Friday, February 13, 2015

The Evangelist’s Biblical Response to Postmodernist Minds

At first, it might appear to the evangelist today that evangelism today should be just as evangelism always has been: the clear, unadulterated presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! This assumption, I think, is partly true and partly false. It is partly true because, yes, evangelism must have as it cornerstone and its ultimate goal, the clear and unadulterated presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all the way from sin to salvation to sanctification. And yet, this assumption is partly false because evangelism today cannot be exactly what it was two millennia ago, or two hundred years ago, or for that matter what it was twenty years ago. The Spirit led evangelist will look not only to proclaim the good news, but to do it in such a manner that is sensitive to the social, cultural, philosophical, and religious scene of his day. This sensitization can only happen in an evangelist who is being filled by the Holy Spirit, and as this happens, it is the Holy Spirit who helps us make the Gospel message of the Bible relevant to our culture and times. Then we become those whose feet are “beautiful upon the mountains” as we bear the good news. This is not to say that the good news will not be offensive. Of course, it will offend. But it is to say that we are presenting truth with relevancy to the postmodern mind.

What then is the distinctive of evangelism in today’s postmodern times and culture? Granted some philosophers hold that we are in times which are “postmodern beyond modernity.” Philosophical specifications apart I’ll treat our approach to evangelism as geared towards an age that is broadly speaking, postmodern and Postmodernist, the former referencing time in history the latter ideology. Here are a few thoughts of mine on evangelism in the postmodern age, gleaned from both study and practice. At times in this blog entry, my comments on Postmodernism are adaptations from Veith’s book, Post Modern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought or Culture, and I also quote him directly.

The Peculiarity of Postmodernism

The Postmodern Worldview is a peculiar worldview in the pantheon of worldviews history has witnessed. It is a worldview, undoubtedly. But, and as Gene Edward Veith Jr. suggests, it is “the worldview that denies all other worldviews.”[1]

Postmodernism emerged as a reactionary force against modernism. Scholars such as Thomas Oden hold that the Modern Era began with the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, thus ushering in the Postmodern Era. Since 1989 it has garnered enough force to pose a serious threat to those worldviews which have no solid foundation, for that is the sole purpose of postmodernism —the destruction of all other worldviews. But what evoked such a response and caused a shift from modernity to postmodernity? Jonathan Hill writes,

“The European Enlightenment represented a grand experiment: the attempt to place Christianity on a solely rational footing. The argument of the deists and subsequently, the atheists who rejected even the little that the deists retained, showed that this experiment had failed. The question of what would replace it would be a key problem for the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—indeed it is a question for today.”

In the shift from Modernism to Postmodernism, we find that Postmodernism today, rejects certain elements of reality. Here, I will mention 4 elements of reality that Postmodernism rejects. 

The modernist assumption was that objective and rational truth existed.[3] The emphasis however, was on everything rational, to the exclusion of anything that seemed to be “non-rational,” which eventually came to include the Christian, Biblical worldview. So when the “grand experiment” of Enlightenment Rationalism failed, the question of what would replace it was answered in the shift from Modernism to Postmodernism. And so, Postmodernism is a reaction to Modernism. More properly, it is a reaction to the failures of Postmodernism. It is as if people were saying, “We are fed up with this rational stuff, it is taking us nowhere. Now we want something different to give us meaning.” So, people in the twentieth century turned to Postmodernism which is irrational and does not believe in absolute truth, and ironically, in the search for meaning, it also eschews an overarching meaning or a metanarrative in life.

To put it simply, Postmodernism rejects the rational.

The shift from Modernism to Postmodernism is also a shift from the objective and absolute, to the subjective and relative. In rejecting the objective and the absolute, Postmodernism rejects foundations. A foundation must be absolute and objective, only then will it be stable in order for anything lasting to be built over it. If a foundation is imprecise and relative to start off with, construction over it in the future will be impossible, because it will not hold up. If someone attempts to build over it, it will be destroyed over time because of a weak foundation. In rejecting the absolute and the objective, the Postmodernist ends up rejecting any sort of possible foundation, and ends up opposing the building of life, tending rather towards deconstruction.

Postmodernism rejects the absoluteness of foundations.

Now very significantly, because postmodernism rejects rationality and the fruits of rationality—objectivity and the absolutism—it ends up rejecting any sort of categorization of worldviews. It does not want to be put in a “prison house” of language, since language is only playing with words to meet one’s ends. With objectivity and absolutism comes exclusivity, that is, the formation of a worldviews, which use language to be defined. A worldview is that which is exclusive and binding, by language. Since Postmodernism does not believe in having a worldview, it is therefore, as I mentioned above, the worldview that denies all other worldviews[4], and is therefore self-defeating.

