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Even though postmodernism represents a radical departure from the more standard historical Christian worldview, it is too easy to paint postmoderns as bogeymen—the bad guys. Actually, many of them are thoughtful individuals who are willing to struggle with life in a way that believers in Christ can admire. There are many postmodern evangelicals, for instance.
Brian McLaren, in a new book entitled Reinventing The Church suggests that modern Christians too easily reduce and misunderstand postmodern thinking. We can be guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water. In rejecting postmodernism, we are unintentionally (or intentionally!) promoting an uncritical embrace of all of modernity. To avoid misunderstanding postmodernism, McLaren urges that we become acquainted with postmoderns' best parts. He thinks there are five core values which—seen in their best light—can be appreciated by Christians everywhere:
Viewed in this light, there is a great deal to commend to postmodernism. As D.A. Carson notes, "In my most somber moods I sometimes wonder if the ugly face of what I refer to as philosophical pluralism is the most dangerous threat to the gospel since the rise of the Gnostic heresy in the second century, and for some of the same reasons...In a happier frame I suspect that...postmodernism is proving rather successful at undermining the extraordinary hubris of modernism, and no thoughtful Christian can be entirely sad about that" (The Gagging of God, p.10).
Individuals involved in dialogue with postmoderns need to better grasp and appreciate the good parts of postmodernism. Or—viewed another way—we should seek to dispel modern negative myths about most postmoderns. McLaren has noted several misconceptions that Christians have about postmoderns. The first myth: postmoderns don't believe in truth. It would be more accurate to say that most postmoderns simply doubt anyone's ability to know absolute truth. They would concur that such a thing as absolute truth exists—but it beyond our apprehension and comprehension. It is impossible to encode in language. McLaren points out a second myth: postmoderns don't care about truth. Rather, they don't want "to pretend a subjective opinion or 'view from a point' is more than it really." He continues, "…they care so much about truth, they question the ability of language to convey it very fully."
The danger in misunderstanding or misrepresenting postmodernism—and reducing most of it to being evil or suspect—is that you can end up feeling as though you have to convert a postmodern to modernism before you can convert him or her to Christ. Instead, McLaren urges us to become less modern and more postmodern. He quotes Eugene Peterson's rendering of I Corinthians 9: "I didn't take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view."
We need to understand and engage the postmodern world. We have to be careful not to reduce all of this worldview down to it’s more unfortunate parts, and then decry it’s entire existence. Evangelicals have a tendency toward this kind of behavior. We have a history of rallying people against "secular humanism" or communism, or whatever … never taking into account what made those movements attractive to people in the first place. They all had some elements of truth in them. When we are reductionist, it may make it easier for the casual Christian to understand the world we live in, but it demonizes those we might not completely agree with. And it makes it harder for us to connect with them and share our faith. At the end of the day, we see ourselves as pure, and others as impure. A little caution and discernment would serve us well, for we can get into the suburbs of Pharisaism without knowing it. How do we avoid becoming reductionist?
I can suggest a few ideas, none of which represent historical trademarks of evangelicals.
Tom Wolf recently remarked at the annual meeting of the North American Society for Church Growth, "It will take us longer to talk to people than the Four Spiritual Laws which assumes a Western and basically Judeo–Christian orientation. We must take time to start further out in our discussion and take more time in arriving at our discussion points."
Wolf knows that few people like to have their idols knocked over. The Four Spiritual Laws has enjoyed a record of success as few evangelistic tracts ever have. But we have a tendency to hang on (too long?) to tools and forms that have served us well. The Salvation Army effectively used a military dress and motif to garner respect over one–hundred years ago. Today, even though I respect their work, they are viewed as cultural antiques. If you want to impact people for Christ (that’s our function), you have to be willing to consider new ways to do it (that’s our forms) all the time. No form is sacred. I think we’ll have to rely more than ever on art, music, literature and drama to communicate our message. Wolf adds, "People in a postmodern world need images to ponder. Movies, not manuscripts, will motivate the postmodern audience. You talk about a movie and then you can parable the truth from the movie or images from TV."
Learning to think will have to become a higher priority as the world continues to evolve. In a postmodern world, those who desire to communicate with the culture must be gifted at more than simply doing exegesis, evangelism, and strategic planning. We will also need believers who can do excellent cultural exegesis on the philosophical level.
