Theology of Joy
1/10/10 at 09:42 AM 0 Comments

Communicating the Gospel with Postmodernists (Part 4)

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It is tempting to try to build a communication model for postmodernists simply based on what seems to work best with them. The prevailing church strategy is "If it works, don't question it!" According to Grant Osborne, Pragmatism has become "the primary governing rod which determines church strategy." A sociological survey and "what works in the super-churches" seems to determine most decisions. Osborne concludes that we have become a market-driven church rather than a Bible-driven church.

Instead of following the culture in creating our communication model, we need to use Paul's philosophy of ministry as an ambassador, bringing God's authority into our postmodern context. How can we follow Paul's "begging" to present the rich theology of God's authority and Christ's historical redemption in the context of a present, winsome appeal? The following model involves three interdependent methods of communication that together seek to accomplish this task. These three methods also correspond with the three suspicions held out by many postmodernists (as listed in sec. I).

A. Christianity Must be Proclaimed in the Marketplace of Ideas as the Most Pragmatic Belief System

Over and against the postmodern suspicion of Christian intolerance, the ambassador demonstrates that when the transcendent God enters space and time, He does not use force to deliver His message, and does not make an intolerant claim that seeks to eliminate all foes. Instead, God attempts to woo people through His love, character, and wisdom. The ambassador knows that the authority of God and His Kingdom will emerge through the competition of ideas. In a pluralistic culture such as ours, each philosophy or religion is being asked to throw their ideas forth, and the general criterion today for "truth" is whatever idea proves to be most pragmatically effective. Such competition is not discouraged by Christianity, but confidently encouraged. The Christian knows that God's Kingdom will prove to be more just, more fair, and more viable than other philosophies and religions.

This approach reflects the incarnation of Jesus, who shows people that flesh can submit to God's authority, and that this submission, though risky, actually works in the real world. For example, Jesus spoke in parables, which asked the audience to evaluate various lifestyles according to pragmatic results (e.g. the parable of the sower in Matthew 13). Though pragmatism is not a god for the Christian, a demonstration of the pragmatic value of truth can be extremely effective with the postmodernist, one who seeks to find a way of life that produces maximal results--particularly regarding such values as peace, quality relationships, life-purpose, and security.

This approach also demonstrates the type of authority the postmodernist seeks. Richard Rorty, for example, attempts to lead his followers into a new "postmodern utopianism." His outlook is based on a positive view of inquiry. Rorty hopes that by asking questions we will discover what works within a particular community. His goal, to be achieved in the postmodern era, is that the community will find unforced agreement on some issues coupled with tolerant disagreement on others (in other words, an extreme form of cultural pluralism). Though Christians would argued with Rorty's final goal, his view of inquiry as a positive and pragmatic endeavor within a pluralistic setting can be respected and utilized in our communication efforts.

An example of this approach is given by Walter Bradley. A fellow professor came to Bradley one day to explain his reason for taking a one-year sabbatical: his "live-in lover" was moving across the country to start a new job, and he wanted to help her get acclimated to the new area. The professor asked Bradley's advice, and Bradley noncondemingly shared that God's Word would proclaim that this arrangement was going to lead to great heartache on the part of the professor. Six months after the move, and after the professor's lover ran off with a new lesbian lover, the professor came back to Bradley with a heightened interest in the Word of God. The professor now viewed the Bible as a book that makes very insightful observations regarding what works in life and what does not.

B. This Model Involves A "Holistic" Approach to Communication

The postmodernist is also suspicious of a lack of integrity on the part of the Christian communicator, and particularly of any approach that does not involve the whole person. Therefore, God's transcendent authority must be demonstrated through wholly-present people in order to be believed. Such a "holistic" approach to communication is one that utilizes the entire "self" in the communication process (i.e. intellectual, emotional, and volitional aspects). The tendency in "modern" Christian communication has been to focus on one aspect of man--particularly the mind or the will--to the exclusion of other aspects.

