Modernism arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due to some major changes in the world, including the rise of industrial societies, the development of larger, more populated cities, and the terrible tragedy of World War I. Because of a combination of these and other factors, people in Western society began to think and believe differently, and this shift in perspective has been labeled “modernism” by historians and philosophers. Religious skepticism and atheism are hallmarks of modernism. Sigmund Freud, who spoke of the drives of the unconscious mind; and Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that the human “will to power” was important in man’s evolution, were influential in the rise of modernism, and their ideas still help shape culture today.
Modernism can be seen most vividly in the world of art and literature, where it stimulated a complete break from the styles and forms of the past. “Modern art” rejected realism and objective thinking and began to lean toward expression of the subjective, inner world. Stream-of-consciousness writing styles and abstract forms of painting predominated. Self-consciousness and the expression of one’s self became major themes in art, as it had become in life.
A Christian should regard modernism from two angles: first, modernism provides a clue to understanding humanity. Modernism is humanity’s attempt to understand itself and human life without the aid of God’s revelation. Its rejection of God and focus on self are the results of society’s embrace of falsehood. Christians are to be ambassadors for Christ, speaking the truth to a world that is lost and deceived by Satan. A Christian should treat those ensnared in untruths with gentleness, with prayer, and with speaking the truth in love (2 Timothy 2:24–26; Ephesians 4:15).
Second, a Christian should see modernism as another step toward the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Bible. Paul says that in the end times people will be “lovers of self” (2 Timothy 3:3). Peter mentions that a hallmark of the last days will be the presence of “scoffers” and skeptics (2 Peter 3:3), and Jude echoes the warning (Jude 1:18). Modernism, with its emphasis on self-expression and self-fulfillment and rejection of God, has nudged humanity that much closer to the final judgment.
Again, a Christian should view modernism as the expression of man’s attempt to understand himself and as the partial fulfillment of prophecy. Christians should engage the culture influenced by modernism with courage and truth. The children of God should use their talents and intelligence to influence culture with art, literature, philosophy, and science based on the truth of God. We should refuse to keep our light covered (Matthew 5:14–16). This means injecting Christian thought into the culture rather than keeping it to ourselves to be enjoyed only by others like us.