late."
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L ike it or not, we are postmodern. We live in this world, and even though some of its trends are not very accommodating to our beliefs as Christians, we can't simply escape it. I'm not saying we can't afford not to be of our time; I'm saying it's impossible not to be of our time. The best we can do is be aware of its biases and try to align ourselves with Christ even when that alignment doesn't seem possible.
Looking at it the other way, though, postmodernism is quite accommodating in a way that modernism wasn't. A man like C.S. Lewis wouldn't have to write book after book explaining and defending his choice to be a Christian these days. It would simply be accepted. Major figures like Oprah Winfrey and Dr Laura and David Robinson regularly and undefensively refer to their strong religious beliefs, and that's seen as a good thing. In philosophical terms, we've moved from Missouri to Texas: where we used to say Show Me we now simply shout Yee-Haw.
Therefore, we face an entirely different set of problems. When a person with a cross earring looks at my cross tattoo and says, "Cool," what statement has been made by either of us? Did the promiscuous (albeit respectful) religious beliefs of the characters in "Northern Exposure" allow for any real belief at all?
Postmodernism is in many ways a blessing. A person who loves Stravinsky (without despising Wagner) can be enthusiastic about Emmylou Harris and need not be embarrassed or secretive. And why would Beck sample a phrase from Beethoven if he didn't recognize that it has a gut appeal? In this, he may be closer to Beethoven's heart than the earnest longhairs so parodied in the popular entertainment of this century.
A generation ago, Christians either had to be C.S. Lewis (who may be the first person on record as claiming to be a "dinosaur"), rejecting modernism in favor of an ancient faith, or they had to be Francis Schaeffer, wearing a black turtleneck and saying that Christianity was Really Modern After All. Or, they could do neither and claim in the middlebrow manner to be above or below the whole question.
But now, rather than rejecting or ignoring the past, or at any rate seeing the past and the present as being in opposition, we embrace the past, distant and recent, collecting it in a giant hodge-podge and using it as we wish. Underlying this embrace, or perhaps flowing out from it, is the recognition that human beings have always been engaged in ideas, and that although our efforts must go pitifully out of date they do contain glimmers of truth, and are our only way to see them.