Certainly we must not forget the crucial role of the mind. But today's approach can no longer be a dispassionate exposition of biblical and theological concepts, disconnected from emotion and practical life. Without losing our theological heritage, we can learn to embody Christian truths through the very act of communication. Roy Clements remarks that,

Postmodern culture is in reaction against rationalism. Like romanticism in the 18th century and existentialism in the earlier 20th century, it demands experiential and emotional engagement with truth, not just cognitive information about it. In such context it is vital to do justice to the passionate nature of God's heart The theology of an earlier generation that spoke admiringly of the impassability of God will not do any longer. Postmoderns need to know that God feels.

As a result, our communication "should include experiential involvement with truth instead of just a rational understanding of truth . . . It must invite listeners to feel with the text."

Some "modern" preaching, for example, has had a tendency to focus on the will. Preachers have often been taught to rely on method (often aimed at influencing--or worse, manipulating--the will) rather than a more "holistic" approach. An example of such reliance on method is seen in Ronald Sleeth's book, Persuasive Preaching. Sleeth tends to reduces persuasion to mechanics and methodology alone. Also, his goal of persuasion is quite nebulous (to "bring people closer to God and man"), and not correlated to God's authority and truth. To this the postmodernist would appropriately ask, "to what ends are we persuading?"

Certainly there is a place for persuasion in ministry for the purpose of the gospel and exposing truth. Paul attempted to "persuade (the crowds) concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening" (Acts 28:23). He also employed persuasion in defense of his apostolic authority (1Cor. 9). And yet, Paul's persuasion was as "a demonstration of the Spirit's power" (1Cor.2:4)--the idea being that God's Spirit will utilize the preacher's whole person to display God's power.

As Clements has pointed out, postmodernists are particularly suspicious when passion and emotion are excluded from the communication process. As Paul's impassioned appeal was a reflection of the passionate heart of God, so we must demonstrate passion in our communication: passion for God, passion for truth, and passion for people. The communication of God's authority, therefore, must match the heart of God. Such a trustworthy witness may serve to help people to have faith in God.

Our culture is crying out for communication that models an active submission to God's authority in one's entire person, including one's personal lifestyle. Only a commitment to radical discipleship under the authority of Jesus will emulate this God-centeredness, which will be displayed in the love, strength, and submission of Christ himself. In the face of the self-protection that often accompanies postmodern anxiety, such submission, lived out in the context of the church community, will penetrate the hearts of some postmodernists--particularly as they become recipients of the grace displayed by such a community.

Postmodern suspicion seems to also demand a display of communication that is more "honest." In other words, the communicator must have an integrity that demonstrates humility and believability. Middleton and Walsh explain how this can be developed. They hold that the modernist approach to communication was an attempt to correlate the biblical message with contemporary culture, with the messenger of the Christian faith standing outside the faith and the culture, attempting to magisterially correlate the two. In a postmodern context, though, the messenger must "inhabit" or "indwell" the biblical story so that it becomes our story. The text is not applied to our situation, but instead our situation needs to be submitted to the text for fresh discernment.
Indwelling the Biblical story, we would suggest, means living with the text in such a way that we come to experience the story as fundamentally about us. We are the people whom God liberated from Egypt and led through the Red Sea; we are the disciples whom Jesus rebuked for misunderstanding his mission and to whom he appeared after his resurrection . . .

This communication model must be lived among postmodernists. Such a "live demonstration" of truth in a postmodern context is given in the following illustration,

Like experienced Shakespearean actors immersing themselves in the script, Christians need to indwell the biblical drama by serious, passionate study of the Scriptures. This indwelling requires us to become intimately familiar with the biblical text in order to gain a deep, intuitive sense of the story's dramatic movement and the Author's plot intentions . . . The church's praxis or "performance" must be faithful to the thrust, momentum and direction of the Biblical story.

