I searched for America’s greatness in her matchless Constitution, and it was not there. I searched for America’s greatness in her halls of Congress, and it was not there. I searched for America’s greatness in her rich and fertile fields and teeming potential, and it was not there. It was not until I went into the heartlands of America and into her churches and met the American people that I discovered what it is that makes America great. America is great because America is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
Alexis de Tocqueville
It has been over one hundred and fifty years since Tocqueville wrote those words as French Minister of Foreign Affairs, searching for the key to a cultural foundation for his country which was collapsing due to the French Revolution. He came to America when Samuel Morse had, through strange impulses over an electrical wire, uttered the words, ‘‘What hath God wrought?’’ Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had just passed off the scene (both dying on July 4th, 1826). The population in the 1840 census was just over seventeen million, the telephone did not exist, neither did television nor any modes of horseless transportation except steam.
We look at the change in the world since those days and marvel at what man has been able to accomplish. Knowledge and technology have exploded to such a degree that the days of Morse seem like ancient history. And in a way they are! But the question we find ourselves asking as we enter the twenty-first century is, are we really advanced or are we simply able to build the tower of Babel faster?
In the same age Walt Whitman said, ‘‘To have great poets, you must have great audiences.’’ But, of course, as the level of the audience decreases, so does the quality of the poets. Great societies, like great rivers, said George Will, run naturally downhill. This poses a unique problem for the church living in the times when the river’s currents are almost impossible to manage. I have paddled a canoe valiantly against the current only to realize that though I was pointed upstream I was only slowing my advance downstream. And even at that, to the world of the current, I was only making a huge commotion. Sometimes the commotion is necessary and sometimes it’s merely due to a lack of skill. Oh, for the wisdom to know the difference!
Philosophers and observers are calling our present age the postmodern age. It is an age beyond what we called modernism. About the time we thought we had identified the enemy and learned how to fight him, he has taken a different form. When we fought modernism we had to choose between Atheism and Theism, Evolution and Creation, Rationalism and Supernaturalism. Now, in the postmodern age, neither are true and both are true. Nothing is moral and nothing is immoral. There simply are no absolutes because what we call truth is only someone’s idea. History itself is a manipulation of words by those who wanted to gain power over the oppressed in society. And so there are no great poets because the present audience refuses to hear poetry.
In describing this postmodern age, Gene Edward Veith writes, ‘‘The age of literacy is over. Reading has become obsolete. The written word is giving way to the electronic image. Reading demands abstract thought, the connection of sequential ideas, and an inner life. Once reading goes, the anti-intellectualism, relativism, and shallowness that already characterize postmodern society will accelerate out of control. To a degree, this is happening. The electronic media is the supreme postmodernist art form, both aesthetically and in its all-pervasive influence.’’ And Gore Vidal admits, ‘‘Music remains the most powerful of the art forms, whether it’s heavy metal or Verdi.’’
With our old friends the modernists, we could reason and fight over ideas and concepts. We could argue objectively that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He may scream, yell and disagree but at least we understood each other. To the postmodernist, however, the only truth is that there is no truth (an apparent contradiction, I know) and such concepts matter little to him. If it works for you it is true for you. That doesn’t mean it is true for me. This is dangerous to a person who must accept a verbal proposition in order to be saved! He can say yes to whatever is asked of him, being entirely sincere, without mentally consenting to any ‘‘truth.’’
To the postmodern, the distinction between reality and non-reality, truth and non-truth is impossible (and unnecessary) to tell. This has to be a great concern for any evangelistic believer. A good example is postmodern art. Traditional art found meaning in representing reality. Modern art found meaning in the mind of the artist. To the postmodern artist, however, meaning is found in the reaction of the audience (since truth is only what you perceive it to be). If the audience is shocked, art has occurred. The more bizarre, the better the art.
Postmodern architecture also creates a semi-fantasy world. Theme parks make you feel you are in frontier days but in reality you are not. Malls make the inside feel like an old city street but it is not. Buildings are turned inside out so that you see elevators, heating ducts and beams on the outside of the walls. One doesn’t quite know what is real about this place and what is illusion.
But the most profound fusing of reality and non-reality is the electronic media. Television can present a ‘‘documentary’’ about an historical character but mix it with fictional story lines to keep interest. News, on TV and radio, is often a ‘‘commentary’’ on the way the reporter sees it. Commercials present a fantasy world as a reward for buying a product. Music videos present pain and death as a normal (but drab) part of life. Movies present cartoon characters or alien beings as real as humans. The viewers are pandered to, entertained and given what their weakest will wants. And all of this through the most amazing, exciting and creative medium this world has ever seen. If Samuel Morse could only see us now!
Reaching our generation for Christ will take more than merely using the art, architecture and media of the postmodern man. We must keep the proposition of God’s truth distinct from the non-reality of the world in which people live today. We cannot win postmodern man by turning the clock back because it won’t turn back. We must investigate every legitimate means the postmodern world offers us to evangelize. But we must do more than entertain and amaze. We must ask people to think.
Accepting truth is a cognitive process. If we only present Christianity as a more exciting alternative, postmodern man will readily acquiesce until the excitement wears off and then he’ll quietly vanish. Jesus offered the truth to set men free. Regardless of the mode in which it comes, if the receiver doesn’t understand it to be fact and not fiction, he is not free.