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ss nucleus - summer 2004,  Christians in a Postmodern World

Christians in a Postmodern World

Marcus Honeysett looks at how postmodernism is affecting the church

Culture is unavoidable. It is the air we breathe. Whether it is wholesome or toxic we cannot avoid culture and we cannot avoid making some level of judgment about what is valuable in culture. This is often at an unconscious level, by deciding where we go, what we watch, or which matters we concern ourselves with. Everyone is making judgments about culture every day, and everyone who comes to church or with whom we share Christ is influenced by the culture around us.

Culture consists of two parts. Firstly, there are a variety of societal factors, such as the globalisation of branding, the proliferation of free market economies, the influence of marketing and the rise of the entertainment culture and the life of leisure. Secondly, there are the ways we interact with these societal factors - the influence they have upon us and our relationships, the meaning and value we attach to them and the experiences they give us.

As Christians it is vital for us to think hard about the sort of effects culture has on us. Among other things culture will change the way that people hear a sermon (or give it), modify what people expect from corporate worship and affect the way that people understand relationship and community.

There are powerful cultural forces bidding for our hearts and minds in this day and one of the most significant is postmodernism. I am therefore going to consider some of the key points of postmodernism before going on to look at how these have affected the church. Finally I hope to consider a brief Christian response.

The theory that comes first can be somewhat daunting, but is necessary to understanding the situation we are in. If you are getting bogged down you may find it easier to read the second half of the article first and then come back to the theory later. Much of this article is based on my book, Meltdown, which has previously been reviewed in Nucleus and is a useful starting point for anyone interested in looking deeper into this vital subject.[1]

Postmodernity and postmodernism

Postmodernism is a tricky and amorphous term to put a clear definition on. It should be distinguished from postmodernity, which refers to the cultural factors of our contemporary age - the buildings, the communications, the entertainment media, the adverts and the like. Postmodernity is essentially a description of the current condition of Western cultures.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, refers to the value systems and theories that grow up alongside these cultural factors to support them. This can make it difficult to get a handle on postmodernism, as value systems don't have the same kind of concrete reality as a building or an advert. They are no less real, but much more subtle and, for most people, more imprecisely held and defined, which is why people often use postmodernism to mean different things.

What is clear, however, is that cultural features and cultural theory go hand in hand and support one another. Take TV, for example. It is so powerful that it produces value systems and academic theory around it: a phenomenon such as MTV spawns both contemporary fashion and contemporary philosophy.

Those value systems in turn promote more of the same kind of programming as script writers and producers try to reflect prevailing trends in the pursuit of ratings. Fashion breeds more fashion, whilst what is newsworthy (and therefore important) is defined by the particular biases of the news editor (which is why evangelical Christianity usually comes out so negatively). We end up with a system that looks like this:




This system of thinking is a worldview - a core understanding of how the world works, but also the spectacles through which the world is viewed. Worldviews are potent things precisely because they include both culture and values and because they are often held more or less subconsciously.

A postmodern worldview - a crisis in knowledge

Two World Wars, a host of regional conflicts and current idealism-driven terrorism have left the modernist idea of the inevitability of human progress severely dented. You can understand why grand schemes for total solutions are now considered suspect and why theorists say that the ideas behind these total solutions are bankrupt.

Most importantly, the idea that there is truth that is universally true and must universally be believed, has received heavy flack. It is argued that there is a fine line between saying 'I have the truth' and oppression. Claims to truth were said to be nothing more than attempts to exert power. The most influential theorist, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) said that there is no such thing as Good and Evil, only good and bad. To allow for morality that comes from outside ourselves (ie from God) is to enslave ourselves and deny our human potential, which for most postmodernists is the ultimate felony.

Nietzsche maintained that the human spirit, human enquiry and the human quest for knowledge and self-knowledge are only possible if we consider God to be dead because the idea of God deciding what is good or bad from outside the system ultimately limits the questions we can ask, and therefore is the worst imposition of power.