Postmodernism rejects other worldviews, and rejects being called a worldview.

When you reject the rational, when you reject absolutes and foundations, and when you reject the claims of all other worldviews including the fact your own claim is a worldview, you end up rejecting meaning itself. And that is what Postmodernism does: it outrightly rejects that there is any meaning in life, or to life. Like its philosophical predecessor, Existentialism, Postmodernism believes that there is no overall meaning or purpose to life, but that meaning can be created by the individual. According to both Existentialism and Postmodernism, “meaning is not to be discovered in the objective world, rather meaning is a purely human phenomenon. . . human beings can create . . . a meaning for their life that they alone can determine.”[5]

Postmodernism rejects the existence of a metanarrative of meaning and purpose in life.

The Effects of Postmodernism: The Religious and Cultural Scene

If life has no meaning according to them (which in itself is a meaningless and false statement), where do Postmodernist people turn for meaning in life? Or where do they turn to fill the void and derive meaning and significance? While the Postmodernist ideology may be peculiar, its effects upon people who buy in to it are certainly not peculiar: immorality and idolatry.

What we find today, for example in the United States, is a vitriolic reaction against the religion and culture of the past which was bound up in the objective and absolute search for meaning, which was eventually found in the spiritual and bore moral and ethical fruit. The vitriolic reaction against all of this is a bid to “break-free” from the chains that tied people down in the past, supposing that one will find true freedom. Sir Arnold Toynbee, renowned historian said that disintegrating societies (which is what Postmodernist societies are) fall into a sense of abandon,

“ . . . a state of mind that accepts antinomianism—consciously or unconsciously, in theory or in practice—as a substitute for creativeness . . . In other words, people stop believing in morality and yield to their impulses at the expense of their creativity. They also succumb to truancy, that is, escapism, seeking to avoid their problems by retreating into their own worlds of distraction and entertainment.”[6]
That is where we have come today, culturally and morally, because we have no foundations, no boundaries. We see it in divorce, abortion, pre-marital sex, and a general attitude of promiscuity.

What about religiously, or spiritually though, where are we? The West, again the US (and UK too) for example, is vitriolic in its reaction against the Christianity of the past, which seemed to restrict peoples’ freedom. So there is outright hatred of Christianity and an embracing of Eastern and mystical religions which seem to have no exclusivity and help you create your own meaning to existence and free you. It is understandable if this kind of thing goes on outside the Church. But the infiltration of Postmodernist thought is so extensive that even within Christianity its lies proliferate.

“As elements of Eastern religions become more prolific, the most appealing aspects of Christianity (which will be the lifestyle elements, rather than the central spiritual tenets) will be wed to the exotic and fascinating attributes of Eastern faiths. The result will be a people who honestly believe that they have improved Christianity, despite their creative restructuring of their faith.”[7]

The embracing of Hinduism and Buddhism, the practice of Yoga and transcendental meditation, and all of the New Age Movement and New Age spirituality which has taken hold of the United States today, is Postmodernism being practiced spiritually.

The Evangelist’s Biblical Response to Postmodernist Minds

The Evangelist (and by that I mean all Christians who share the Gospel, but also in specific, the full time Pastor and Itinerant Evangelist) must respond with questions and answers that address the following facets of Postmodernism: no rationality, no absolutes and no foundations, no worldviews, and no meaning. For lack of space in this blog entry, I will address absolutes, foundations, and meaning. In responding to these our goal is to hold forth the relevancy of the Gospel message and its transformative power. I am not saying by any means that we make our responses to these facets the core of the Gospel message, but we certainly must touch on these aspects and bear them in mind as we present the Gospel to a Postmodern audience, many of whom have a Postmodernist frame of reference.

1. Responding to Postmodernism’s claim of “No Absolutes”:

The problem of relativism is no old problem, however, it seems to have reared its head with a vengeance in Postmodern times, especially because of the options that are available to people. It is our responsibility to show people in word and deed, that relativism is only relative for the sake of self-interest. That is, a relativist has only his or her desires in mind when espousing relativism. The story is told of J.P. Moreland proving the fallacy of relativism to a student on the campus of Vermont.[8] He takes away the stereo of a student, saying that it would help Moreland in his devotionals. When the student protests, Moreland explains that since things were relative for the student, it should not matter to him that Moreland is taking away his stereo. So he proves the point that relativists quickly morph into absolutists when their own agendas are risked. In similar ways is our responsibility to show people that indeed, there is such a reality as the absolute. When we through various contexts have gained their ear in establishing this, then the absolute claims of Jesus and His identity come home with clarity, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one come to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6). 

