by Justin Lonas
"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).
Tradition Number 6-Postmodernism
Last month we explored the concept of worldview thinking and examined how the worldview of modernism, while in accord with Scripture in such areas as logic and the value of individuals, is ultimately opposed to the Church and has had a corrupting influence on it. This month we look at that philosophy's successor, postmodernism, and how it is affecting the Church in positive and negative ways.
Put simply, postmodernism is a reaction against modernism that has been expanding its scope and influence since about 1960. It developed out of cultural realization that modernism's dream of utopian progress was unattainable and a disgust at the cold, calculating methods of social change promoted by its scientism and industrialism.
At a basic level, postmodernism values community and relationship over isolated individualism, emotional connection over thought-out decisions, and case-by-case interpretations of right and wrong instead of across-the-board principles. Because, as we saw last month, the Western Church is often so wrapped up in modernism, postmodernism seems very threatening to Christianity. In many instances, however, the shift presents new opportunities for the faith to flourish. Postmodernism's renewed emphasis on community and narrative fits hand-in-glove with Christ's challenging of the false authorities of His day by putting them in the context of God's overarching plan and the model of fellowship upon which He built the Church.
The story obviously doesn't end there, and we know that God views agreement with part of Christ's message and mission in the same light as (if not more harshly than) total rejection of it. Postmodernism's desire to change the status quo of modernism quickly evolved into a colossal case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By attempting to get over modernism's scientific utopianism, postmodernism has left behind any appreciation for observed and objective reality. Through overturning the destructive effects of industrialism, postmodernism has eliminated our culture's collective work ethic. In abandoning rationalism, society has abandoned reason.
This overreaction has taken a firm hold on academic life in the West across all disciplines. Moral relativism has replaced any categorical truth in ethics or theology. Deconstructionism in English has undercut the ability of language to describe and define the human experience. Revisionism has spoiled the value of history for teaching us principles for the future. Every vestige of culture, law, and knowledge is being reinterpreted accordingly.
The total dilution and marginalization of truth that postmodernism has brought about leads to a society filled with irony, pessimism, and nihilism that paradoxically undermines the very idea of community that postmodern man desires. When the lines of truth are severed, individuals are left unable to find any stable ground, and the entire fabric of society begins to unravel. Without a unified concept of reality, ambiguity and isolation become the norm and develop a system of "hyper-individualism" that reduces ultimate reality and authority to one's own feelings. The refain of Judges, "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes," is the only accurate description of the landscape we are already entering.
As the dominant worldview in today's Western culture, postmodernism has begun to influence the Church just as modernism did. Most local bodies take one of two positions; they either cling to their preferred way of doing things (which often closely mirrors modernism) or wholeheartedly embrace the sweeping changes of postmodernism (and its attendant downfalls). Either approach leads to a dangerous precipice.
Ignoring and rejecting postmodernism out of hand sets the Church up for total exclusion from society. While relevance should never be our primary concern, clinging to the past and to extrabiblical ideals unnecessarily closes doors and hampers the ability of believers to connect the lost with their only hope.
Likewise, running headlong into the spirit of the times eliminates the effectiveness of the Church. A body committed to the world's ideals draws no distinctions between itself and the surrounding culture and blends into the background, thereby making it impossible to fulfill its role as salt and light. In each generation, believers are faced with choices between God's unchanging truth and corresponding lies in the way of the world. A church that chooses against God and His Word in any point ceases to be a church at all.
The Church is thankfully not shoehorned into one or the other of these options. The correct path for today's believers is the same as it has always been-following Christ. It should not surprise us that the philosophies of the day challenge God's authority, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths" (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
If we remain grounded in truth and seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit unaltered by whatever lens dominates the day, postmodernism (like any other system of thought) presents new opportunities for Christ to show the surpassing beauty of His holiness and love. When someone rejects propositional truth (as our society most certainly has) and yet hungers for authentic relationship, how blessed is the discovery that Truth has a name (John 14:6) and that the Person of truth desires to be in relationship with them! The same people who scoff at fact-driven presentations of the Gospel may be completely captivated when they are told the story of Christ and how their lives fit into its narrative.
Just as Christ transcends all of earth's cultures to speak to the heart of every man, so He works above every philosophy of man to reconcile us to Him in every age. Postmodernism in perspective, while undoubtedly a threat to the Church, should be viewed as a motivation to rouse believers to rediscover the power of our God and trust in His guidance as never before.
Justin Lonas is editor-in-chief of Pulpit Helps magazine.