However, within 50 years of Nietzsche's most profound and blasphemous assaults on God being the arbiter of knowledge, many were asking: 'if there is no such thing as right and wrong or good and evil, then how can I validate what I think I know?' There arose what philosopher Jurgen Habermas (1929-) called the crisis of legitimation - how do I legitimate what I know? His argument went like this: if there is no universal knower, no God to be accountable to, then I am the centre of everything. I must, however, decide on what grounds I can claim to know things. How do I decide what is true or false? To do that, he claimed, it is necessary to appeal to further knowledge, which also needs to be verified by further knowledge, ad infinitum.

Put simply, his claim is that knowledge has collapsed under its own weight. It is no longer possible to know things with any certainty. It is not possible to talk about facts or truth because, even if they exist, it is not possible to know them. When Nietzsche said 'God is dead' at least part of what he was saying was that we cannot base knowledge of God on any ground that we can know, which renders God (and everything else) ultimately unknowable.

No surprise then, that the first person really to use the word postmodernism did so in a report on knowledge for the French government and academic community. He was Jean-Francois Lyotard and his famous book was The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge.[2] In it he famously defined postmodernism as 'incredulity towards metanarratives'. That is, knowledge is now sought in the absence of any shared belief in truth, or shared trust in overarching schemes of meaning (metanarratives), like modernism or Christianity. Indeed these metanarratives are now distrusted simply on the grounds that they claim to be true, and therefore are likely to be a power mechanism.

There is a perceived crisis of knowledge. This may be less obvious in the medical professions than elsewhere. After all everyone in medicine recognises the value of objectively true diagnoses and judgments. But at the level of personal values medics are no different to anyone else, and just as likely to favour subjectivity of belief over objectivity, personal preference over truth and local micronarratives over metanarratives as useful ways of understanding the world.

What makes a postmodern worldview?

Three things lie at the core of a postmodern worldview. The first is philosophical pluralism, by which I mean not the multicultural nature of society, but the idea that all ideas and truth claims must be treated with equal respect, because there is no way to evaluate their respective merits. In the area of religion this leads to claims that all religions and none must have roughly equal access to truth and salvation because the world would be unfair otherwise.

They are all to be considered equal because of the second underlying factor, which is relativism. Relativism is the idea that no claim to truth can appeal to anything objective to determine its validity. There is no God who says true or false. Therefore all truth claims are only relative to other truth claims. The biggest implication of this is that there is no such thing as authority in life. Consider some of the implications:

o An author cannot authoritatively communicate meaning. o Nobody can arbitrate for what is true or right. o What is important about a written work is not the author's intention or point of view, but what I wish to make of the work. o We can bring our own meaning to a text and it is as valid as anyone else's. o If we try to make a text speak to other people or other cultures authoritatively, then we are unethically trying to impose power.

The third, related, factor is that people are now suspicious of metanarratives. This leads to the rather bizarre situation in which a claim that something is true can be dismissed simply because it claims to be true. We have reached a situation in Western culture where truth itself is viewed with such suspicion that people may automatically assume that truth claims are nothing more than power plays.

Postmodern Bible reading

Most importantly these three factors impinge on whether Jesus is genuinely unique and whether we can say he is the only way to the Father. The first place this challenge arises today is in whether we can still treat the Bible as the authoritatively true Word of God, without error and completely sufficient for the whole of life. The postmodernist would say definitely not, but what about Christians? Examining the way Christians today approach the Bible is a good benchmark of how much the assumptions of our culture are seeping into Christian discipleship and church life.

It is increasingly common to hear people ask, 'what does the Bible passage mean to me?' before they ask, 'what does the Bible passage mean?' A Christian student said to me, 'if the Bible says one thing and I strongly feel another, surely my feelings are the only reliable thing I have to go on?' When we hear these sorts of things our antennae ought to go up. We ought to be asking, 'what is going on underneath that?' Is it simply that the person hasn't yet been taught what the Bible is, or are they coming with the postmodern individualistic assumption that the Bible can mean whatever they like precisely because it does not communicate authoritatively?

In a recent Bible study one member of the group said to me, 'I can see that this passage means one thing when set in its context, but the Holy Spirit is also interpreting it to me now to mean something quite different.' I asked if the Holy Spirit uses the same text to mean contradictory things depending on how the reader wants to see it, and whether this doesn't make the Holy Spirit rather confused. To this they replied, 'well, yes, I suppose that is what I think.' He was a pluralist. Converted, almost certainly, but powerfully influenced by the world's ideas about truth. Here is the worrying thing - the group member was unable to say why they thought that and was not able to distinguish his personal views from what the Bible really says. His feelings about what he wished it to say took precedence over reading it carefully. This simply will not do! It leaves people with little idea that the Bible is God speaking and Scripture is thus reduced to a collection of wise sayings from which to pick and choose. My friend in the Bible study came very close to believing the Bible can mean just what he would like it to mean.

