Postmodernism & the Modern Church (V)
We’ve arrived at the point in the 21st century that we shrug our shoulders when someone says that relativism is rampant. That is yesterday’s news. Tell me something I don’t know. In fact, the notion of relativism has been around in spades for at least about three decades if not longer—probably longer; a lot longer. It infiltrated the Church of Christ a few years after it became vogue in culture. The incursion was not immediately discernible. Once something takes hold in society, it usually takes about seven years before it’s in the Church. Of course, evangelicals continued to speak about absolute truth and some still actually believe that it exists. In the practice, however, the orders of the day among far too many evangelicals were failed marriages, young people co-habiting, adultery, homosexuality, pagan business practices, and a host of other unbiblical behavior. Rather than the Church acting as salt and light, she became increasingly like her secular counterparts.
In the main, evangelicals have continued to follow their secular counterparts in embracing one form of relativism or another. Secular relativism walks in hobnail boots while the Christian variety walks around in slippers, even though that is also changing. The mega-church movement gradually accepted relativism because it fit nicely into their Christianity and ethics of convenience and entertainment.
The ECM tribe has merely followed in the footsteps of the mega-church movement. The advocates of the ECM have not yet gotten it through their heads that many of the tenets of postmodernism are incompatible with the Christian faith. But there are signs that the ECM tribe is starting to show its true colors. McLaren won’t answer questions about hell, Bell refuses to say what Scripture says about practicing male and female homosexuals, and we’re also starting to hear rumblings about the doctrine of the atonement and some other key ethical issues. It will all come out eventually, but the ECM is still playing its cards close to the chest. I suspect that one of the essential reasons why is because they are aware that as soon as they show their cards the suspicions of their critics about their theology will be confirmed.
What is Truth?
Richard Rorty is a favorite philosopher among the ECM crowd. His hero is John Dewey and following him, Rorty asserts “that truth is what one’s peers let one get away with. It is Rorty who reminds the postmodern world that “The idea of truth as objective…must be abandoned with the demise of modernism, which is regard as the misguided attempt of the Enlightenment to attain objective certitude on matters of philosophy, scientific and moral concern.”
Another darling of the ECM is Walter Truett Anderson. He writes, “Postmodernity challenges the view that the truth is…one and divided, the same for all men everywhere at all times. The newer view regards any truth as socially constructed, contingent, inseparable from the peculiar needs and preferences of certain people in a certain time and place. This notion has many implications—it leaves no value, custom, belief, or eternal verity totally untouched.” There you have it. Thank you, Mr. Anderson for being so candid.
The ECM has bought into Anderson’s thesis to the extent that you find McLaren, Bell, and others questioning why Christianity alone is true. Can’t we, after all, learn from Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims—the peaceable ones, who aren’t in favor of the death penalty, of course—and other world religions? Why can’t we synthesize what was previously considered irreconcilable movements within Christianity and just get along? This explains, in part, why the various chapters in McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy attempt to bring disparate, contradictory, and irreconcilable movements together.
Ironically, what both the mega-church and ECM have done is to co-opt theology and remove it from the soul of the church, so that the modern Church is becoming increasingly “soulless” or, as the Authorized Version of 1901 translates Psalm 106:15, “leanness of soul.” That is, indeed, an apt phrase to describe the current condition of the majority of evangelicalism. Certainly, the mega-church movement did its share of the damage, but the outlook is not any more optimistic for the ECM.
A while back, Pulpit Digest and Preaching magazines ran a survey of two hundred evangelical sermons. Their findings were a little more than troubling. Less that twenty-five percent of those sermons were what could be called truly biblical. More than fifty percent rarely mentioned the Bible or didn’t mention it at all in the entire sermon. Moreover, of the less than twenty-five percent that were biblically based, a whopping eighty percent of those were man-centered. Is there any wonder that the modern Church is in deep weeds?
A year after I graduated from high school (1963), Langdon Gilkey was already issuing the warning that the Church was letting go of God’s truth. He went on to say, “if the congregation is to hear and obey the Word in its midst, the denominational church must lose its fear of and scorn for theology, and its resistance to the teaching of doctrine in the church.” Rather than losing its scorn for theology, however, the rise of the seeker-sensitive movement did everything it could to remove theology and theological language from the church. Their efforts were a tremendous success in the sense of accomplishing their goals. Their goals, however, were dreadfully and hopeless wrong. A generation suffering from serious, debilitating spiritual malnutrition is the product of the mega-church movement.
The ECM tribe is no better. McLaren flaunts the fact that he is not a theologian—and his writings bear him out. (Actually, he is a theologian. Every Christian is. He’s just a particularly inept one. The option isn’t whether you’ll be a theologian or not as a Christian, it’s whether you’ll be a good one or a bad one.) Bell, Kimball, and others downplay theology and doctrine so that they can engage culture—whatever that it—and reach the lost. Oddly, historically the lost have been reached by the gospel, which includes tons of doctrine. I recently read a blog where the bloggers were discussing whether it was proper and right—whatever that means to postmoderns—to use foul, four-letter words to reach the lost. Sophomorically (used in the sense of “shallow quibbling”), a distinction was made between “cursing” and “cussing.” Cursing—in the sense of calling down condemnation on people—must be excluded from the Christian life, it was argued, but “cussing” shows that you’re an authentic Christian ready to reach out to the lost. In addition to that silliness, one blogger follows Jesus but feels the Bible is full of metanarrative that is no longer applicable to postmodern man. One can only wonder how this blogger knows anything about Jesus apart from the Bible that he believes is seriously flawed and full of error/contradiction. Why must we assume that the Bible is right about Jesus and wrong about other things?