Philosophy. Who studies that anymore? And why study it?
J.P. Moreland writes that philosophy "…undergirds all the other disciplines (including theology) at a foundational level by clarifying, defending, or criticizing the essential presuppositions of that discipline. The early centuries of the Christian church benefited from the powerful role that philosophically trained apologists exerted. The Christian community's commitment to developing philosophical thinking gave it the ability to engage and influence the culture, even though the fledgling church was a minority movement." Mark Noll, in his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, argues that we have historically bypassed the head to get to the heart, developing a Christian piety that is unable to think and contribute to the marketplace of ideas. We have to commit ourselves to better educating followers of Christ.
Thomas Reeves underscores this point dramatically. "Christianity in American … tends to be superficial. For one thing, its adherents are poorly educated in the faith. [Pollster George Gallup] refers to 'a nation of biblical illiterates' and presents solid evidence: only four in ten Americans know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospels of the New Testament; only three teenagers in ten know why Easter is celebrated. 'More than half of all Americans read the Bible less than once a month,' Gallup reports, 'including 24 percent who say they never read it and 6 percent who can't recall the last time they read the Bible.'"
Evangelicals, by and large, have a "burning house" mentality when it comes to evangelism. Save all that we can. Quickly. We talk more in terms of the harvest, and less of sowing. We tend to celebrate decisions, and not discipleship that strengthens faith and builds deeper commitments to the Lord. Remember the Peace Corps’ maxim in the 1960’s? It’s better to give a farmer some seeds and teach them to sow and harvest, than to give them food. We’ll be more productive in the long run if we celebrate increasing production capacity rather than only highlighting production as much as we do. This means finding the time to do careful study and finding the funds to empower gifted individuals to think deeply about our faith and the culture. Otherwise, we can appear to be highly pragmatic.
Stephen Covey's excellent book The Seven habits of Highly Effective People argues that leaders are always investing in long–term pay–offs. Rather than simply having an eye for immediate profits, effective individuals also can see the wisdom in developing the capacity for greater impact down the line. Evangelicals are good at being activists. And that works well as long as the culture shares some common assumptions with the church. But when the winds change, we also need better thinkers.
The proliferation of simplistic Christian how–to books, and the absence of informed opinions concerning current cultural concerns reveals our lack of a well–developed Christian worldview. J.P. Moreland challenges us to think about the need for worldview: "A psychologist reads literature regarding identical twins who are reared in separate environments. He notes that they usually exhibit similar adult behavior. He then wonders what free will amounts to, if there really is any such thing. And if not, he ponders what to make of moral responsibility and punishment. A political science professor reads John Rawls' Theory of Justice and grapples with the idea that society's primary goods could be distributed in such a way that those on the bottom get the maximum benefit even if people at the top have to be constrained. He wonders how this compares with meritocracy, in which individual merit is rewarded regardless of social distribution. Several questions run through his mind: What is the state? How should a Christian view the state and the church? What is justice, and what principles of social ordering ought we to adopt? Should one seek a Christian state or merely a just state? A neurophysiologist establishes specific correlations between certain brain functions and certain feelings of pain, and she puzzles over the question of whether there is a soul or mind distinct from the brain. An anthropologist notes that cultures frequently differ over basic moral principles and whether this proves there are no objectively true moral values that transcend culture. An education major is asked to state his philosophy of education. In order to do his, he must share his views of human nature, truth, how people learn, the roles of values in education, and so on. He wonders how his Christian convictions inform these issues."
A well–developed Christian worldview that is coherent, cogent, and comprehensive could help our efforts to penetrate every strata of society and win the world. Otherwise, we risk disappearing off the radar screen of cultural influence.
I will admit to a regular fatigue when it comes to thinking about people and presuppositions. Frankly, it seems easier to throw a dart at the chart of history, and pick out a time in the past where I can fantasize about life being superior to the present time. For some Christians, they claim the time of the Reformation as being the height of human history. For others, the church fathers offer solace. Still others emphasize the need for a charismatic renewal. I’m sure that all of these epochs of history have their merits. But when Christians romanticize about times past, we give off a scent wanting to die rather than continue to think about going forward.
