I started a class last Friday with the unwieldy title, “Christian Faith and Practice in the Postmodern World.” The opening lecture was largely about definition of terms: modern, modernism, modernization, postmodern, etc. Living during the time I have, I must admit that I have struggled with the definition of the word “postmodern” more often than “modern.” I have never been quite sure when the modern era started; I only know that most people believe it to be either over, or reaching a time of increasing radicalization and universalization that make it look unlike what it has looked like previously.
Having thought about the modern era a bit during the lecture, I recalled having seen historian Paul Johnson’s book, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830. Deciding that a little more knowledge about the modern era was in order, I checked all 1095 pages of it out of the library. Johnson maintains that the modern era started right around the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. He mentions in the preface that some people think that the modern era started in the 1780s with the industrialization of Britain and the French Revolution, but he disagrees with them (hence the rather obvious subtitle of his book).
It was interesting to read this, since the only other time I have ever heard about the beginning of the modern era, I was informed that it probably came right on the heels of the Middle Ages. And the Middle Ages ended right around the time of the Reformation. Allowing a few decades for people to change religions, fight a few wars and get their minds around the whole “end of an era” thing, I was under the impression that the modern era started right around the end of the Thirty Years’ War with the Peace of Westphalia and the notion of nation-states (and, it being post-Reformation and all, it probably had a lot to do with new versions of Christianity popping up all over the place, too).
Oh well, I suppose the debate over when the modern era started is for historians to work out. As for me, I don’t think it matters so much whether you tie the idea of “modernity” to nation-states or industrialization or anything else. When I read history, I’m less interested in precisely when eras began as I am in how events are tied together and give rise to something else that happened later. Regardless of precisely when it happened, or what signs accompanied its advent, something called “modernity” happened, and maybe is still happening, and it will be interesting to read about.
However, I have faint hope that I’ll be able to finish Johnson’s voluminous tome before the workload of the semester picks up and I’ve got to drop it. But I hope I don’t drop it on my foot, because that sucker would hurt. As Gordon Fee would say, “You could kill a cockroach on a shag carpet with that.”