Postmodernism (3 of 4): Power and Narratives


Last week’s blog outlined how one philosopher (Jacques Derrida) described the changes we are seeing in our culture when it comes to knowing truth. This postmodern shift has changed the way we interact with faith, scripture, and each other. But that’s only one perspective. Today we dig a bit deeper to see what two others, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, make of our movement away from modernism.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1988), in his analysis of postmodernism, describes it as a critique of modernism’s claim that it can deliver truth to us through rationalism and the scientific method. In the past centuries, we have moved further and further away from faith as a legitimate way of experiencing the world and turned to other methods instead. 

Just take the creation and evolution debate as an example. Modernism has claimed that the only way for us to know the truth is through objective study, and the biblical accounts of creation are the furthest thing from that. And so the scientific method is the only way we can trust to know how the Earth came to be. Modernism has made little room for God because we can’t prove that such a being even exists.

This kind of rationalism has made its way into the Christian realm as well, giving rise to apologists doing their part to try to prove that God exists rationally. And in the modernist’s mind, they have done a really good job. Apologetics can, in some ways, be described as the church’s reaction to modernism, but postmodernists are asking different kinds of questions.

It’s not that science and rationalism aren’t helpful for us, but they form a grand narrative that claims its legitimacy through universal reason. Lyotard shows how postmodernism rejects modernism’s certainty and asks it to recognize that while modernism has rejected other narratives as legitimate ways of knowing, it is itself based on a grand story that is self-authenticating. This is what Lyotard means when he describes postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” 

Metanarratives are world-views that find their legitimacy within themselves and then claim to be universal and objective. Let’s go back to evolution and creation. A conversation might go like this:

Modernism: The only way for us to know about the beginning of the world is through rationalism and the scientific method.
Postmodernism: Says who?
Modernism: We do.
Post-Modernism: Who determines whether your method is objective?
Modernism: We do.
Post-Modernism: Aha!

Postmodernism rejects narratives that find their legitimacy within themselves in order to claim it as universal and objective. Postmodernism pushes modernism aside, calling its self-authentication unhelpful and misleading. Instead, it invites us to understand that all of life is based on story, not objective, universal fact. As such, no one can escape faith, no matter our religion or self-proclaimed lack thereof. “For the postmodernist, every scientist is a believer.” 

Through his study of discipline and punishment, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) examined power and its relationship with truth. He concluded that they are intrinsically linked which becomes yet another distinguishing characteristic of this conversation. Power is not wrong, as it is necessary. But power provides control which ultimately shapes reality in society. 

Who decides what information about the origins of the world is being taught to children in school? That would be the curriculum writers commissioned by the government of the day. Who determines what’s in our history books? That would be the side who won the war and is therefore able to tell the story, albeit from their limited perspective. 

Whoever has the power is in control of shaping truth and reality for us. And postmodernism has a HUGE problem with that.

Postmodernism pushes against institutional power that prescribes opinions and beliefs, seeing them as “inherently dominating and repressive.” We are seeing this increasing all the time. People are suspicious of governments and naturally untrusting of large institutions. And it may not be because of specific people, but the institution and its power in general.

The same goes for the Church as an institution. The Church simply does not hold the same place in society and culture. Because of some of its misdeeds, people are more and more suspicious of the Church, its motives, intentions, and ability to provide truth. When it comes down to it, the Church has lost power in the west, and all you need to do is look at the declining church attendance to see that.

Modernism embraced institutions of power. For example, previous generations built denominations, like Mennonite Church Canada, and poured into them their resources, time, and energy. This was the institution to which you belonged and together you did the work of the Church. But my generation is blending the denominational lines, looking outside their own fold for a variety of reasons, and spreading their allegiance in many different places.

As a pushback to institutional power and control, postmodernism invites us to embrace individual autonomy and freedom for the sake of liberation. We should not let government, school, church, etc., tell us what we should believe or do. It’s better not to be planted, but to be free, to move around, not to commit, and to be responsible for only yourself.

Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault have a lot to offer us in helping us make sense of our current cultural shift. We may already feel like we are on board the postmodern ship, hoping that it takes our culture to smoother and safer waters. But we may also be skeptical of where this is heading and fearful of the kind of world our children will grow up in. 

Since we now understand a bit more about what postmodernism actually is, the next question we need to ask is what we are to do about it. That’s the topic of next week’s blog.

This is the third of a 4-part series of blog posts on the topic of postmodernism (based on an assignment I wrote for my hermeneutics class). Click here for part 1. Click here for part 2. Click here for part 4. Feel free to contact me if you would like to read my full review paper or bibliography.