In the fall of 2019, I needed some space to breathe and be, so I went to the Portland Art Museum. The instillation, “All Things Being Equal,” by Hank Willis Thomas was on display. As I walked past Thomas’ photographs, prints, videos, quilts, and mixed-media two-dimensional (often) interactive works, I felt disoriented, forced to see the world in a new way.
Hank Willis Thomas “is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture.” Thematically, he tackles “the human toll of gun violence, the impact of corporate branding and the commodification of individuals, and the ways advertising plays to myths and stereotypes of race.”Thomas also applies “strategies of appropriating and reframing texts, images, and materials to connect historical moments of resistance and protest to our lives today as a call to continue moving toward greater social justice.”
Thomas’ creations exemplifies postmodernist artwork, shaped by centuries of cultural, lived realities, and decades of philosophical influence. He does this by highlighting the social world and its realities, mixing artistic styles to counter stylistic integrity, adhering to a narrow focus of reality (race, gender, and class) over universal focus, and employs “ruthless nihilism…dealing with important themes of power, wealth, and justice.”
In Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Stephen R. C. Hicks explores the evolution, inherent weaknesses, and inconsistencies of postmodernism. Postmodernism is a philosophical premise that follows the age of pre-modernism and modernism. Pre-modernism is a time in human history where super-realism, mysticism/faith prevailed. Human nature was predicated on the concept of original sin and God’s will. Altruism and Feudalism were the ethical and political/economical frameworks of the day. In contrast, Modernism (Enlightenment to 20th century) embraces naturalism and objectivism, which was comprised of experience and reason. Tabula rasa and autonomy shaped the human condition. Individualism and capitalism dominated the ethical and political/economic landscape. In contrast, postmodernism (late 20th century to present) “rejects the reason and the individualism that the entire Enlightenment world depends upon.” It advocates anti-realism and linguistic social subjectivism. For human nature, postmodernists believe in social construction, conflict and oppression. It calls for “communalism, solidarity, and egalitarian restraints” over individualism in “values, markets, and politics.” Socialism is the political and economic platform postmodernist embrace. For postmodernists, “objectivity is a myth, there is no Truth, no Right Way, to read nature or a text. All interpretations are equally valid. Values are socially subjective products. Culturally, therefore, no group’s values have special meaning. All ways of life…are legitimate.”
While Hicks situates our place in history in postmodernism, I’d argue we are actually standing at the convergence of the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern streams of thought, as evidenced by the far right, moderate, and far left camps of belief and practice in America. This convergence creates tumultuous waters where people try to find their footing in the various philosophical, political, theological, and economic systems. I wonder how we will make our way down river into the ocean of God’s abundant grace when some don’t experience a river and others don’t believe there is any water?
In addressing the accusations against him regarding blasphemy, Jesus said, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” In attempts to understand our human existence and surroundings, we have placed ourselves in the position of God. We have rationalized, systemized, and conceptualized the mysteries of life in such a way that we have fragmentized our way of being, both individually and communally.
If we, as followers of Jesus, are to follow faithfully in his footsteps, then we must look to him as our example. Though he lived in the world, he was not of the world. He didn’t embody the economic, political, or even theological constructs of the day. Instead, he embodied the very being of God by abided in his Father at all times.
When we continually slice and dice ideas, we either end up with jagged small pieces that do more harm than good, or worse, we end up with nothing. Our fragmentation of practice and thought is a consequence of our fragmentation of Jesus. Rather than following his lead of abiding in God and having God in him, we have schism-ed our way into a sliced and diced Jesus, who is represented by not one Body, but by thousands and thousands of denominational bodies, all claiming to know the one way. By allowing “comprehensive philosophical and cultural movements” to dictate our steps, we have lost our way.
Jesus modeled a way of being in the world that was counter to the systems of his day. He is the one who disrupts the power systems and flips the tables, extends a hand and sit with the sinner, and heals the lame and gives life to the dead. If our philosophical, theological, economic, political, and societal systems are not moving in the direction of Jesus, we will forever be struggling in the tumultuous waters of convergence, rather than residing in the vast depths of God’s grace.
 “Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal.” Portland Art Museum. Accessed April 22, 2021. https://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/hank-willis-thomas/.
 Stephen R. C. Hicks. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. (Ockham’s Razor Publishing, 2011) 257-262.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 20.
 Mark 3:24-25, NIV.
 Hicks, 20.