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Many years ago, I began to notice that no matter how well I presented the historicity of the Scriptures, or the evidences for the empty tomb, or the Liar–Lord–Lunatic trilogy, I was getting nowhere with most of my friends. As one friend recently commented, "It should be Liar–Lord–Lunatic–Whatever!" It as though we live in an age in which trying to get folks to consider truth is like nailing Jell–O to a tree. Why didn't these evidences—that so thoroughly convinced me in the early 1970's—have the same effect on today's listener?
Somehow, the world had changed—or was changing. I felt it. My words were becoming more and more distant to the listener. Or, they simply made less sense.
Have you ever traveled overseas … to another culture? The native language, the common clichés, the street slang, can all sound foreign. People comfortable in their own culture can be insensitive. Or at least out–of–touch with how much you fail to grasp. It becomes very difficult to have a conversation. Or worse—we can be like ships passing in the night.
These kinds of situations happen more often that you might realize. When a business fails to understand the culture into which it is taking it's product, disasters occur. Consider these examples:
Connecting with your audience can be pretty disastrous when you don’t know how they think and talk. Finally, consider this embarrassment twelve years ago, when two Texas energy firms formed into one new company. They hired a public relations firm to come up with a new name, and finally settled on Enteron. Nifty sounding, isn’t it? Not when you realize that Enteron is the medical term for the canal through which people excrete solid waste. Oops. You have to understand the culture you’re trying to impact.
I will admit that it is often difficult to keep abreast with how people think. Just a few weeks ago, I had coffee with a friend who considers himself a follower of Jesus. He is a member of a local church. Much of the language he employs comes from traditional Christianity. But in his spiritual journey, my friend has incorporated a belief in karma, reincarnation, truth being intensely private, relative and personal, and the existence of many ways to knowing God. On top of that, he finds traditional dogmas about absolutes, certainty of faith, and the authority of Scriptures to be antiquated.
Where do I start with this guy?
Welcome to the Twenty–first century.
On one level, many people today would say that our nation seems to be warm to the claims of Christ. This might be so. Spirituality is in, for the moment, and that can be a good thing. Furthermore, most Americans still believe—in some form or another—that they are Christians. But this is where we have to be careful. Thomas C. Reeves has noted that there is a thin veneer of traditional–sounding religious language coating over our culture that makes America appear as if we are a Christian land.
In 1988, the highly respected Gallup organization reported that nine Americans in ten said they never doubted the existence of God... A whopping 84 percent said that Jesus was God or the Son of God, about three–quarters had at some time or other sensed Jesus' presence in their lives, and 66 percent reported having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Even 72 percent of the unchurched said that they believed that Jesus was God or the Son of God, up from 64 percent in 1978. Almost half of all Protestants described themselves as born–again Christians.
Reeves goes on to point out that George Barna has discovered a similar widespread commitment to Christian tenets:
"In a 1992 poll by the Barna Research Group, 79 percent of those aged forty–six to sixty–four said that religion was 'very important to me,' a statement concurred in by 65 percent of those twenty–seven to forty–five, and 54 percent of those eighteen to twenty–six. When asked whether they agreed that the Bible is the 'totally accurate' word of God, 80 percent of those forty–six to sixty–four years old said yes, and so did 73 percent of those twenty–seven to forty–five, and 65 percent who are eighteen to twenty–six."
So has anything really changed?
I believe that—even with the positive trends recorded by Gallup and others—an underground shift has taken place in the way Americans make assumptions about life and faith. In the invisible world of our presuppositions and prejudices—what some would call your worldview—there has been a discernible shift. The premises that we use to arrange the data and beliefs of our everyday existence have been swapped out for a new set of assumptions. In other words, our basic outlook on life has morphed into something new. This new set of assumptions has been labeled postmodernism.
The lunch with my friend can answer that question. In many ways, I'm thrilled that he considers himself open–minded and searching for spirituality. This is a prime opportunity for discussion—and a welcome change from the barren secularism that dominated the previous decades. But the approach my friend uses to both collect ideas and synthesize them allows him to use traditional religious terms that are infused with new meanings. In some cases, that is not always bad. Erasing some of our common assumptions about life can breathe fresh air into how we understand God and faith. Seen in this light, postmodernism can be refreshing. But at other times, using old terms in new ways runs the risk of creating a faith that is pretty far away from what it means "to know Jesus." It all depends on how you understand and employ postmodern assumptions.
Imagine if you have a group of ten friends sitting in your living room. You have invited a neighbor over, whom none of your friends has ever met. Privately, you tell five of your group that your neighbor is a liar and lousy Cretan. Don’t trust anything he says. To the other five, you privately inform them that your neighbor is a wonderful brother who has enriched your life beyond measure.
Your neighbor then walks in.
What will happen over the next hour, as your friends interact with this unsuspecting individual from next door? You’ll observe how one–half of the room is aloof and cautious. The other five will be warm and engaging. Don’t try this at home. But you get the idea. You will have arranged significantly different assumptions about the same person, causing people to see her or him in different lights.
