Quick. Define Postmodernism!

Tony Sig

I recently had an interesting interaction with my former philosophy teacher. He was telling me how he went to Belgium to study Phenomenology and I confessed that I had no idea how to define or understand what exactly “Phenomenology” is. I mostly knew what it meant to “do a phenomenology of x, y or z” but I found it difficult to grasp in the abstract. In an interesting turn he replied that he didn’t know how to define “Postmodern” which is the term I am most familiar with.

Apparently there is not a straightforward connection between French style Phenomenology and “Postmodernism.”

I have noticed that there is an exceeding amount of confusion as to what “Postmodernism” is in Christian circles (let along other circles). This seems to be in no small part on account of the various ramblings of those affiliated with the so-called “Emerging/ent Church” and the many responses the movement has invoked. It doesn’t help that there is no straightforward way to understand what “It” is and one wonders if we should just move the whole conversation away from this elusive word and its plurality of meanings.

I am one who would be more than willing to drop the term itself. I don’t want to define myself as a “postmodern.” Unfortunately I have found the term to be just useful enough to justify my continued cautious use of it.

I was recently given a fair grouping of books all concerned with the intersection of Christian theology and various flavors of “postmodern” philosophy. I will be spending a few posts here and there reviewing the books and contemplating the application of their conclusions to Christian life.

I am going to save a “definition” of postmodernism until we get to a specific book that deals with the topic. My first post will be dedicated to James K A Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church.” I think it is a very appropriate book to start off with.

***To see even more hilarious “Motivational Posters” for the “Emerging Church” see all of Pyromaniacs posters



  1. I always liked to think of “Postmodern,” when applied to Christianity, as that which as cutting edge and really engaging to … my age group.

    But since my age group is not a static thing, my definition of postmodern was actually quite elastic, and really ended up meaning whatever I decided I liked at the time. If I didn’t like it, it was either old-fashioned, or it was trying too hard to be postmodern.

    I realized it was entirely too subjective to make any sense of have any value for personal growth.

    So yeah, I look forward to this series. Might even go out and grab that first book, just to balance out my current tome, Harris’s The End of Faith.



  2. It’s funny, yet kind of typical, that around the same time Christians started jumping on the postmodern bandwagon, it started to decline in philosophy (to some degree). The work of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and all that lot has now been around so long, it can hardly be described as cutting edge. And the new trendies in continental philosophy (Badiou, Zizek, Agamben… Hardt and Negri, perhaps…) are definitely not in that kind of vein. They seem to be pretty critical of what goes under the banner ‘postmodern’ – mostly, I suppose, because it is often more hyper-modern than other-than-modern. These newer guys obviously aren’t champions of modernity either… far from it, so I guess they’re postmodern in that sense, but their critique tends to be more Marxian (Zizek, Badiou, Hardt & Negri especially). You’re right that ‘postmodern’ has become an essentially useless term.

    Phenomenology is the study, or description, of phenomena as they appear in human consciousness. What’s not to like about that?


  3. Simon,

    That may well be quite true. Not being one finishing up an MA in Philosophical Theology @ Nottingham I cannot talk about philosophy or theology with any amount of acumen. But isn’t it true that there are still certain critiques by the Parisian trio that are taken up – even in modified form – by “modern” continental thinkers?

    And would not even Badiou et. al. be considered “Post” the-“Modern”-narrative of Cartesian comprehensive objectivity?


  4. Tony wrote: “Not being one finishing up an MA in Philosophical Theology @ Nottingham I cannot talk about philospohy or theology with any amount of acumen…”

    Simon replied: “Yeah, absolutely. I’d agree with everything you just wrote Tony.”

    A beautifully executed “British” insult, or unintentional burn? It’s hilarious either way.


  5. I almost forgot. Since Christianity seems to be in the pattern of embracing an epistemological system a decade or two after it was in academic vogue, does that mean that in a few years we’ll be embracing Zizek and these other neo-marxists (or post-marxists, or whatever they’re called)? Maybe that would coincide with a resurgence in liberation theology?

    Just to be a pratt, I don’t talk about post-modernism, I call it post-modernity. I think it makes me sound more Continental 🙂


  6. Many of the Continental thinkers are just glorified Hume’ists. I’m not going to propose an alternative epistemology, I just want to get down to some nitty gritty because I tire of all the confusion.

    One hears conservatives rail on PM without having read a page and you have “Emergents,” ironically, doing the same thing. Nobody is an academic anymore.


  7. Well, it would be nice if Christians (in the States at least), following Zizek, adopted some sort of Marxist/Socialist spirit, but you don’t really need Zizek for that. Regarding Zizek himself, I’ve read a decent amount of him now, and aside from, say, some of his on-the-ground critique of certain things, I can’t imagine that his metaphysics would ever be taken up by orthodox Christianity any time soon. His project works well with a “death of God” theology, though. But I’m not really one to attempt to foretell reception history…


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