The Church in Postmodern Times
by Rick Shrader
This article appeared in the December, 1998 issue of The Baptist Bulletin.
Has there ever been a time like ours, when the believer at one moment can be so encouraged about the prospects for the gospel and in the next moment be so disappointed? We rejoice to see the modernism of yesterday losing ground in many ways, only to be shocked by what we see replacing it. We can readily identify with Dickens when he wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Even if the flood of modernism is in fact waning, believers cannot afford to become unguarded about the present day. As James R. White has written, “Now a new tidal wave, called by the scholars postmodernity, is sweeping across Western thought, undermining the very idea of absolute truth. What should be the response of the Christian church in the face of these waves of philosophical attack?”1 This article is an attempt to answer that question.
In an interview, Dennis McCallum responded, “A simple definition of postmodernism is the belief that truth is not discovered, but created . . . . No one has more to lose from postmodernism epistemology than Christians.”2 By the very nature of postmodernism, Christian churches may be falling into this mode without even realizing it. If the modern era has indeed ended, as most think, then we are now postmoderns and the question only remains as to whether we will be postmodernists.
The History Of Postmodernism
As the name implies, postmodernism is something that comes after modernism. It is a recognition that modernism has run its course and that a change is taking place in the thinking and beliefs of our present generation. We can understand postmodernism by seeing it as the third of three time-frames.
The Pre-Modern Era
What most of us learned as “Western Civilization” is the study of the western world before and including the advent of modernism. If modernism began in the 16th century with the Enlightenment, brought on by the French Revolution, pre-modernism is that long period of history that led through the Dark Ages, the Reformation and up to the 1700’s. This pre-modern or “classical” era was a mixed bag of beliefs and cultures. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. includes the three elements of mythological paganism, classical rationalism and biblical theism.3
All three elements, though differing in obvious ways, shared certain assumptions that made this age unique. There was a definite belief in a God (or gods) which meant, even to the pagans, that there is a certain moral accountability to a Being beyond ourselves. This being true, there was a belief in good and evil as present realities which affect our lives. Mankind was made by a Creator (even if a mythological god) and was free to obey or disobey his Creator’s wishes.
The Modern Era
Thomas Oden says, “By postmodern, we mean the course of actual history following the death of modernity. By modernity we mean the period, the ideology, and the malaise of the time from 1789 to 1989, from the Bastille to the Berlin Wall.”4 Though not all students of postmodernism place its inception so neatly at 1789 nor its culmination at 1989, we can see by this two hundred year span, modernism’s recent rise and fall.
Space does not allow us to review the contributors to modernism such as English Deism, French Skepticism, German Rationalism and American Pragmatism. The coming of this modern era, however, effectively reversed most basic scientific and religious assumptions of the previous era. The world was now a closed system which could be satisfactorily explained by cause and effect; morality was utilitarian; nature is self-contained and man is the highest product of the survival system; and only the senses contain reality. “Logical positivism” had become the law of scientific investigation: If we cannot see God, he does not exist.
The Postmodern Era
Few would say that every effect of modernism is now over and that we aren’t affected by it any longer. But many are saying that today’s challenges signal a definite change from the type of thinking of the last two hundred years. Carl Henry wrote, “The intensity of ‘anti-modern sentiment’ is seen in the widening use of the term ‘postmodern’ to signal a sweeping move beyond all the intellectual past—ancient, medieval, or modern—into a supposedly new era.”5
Many see the second world war as an end of modernist optimism and the 1960s as a beginning of change. Wherever one places its beginning, as Oden says, “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. We are pointing not to an ideological program, but rather to a simple succession—what comes next after modernity.”6
Perhaps this “postmodern” era is a hinge between modernism and another two hundred year phenomenon or perhaps it is the tip of its own future. But for those of us who are now in this era, the elimination of truth, the moral relativity, the meaninglessness of normal language, all present a formidable challenge to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Expressions Of Postmodernism
Once we realize that we are in this postmodern time, we will begin to see its expressions in every area of our culture. In 1984 Francis Schaeffer stated, “Finally, we must not forget that the world is on fire. We are not only losing the church, but our entire culture as well. We live in a post-Christian world which is under the judgment of God.”7 Ravi Zacharias, himself Indian born, observed, “What’s happening in the West with the emergence of postmodernism is only what has been in much of Asia for centuries but under different banners.”8 Though there are many expressions, these examples are readily seen.
