Evangelizing the Postmodern Man
by Rick Shrader
This paper has been presented to pastors’ meetings (March, June 1999). It has been published in The Baptist Preacher, September/October, 1999.
The battle for the soul of postmodern man is a dilemma: how do you bring the truth of the gospel to a man who does not believe in truth? Perhaps Blaise Pascal said it best centuries ago, “Truth today is so obscure and error so established, that unless we love truth, we will never know it.”1 Today, more than at any time, if the Christian does not have his “loins girt about with truth” (Ep 6:14), he will be fooled by the double-speak of a generation that uses truth (and the truth of the gospel) for its own convenience.
We are hearing quite a lot today about postmodernism and we are hearing postmodernism used as an excuse for a myriad of evangelistic methodologies. But as is usually the case, we will not know whether the present efforts are truly bearing fruit until enough time has gone by for it to be too late to change. The present danger is increased by the fact that postmodernism’s basic tenet is that all beliefs are equally valid and all are to be accepted or rejected in light of one’s own convenience. We cannot, as Carl Henry writes, “run the risk of forgetting that nothing that postmodernism affirms is to be taken as objective truth.”2
The Difficulty of the Biblical Perspective
We start at this point not to re-teach the doctrines of sin and salvation, but to highlight the root of the problem. If a person will not repent, that person will not get saved. Postmodern man’s credo is “to thine own self be true.” We must understand where it is we are taking him before we ask him to go along. “If our comprehension of this relatedness is not clear at its base, we cannot give basic solutions to effect a cure.”3
This is a broken world.
The Bible teaches that the present world situation is not the way God made it. Sin has entered and has disrupted nature, the make-up of human beings and the fellowship human beings have with their Creator. This was Francis Schaeffer’s starting point in dealing with what he called a “post-Christian” society in the sixties and seventies. He said in various books, “The Bible, however, also says that man is fallen; . . . Therefore, people are now abnormal.”4 “Of course we know, as we look across mankind and as we look in our own hearts, that man is not what he was originally made to be.”5 “Christ died for a man who had true moral guilt because he had made a real and true choice.”6
Sin, however, is not a concept that postmodern man is willing to accept. To him, if no standard of positive morality exists, neither does any standard of negative morality. Once morality (true right and wrong) is eliminated, it becomes impossible to violate the standard any longer. Lockerbie writes, “History shows that, without recognition of a universal moral Good, man readily assumes that what satisfies his lusts and indulges his pride may logically be called good.”7 He must be made to see, in reality, that to make such a statement is itself a moral proposition, and relies on some appeal to justice for its reliability.
Law is a God-given teacher of morality.
The apostle Paul argues, in Romans 1-3, that God has given not only the Mosaic Law to show the Jews their sin, but also the Moral Law to show the Gentiles their sin. Paul writes, For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another (Rom 2:14-15). Even Immanuel Kant’s own moral syllogism was: All people are conscious of an objective moral law; moral laws imply a moral Lawgiver; Therefore, there must be a supreme moral Lawgiver.8
In our Western, postmodern culture today, the Moral Law is much more useful than the Mosaic Law. Every day the postmodern man must make choices with moral implications. The very action of making a moral choice forces the individual to assume the presence of a higher Moral Law. Beckwith explains, “Certain moral rules are not conclusions we reach; they are premises we begin with. All moral reasoning must start with foundational concepts that can only be known by intuition, which is why one doesn’t carry the burden of proof in clear-case examples of moral truth.”9 As Schaeffer said, “Ideas are never neutral and abstract. Ideas have consequences in the way we live and act, both in our personal lives and in the culture as a whole.”10
The Law’s function is to condemn.
The curse of the Law, whether Mosaic or Moral, is that no one can keep it. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them (Gal 3:10). For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all (James 2:10). For any person to be saved he must first come to the point of repentance; and for him to repent he must first be convinced by God’s Law that he is a sinner and in need of salvation.
C.S. Lewis, one of our century’s best apologists, wrote, “An accusation always implies a standard.”11 A sinner must stand accused by the Law, by a Moral Standard far above himself and to which he must answer. The challenge is to keep the Moral Law before the postmodern man, not as a psychological therapy, but as a necessary step to repentance. Paul told the Colossians that Christ had blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross (Col 2:14). Until a person sees that he is against God’s Moral law, and it is truly contrary to him, he is neither in a place of repentance nor near the foot of the cross.
