Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – Preface

The Spectrum of Responses

Before we get started, I wanted to note what seems to be a spectrum of reactions to the postmodern turn. Very helpful in my delineating these was Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay, “Pilgrim’s Digress” in the book, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn.

Deny- Some Christians simply deny that postmodernity either exists or that it’s important. Some may see postmodernity as “just a phase,” as Brian McLaren has refuted. We have a tendency, in our humanity, to decide that the way we see the world is the only possible way to do so, and we get emotionally attached to it as a source of security. That is why we have trouble talking politics or religion with people—each of us are “set in our ways,” and to change is paramount to “conversion.” Much is the same with this—to say that we are moving out of one era and into another (from the “modern” to the “postmodern”) is a bit too much for some to swallow.

Defy- Some Christians (especially evangelicals) define themselves as much by what they are against (we are called “protestants,” after all!) as what they are for. Constantly on the hunt for heresy and those dreaded “liberals,” they are ready to demonize the next threat to the canonized way of thinking about their faith. Many Christians have been so thoroughly inculcated with a Platonic worldview and/or the “reasonableness” of the faith (i.e., the “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” kind of apologetics), that they see any threat to these as a threat to the faith as well. So, postmodernity is seen as the next evil coming down the road that threatens the orthodoxy of our faith—something to resist at all costs. Some Christians simply presume that postmodernity and Christianity are mutually exclusive—and with that attitude, there is little room for understanding and getting beyond the defiance.

Deify- Some Christians are always looking for the latest fad or trend that will enliven their faith and move the church toward a more missional focus. Postmodernity is new and exciting and offers new ways of thinking about our faith and for doing ecclesiology, so it is often embraced without enough criticism and discernment. We see some in the “emerging church” (certainly not the all, but some) either grab hold of superficial postmodern ideas or let a more informed postmodern philosophy set the agenda for their theology. We must not deify any philosophy (be it Derrida or Plato!); we must yield to Deity as we seek to understand our faith.

Debate- Some Christians think that the best route is to stake their ground and do their research in order to articulate their stand over against the other. Some who oppose postmodernity read the relevant books and then they speak at lectures and write books refuting the other side. This is the impulse for Christians who are sympathetic to postmodernity as well. The value is that there is information being researched and people are writing interesting stuff; what’s missing, however, is a real dialogue in order to understand. Reading this stuff makes me feel like I’m attending a college debate—both sides present their cases and try to find faults in the other’s arguments, but we arrive at no real conclusions; we never mover forward. All that matters is, “Who won the debate?”

Discuss- Some Christians (especially those in the “Emergent Conversation”) have, because of a predilection toward the postmodern, encouraged a more conversant approach. They create a more open forum in which all views are welcome and given equal voice—especially newer, fresher voices that articulate postmodern ideas. While this has the virtue of listening to ideas on their own terms, it does not necessarily always have the apostolic Christian faith as its starting point. Sometimes, in our zeal to be in tune with the culture, we can allow the culture to be our starting point rather than the faith. We have a “faith that seeks understanding,” not the other way around.

Dialogical Dispute- Vanhoozer calls this just “Dispute,” but I think that has the connotation (which he does not mean) of a heated confrontation. What he means, and that I agree with, is that the best possible response to postmodernity is to listen to and engage postmodernity on its own grounds while at the same time to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). He writes, “Christian thinkers cannot go around postmodernity; we have to go through it.” This will mean that we will must be willing to agree with postmodern theses while in this dialogical dispute so that we will may arrive at different conclusions due to our distinctly Christian World View. For instance, we can agree with postmodernity that we should have an incredulity toward metanarratives, for we agree that every metanarrative is limited by linguistics and the situatedness of each community from which it springs. However, we can also contend that there is an exception—a metanarrative that came from outside any individual community and has invaded our time and place situatedness in language that had to accommodate to an individual community (the metanarrative of “Creation, Fall, Redemption”—which will be my next post).

Index of this series: Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity



Scot McKnight said...

Very nice taxonomy of how people are responding to pomo stuff. This is useful to all of us.

Rich said...


Thanks for the run down. This was helpful for me and I can it being helpful to many others.


John Frye said...

Bob, I appreciate the clarity and charity in your definitions of evangelical responses to PM.

Bob said...

Great stuff, Bob. I'll be following along with interest.

At this point, I have the impression that all of these responses are understandable. (I mean, I can see how a person could hold each stance.)

These are responses. Which makes me wonder, "What's the question?" That may be the most important element of any future discourse.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks Bob,
What IS the question?

I think postmodernity is so complex and multifaceted and is, by its very nature, very hard to pin down, so it is hard to know that the QUESTION is! That's the point of this series, at least for me...
...to get my head around the major questions that are being raised with the postmodern turn.

Bob said...

Each response is appropriate to the question being asked.

Deny: "Is this a valid?"

Defy: "Is this a threat?"

Deify: "Is this what I've been looking for?"

Debate: "Is this right or wrong?"

Discuss: "What are we dealing with?"

Dialogue: "What do you think it is?"

Identifying your question at the outset will pretty much dictate the answer you'll find.

My question: "How does this understanding bring me more fully into Christ?"

Phil Steiger said...


Very helpful thoughts, and I think they cover most of the useful modes of interaction. I wonder, though, if the connotation of "Deny" is a little strong. Those who I have found most helpful regarding Pomo philosophy have critically engaged it on its own terms, dialogued with Pomos and Emergents (maybe much like your final category), and have ended up denying the usefulness of Pomo philosophy as a useful and prescriptive construct within the church.

I have found it interesting that in most Emergent circles dialogue and discussion seem to rule out any form of denial of pomo philosophy-in other words, dialogue to them carries an implicit acceptance of pomo ideas, and if a member of the dialogue begins to disagree too much with pomo, they are often labeled (Modernist, fundamentalist, etc.) and marginalized out of the conversation.

I guess I would find myself in one of the last three categories. I may have denied the usefulness of Pomo philosophy as prescription, but I have not done so in a way keeping with the description of "Deny."