Moreover, both the mega-church and ECM are offering a kind of “product” to consumers. The mega-church is offering it to the Baby Boomers—possibility the most spoiled generation in the history of mankind—and the ECM is offering a “consumer gathering” to the 25-30-something group. In both cases, they know that their “consumers” are looking for the sort of thing the “me-first,” “it’s-all-about-me” society is offering. Both groups—at least for right now—still want “self movement” in a kind of evangelical window dressing. You know, the right words at the right time.
David Wells puts the matter succinctly and correctly when he writes, “A genuinely biblical and God-centered ministry is almost certain to collide head-on with the self-absorption and anthropocentric focus that are now normative is so many evangelical churches.”
The amalgamation of slightly Christian ideology and a postmodern pagan mindset has left the modern Church floundering both with regard to biblical knowledge as well as biblical ethics. Traditionally, historically, pagans have made no appeal to moral absolutes since their moral categories rarely superceded the relativities of their daily life. In addition, history had little or no value for pagans since their lives were concentrated on the experience of the moment. To them, experience is everything. To the ECM, it’s about the same. All the while descrying doctrine, they appeal to experience.
It is further instructive that pagans have generally tended towards syncretism. Religion was a type of smorgasbord undertaking and they looked for what the various “gods” could do for them. The question to the “fates” was and remains the same for pagans: What have you done for me lately? In both the Old and New Testaments, however, you will search in vain for affirmations that God was to be found in other faiths, and yet McLaren and others have given that clear allusion more than once. It is an incontrovertible fact that “the biblical authors wrote from the conviction of the uniqueness of the biblical faith—a uniqueness that was not a matter of perception but of fact, not simply of their inner experience but of the objective facts of history.”
This means that the ECM, to the extent that they remain indebted to postmodernism, is embracing a form of old paganism or Neo-paganism. For the postmodern mind there is no truth; the bottom line for the Christian consciousness is precisely the opposite. Which side is McLaren coming down on? Clearly, Scripture teaches that a Christian mind sees truth as objective and absolute because it derives from the God who is truth. This is something that makes the ECM very uncomfortable.
In the nineteenth century James Orr reminded the Church that the Bible is “full of doctrine.” Writing in the context of the Incarnation he said that the New Testament “comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge…. A religion based on mere feeling is the vaguest, most unreliable, most unstable of all things. A strong, stable, religious life can be built on no other ground than that of intelligent conviction.”
What is known as evangelicalism is in deep trouble. In fact, it’s become such a broad catch-all phrase that it’s almost become totally meaningless. In today’s circles, almost everyone is an evangelical and almost anything is permissible. Douglas Groothuis cites a professor of philosophy at a Christian college who told him that “objective knowledge is impossible and that he rejects the claim that our ideas can correspond to an external reality.” I only wish that Groothuis would have at least given the name of the Christian college so that parents could take due note of where this kind of thinking is coming from. I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I have to pay “big bucks” for a college education for my children, I certainly don’t want them to be exposed to that kind of thinking. If I wanted that, I’d send them to a “hobnail boot” secular school.
I’ll close this issue with the observation regarding postmodernism and the ECM. Postmoderns rightly reject the tenets of the Enlightenment. But they have no solved the problem, but only added a different dimension to it. Their reaction against the Enlightenment lacked a substantive biblical base of knowledge and understanding. Therefore, what began as a criticism to and reaction against the Enlightenment “has marched off, by way of reaction, into different but equally naturalistic extremes in other directions. These only underscore the fact that without a belief in biblical revelation we are today staring down the barrel of a dark nihilism.”
We have already seen that postmodern has only a self-absorbed, individual worldview of convenience. In this issue we have simply reiterated the obvious: for them there is no truth—even though they use truth claims to refute their opponents. Get it? In our next blog we shall delineate how such a worldview void of truth leads to no purpose.
 See Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (NY: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 176.
 Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 20.
 Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Inventing the Postmodern Person, (NY: Putnam, 1997), p. 27.
 Langdon Gilkey, How the Church Can Minister to the World without Losing Itself, (NY: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 85, 96.
 David Wells, No Place for Truth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 256.
 Ibid., 268.
 Ibid., 270. Italics mine—RG.
 Ibid., 280.
 James Orr, The Christian View of God and His World as Centering in the Incarnation, (NY: Scribner’s, 1897), p. 20.
 Groothuis, TD, 21.
 Groothuis goes on to say, “When I asked him if the law of gravity would be true if no one were on earth at the time, he replied, ‘No. Truth is limited to our language.’” (p. 21).
 David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 88.