Postmodernism, authenticity, and the laggard church

We use the term “postmodernism” as if we understand it.

Maybe I speak only for myself, perhaps you have no problem with the term, but I find it difficult to explain what postmodernism is.

This essay, declaring the death of postmodernism, has been among the more helpful ones I’ve found in explaining the movement and ethos, although I will admit that it loses me in places when it delves into architecture and art. The writer contrasts modernism to postmodernism to help define the key differences between the movements.

Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained.

After a tour of postmodernism, the writer declares and describes the exhaustion and death of the movement, which like all movements will remain with us even after it is dead. He argues that postmodernism ends up leaving people longing for something more than its glitter and irony and relentless consumerism. In its place, the writer describes what he calls the emergence of authenticism, which is dead set against postmodernism’s basic impulses.

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise. If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word “proper” on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word “legend” as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. (The elevation of real life to myth!) We can recognise it in advertising campaigns such as for Jack Daniel’s, which ache to portray not rebellion but authenticity. We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. A culture of care is advertised and celebrated and cherished. Values are important once more: the values that the artist puts into the making of an object as well as the values that the consumer takes out of the object. And all of these striven-for values are separate to the naked commercial value.

Go deeper still and we can see a growing reverence and appreciation for the man or woman who can make objects well. We note a new celebration of meticulousness, such as in the way Steven Wessel makes his extraordinary handmade flutes out of stainless steel. We uncover a new emphasis on design through making in the hand-crafted work of the Raw Edges Design Studios, say, with their Self-Made collection, objects that are original, informed by personal stories and limited edition. Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write. Jonathan Franzen is the great example here: a novelist universally (and somewhat desperately) lauded, raised almost to the status of a universal redeemer, because he eschews the evasions of genre or historical fiction or postmodern narratorial strategies and instead tries to say something complex and intelligent and telling and authentic and well-written about his own time. It’s not just the story, after all, but how the story is told.

These three ideas, of specificity, of values and of authenticity, are at odds with postmodernism. We are entering a new age. Let’s call it the Age of Authenticism and see how we get on.

Much of what I hear in the church today seems to confuse these two movements. I often hear people call for authenticity in the name of postmodernism. This author, however, agrees with Stanley Hauerwas that the ultimate outcome of postmodernism is the final, total victory of the market as the only arbiter of value. Like Hauerwas, he suggests authentic, local community and practices are the best response to a world in which Madonna and Lady Gaga are the height of artistic achievement and people like the Kardashians become famous for being famous.

I wonder if the church in our drive to respond to postmodernism is chasing after a cultural movement that actually is already passing.



One thought on “Postmodernism, authenticity, and the laggard church

  1. …as you say, John, the church has experienced its “awakening” to postmodernism (its tradition-breaking, ribald, shimmering, contradictory, populist, masquerading self) just as postmodern devotees are filtering into traditional settings to hear the gospel preached for the first time, really. Postmodernism seems to have reached its inflection point…

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