The Deception of the Postmodern Perspective
If we ask the question whether it is possible to know all the facts of the gospel and still be lost; whether it is possible for a person to be in and around the Christian church and yet not be a part of it spiritually; whether apostasy from within the church might be a prominent deception at the end of the age; then the deceptive nature of postmodern faith is of great concern. Jude said, These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear (Jude 12). John said, They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us (1 John 2:19). Notice how both men warn that there are such false believers already inside the church.
The purpose here is not merely to identify apostasy in our own age, but to do everything within our power to keep sinners from falling into its insidious trap. Beginning to understand the thinking of our own postmodern generation is the place we must start.
Modernism: tethered to morality though stretched to the limit
It has generally been agreed that postmodernism is in some sense a time designation. Thomas Oden put it, “If modernity is a period characterized by a worldview which is now concluding, then whatever it is that comes next in time can plausibly be called postmodernity.”12 The baby boomers came into this generation as modernists but they will go out as postmodernists. As modernists, they were tied to two hundred years of modern thinking, spanning the time from the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century Sixties.
During this time (the modern era) science had “closed” the universe. No longer did man wish to think of avenues open to God and His revelation, whether through nature or Scripture. Man had become supreme and was answerable to no Higher Being than himself. He began by chance and would end by his own destruction or utopia. Whatever feelings of divinity he might experience were there purely by the same chance that caused him to be there. Those feelings were binding on him only if he chose to make them so. At least, this is what the culturally elite were now selling to the common man.
But even modern man was still tethered to older teachings of conscience and morality. Though he may have dismissed the idea of a transcendent deity who prescribed moral laws, modern man nonetheless lived by laws derived from his surroundings. This is called moral relativism because the morals are relative, or related to, the society from which they are derived.
Beckwith and Koukl give three varieties of moral relativism13: 1) “Society Does” relativism gets its moral code by whatever society happens to be doing. Cannibalism is moral in a society where cannibalism is common practice. The same is true of lying, stealing, adultery or murder. This is also called cultural or descriptive relativism. 2) “Society Says” relativism gets its moral code by making imperatives out of what society consciously determines should be right and wrong. What one society decides is not necessarily right for another. This is also called conventional or normative relativism. 3) “I Say” relativism, known also as individual relativism or ethical subjectivism, is morality that is good for no one but the individual. One man’s moral code has no bearing on another’s.
The modernist was not a theist, but neither was he necessarily amoral. His morality was more social or economic and depended on the collective will of the people to determine. One of the great voices of modernism, Will Durant wrote, “I survive morally because I retain the moral code that was taught me along with the religion, while I have discarded the religion, which was Roman Catholicism. You and I are living on a shadow . . . because we are operating on the Christian ethical code which was given us, unfused with the Christian faith . . . But what will happen to our children . . . ? We are not giving them an ethics warmed up with a religious faith. They are living on the shadow of a shadow.”14 The “children” are those who are post-modern!
Postmodernism: severed from morality altogether.
Ironically, though the postmodern child is more amoral than the modern father, the postmodern is more consistent with his world-view. The last two hundred years of British and American literature is a testimony to modern man’s struggle to find some consistency, to make any sense, of a moral universe without a God who gives the moral laws. Most modern writers, poets and artists ended their lives and careers in despair.
The search for consistency ended in the 1960s. All hope of finding some connection between God, morality and living our everyday lives was abandoned. Veith writes, “Faced with the inherent meaninglessness of life, modernists impose an order upon it, which they then treat as being objective and universally binding. Postmodernists, on the other hand, live with and affirm the chaos, considering any order to be only provisional and varying from person to person.”15 The postmodernist has opted for the “I Say” relativism.