C. The Christian message should affirm the "whole person" being communicated with

Finally, the postmodernist is suspicious of any signs of oppression. The Christian communicator, in affirming the "whole Person" being communicated with, says to the hearer that God's authority is associated with His mercy, His wisdom, and His ability to empower others.

1. This model respects the passions and emotions of the person, thus demonstrating God's mercy.
Non-Christians, having perhaps observed a dispassionate version of Christianity, may conclude that becoming a Christian involves sacrificing one's emotions. Instead, our communication model must affirm the value and the experience of emotions, and particularly of pain. Today's most frequently asked questions have to do with "the problem of evil": Does God really care about pain and suffering? Middleton and Walsh point out that the purpose of many of the biblical stories was to help the Jews remember that God does indeed care.

The significance of (the exodus story) is that Israel's narrative memory was shaped decisively by the crucible of oppressive suffering and liberation into justice. The memory of suffering and God's desire to relieve this suffering was kept alive in the constant retelling of the story. But this memory was kept alive also in the numerous psalms of lament, which become part of the liturgical repertoire of ancient Israel. Constituting almost one-third of the Psalter, lament psalms (such as Psalm 22, which Jesus prayed on the cross) are abrasive prayers that give voice to pain.

We need to demonstrate God's heart in this manner when relating to postmodernists. Clark shows that by affirming and listening to a person's emotions we can get to a person's true values:

The positive feedback that attentive listening offers goes a long way toward defusing intense emotions . . . Emotions are concerns or passions. Concerns and passions are cherished ideals or values. Concerns function as stable bases for emotions and so are called emotion-dispositions (i.e. they predispose someone to have emotions of a certain kind). Passions are particularly central concerns that integrate a person's life . . . Since concerns and passions are values about which a person will have positive attitudes, emotional intensity reflects attitudinal intensity.

In this way, today's ambassador demonstrates to the postmodernist a God who is merciful: He listens to the specific needs, passions, and pains of the individual. From this point, the ambassador can explain that God goes a step further--taking these needs and pains onto Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

2. This model affirms the proper use of the mind, thus demonstrating God's wisdom.
Second, Christian communicators must affirm and challenge minds by relating truth to real-world struggles and situations. The "modern" tendency was toward imparting theological knowledge without the passing on of God's wisdom. God's authority, though, is perhaps never more apparent than when we see that He is wise. His wisdom is passed on in the context of His covenants with man, that which ensures continuance of relationship. The story of the tower of Babel illustrates the "modern" attempt to construct a theory of knowledge outside of a covenant partnership with God. "The pursuit of the task of knowing, outside the context of authority, is always a self-defeating grab at mastery."

Wisdom, on the other hand, is presented in Proverbs as protectional, healing, and transformational. Prov. 5 imparts wisdom to Solomon's son to protect him from the ruin of an adulterous woman. Prov. 12:18 instructs us that "the tongue of the wise brings healing" (see also 1:2,6; 5:1; 18:4; 22:17; 23:9). Prov. 22:17 speaks of the wisdom that transforms a fool into one who experiences a pleasant life.

We must not forget the crucial importance of the mind. This is particularly true in a culture that claims to be "post-rational." The Christian's ability to address the issues of the mind (and the heart) in an intelligent matter is never more needed. In our desire to be relevant to postmodern concerns, we must remember to do our relating through biblical theology and truth. Whether in a vocational setting, in developing friendships, or in preaching sermons, truth must be communicated in a way that is both uncompromising and relevant to practical issues. According to Osborne,

(Bible-centered preaching) has gotten a bad reputation as linked with preachers who use overheads and talk academics rather than applying Christianity to practical issues. This is not true exposition. The Bible may well be one of the most practical books ever written, and it is not hard to be relevant when preaching from biblical texts . . . Our postmodern culture thinks in picture language rather than in linear or prepositional form; God's Word has as many creative metaphors as Shakespeare, and every one is a picture ready to be developed.

