The concept of postmodernity derives from Jean-Francois Lyotard. Here's what Alex Callinicos says in Social Theory: A Historical Introduction (1999):
[Lyotard] defines 'postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives,' contrasting it with the modern, that is, with 'any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse ... making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, ... or the creation of wealth.' A grand narrative for Lyotard is an attempt to make sense of the totality of human history.
[p. 2; italics and first ellipsis in original.] You would think religion, and especially Mormonism, is necessarily a "grand narrative" and could not therefore go very far down the postmodern path. I will summarize a recent essay by Armand Mauss to suggest otherwise. The times they are a-changin'.
Feelings and Faith
The essay I'm referring to is "Feelings, Faith, and Folkways: A Personal Essay on Mormon Popular Culture," by Armand Mauss, pages 23-38 in Proving Contraries (Signature, 2005). Mauss doesn't make the postmodern argument; that's my twist on his sketch of how Mormon modes of thought and worship have changed over the last few decades. He's a keen observer of Mormon culture. What does he see?
First, the doctrine has gotten "softer," which he illustrates as a preference for tender sniffles at the pulpit over scriptural exposition. In his youth, he recalls, "People often cited scriptures or history as well as logic in support of the meaning they offered for their narrative testimonies. Occasionally lips would quiver and eyes would moisten, but such lacrimose outpourings as might require paper tissues were rather rare. This is in contrast with my contemporary experience in various wards where it is uncommon for any testimony meeting to pass without at least one tearful rendition and often as many as three or four ..." (p. 26).
Second, he notes that the missionary program of the Church reflects the shift too. Whereas missionaries once memorized discussions that taught substantive doctrines of the gospel, now the focus is on getting prospective converts "to 'feel' the confirmation of the Holy Spirit during the missionary's testimony and [be] assured that what they feel is indeed the Spirit bearing witness of the truth of the message" (p. 28). Pamphlets like A Voice of Warning once did the same thing in print. In other words, the program now takes an affective approach rather than a cognitive approach to conversion.
Third, he talks about how LDS music has "softened" or become more feminine — this goes to the selection of new hymns in the new LDS hymnal, to the increasingly slow tempo of the hymns, to the selection of religious ballads we now hear as musical numbers, and to the displacement of traditional choral music of Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and the like by remixed LDS hymns.
Mauss points to Correlation and a general anti-intellectual trend in the Church as the context in which these developments have occurred. But he also notes parallel developments in Evangelical Christianity, where similar themes are characteristic of suburban megachurches, in contrast to older mainline denominations which retain more traditional approaches to worship and community. So some of these affective patterns are seeping into the Church from outside.
So why do I link Mauss' essay (which doesn't use the term "postmodern") to my remarks on postmodernism? Because it highlights developments in the Church that sound a lot like what are often described as aspects of postmodernism: a preference for narrative over logical exposition; an emphasis on subjective, emotional response over rational analysis; an emphsis on narrow perspectives over "grand narratives."
I won't overplay the concept, just pose a few suggestive questions. When was the last time you heard a talk on (or even a clear reference to) the Great Apostasy? There's a piece of the LDS Grand Narrative we don't talk about anymore. When was the last time a General Authority wrote a book worth reading? Let's see, Bruce R. McConkie died when? I admit he sometimes rubs me the wrong way, but he certainly had the LDS Grand Narrative firmly in mind and did not shrink from stating it forcefully, in book form and from the pulpit. No mere storyteller was he. He might be the last exemplar of classical Mormonism (i.e., modern as opposed to postmodern, to use the terms of this discussion). When was the last time you heard an LDS leader address a tough issue or offer a defense of a controversial doctrinal problem?
Bottom line: It's not like you'll hear someone quoting Foucault from the pulpit next week. I'm just suggesting that the spirit of the age — the postmodern age — is having an effect on the Church as an institution and a community. But you need to pay attention if you expect to notice the changes. As a young man from Chicago once observed: Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you might just miss it.