What underlies these sorts of common misconceptions about the Bible? It is not just that we are losing our ability to think clearly about the Bible, about how we should expect it to work and how we should approach reading it or listening to it. More fundamentally we are losing our ability to think evangelically about the Bible. We listen to sermons and attend Bible studies but without basic convictions about what the Bible actually is. When Christians treat the Bible as a mere guidebook or manual for living, the fundamental ground for hearing God speak disappears. If it is just a random collection of profound thoughts from which to cherry-pick our favourites, or a guru to whom we can bring all our most searching questions for answers, then what we feel the Bible says to us personally is more important than working together to discover what it actually says - and therefore what God says. In this second case we have become Christian pluralists and that is unacceptable.

The failure of this approach is that we ask, 'what can I do with the Bible?' This is the wrong question. It assumes that the Bible is there primarily for me to decide which bits are relevant to me, for me to take the parts I like or think I understand. I am in the centre. Rather than sitting under God's Word and admitting that it has authority over me, I sit in judgment on God's Word and assume that my needs and desires are authoritative over it. This is simply postmodern individualism with a Christian gloss. It is, perhaps, the most subtle way we see postmodern assumptions creeping into our lives and the church. Most dangerously it assumes that I am the one who can best decide what is relevant to me and that it is fine for me to read the Bible selectively on that basis. Yet if we accept that the Bible is the very Word of God then nothing could be more wrong. It is not me but God in his Word who decides what is most relevant for me to know. I have no freedom to read or apply it selectively because it is all relevant.

While we continue to approach the Bible this way we refuse to accept God's revelation of himself on his own terms. And therefore we don't accept God's revelation of himself at all. We fail to grasp what Scripture actually is. There is one God, with one plan of salvation through the one man Jesus Christ that he tells us about in one book and illuminates by one Spirit.

At the very least the Bible is:

  1. Trustworthy and reliable because it is grounded completely in God's consistent character and his ability to communicate truly and successfully.[3] 
  2. Our primary source of truth about God. The Word is God's appointed method of communicating to the world. It is God's self-disclosure through his actions in history and his own explanation of those actions. 
  3. The bedrock of our relationship with God because the Holy Spirit is at work when we hear and obey it.[4] 
  4. The big picture of God's unfolding purposes to undo the effects of sin and restore sinful people to himself through the cross of Jesus Christ.[5] 
  5. Much more about God than it is about me. 
  6. What God thinks is relevant for us to hear, regardless of what we think is relevant. Indeed we can only discover whether our concerns are relevant or not when we evaluate them beside God's concerns.[6]
But if we come to it with postmodern assumptions asking, 'how can I make the Bible relevant to me?', or 'how can I use the bits I like to say the things I like?', the above six points are turned on their head:
  1. It doesn't matter whether the Bible is reliable and trustworthy, because the important thing is not to hear what God is actually saying, but to take the bits I like and apply them to myself. 
  2. The Bible is not the primary source of truth about God, because I read it selectively. Rather we look to the Bible to find subjective statements about ourselves. We also tend to edit out the parts that are tough to understand or that say things we may not like to hear. 
  3. The Bible is no longer the bedrock of our relationship with God. It is a text for me to use for my own purposes rather than my way to submit to the Spirit's teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness. We fail to understand Scripture or take seriously the fact that the Bible is Spirit-breathed.[7] 
  4. What matters is not the big picture of God's great dealings with his people and his grand plan of salvation, but my experience in the present. 
  5. The Bible tells me much more about me than about God. The application of every sermon should be something about me or something for me to do, rather than something about God that makes me stand in awe of him. 
  6. The parts of the Bible I don't understand I can consider to be irrelevant to me. Even more so the bits I think I understand but don't like the implications of.[8]

We need the Bible

We all stand in danger of the subtle blandishments of postmodernism. The idea that we can make the Bible mean what we would like is deeply popular. The idea that we might have to apply ourselves to the hard work of studying it is not. But this is just laziness, and dangerous laziness at that. Do we not think God's word is worth some effort? Have we not understood that the Spirit uses the Word to make and shape God's people? If we are unconvinced about truth then we shall certainly not take care to use our Bibles well. This means that we will not hear God speak and that we will lose any confidence that the Bible is the Holy Spirit speaking to us now.

