It is the whole mission of the church to speak the gospel. As to what sort of thing “the gospel” may be, too many years ago I tried to explain that in a book with the title Story and Promise, and I still regard these two concepts as the best analytical characterization of the church’s message. It is the church’s constitutive task to tell the biblical narrative to the world in proclamation and to God in worship, and to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative, that is, as a promise claimed from God and proclaimed to the world. It is the church’s mission to tell all who will listen, God included, that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead, and to unpack the soteriological and doxological import of that fact.
That book, however, was directed to the modern world, a world in which it was presumed that stories and promises make sense. What if these presumptions are losing hold? I will in this essay follow the fashion of referring to the present historical moment as the advent of a “post modern” world, because, as I am increasingly persuaded, the slogan does point to something real, a world that has no story and so cannot entertain promises. Two preliminary clarifications are, however, needed.
The first of these is that while the Western world is now “post”-modern in the sense that modernity is dying around us, it is not “post”-modern in the sense that any new thing is yet replacing it. Most of those who talk of postmodernism are belated disciples of Friedrich Nietzsche. And to understand ourselves, we must indeed study Nietzsche. Specifically, we must learn from Nietzsche about nihilism, about an historical reality defined purely by negations. But only half of Nietzsche’s prophecy shows any sign of being fulfilled. In Nietzsche’s vision, the nihilism in which Western civilization ends was to be at once a collapse into decadence and the fulfillment of an absolute freedom. There would at once appear the hollow “last man” and the glorious “superman.” The “last man” is plainly on the scene, but superman is so far missing. In my use of “postmodern,” “post-” has purely apophatic force.
The second clarification is terminological. When general or theological historians refer to the “modern world” or “modernity,” they mean the Western era dominated by the strategies and organizations of instrumental and critical reason. Whether they then date the beginning of modernity with the first appearances of the Enlightenment or earlier depends on their interpretation of Reformation and Renaissance.
But the term “postmodernism” became current outside this general discourse, within artistic and literary criticism, and in this other more specialized discourse, the “modernism” to which “post-” was prefixed has meant the sensibility that emerged in the arts around the turn of the present century, in deliberate rejection of the world shaped by Enlightenment and Romanticism, i.e., of the world otherwise called “modern.” “Postmodernism” in its original use merely named a variant of that “modernist” sensibility itself, insofar as the avant-garde was perceived to have somehow survived itself.
When participants in and historians of the more general intellectual and spiritual culture outside the arts have subsequently come to speak of “postmodernism” in larger application, the “modern” to which something is said to be “post-” is modernity in its more general historical sense. Thus “postmodernism” in this use denotes the penetration into the wider spiritual and cultural life of that sensibility which appeared earlier in the arts and there was called precisely “modernism.” That is, “postmodernism” outside the arts is the same thing as “modernism”—including “postmodernism” as there spoken of—in the arts. That a “postmodernist” turn is seen in the general culture all these years after modernism/postmodernism appeared in the arts simply marks the usual historical lag between developments in the arts and analogous developments in politics and philosophy and theology and daily life.