Diogenes Allen, in an article The End of the Modern World writes this provocative analysis: "...if you are a Christian, the end of the modern world means the collapse of a secular creed, the creed that has dominated university and research centers. The end of the modern world means that Christianity is liberated from the narrow, constricting, asphyxiating stranglehold of the modern world. The way the modern mentality affected and continues to affect theology is splendidly captured in an allegory presented by Basil Mitchell in the Nathaniel Taylor Lectures for 1986 at Yale University. Mitchell pictures traditional Christian theology as a barge going down a river. On one side of the river are shoals representing the works of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, which enshrine some of the most serious intellectual barriers in modern times to Christian belief. To avoid some of these shoals, theologians have either jettisoned some of the cargo (Christian claims) to lighten the barge and sail safely over them, or they have swung sharply to the other bank and become premodern. (In this latter swing)...they retain the language of traditional Christianity but at the price of repudiating in various degrees the need to take into account knowledge from any other domain. For those who become premodern, Christian doctrines can be affirmed and discussed as if Hume’s and Kant’s objections simply do not exist."
Allen concludes: "The way forward is forward. The actual situation that they (Kant and Hume) formed has collapsed. Christian philosophers and theologians no longer need to labor within the tight, asphyxiating little world of the Enlightenment or to become premodern."
It seems to mean that many Christians—unintentionally—are advocating that we either become premodern or modern in our assumptions about life, and then all will get better. But haven’t we been there before? Is there not a danger when we uncritically embrace premodern or modern assumptions about reality? What are the possible dangers?
Stephen Carter, in his book The Culture of Disbelief notes that, "...many political leaders, commentators, scholars, and voters are coming to view any religious element in public moral discourse as a tool of the radical right for reshaping American society.…We have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them." Adopting modern assumptions about life has ushered in an age of naturalism that pushed supernaturalistic assumptions about life to the edge of being irrelevant. Modern assumptions have marginalized and trivialized Christianity. Do we want this to continue?
Os Guinness writes that, "...religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance." This is what Carter means by marginalization. Christian thinking today is treated as being trivial. Tim Stafford, in a recent article entitled Robertson R Us, suggests that Pat Robertson often symbolizes all that is both good and bad about modern evangelicalism. While current evangelicalism is fervent, somewhat popular, and activist; it is unable to penetrate our country’s basic worldview. Stafford writes, "In his (Pat Robertson's) own wealthy nation, with it's Christian heritage, he is relegated to a broadcast ghetto he can't break out of. So, to some extent, is evangelicalism, which thrives in Houston but can't get to first base in Manhattan or Hollywood." The result is that America, in the words of Peter Berger, is "a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes." Berger’s point is that while this nation's people are profoundly religious in their outlook, our leaders tend to be profoundly irreligious. The culture at large—and the media in particular—view religious thought as trivial.
The trivialization of religious thought results in an increasingly pluralized nation. By pluralization, I refer again to Os Guinness: "…there are a competing number of worldviews available to our members, and no one worldview is dominant." With pluralization, people in our country feel free to believe in anything now—and they demand to be respected for it. G.K. Chesterton foresaw this situation many years ago: "The problem of disbelieving in God," he said, "is not that a man ends up believing nothing. Alas, it is much worse. He ends up believing anything." Or, as Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: "We have educated ourselves into imbecility."
The result is that tolerance is now king of the culture. And Christians who hold to truth are viewed as being culturally gauche. Fewer and fewer evangelicals feel confident to express certainty about their faith. We might be seeing the immense impact of pluralism in the culture and the church when we read from a recent article by Ravi Zacharias that, "According to a study by George Barna in 1991, 52% of evangelicals said they did not believe in absolute truth. In 1994, that figure rose to 62%." The difficulty with this statistic is not that Christians today disavow what they believe...rather, they are uncertain if Christ’s inclusivist claims holds for those outside the church also. This is why Ravi Zacharias has written:
For the Christian this is where the battle must be fought, for no worldview suffers more from the loss of truth than the Christian one. In a culture where truth no longer exists, the very cardinal statement of Jesus, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' become meaningless. And unless truth as a category is defended, every commitment that is made because of a commitment to Christ will be deemed a 'mere belief' and differentiated from fact, thereby making it unworthy of intellectual assent.