Language is a most important tool to the postmodernist. Reality resides on the surface of things, and language is a surface tool that “spins” the events in a way that will be best suited for the situation. To him, all meaning is socially constructed and can be used for his own purpose, or must be deconstructed to discover someone else’s purpose. Hidden in the text is the agenda of the author. Many oppressive agendas, it is believed, have been forced upon society throughout the modern and pre-modern ages. People today think and act the way they do because of this manipulation of the language by oppressors.
Carl Henry notes, “Not only is all meaning held to be subjectively bound up with the knower rather than with text, but words are declared to have still other words as their only referent. Texts are declared to be intrinsically incapable of conveying truth about some objective reality.”9 These “Metanarratives” are texts built upon texts. One historian is building his own version of the truth by building upon another historian’s version of the truth who built upon another’s. Language, therefore, becomes a tool for manipulation, not a basis for finding historical reality.
The number one tool for deconstructing established language or literature is the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Rather than take language at face value, the reader or listener must suspect that the author has an ulterior motive. In the words of Roger Lundin, “Words are indeed in the saddle and ride mankind. You pick up the language of contemporary pragmatism, thinking of it as a net to cast across the waters for a great catch; you find, instead, that you get hopelessly entangled in its never-ending web of words.”10 This has a devastating effect upon a Word-based ministry. Today’s listener is preconditioned to suspect that any piece of ancient literature, such as the Bible, was written to give a few people authority and power.
Art and Architecture
In 1970, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “In art museums throughout the world, the viewers are at the mercy of the artists. People, even children, who go through the art galleries are being manipulated whether they know it or not.”11 The modern art of 1970 can’t compare to the postmodern art of the 90s. If Dante’s seventh circle of Hell is reserved for those who have sinned against art, surely the postmodern artist will find a place there.
Whereas pre-modern art was representational and modern art was abstract, postmodern art intends to “shock.” Rather than the picture or the artist being important, the audience becomes the important factor. Because the world is a “text” and we create our own reality, the only value of an artist’s work is the reaction created in the audience.
The implication is revealing—the standard of shock replaces the standard of beauty. Concepts such as beauty, order, and meaning are being challenged by the new aesthetic theories in favor of ugliness, randomness, and irrationality. The purpose is not to give the audience pleasure, but to assault them with a “decentering” experience. Art becomes defined as “whatever an artist does.” As a result, the work of art becomes less important than the artist, a view which encourages posturing, egotism, and self-indulgence instead of artistic excellence.12
Architecture always follows the artistic trend of the day. John Stackhouse writes, “Medieval cathedrals spoke eloquently of the devotion of princes, clergy and townspeople to God—and to civic and personal pride.”13 This was not only true of high church traditions but “even Baptists [constructed] church buildings that asserted the moral status of Christianity in an increasingly materialistic culture.”14 Postmodern architecture is, in a refreshing way, a return to a more natural look. It’s central characteristic is, however, that it surrounds the person with facades, things that are unreal rather than real. Theme parks, designer restaurants, super malls, and so on, place us in a fun but unreal setting.
Churches are having to ask themselves how far they can go to accommodate the postmodern thinkers. We cannot return to the older age of “nave” and “transept” where each worshiper was brought into the cross, but should we give up on all symbolism? As believers we know that the church is not the structure. But are we gaining or losing by giving up on good art and architecture? God commanded the tabernacle to be built for “glory” and “beauty” (Exodus 28:2). We ought to strive to have the best of both meaning that honors the truth of God, as well as form that lifts our thoughts to the Creator.
Technological wonders such as television, movie theaters, videos and computers have become realities and no state of existence typifies postmodernism better than “virtual reality.” It is a state of being informed but disconnected; of power without the difficulties of confronting others face to face. Leonard Payton wrote of technological wonders that they are “made by people who tend not to know one another for people they do not know at all and will probably never meet.”15 Indeed, to a postmodernist, “all reality is virtual reality.”16 Since our existence has no meaning and we are not connected to history or its values by any binding truths, no one can be quite certain where reality and non-reality start and stop. Francis Schaeffer wrote, “If one has no basis on which to judge, then reality falls apart, fantasy is indistinguishable from reality; there is no value for the human individual, and right and wrong have no meaning.”17 Technology can be a blessing or a curse. In this regard it is becoming a curse.
