Postmodernism & the Modern Church (I)
Theodore Roszak once wrote, “Let us be honest enough to confront our culture in its entirety and ask: is it merely a coincidence that, in the midst of so much technological mastery and economic abundance, our art and thought continue to project a nihilistic image unparalleled in human history? Are we to believe there is not a connection between these facts?”
Good questions. As we enter or have already entered a time that is rapidly becoming known as “postmodern,” it is worthwhile to revisit those questions. Even though many remain unsophisticated about when and where postmodernism began and what its major tenets and beliefs are, we’re all under the influence of it—wittingly or unwittingly. I’ll begin by breaking down the open door that others have broken down: postmodernism is a work in progress. Postmoderns constantly carp that few—if any—understand them. One can only wonder how the postmoderns understand each other, let alone anyone else, since this movement is being touted as so amorphous that no one actually understands what it’s all about. Personally, I think this appeal by the postmoderns is a cop out on a grand scale. In reality, it’s an attempt to make postmodernism such an esoteric movement that even the brightest minds of our century don’t have a clue what the main tenets are. Whenever people begin to speak like that, red flags ought to start going up in our minds.
Of course, to believe that not even the best scholars can understand postmodernism is simply nonsense. There are clear strands of thought in postmodernism even as it is a work in progress, just as there were in other movements in history. As we shall see, whereas Enlightenment thinkers—whom postmoderns despise—were primarily German philosophers, the postmoderns tend to depend upon a few French philosophers as well as some home-grown Americans to spell out what they believe. We shall, in due course, discuss these philosophers and their respective philosophical positions. For the time being, however, we shall suffice with this: Richard Tarnas correctly summarizes the tenets of postmodernism as containing components of “…pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, language theory, and theories about science.”
Postmodernism in both its secular and quasi-Christians forms appears to draw from a bevy of intellectuals. Art and the arts, for example, are spoken off often as indispensable vehicles for understanding postmodernism and the postmodern mind(set). Presbyterian theologian Charles Dunahoo draws on the insights of the late Francis Schaeffer and traces the steps of philosophical influence from philosophy to music to art to general culture to church/theology to school and, eventually, into the home. Without going into the precise accuracy of these steps, the general outline seems feasible.
David Wells, however, contends that the “broader” postmodern attitudes are not drawn directly from intellectuals. That is to say, there is a “gap” between the academician and the postmodern man or woman on the street. How, for example, does the intellectual postmodernism espoused by philosophers like Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty get from the ivory tower to mainstream America? I will argue that such a miniscule percentage of the population actually takes the time to read, let alone understand, these technical philosophers that this portion of the population has little direct impact on the culture. So how do we get from, say, Derrida to MTV, which is a purveyor of postmodern thought through rock images?
Is It Modern or Postmodern?
In one sense, everything is modern and contemporary. A Presbyterian church, using the ordinary means of grace that God has provided is, for example, quite modern. The root word from which we derive our English word is modo and it means “just now.” This means, of course, is that postmoderns are just as modern as the moderns they tend to dislike so much. In the final analysis they merely have a differing life and worldview. Christian postmoderns ostensibly want a new way of “doing church” just as their mega-church counterparts wanted a new way of “doing church” a generation ago, but more on that later.
This begs the question: Why did the mega-church want to explore new ways of worship then and why do Christian postmoderns want to explore the same path now? The answer is simple: they were and are convinced that Christianity is no longer relevant to its cultured despisers. They both have been duped into believing that if they are not “relevant” to the existing culture, Christianity will meet its demise. Again, I will discuss more on this fallacy in the course of these issues. Suffice it to say at this point that there have been many times in the history of the Christian Church when it appeared that Christianity would not survive, but went on, under God’s providential care, to survive quite well, thank you.
Ken Myers, in his book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, speaks of three levels or tiers of culture: high, folk, and pop culture. Each of these is rather self-explanatory. For our purposes we want to focus on pop culture and how postmodern concepts filter into society from high culture. Charles Dunahoo states, “Pop culture…is entertainment, a short-order mentality where content is not essential to the experience. It is a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ culture. It is a culture that does not think about tradition or substance. Fun, entertainment, and nonsubstance characterize pop culture.”
Now here is something to think about: High culture (academia) is in a very large part responsible for this almost mindless, mind-numbing pop culture. How? In the late 1980s, Allan Bloom wrote a landmark book entitled The Closing of he American Mind. Bloom began with the thesis that his University of Chicago students tacitly assumed that truth is relative. Bloom discovered however that the relativism that permeated the entire educational system was not an American home-grown notion, but actually stemmed from German philosophy. Wells comments, “This attitude, he argued, destroys the educational enterprise because if nothing is ultimately true then it is pointless for students to expend too much energy pondering the meaning of life now. These students say education as offering nothing more than some knowledge about other cultures and minority groups, and they coupled that with a saccharine moral code about everyone getting along with one another.”
