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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Postmodernism & the Modern Church (IV)

Buying Meaning for Ourselves
David Wells, in his latest book (that I highly recommend), wonders why the canopy of meaning has collapsed so completely on so many.[1] He believes that it’s a stretch to conclude that meaning collapsed under the weight of individuals having read the works of postmodern intellectuals.[2] For some, no doubt, this might be the case, but we are talking very small percentages here. Can we decide what the predominant factors were in postmodern culture becoming postmodern culture? Certainly, the transition from one movement to another usually takes time and pinpointing precise dates can be an exercise in futility. We can approximate when pre-modern thinking gave way to Enlightenment ideology, but that’s about as good as it gets.
We can also plot “trends,” however, and since the Enlightenment there has been a growing trend of relativism in society, especially when it comes to biblical doctrine and ethics. In simple things, like tying our shoes, stopping at stop signs (unless you live in the Boston area where no one stops at stop signs), playing sports, and getting treated by our family physician, we’re not relativists, but in ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, male and female homosexuality, and capital punishment, just to mention a few, many are consummate relativists. Some even in the Christian Church are trying to take the relativistic “smorgasbord” approach to new lengths.
That is to say, some postmoderns don’t want to “buy into” the whole relativistic, nihilistic, lack of certainty about anything, words-have-no-meaning ball of wax. They recognize—perhaps intuitively—that this whole approach is untenable, but still want to search for something—anything—they can use. In other words, they want postmodern on their own terms, which is not at all surprising given the self-absorption of the postmodern and ECM crowd. But this really isn’t anything new under the sun. Since the Enlightenment—and before to a lesser extent—non-Christians and nominal Christians both have borrowed heavily from Christianity in order to make sense out of life. For example, both groups might believe that shacking up is okay, but that Hitler was wrong. It’s actually rather humorous to listen to non-Christians and nominal Christians explain their life and worldview. Some see no contradiction in having bumper stickers on their car that read: Save the whales. I’m Pro-Choice. This lack of thoughtfulness and coherent thinking transcends gender, language, and economic status.
We know, however, that the Bible is unequivocally clear both about shacking up and Hitler’s pogrom. It is also very clear about hell, which Brian McLaren repeatedly and categorically refuses to acknowledge and it is also very clear about male and female homosexuality, which Rob Bell refuses to acknowledge. Moreover, it is clear about unbelief, swearing and stealing food from restaurants, which Donald Miller refuses to acknowledge. It is clear about fornication and foul speech, which Anne Lamott refuses to acknowledge. Here’s the way the illogic works: Since the couple wants to shack up, they neglect or explain away the truth of Scripture on that issue, but are adamant that Hitler was bad news. You can say the same things about homosexuality, foul speech, and any other ethical issue. Postmoderns are as relativistic as their Modern counterparts. Yet, the postmoderns, including the ECM tribe, cast stones at those they call Moderns.
We might say many similar things about consumerism/materialism as it applies to our current society, the mega-church movement, and the ECM tribe. Wells is convinced that even though postmodern man descries consumerism, he cannot escape it. It’s both funny and ironic that even though the ECM movement wants to distance itself from the materialism of their Modern forebears, their “conventions” are replete with the latest hi-tech equipment, gadgets. So what is it, then, that differentiates the mega-church generation from the ECM tribe? This is a tough question to answer because both seem to be looking for similar things just in slightly different ways. But there is a common denominator. Wells correctly asserts that “Modern consumption is about buying meaning for ourselves.”[3]
That’s a fascinating concept. The mega-church crowd attempted to buy meaning for themselves through materialism and through both church and secular entertainment. They bought meaning in the church setting by attending a service that catered to their real or perceived needs, entertained them sufficiently, and left them feeling good about themselves. Never mind that the service was “Bible Lite.” It still tasted reasonably good and was less filling.
The ECM tribe buys meaning in the current church setting by attending a service or “gathering” that caters to their real or perceived needs, entertains them sufficiently, and leaves them feeling good about themselves. Never mind that the service is “Bible Lite.” It still—vaguely—tastes reasonably good and is less filling.
In both settings the Bible is mentioned and sometimes “preached”—sometimes. Of course, now with almost two generations of biblically illiterate attendees we’re back to the Middle Ages—One Thousand Years Without a Bath—in terms of the people not having much of a clue what the Bible teaches or any real concept of what the Church is and what her function is. I read a provocative response on a blog site today where an article was posted about How to Live an Authentic Christian Life—with the emphases on authentic and Christian.
One responder pointed out that in the entire article Scripture was only quoted twice and that out of context—which, by the way, is a hallmark of the ECM—and for the rest the article was replete with the ruminations of a philosopher. I found it amusing that a postmodern was falling into the same “how to” trap that the mega-church crowd loved some much and then how the Bible was all but ignored while a “favorite” philosopher was pushed upon the reader. In one form or another, that kind of thing has been happening since Heraclitus and Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the list goes on. Philosophers come and go and cross each other out.
Both groups—mega-church and ECM—are interested in their own particular forms of consumerism. The ECM tribe believes that what is new is far better than what is old. For example, a friend of mine let me look at a copy of Rob Lacey’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Word on the Street.[4] The Lord’s Prayer is termed, “Template for talking to God.” Here is how it goes: “God in heaven, you’re our Dad. We respect everything you stand for. We want others to. Please bring heaven on earth: people living life your way, like the angels do. Please bring us what we need to keep us going each day. Please acquit us, as we cancel our grievances and throw them all away. Please pull us back from the edge of evil, if we’re falling or being thrown. ’Cos you’re all that matters; you’re able to do it and you’re to take the credit. You’re on your own. It’s your throne. Absolutely!”[5] Lacey also provides us with a number of new terms to explain biblical truth called “Upgrades.”[6] I’m not sure who asked for the upgrades—which they really aren’t. If anything they are condescending downgrades—but Lacey is more than willing to give us his take on biblical terminology.
