How to reach postmodernists with the Truth?For many people these days to talk about reaching postmoderns with the truth is a contradiction in terms, especially for those of a postmodernistic bent. For those who enthuse about postmodernism there is no “Absolute Truth” and yet they are confronted by the fact that Christianity unashamedly proclaims that there is Absolute Truth. There is only one God and only one way to Him as John 14:6 and Acts 4:14 declare.
What is one to do in the face of Postmodernism?
This is the question which all Christians and most importantly pastors have to work through in our present culture. Our task is to consider how we can reach Postmoderns in a biblically faithful and effective manner. By engaging with Vincent McCann’s ‘How can Christians Proclaim Absolute Truth in a Post Modern World?’ and Don Carson’s ‘The Gagging of God’ we can glean a way forward and not merely offer sound bites that whilst orthodox don’t seriously impact the unbeliever and leave him feeling secure in his own position.
Gregory J. Laughery wrote an article ‘Evangelicalism and Philosophy’ where he considers the lack of Christian interaction with Philosophy and so an understanding of how to converse with those who hold to different worldviews. We do not as Christians despise the intellect, in fact we ought to seek to improve our intellectual prowess in honour of God as much as possible. Though the challenge of our world may be a call to being open minded, as I love to say, this doesn’t mean we are to be empty headed. We must think and ask questions as wisely as possible. Asking the right questions becomes critical when dealing with secular worldviews such as postmodernism. Far too often as I hope to show below Christians jump on the latest bandwagon without critical assessment of the ideas being set forth.
This seems to have happened by and large with postmodernism. Too many have been ready to declare postmodernism a worthy reaction against modernism. However it may be better to describe the present mood to rather be supra modernism. With all the suggested epistemological difference there remains really a deep rooted desire to determine one’s own life irrespective of others. After all, the postmodern angst is more against religion and morality than against anything else. The present generation still loves the fruit of certainty delivered by modernism in the areas of Technology and Science with their ipods and ipads and iphones. Moreover, when something serious in life happens and they visit the doctor, they don’t dismiss the doctor’s advice as subjective twaddle but they clutch the script and head for the chemist. The Doctor almost takes over the role of God. This in itself is a good place for further discussion, but for the present let’s assume the postmodern child of modernism as described in the current debate. Whether he is illegitimate we will leave for another time, so let’s just assume for the moment the definition of Carson that postmodernism is a reaction against modernism. Even at this point it seems to me it is only the reaction of a child who hasn’t been raised with boundaries in life and finds out the hard way what this means in reality as he runs kicking and screaming through the community trying to live out his own self-determined rules, and then complaining when they don’t play by his rules.
Reaching the postmodern generation:
Rarely, in the abundance of postmodern literature do we have a consideration of the way the Christian is fruitfully able to reach the postmodern advocate. Vincent McCann’s article is an exception. In ‘How can ChristiansProclaim Absolute Truth in a Post Modern World?’ he deals with the complexities of the issue. I value his fairly succinct overview of the nature of Postmodernism, however at times his solution is not altogether orthodox. Particularly in regard to “experience” as typified in the ”Toronto Blessing” being an inroad to those decrying the certainty of knowledge.[i]This lack of certainty is a perspective which not merely infects our culture but is also spreading like leaven within the Church.
After giving a worthy description of Postmodernism McCann rightly says the Church “cannot compromise its proclamation that Jesus is the only way to God.” Secondly he claims there is a bridge that can link Christian belief and the Postmodern outlook because postmodernism includes some “elements of truth”. At this point he is presumably thinking of Postmodernisms rejection of the attitude of the Enlightenment that prevailed in modernism, the attitude that human reason alone is able to be the Arbiter of Truth, that modernistic mood that man has sure foundations for all knowledge and truth. Because McCann sees the Church similarly rejecting this understanding of Reason as the arbiter of Truth he sees a commonality with Postmoderns objections at this point.
Thirdly, he then mentions that one response the Church can take is the addressing of subjectivism, which “leads to a destruction of both intellectual honesty and life itself”. Furthermore McCann suggests there’s agreement between us in the limitations of human knowledge. But I would suggest the reasons underlying this argument and the conclusions derived from them are for unbeliever and believer polar opposites. Christians argue that knowledge and certainty are indeed limited due to our Creatureliness, however since we are created in the image of God we are able to know truly. This is not the case of the unbeliever in his worldview. The unbeliever says involved in the nature of knowledge is the notion that nothing is certain. Certainly we can agree the post Enlightenment attitude was one of over confidence. Amazingly McCann then suggests that ecstatic experiences like the Toronto Blessing may be one avenue to breaking through this negativity towards human reason. A fifth major response is to focus not on expository preaching but rather on “story”, a common suggestion now making the rounds in Christian circles. Lastly the truth the Church believes must be lived out in their lives or else it will fail to impact postmoderns.
