We acquire language through repetition, and in everyday life the repetition of a word helps fix its meaning. But not always. Especially not in the academic world, where the most intense intellectual commerce often involves exchanging, and haggling over, the semantic equivalent of wooden nickels-words like “alienation,” “diversity,” “values,” ”hegemony,” “social democracy,” and so on.
One such term that has been coming on strong in recent years is ”postmodernism.” It is hard to think of a term in the lexicon of contemporary intellectual fashion, with the possible exception of ”multiculturalism,” that is more elusive. Yet the sprawling vagueness of such a term, like the sprawling vagueness of Finnegans Wake, seems only to augment its market value in the strange world of academic discourse. When William James asserted that we ought to judge our ideas by their “cash value,” he was perhaps saying more than he knew. He could not have guessed how soft the currency would eventually become and how well the signifiers would float.
Still, whatever the reasons for their suddenly ubiquitous use, the terms ”postmodern” and “postmodernism” do seem to point toward something real, something that is changing dramatically about our world; and it is one of the considerable virtues of Gene Edward Veith’s Postmodern Times that it undertakes to formulate, with great clarity and accessibility, what that “something” is. Veith is careful to distinguish between the two terms. The assertion that we live in postmodern times, with which Veith agrees, does not automatically commit us to accepting the secular ideology of postmodernism, which he largely rejects. He goes on to argue that the questions engaged by his book are not merely philosophical, in the narrow use of that term. Indeed, the repercussions of postmodernity, far from being confined to those arenas in which rarefied academic debate takes place, are felt throughout the culture, and are already powerfully manifest, not only in art, politics, literature, architecture, popular entertainment, and law, but in the very rhythm and texture of ordinary Americans’ lives. Even in the Church, particularly the evangelical Protestant wing that makes up much of Veith’s intended audience, the disturbing effects of the postmodern perplex are beginning to show.
Such a holistic and comprehensive approach to culture invites comparison with the idiosyncratic work of the late Francis A. Schaeffer, who similarly liked to meld haute intellectual history with pop culture criticism in his comparative studies of rival worldviews. Such an approach always draws detractors. It has proved easy for conventional scholars to poke holes in Schaeffer’s analyses, which, though often brilliant, are also admittedly haphazard in method, and often greatly oversimplify and overschematize their subjects. Even so, his works have endured, and proved suggestive and valuable, precisely because they address the profound issues that cultural historians are almost congenitally unable to deal with. And in its insistence upon the profound cultural consequences that flow from our most basic shared intellectual premises, Schaeffer’s work shows a high regard for the power of foundational ideas.
Veith, who is a Missouri Synod Lutheran (and Professor of English at Concordia University in Wisconsin), has produced in Postmodern Times a more refined and cautious, but no less suggestive, contribution to the Schaeffer tradition of theologically informed cultural analysis. Hence, although the book will certainly be of interest to scholars, its subtitle suggests a different audience: reflective Protestants who want to understand what the apparent collapse of modernism may mean for the culture, for the Church, and for themselves as Christians.
Veith’s answer to these concerns is optimistic, but very cautiously so. The modernist worldview, with its “totalized” enlightened faith in secular, rationalistic, naturalistic, materialistic, and demystified modes of explanation for all things, has by and large been the sworn enemy of Christian orthodoxy. So modernism’s slow but inexorable loss of authority at the hands of physicists, philosophers of science, literary theorists, and others would seem to be a welcome development. But Veith warns that the secular ideology of postmodernism will eventually be every bit as hostile to Christianity as modernism was, and perhaps more so. Why? Because Christians have one thing in common with modernists: both believe in the possibility of intelligible absolute truths. Therefore both are guilty, in the eyes of postmodernists, of the sin of “universal or totalizing discourse,” the distrust of which is the hallmark of postmodernism.
Since it defines itself by opposition, postmodernism is best described- indeed, can only be described-by a series of antitheses. Where modernists believed in determinacy, postmodernists embrace indeterminacy. Where modernists value synthesis and comprehensiveness, postmodernists value deconstruction and fragmentation. Where modernists value the type, postmodernists emphasize the deviant. Where modernists esteem a personal ideal of responsible agency and integrity, postmodernists reject “the authentic self” as an illusion, an attempt to reify a mere collocation and ensemble of social roles. Where modernists esteem the work of art as a serious, self-contained, absolute, and finished work, produced by an autonomous creative artist, postmodernists emphasize art as an arena of playfulness, irony, referentiality, process, performance, and incompleteness, in which the audience participates in the creation of meaning. Where modernists think foundationally, and believe objective truths can be discovered, postmodernists think anti-foundationally. They believe that truths are constructed by social groups and their languages; dismiss science and philosophy as totalizing “metanarratives”; and view history as nothing more than “a network of agonistic language games.” Indeed, at the very core of postmodernist ideology is the assertion that language is a self- referential “prison house” which cannot take in truths about the world outside, but can only construct meanings out of itself. There can be no transcendent Logos; the only reality is virtual reality.