For him, it is useless to strive to keep rules and “oughts” if there truly is no power “out there” that makes it incumbent. As a matter of fact, if there is no power “out there” then our existence is all by chance; we are just a random coincidence of atoms bumping into one another. A man is the same as a rock or tree. All are made from the same material and came about by the same coincidence. Is it not right to conclude, therefore, that nothing “of substance” exists? Our thoughts are a mirage created by the same atoms bumping around in our brain. They really aren’t there because nothing is there except random matter. Benjamin Woolley says, “Artificial reality is the authentic postmodern condition, and virtual reality its definitive technological expression. . . . The artificial is the authentic.”16
Ravi Zacharias recently wrote, “Herein lies the crucial death in our times. There is no transcendent context within which to discuss moral theory. Just as words in order to have meaning must point beyond themselves to a commonly understood real existence, so, also, must the reality point beyond itself to commonly accepted essence. Otherwise, reality has no moral quotient whatsoever and moral meaning dissolves into the subjective, rendering it beyond debate. Only the transcendent can unchangingly provide fixed moral worth.”17 In other words, if there is no God then there is no purpose for being alive; and if there is no real purpose in life, how can anything be right or wrong, i.e., moral?
Results from being severed from morality.
Though this section is rightly reserved for a different emphasis than the current article can explore, a few obvious examples are briefly given.
Power is the only imperative. As in the animal world or the world of flowers and weeds, the thing that is the strongest will win. If man is no different in his essential make-up, then he is also subjected to this point of view. When we have reduced our actions to non-personal atoms and chance, the fact that some atoms end up on top of others has nothing to do with morality. R. V. Young of North Carolina State University, calls this Nominalism and describes its consequences: “Nominalism, which begins as an epistemological idea, eventually breeds moral consequences: if universal terms are only subjective mental conventions, then universals such as the natural law cannot apply to all men, at all times, and in all places. The result is moral relativism, which means that those with sufficient power can alter the law to suit their convenience”18
Culture is the only religion. To the postmodern man, the self-expressions of humans are the only valid spiritual statements. Ravi Zacharias wrote of these, “Religion is the essence of culture while culture is the dress of religion.” Worship becomes a celebration of self-expression, whether it is the act of prayer, singing, Scripture reading or “accepting Jesus.”19 It is truly worshiping worship, or as Francis Schaeffer saw in the sixties: “The significant thing is that rationalistic, humanistic man began by saying that Christianity was not rational enough. Now he has come around in a wide circle and ended as a mystic—though a mystic of a special kind. He is a mystic with nobody there. The old mystics always said that there was somebody there, but the new mystic says that that does not matter, because faith is the important thing. It is faith in faith, whether expressed in secular or religious terms.”20
Lying is the only truth. Words have become someone else’s manipulation of events. The postmodern man dismisses history as a huge conspiracy of the powerful over the oppressed. Words are only sounds or scribbles on a page until the listener or reader attaches the meaning that is in his mind. Therefore, the only meaning which is valid is the one he puts on the words. Lying, then, is dismissed. The meaning one person put on those words, doesn’t have to be the meaning another person put on those same words. To say that my meaning is more valid than yours would be arrogant and hateful and that is worse than any supposed lying could ever be! Besides, with no moral right and wrong possible, lying is an impossibility, a “non-truth” at best.
This is not just a word game, like an exercise in spiritual Scrabble where the most adroit verbiage wins. Timothy Phillips & Dennis Okholm bring the situation into focus by writing, “What is at stake here in the debate over postmodernism’s vocabulary is ultimately our vision of the truth and moral order.”21
The Primacy of the Evangelistic Perspective
Schaeffer wrote, “The Christian must resist the spirit of the world in the form it takes in his own generation. If he does not do this he is not resisting the spirit of the world at all.”22 Luther said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.”23
Higher attempts to tether the world to morality.
Many Christian men are laboring to challenge the postmodern culture at the point of moral accountability, primarily on the university campuses. C.S. Lewis saw this age coming and wrote about it in books like The Abolition of Man, with his chapter titled “Men Without Chests.” Schaeffer challenged the sixties with concepts such as man falling “below the line of despair.” Recently, men such as Ravi Zacharias, Os Guinness, Neil Postman, Allan Bloom and Gene Edward Veith are working to reestablish a moral compass to our culture. Their sphere of influence and credibility reaches into areas where most of us cannot go and we ought to be thankful that they are there.
Their argument often follows what Schaeffer wrote in 1968, “The sobering fact is that the only way one can reject thinking in terms of an antithesis and the rational is on the basis of the rational and the antithesis. When a man says that thinking in terms of an antithesis is wrong, what he is really doing is using the concept of antithesis to deny antithesis.”24 J. P. Moreland wrote, “When a statement fails to satisfy itself (i.e., to conform to its own criteria of validity or acceptability), it is self-refuting. Such statements are necessarily false. The facts which falsify them are unavoidably given with the statement when it is uttered.”25 So when a postmodern says, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” he is using an absolute truth-statement as his proof. When he says, “Morals cannot exist in our world,” he is claiming a moral imperative (“cannot”) to prove his point. So go many of the campus debates.