What am I to make of this? At least Vincent makes an attempt to address this perplexing issue of reaching postmoderns. Many who write on postmodernism rarely or with clarity address how a Christian can reach the postmodern crowd with the Christian message.
Before reflecting upon Vincent’s approaches to reaching out to postmoderns and suggesting a couple of further approaches it will be of benefit for us to reflect upon his description of postmodernism and interact with it.
Certainly postmodernism is essentially anti-modern, to which as I pointed out above Carson’s helpful description of it is as a mood! Central to postmodernism is the idea that each individual is part of a community and all texts ( and here, even a persons actions are taken to be texts ) are to be interpreted in light of that community. This notion I might point out, has grave implications for hermeneutics, and leads to the rejection of meaning residing in the intentions of the author, and suggests instead that meaning is given to the text by the interpreter. It is exactly at this point that many fail to note the inconsistency of postmodern advocates in that the authors of postmodernism arguments assume the reader will understand their intentions and not read anything into the text. Indeed they tend to get upset when you don’t take what they have written in context and seriously. One idea which is a correlate of this notion of little “t” truth residing in local communities is the view that metanarratives are thus rejected. However, again many fail to see that Postmodernism is a metanarrative itself and it is just as exclusive as Christianity. They make absolute claims such as “all truths are equally valid and there is no universal standpoint which gives one the power to say this is wrong or that is right.”
The reason for Postmoderns decrying metanarratives, is that they are oppressive of minorities such as gays and women. However postmodernism is itself a metanarrative, declaring that this is the way that one should read a text. It seems to me that Postmoderns border on Gnosticism, a bit like Plato’s Philosopher Kings who decree what is right and good for everyone.
What should be raised with postmodern advocates is how they escape the conditioning of the “truth” of one’s group or social context to arrive at such a metanarrative as postmodernism?
Postmoderns when taking the approach of denigrating metanarratives would do well to read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ about making words mean anything and everything. Language, which is how we communicate with others our lofty thoughts and deep feelings becomes nonsense on this approach. Further, they seem to be in the same boat as the adherents to Scientific Positivism which philosophically imploded upon itself when it argued that nothing was true except that which is able to be demonstrated by Science. But this proposition itself was unable to be so demonstrated by Science. This type of nonsense we rightly call a self defeating argument.
And don’t let philosophers dismissively wave this aside saying this objection is only a relatively minor issue. It’s true that it can be an easily voiced argument but it should alert you to the serious problems of the view being proffered.
Still the real and present danger for us is with the postmodern assumption that the meaning of the text resides in the reader. From this assumption a whole new hermeneutical theory is created contrary to hermeneutics as it has been historically understood, and one which undermines biblical hermeneutics in particular.
Let’s see how taking into account the hermeneutics of Postmodernism itself undermines McCann’s suggestion of the fruitfulness for Christians resorting to “story” to proclaim the Gospel message to Postmoderns. Sure Jesus told stories, sure the Gospels in a limited sense are “story” ( they are actually theology, not chronological histories of Jesus’ life and ministry. ) however the postmodern hermeneutic allows him to interpret the story in a way which allows him to continue in his rebellion against God and to remain comfortable in his disobedience, all because he believes that meaning resides in the reader. And he is free to do this with any “story” he hears from the Christian evangelist. The very core of postmodernism undermines any cogent attempt to tell the Gospel to unbelievers who hold to postmodernism because all meaning resides in the reader / hearer and not in the text. Yet Christianity unashamedly declares the Bible to be God’s Word, His revelation to man, and the meaning of it resides in the intention of the Author, God himself. The antithesis between Christian and postmodern rightly continues because the unbelieving worldview is at odds with the Sovereign Lord of all Creation.