For a religion built upon exaltation of the Word, whose God not only called the world into being through words but is linguistic in His very nature, such a suspicious view of language would seem to have little to offer. Yet Veith does think that there are a few things to be said for postmodernism from a Christian perspective, though each of these things is only a highly partial commendation. First, he believes the technique of deconstruction can be valuable, but only if it proceeds on the assumption that the underlying reality of our lives is not masked power relations, but the far deeper reality of sin; and only if it leads to the realization that the construction of one’s own meanings, in place of the one true God, is a form of idolatry. Christianity calls upon its followers to cast down idols and die to self; but it calls on them to do so for the sake of Christ and His kingdom, and not merely because they have discovered that golden calves and other expressions of “the sacred” are social constructions, and “the authentic self” is a bourgeois illusion. Postmodernism, then, like all heresies, has a piece of the truth, but only a piece. As Veith puts it, “Postmodernism unmasks problems that modernism tried to hide, but postmodernism can by no means solve them.” The second part of that proposition is perhaps obvious; it is the first that Veith especially wants us to take into consideration.
Another point to be made in postmodernism’s favor, argues Veith, is the fact that it at least allows cultural room for Christianity in a way that the rationalistic tyranny of modernism did not. The current vogue of “multiculturalism” (depending upon what one means by that most mutable term) accentuates that possibility, especially insofar as it undercuts notions of commonality-more totalizing discourse, that-in favor of tribal forms of association, each with its own characteristic brand of cognitive “difference.” In the postmodernist dispensation, Christians too can claim the coveted status of “outsider” or “marginal,” and triumphantly call themselves “resident aliens,” even if they happen to be tenured white males ensconced in prestige universities. But, as Veith adds, Christians will eventually become targets in a postmodernist culture if they insist upon the transcendent truth of what they profess, since that will constitute the one punishable sin against the postmodernist (dis)order of things.
So even postmodernism’s seeming beneficence is likely to sour, Veith predicts, and Christians would do well to distrust it. It is almost entirely in the decline of modernism, and not the rising postmodernist alternative, that the Christian opportunity is to be found. It seems reasonable to posit that a postmodernist political order would be utterly ruthless, since all standards of truth-telling and consistency would have been rendered illegitimate-along with the concept of legitimacy itself. Indeed, postmodernism has profoundly antihumanist tendencies, since it deconstructs both the individual and the general idea of humanity; developments like violent environmental extremism and the animal rights movement are among its quintessential, if not entirely logical, outgrowths. In this respect, nothing could be more challenging to postmodernism than the account of human origins presented in the first two chapters of Genesis.
All these points, and many others, are dealt with by Veith in crisp and direct language, with emphasis placed in each instance upon the specific implications for Christians; and in so doing, he has performed a valuable service. If one had to identify a defect in Postmodern Times, it would be only in that one sometimes feels that the book grants too much internal consistency and too much credibility to postmodernism as a coherent philosophy, when it is in fact an outlook so riven with internal contradictions, and so shot through with frivolousness, that it seems unlikely to outlive the decaying modernism upon which it battens. Indeed, it is tempting to argue that postmodernism is merely modernism gone to seed, without rigor or seriousness. For all its putative sympathy for those who suffer and are oppressed, postmodernism often seems little more than a philosophical pose for the comfortable and jaded and clever, those living off inherited capital that they pretend to despise. It seems unlikely that postmodernism will have much to offer them, or anyone else, when times of crisis come, as they inevitably will. If there have been few atheists in foxholes, there will be even fewer postmodernists.
Christians, Veith suggests, ought to be able to mount a distinctive challenge to postmodernist platitudes, one that does not simply support or reprise modernist ones, but moves the discussion onto fresh territory. In this undertaking, he recognizes, nothing will be of more fundamental importance than rescuing the dignity of language from its postmodernist detractors and their sometimes unwitting allies in our image-saturated culture. Because of the centrality Christians assign to the Word-spoken, written, and incarnate-the redemption of human language becomes a central Christian task. It is a challenge for which Veith finds biblical precedent. The Tower of Babel, constructed at a time when the world had but one language, was the quintessential modernist, universalist project-man in his pride reaching to the heavens. Then God stopped the construction, and the Babelite’s self-deification, by confusing the languages of the world-man’s fall into a kind of postmodern perplexity. And so matters remained until the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when men speaking in their own strange tongues were heard as if they were speaking in the hearers’ language- thus reversing the curse of Babel and restoring language, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, at the Church’s founding moment.
The first two parts of the story are familiar enough from any number of legends, fables, and traditions. Christianity holds no patent on the recognition that pride goeth before a fall. It is the final part of the story that remains startlingly unique. Which again suggests the cultural opening that Christianity-particularly a revival of classical, orthodox, confessional, and postliberal Christianity-may find in the years to come. The seemingly endless invocations of “multiculturalism,” for example, if they do not lead American society down the road to balkanization and cultural solipsism, can serve to highlight the Church’s unique understanding of how unity and diversity are reconciled. ”The universal Church, spread through history and throughout the globe,” Veith rightly asserts, “is the one true multicultural institution.” As such, it can be a sign of contradiction confounding the pretensions of modernists and postmodernists alike.
Wilfred M. McClay is Associate Professor History at Tulane University and author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (University of North Carolina Press).