In the same way, we live in an age with significantly changing and new assumptions, effecting the way that people take the gospel message and understand it. If you’re going to connect with your friends and represent the good news, you’re going to have to wrestle with whatever assumptions and premises they hold. We’re no longer in Kansas. The modern world has been eclipsed by postmodernism...the old principles and paradigms have been sucked up in a tornado of new presuppositions about life and truth. The fall–out is happening everywhere.
Good question. To understand postmodernism, you first have to know a bit about what is described as the modern era. By modern, scholars typically mean the predominant worldview era that began in the age of the Enlightenment and was characterized by such foundational principles as reason and rationality, purpose and design, truth as being absolute, truth being rational and accessible, and the synthesis of truth in unity (the principle of non–contradiction). These foundational tenets have much to commend to them. But they are largely fading, or have completely vanished in most people’s minds. We now live in a culture that holds to premises about life that have developed after the modern world and superceded the modern world. We call this a postmodern world. One writer has described postmodern thinking as bringing in a "world (that) emphasizes randomness, chance, relativism, the inaccessibility of truth, meaningless existence, privatization, choice, secularization, pluralization, and contradiction."
Other thinkers, such as philosopher J.P. Moreland, further describe postmodernism as the "...rejection of direct access to the mind, (language, theory) independent world, the correspondence theory of truth,...the objectivity and availability of authorial intent..." Dennis McCallum might be a little strong in his book The Death of Truth when he describes postmodernism this way: "Now in the late Twentieth century, we are caught up in a revolution that will likely dwarf Darwinism in it's impact on every aspect of thought and culture: postmodernism. Unlike Darwinism, postmodernism isn't a distinct set of doctrines or truth claims. It's a mood—–a view of the world that is characterized by a deep distrust of reason, not to mention disdain for the knowledge that Christians believe the Bible provides. It's a methodology—–a completely new way of analyzing ideas. For all its advocates, postmodernism is also a movement—–a fresh onslaught on truth that brings a more or less cohesive approach to literature, history, politics, education, law, sociology, linguistics, and virtually every other discipline, including science. And it ushering in a cultural metamorphosis—–transforming every area of everyday life as it spreads through education, movies, television, and other media."
Yet another philosopher, Stan Wallace, has delineated postmodernism into two essences. The first is nominalism, by which postmoderns hold that there are no universals—only particulars. Nothing is objective and real … all that exists is bits and pieces. (Hence, Zigmunt Bauman’s postmodern book is titled Life In Fragments.) The second main feature of postmodernism is what Wallace calls coherence. By this, he means postmoderns only demand their truth system to be coherent—consistent—inside itself.
So how does this play in Peoria?
Alan Wolfe’s new book, One Nation, After All, depicts the impact of postmodern thinking as it effects everyday life in the suburbs. Most visibly, it has created a "cult of niceness," where everyone wants to be in a "sensible center." As Wolfe puts it, "Middle–class Americans have added an Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Judge.’" Listen to Richard Lowry’s examination of Wolfe’s book:
Take religion. All surveys show that Americans overwhelmingly believe in God. But Wolfe’s interviewees again and again demonstrate that People For The American Way has nothing to fear. Barbara Tompkins, the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister, lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Told of another interviewee who disapproved of homosexuality, she counters: "he cannot make a broad statement that that’s wrong … Why is it wrong for them? I mean, do we all have to have the same hair color?" She goes on to explain, "I think everyone inside their has their own persona of God. You don’t have to accept anybody’s dogma. Live with the concept of God as you perceive it."
This is why, Lowry continues, "… a 1987 Gallup poll revealed that 44% of Americans were hostile to the idea of a religious sectarian living next door, as compared to 13% who were uncomfortable with the idea of a black neighbor." Religious people who hold to such notions as absolute truth—biding on everyone—are labeled sectarian. People want neighbors who will not advocate any certain kind of morality. "The imperatives are only that everyone maintain a veneer of niceness and that nothing ever become politicized, in the sense of becoming a matter of public debate toward the goal of establishing some social consensus." Nonjudgment Day has come to Peoria.
Whew! Does all of this mean that postmodernism is to be fought against—tooth and nail? Obviously, a great many Christian thinkers have given considerable attention to the emergence of postmodernism. While parts of it may sound problematic, I don’t think postmoderns are the bad guys. Neither modernism nor postmodernism is a wholly adequate and complete worldview for understanding the universe as God made it. They both have their good points. Modernism gave us a sense of God’s order in the universe, and elevated our ability to think and reason toward truth. Education flourished under the Enlightenment. But modernism also unwittingly contributed to an aridity in our experience of God and worship. Postmodernism, on the other hand brings a fresh acceptance of mystery and a recognition of our finitude. But it also tends to create an inability to have assurance about anything for certain. Both worldviews have positive and negative features.
In this chapter, we have discussed how our culture—and the worldview of many people in it—has been changing. Although a veneer of traditional Christian values and modern thinking remains in Western culture, postmodernism is taking hold. We need to explore postmodernism a bit, since it is easy for those nurtured with unexamined modern assumptions about life and faith to critique all of postmodernism as bad and detrimental to faith. This is not necessarily so. And for those who embrace postmodernism already, it may be useful to see the subject from another angle.
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