Monday, December 15, 2008

Christianity Meets Postmodernism

This is the subject for the paper I needed to write for my worldviews class, and I must say that after our other assignment in that same class where we were to debate whether postmodernism has a place in Christianity, this isn't the perspective shared by everyone. A lot of Christians do have the knee-jerk response, but because I shouldn't repeat myself I'll just let whoever is interested read it for themselves! It is long, but if you happen to have time on your hands...

Christianity Meets Postmodernism

The term “postmodernism” has a variety of effects on its hearers: Some are highly offended, some exult in its possibilities, while still others have no idea what it actually means. Our class has already discussed whether or not postmodernism has any place in the Christian realm, and while divisions exist over whether postmodernism is the biggest evil since… well… modernism, this author does believe that despite conflicts there are inroads between the two—Inroads that allow Christians to learn from postmodernism as well as provide means to communicate with its strict adherents.

A Definition

To explain postmodernism, one first looks to its parent, modernism. Modernism was the design of thinking developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries that pulled away from all things traditional, and challenging any beliefs except those that could be explicitly “proven”. Everything needed to be examined and explained, and explained scientifically, before it was to be accepted as truth. Modernism, however, discovered its limitations: while vast progress was made in science and technology, life’s biggest questions remained unanswered, like whether a closed universe was adequate to explain the mysteries of life, or whether meaning could be found in a closed view of creation. Journalist Glenn Stanton from Christianity today puts it, “Enlightenment science also failed to provide a sufficient basis for acting morally in a civil society. The modernist promise of inevitable progress fueled by the inherent goodness of knowledge [has been] judged a fairy tale by the experience of the last century, the bloodiest in all of history” (2002, p. 1).

Postmodernism has sought to paint over this bleak picture with broad strokes. The dictionary definition of postmodernism is, “any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism… encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity” (Porter, 1998, postmodernism).

Postmodernism puts limitations on what can be known, if anything, by the human mind. Sire explains, “Our age, which more and more is coming to be called postmodern, finds itself afloat in a pluralism of perspectives, a plethora of philosophical possibilities, but with no dominant notion of where to go or how to get there” (2004, p. 212). The American culture, after being subject to so many different perspectives of reality and combined with the awareness that science doesn’t explain every question, found itself stepping away from the significance of knowing and instead put the emphasis instead on the meaning each person gives their experiences (Sire, 2004, p. 218).

Christians are feeling the threat this kind of thinking can pose. After all, the majority of Christians would agree that the substance of the Christian faith is in the knowing, and the knowing of Jesus Christ as Savior. If knowledge is challenged, how is one supposed to share the gospel? Correct a wrong? And Christians aren’t the only ones who have taken issue with postmodernity; some secularists share the frustration as well. Author Christopher Norris states, “We have a vision of post-modernity as a journey into unknown territory where the old cultural constraints no longer apply, and our collective security is potentially compromised…” (2002, p. 214).

Seeking an Appropriate Response

In step with the threat, many reactions have ignited from the Church toward postmodernism and mostly all are negative. One exception is from what is now called the Emergent Church—a body of believers that seeks to assimilate the best of postmodern thinking in an effort to revitalize the Gospel. A description of the Church is given by one of their authors and spokesman, Collin Hanson, “An American Christian today is beset by globalization, pluralism, and postmodernism (three terms that I use interchangeably). In other words, the world is a confusing mess. I think that conservative, evangelical, Reformed theology offers sure answers spoken in tones of certainty by authority figures. Emergent Christianity, for better and worse, offers more ambiguous answers (and even more questions!) in tones of less certainty — but, hopefully, at least with what Lesslie Newbigin called ‘proper confidence’” (Hansen & Jones, 2008, p. 2).

There is much that can be said of the positives of what the Emergent Church has to offer with its focus on community and Christian behavior. Even so, there are some unorthodox ways of interpreting long-accepted Biblical beliefs that many find unacceptable. In the following quote, one Emergent Christian shares a different interpretation of Old Testament war after considering the limitations of language:

To me, such narratives reveal as much about the underlying worldview of the recipients of God’s message(s), as they do about God himself. I think, like a good postmodernist, that all such “message-events” are a combination of sender - message - and receiver. There is no special crystalline reception that exists - somehow miraculously outside a worldview - merely because it is God who is speaking…all that is to say, I assume that in such passages the people in question heard *something* from God, but they then filtered it through their expectations/presuppositions. (Precipice, para. 4)

Whether the Emergent has reached too far to span the distance of postmodernism to Christianity is a debate destined to happen, never-the-less there are still values Christians can glean from postmodernism that are already Biblical. For instance, humility is never an unattractive quality in a Christian, and the postmodern view of accepting our human limitations can fall into that category. I do not need to believe that “your truth is your truth, and mine is mine” in order to listen to what you have to say and still remain open to the possibility that you (whether or not you are a Christian) could be right on a particular issue. In the Gospels, Christ was able to debate logically while still being meek in spirit. In fact, the times we see Christ at His most “intolerant” is when He came into contact with hypocrital and argumentative religious people who didn’t use their ears to listen (John 2:15; Matt. 23:27; Mark 16:5). Only those who had genuine questions and a teachable spirits, like Nicodemus, were given answers (John 3).

