Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

What Africa Taught Me About Postmodernism (Nov-Dec 2001)

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by John Barton
November – December, 2001

“Postmodernism” is a buzz word these days. Time magazine called Bill Clinton the first postmodern president. MTV features a postmodern segment of music videos. Recent articles in major publications present postmodern comic books, postmodern love, postmodern terrorism, and even an unconventional lunch which includes the postmodern sandwich. Postmodernism is commonly attached to certain fashions and genres of music, dance, film and literature, forms (or anti-forms) of art, architecture, and philosophy, and descriptions of current global economics, politics, and even science. While increasingly popular, however, there is a lot of confusion regarding what postmodernism is. If nothing else, it reflects a sense that we in the West are experiencing a cultural earthquake where many of the characteristics, securities, and structures of our cultures are falling down around us.

Many Christians consider postmodernism to be directly opposed to Christian faith. From such a perspective, postmodernism is understood as a radical attack on any notion of truth or objectivity which can only lead to complete intellectual, moral, and theological chaos. After all, postmodern theory famously proclaims the “Death of God.” Certainly, there are aspects of postmodern cultures and theories that require us to be counter-cultural, but is postmodernism a death knell for Christian faith? Should we be afraid of it? Should we come out swinging clubs and swords as the disciples wanted to do several times? Obviously, I can only scratch the surface of such huge issues here, but I will do so by drawing a few analogies between postmodern spirituality and elements of African cultures that I have experienced while living in Uganda, Africa, for the last seven years.

African Spirits, Postmodernism, and Christian Faith

Not long ago, we had a malnourished, Ugandan baby die in our truck as we tried to rush him to a hospital for help. The parents believed the baby had been spiritually cursed by an angry grandparent and modern medicine was not powerful enough to address such sorcery. They worried that by taking the baby in our truck they might further agitate the spirits. The death of the baby only worked to confirm their beliefs. That is one example of the kinds of beliefs and fears which dominate many Africans’ lives. Almost every misfortune is at least partially explained by the unpredictable activities of mystical forces or spirits. In Uganda, we are frequently confronted with situations involving sorcery, curses, witchdoctors, sacrifices, and the feelings of fear, uncertainty and chaos that they invoke in people.

Church surveyors now say that Africa has become the new Christian continent, surpassing North America in the number of Christians and churches. How do we account for this? Part of the answer is that in a cultural context of chaos and uncertainty, people are often more open to the power and life-giving message of Jesus. Despite the fear and uncertainty described above, I know many African Christians who experience joy and peace beyond what many modern Americans ever do.

What does this have to do with Western cultures? Some historians draw comparisons between the “spiritual” worldviews of African cultures and the belief systems of medieval Europe (which is sometimes called “pre-modern” Europe). Medieval Europe was often characterized by beliefs in spirits, demons, folklore, sorcery, magic, and witchcraft. Starting around the sixteenth century, however, European cultures started changing as people started putting a great amount of trust in modern science and human rationality which were believed to have the power to save the world from medieval chaos and superstition. Consider the optimism of the late eighteenth century French Enlightenment thinker, Marquis de Condorcet, who confidently predicted that in the near future (which is our present) the world would be perfected by the spread of human reason:

The time will therefore come when…free men [will] know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves [and] priests…will exist only in the works of history… [when we] learn how to recognize and so to destroy, by force of reason, the first seeds of tyranny and superstition should they ever dare to reappear amongst us.

What a vision! Condorcet was staking his ultimate confidence in science and rationality, spread through printed materials and public education, as the answers to all the needs of humanity. In light of the World Wars, concentration camps, civil wars, and terrorist attacks that have littered the centuries since Condorcet’s time, such statements seem, at best, as naive utopian dreams. Nevertheless, such ideas continue to have a profound influence on our cultural thinking. While science and rationality are obviously important, our cultures continue to look to them for ultimate answers. Note the words of Peter Atkins, an influential contemporary physical chemist:

I long for immortality, but I know that my only hope of achieving it is through science and medicine, not through sentiment and its subsets, art and theology.