What are your convictions about the Bible? The Bible is God's living truth! Do you want your friends to know God? Do you want them to live in the wonder of knowing who he is and what he is like? Do you want them to have the delight of finding God as he has really revealed himself to be, not leaving it to some vague ideas that are rooted more in our wishes than reality? It is God's Word that authentically introduces us to him and makes sure that we lead authentically Christian lives. Furthermore the Holy Spirit gives us understanding. The author is not dead, but living within Christians, and he interprets the Bible to us.[9] When we submit ourselves to the task of correctly understanding the Bible we can be sure that God will be at work, revealing himself to us and showing us reality. We can have all this. Let's not be satisfied with less than God has for us.

Of course this means there are consequences if we do not read the Bible. We can try to search out God but we can never know if what we have found is reality. We can try to live wisely but we cannot know if it is line with God's character and wishes. We can try to please him, but we are doing it on our terms, not his. We can try to find satisfaction in other things, but only God really delights us eternally. We can try to live by grace, but we are likely to live by other things, because only the true God provides living water for our souls. His self-revelation by the Holy Spirit, through the Word, is satisfying for our spirits - refreshing, revitalising, cleansing, sanctifying and holy truth.

Conclusion

Postmodernism's big challenge is to the ability to communicate reliably and authoritatively. It therefore challenges the accessibility of truth and the preaching of the gospel. And it is false. There may be valuable things in our culture, but a value system that teaches that truth is unavailable or, worse, tyrannical, is at the heart of human rebellion against God.

We are not to believe these things. We are to place our confidence in the God who so richly deserves it. God speaks the message of truth through his Word and we should love it, have confidence in it and proclaim it.[10] Jesus said if we know the truth the truth will set us free.[11] He said that his Word is the Father's work.[12] And crucially in that last dark hour he prayed for us and for all people who would believe through the apostles' message.[13] We should pray that it will be so through us because we know and have received the message. Through it we know and delight in the Lord who gave it.

Work hard at the Bible. Work at it more than your studies. God's Word endures forever.[14] Medicine is important, but transitory. Love the Bible and hide it in your heart.[15] It is the surest guide to discern the errors of relativism and pluralism in our culture, and the only reliable way to guard your heart from the effects of anti-Christian culture. Culture is the air we breathe and it is unavoidable; but it is discernable. The big challenge for Christians in our age and every age is to live out our faith so that the gospel challenges our culture rather than being diluted and undermined by it.

Further Reading

  • Hicks P. Transmission. Leicester: IVP, 1998. Addresses questions about belief in a postmodern age highlighting key topics with stories, anecdotes and plenty of stimulating material.
  • Groothius D. Truth Decay. Leicester: IVP, 2000. A great medium-weight book on truth and culture that's not too deep or too shallow. It deals well with secular authors, and has the best chapters I have yet read on Christianity, art and ethics in a postmodern world.
  • Carson D. The Gagging of God. Leicester: Apollos, 1996. Not for the fainthearted! A helpful, if daunting, treatment of the confrontation between Christianity and pluralism. Carson makes the vital contribution of putting lots of secular pace-setting theorists before his readers with insightful and discerning critique.
References
  1. Honeysett M. Meltdown - making sense of a culture in crisis. Leicester: IVP, 2002. Reviewed at www.cmf.org.uk/literature/content.asp?context=article&id=322
  2. Lyotard JF. The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984
  3. Ps 119:160
  4. Heb 4:12
  5. 1 Cor 10:6
  6. Is 55:8
  7. 2 Tim 3:16
  8. 2 Tim 4:3,4
  9. Jn 16:12-15
  10. 2 Tim 2:15
  11. Jn 8:31,32
  12. Jn 15:7,8
  13. Jn 17:6-26
  14. Is 40:8
  15. Ps 119:11
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