Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Sliding On The Surface of Things

Written by: on September 27, 2012

This week in our D.Min cohort we finished the last half of Anthony Elliott’s Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction.  One theme that particularly resonated with my life and ministry is postmodernism.  I have personally been reflecting on and interacting with postmodernism for much of my life.  Furthermore, one of the key topics of the last two decades for the Western church has been the influence of postmodernism within the wider culture, and how that impacts Christianity.  The church has responded from outright rejection and fear, to full accommodation and acceptance of the postmodern paradigm, and everything else in between.  Furthermore, in working with European university students I have witnessed first hand the pluralizing fragmentation of meaning, and the destruction of epistemological certainty.

In the same breathe, it seems ironic that postmodernism, famously coined by Jean-Francoise Lyotard as “an incredulity towards meta-narratives,” has in a sense become a totalizing meta-narrative in and of itself.  Something that is to be studied, gives meaning and structure, and ultimately explains the world. 

Postmodernism starts with Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of the repressive capitalist system, which squelches humanity’s basic traditional forms and frameworks.  The antidote for this and the flow of true humanity over and against the cage of capitalism is desire.  Specifically, they developed this idea as “schizoid desire,” which should be turned on to the system in revolution, chaos, and fragmentation.  Lyotard picked up on the rather trite “true humanity” against the system dialectic and brought a real innovation to the discussion.  For Lyotard, the individual/system dialectic was too simplistic.  Instead, he posited that systems were not necessarily bad, and explained that societies were complex networks of discourse and desire.  Ultimately, this led Lyotard to some important conclusions.  Firstly, desire is in, influencing, and influenced by this complex framework of society, it flows through and around.  Secondly, all meanings and symbols (and any narrative) are interconnected with our desires (specifically libidinal), thus, even knowledge is just a subjective libidinous desire.  From here, Lyotard is able to make two extraordinary claims, in both his famous dictum against meta-narratives and its one fail swoop of modernism, science, and truth, as well as the need to embrace the fragmentation of desire and meaning, to intensify the human experience.  Thus, meaning and narratives are meaningless symbols and language games of desire used to conquer other symbols and language games of desire.  Conversely, fragmentation and relativity should be embraced, and any claim to speak universally and totally should be rejected.  Certainty and truth have evaporated.

Baudrillard continues the thread in his thinking, by showing, that society no longer produces true meaning or reality, only “surface.”  The postmodern world is an increasingly distorted and disorienting bombardment of meaningless and confusing signs.  

What then is the Christian response to our postmodern world?  For one thing, careful interpretation of culture and society is needed.  As Baudrillard and Bauman both point out, ethics are at stake within the fragmentation and surface level individualistic appeasement of desire of postmodernism.  Moreover, postmodernism may not be the best way to understand our world, that is, if postmodernism is correct, than the rapid generation of other points of view must be equally important.  Maybe, then, the question isn’t: what is next?  Perhaps, what is there already?  And transmodernism, hypermodernism, Castells’ networks, Bauman’s liquidity, and others are already offering innovative ways to look at the world.    

Furthermore, in a world that is enamored with the surface of things, and happy to lose its soul in ambivalence, Christianity offers a better narrative.  Christianity offers real hope, and real purpose.  Real hope and purpose can thus offer an antidote to the shifting anxieties and emptiness of the postmodern condition, cut adrift to float un-anchored out amid the other completely meaningless language games.  People need meaning and ultimately solid ground to stand on.  As ministers of the gospel, we need to unequivocally offer the risen Christ in his fullness.

Is this a better Christian narrative, than the ones that have been so discarded by postmoderns?


This brings us back to the idea of the meta-narrative and how repressive it can be.  If Lyotard was onto one thing, it was the skepticism with which people instinctively react against major truth claims that can control societies and cultures.  Richard Baukham in Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World makes the point that Christianity is not a meta-narrative in its essence.  That is, while it has been used as one, a movement started by a man and a people clearly on the margins of the margins cannot be seen as repressive, but as a liberating voice of the marginalized.  Could this be why Christianity is booming in the 3/4ths world, while dying in Christendom.  Does Christianity lose its power when it comes from the top down?

Where do we need to recover better narratives of the Christian faith and give people meaning and purpose?

Where do we need to remove our selves from the power structures of society and begin work from the margins and the bottom up once again?

Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. New York, Taylor and Francis: 2008.

Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic: 2003.

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