Is postmodernism all that toxic?

The writer works as a journalist. His undergraduate studies include a degree from Ambassador College, Big Sandy, in 1977. Since 1995 he moves comfortably between the gradations of High and Low Church.

By Robert Williams

PORTLAND, Ore.--Having realized that America is fighting its first postmodern conflict, a war in which we didn't know who the enemy was in those first few weeks, I remembered Brian Knowles' polemic "Could Postmodernism Be Unhealthier Than Darwin?" in the Sept. 30, 2001, issue of The Journal.

His article motivated me to study the subject when he said postmodernism is "toxic ideology" and expressed the necessity "to make an all-out effort to resist this kind of thinking at every turn."

Mr. Knowles said: "Postmodern thinking is insinuating itself into every area of life in our culture . . . It has already done irreparable damage. If it is not resisted, it will do more. Your freedom to live and function as a Bible-believing Christian is in serious and imminent jeopardy.

He added: "Those of us who are older find it difficult to make sense out of much of anything that goes on these days: education, the news, movies, literature and especially politics."

I questioned whether Mr. Knowles was confusing moral judgments with judgments of taste and then metamorphosing controversial issues into a postmodern pate.

Goaded by Mr. Knowles

So last fall I began my research that has sat mostly finished on my office floor for months while I tried to complete another project concerning the dissolute life of Dutch painter Jan Steen.

Goaded by Mr. Knowles' words that "the very foundations of Western civilization are crumbling under the onslaught of postmodernism," I shuttled forward from 17th-century thought to read and ruminate about this present-day issue.

I started with a synoptical review of about 230 books. From these I selected a bibliography of 68 books, religious and secular, drawn from science, law, history, sociology, psychology, education and literature.

Ten of these I studied closely. Four were clearly negative, and one was neutral, while five promoted the ideas of postmodern juju with temperatures ranging from cool ambivalence to boiling enthusiasm.

In his article Mr. Knowles endorsed two books, Time for Truth and The Death of Truth. I had to read both, of course. His ideas about postmodernism parallel The Death of Truth.

Ministry of apologetics

The evangelical authors of The Death of Truth belong to an apologetics ministry, the Crossroads Project, that exists for the purpose of attacking what the group calls postmodernism from its base camp in the fast-food capital of America, Columbus, Ohio.

The book's editor, Dennis McCallum, targets postmodernism because he says it contains godless disdain for reason and truth, and, as a professional apologist, he feels compelled to oppose any other worldview than his own.

Mr. McCallum says postmodernism is not a doctrine but a mood, a methodology and a movement "transforming every area of everyday life."

The Crossroads group uses the term postmodernism as a popular catchphrase to rally fundamentalists to its flag against a common enemy in a perceived uphill battle with secular culture.

The Death of Truth's writers complain about several areas of intellectual study. They include these subjects in their paternoster of postmodern perdition: animal-intelligence studies, genetics, artificial intelligence, creativity studies, linguistics and semantics.

Ultimately real

I wonder if these evangelicals would ban Disney's new California Adventure along with Disneyland. These theme parks are described as the ultimate real-life postmodern unreality in Postmodern Semiotics: Material Culture and the Forms of Postmodern Life.

Must Williamsburg and Plimouth Plantation be boycotted also? From Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism, I discovered that these attractions apply a postmodern approach by teaching "history from below."

Different publics disagree about what is postmodern and what is not. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 1999 edition, suggests writers and editors use the term with caution.

Few academics appreciate the word postmodern applied to their work (some consider postmodernism a fringe intellectual movement). The word relates to a wide range of concepts. It is more of a range of response to modern philosophy than what people think of as a brand of philosophy with its own particular tenets.

In Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy, Oxford don Simon Blackburn wrote, "'Postmodernism' is really just nominalism, colourfully presented as the doctrine that there is really just nothing but texts," clouding over any understanding for the general public.

This question of definition is addressed in the introduction to Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology:

"Like many of the phenomena it is used to describe, the term calls attention to its own contradictions and contingencies and makes itself available to diverse audiences for disparate purposes."

