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How Long Is the Bridge to Postmoderns? (Part 3)

Take into account three changes in how people now think, and you can get a hearing.

This is part three in a five-part series.
part one
part two
part three
part four
part five

What are some of the mental habits of our postmodern fellow countrymen? Painting with very broad brushstrokes, we can characterize the postmodern mind as skeptical of certainty, which we explored in the first article in this series, rejecting of moral absolutes, explored in the second article and on guard against control, our subject below.

Language Games: Rhetoric and Politics and Power

In its classical sense, the word rhetoric was mostly neutral and simply meant the art of persuasion, but today the word is mostly negative and connotes manipulation and prevarication. Whether neutral or negative, the postmodern mind sees rhetoric behind all language use. Words may refer only to other words, but they still have the power to influence perception; thus all human communication is seen as an attempt to persuade, manipulate, or subject the receiver.

This includes the words of Scripture and the interpretation (words about words) of Scripture. Fowler says plainly: "Reading and interpretation is always interested, never disinterested; always significantly subjective, never completely objective; always committed and therefore always political, never uncommitted and apolitical....The modernist dream of disinterested, objective, distanced, abstract truth is fading rapidly."

Lyotard is even blunter: the Bible is a fable with a "despotic deposit of divine utterance." For the postmodernist, language is influential but not referential; therefore, those in power use language to maintain their power, and those out of power use language to try to gain power. Our situation parallels Rome in its decline: "All religions were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the politicians as equally useful!"

To resist rhetoric, postmodernists laud irony—the smirk and the wink. In Marketing to Generation X, Karen Ritchie states, "No icon and certainly no commercial is safe from their [Xers] irony, their sarcasm or their remote control. These are the tools with which Generation X keeps the world in perspective." Postmodernism's hermeneutic of choice is deconstruction, a complex hermeneutic for revealing irony—the hidden repression and contradictions in words.

Television and electronic media have helped form a deep suspicion of rhetoric in the postmodern mind. After all, by the time viewers watch a few hundred thousand commercials, they begin to notice that advertisers use language to manipulate.

There is also "an increasing theatricality of politics, in which events are scripted and stage-managed for mass consumption, and in which individuals and groups struggle for starring roles (or at least bit parts) in the dramas of life. This theatricality is a natural—and inevitable—feature of our time. It is what happens when a lot of people begin to realize that reality is a social construction. The more enterprising among us see that there is much to be gained by constructing—and selling to the public—a certain reality."

All communication should entertain and no communication demands response.

The content of television helps shape the postmodern mind, and the form does also: private consumption of bite-sized pieces of visual stimulation without context influences heavy viewers to believe that all communication should entertain and that no communication demands response.Communication that comes to us via television is merely instrumental. It is a tool we use to divert ourselves, but it has no relation to things that are really important.

The form of television is becoming the form of thinking for the postmodern mind. Linear reasoning with words is out, and experiencing flashes of images is in. According to television insider Robert MacNeil, this shift in epistemology controls even the most sober communication on television—the evening news: "The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant simulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required...to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem, for more than a few seconds at a time....

"[He goes on to say that] bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism."

Brown notes that "on the same screen we can surf through death in the Balkans, a ball game in Chicago, a mystery filmed fifty years ago...a cartoon, and a commercial for laxatives, all within a few seconds. The juxtaposition of these images is an incredible phenomenon, but one which we have come to expect with a shrug and a yawn." Television and electronic media are creating new ways of perceiving the world. We are becoming jaded, believing that most communication is mere entertainment.

How does one preach to a world whose mind is imbued with epistemological and moral relativism, and which is on guard against the subversions of rhetoric? The next articles in this series provides some suggestions.

1 Robert Fowler, "Post-Modern Biblical Criticism: The Criticism of Pre-Modern Texts in a Post-Critical, Post-Modern, Post-Literate Era," Forum 5 (1989): 21.

2 Jean Francois Lyotard, "Retortion in Theopolitics," Toward The Postmodern (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1993), 122; in David L. Allen, "A Tale of Two Roads: The New Homiletic and Biblical Authority," Preaching 18/2 (Sept./Oct., 2002): 27.

3 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, cited in W. Gary Phillips and William E. Brown, Making Sense of Your World (Salem, WI: Sheffield, 1996), 160.

4 Quoted in Horblower, "Society," 65.

5 Neil Postman puts the number at 1 million by age 40, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Pubic Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 126; and Os Guinness puts it at 800,000 seen on television alone by age 20, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What To Do About It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 81.

6 Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 5-6, in Veith, Postmodern Times, 169.

7 This thesis is developed by Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

8 Robert MacNeil, "Is Television Shortening Our Attention Span? New York University Education Quarterly 14/2 (Winter, 1983), in Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 105.

9 William L. Brown, "Theology in a Post-Modern Culture: The Implications of a Video-Dependent Society," in Dockery, ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism, 319.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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