An interview on Christian publishing and postmodernity

Q: Thank you very much for taking some time to address postmodernism and its impact on the Christian publishing and retail industry.

Many scholars and writers have declared we’ve passed from a modern to a
postmodern society. Postmodernism isn’t easily defined, but some of the
characteristics of a postmodern society seem to be an emphasis on personal
experience over facts, disbelief in one overarching world view, and a
preference for story, symbols, and tradition over logic, reason, and the
scientific model.

As a publisher/author, how do you see postmodernism impacting what you
publish or write and the way you do so?

A: For starters – your use of the term “facts” above is just the kind of thing postmodern readers are attuned to. They’re very aware of the fact that calling something a fact doesn’t make it a “true fact.” They’re very sensitive to the ways that we interpret and articulate observations, and thus put a spin on them – so there’s some degree of distance between what really happened and how we report what happened as a “fact.”

One way to understand the shift from modern to postmodern is to put it in terms of something very ancient. Aristotle talked about truth, beauty, and goodness. Modernity was most interested in truth – “just the facts ma’am,” as the old TV show used to say. Modern architecture – boxy, efficient, functional – illustrates the point. Postmodernity feels that the modern emphasis on truth marginalized beauty and goodness, so there’s a desire to reconnect with beauty and goodness. This means that writers need to attend to the beauty of their writing – from diction and sentence structure to imagery and flow. So, for postmoderns, clarity may be a lower value than intrigue.

And this Aristotelian re-balancing means that writers’ “ethos” – their moral character that is conveyed through their rhetorical choices – is essential to earn credibility in goodness. For example, a clear, convincing, cogent, articulate, powerful argument that is perceived to be overbearing and coercive may be less persuasive than a kinder, gentler argument that leaves room for the reader to reach his or her own conclusions.

Q: What are the challenges for you as a publisher/author in reaching
postmoderns? How do you market to postmoderns?

A: — In my writing, it means that I’ve strayed from nonfiction into fiction (in my “A New Kind of Christian” trilogy, for example). I find myself drawn to encode my message in a story rather than an analytical outline. I also end up quoting poetry a lot more – not cheesy greeting-card poetry, but the profound, slow-you-down-and-make-you-think kind.

–I think that postmodern culture looks for intrigue in a title. The title needs to have some rhythm, mystique, spark that goes beyond mere accuracy or clarity.

Q: What kind of backlash or opposition to a postmodern shift do you see in
Christian publishing? What authors are prominent in rejecting the concept
of having to use different communication styles to reach postmoderns?

A:— So far, I think that the backlash has been very gentle and restrained. (If you’d like to see some of it, do a search on my name at I don’t think that too many critics would reject the idea of using different communication styles, but there are quite a few that seem quite allied to modernity and feel that postmodernity is a departure from orthodox faith. Douglas Groothius, D. A. Carson, George Barna, Josh MacDowell, and to some degree Os Guiness come to mind. It’s generally folk from what many call “the Calvinist Establishment” who are most vociferous in their critique. Some of these people are very knowledgeable of the issues (like Os Guiness) and their critics and questions are quite helpful, but others seem less engaged and more reactionary. Often, these less nuanced critics take the most extreme postmodern writers and use them as a kind of straw man. (Of course, many postmodern writers do the same with modern straw men!) At any rate, I feel sometimes in reading their critiques that they’re largely unaware of how distinctively modern their own understanding of Christian faith is, so when I read them, I think, “Well of course. That’s exactly what any modern person would say.” But again, I think most critics have been quite open to new ideas – much more so than I expected. I think many people sense that something’s wrong, something’s not working in the modern Christian subculture – our young people are drifting away, we’re aging, etc. So I think they’re hoping that some of us who are more hopeful about postmodernity can come up with something helpful and constructive, and they’re restraining their critiques as a result. I think many of them are praying for us, actually, which is a beautiful thing to think about.

Q: What can retailers expect in the way of a shift to/from book categories and
media? Will we see more fiction as a means to reach postmoderns and fewer
titles like “The Case for Christ”? Will we see more books offered in
several media concurrently?

A: — It looks to me like one leader in this field in the CBA world is Emergent/YS, in a partnership with Zondervan. For example, several of their books are using sidebars to give opposing viewpoints; this gives a more conversational tone, and shows a tolerance – no, more, a positive welcome – for contrasting viewpoints. There is more attention to graphics, so that there’s “beauty” along with “truth.” I also think there will be more interactive and cross-media publications – books and websites, books and DVD’s, books and CD’s. As for titles, I think the militant and confrontational language will remain very popular among entrenching and embattled moderns – but for postmoderns, talk of “cases,” “evidence,” “verdict,” “battle,” and the like will wane in popularity. In a world of terrorism and ethnic/religious hatred, there’s a sense that militant or polemical language can violate the value of “goodness.”

Q: Finally, can you think of any ways retailers could adjust to and reach
postmoderns? What books would you recommend for those who are new to the
concept of postmodernism?

A: — Postmodern readers want books on spirituality. Not guilt-oriented books, and not books with a kind of sappy or devotional feel, but books that ring with depth and authenticity. Books by Orthodox writers (like Markides “The Mountain of Silence”) and Catholic writers (like Henri Nouwen) strike the needed chord in this regard, I think. As for good introductory books, my “Church on the Other Side” is a gentle introduction. For a more brisk and challenging introduction, my “A New Kind of Christian” is probably best. For deeply philosophical and theological readers, I’d recommend Stan Grenz and John Franke’s “Beyond Foundationalism.” For more conservative readers, Chuck Smith Jr.’s “The End of the World as We Know It” is especially understandable. Dave Tomlinson’s “The Post-Evangelical” is a really strong, clear statement of the issues that both “evangelical” and “liberal” readers would profit by reading.

Sara Long