The impact of pluralism leaves many believers uneasy in this postmodern and tolerant culture. Norm Geisler writes, "Tolerance has become a self–evident virtue in our society and a closed–minded [intolerance], a sign of ignorance and depravity." When believers articulate any truth claim, one immediately senses the listener cringing at the thought of such an intolerant proposition. My friend, for example, finds it inconceivable that Jesus would ever be so narrow. Unless we develop better avenues for dialoguing with seekers, most believers will feel a growing uneasiness in talking about their faith … not wanting to appear to be harsh, narrow, and intolerant.
The history of Christendom could be characterized as Christians waiting for the next philosophical movement to arise, and then reacting against it. We rarely get ahead of the game intellectually, so that we can be seen as offering a better solution. Where is our vision for a better world? Our anger has accomplished little. The "dumbing down" of America threatens to undo us. Talk shows have made an art form of silly arguing, name–calling, and hotheadedness. We have to be careful that we do not adopt such approaches. We could become even more reactionary, unnecessarily confrontational, and superficial than we have demonstrated we can be.
So where do we go from here?
I Chronicles 12:32: "...The sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do..."
I want to suggest that there are several considerations that we can pursue in impacting a postmodern culture. But they probably need to be considered in a certain order. Allow me to develop these ideas:
When you ask "What constitutes evangelism?," you’d probably get as many answers as you have respondents. I believe that James Engels of Eastern College has a paradigm that is effective in considering evangelism in a postmodern culture. He urges believers to think of outreach as a continuum. At the far left of the continuum is an individual who has rather large and negative hurdles to cross before considering the claims of Christ. That person would be considered a "–10." (The higher the number on the left, the greater the hostility toward God.) This could be a friend who is belligerent toward anything religious. The lower the negative numbers (the more you move toward the right on the continuum), the more individuals are increasingly open to the gospel. They are not yet followers of Christ, but will consider His claims. The scribe in Mark 12:34 is someone who (as described by Jesus) was "not far from the kingdom of God." The middle of the continuum represents the point of decision—when a person trusts Christ for the first time in their life. It is this point in the continuum that we have too often considered more to be true evangelism. But this is too narrow a view of evangelism in light of both the Bible and the age in which we live. It leaves too few trying to reach too many. It is likely that the fastest growing segment of our culture is the –4 to –10. These are people who are not receptive to traditional evidential apologetics or traditional tracts and presentations. They have questions based in postmodern assumptions about life and reality. Addressing postmodernism, therefore, must play a part in our introduction of Christ's claims.
The higher numbers on the right of the midpoint reflect deepening trust and maturity in the Lord. The goal of any ministry initiative will be to help people move from hostility toward God—to love for Him (Deut.6:5). Engels makes the argument that anything we do along the scale with anyone is evangelism. One point on the scale is not necessarily more important or fruitful than any other. At every point, you are evidencing and explaining the kingdom—–which is what evangelism is all about. In a postmodern culture, our understanding of what constitutes sharing the gospel must be broadened so that we give legitimacy to efforts at developing a shared worldview and establishing common ground. In this way, we empower individuals to see (and feel) the value of engaging in discussions surrounding worldviews...not just sharing The Four Spiritual Laws (a gospel presentation particularly geared to the modern thinker). Cultural apologetics is elevated to a more central role. We are then less tempted to think of "sharing the claims of Christ"—or getting to the sinner's prayer in a presentation—as being the most important event in evangelism. More individuals might feel empowered to do the hard spadework of developing postmodern apologetics that is currently left to too few individuals. In a postmodern world, we can not afford to have only a few believers interacting on the philosophical level of culture.
Second, we need to comprehend the large amount of common ground we can share with postmoderns. Dennis McCallum, author of The Death of Truth, suggests that there are several beliefs and values in postmodern culture that correspond partly or completely with a historical Christian worldview. These form a common ground where we can establish rapport. Here are his five tenets of postmodernism that give us a convenient bridge:
Third, evangelicals need to feel more comfortable entering the world of the postmodern. Remember the apostle Paul’s words? "I didn't take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view." Brian McLaren believes that postmodernism gives us some exciting opportunities. He lists several "Opportunity Maximizers" in his new book. Several of his ideas deserve consideration and experimentation:
In this chapter, we have examined not only some of the tenets of postmodernism, but how they share common ground with biblical Christianity. We discussed the risks to evangelizing postmoderns associated with the temptation to revert to either pre–modern or modern modes of thinking. We then offered some approaches to a generation that, as one commentator put it, "thinks with their feelings." In the next chapter, we will briefly discuss some ways to engage the postmodern audience.
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