First Contact

So how exactly are Christians supposed to communicate with postmodernists without entirely becoming one? Duane Liften frames the problem in an article for Christianity Today:

The radical objectivism and neutrality of the Enlightenment have long been critiqued by Christians, Litfin said, and Emergent is right to repudiate them as unchristian and unbiblical.

“But Christians also have no business embracing the equally radical perspectivism of postmodernity," he said.

If one has been captured by a constructivist epistemology, a position that repudiates anyone's right even to make a truth claim, and which considers truth instead to be utterly situated," Litfin said, "then any truth-claim dimensions of the gospel will be dramatically muted.” (Jones & Collins, 2004, p. 2)

And how can Christians effectively obey the commanded to share the gospel if that Gospel falls on the deaf ears of an audience that won’t even consider a truth-claim?

In one conversation I had with a postmodern friend, we were discussing truth and whether or not it was even possible to know. He asserted that we couldn’t know truth, while I was asserting that we can’t know that we know, but that doesn’t mean that one of us is incapable of being right. In other words, we all live by faith but it is possible that one of us could hit on objective truth.

In this conversation, instead of choosing between fighting against all of his ideas or entirely submitting myself to the futility that particular perspective, I chose to acknowledge the aspects I agreed with while pointing out the ones that I didn’t. By doing so I avoided turning a friend into an enemy and avoided shutting down the entire conversation.

Also, when approaching postmodernism Christians would be wise to remember the effect father modernism has had on traditional Christianity. Glen Stanton points out:

Evangelicalism and its first cousin, fundamentalism, have famously been at odds with a modernism that has either treated the idea of God as a fairy tale or an evil. As a consequence, our relationship with modernity has largely been reactive and defensive. While much of evangelicalism is still in this pitched battle, we fail to realize we are in the window of time between modernity's flat-lining and its obituary being posted in the newspapers. The death of the highest modernist ideals is not widely realized, but evangelicals should recognize it and change our posture from reactive to constructive, because we find ourselves in a culture with an empty stage and an open microphone…. McLaren said our current approach to the age reminded him of a friend who worked in Washington as a spy. "He saw everything through the lenses of the Cold War—who was good, who was bad, and what his mission was," McLaren said. "When the Cold War ended, he was lost. His worldview no longer served him well in a new climate, and he didn't know how to adjust. We evangelicals tend to be that way at the death of modernism." (2002)

Conclusion

My own interactions with postmodernism have been varied: At one point I was one, at times I now rail against it, but for the most part I see wisdom in seeking trying to bridge the gaps between the two without comprising on essentials. While I do believe that the unstable qualities of postmodernism can serve to break down important elements of the Gospel, I do not believe in these circumstances that the best defense is an aggressive offense. An offense that is offensive is not a wise course of action toward this new generation that has grown callous to the hostility of previous generations. Because of this, I believe we instead should emphasis our commonalities while doing our best to defend why we believe what we believe. This is the path I will choose to follow.


References

Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Jones, T. & Hansen, C. (2008) Emergent's New Christians and the Young and Restless Reformed. Christianity Today, volume 52.

McLaren, B. & Liften, D. (2004) Emergent evangelism. Christianity today, volume 48, 11.

Norris, C. (2002) What’s wrong with postmodernism: Critical theory and the ends of philosophy. Hemel Hemstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Porter, N. (Ed.). (1998) Webster’s revised unabridged dictionary. Springfield, MA: C. & G. Mirriam Co.

Precipice (2008) The cart and horse of biblical infallibility. Precipice Magazine. October ed. Retrieved December 11 from http://www.precipicemagazine.com/

Sire, J. W. (2004) The universe next door: A basic worldview catalog, fourth edition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Stanton, G. T. (2002) The postmodern moment: Are Christians prepared after modernism’s failure? Christianity today, volume 46, 7.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Yowza, I should be in bed...

...but instead I decided to write about my flowery, housy dreams at 3 in the a.m. I wanted to get started in sharing with everyone what my ambitions are for the next two years--at least insomuch as it concerns the shell I dwell in.

