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Postmodernities: an introductory reading list

By Lawrence Osborn.

This annotated bibliography follows the authors article, 'First Steps Beyond Modernity', in Ministry Today, Issue 5.

1. Starting Points

One major problem facing anyone who is trying to get to grips with postmodernity is the question of where to begin. Many of the books on the subject are densely typed and laden with polysyllabic philosophical or sociological jargon (by the way, there is something rather ironical about this). Short entry points, written from various Christian perspectives, include:

Gerard Loughlin 1993: 'At the End of the World: Postmodernism and Theology' in Different Gospels: Christian Orthodoxy and Modern Theologies edited by Andrew Walker (London: SPCK, 1993), pp 204-21.

Clive Marsh 1994: 'Post-Modernism: What is it and does it matter?' (Epworth Review, 21, no 2 May 1994, 44-53).

Philip Sampson 1994: 'The Rise of Postmodernity' in Faith and Modernity edited by Philip Sampson, Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden (Oxford: Regnum/Lynx, 1994), pp 29-57.

2. Postmodern Cultures

Having oriented yourself, you might like to try something more substantial. The following are certainly worth looking at:

Albert Borgmann 1992: Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Borgmann's original contribution to the discussion presents contemporary American culture as characterised by sullenness and hyperactivity. These are the fruit of modernity and an ambiguous legacy for postmodernity. Nevertheless he offers an optimistic vision of a situation in which genuine community and religion may once again be central to western culture.

Steven Connor 1989: Postmodern Culture: An introduction to theories of the contemporary (Oxford: Blackwell)

A comprehensive introduction to postmodernity with the emphasis on the cultural aspects rather than on the more academic philosophical aspects. Connor explores the manifestations of postmodernity across the disciplines and genres from philosophy to politics, from architecture to photography, from literature to TV.

Mike Featherstone 1991: Consumer Culture and Postmodernism (London: Sage)

Hal Foster (ed) 1985: Postmodern Culture (London: Pluto Press)

An anthology which includes contributions from such key figures as Habermas, Jameson and Baudrillard. It advocates a postmodernism of resistance, defending cultural diversity against the homogenizing effects of hierarchy.

Ernest Gellner 1992: Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London: Routledge)

An immoderate but thought-provoking counterblast from a leading opponent of all things postmodern.

David Harvey 1990: The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell)

An incisive critique of postmodernity.

Charles Jencks 1989: What is Post-Modernism? (London: St Martin's Press)

A well illustrated report from the perspective of postmodern architecture.

Charles Jencks (ed) 1992: The Post-Modern Reader (London: Academy Editions)

An expensive but comprehensive overview of postmodernity and postmodernism. Extracts from representative authors cover the arts, architecture, film, sociology, politics, feminism and science as well as philosophy.

3. Manifestations of the Postmodern

As an alternative or a complement to working through one or more of the above cultural analyses, you might consider experiencing some of the books, films, etc. which have been designated postmodern by their friends (or enemies)

a. Postmodern literature

Samuel Beckett: The Unnamable (1952)

Italo Calvino: Cosmicomics (1965); The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1974)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

Salman Rushdie: Shame

D M Thomas: The White Hotel

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five

Fay Weldon: Female Friends (1975)

b. Postmodern films

For example, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Diva, The Draughtsman's Contract, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Man Who Envied Women, The Omen (as opposed to, say, The Exorcist), True Stories

c. Postmodern science

Honest! The advocates of postmodernity argue that there is such a thing as postmodern science which may be distinguished from modern science by its content and methodology. For further information see:

Charles Birch & John B Cobb, Jr 1981: The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Cambridge UP)

David Bohm 1980: Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: RKP)

David Ray Griffin(ed) 1988: The Re-enchantment of Science: Postmodern proposals (Albany, NY: SUNY Press)

Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers 1984: Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature (London: Heinemann)

Rupert Sheldrake 1981: A New Science of Life: The hypothesis of causative formation (London: Blond & Briggs)

Stephen Toulmin 1982: The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern science and the theology of nature (Berkeley: UCAP)

4. The Philosophers of the Postmodern

A reading list on postmodernity would not be complete without some reference to postmodernism and deconstructionism. The key players here are surely Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Although they continue to inspire postmodern culture, I do not recommend beginning to explore the postmodern with them! In any case, it is arguable that they are icons rather than leaders and that at least some of the philosophical assumptions underlying postmodernity are at odds with their concerns. If you want to sample, you might begin with

Jean-Francois Lyotard 1992: The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982-1985 (London: Turnaround)

The title belies the content and may be interpreted as either playful or extremely patronising. However, it is a useful introductory collection of pieces on a wide variety of issues by one of the key figures of postmodernism.

For references to the key works see any of the books in Section Two.


5. Religion in Postmodern Contexts

Diogenes Allen 1989: Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The full wealth of conviction (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press)

Philippa Berry & Andrew Wernick (eds) 1992: Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion (London: Routledge)

Walter Brggemann 1993: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination: Texts under Negotiation (London: SCM)

This is a very helpful brief introduction to the new possibilities for our use of the Bible created by the emergence of postmodernity.

Don Cupitt 1992: The Time Being (London: SCM)

The ultimate volume of a trilogy begun with Creation Out of Nothing (1990) and continued in What is a Story? (1991). Together they celebrate a nihilistic form of religious postmodernism. Cupitt advocates a new 'gospel' of freedom from belief.

Matthew Fox 1988: The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (San Francisco: HarperCollins).

Fox now styles himself a postdenominational priest in a postmodern situation. If anything, he represents the pagan possibilities of postmodernity.

George Lindbeck 1984: The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (London: SPCK).

John Milbank 1990: Theology and Social Theory (Oxford: Blackwell)

A difficult book which draws a distinction between malign and benign postmodernism. The former leads to a nihilism against which Christianity presents a radical alternative.

Thomas Molnar 1987: The Pagan Temptation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Explores the contemporary rediscovery of myth and symbol which contrasts so strongly with the rationalism and demythologizing tendencies of modernity.

Lawrence Osborn 1992: Angels of Light? The Challenge of the New Age (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)

I include this because there is considerable overlap between certain kinds of postmodernity and the New Age phenomenon.

Jonathan Sacks 1991: The Persistence of Faith: Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age, The Reith Lectures 1990 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

The chief rabbi tackles a number of issues closely associated with postmodernity.

Quentin Schultze et al 1991: Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Although not directly about postmodernity, this authoritative Christian perspective on popular culture covers a lot of the same ground as the sociological and cultural analyses mentioned in Section Two.

Mark C Taylor 1984: Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (University of Chicago Press)

The most important work of the leading American postmodernist theologian. Like Cupitt, Taylor's version of postmodernity ultimately leads to nihilism.

Dr Lawrence Osborn, formerly coordinator of The Gospel and our Culture, is currently Templeton Fellow at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

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