Preaching and Postmodernism

Article excerpt

Although rejecting the core values of the modern worldview, postmodernism may prove to be more blessing than bane for worshiping communities. From deconstruction to apologetics, the postmodern context calls for new ways of preaching the gospel.

Like Jacob struggling with the stranger on the bank of the River Jabbok in Genesis 32, preachers and congregations today wrestle with postmodernism.1 Postmodernism is an umbrella word that names trends in arenas that are as diverse as architecture, art, theater, literature, cinema, and television, as well as philosophy, theology, and ethics. While postmodernism is an extremely diverse phenomenon, people who identify themselves as postmodern typically eschew understandings of the world that are universal (totalizing), assert relativity in every form of awareness, seek to expose and critique privilege, and celebrate particularity, diversity, and pluralism in all life forms.

Preachers are sometimes slow to think about postmodernism because it is typically discussed in the technical language of philosophy and theology; hence, preachers conclude that while postmodernism is a lively subject in university and seminary, it is far removed from the local congregation. However, "folk postmodernism" operates among many church members. While they do not know the names of leading postmodern thinkers (e.g., Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault), lay people often reflect attitudes that resonate with themes in postmodern thinkers.2 For instance, while I was writing this article, a van passed me on the highway bearing a bumper sticker admonishing, "Question Reality."

In the esprit of postmodern emphasis on plurality and diversity, we should not speak of postmodernism in the singular but of various postmodernisms. In a similar spirit, this article does not purport to articulate the relationship between the sermon and postmodernism. Rather, I will engage several vectors in the postmodern irruption that are important for the sermon: preaching as interpretation, preaching as deconstruction, preaching as being encountered by the Other, preaching as transgressive, preaching as pluralistic, and preaching as apologetic. For convenience, I take up these topics in order. However, in actual practice, these categories transgress one another.3


Modernists thought they could attain a pure, objective awareness of the world. According to the notion of truth based on correspondence, a statement is true when it corresponds in a one-to-one fashion with reality. Scientific observation should lead to an understanding of the world that is universally and absolutely true. According to the notion of truth based on coherence, a statement is true when it logically coheres with principles that are universally valid. Many modern philosophers believed that language can be used with precision to describe the world with scientific accuracy. The modem preacher attempted to offer an understanding of Christian faith that was consistent with Enlightenment presuppositions concerning truth.

Postmodern thinkers, however, reject the assumption that we can possess pure, undistorted knowledge of the world. All awareness is interpretation, a matter of social construction.4 Communities create the categories with which they perceive the world. These descriptions do not simply describe the world as it really is, but express a community's interpretation of the world. We can never have access to statements that correspond in a one-to-one fashion with reality. We only have access to interpretations of the world.

Interpretations of the world are made up of many elements: language, community practices, values, and codes of behavior. Not all aspects of the interpreted world are verbal and explicit. Some are intuitive and implicit, such as feelings, intuitions, and artistic expressions.

According to postmodern theorists, language, even when used with scientific precision, does not simply refer to reality. …