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What is postmodern thought? Part One

Editor's note: This is the first of five articles related to the idea of Postmodern Thought. We believe it is the primary way the secular world is deciding to locate truth and meaning today, so we want to help people understanding what it is, where it has come from, and how we can use scripture to think biblically.

“There is a ubiquitous sense of live and let live, of you-do-youism, in the quest of young generations to define their identity – which is at odds with how the Scriptures portray what it means to be human.”

David Kinnaman & Mark Matlock in Faith for Exiles


We have all heard the word postmodern by now.  I was first introduced to it way back in 1991 while sitting in an Architecture theory class at the University of Washington.  The architectural world was set on fire in 1982 by an American architect named Michael Graves.  The city of Portland hired him to design their new Municipal Services Building.  He decided to try something very different and radical – put a postmodern spin on a major urban building. 


When the professor put the picture up on the screen, I was stunned.  It was unlike any other high-rise building I had seen: the exterior was various shades of pink and brown, the windows were boxy and small, and there were two giant protruding columns rising up to massive brown capitals.  At the base of the building is a large platform, and at the main entrance stands a huge, bronze statue of a woman known as Portlandia.  She is kneeling, with a trident in one hand and the other reaching down to the people entering the building.  The statue is accompanied by a plaque with a message from her which reads:


“She kneels down, and from the quietness of copper reaches out.  We take that stillness into ourselves and somewhere deep in the earth our breath becomes her city.  If she could speak this is what she would say:  Follow that breath.  Home is the journey we make.  This is how the world knows where we are.”


The building is meant to make an artistic statement about moving on from the past and boldly into the future.  The abstract elements on the building are intentional, designed to playfully mock older, more classical elements of Greek architecture, where most modern high-rises find their roots. 

Portland Municipal Services Building


In other words, it is an abstract statement against an established, rigid and scientific way of designing buildings (boring glass high-rises), and introduces a new way, one full of wonderment, possibility, and a wide variety of interpretations. 


I actually think it is a pretty cool looking building!  The reason I bring it up is to briefly touch on what we know and experience as postmodern thought


Let me be clear: I happen to believe that the word, “postmodern”, has taken an unfair beating in recent times.  In one sense, it acknowledges the very real existence of a wide variety of opinions and truths.  As a way of looking at things, it can open up ideas, ideologies and conversations to more than one way of thinking, which we know is refreshing and important.  To be stuck in a rigid and unforgiving system of ideas is oppressive, especially when there are multiple solutions to be found for many given problems.  Theologians, counselors and philosophers have found much freedom in a postmodern paradigm of thought.  That needs to be said before any critique of this prevailing view of wisdom and truth.


what is the woman actually saying?

The quote from the woman, Portlandia, is actually a poem by Canadian poet Ronald Talney, and the exact meaning of the poem is really hard to decipher – it depends on who you ask – which is kind of the point.  It seems to suggest that this woman reaches down to us from somewhere transcendent, beyond ourselves and leads each us on an individual journey of meaning, as we each follow our heart.  In other words, our unique transcendent journey makes meaning for us in a world desperately searching for eternal meaning and significance.  My journey = my meaning.  My meaning = my truth.


So that is my best take on her words.  But here’s the thing – if you think I am wrong in my interpretation, that is just your opinion and interpretation.  In Portlandia’s world, we are both right.  That is the essence of postmodern thought – acknowledge and affirm all personal interpretations of truth.  None are wrong, they are simply based on individual experience.


I firmly believe a postmodern way of thinking can add tremendous value to conversations that require nuance and multiple ways of thinking, especially for discussions that have too often been grounded in rigid rationalism or expressive and radical individualism.  However, I believe it is an absolutely terrible way to think about eternal spiritual truths, especially when identity and meaning are at stake. 


I also believe deep down the world agrees with me on this.  At the end of the day, when people lay their heads on their pillows, they desire something really transcendent, solid and true – something far above dispute, opinions, and lifeless bronze statues.  People have come to realize that postmodern thought, while adding good value to discourse, falls woefully short of making spiritual meaning. 


The Michael Graves building in Portland, now known simply as the “Portland Building,” won a prestigious award in 1983 from the American Institute of Architects.  It roared onto the scene, widely and broadly impressing people.  However, the building is under tremendous scrutiny today.  In 2009, Travel and Leisure magazine dubbed it one of the world’s ugliest buildings.  The building is in such disrepair that the Portland City Council has been advised on multiple occasions to tear it down and start over.  In a city know for rain, it has structural leaks everywhere.


I believe that is symbolic of how far short postmodernism falls in informing us about deep spiritual truths. It inspires for a bit, but then its failings and shortcomings render it ineffective.  People need more.


the lenses we are looking through?

Some people don’t care much for the idea of “worldviews,” but I actually find them helpful – much like looking through different sets of glasses in order to see the world differently.


So, let’s try on three different sets of glasses in an effort to understand the broad contours of how each generation has tended to think, so we can better understand how each society and generation has approached ideas of truth and ultimate reality. 


In the next article we'll briefly explain the three main worldviews related to spiritual and transcendent truth are premodern, modern, and postmodern.

Daren Overstreet

Daren Overstreet is a Senior Leader at

Anchor Point Church in Tampa, Florida.  He has been in ministry for nearly 30 years, and holds a Master’s Degree in Missional Theology

You can contact him at


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