Practical attempts to preach the gospel with integrity.
Pastors and other Christian workers most often cross paths with postmodern thinking by seeing it in people who are not even aware they are thinking that way. The Christian may be criticized for being bigoted or biased because he claims that Christianity is the only way to heaven. An immoral person may lash back at his accusers as being worse in their judgmentalism than he is in his immorality. The Bible student whose deepest exegesis is “I just believe that . . . ,” may defend his method as being more open-minded and Spirit-filled because it is emotionally charged. In many ways we have become postmodern in our thinking as believers. Here are some suggestions to guard against this error.
We must not feed the selfish nature on the one hand, and then ask it to repent on the other. This is like pouring water on a weed everyday but all the while hoping it will wilt and die. The book of Acts is filled with confrontation over the gospel, not praise by sinners in need of repentance. This is because the Apostles were asking sinful people to recognize their sinful condition and renounce it, and the sinner never surrenders without a fight! In a postmodern culture, we cannot fall into the trap of thinking that because the sinner likes us, he is coming to repentance. If our attempt to make him like us dulls the rebuke of his conscience, he will gladly say whatever we want him to say, pray whatever we want him to pray, sing whatever we want him to sing.
Church historian, Bruce Shelley, writes of the Arian heresy and the reason for its popularity: “Arius’ views were all the more popular because he combined an eloquent preaching style with a flair for public relations. In the opening stages of the conflict, he put ideas into jingles, which, set to simple tunes like a radio commercial, were soon being sung by the dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the school children of the city.”26 Sinners have always blindly accepted doctrine, even false doctrine, if it is presented in a non-threatening way.
We must guard against separating private and public morality. The believer of our age understands clearly how this moral error destroys people’s lives. But often the believer is guilty of this in ways that are obvious to unbelievers: in not keeping a promise; in breaking public laws such as speed limits; in losing control of temper, tongue and emotions; or immoral innuendoes in jokes or personal behavior. When we do these we are saying to the postmodern man that he is right! Morality can be manipulated which proves that morality is not absolute (which indicates there is no need to fear a Lawgiver).
Diogenes Allen wrote, “Arguments that seek to show the objective reality of good and evil are unavailing, because we are blind. We must act before the arguments, inferences, and distinctions that are used in ethical and political philosophy can be morally fruitful. We must make an examination of our actions at a fundamental level before the very categories of good and evil as dealing with realities, not human preferences, come into play.”27 Our private lives must be as indicting to the sinner as our public lives.
We must guard against separating our methods from our message. We have come to a point in church life where such a statement is immediately questioned rather than accepted. One would think it would be the other way around! If we can separate the two, however, accomplishing tasks in this world becomes much easier and less encumbered. But if we separate the two, are we not separating our public and private morality in preaching the gospel? Os Guinness wrote, “Truth, in fact, gives relevance to ‘relevance,’ just as ‘relevance’ becomes irrelevance if it is not related to truth. Without truth, relevance is meaningless and dangerous.”28 So methodology estranged from the message.
This does not mean that we cannot look for effective ways to convey the truth. John MacArthur wrote, “I do believe we can be innovative and creative in how we present the gospel, but we have to be careful to harmonize our methods with the profound spiritual truth we are trying to convey.”29 The problem usually comes when methodology is just a tool for personal successes and not for reaching the lost. If our method is selfish, carnal or encourages the fallen nature, then it cannot help our message any more than a questionable private life can help a public life.
The postmodern man loves to have dichotomy in these areas. A dichotomy bolsters his world view that nothing is “out there” that gives any imperative to our actions. We don’t have to transfer any thought from what we are doing to what we believe. For the believer, this dichotomy in life of public and private; of method and message; of thought and action is unacceptable. This is why the churches continue to employ the two strangest methodologies possible, baptism and communion, to a world which needs to transfer thought from the known to the unknown, from the method to the message.
