Postmodernism – Part 5
(February 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 2)
In previous papers I have discussed postmodernity’s encroachment on Western society and on the church, and identified the dangers and impact of this worldview. What do we do now? I believe we must be willing to go against the grain of a condoning society and display some holy intolerance. Doing so will surely be painful. We will be disliked, misunderstood, even vilified – but of course we will be in good company. Jesus, the prophets and the apostles all suffered a similar fate at the hands of unbelievers and sometimes even fellow believers. But did not Jesus pronounce us blessed when “men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me” (Matthew 5:11)? This is not the time to cave into the pressures that surround us; it is the time to take our stand for the truth. Pascal wrote, “And is it not obvious that, just as it is a crime to disturb the peace when truth reigns, it is also a crime to remain at peace when the truth is being destroyed? There is therefore a time when peace is just and a time when it is unjust. Weaklings are those who know the truth, but maintain it only as far as it is in their interest to do so, and apart from that forsake it.”
While there are a number of fronts on which we must fight the postmodern worldview, we will catalog and comment on four.
The Truth Front
It is along the truth front that the hottest battles have always been waged by God’s people. What is different today is that now the very existence of truth is under attack. The postmodernist questions both the reality of truth and is suspicious of any who claim possession of it. Thus, the issue of truth is not an important one for this generation; they are far more interested in how they feel, their experiences (spiritual or otherwise) and having their needs met. This being the case, we are not surprised to find that “some church-growth advocates advise that churches tone down any emphasis on the objective truth of Christian doctrine because postmoderns have short attention spans and are only interested in their own felt needs…. [ A George Barna survey reinforced this approach, stating that over half of evangelicals agreed with this statement:] ‘The purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment.’”
I believe this recent advice by the seeker-sensitive church to be the very worst route that we could possibly take. First, historically, this methodology has precedents of disastrous proportions. One of the most obvious examples is the founding of liberalism. The father of modern liberalism (which ultimately denied almost all scriptural truth) is considered to be Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher’s basic philosophy seemed benign enough, and not that far from conservative theology. He believed religion is primarily not a matter of doctrine, but of feeling, intuition and experience. But once that door was opened the fundamentals of the faith quickly began to evaporate. Soon Schleiermacher was instructing his students that the creation of an experience, not the teaching of the Word, was to be the object of the preacher. Liberalism, in the early years, rarely challenged cardinal doctrines directly. On the contrary, it claimed the authority of the New Testament for the view that Christianity is life, not doctrine (a battle cry we often hear today in evangelical circles). The fallout of liberal theology is evident in the twenty-first century, yet strangely its basic tenets are being mimicked today by the church growth experts (apparently without knowledge that they are doing so).
What should be our response? Do we simply “adjust” the teachings of Scripture to accommodate the whims of a deceived people? Certainly not – we must challenge the darkened understanding of our age, as did all the prophets and apostles (not to mention our Lord) in their age. Generally speaking our approach must be two-pronged. First, we must boldly proclaim truth. The godly found in Scripture never soft-peddled or minimized the message to avoid offending the sensitivities of the masses. Paul’s approach was not to debate or manipulate, but to preach the wisdom of God (I Corinthians 2). His message was foolishness to the philosophically trained Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, but that did not discourage him, for he knew that to the called it was the power of God (I Corinthians 1:23,24). The proclamation of truth is politically incorrect at the moment, and despised by the majority, but nevertheless, it is the only prescription that God has given for life and godliness. We will never heal broken souls by offering them a watered-down solution.
There is a second prong to our stance. Even as we proclaim truth we must recognize that postmodern individuals filter what we say through their own worldview. Michael Kruger is correct when he writes, “If a Christian engages a non-Christian in a debate without challenging his overarching worldview, then his effectiveness will be minimal; each side is playing by its own set of rules…. [Therefore the Christian must challenge] their opponents’ criteria for truth by showing that it should be God’s Word.” In discussing how to do this, let’s move to the next front under attack, the Scriptures.
The Scripture Front
It is virtually impossible to separate truth from the Word of God. A belief in the authority of the Bible would spell the death of postmodernity. The problem is not only do we live in a postmodern era, but we also live in a post-Christian era that is accompanied by an abysmal lack of scriptural knowledge. Many university students don’t know that the Bible has two testaments. They have no knowledge of even the main characters in the Scriptures, and certainly no understanding of the biblical message and/or worldview.
The evangelical church must shoulder much of the blame for the drainage of scriptural knowledge from our society, a knowledge that was commonplace only a few decades ago. Far too concerned with the excellence in our musical productions, the entertainment of our young people, and the creation of worshipful experiences, we have all but neglected the systematic teaching of the Word. Surely our churches are still bulging with Bible studies, lectures and even sermons, but it is becoming increasingly rare to find the Word of God maintaining its centrality in the Christian community. Bible studies are often a mere sharing of ignorance, sermons are seldom expository and pastors and conference speakers work hard at keeping their audience happy and meeting their felt-needs. Ministers are being trained, not to be shepherds of the flock, but CEOs of a corporation. As a result, not only is the unbeliever ignorant of the Word, often the Christian is as well. Ignorant Christians live foolish lives, as they bounce from mystical experience to entertaining programming in hopes of finding an anchor. A return to the priority of the Word is the great need of the moment.