Jesus was not giving people options here. He was saying that there is one way, and one way only, and He is it. In our evangelism, we are unapologetic in our belief of this, yet we are apologetic in our explanation of this to people who have no inclination towards the absolute.

2. Responding to Postmodernism’s claim of “No Foundations”:
It is our responsibility to help people today see that with no foundations, life unravels. The words of Jesus ring true today as many lives without foundations are unravelling before us,

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. . . . Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matt 7:24 & 26)

We know the rest of the story. The wise man’s life stays strong and stable, because it is built on the foundations of Christ’s words. The foolish man’s life falls apart and crumbles because it is built on a shifting and changing foundation. It is our responsibility to tell people and show people that a stable, strong, and enduring life is possible if they are willing to build it on a foundation. If we can bring people whose lives are falling apart to the understanding that their lives may have a weak foundation, or no foundation, it then becomes an open door to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ, upon which He will rebuild their lives in the very context of brokenness they are in.

3. Responding to Postmodernism’s claim of “No Meaning”:
“There is no meaning in life, because language is simply a prison house of words, which has been used by people all through time to make power plays. It is nothing beyond that. It cannot be experienced, it does not change life, and as such, life is meaningless, because words are meaningless.” So says the Postmodernist.

It takes four elements to give a person meaning in life, according to Ravi Zacharias: wonder, truth, love, and security. For the Postmodernist who wants nothing to do with words that are but a prison house of language, how can he or she have any wonder, truth, love, or security? And so they turn to the visual, and begin to abhor the written medium, beginning to seek all their wonder, truth, love, and security in the visual. Arthur Hunt brings this out well in his book called The Vanishing Word.[9] It is our responsibility as evangelists to show that in the Gospel, the word is neither only written nor is it only visual. The written “word of God,” ultimately points to the “Word of God.” He is a person. He is not merely words, neither is He merely a hologram. He is very reality. The linchpin of evangelism today then in a visually saturated culture is the message that, “. . . The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).

In Jesus Christ, the transcendent word of God became the tangible Word of God, so that He proves that words are not merely a prison house of language, but a medium that points to the ultimate reality of the person of Jesus Christ. More so, the mere visual imagery that Postmodernists venerate will not suffice. For that in itself becomes a prison house too. Rather, in the person of Jesus the longings created both by words, and visual imagery are fulfilled, so that the word of God (the Bible) and the image of God (on us human beings), both point to Him who is the ultimate reality, and who gives meaning to life, by giving us wonder, truth, love, and security.

And so the Gospel we proclaim in a Postmodern culture must be one that shows that transcendence has been made tangible; that there is meaning to life through words; and that we are the embodiment of lives that have been changed by the words of God, and by the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Our evangelism today ought to be the presentation of good news in the context of bad news, not merely the presentation of good news. The bad news that is particular to the Postmodern age, all comes from our sinfulness. The fact that Postmodernists say no to rationality, absolutes, foundations, worldviews, and meaning, is the work of sin. And yet this presents us with an opportunity to speak of the cross of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the great price He paid to give us meaning in life. For reasons of space and so that I concentrate on Postmodernism, I perhaps have not said enough about the cross, which is at the center of any evangel. For this blog entry, suffice it to say that without the cross at the center of evangelism in Postmodern times, there is no meaning in life.

In conclusion, and in addition to all that I have said above, in evangelizing today, there is a great need for the discipline of “pre-evangelism”[10] which is otherwise known as Apologetics. The two must go hand in hand, such that our explanation (apologetics) which flows out of a daily experience of Gospel power, will serve to pave the way for a future transformation (evangelism) by the Spirit and the Word of God. Not being able to defend and logically articulate what we proclaim will only add to the Postmodernist’s assumption that life is meaningless, and that language a mere prison house of words. Today’s evangelism, in Postmodern times, while holding to all the power of the Word and the strong proclamation of the Gospel, will have to include also the defense of that which is being proclaimed.

© Kenny Damara, 2015

[1] Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Post Modern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought or Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.
[2] Hill, Jonathan. The History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
[3] Veith, Gene Edward Jr. Post Modern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. London, Oxford University Press. 1948, 5:399
[7] Barna, George. Frog in the Kettle. Gospel Light Publications, 1990.
[8] Moreland, J. P. Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of Your Soul. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997.
[9] Hunt, Arthur W. III. The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Post Modern World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003.
[10] Brooks, Ron and Geisler, Norman. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990.

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