Beliefs such as those of Peter Atkins have had tremendous effects on Western religious thinking. A rigid emphasis on rationality and scientific objectivity drives a wedge between science and religion, often – although not always – giving priority to science. In the wake of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, more and more of life was explained in naturalistic terms which no longer needed God. Such attitudes are classically illustrated by the catholic astronomer Pierre Simon de Laplace. Around the same time period as Condorcet, Laplace was asked why his scientific explanations of the universe did not mention God. He responded bluntly, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

For those of us more into Cartoon Network than eighteenth century French Enlightenment philosophers, the pervasiveness of such attitudes can be highlighted through other means. Think, for example, about the story line of every classic Scooby Doo episode. Scooby and his pals come across something spooky, usually a ghost or monster that is haunting some house or island and protecting a treasure. Of course, Scooby and Shaggy are terrified by the ghosts and spend the better part of every episode – in between donuts and hot dogs – running and screaming in fear (“yikes!”). But then, inevitably, the “rational” members of the gang – Daphne, Fred, and Velma – use enlightened rationality, evidential logic, and scientific deduction to uncover the real identity of the ghost which is usually some con man using a disguise to hoard the treasure. Never, at least in the classic episodes of Scooby Doo, did the ghosts turn out to be real, or the fears of Scooby and Shaggy turn out to be legitimate (although, interestingly, newer episodes sometimes include real ghosts, which illustrates what I say below). All the mysteries simply fuel the slap stick comedy we all love, but are exposed as irrational and are overcome by the end of the episode. Condorcet and Laplace would have loved Scooby Doo.

Condorcet, Laplace, and Scooby Doo reflect the culture of modernism, which claims to be enlightened and “open” but dismisses the possibility of outside mysterious forces in the world, whether good or evil. But what is happening in the culture of postmodernism? While postmodern theory often proclaims the “death of God” and the collapsing of all truth and meaning, postmodern cultures also reveal an explosion of unorthodox and competing forms of spirituality. Let me illustrate. A recent issue of the e-business magazine eCompany Now describes an Internet company called eTranslate which took over the San Francisco offices of the failed Pets.com, and then called in a group of Chinese dancers to drive out bad spirits so that they wouldn’t catch the “bad mojo” of the previous occupants. Modern forms of witchcraft are flourishing, as are New Age “channellers,” crystal gazers, “readers,” diviners and other psychic friends who are now commonly consulted by educated middle class Americans. Alternative medicine, “native spiritualities,” Yoruba babalaos, and Afro-Caribbean Santaria healers are also growing in popularity among all races and classes in America. Eastern mystical religions are growing rapidly and ecstatic rites and experiences are also increasingly a part of Christian practices even in conservative or high church settings. Such phenomena are even defended scientifically, such as in certain interpretations of quantum physics which is sometimes called “postmodern science.”

While postmodernism is incredibly diverse, at least one of its effects is that cultures in the West are now displaying some similarities to medieval Europe and traditional Africa; the religious and scientific orthodoxies of modern Western cultures are fragmenting and giving way to a plurality of new and unorthodox forms of spirituality.

Afraid of postmodernism?

So back to the question in the title of this article: Should Christians be afraid of postmodernism? From one perspective, whatever we may think or feel about postmodernism, the fact is we are living in a postmodern world. Opposing postmodernism may prove about as effective as complaining about the weather. Still, postmodernism siginifies less order and stability in the cultural, spiritual, intellectual, and social structures of our societies. Shouldn’t that cause concern? Shouldn’t we be concerned about the kind of world our children are experiencing? Isn’t that threatening to our faith?

Yes, yes, and yes. But from a wider Christian perspective, the more pertinent question is, “Will the kingdom of God suffer in postmodern cultures?” It may turn out that what traditional American Christianity needs more than anything is to be shaken and awakened by the destabilizing forces of postmodernism. It may be that our stagnant, modern faith and our controlled religious comfort needs to be thrown back into a world of competing spirits and clear threats in order to nurture in us a life of radical trust and power. It may turn out that postmodern confusion actually opens up some new possibilities for faith and spiritual clarity. In addition, it may turn out that secular postmodern people may be more open to what Christianity has to offer than their modern counterparts have been. Postmodernism may not save America (although I do not think it’s going destroy America either), but it may be a cultural catalyst that God can use to revive American churches and American faith. It is a scary world out there, but it is in storms that faith and fear compete and the voice of the Master can be heard by those who have ears to hear.

Teacher, wake up! The waves of postmodernism are breaking over the boat so that we are nearly swamped! Don’t you care if we drown?

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:39-40, NIV)New Wineskins

John Barton


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