No confidence in reason

While for decades scholars have argued its meaning, the debate has extended far beyond the academy. From the producers of the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club, who in January 1996 published a fact sheet denouncing postmodernism as an amoral pseudoreligion, to the creators of The Simpsons, who have sardonically advertised their hit television show as nouveau postmodernism for the masses, the word carries wildly divergent meanings and connotations for different people.

Ironically, if a deeply religious man such as Mr. Knowles had more thoroughly studied the postmodern controversy for himself before writing his article, he might have found that left-wing professors of English at America's most prestigious universities share his misgivings about the Enlightenment. Like him, they don't have confidence in human reason.

True, they may have ideas he can't abide, but they seem to blame liberalism for the world's problems, so maybe there is something to their views after all.

Although Christians wouldn't agree with Jacques Derrida's view of the insufficiency of metanarratives or the impossibility of grounding truth, because the Bible is the greatest metanarrative written and held to be true much about postmodernism may be appealing.

Although Descartes taught that true knowledge comes from human reason alone, and Kant synthesized that idea with the notion that all knowledge comes from experience (a direct slap at God's authority), postmodernists explode this concept of the primacy of knowing self.

Postmodernism's skepticism about progress is a reminder that secular rationality does not have all the answers to life's mysteries. Its radical antihumanism is compatible with the possibility of a superhuman intelligence. Its rejection of the notion that knowledge can be grounded by appealing to a reality that exists beyond interpretation gives equality to all possible interpretations, including Christian ones.

At the end of The Death of Truth, the Crossroads cabal does restrict its blistering attack on postmodernism and agrees with some points of today's studies including: "People are more subjective than they like to admit"; American culture casts a blind eye to "truth obvious" to other cultures; faith in progress is misplaced; and people are shaped by society, and this influences our "values and thinking."

Anti-intellectual stance

From the whole weltanschauung to its tiny thoughtlets, I have studied the big-blob theory of cultural subversion as presented by the pomo dispensation, and it seems to lack proper perspective in explaining nefariousness. Essentially, the fundamentalists' postmodern dogma is an update of a long-held anti-intellectual stance.

I do not have space to publish my lengthy notes that cover more points, but I did wish to touch upon literary theory that for me provides a clearer view to the workings of the postmodern than of most subjects.

Pomo literature turns the sleeve of modernism inside out but in a playful, experimental manner: blending genres with contradictory voices, fragmented narrative and open forms while exhibiting endless ironies and a fascination with subjectivity and sampling a vast range of idioms. The literature is rigorous.

Because some postmodern texts subvert the foundations of our traditional modes of thought and experience, who would remedy the situation by banning a book or two? Among the first of many writers to be anathematized would be Jorges Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, Lorrie Moore, Don Delillo and Umberto Eco.

I doubt, though, that most fundamentalists, who drift in the shallow pleasures of Louis L'Amour, have read these authors.

Turgid tomes

Brian Knowles' other recommendation that I read was for Os Guinness's Time for Truth. Guinness earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of knowledge from Oxford; he is also a speaker and writer on evangelicalism.

Time for Truth, resonating from Bill Clinton's narcissism, is a 125-page quasipolitical treatise for the religious-right in-grouper. It is really a stripped-down retelling of his 415-page turgid tome The American Hour (1993) that predicted an economic downfall and loss of prestige for America while Bill Clinton was president. I read that also.

Two other titles by Guinness include The Call (1998) and Fat Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do about It (1994). Did he write Fat Bodies, Fat Minds in spite because evangelicals didn't buy The American Hour?

I suggest reading two other books as antidote: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, Vintage Books, 1962, and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark A. Noll, William B. Eerdman's Publishing Co.

Hofstadter's book won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, while Noll is a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College.

The evangelicals should consider whether their premise is relevant to their conclusion. It appears they fall into the trap of the straw-man fallacy. Is the position being attacked really held by the so-called postmodernists, or is it a flawed interpretation of their position?

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