Mark Twain once said, “The secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”1 He should have been living today, we would hire him to teach leadership seminars. And it wouldn’t matter whether it was business, politics or church, the image we present has become more important than what we really are.
I call this “The Obvious Lie” because of the amazing ability we have in our day to hear and see a catchy sales pitch, know it cannot possibly be true, and yet be persuaded by it anyway. The more fantastic the claim, the better we like it. Does drinking your favorite beverage on a deserted island really make dancing girls appear? No, and no one really cares. Does it make you snow board down a snowy slope any faster? Of course not, but that’s not the point. The point is image, non-reality, using a product that is simply associated with those things. So, do we really care that the commercial has lied to us? Evidently not.
Obviously, we ought to be concerned about this state of affairs when it comes to presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I am afraid we are not. As a matter of fact, we are more than willing to use it than to fight it. Glenn Ward, in a non-Christian book summarizing this postmodern phenomenon writes,
The increasing invasion of signs and images (in media, display, advertising and so on) into the fabric of everyday life has created a dream world of ideal lifestyles for us to fantasize about and identify with. For example, many commercials are more concerned to attach a sense of lifestyle and experience to the product being sold than to give details about the product itself. Because of this, we get as much satisfaction from consuming the images attached to goods as we do from whatever practical function the goods might serve.2
We have become so used to this form of communication in our lives that we expect to be lied to. The truthfulness of the message no longer matters. I have seen “mission statements” posted on business walls that if true, would both invade any privacy the customer had left and take three times the personnel available to see it accomplished. I suppose we have learned that they simply want to “feel our pain” whether they can really do anything about it or not.
Lynne Cheney, who has been writing on these things for years, quoted Richard Lanham of UCLA describing what he called “The Rhetorical Man.”
Rhetorical man is an actor; his reality public, dramatic. His sense of identity, his self, depends on the reassurance of daily histrionic reenactment …. He thinks first of winning, of mastering the rules the current game enforces. He assumes a natural agility in changing orientations. He hits the street already street-wise. From birth, almost, he has dwelt not in a single value-structure but in several. He is thus committed to no single construction of the world; much rather, to prevailing in the game at hand…. Rhetorical man is trained not to discover reality but to manipulate it. Reality is what is accepted as reality, what is useful….Rhetorical man does not ask, ‘What is real?’ He asks, ‘What is accepted as reality here and now?’ He is thus typical present-oriented. Past and future remain as possibility only, a paradigm he may some day have to learn.3
Using the postmodern lie
I have for a long time been an advocate of the church not jumping on this band-wagon. I cannot see that just because we are smart enough to notice what the postmodern culture is doing and accepts, that we should adopt the same technique. One Christian writer advocates, “Give postmoderns a new experience they haven’t had before. The experience of a new story, the ‘feel’ of a new consciousness, is the key to personal and social change. . . . Total Experience is the new watchword in postmodern worship. New World preachers don’t ‘write sermons.’ They create total experiences.”4 It is my contention that preaching the truth to postmoderns cannot be done with the same obvious lie with which they preach to themselves.
What some seem to fail to take into account is that postmoderns believe that experience creates truth and there is no such thing as finding truth. Facts are out, stories are in. Narratives must be interpreted into the listener’s context, not the writer’s or speaker’s context. Listen, for example, to two of the most prominent postmodern writers. Jacques Derrida, in his famous Grammatology writes, “The feelings of the mind, expressing things naturally, constitute a sort of universal language which can then efface itself. It is the stage of transparence. . . . The written signifier is always technical and representative. It has no constitutive meaning.”5 Similarly, Jean Baudrillard says, “We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts and an order of reasons.”6
The postmodern audience demands image, story, self-interpreting histories because it believes truth is created in this way. The law of non-contradiction is out, the law of contradiction is in. The differences no longer reveal error, rather they allow for individual truth for each person. Can we allow this misconception of what we are preaching to go on? Can we continue to let the hearers interpret our message in such a subjective way?
