Book Review: Gene Veith's, Postmodern Times

Gene Edward Veith Jr. has written an insightful overview, a Christian engagement of the development and effects of postmodernism that should be considered a read for anyone truly desiring to build a sense of place in today’s postmodern landscape. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture is a four part overview of our Western cultural landscape and the ground we’ll see a world build upon for the next generation. The book is 234 pages that read quickly for those with some philosophy background and has a decent bibliography from which he heavily cites for those wishing to re-engage and overview in further research. Veith carefully scans through philosophical and historical developments toward descriptions of late 1990s cultural events. He writes in a scholarly manner, without spending so much time in one philosophical development as to seem “bogged down”. Organizing his analysis of postmodernism as it can be perceived within separate spheres of philosophy, art, society, and religion, Veith appears to helpfully follow the origins and dissemination of cultural change along lines which Francis Schaeffer describes as originating in philosophy and finally being realized in religion. Part One of the book, Postmodern Thought, contains three chapters which summarize Enlightenment Rationalism’s rise and fall, the emergence of Deconstructionism and, in a chapter titled ‘The Critique of the Human’, describes the subsequent postmodernist realization of loss of self, loss of truth, and the arising will to power. He adamantly declares a distinction between ‘the postmodern’ and ‘postmondern-ism’, saying that to be postmodern is simply to live in a world that acknowledges the limits of the Enlightenment’s belief in Reason, while to be postmodernist is to embrace no absolutes and to find identity in a pseudo mob mentality. Part of Veith’s Christian consideration of postmodernism is to say that every Christian should inevitably be postmodern, but not postmodernist. He spends a sufficient amount of time to pique one’s curiosity at Literary Criticism and the role of language in postmodernism’s development. Helpfully, he points out the role of revelation in our learning and talks of how God created through the Word, so that it should be His language which provides the basis for our assessment and consequent engagement of culture, rather than our own. Part Two, Postmodern Art, begins with the postmodernist belief that everything is fiction, (truth is a kind of fiction), and that art is a means of propoganda. In three chapters, Veith looks at the relation of art and performance, and its effect in changing the way we do architecture, television, movies, and literature. In each sphere, he points out the gradual loss of meaning formerly associated with the author, the artistic product itself, or, even to a lesser extent, the viewer and the gradual postmodernist assignment of meaning from context alone. In the third chapter of section two, Veith assesses the role of “edited reality”. Postmodernist art can be summarized in the forms of “New Journalism,” which dramatizes “actual events,” and “Super Realism,” which he calls an excessive imitation of the external world, without the “life” of a Rembrandt. He points out how this plays out and reinforces postmodernist philosophy. “Modernist art promoted meaning apart from the external world; postmodernist art promotes the external world apart from meaning.” (140) Oddly, while Veith clearly provides insight into the conditions of postmodernist art, he does not provide much of a Christian critique for engaging these issues in art as Christians. Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible seems to speak directly to issues raised in Veith’s commentary, but are glaringly absent from his final analysis. Part Three of Veith’s book is titled Postmodern Society. Writing chapters with titles such as ‘The New Tribalism’, ‘The Politics of Power’, and ‘Everyday Postmodernism’, I personally found this the most interesting of his sections. His analysis begins with a tension between ‘globalization’, with its uniting effects of universal access to common information, and ‘segmentation’, or the splintering effects of “hundreds of subcultures and designer cults, each with its own language, code, and life-style.” (144) Segmentation he describes as the bane of postmodernist society. Whereas healthy diversity would find meaning in religious institutions like family and community, current identity is ascribed by whatever group a person associates with. This subculturization tends to hyper-accentuate the surface view of identity as over and against other groups. Making direct links between ‘multi-culturalism’ and relativism, Veith describes eight gloomy implications of new tribalism for contemporary politics and the will to power. 1) Social Constructionism, that meaning, morality, and truth are constructed by society, makes the State the most important social entity and embitters the political process toward totalitarian ends; 2) Cultural determinism, declares the self a prison-house of language, and seeks power through control and construction of language; 3) Rejecting Individual Identity increases collective obligation, 4) Rejecting Humanism denies sense of place within humanity and increases group will to power, and 5) Denial of Transcendence places society beyond the constraints of any moral limits; 6) Power Reductionism invokes suspicion of real cultural and moral claims as only masks of power-assertion; 7) Rejecting Reason makes power arbitrary even for any order to life; and finally, 8) Revolution as critique of Order, decries that the only meaning is the dynamic process of power exchange itself. In this way, Veith outlines the postmodernist politique as a post-Marxist worldview. Written at the end of the 1990s, before 9/11 invaded our worldviews, Veith goes so far as to say that a political metaphor for the developing postmodernist politique is the contemporary terrorist cell! As commentary, Veith cites Vaclav Havel and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, both leaders through the rise and fall of Marxist influence. He focuses on their unwavering and boldly lived belief in “truth, individual liberty, a moral law above society that insures human rights – all of which are grounded objectively and absolutely in the person of God.” (174) The last section of Postmodern Times bears the title ‘Postmodern Religion’. The chapters are titled ‘Spirituality Without Truth’, ‘Postmodern Christianity’, and ‘When Foundations are Destroyed’. He begins by looking at the relation of truth and desire in general. He says that religion has become a preference, and that “today, unlike any other time in history, many people are unwilling to believe (as if belief were a function of the will) what they do not enjoy (as if aesthetic considerations determined questions of fact).” (194) By this token, he outlines postmodernist religion as rooted in collective responsibility and collective guilt, with sins such as “being judgmental”, “being narrow-minded”, “thinking you have the truth”, and “trying to enforce your values on anyone else”. He calls the only uniting factor of postmodernist religious expression the doctrine that all morality is a mask of will to power. (197) Analyzing postmodern Christianity, Veith contrasts old liberalism, which sought to redefine orthodoxy in terms of Enlightenment rationalism, with new liberalism, which redefines in light of postmodernist doctrines. Many Evangelicals, he says, deny objectivity. “The old paradigm taught that if you have right teaching, you will experience God. The new paradigm teaches that if you experience God, you will have right teaching.” (211) He looks at the reaction of a Christian subculture and says “the problem is not that Christians have their own parallel institutions, but that these institutions are sometimes so similar to secular ones.” (211) Looking at the mega-church movement and cautiously describing a growth-strategy commitment that often overshadows an orthodoxy commitment, Veith calls out softened Christianity as a cultural redefinition of the church, much as the new-liberalism is a doctrinal one. This softening he calls, “Megashift Theology”, which proclaims God’s immanence over omnipotence, calls salvation a redemption of ignorance, not condemnation, and makes Jesus a model, not a Savior. As a response, he reviews historical versions of Confessional Christianity. As a charge toward steadfastness, Veith declares “the purpose of the church is not so much to change as to change lives.” (227) “The Church of Jesus Christ cannot be overcome by the gates of Hell, much less by any culture. (Matt. 16:18).” (223) This book is not a book of answers. It is not a how-to book, but rather a prequel to such a book being written with our lives. Gene Veith does a helpful job of outlining places where our curiosity can be engaged and with a very decent bibliography, points us in the direction of where we may go to grow and develop these questions. I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to broadly review or develop their sense of place in the contemporary landscape. It could be a great tool for discipleship and engagement.


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