Thursday, December 21, 2006

Untangling Postmodernism

As the resident postmodern, I was recently asked to give a 'seminar' at church on reaching postmodern culture. It followed a seminar the previous week on the difference between modernism and postmodernism (which I didn't give). That talk outlined the changes that have taken place, and some of the key features of postmodern. But his of course left the following question in everyone's minds: “If the world is seeing things from a postmodern point of view, how does this affect the way we tell them about Jesus?”

I learned a huge amount by listening to the talks from the Desiring God 2006 conference, which was on “The Supremacy of Christ in Postmodern Culture” (see below for a list of helpful references). Tim Keller made reference to a talk by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It's from a talk about revival he gave about 60 years ago (I've abridged it slightly)...

"I see a very great difference between today and... even one hundred years ago. The difficulty in those earlier times was that men and women were in a state of apathy. They were more or less asleep... there was no general denial of Christian truth. It was just that people did not trouble to practise it... in a sense, all you had to do then was to awaken them and to rouse them, and to disturb them out of their lethargy. The problem for us is not apathy... it is something much more profound... the very belief in God has virtually gone.”

[From The Urgent Need for Revival Today, and address by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 1959!]

Lloyd-Jones saw this happening 60 years ago. The problem has, unsurprisingly, got worse since then (although I wonder how things would have turned out if people had listened to him – have a look at Preachers and Preaching and see how many of the warnings he gives have come true...).

When those with a modern mindset (or who have been trained to do evangelism from a modern mindset?) try to reach those with a postmodern mindset, they can bring assumptions which no longer hold true. Tim Keller, in his DG talk, identifies 3 basic problems in reaching postmoderns with the gospel...

Truth – to postmoderns, truth claims are seen to be exclusive (which is bad) and power-play, claiming authority over others.
Guilt – older ways of communicating the gospel assumed people have a guilty conscience. (as per Romans 2v15). But today, in the absence of authority or moral absolutes, it is deeply hidden and easily ignored.
Meaning – words and texts no longer have a fixed meaning, which makes communication difficult and extremely relativistic.

In reacting to modernism, postmodernism has rejected a lot. But the reaction to modernism has also led to postmoderns seeking certain things. Particularly...
Authenticity – in a world of spin, being 'real' becomes more important than ever.
Community – our culture is individual and separated. Postmoderns are searching for real community.
Plausability – as truth is downgraded, what works becomes key.
Answers – to deep questions, like “who am I?” and “why am I here?” Those offered by postmodern secular humanism are pretty bleak.

Many people claim that 'traditional methods' are becoming increasingly less effective (although I'm not sure what those people base this claim on). If this is true, where does it leave us? We're usually given three options...
1. Keep doing the same thing – a position which evangelicals are particularly guilty of. We assume that if God has used one method in the past, he will continue to use it. It is postmoderns who have the problem, not us. Eventually they'll get over it.
2. Change our methods – we can think up new and creative ways of presenting Jesus to postmoderns, but without trying to understand how postmoderns think. This has led to some interesting new ways of doing things, which connect with postmoderns. But there are dangers to which it is easy to succumb...
Compromise the Gospel – the Gospel is changed to make it more acceptable, by leaving bits out or 'reinterpreting' key terms.
Add to the Gospel – the Gospel is elaborated, the wrong bits are emphasised, or false promises are made (e.g. prosperity gospel, promises of healing etc).
Hide the Gospel – the Gospel is kept the same, but hidden so as not to offend (e.g. building relationships, but never actually sharing the gospel with those people).
None of these will bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ.
3. Dive in! Think like postmoderns, talk like postmoderns, live like postmoderns. Here, I don't just mean 'contextualisation or attempting to engage, but actually rewriting our theology incorporating the postmodern worldview and thinking. This usually has the same outcomes as point two, but it represents a change to the foundations as well as to the structures of theology, in that key ideas like authority and absolutes are questioned.

I don't think any of the above solutions represents a complete answer, because each one puts the wrong thing at the centre. What we actually need is to go back to the Gospel. So we should not move away from it or 'develop' beyond it. But this will also be radically different to just doing the same thing we've been doing for decades.

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”
[Romans 1v16]

This hasn't changed! The Gospel is still “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”. Faith still comes through hearing the Word of God proclaimed (Rom 10v14). So the answer cannot be to give up on preaching the Gospel! But we need to make sure that when the Gospel is proclaimed (whether up-front or one-to-one), we frame it in a way that will connect (and it will, because it carries the power of God!).

Yet this isn't just a case of finding new illustrations or using film clips. For this really to happen, we need to rediscover the Gospel for ourselves! The Gospel is not just the bare minimum that we have to believe to be saved – it is the whole truth of what God has done for us, in Christ. The gospel has been filtered through modernism, which has left us with confessions – lists of propositions of truth. If they are Biblical, they are helpful and true, but they are not the whole Gospel. And they don't scratch where postmoderns itch. But the Gospel itself will. If we get back to the heart of the Gospel ourselves, it will affect us, and it will address the needs and desires of postmodern people.

  • The Gospel is authentic – it connects with real people, and deals with real problems. We need to let our lives show, so people can see this.
  • The Gospel brings community in a way that nothing else can.
  • The Gospel is plausible. Simply, it works. We should be willing to show people it works, by sharing our lives, our struggle and hurts, and how the reality of the Gospel affects them.
  • The Gospel gives answers; not just propositions of truth, but answers which address every area of life, to a depth which nothing else can reach.