3. Our model empowers people to live better, thus demonstrating God's empowerment.
Third, our communication of God's authority should empower its hearers. Whereas postmodern culture seems to value personal autonomy as one's highest privilege, the sovereign Lord of creation is seen in scripture (i.e. Gen. 1,2) not as One who uses His power and authority selfishly or oppressively, but as "blessing His creatures with life and fertility, and in particular, sharing His power with humans--in the same way humans, as the image and likeness of this God, are to use their power and rule for the benefit of others." Humans are given "dominion" over God's creation so that they might participate in God's ruling authority and, through this participation, come to know that God is ultimately in charge.

This model stands in stark contrast to the postmodern charge that the Bible promotes oppression. Instead, we can demonstrate that God's plan is to fight oppression. The Scripture portray this through a display of "canonical pluralism," which describes on one hand the grand scheme (or metanarrative) of God's plan for His people, while on the other issues of humanity, particularly as seen in the margins of human depravity.
Why, in a story line of God's mighty deeds of redemption . . . do we find tragic stories of violence and brutality in which the protagonists (or victims) do not experience God's redemption or liberation? . . . (These stories that do not sit well with the metanarrative) function as an inner-biblical critique of any 'totalizing' or 'triumphalistic' reading of the metanarrative.

Canonical pluralism interacts well with postmodernism, because the Scriptures are seen to have built-in checks and balances against those who might attempt to build a "modernistic" or "oppressive" theology. Such critique against oppressive systems is quite pervasive in Scripture once we open our eyes to it, and is important in showing that the Biblical story is an unfinished drama. One example is found in Israel's deliverance from Egypt on one hand, and their cries to an unresponsive God (in Psalms 39 and 88) on the other. Another is Tamar's episode in the midst of Joseph's rise to power. Canonical pluralism allows us to communicate a "biblical metanarrative" that re-tells the Biblical story in such a way as to correct the postmodern charge that oppression and victimization have been the status quo for most of human history (especially Biblical history), while at the same time "empowering" postmodernists by sensitively responding to postmodern issues of oppression and victimization.

In doing so, we can use our theology to speak to the individual searching for "self-esteem," which postmodernism (unsuccessfully) attempts to restore through identity with one's community of origin. Instead, the Bible presents an "empowered self" based on the image of God in man (Genesis 1:26,27), and the glory of man in God's creation (Psalm 8). The idea of God's "empowerment" speaks God's authority into postmodern culture in a fresh and exciting way. God's authority is not seen in Scripture as that of an unbending tyrant who demands blind obedience. On the contrary, His authority emerges from a loving Creator of the universe who cares intimately about his creation and who desires to see all creatures flourish.

This is the Redeemer who delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and who entered history supremely in Jesus to liberate creation from the bondage of sin and death. This is the Author of an unfinished drama who invites us to participate in a genuinely open future in which we can indeed make a difference, as we implement in new, even unforeseen circumstances the plot resolution that Jesus initiated through his death and resurrection.

Thus, God displays Himself as One who reigns over man with their best interests constantly in mind. Barclay illustrates this crucial interdependence of God's authority and love:
In the life which the authority of God would have men live, there is this all-pervading kindliness and thoughtfulness, and the God who formed the earth and shaped the heavens and counts the number of the stars is the same God who cares that sanitary arrangements are made and kept and a house safely designed.

In conclusion, when communicating the gospel in postmodern culture, we must be prepared to engage in dialogue regarding issues of authority. The best model for communicating God's authority to the postmodernist involves becoming an ambassador for Christ, and yet one with a special sensitivity to postmodern suspicions of intolerance, lack of integrity, and oppression. With these issues in mind, the Holy Spirit is able to powerfully speak through the ambassador into the world of the postmodernist, so that submission to God's kingly authority will not only be seen as viable, but even desirable. God's authority has substantial benefits for the seeking postmodernist--who, in trusting Christ, can experience God's mercy, wisdom, and empowerment in actual space and time.

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