Monday, September 03, 2007

Review: Stanley Grenz - A Primer on Postmodernism

I participate in a small number of online communities. The one I have always found most rewarding is TMF – The Motley Fool. I can’t recommend it highly enough. People from all over the world come together there to share knowledge about everything from finance and investing to home-brewed beer. Each of these boards generates a community of relationships – friends and rivals come there to be challenged and to grow.

Along with learning to manage my personal finances, I have been drawn to two religious communities on TMF – "Christian Fools" and “Faith in a Postmodern World.” I joined the latter community because I liked the people who built it, and I hoped to learn more about postmodernism in general, and Christian living in a postmodern context in particular.

Since my own education did not include an introduction to postmodernism, (or at least we didn’t call it that in Pennsyltucky in the ‘seventies,) I’ve always felt ignorant participating in the conversation. Over time, it became apparent that many others on the board were as vague in their understanding as I was. Many expressed an understandable reluctance to change a place of lively conversation into a forum for arid academic and philosophical esoterica. A friend recommended a resource to me, and I promised to read it and share some of the information and insights gleaned from the journey. What follows is the fulfillment of that promise.I hope you may find something useful in the course of our trip together.

Review: Stanley Grenz - A Primer on Postmodernism

Grenz, Stanley J., A Primer on Postmodernism, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1996.

Stanley Grenz died in March of 2005. He was 54 years old. He left a legacy of bridge-building. His life's work reflects a ministry to the church - a mission to call her to carry the Gospel to the world of the present - not to let the news of Christ be lost in nostalgia for the way things used to be. He was passionate about helping the church to look through the lens of postmodernism, and to discover ways to minister to a generation that was raised while looking through this lens. His Primer has become a touchstone for anyone in the church seeking to carry on this missionary calling.

In the preface to Primer Grenz describes his objective:

…to assist students, church leaders, youth workers, and even colleagues in understanding the attitude or mind-set that is becoming increasingly prevalent in North American, especially (but not exclusively) on university campuses. (p ix)

Grenz' subject is not a simple one, and Primer is not always a simple read. In spite of the challenge of wrapping his arms around the principles of postmodernism, he was often successful in giving this old English major a glimpse of the often-nebulous face of this culture shaping movement.

Primer opens with a review of the article Grenz first published in the 1994 edition of Crux, a quarterly religious journal published by Regent College in Vancouver, BC. In "Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology, Grenz proposes that contrasting the original series with its latter incarnation can offer insight into the differences between the modern and the postmodern points of view.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk’s Enterprise reflected the modern world that produced it. The ship’s personnel were nearly all human. Their mission was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The use of the male gender here is not so much sexist as it is anthropocentric. The universe that Kirk’s starship explores has humankind at its center. The modern principle that “man is the measure of all things” reigns in Star Trek. The series emphasized diversity, but human diversity: explorers of multiple nationalities whose planetary civilization had advanced enough to enable them to work together to explore and discover the nature of “the final frontier.”

Kirk was the ultimate rugged individualist, trusting his gut, his experience, and his passionate nature far more than the counsel of small circle of advisors. Warrior, poet, orator, lover: he was a Renaissance man.

The modern ideal is no swashbuckler. A strong individual whose approach to the universe was reasoned and dispassionate, the unfailingly logical Mr. Spock represented the modern emergence of science as the real problem-solver for humanity. In spite of the fiery courage of their Captain, the humans on the enterprise were ultimately able to pursue their mission thanks to the rational expertise of their half-Human/half-Vulcan Science Officer.

Jean Luc Picard’s Next Generation Enterprise is a very different place that its predecessor. Their new mission – to boldly go where no one has gone before – is more than a nod to politically correctness. Man – humankind – is no longer the measure of all things on the Enterprise. The crew’s diversity now includes beings from all over the galaxy. Far beyond the familiar multi-cultural nature of Kirk’s crew, Picard leads an inter galactic team. At his side are a diverse team of advisors. Unlike Kirk, Picard’s second in command, Riker - his “Number One” - is present and prominent. The team includes the blind engineer, Geordi, the fierce Klingon security officer, Worf and the ship’s beautiful and motherly physician, Beverly Crusher. Instead of the super-human strength and intelligence of Spock, Picard has the assistance of the android, Data. Data’s character is very different than that of his Vulcan predecessor. Even though he is a machine, Data desires a more holistic understanding of what it means to be alive. Where Spock finds human emotional life to be an obstacle, or at best “fascinating,” Data actually wants to experience that life.

Like Commander Riker, Counselor Troi has no real antecedent on the original crew. Her empathic abilities bring compassion and emotion to the forefront. Rather than being an obstacle to reason, emotion and feelings are considered to be integral parts of life on the new Enterprise.

Next Generation’s
great villain is the Borg, a collective intelligence that robs beings of their emotional selves and integrates them into something that is not a community but an enormous machine of conquest. In the original series, the universe is an often mystifying, but rarely mystical place. Next Generation introduces the supernatural Q, a recurring omnipotent visitor from “the continuum”.

Grenz hypothesis is that Next Generation reflects the postmodern changes that began to occur in our culture in the decades between the launch of the original NBC series in 1966 and the generation that saw its release in first-run syndication in 1987. Our culture is moving away from one that idealizes reason, science, and individual achievement. Postmodernism leads us toward a more inclusive view of our existence - one that includes not only reason, but also intuition, emotion, and individual perceptions in the context of community.

The conclusion of Primer’s first chapter sums up what Grenz feels is the importance of the church considering postmodernism:

We dare not fall into the trap of wistfully longing for a return to the early modernity that gave evangelicalism its birth, for we are called not to minister to the past, but to the contemporary context….

Postmodernism poses many dangers. Nevertheless, it would be ironic – indeed, it would be tragic – if evangelicals ended up as the last defenders of a now dying modernity. (p 10)

In this tribute to Granz, written on the blog Generations in Conversation soon after his death, the Star Trek comparison is described this way:

The first chapter gives us the beautiful metaphor for modernism and postmodernism - Star Trek as a series. The first series - boldness and certainty. The second series - humility, subtlety and uncertainty.

As the modern world changes, postmodern thinking will influence everything about our culture. As a people called to be in the world, but not of the world, Christians need to understand how to negotiate the postmodern landscape, even if it never becomes our true home.


Next: The Postmodern ethos and world view.