A Primer on Postmodernism

by Stanley J. Grentz, Eerdmans, 1996, 204 pp.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

This primer on postmodernism is a gift to the Christian community by a prolific author who died on March 12th of this year. Stanley Grentz, whom I got to know while studying at Regent College in Vancouver, has written widely and creatively about the challenges facing the church as it encounters the postmodern era. He will be sorely missed by many of us who came to rely on his insightful writings. We can be thankful, however, that we have in our hands at least a dozen profound books he has written. Though he died, yet he speaks.

Grentz was one of the first writers within evangelicalism to recognize the major impact that the societal shift from modernity to postmodernity would have on the church. So already in 1996 he outlined in this book with broad brush strokes the nature of postmodernism and how it differs from the modernism of the past four centuries – all in an attempt to help evangelicals rethink the gospel to make it relevant for our times. As he states in his introduction, he is convinced that

Christians must not fail in the end to engage postmodernism critically where that is required. At the same time, they must also be open to what postmodernism can teach us positively as a needed corrective to modernity (xi).

Readers not conversant in philosophical language will find chapters one to three, as well as seven the most useful. The first three chapters detail the differences between the modern world we are leaving behind and the postmodern world we are entering. In the last chapter he outlines how this shift will impact our understanding of how we live out the gospel. Those inclined toward philosophical writing will find chapters four to six a compact summary of how modernism rose and fell within the space of four centuries.

In the first chapter, Grentz states that, The modern human can appropriately be characterized by Descarte’s autonomous, rational substance encountering Newton’s mechanistic world (3). Modernism, he says, was a time where reason, optimism and human freedom, defined largely in indivitual terms, ruled. Postmodernism allows emotions and intuition to be legitimate companions to reason in the pursuit of truth. Furthermore it has brought with it a gnawing pessimism and a revival of a concern for community.

Grentz contends that evangelicalism is a child of modernity, having adapted to its context in the past four centuries in an attempt to make the gospel relevant to moderns. While he is aware that Postmodernism poses certain dangers, as did modernism, he states that “…it would be tragic if evangelicals ended up as the last defenders of the now dying modernity” (10).

In the final chapter, Grentz proposes that one thing we can not grant postmodernity is the suggestion that there is no center or meta-narrative in the world. However, the gospel in postmodern times will take on some new tones. It will be post-individualistic – with a greater focus on community. It will be post-rationalistic – allowing for mystery, human experience, intuition and emotions as legitimate partners in search of truth. It will be post-dualistic – with less stark divisions between body and soul, and mind and matter. And it will be post-noeticentric – moving beyond the accumulation of knowledge to a holistic and wisdom-based living out of our faith.

Anyone seriously interested in understanding our times and its impact on our faith should not pass up this primer on postmodernism.