How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you, who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
I’m late with this article. I have spent the first five days of November in Los Angeles teaching Postmodernism to Bible College students and I am writing this as I prepare to leave for Colorado. I thought I would indulge your patience with me this month as I try to explain a number of things I have seen and experienced in this great city.
I flew into LAX and was driven to a church in the inner city where I would speak in the Sunday evening service. Dr. R.L. Hymers, whom I had recently met, invited me to speak. Dr. Hymers is a native of Southern California and has ministered to the inner city for forty years. From his aging inner city building you can look at the front door of the new Staples Center where the Lakers and the Clippers both opened their seasons this week. If you turn the other way, you gaze upon a sea of chain linked fences and brick buildings connected with streets no one should be exploring at night. His services are translated into Spanish and Chinese, his people were warm and enthusiastic.
Late that night I was driven to Bellflower where Baptist Bible College West is housed although I stayed in a hotel near Knott’s Berry Farm. Los Angeles is an amazing city of mixed nationalities, diverse landscapes and cultures, and an overdose of simulacra. It’s a city of stark reality in its mass of humanity, and yet (as virtually every large city) a buffet of non-reality greets you at every corner! My hotel lobby was designed to make me feel I was in the South Pacific—but I wasn’t; the restaurants are designed to make patrons feel they are in Mexico, or China, or Italy—but they aren’t; Knott’s and Disneyland are designed to make visitors feel they are in Frontier Land, or Tomorrow Land, or living like the Pirates of the Caribbean—but they aren’t; arcades, sports arenas and even malls are there to allow people to escape the realities of life, but they never do. Always, usually a few blocks away, is crime, poverty, and average people living real life.
Beyond the obvious pastiche, lie more subtle forms of non-reality. Commercials (in a myriad of media) lure us to buy things we don’t need by appealing to our base desires which we ought to avoid. And they do it with the obvious lie. Flashing neon lights are always brighter than what they advertise; television commercials are “made-up” far beyond what their product could possibly deliver; announcements about products are put to music and song in a way no normal person would ever act (I refuse to sing and dance and jump over the hood of my car while I drink my Diet Coke); and I really doubt it would be possible to find as many beautiful people in any bar as they always have in every beer commercial!
People today drive to work listening to music electronically created, in a luxury car they have to buy on credit, to make a product they don’t care a thing about, to sell to people who don’t need it, with advertising that creates the obvious lie. All so they can drive back home, go out to eat at a foreign cuisine restaurant, walk through a theme park mall, and go home to watch The Third Rock From The Sun, or perhaps a presidential “debate,” and end the evening with Dan Rather telling them that Madonna has gotten involved in a local charity. The kids are rushed to bed early so they can get up in time to eat their Cap’n Crunch cereal.
Now am I really so cynical about life or is there a point to this? Yes, there is a point (at least a good question). How do we deliver a 2000 year old message which is a Truth “once delivered to the saints,” preserved in a pre-electronic, non-visual medium, to a culture like this? How is a generation of people who have lost the distinction between reality and non-reality, lying and honesty, truth and fiction, going to repent for real sins, believe in the real miracle of Christ’s atonement, and accept it as any different than last night’s ten second commercial? A lot of what people know about Christianity comes to them in commercial form anyway. A thinking sinner may become as disgusted with the church billboard purporting “Experiencing Jesus” as he is with the car ad telling him to “Experience the Difference.”
As I sit and look down Beach Boulevard at the signs, the billboards, the neon lights, the magazine and newspaper stands, and I think of my experience this week, I am convinced the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ still must be communicated in the way it was given—with words. In spite of my subject matter this week (postmodernism’s grammatology of differance—the unique ability of today’s person to “defer” all statements of truth to the impossibility of knowing any historical truth), the gospel will still be communicated face to face, with a verbal explanation of the Word of God.
If image is everything in our society, it can be anything fake. If atmosphere is enhancing, it can enhance the unreal. But the gospel is a reality like crime, poverty or the living room of real people. It can’t be sold with advertising or cute buttons, nor agreed to because of beautiful people and silly songs. It must be reasoned on, wrestled with, submitted to and incorporated within. Whether we read it, write it, speak it, hear it, ponder it, memorize it, lose it or find it, it comes to us the way it was given by God—in words. It engages the mind and demands a decision: right or wrong, truth or lie, faithful or fraud, yes or no.
Among all the simulacra, pastiche and kitsch of a city like Los Angeles, the only way I could be a steward of the gospel has been to open my mouth and speak real words to people in real situations of life. Whether a young man in the seat next to me on the plane, a hotel clerk, a waiter or a homeless man leaning on a chain link fence, it takes words, not signs and symbols, to tell the reality of sin and salvation. Perhaps we begin to believe that the gospel will actually go to people like that through some popular hyper-real mode. It won’t. It can’t be believed. It is more real than that. And thank heavens! Who would want it?