Even the books or the Bible have been given new or additional names. Romans becomes “Paul to JLM (Jesus Liberation Movement—RG) Rome Branch.” 1 and 2 Timothy becomes “Paul to Timo.” 1 and 2 Peter becomes “Pete’s Circular No. 1 & 2.” 1, 2, and 3 John becomes “Jonno’s Turkish Circular,” “Jonno to a Local JLM,” and “Jonno to Gaius,” respectively. These titles will, without doubt, catch on the Church will change all that has been said and done for millennia in order to accommodate these very helpful and trendy words. And if you haven’t heard them before it’s only because you’re still stuck in modernity.
What characterizes both the mega-church as well as the ECM tribe are the following: “…the rapid passing of fashions and ideas, the disappearance of stability, constant innovation, constant revision, repackaging, the new look, the newer than new product, the future always looming over the present.”[7] Both groups became “bored” with church as they knew it. In fact, “bored” or “boring” is essential terminology for both groups. Lacey wrote his paraphrase to prove that the Bible isn’t “boring.” In fact, he promises to employ “an absolute minimum of religious words” in his style.[8] He exhorts us this way: “The main question is, Do the words get in the way of the story? If so, either change ’em or insist everyone goes to evening classes on Religious Speak.”[9]
The mega-church crowd got bored quickly even though they were given the types of music and sermons they wanted. Therefore, if the church down the street was offering something more “cutting edge” they were quick to shop and hop. This left churches searching for new and more exciting, “over-the-top” ways of entertaining the audience. Innovation, revision, and repackaging became key words. People were quickly dissatisfied and seemed constantly searching for the “perfect” church. Whatever did not suit their desires was left behind like an old dishrag. No sorrow, no regrets, no compunction was expressed. It simply was no longer meeting their needs and making them feel good.
ECMers bear many of the family traits of the mega-church crowd. They too are quickly and easily bored and even though they claim not to be “consumers” in the final analysis they are certainly church consumers like their mega-church counterparts. Innovation, revision, and repackaging are essential words in their vocabulary as well. Both groups are about as self-focused and self-centered as you can get. It is about me, the consumer. I want a church congregation that is a lot like me. I want a community that is young and vibrant, that thinks like me, acts like me, agrees with me, and is about the same age as me. I. Me. I. Me. I. Me. I. Me.
Churches, unwisely, have sought and continue to seek to cater to this mentality. The mega-church movement was rife with this cater to the unchurched mentality and the ECM has fallen into the same mentality, just to a different tribe. Both groups tend to look like cartels. Rather than looking to the Bible for a true inner-generational model of what the Church should do and be, each group is looking out for number one—and I mean number one right down to the individual, who is the most important number one.
Wells observes, “Communication across generations, across disciplines, across specializations, and even within families has been made more and more difficult.”[10] How can “Boomers” talk to “Xers” or “Xers” talk to “Builders,” let alone to “Busters?” Actually, it can be done quite easily and in a spiritually healthy manner if people were simply to follow the Word of God. When that Word has real authority and sufficiency, lives are changed and silly pseudo-contradictions formulated by (pseudo-)intellectuals disappear.
As it stands now, however, the self-absorbed generations of the mega-church movement and ECM are only left with their own individual petite histoire. All that is left is “my” story and, in keeping with postmodern thinking, a story “no more compelling than anyone else’s and no more true.”[11] In essence, what postmodernism is is “a crisis within modernity even if postmodern thinkers want to take credit for the accomplishment.”[12] Living without Scripture as your norm or standard or living in a scriptural smorgasbord where the autonomous individual picks and chooses what he or she retains and jettisons means that there is no narrative—none—which “connects together the events of life into a single form of meaning.”[13]
To use the postmodern jargon, from a world that was once “centered’ we now have one that is “decentered.” Reality is fluid, changing, and always open.[14] Stubbornly, the secular and “religious” postmoderns continue to seek meaning, even or especially when they say they don’t. In our next issues, we shall examine some of the glaring inconsistencies of those who attempt to give some semblance of meaning to that which they declare to be meaningless.
In Romans 6:5-11, the apostle Paul seems impervious to all of this talk about never being able to be certain about anything. In the fifth verse, he speaks about the certainty with which the Christian may know that he or she has been grafted into a real, vital union with Christ through faith. The tense of the Greek verb makes it abundantly clear. In the next verse, Paul contends that Christians know that their old self was crucified with Christ. In the ninth verse, Paul again returns to speak about knowing. He concludes these verses under discussion with an exhortation for Christians to “count” or “reckon” themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. The Greek word alludes to a cognitive function.
In all of this, Paul has dismantled postmodern thinking. The ECM tribe wants us to believe—contrary to Scripture—that we cannot know things with certainty as Christians. The Bible speaks another language. ECMers don’t like to use terms like “sin,” which the Holy Spirit used repeatedly when he breathed out Scripture. Sin becomes “mess up.”[15] To my mind—as a father of six and a grandfather of ten—and I have been taught by Scripture, there is a huge difference between messing up and sinning.In our next issue, we’ll move beyond the ECM having no biblical worldview, to their having both no truth and no purpose.
[1] David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 75.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 77. Emphasis his.
[4] Rob Lacey, The Word on the Street, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
[5] Ibid., 276-277.
[6] Ibid., 15-19.
[7] Wells, AAEP, 77.
[8] Lacey, TWS, 11.
[9] Ibid., 15.
[10] Wells, AAEP, 78.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 79.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Lacey, TWS, 361


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