Following another slate of Tuesday primaries, the election team of the Today Show did their usual round of analysis and assessment. This segued into a brief word about one of the candidate’s truthfulness when asked if he had seen a particularly devastating attack video running against him. Many news outlets wanted his reaction, and it was clear he wanted to deflect the question. The issue was that when asked about the commercial earlier that morning on ABC’s Good Morning America, he said he had seen the commercial; a few minutes later, when interviewed on the Today Show, he said he had not.
Matt Lauer, shaking his head in dismay, asked, “Does this matter…do people care?” To which political director and moderator of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, replied, “We live in a post-truth political world.”
This was one of the more stunning observations I’ve heard from mainstream media. Not because it is particularly difficult to ascertain, but because someone within that mainstream was able to extricate themselves enough from the cultural zeitgeist to name one of its core values.
As they say, the last person to ask about the water is a fish.
We’re familiar with the term “post-modern” and increasingly the idea of being post-Christian. Being post-truth is actually a result of both of those ideas.
As I wrote in Serious Times, the growing idea within our world is that there is no such thing as truth. Or if it exists, its definition has become so watered-down it is meaningless. You are left with what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness.” In other words, actual facts don’t matter. What matters is how you feel, for you as an individual are the final arbiter of truth.
Think of how early postmodern thinking informed this new cultural reality.
Jacques Derrida, perhaps the most famous of postmodern philosophers, called for a rampant subjectivity, even “deconstruction,” of any text and its attempt to “construct” reality. For Derrida every statement not only can be questioned but must be questioned. Our understanding of reality is based on multiple images and interpretations, reconstructions and spins, circulated by the media and the marketplace. So truth is not discovered; it is chosen. Since everything is perspectival, another postmodern philosopher, Richard Rorty, argues that the goal is to talk about things, but not to arrive at any conclusions – “continuing a conversation rather than...discovering a truth.” Why? Truth, at least in the way it had been understood during the time of the Enlightenment, does not exist; hence it cannot be found.
The person responsible for the popular use of the term postmodern, Jean-Francois Lyotard, attempted a definition that was, by his own account, “simplifying to the extreme,” yet his effort pinpointed the dynamic at hand: “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” Translation: skepticism toward any story that claims to be the story. According to Lyotard the main metanarrative of the modern world was the Enlightenment contention that science is the savior of the human condition. All of language and culture took second place to the pronouncements and grand vision of science. Science was the one thing that was real. Science was the one thing that was true – the story, the metanarrative. Superstitious beliefs, particularly those related to myth and religion, had been swept away.
But the growing sense is that the scientific story does not tell all there is of the tale. No story does. Old talk about a “worldview” is lost amid the sense that the very idea of a “worldview” is bankrupt, for no single view is able to speak to the entire world. The postmodern tendency is to embrace the narratives of particular peoples and celebrate the diversity and plurality of the world without attempting to discover a single, grand scheme into which all of the stories fit.
This is radically different than Enlightenment thinking, which believed deeply in universal truth – just that it could only be found through the senses (as opposed to tradition or revelation) and therefore was reduced to what the senses could discover. The Enlightenment problem with the Christian faith was not that it wasn’t true, only that it could not be empirically verified. The Enlightenment charge was never that truth itself did not exist. The postmodern problem with faith is not that it might be false but that it dares to lay claim to being true. If the Enlightenment bias was that humans could know everything, the postmodern disposition is that we can’t know anything.
So where does this leave the soul?
Empty. And increasingly, drawing from this latest political cycle, not even knowing it.
James Emery White
“Donald Trump contradicts himself about negative ad within minutes, on live TV,” March 16, 2016, The Today Show, watch online.
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.