When you were in middle school history class, your teacher probably gave you a basic timeline of history. It begins with the rather nebulous pre-history, the time period before mankind knew how to write. (Of course, if you were in a Christian school you were told that there is no such thing as pre-history since man was apparently created with the ability to write and all history begins at Genesis 1.)
The first era of history was called the Ancient period, and it extended from the first writing through the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD. The last era is labeled the Modern era, and it stretches from around 1500 AD until the present day. In between those two was a vaguely defined, poorly understood period known as the Medieval Ages or the Dark Ages or Middle Ages.
Most of us learned that history is divided into these three major ages: the ancient, the medieval and the modern. It is the framework from which much of our thinking about the past is crafted. We think of the prehistoric man as a cave man eking his existence out by hunting wooly mammoths and dragging women around by their hair; and we think of the ancient man as the enlightened, toga-draped Greeks wandering through pillared halls. The medieval man is ignorant and benighted, ruled over by the cruel kings and debauched bishops. Of course, the modern man is superior to all of them, rising above the rest of history as the pinnacle of the race.
The problem is that all of this is an illusion.
The Origin of the “Modern Man”
The idea of a “Modern Era” was invented by the Enlightenment philosophers, based on terrible historical research, and popularized by Georg Hegel. To Hegel and other Enlightenment philosophers, the Modern Man was superior to all forms of man before him.
This new man, whom Friedrich Nietzsche would dub the Übermensch, was something special. His discoveries and knowledge were so extensive that man could not help but sit back and be amazed by his own profundity, acumen, ingenuity and morality. In short, man had finally arrive. It was not the era of Modern Times, but rather Modern Man.
The Modern Age was marked by the final stage of human development. Although the theory of biological evolution was formulated during this supposed Modern Age, if it had existed at the beginning, the philosophers would have called man the pinnacle of evolution.
Looking back, we might wonder where men could have developed such a myopic view of history, but remember that at the time of the Enlightenment archaeology, paleontology, and virtually every other science dealing with history was virtually unknown or based on strange premises. This was an era where Atlantis was still considered a distinct possibility, people were astounded to find out that blood circulated via vessels, and the cellular structure of life was yet to be widely published.
The Enlightenment was full of ideas – most of which are now known to be ridiculous.
The End of Modern Man
This ideal of Modern Man evaporated in the 20th century, when these “modern men” across the world spent 1913-1918 and 1939-1945 doing their best to destroy each other by any means imaginable. And any traces of this hope of idealism and utopia (a phrase coined by one of the first great modernists, Thomas More) were wiped away by the blood-soaked decades that followed.
In World War II alone, over 70 million people were killed. Most of them were civilian non-combatants.
The 20th century saw more human blood shed in war than probably any century before it. The bloodshed of the 20th century was 11 times that of the second bloodiest, the 17th. Never before had man attacked other men with such ferocity or effectiveness.
What was supposed to be the gloriest pinnacle of man’s evolution demonstrated only the gory violence of his sinful heart.
And the source of all this carnage? Two social experiments that believed wholeheartedly in the superiority of modern man: national idealism (German nationalism/Nazism and Japanese militarism/elitism) and communism.
This era of unprecedented violence wrought by Modern Man led Karl Barth to lament:
Men have never been good, they are not good and they never will be good.
The experiment, the fanciful notion of modernity died on the battlefields of The Marne, The Somme, Gallipoli, Luzon, Guadacanal and Stalingrad. It dissipated like the smoke from the stacks of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Belzec.
The shadow of these great wars was long indeed. But what could come after this – this tragedy of the Modern Man? Mankind could not go backward into the Dark Ages, but it was clear that this Modern Age was in its death throes.
The first Great War gave birth to the term post-modern. The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote in 1939, “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914-1918.” (OED) The war was so massive in scale that it shook the very foundations of culture. Of course, Toynbee must have felt the tremors of the next Great War and knew that the upheaval had only just begun.
In the wake of the second Great War, there was a growing anti-modernity movement which eventually became what we call postmodernity. Like western Christianity’s revival of the word orthodoxy and Karl Barth’s pursuit of a new manifestation of this orthodoxy, the feeling of postmodernity was a reaction to the overwhelming tragedy of this – the most violent time the earth had ever seen.
What Postmodernity Is Supposed to Be
In the arts and literature, postmodernism was an intentional movement. Postmodernity in culture was not as deliberate. It is the word that writers assign to a sense they have of transition.
For many postmodern thinkers, their era is not an attempt to be superior to modernity but rather to become something else, something new. But the danger of this kind of contrast is that we begin speaking of both as if they are concrete, definable movements with leaders and values.
Neither can clearly be defined; and since the Modern Age was a construct of people who felt their age was superior to all others, how can it be treated as concrete?