The reality of this is a wakeup call to Preachers succumbing to the postmodern lie that story is the way forward in our current cultural climate. Steven D Degner, a Lutheran who has pondered much of the present Western Culture with amazing insight nonetheless considers story to be one of the ways forward for interacting with postmoderns. Not Ashamed of the Gospel in a Postmodern Age Again my concern with Degner is he doesn’t seem to understand the postmodern’s hermeneutic negates the Biblical message of What God is saying.
Given the above I find some of McCanns suggestions are inadequate and misplaced given the worldview of postmodernism itself.
Before we move on from this, we need to recognise further that the call by some to narrative preaching as the real kicker to reaching postmoderns fails for exactly the same reason. It just does not deal with the postmodern approach that meaning resides in the reader or hearer. They can interpret the narrative to suit themselves and never be challenged with the actual message of the Biblical teaching. Now hear me clearly on this, I am not ignoring or ruling out the work of the Holy Spirit to bring such a person to understanding and repentance, but I take it that Christian’s are also to bring down opposing strongholds and fortresses and make them captive to Christ. We are in a spiritual battle, which God equips us for, yet the battle is also carried out at the intellectual level, so “we demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.” 2 Cor 10:4-5. In love we bring the Truth to bear upon unbelievers and their rebellious worldview so that there is no place to stand, except as Christians will argue, upon the sure Word of God. Certainly it is the Holy Spirit who convicts and brings to repentance. We convert no one, but God has chosen to use us in the endeavour of bringing His Word to unbelievers, and we need to do this wisely and with insight. This is merely seeing what Paul did in Acts 17 as a good model for dealing with unbelievers. Along with the central passage of 1 Peter 3 where we are to offer a defence of the faith in gentleness and respect.
Historically we find many who have lived a life fuelled by emotions and feelings and so are very difficult to reach with the Gospel message, something especially true of those who have drifted out of a Pentecostal environment. But then, those of Paul’s first century had also lived a life of excessive emotionalism and feelings directed in frenzy pagan worship. And Paul does not resort to story in that case but a clear apologetic. What we hold to as back then is a clear declaration of the Gospel message and the destructive nature of such a pagan lifestyle, and wait to see the Holy Spirit convict the person.
Narrative Preaching - Ref Martin Weber an Adventist? ‘Reaching Postmodern Society’ Outlook September 2006 pg 7 suggests this, but so do many Anglicans and Calvinists.
Does Carson offer us a way to reach postmoderns?
Carson’s great tome, all 640 pages of it, looks at postmodernism and secularism in depth but the nuggets of how to reach postmoderns are hidden to a large extent within its pages. Sure he outlines in chapter 12 on page 494 a way forward for Christians. He lists four ways for us to proclaim the gospel message.
A) He suggests the intellectual, moral, and existential bankruptcy of our age is to be ‘critiqued’. Here he suggests focusing on the human emptiness that arises from the postmodern worldview. Pg 495.
B) Further our evangelical endeavour must recognise what’s been labelled as the ‘paradigm shift’ in worldviews which has taken place in the West. Then we like Paul must modify our presentation to address that reality. Carson refers to Paul on Mars Hill Acts 17 ( pg 496-501 ) and then Biblical theology pg 501f.
C) The rudiments of the historic gospel must be proclaimed with authority and courtesy.
D) Lastly, we need to live out the Gospel, not merely give lip service to it.
The overall impression from his book is that its aim is to critique and explain the contours of postmodernism and secondly adhere to his Biblical and Calvinistic theology. These are indeed great aims and I don’t want to denigrate them but I think he fails to deal with those Scriptures that talk about apologetics and also the role of Christians to “destroy fortresses and bring down strongholds” and intellectually and intelligently deal with the unbelievers worldview. At that level Carson is frustrating and light on in giving us a clear response to the postmodernist.
Indeed he seems to not understand the impact of postmodernism on the general culture when he expresses his belief that postmodernism will quickly die out as University scholars see the incoherence of it. But that ignores the “life” such a belief has taken on within our Western Culture. It may be generations before postmodernism warps into another fractured worldview, keeping to the downward spiral of the fruit of a darkened mind. Carson does say we must continue to preach the truth, and in one sense this is perfectly true, in that God’s Spirit is the one who convicts and changes people. But what are we to make of this current framework where postmoderns won’t even discuss evidences for the truth of Christianity, historical or otherwise and their worldview which hermeneutically doesn’t allow for objective truth but rather truth is whatever “the reader” thinks and not the intentions of the author?
Consider again his four suggestions for reaching postmoderns.
