Theology of Joy
10/2/09 at 01:23 PM 0 Comments

Communicating the Gospel with Postmodernists (Part 2)

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B. The Context of Postmodernism

1. What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism holds that one's philosophy of life is ultimately determined by the community or group which most influences one's life. Other factors, such as personal choice or religion, are secondary. Postmodernism is to a great extent an attack upon what postmodernists call "metanarratives," which are grand stories about the world, "overarching explanations of reality based on central organizing 'truths."1 For postmodernists, these "truths" are actually "myths," fictional stories that embody the central core of a culture's values and beliefs, and are in this sense fundamentally religious.2

In "medieval" times, the "metanarrative" was one of submission to ecclesiastical or divine authority. In "modern" times, the metanarrative was one that promoted the power of individual minds (guided by methods of observation, experience and reflection) to attain to truths needed for guiding one's own life. John Dewey's modern "man," for example, was self-assured, in control of his own destiny, and needing no authority outside of himself. He was autonomous, a law or authority unto himself.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, has moved from this autonomy to anxiety. The "false gods" of modernity can no longer be used to save us. Metanarratives now need to be "deconstructed," in other words, exposed for what it really is--myths that gave authority to those who wrote the stories, and ideological power-structures built upon oppression of others and upon domination of the earth. As a result, postmodernists now question all authority: of history, truth, morality, tradition, science, education, government, etc.

2. What is the postmodernist view of history?

Postmodernism presents a radical new philosophy of history. According to Dixon, "Today's postmodern historians view history more as a study of people's images and thoughts about their society and their past. What actually happened is no longer the historian's primary concern, and in fact, can never be known. Instead, what matters is what people thought happened."3

Stanley Grenz points out that this postmodern view of history developed through a series of contemporary philosophers. Dilthey in particular had such an impact. Hailed as the primary figure in a movement called "historicism," Dilthey argued that we cannot escape from our own historical circumstances. Not even philosophers can view history from a transcendental standpoint outside history because, "their understanding is limited by their own ‘horizon,' by the historical context in which they stand. They inevitably interpret the past through the concepts and concerns of the present."4

Such a trend not only destroys the idea of a transcendent authority, it also destroys the possibility of faith in a God of history. Our belief in God's character (His holiness, love, mercy, etc.), in Scripture, and particularly in Christ's historical resurrection are all dependent upon our view of history. Thus the postmodern view of history must be contended with if we are to proceed in developing a viable Christian witness.

In particular, we must deal with the postmodernist's question regarding theological truths: How can Biblical theology, that set of "truths" developed during the time of the biblical culture, objectively relate to people living in the twentieth century? This argument is posed in many forms. One of the most common is heard from "reader-response theologians," who claim there is no way to reconstruct the meaning of past theological statements. Rather, the community simply "plays" with previous beliefs and formulates its own dogma entirely from the standpoint of present needs or theological agendas. "The past act of interpretation (that of the original readers) belongs to a community that remains forever lost and cannot be recovered."5

This extreme denial of historical truths, however, is not held by all postmodernists. Richard Rorty, for example, seeks to discover "bits" of the "onto-theological tradition" that might be useful for our purposes.6  We must remember that our culture has not completely abandoned the concept of authority. Instead, those who claim to have authority are now automatically questioned. According to Pazmino, "we live in a society that regularly and systematically questions authority . . . In Jesus' time the authority of elders and teachers was generally respected. In our age, traditional authorities have been widely overthrown."7

Though the idea of a historically transcendent authority is now questioned, the verdict is still "out" for the typical postmodernist whether this historical authority can be effectively demonstrated in the context of present culture and communities. Thus, the door of opportunity for demonstrating that God's authority has not been completely shut.

3. What are the postmodern barriers to the gospel?

The Christian communicator, therefore, must be prepared for the sort of questioning that results from the postmodernist view of history. Postmodern skepticism or suspicion becomes particularly high when Christians begin to talk about "truth," and even higher if the postmodernist's view of Christianity is one that is tightly connected with modernism. Specifically, this postmodern suspicion may appear in the form of three "charges:"

1) The charge that Christianity is intolerant, that is, does not encourage or allow the free discussion of ideas within a pluralistic society.

2) The charge that Christian communicators lack integrity. In their pursuit of "truth" their humanity becomes imbalanced (and in particular leans toward their rational abilities), and as a result their communication seems neither honest nor convincing.

3) The charge that Christianity is oppressive, in that the Scriptures promote a metanarrative that disempowers some people while lifting others (i.e. the "chosen") to a place of power.

These charges can be addressed by the Christian communicator who has a proper model for communicating God's historically transcendent authority "into" the postmodern culture. Before we examine how to respond to these issues, though, we must identify the role of the ambassador, the one who represents God's eternal kingdom in time and space. This will be the subject of our next article.

1. Dennis McCallum, The Death of Truth (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996), 201.
2. Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996), 44.
3. Tom Dixon, "Postmodern Method: History," in McCallum, 127.
4. Grenz, Postmodernism, 101
5. Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 379.
6. Grenz, Postmodernism, 154.
7. Robert Pazmino, "With What Authority do we Teach?" (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1996), 27.

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