If you recall anything much at all about the music of the 1960s and early 1970s, “smiling on your brother” and getting together to “love one another” were dominant themes. So the hippy generation sang, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!” I’m doing my best. Give me a break and cut me some slack!
Both then and now—in both modernism and postmodernism—what is a glaring omission is hardly ever the mention of sin. It’s one thing to expect our pagan culture to reject any notion of sin, but it is quite another when the Christian Church follows suit. And both the mega-church as well as the ECM tribe like to downplay any mention of the “s” word because we now have two generations that have been raised on a steady diet of spiritual fluff and tawdry, vacuous spiritual “entertainment.” Start talking about sin and they are out of there. The evangelical Church, for some time, “has been slowly but inexorably stripping itself of its truth, doctrine, and discipline.” In other words, “The majority of evangelicals are deliberately undoctrinal.” I would add: the majority of modern and postmodern evangelicals are so deliberately undoctrinal that you have to wonder if they fit even a broad definition of what constitutes an evangelical. Have far do you have to devolve before the gospel you’re preaching is a different gospel (cf. Gal. 1:8-9)?
What is rapidly becoming the case in 21st century evangelicalism is what D.A. Carson calls “The Challenge of Definition.” Carson proceeds to remind us that giving definition to evangelicalism “is not only difficult, but is becoming even more difficult as a wider and wider group of people apply the label to themselves. It may be, as some have suggested, that the term will eventually so lack definition as to be theologically useless—much like the term ‘Christian’ today, which, in Western countries, may mean no more than that someone is not a Muslim or a Hindu or the like, and not an atheist.”
The following observation from David Wells requires a great deal of thought: “So, while the cultural drift is one that is opening up a chasm between itself and Christian faith, Christians by their techniques for growth and their compromises with the spirit of the age are, in effect, trying to close that chasm in order to be successful! The more the culture abandons truth and goodness which are absolute, the less the evangelical Church speaks about truth and goodness which are absolute!”
In this first installment I have attempted to outline a platform that will lead us into a fruitful, biblical exposition of what the Word of God says about the Church and then from there how the Church of Jesus Christ should live. In other words, we’ll also embark on a rather thorough discussion of Christian ethics, which is based on Christian doctrine. I intend to proceed this way because I’m convinced of a number of things.
First, as I mentioned above, the modern 21st century Church is currently facing almost two generations that are biblically ignorant—and in some cases, they are actually proud of it.
Second, both of these generations have been raised—ecclesiastically—on fluff and entertainment. The mega-church crowd was catered to and now the ECMers are tending in the same direction of making worship entertaining and fun—just with a different slant.
Third, both movements were or are rather anti-intellectual. John 3:16 still seems to answer any and all questions. I recently asked a number of “bloggers” to explain justification by faith to me and to support their views from Scripture. The answer was: John 3:16.
Whereas the Baby Boomers were entertained in their way, the ECM tribe is equally a consumer when it comes to the (post)modern forms of entertainment in what passes for worship.
As we progress, I will continue to point out some of the obvious deficiencies of both the mega-church as well as the Emergent Church movements. In our next issue, we’ll delve more deeply into precisely why postmoderns are so exercised about Enlightenment thinking. What is it about the Enlightenment that upsets them so? Without revealing everything that we’ll be discussing I’ll point out here that there will be many points of agreement between the postmodern assessment of Enlightenment notions of certainty and our own, but at the same time, due to the presuppositions of the postmodern mindset, there will also be many points of disagreement between us and them. In fact, we’ll ask if the cure proposed by postmodern thinking is not worse than the disease of Enlightenment concepts.
 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, (NY: Harmony Books, 1991), p. 395.
 Charles Dunahoo, Making Kingdom Disciples, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2005), pp. 7, 137.
 David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 61.
 Allow me to treat you to a smattering of Michel Foucault, writing in The Order of Things. He says, “In modern experience, the possibility of establishing man within knowledge and the mere emergence of this new figure in the filed of the episteme imply an imperative that haunts thought from within…. What is essential is that thought, both for itself and in the density of its workings, should be both knowledge and a modification of what it knows, reflection and the transformation of the mode of being of that on which it reflects. Whatever I touches it immediately causes to move: it cannot discover the unthought, or at least move toward it, without bring the unthought nearer to itself—or even, perhaps, without pushing it further away, and in any case without, causing man’s own being to under a change by that very fact, since it is deployed in the distance between them.” Now, go out and do the right thing. Can someone explain to me how, if I cannot discover “the unthought” I could have even the foggiest clue what the unthought is—or isn’t? How am I to gauge whether I’m pushing it further way or bringing it nearer to itself? If I cannot fathom the essence of unthought how can I have any meaningful discourse about it?
 Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1989), passim.
 Dunahoo, MKD, 131.
 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987).
 Wells, AAEP, 65
 Ibid., 313.
 Ibid., 299.
 D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 444.
 Wells, AAEP, 313-314. Italics mine—RG.