This all raises a lot more questions than it answers (which was actually my intention). Some of the questions which occurred to me were...

  • What common ground do we share with postmoderns?
  • What is the place of preaching (particularly expository preaching) in postmodern culture?
  • What is the place of apologetics?
  • What priority should holiness and lifestyle issues be given?
  • How would a postmodern feel in church?
  • Who should change, us or them?

I want to try to answer these questions, and I'll share my thoughts here as they appear. But, in the mean time, I'd love to hear feedback.

Helpful Resources:
All of the following are excellent...

For getting your head round postmodernism, try Meltdown, by Marcus Honeysett. For a slightly more in-depth look at how this relates to the church, have a look at Carson's Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church.


At 1:18 PM, Blogger Jonny said...

Hi Gareth
On the point about what would have happened if we had listened to M L-J 60 years ago: I have been reading the Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and after reading the first chapter (the book was written 70 years ago) thought it was disturbingly relevant to the church today. I wonder if it is because these are the same problems that just haven't been dealt with (a scary thought, if it means the church just doesn't react, even after 60-70 years) or whether it is just because there is nothing new under the sun?

At 12:24 AM, Blogger peterdray said...

Thanks Gareth for that, this has got me thinking a bit...

Jonny's comments first: I think there's an element to which it's both things. The church has been slow in adapting to witnessing to an increasingly Biblically-illiterate and relativistic culture. I guess that's not new. However, the shift to the postmodern worldview and all of its moral implications is something that is new to Western philosophy in its modern guise. So MLJ's warning has direct contemporary as well as more general application (I think).

However, I guess something that stands out from what you've said and my own recent thinking is that lifestyle is becoming increasingly important as a part of our witness to 'postmoderns'. Postmodern teaching rightly sees that talk can be very cheap. It's true. Many claims to truth are unsubstantiated, and there are many claims to 'truth' that conflict with each other. And we're all just too wary of getting sucked into something that sounds plausible but is false or (perhaps worse) not good, or even evil. And so presenting the gospel as true and coherent is vitally important, but, as Michael Ramsden says, people also need to see the goodness of the gospel. I guess, as I alluded in a previous thought on this blog, that increasingly means seeking to bring postmodern unbelievers into contact with churches where there is a Spirit-given love between believers. To a postmodern, it seems to me to proclaim one gospel and yet not live by it is giving with one hand and taking away with another (not yet sure what this means practically about church for postmoderns, but I think love covers a multitude of errors!). And this doesn't mean that Christians need to give the impression of being perfect - in fact, far from it - but we do have to show that we are authentic Christians, and that we seek to live out the gospel of grace in our own lives and in the way we treat others.

I believe in preaching and in verbal gospel proclamation, and the shift into postmodernism doesn't change that. I do think that some changes are required in gospel presentation, both in conversational evangelism and in preaching. God's gospel remains powerful and we can continue to have confidence in it.

I have found James Sire's book 'Why Good Arguments Often Fail' tremendously helpful here, particularly on presenting the gospel to those who have been brought up with an uncritical view of naturalistic evolution (with emphasis on 'naturalistic') and relativism. He shows that this does require some changes in rhetoric and vocabulary.

What Sire also says is that we should be seeking, over time, to bring relativistic (postmodern?) non-believers to their own 'moment of truth', where the moral implications of their response to the gospel becomes apparent. He describes the 'moment of truth' idea like this:

'Nothing in Christian witness is more important than to bring a person to their own moment of truth. There are several ways that this occurs.

'First, those you are speaking to may suddenly see what they have not seen before and be led to place their faith in Jesus Christ. This, of course, is the main goal of Christian witness among unbelievers.

'Second, a person's moment of truth may be to recognise that they have been playing with fire, to see that the issues that have kept them from following Christ are nothing but a mask for self-justification. They may realise that they need to become serious about their religious beliefs and behaviour. Implicitly, they will know that 'honesty is the best policy.' Their moment of truth requires that they start behaving in accord with what they know is right. They can move on in their spiritual quest with an open ind and a willing heart.'

I guess the other thing that we need to remember is that God the Holy Spirit is at work and he is sovereign. Sire is again brilliant here. Here's how he closes his chapter on relativism: 'As Christian witnesses, we can do nothing to force the acceptance of the truth. How nonbelievers come to believe is their business and the business of the Holy Spirit. But we can, should and do pray that the moment of truth leads to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.'

Be interested to hear what others think!

At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Dave K said...

Pete, your comments about lifestyle remind me of the famous ways that both Schaeffer and Newbigin emphasise the importance of Christian's lives as witnesses to the gospel (Schaeffer with his 'final apologetic' and Newbigin's 'hermeneutic of the gospel'). But of course it was there in the bible as well (John 17:23 comes to mind). [Although as Oldfield's recent book recommendation to be is saying pomo is very similar to polytheism, which was the context of both Testaments.]

Wait I must stop.... I'm getting sucked in here and have no time...
Happy New Year folks!

At 6:31 PM, Blogger Chris O said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger Chris O said...

pete: what then is the place of preachers
(NB not preaching), but full time speakers - doesnt that just ring of distance & futile for a postmodern world?

you know this is what I found most hypocritical in myself last year, encouraging a lifestyle witness that I couldnt live myself, and I expect you know why I'm asking. You've pretty well explained my fears.


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