Neil Postman has called this technological control, “Technopoly–The submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.”18 Groothuis, in the same vein as Postman, laments the takeover of our society by such a valueless medium, “When information is conveyed through cyberspace, the medium shapes the message, the messenger, and the receiver. It shapes the entire culture.”19 A key ingredient is not only the blurring of the fact with the fiction, but the participation by the user in this virtual world. Through a computer, one can actually participate (of course, only virtually) in sporting events, world-wide field trips, and even in virtual eroticism. Technology fits well in the postmodern world of surface realities.
The Apologetics For Postmodernism
The most important question for any Christian to face is how to reach his own generation. We understand that the only really important question is the eternal question and understanding our culture has always been a key to reaching the culture. Douglas Groothuis wrote, “Our souls reflect our worlds and our worlds reflect our souls. One who aspires to understand the nature of the soul ought, then, to be an auditor of culture.”20
Nothing is compromised by learning about the culture in which one lives, nor by trying to think like they think. We cannot retreat out of the world to win the world. But while learning about our culture, we must not adopt the philosophy and life-style that is contrary to God. Retreat is wrong and capitulation is wrong, but infiltration with confrontation must be accomplished.
There are four areas in which the Christian must keep the right balance in a postmodern age.
Truth and Reality
Never in the history of Christianity has truth been more under attack, not just the truthfulness of certain biblical propositions, but the very existence of truth as a possibility. Without the possibility of truth, the postmodern man sees no reality in history or science. Francis Schaeffer, some years ago wrote, “History as history has always presented problems, but as the concept of the possibility of true truth has been lost, the erosion of the line between history and the fantasy the writer wishes to use as history for his own purposes is more and more successful as a tool of manipulation.”21 Believers must not give in to this same manipulation. Ron Mayers points out, “The individual who says he is a Christian, but does not live like a Christian, actually gives the lie to his own testimony. Unfortunately, unbelievers interpret this contradiction as an indication of the absence of truth in the claims of Christianity.”22
In reaching the postmodernist whether by words and actions or by worship styles and homiletics, Christians must show the reality of God and His hand in this world by displaying an unswerving loyalty to truth. One recent article lamented, in the onslaught of attacks on truth, that “the church in North America is not answering postmodernists effectively, and we are losing ground so rapidly that many church leaders are ready to join the new postmodern consensus.”23 Such capitulation must never take place.
Worship and Immanence
To the postmodernist, worship is mere technological symbolism over substance. We have discovered that in his world the symbols are the substance. Groothuis writes, “The image is everything because the essence has become unknown and unknowable.”24 Because he sees reality and truth as being constructed at the moment, worship need not go beyond the worship act. This amounts to worshipping worship. The more “real” the worship service seems, the less a postmodern person needs or wants anything beyond that.
We must proclaim God as transcendent—but not too transcendent. His ways are not our ways and He is above the limitations of the world. But He is not so far away that we cannot know Him. And we must proclaim God as immanent—but not too immanent. He condescends to men of low estate. But He is not the world itself, nor the music, nor the emotion of a worship service. We are not converted by “getting in touch” with the immanent.
It would be abnormal if Christians did not want to reach the present generation in any way they could. But because we are also of this postmodern age, we must ask the sobering question: Are we changing our worship style because it is what will reach the lost? Or are we changing our worship style because it is what we like? The early church reached the lost by doing what God wanted them to do in order to worship Him.
