Postmodernism & the Modern Church (VI)
We have been examining the phenomenon known as postmodernism. Granted we’re not talking about a monolithic, one-size-fits-all entity, but there are definite tenets that can be detected in this movement that give us an accurate picture of its essential components and what it stands for. To this point in our investigation of postmodernism, we have observed that the garden variety postmodern has only a self-absorbed, individual worldview of convenience. In the last issue we simply reiterated the obvious, taken from the writings of some of postmodernism’s proponents: that for them there is no truth—even though they use truth claims to refute their opponents. In this issue, we shall delineate how such a worldview void of truth leads to no purpose.
Enlightenment thinking got it all wrong for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its intense hatred of God. Dispensing with the “God hypothesis” Enlightenment thinkers attempted to spin out an optimistic view of life whereby man, using his reason, would only progress to a better and better life. The dismal failure of such an approach and a belief is clearly evident to all who have not drunk the Kool-Aid.
Stripped of anything that smacked of “the divine,” the Enlightenment attempted to reduce life to natural cause and effect. Everything in life, they taught, could be explained naturally. There are still a number of people who believe that this is true. What occurred with the Enlightenment and its aftermath was, however, the separation of facts from values. Put simply, this separation didn’t allow an individual to move from “what is” to “what ought to be.” In short, the Enlightenment made ethics next to impossible or, at best, contrived. What happened, therefore, in the wake of the Enlightenment was that people attempted to cobble together a system of ethics that had its feet firmly planted in the air.
I give you this brief historical analysis simply to point out that our postmodern society falls into the same trap, even though it despises both the Enlightenment and modernity. This is one of the ironies concerning postmodernism: while loathing modernity it has pretty much fallen into lock-step with it on key, essential issues. David Wells points out that “Postmoderns are just as interested in giving their account of ‘truth’ and ‘morality’ from their own perspective even if it is to say that neither truth nor morality in any ultimate and binding way exists.” In other words, postmodernism claims to have few doctrines and “makes no truth claims beside the fact that there is no universal truth. And this is universally true!”
This is the old “hidden agenda” trick and many have fallen for it. That is to say, postmodernism has a very detailed agenda and most of its Christian adherents are starting to spell it out more and more clearly for us. Initially, the Christian proponents of postmodernism were slow out of the gate. I believe that this approach was intentional. Allow me to give you a few examples. The first is Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. When you read the book—which is a very easy read—you can become lulled into the complacency that he’s just writing a fun little autobiography for young people. In my own denomination, the PCA, we even had a couple of our pastors write very favorable reviews in ByFaith magazine, stating that they found the book cute and humorous.
My take on the book was quite different. I found it neither cute nor humorous, but I did find it insidious. For example, in the book Miller talks about how when he was having trouble believing that Jesus really exists he would go and be with the Unitarian Universalists for a while. That’s got to make you feel a whole lot better! Or, he would go to a hippy commune—I suppose one or two is still in existence. You know, people my age who never quite got over the 1960s—where free love is still the order of the day and describes those living there as forgiving and healthy.
In addition, Anne Lamott regaled us with her drivel, who as a 50-something year old woman has a live-in boyfriend, swears profusely, and does not have a clue theologically, and still some Christians found this acceptable and defended her. Then there is Brian McLaren. He is the Birkenstock, cool, I-feel-your-pain pastor who wrote A Generous Orthodoxy. That book was an attempt to join the unjoinable and since its advent McLaren’s theology has become more and more aberrant.
Look, our culture has been in a downward spiral for the longest time. Both mega-church Christians as well as their kids who are in the Emergent Church Movement acknowledge that our society is immoral, and yet both groups seem intent on thinking, acting, and speaking like this culture in order to reach it; engage it. They seem to have forgotten—if they ever knew—that being a Christian in society always involves being countercultural.
This postmodern generation is the most in debt generation in the history of the United States and its devotees are dysfunctional, self-absorbed, and without a moral compass. I expect that from a neo-pagan culture, but not from those who profess the Christian faith. And yet we are witnessing a number of Christian “celebs” going off the deep end and advocating Open Theology, open relationships, inner-faith dialogues, and universal salvation.
Like their neo-pagan counterparts many modern Christians have a life and worldview of one: the one that suits them individually. Wells comments, “As our world has…fallen in on us, stripping us of a view larger than our own perceptions, denying that we have access to what is true, and leaving us purposeless, so many people in the West are, perhaps surprisingly, now reaching out for what is spiritual. Today, the world in general is as ‘furiously religious’ as ever…despite the tides of secularization that have swept over it.”
It’s true that many postmodern Christians are “furiously religious” but most of their fury and religion are cheap surrogates for the “real deal.” For example, many of the Emergent Church models make use of votive candles and labyrinth prayer, which hearken back to the Middle Ages and Mysticism. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, walks and talks us through “Practicing the Presence” of God, “Unplugging,” “Breath Prayer,” “Centering Prayer,” and “Inner-Healing Prayer” just to mention a few items. She must know what she’s doing because Adele is the spiritual formation pastor at Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Being “furiously religious” smacks more of having a zeal for God, but without knowledge (cf. Rom. 10:2). What remains the most disconcerting for me in all this, however, is the truth that these “external” things are not generally accompanied by support from Scripture or the application of biblical truth in the lives of modern Christians. While there is an emphasis on votive candles and the like what is severely lacking is an emphasis on Bible reading and knowledge.
This type of approach leaves Christians vulnerable and susceptible to the reality of spiritual warfare. I really don’t care how many candles I burn, they can never substitute for true biblical repentance and amendment of lifestyle. I mention this because I was recently on Rick Warren’s site and someone asked him the question if he would baptize two people who were living together. His answer was Yes. For a pastor, that is unconscionable and more important, unbiblical. Yet, the modern Church also suffers from a lack of real purpose due to the lack of real spirituality and pursuit of holiness among the members of both the mega-church as well as the Emergent Church Movement.
David Wells asks a question that he considers to be the central one in his latest book. It goes like this: “What, then, does a Christology which is wanting to be biblical look like in our postmodern world, a world in which orthodoxies have no place, in which the idea of truth has been abandoned, in which worldviews have collapsed, in which religions and spiritualities jostle side by side with each other, and in which the religious consumer is in the driver’s seat?” That is an excellent question. How would you answer it?God has given us his ordinary means of grace: preaching, prayer, sacraments, and Christian fellowship to strengthen us in our Christian walk. He has also supplied us with a clear purpose in life: to glorify him and edify one another, both in accordance with what he prescribes in Holy Scripture.
 David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, Christ in a Postmodern World, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 75.
 Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), p. 214-215.
 Wells, AAEP, 89.
 Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).
 Wells, AAEP, 90.