A) He suggests the intellectual, moral, and existential bankruptcy of our age is to be ‘critiqued’. Here he suggests focusing on the human emptiness that arises from the postmodern worldview. Pg 495. Carson however speaks in expansive generalities such as “the critique of this age must not be merely intellectual but [speak to] the bankruptcy of the moral, ethical, relational and spiritual dimensions” in a loving manner. Pg 496. Yet we must point out here that we need to seriously and intellectually grapple with the postmodern hermeneutics which controls the unbelievers response to our presentation of the gospel message and the Christian worldview.
B) Further our evangelical endeavour must recognise what’s been labelled as the ‘paradigm shift’ in worldviews which has taken place in the West. Then we like Paul must modify our presentation to address that reality. Carson refers to Paul on Mars Hill Acts 17 ( pg 496-501 ) and then Biblical theology pg 501f. Still as I will point out below, the issue is more than educating biblical illiterates, however true that may be.
C) The rudiments of the historic gospel must be proclaimed with authority and courtesy. Here on pg 505 Carson alludes to being a herald, however the Christian is to be more than this, he is to be an apologist. 1 Peter 3.All is not lost for the careful reader however. Hidden in a story in Carson’s work is a further hint of an approach to take with postmodernistic thinking whether it be in the Church or outside. He talks about a Ph’d student who cornered him after teaching on hermeneutics and insisting “that true knowledge is possible, even to finite, culture-bound creatures.” She insisted he was “escaping from the dreaded positivism of the 19th century. Ardently arguing for the new hermeneutic she was not amused when he tongue in cheek said “I see what you are saying, you are using delicious irony to affirm the objectivity of truth”. She responded more heatedly when he said “he was delighted to find someone using irony so cleverly in order to affirm the possibility of objective knowledge.” She became quite upset as she considered Carson was not taking her words for what she was saying, she then exploded in anger when he said “it’s marvellous that you can add emotion to your irony.”
It sunk home when he quietly explained “but this is how I am reading you” As he then explained to her, “You are a deconstructionist .. but you expect me to interpret your words aright.” page 102-3. The point is one cannot have it both ways. To espouse a worldview that is self contradictory and self defeating and unliveable leaves a person either open to seriously considering a worldview that is liveable, and consistent and gives an account for truth or to remain intellectually vacuous and left on the futility of their thinking because of their rebellion against God.
What Carson does there is an example from apologetics of an internal critique of the unbelievers worldview pointing out its internal incoherence and also that in the end it is un-liveable, that it just does not comport with reality. And then offering an external critique from the Christian worldview. Biblically this is grounded in Proverbs 26 verse 5 that says “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” for an internal critique, and then Proverbs 26 verse 4 “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him” for the external critique where the Christian declares the Christian worldview and Gospel. As Greg Bahnsen points out, this means saying to the unbeliever, ”let’s assume your position – what follows from it? Is it coherent? Is it liveable? Does it agree with reality?” And then after having done this, don’t answer a fool according to his folly means let’s now not accept what you say, but let me now offer you a view that is coherent, that is liveable, that does comport with the way things are! Does my Christian worldview explain why you are the way you are and why such views as you hold flourish even in the face of being incoherent and unliveable.
This approach is sadly lacking in the Church today. We need to take it up with vigour for when our children go off to University they are no longer presented arguments as to why their Christian beliefs are wrong, but merely ridiculed and called intolerant from the perspective of the Postmodern worldview and its assumptions. Our Christian youth are then left confused about the coherence and intellectual foundation of the Christian faith.
We also need to take up this approach ourselves with our work colleagues and friends and family who are unbelievers. They have bought a worldview without considering its cogency or coherence or whether it is indeed liveable.
In the end what postmoderns reject is exactly the stance that Eve took in the Garden of Eden “Has God said?”
You may not like what God has said, and the unbeliever will reject it at his own peril, but we must never ignore what God has said and present it with honesty and clarity so that he may repent and worship his Creator.We as Christians need to realise that the affliction of the world is a malignant hermeneutics, and indeed the battleground for the next 50 years within the church is hermeneutics, just as we see happening right now,
[i] No doubt this can be attributed to his involvement with the demonic before becoming a Christian. Though not aware of all the details of his release from bondage, I have read his testimony on the blog, and would at this stage just mention that the Gospel message is what is to be used to bring a person into the Kingdom and a Christian can be oppressed but not possessed by demons.