The biggest problem with postmodernity is that it is predicated on the existence of a Modern Age. It is a reaction to modernity, which we have seen to be an illusion. The basic assumption of modernity was that after the dark Medieval era, mankind was finally evolved to his next stage.
The Illusion of Eras
When one considers that the Medieval Period (roughly the period between the fall of Rome in 476 and the invention of the moveable type printing press in 1439) saw more technological advances in Europe than the entirety of the Ancient Period (c. 10,000 BC until 476 AD, or roughly 10,500 years), it is clear that marking this period as a “Dark Age” is extremely inappropriate. Next to no history books deal with this time period in any depth, so we are given the perception that the 1,000 years or so between Rome’s collapse and the Renaissance are essentially throw-away years.
The title “Dark Ages” was originally from the Italian writer Petrarch, who used it to refer to the rather deplorable Latin literature of the period. It had to do with literature, and nothing to do with culture. The reason the Latin literature was of a terrible quality was that Latin was in decline (or rather, transition). New cultures were replacing the Roman one that Petrarch saw in the writings of the classic authors.
Today, the Dark Ages is used by some historians to refer to the period of 476 to c. 1000 AD. But this usage is entirely unwarranted. Certainly Rome suffered a decline after the last western emperor was deposed; but Roman culture did not die. It had moved to the East 200 years prior.
And the Dark Ages were far from dark. The “barbarians” who overtook Rome were as advanced as the Romans. Their military formations and tactics were based on Roman systems. They used Latin as a lingua franca until the emergence of the Franks in the late 8th century AD.
And it is undeniable that the latter centuries were full of innovation and progress. Just some of the accomplishments of the Medieval Period include the following:
- Engineering: the chimney, the triangular sail, horseshoes, hops, the horizontal loom, blast furnace, arched saddle, glasses, the arched bridge, the vaulted arch, mirrors, clocks, buttons, stern-mounted rudders, silk, the stirrup, and the wheelbarrow
- Discoveries: Arabic numerals, magnetism and the compass, soap, liquor, and windmills
Such a period of discovery could hardly be called dark by any standard. This label was expanded by the philosophers of the Enlightenment to reflect the control that the Church had over European politics and the people of the period after the Fall of Rome. It was a manufactured distinction.
What Postmodernity Really Is
Postmodernity is really the shattering of the illusion of the “modern man.” The reality of human existence is that we really have not changed all that much in the 10,000 years or so of recorded history. We might make our weapons out of steel, aluminum and synthetic composites but they still serve the same function as the bronze swords of the Egyptians. We might type at 65-words per minute in an email to our senator; but our insults are still essentially the same as those scrawled on the ostrakon thrown at the politicians of ancient Athens.
So rather than an era that somehow succeeds or supersedes the modern age, what we are really living in is the same world that Jesus walked through. The technology has changed; but the people are still the same.
Postmodernity is the acceptance of our humanity; all the change is not the wave of the future but the reconnection to our past. The modern will not supplant the ancient. Peace will not come from knowledge and diplomacy. We are what we are.
The Return to the Ancient
The “modern church” proclaimed with Calvin: sola scriptura. But now we know that this type of minimalism and reductionism accomplishes nothing but stripping the life out of our worship.
It exalts knowledge and ignores the experience, the touch/smell/taste/sight of worship.
But we are once again ancient.
The illusion of modernity is shattered, and we are only slowly realizing that we are unchanged. We are still the ancients.
Postmodernity is really a self-delusion because we refuse to accept the fall of modernity. We are struggling with what to do next because we refuse to accept that we are still human, still ancient.
Rather than modernity being the standard, it is the anomaly. And postmodernity is the end of the illusion. We are trying to hold onto our modernity while rejecting it at the same time.
As a result, we throw a veneer of the post- over our modernity and think that somehow it makes it better, makes it more complete. In reality, we just let every trend, fad and idea dictate a temporary standard for us.
it is not postmodernity but popmodernity. It is a modern that is no longer anchored in reason and superiority but rather on opinions, polls, and attempting to meet “felt needs.”
Return to the Story
This is where the supranarrative again comes into play. The illusory “modern church” believed that they were capable of interpreting the Scriptures better, that knowledge gave them power to understand the text and be “right.” The reality is that our technology and knowledge are still no substitute for the Holy Spirit.
When we learn to acknowledge that this Modern Age was an anomaly, an attempt at breaking from the supranarrative of human existence and trying to redeem ourselves rather than accepting the redemption God offers, I believe we will accept our ancient nature.
I believe we will be able to synthesize the advances of our supposed Modern Age with our ancient heritage – our present with our past. We will emerge as something more human than our cultures have been in some time.