Culture and Moral Law
We are coming dangerously close to believing that culture is morally neutral. Most definitions, however, will necessarily include some word like “expression” or “achievement” to describe the thing called culture. We ought to remember that the root of culture is “cult.” Culture is a society, or at least the norms of a society, that have been formulated by the members of that cult. That is why John Leo can decry the absence of truth by saying, “This casualness in popular culture is reinforced by trends in the intellectual world which hold that truth is socially constructed and doesn’t exist in the real world.”25
Sadly, it is the churches that have been slow to realize and admit that current culture cannot be adapted and used in any way it chooses. While church leaders have ignored the moral implications of popular culture, other Christian leaders have had to sound the warning. Ravi Zacharias writes, “History is replete with examples of unscrutinized cultural trends that were uncritically accepted yet brought about dramatic changes of national import . . . . Cultures have a purpose, and in the whirlwind of possibilities that confront society, reason dictates that we find justification for the way we think and why we think, beyond chance existence.”26
William Bennett, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education, as well as the author of many books dealing with culture, writes, “My worry is that people are not unsettled enough; I don’t think we are angry enough. We have become inured to the cultural rot that is settling in. Like Paulina, we are getting used to it, even though it is not a good thing to get used to.”27
Repentance and Faith
A.W. Tozer wrote, “To the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ we must learn the correct answer. To fail here is not to gamble with our souls; it is to guarantee eternal banishment from the face of God. Here we must be right or be finally lost.”28 This must be our bottom line with the postmodern man. Here we cannot be content to have learned what it takes to gather people together week after week, to have been culturally savvy enough to attract attention, or to have been well-liked and accepted by our generation. The postmodern man can follow every demand we make of him, even pray whatever we ask him to pray, and in his mind simply be adding Christianity to the file of other practical self-helps. If we are truly interested in being “culturally relevant” in the most important thing, we will study our generation to find out how we can bring them to repentance and faith. If all we are doing is winning their approval we have failed.
We must remember that the postmodernist questions whether history has actually taken place. As Craig says, “Indeed, it is not clear whether there really is such a thing as the past on a thoroughgoing post-modernist view.”29 Or as Benjamin Woolley writes, “Artificial reality is the authentic postmodern condition, and virtual reality its definitive technological expression . . . . The artificial is the authentic.”30 This is why we are evangelizing on thin ice when we turn our church services into technological playlands for the postmodern’s sake, and then ask him to respond to a real, historical message. It is existentialism, not Christianity, that talks much about faith but admits we cannot know the historical facts behind the faith.
While being postmoderns, we must not be postmodernists. Our stewardship is to preach the wonderful grace of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. No generation has been promised that such a task would be easy or popular. But the call to ministry is a call to the proclamation of truth and to believe that the gospel God asks us to give is exactly what our generation needs.Footnotes: 1. James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996), 9. 2. An Interview with Dennis McCallum by Focal Point Magazine, Spring, 1997, 5. 3. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Postmodern Times (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 29. 4. Thomas Oden, “The Death Of Modernity” The Challenge of Postmodernism (Wheaton: BridgePoint Books, 1995), 20. 5. Carl F.H. Henry, The Challenge of Postmodernism (Wheaton: BridgePoint Books, 1995), 34. 6. Oden, “The Death Of Modernity,” The Challenge Of Postmodernism, 25. 7. Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1992) 90. 8. Interview with Ravi Zacharias, “Reaching the Happy Thinking Pagan: How Can We Present the Christian Message to Postmodern People?” Leadership Magazine, Spring 1995, 23. 9. Carl F.H. Henry, “Postmodernism: The New Spectre?” The Challenge Of Postmodernism, 36. 10. Roger Lundin, “The Pragmatics of Postmodernism” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World Phillip, Timothy R. And Okholm, Dennis L., Ed. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 32. 11. Francis Schaeffer, The Church At The End Of The 20th Century (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 91. 12. Veith, The State Of The Arts (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991) 21. 13. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “From Architecture To Argument,” Christian Apologetics in a Postmodern World, 40. 14. Ibid, 41. 15. Leonard Payton, “How Shall We Then Sing,” The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 198. 16. Gene Veith, Postmodern Times, 61. 17. Francis Schaeffer, The Church At The End Of The Twentieth Century (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 50. 18. Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 52. 19. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul In Cyberspace (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 53. 20. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul In CyberSpace, 23. 21. Francis Schaeffer, The Church At The End Of The Twentieth Century, 89. 22. Ron Mayers, Balanced Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1984), 58. 23. Jim Leffel and Dennis McCallum, “The Postmodern Challenge: facing the spirit of the age,” Christian Research Journal, Fall 1996, 35. 24. Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace, 16. 25. John Leo, “This column is mostly true,” U.S. News & World Report, December 16, 1996, 17. 26. Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996), 17. 27. William Bennett, “Redeeming Our Time,” Imprimis, Hillsdale College, November 1995, 3. 28. A.W. Tozer, The Best Of A.W. Tozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 100. 29. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 167. 30. Quoted by Douglas Groothuis, The Soul In CyberSpace, 27.