We must insist that culture is not morally neutral. Culture is an outgrowth of belief, the actions of morally responsible people in society. Steven Connor of London University writes, “In popular culture as elsewhere, the postmodern condition is not a set of symptoms that are simply present in a body of sociological and textual evidence, but a complex effect of the relationship between social practice and the theory that organizes, interprets and legitimates its forms.”30 The postmodernist pays much more attention to cultural mores than the Christian—to the detriment of the gospel. The postmodernist believes strongly that culture is not neutral. The more chaotic the culture, the more it is in agreement with his view of the world and universe.
The pressure in this area is tremendous today! R.C. Sproul says, “Adjusting to the customs and worldview of one’s environment is one of the strongest pressures people experience. To be ‘out of it’ culturally is often considered the nadir of social achievement.”31 Ravi Zacharias, one of today’s leading apologists to university campuses says, “Culture has become like a dress code, varying with the time of the day and presence or absence of the elite. Such drastic variables have blurred the lines of demarcation within which we may navigate our lives.”32
The discussion of culture ought to delve into the field of imagination leading to the arts and sciences (yet space prohibits that discussion here). Art, literature, music, even architecture are all outgrowths of human nature. Culturally aware Christians have always been screaming to the churches not to capitulate in these areas. Schaeffer warned years ago, “As we shall see, whenever art or science has tried to be autonomous, a certain principle has always manifested itself–nature eats up grace, and thus art and science themselves soon began to be meaningless.”33 We have been often warned not to let culture become separated from the moral, or immoral, nature of human beings.
When two thieves hung on crosses beside the Son of God, the one who did not find salvation for his dying soul railed on him, saying, If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us. It was a selfish request that saw no need of humility and repentance. The other rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. The second man had come to realize that he stood justly condemned before the Moral Law of God, the Moral Law manifested in the Holy One who was being crucified beside him.
Our postmodern culture has lost the ability to humble itself before the Son of God. It is a sad thing! Schaeffer laments, “It is a horrible thing for a man like myself to look back and see my country and my culture go down the drain in my own lifetime. It is a horrible thing that sixty years ago you could move across this country and almost everyone, even non-Christians, would have known what the gospel was. A horrible thing that fifty to sixty years ago our culture was built on the Christian consensus, and now this is not longer the case.”34
We cannot be ostriches nor chameleons. We cannot hide our heads in the sand and pretend that postmodernism does not exist. But neither can we change with every whim of our culture and believe that we are reaching this generation. We must be brave enough to confront man’s depravity with the truth, accepting the expected resistance, and know we have done the will of God.Notes: 1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 739/864, p. 256. 2. Carl F.H. Henry, “Postmodernism: The New Spectre?” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery (Wheaton: A Bridgepoint Book, 1995) 44. 3. Francis Schaeffer, The Church At The End Of The Twentieth Century (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994) 12. 4. Francis Schaeffer, How Shall We Then Live? (Old Tappen: Revell, 1976) 87. 5. Francis Schaeffer, The Church At The End Of The Twentieth Century, 48. 6. Francis Schaeffer, Escape From Reason (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1968) 25. 7. Bruce Lockerbie, The Cosmic Center (Portland: Multnomah, 1986) 52. 8. Robert Lightner, The God of the Bible and Other Gods (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998) 44-45. 9. Francis Beckwith & Gregory Koukl, Relativism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 59. 10. Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1992) 30. 11. C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections ( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 65. 12. Thomas C. Oden, “The death of modernity and postmodern evangelical spirituality,” The Challenge of Postmodernism, 24. 13. Beckwith & Koukl, 36-39. 14. Quoted by Robert Lightner, 41. 15. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994) 42. 16. Quoted by Douglas Groothuis, The Soul In CyberSpace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) 27. 17. Ravi Zacharias, Just Thinking, Winter 1999, p. 3. 18. R.V. Young, “Juliet and Shakespear’s Other Nominalists”, The Intercollegiate Review, Fall, 1997, p. 28. 19. Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil (Dallas: Word, 1996) 82. 20. Francis Schaeffer, Escape From Reason (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1977) 56. 21. Timothy Phillips & Dennis Okholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995) 34. 22. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1968) 18. 23. Ibid. 24. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, 35. 25. J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987) 92. 26. Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word, 1995) 100. 27. Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World (Louisville: W/JKP, 1989) 105. 28. Os Guinness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993) 63. 29. John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993) 85. 30. Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 1997) 205. 31. R.C. Sproul, Willing To Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) 16. 32. Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil, 5. 33. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, 23-24. 34. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, 28.