First, here is a picture of the outside of my dream-home:


If that isn't enough to melt your heart, you should see the inside (I'm keeping that a secret, I don't want to copy-cats out there with 70 g on their hands taking my ideas!). It has about everything I was looking for, including the balcony, extra bedrooms for me to rent out, enclosed rooms for an aura of mystery, and space enough to breath. I plan on slathering it in hardwood, excepting the enclosed entryway and the upstairs master bath. I'm altering the design a smidgen to make more room in the living room and and kitchen and shifting around the bathrooms, but otherwise... *sigh*

The loveliest part is that my dream could be a reality in the next few years if I budget wisely! I want to have renters, to make this house a home. I want it to someday be an oasis for people to escape to and find love. I want God to be there.

It is ever-so-much fun developing my ideas but I'm trying hard to be careful not to become obsessed. God has plans that are more mature than my own, and I need to learn to trust. So trust I shall.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Church issues: Mine, Yours, and Ours.

Church Issues

If there is one mantra that agitates me more than any other, it is people complaining about the church.

That said, I do understand particular church issues and respect that there are people who have been hurt by churches (including some of my closest friends). I know there are healthy churches, unhealthy churches, noisy churches, subdued churches, isolated churches, worldly churches... The list goes on. I am not a fan of every church, nor does this mean that I don't get angry at the church from time to time.

My frustration is with those who approach the church with unrealistic expectations and walk away, bitter and disappointed. Throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak, giving up on Church because of isolated incidents of hatred or bigotry.

So to address said issue, I've decided to write about a few incidents (starting with my own) and muse about a Biblical approach to such problems. This is hopefully relevant to both Christians and non-Christians, though I mostly hope to sway the opinion of Christians. For the non-Christian I hope I can offer a new perspective on how Church conflict should be viewed...

: Mine

For most of my Christian life (all of five years now) I haven't experienced much trouble with the church. I became a Christian at 18, found a church close to where I worked in Caldwell and I enjoyed going. The people were friendly and the teaching satisfied my appetite for learning. I was involved with the worship team for a while (not my calling, by the way) and also tried leading a Youth Group (also didn't turn out so pretty, but that's for another blog).

My first issue with this church occured when I noticed that the preaching of the Pastor seemed tainted to me. When reading through Acts 16 where Paul and Silas are singing to hyms to God in prison, the Pastor said something to the effect that the only reason these two were singing was because they were in such dispair. Like it was an effort on Paul and Silas' part to keep their spirits up during the horrible circumstances God had put them in.

Maybe it's because I'm a disgusting optimist, or maybe this is where I fall into being critical, but I always have and always will have trouble with the idea of the woeful Christian. For me, this interpretation of Acts 16 didn't settle right because it gave me the impression that for a Christian to do God's work he should expect to do it with a frown and a sigh. When I became a Christian the most important revelation to me was that I could have hope. That no matter how bad my circumstances looked I could hold on to the truth that God had a plan and a purpose for my life. Silas and Paul singing despite being in prison was a demonstration of that truth, not a contradiction.

The end of my story is short. I tried bringing up my feelings to the said pastor, but instead of building him up I think I tore him down more. I walked away from the conversation feeling like more prayer and understanding should have been in order, and I learned my first lesson about the church:

Leadership is allowed its weaknesses.

"Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." Colossians 3:13

Even the most well-intentioned Christian leader is NOT infallible, nor will he or she always behave at the top of their capabilities. Healthy leadership is to set a good example for the rest of the congregation (and that includes working on said weaknesses), but leaders should not be expected to always be perfect. Only Christ can fulfill that expectation.

: Yours

Most of you probably have a story you can tell, and I'm sure are more devious than a well-intentioned pastor gone awry. I've heard stories of fellow-church members walking up to someone in the congregation to say, "Fuck you", and that was supposed to be God's will. Or fire and brimstone preaching. Or manipulation. I can list my own behavior as a horror story where I have aggressively attacked someone to make a point. A portion of these comes from a flawed nature we Christians still battle with from time to time, but a part comes from the fact that the church isn't made up of 100% Christians.

Believe it or not, simply because one goes to church doesn't mean they're "in":

""Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.'" Matthew 7:21

"Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?'
" 'An enemy did this,' he replied.
"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'
" 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.' " Matthew 13:24-29

It brings to mind my favorite quote of St. Augustine,"Never judge a philosophy by its abuse."

So please, don't let the ones who put up the appearance of Christianity without substance be the ones you use to judge the rest of us...

: Ours

"Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." Ephesians 4:15-16

The truth is, folks, the Church is necessary. The Church is you and the Church is me. To say that the Church is too flawed to function is really saying that we are all too flawed to ever be in community, Church or no.

Community is an intergral part of the Christian experience where even the pain can serve a greater purpose. Through the hurt and frustration that comes through relationship we learn humility and strength as we depend on Christ. To walk away from such an experience would be to deny ourselves of a deeper, more fulfilling, Christian life.

"Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Hebrews 10:25

Painting is titled "Betrayal" by David Boyd
http://www.commissionaire.net/crownst_press/dboyd.htm