But there is a problem. Fueling this slide from scriptural understanding is a fundamental change in the hermeneutics with which we approach Scripture. The postmodern worldview has infiltrated how we interpret Scripture. Terms such as “new hermeneutics,” “radical hermeneutics” and “deconstruction,” while unfamiliar to the average Christian, nevertheless define a “new approach” to Bible study that stems straight from the postmodern textbooks. When we hear someone deny the obvious understanding of a passage of Scripture with, “Well, that is your interpretation,” we are in the presence of a postmodern Christian, whether they have ever heard the term or not. This approach infuses all the meaning of a given passage in the reader, not in the text. Interpretation is subjective, not objective. When we come to a text of Scripture, we are told, we bring with us our biases and background so that the true meaning of the text is hopelessly lost to us. All that matters is what we think the text says – what it means to us. And “because meaning finally resides in the interpreter, there are as many meanings as there are interpreters…. That means no one meaning can ever be thought to be superior to any other meaning; there is no objective basis on which to evaluate them.”
So there we have it. We can now, thanks to postmodern hermeneutics, make great claim to being the followers of the Word of God, while undermining its very authority – at the same time having no concept of what has happened. The solution is as simple as it is profound. We must return to the absolute authority of Scripture, to normal hermeneutics, and to the centrality of the Word in our lives and churches. We must let the Bible speak for itself. It matters little what “it means to me.” What matters is what does it mean to God. Our job is to discern God’s meaning and apply it to our lives.
The Evangelistic/Apologetic Front
A mistake often made by Christians is the attempt to out-debate the unbeliever through the use of evidence. If we could prove creation scientifically; if we could show beyond doubt the historical accuracy of Jesus; if Noah’s ark could be found, etc., then the non-Christian would lay down his arms and join our ranks. This is naïve at best. While there is certainly a place for showing the rationale of our faith, the fact of the matter is that the unsaved reject the gospel because their “foolish heart is darkened” (Romans 1:21). The message of Romans 1:18-32 is that God has planted knowledge of Himself within the heart of all mankind (v. 19) and has demonstrated his existence through His creation (v. 20), but the lost have chosen to suppress that truth in unrighteousness (v.18). They would rather live out their sinfulness than bow before their Lord.
In the age of postmodernity the presupposition of the lost is that absolute truth is not a relevant issue. Until this is addressed we are often not even speaking the same language. For this reason, I believe that while we proclaim truth we must also undermine the listener’s worldview. Perhaps the best way to do this is to show that the postmodern philosophical system is unworkable – it is unlivable. For instance, postmodern advocates might say that everything is relative, but throw a rock through their windshield or steal their money and they will complain loud and clear. They may declare slavery, or the Holocaust, or terrorist bombings as evil, but they have no logical base for their declaration. The Holocaust may be immoral in their community but not in the Nazi community of the 1940s. Their system simply cannot work, for it cannot stand on its own merits. Ultimately, postmoderns are able to function because they steal liberally from the benefits of the Christian worldview. Their worldview provides no foundation to pronounce anything as wrong – or right. It is because their system simply will not work that the leaders in postmodernity admit an indebtedness to Christianity, even as they despise it. One cutting edge postmodernist, Richard Rody, says that he is glad for the “Jewish and Christian element in our tradition that can be invoked by freeloading atheists like myself.” We need to seize this gaping hole in the postmodernist position. They have a worldview that makes no sense, provides no answers and offers nothing but emptiness. This is the very opposite of Christianity. We can operate from a position of power because we possess truth.
The Gospel Front
The postmodern individual may be the easiest sinner in 200 years to interest in the faith. Yet he is capable of living with contradictions. He can claim to be saved and at the same time live comfortably in moral rot. He can claim to have received Jesus but not believe in His historical existence. He can claim to be a believer in the inerrancy of Scripture but deny absolute truth. When the gospel is presented as a means of improving self-image, giving us a spiritual and thrilling experience, providing a source for success and fulfillment, or helping us overcome loneliness, we may be speaking the language of the age, however, we have so trivialized and distorted the gospel message as to make it meaningless. Groothuis warns that “no major religious traditions – whether Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic or Jewish – has ever presented its doctrines as social constructions or as mere psychological aids to a more satisfying life. They have always been presented as truths concerning the ultimate reality and how we ought to relate to that reality.”
Perhaps there has never been a time when it has been more vital to present the gospel message clearly and without apology. That Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins and give us His righteousness is the good news, which the sinner must understand. The issue on the table is sin, not felt-needs. Our postmodern generation needs to hear that we have offended a holy God and are thus separated from Him. If we do not tell them this we are in danger of preaching another gospel (Galatians 1:9).
Someone has said, “In leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear we may have fallen in.” If so, let’s climb back out, open the Word and powerfully proclaim it from the housetops.