Is godliness a means of gain?
I have always read the description of “men of corrupt minds, destitute of the truth” in 1 Timothy 6:5 as “supposing that gain is godliness.” But the phrase is properly translated “who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (NKJV). There is a key difference. It is not that some think earning a lot of money makes one a godly person. Rather, it is that some people actually see that putting on the air of godliness will be profitable! We can “gain” things by being godly. This notion, coupled with the propensity to use the lie as a working methodology, makes for a dangerous combination.
Consider the words of our Lord when He instructed the disciples on what is greatness. “Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister. And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all” (Mk 10:43-44). Isn’t it our nature to decide that, since we want to be “great,” we will have to get there by serving for a while? Servanthood becomes a means to greatness rather than (as Jesus means) servanthood being greatness.
With the church in the midst of a consumer society, we have to ask ourselves how we intend to “build a church.” Are we so sold out to the goal of attracting people that we will use the image of godliness to gain a crowd? If so, then our image of godliness will end up being whatever the audience wants to interpret as godliness. Let them be the judge. Let them set the standard and write the definitions. One young postmodern is quoted as saying,
It’s a pretty cool thing because there is no right or wrong when it comes to faith. You believe what you believe, for whatever reasons seem right to you, and nobody can take that away from you. And then, if you change your mind, that’s not an admission of failure or being wrong, but just a change of heart or maybe a sign that you’ve learned or grown up. It’s not like math. In spiritual matters the playing field is wide open.7
The author of the book compliments the young man for his sincerity. As has become the common theme, the church is criticized as being Pharisaical for not accommodating the young man’s point of view and every negative trait about older people in the church is put on display.
The Sardis factor
In recent classes of Bible college or seminary students where I have spoken, I have read Revelation 3:1 and asked what it means. The second half of that verse reads, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” Almost without exception the answer has been that the church at Sardis was a dying church where not much was going on. It seems almost an impossible concept for today’s future church builders that the church may very well have been a growing, active church and yet have been spiritually dead! John MacArthur writes,
The church at Sardis was proud of her reputation for being spiritually alive, but the Lord warned her that she was really dead and needed to repent (Rev. 3:1-2). If she did not He would come upon her like a thief (v. 3)—just as one night enemy soldiers under Cyrus had sneaked into the seemingly impregnable acropolis at Sardis by way of an unguarded footpath. . . . Overconfidence led to carelessness, and carelessness led to defeat.8
Today, success, even in God’s church, is based on today’s method of evaluating success. And for all of the talk of a new vision for a new age, that method is the same it has been throughout the pragmatic twentieth century—acceptance by the world rewarded by their gracious attendance. Yet will they respond as Paul describes in 1 Cor. 14:25, “And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” Not just go through the motions, mind you, because he has been asked to and that’s the spiritual experience for the day. But because his sin, in all its ugliness before a holy God, has buckled his knees and his heart and left him in total despair without a Savior! Spurgeon wrote,
Notes: 1. Quoted by Os Guinness, Unriddling Our Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999) 63. 2. Glenn Ward, Postmodernism (UK: NTC, 1997) 109. 3. Quoted by Lynne Cheney, Telling The Truth ( 190. 4. Leonard Sweet, Postmodern Pilgrims (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000) 43. 5. Jacques Derrida, Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1997) 11. 6. Robert Antonio and Douglas Kellner, “The Future of Social Theory” Postmodernism & Social Inquiry (New York: The Guilford Press, 1994) 129. 7. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998) 75. 8. John MacArthur, First Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984) 227. 9. Charles Spurgeon, reprinted in The Baptist Vision, Feb. 2001.
The battlefront is altered, but do not imagine that the conflict will be less severe. The whole land reeks before the Lord, and is corrupt with sin. If Christians do not labor to stay evil, who will do it? He who does not cry out against the wolf cannot surely be at enmity with the lion.9