Postmodernism is an easy target, especially if you treat it as just another form of relativism—the old "what's true for you may not be true for me" dodge.But postmodernism is many other things, and many young believers must swim in its currents as they study, work, watch current movies, and relate to friends—especially in university contexts. A growing number of these Christians are embracing some postmodern ideas—not uncritically, but believing they offer an authentic context for Christian living and fresh avenues of evangelism. This openness to postmodern ideas makes many conservative Christians nervous. Indeed, the postmodern set often criticizes aspects of evangelical culture, and the pomo vocabulary sounds impenetrable to evangelicals' ears. At CT we thought it was important to find out just what these Christians are saying—and what they mean by what they say. We thought it important to find out just what limits these Christians place on postmodern influences.At a recent conference in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, we asked five rising Christian thinkers to talk about how they cope with postmodern ideas and what opportunities they find in those ideas. Many CT readers will disagree with some of their statements, while cheering other insights.Before taping this forum, the six participated in an open panel at The Vine, a conference primarily for Gen-Xers. Some of their contributions to the panel are included as sidebars. The participants were:
- Carlos Aguilar, an M.A. student at Talbot School of Theology.
- Vincent Bacote, visiting assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College.
- Andy Crouch, editor-in-chief of re:generation quarterly.
- Catherine Crouch, a research associate in applied physics at Harvard University.
- Sherri King, a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Dallas.
- Chris Simmons, a Ph.D. candidate in the film/history of culture program at the University of Chicago.
If the terrain and vocabulary seem unfamiliar, we urge you to first read Andy Crouch's brief explanation (above) of that slipperiest of terms, postmodernism.
Christianity Today: What is particularly new about postmodernism? For example, the concern for the marginalized has been a theme throughout Christian history, a recent example being 19th-century English and American evangelicalism; both movements are famous for their concern for social justice. Another example: in the preceding seminar, one of you said that postmodernist Christians are trying to redefine the relation of faith and knowledge, that "instead of coming at the faith rationally, true knowledge requires the Holy Spirit to work an ontological change in the human heart." That sounds like classic Augustine. So what is so new about postmodernism?
Sherri King: These things are not so much new as they are a reaction against the modern, the era beginning with the enlightenment that privileged rationality. So it's not just postmodern, but it is also antimodern and, for Christians, a return to previous orthodox theologies.
Andy Crouch: A prophetic critique of a dominating, totalizing worldview is obviously not new. Jesus did that to Caesar. Augustine had to do it after the fall of Rome. Aquinas had to do it in the face of Islam, which was threatening the foundations of Christendom. At other times in history, there have been "totalizing metanarratives," to use the jargon, that seemed plausible for a while. And then someone came along and said the emperor has no clothes. In some ways, postmodern critics are informed by the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition.
Vince Bacote: In terms of "the other," the marginalized, it's not necessarily a new thing, but a new kind of openness to hearing marginalized voices. I don't know many periods of history in which people tried to hear all these different voices (women, the poor, ethnic minorities, and so on), attempting to find some way to move forward with a deeper understanding.
If the themes are not necessarily new, why the Christian fascination with postmodernism and especially postmodern jargon?
King: In order to engage the culture, we have to speak the language of the culture, and the language of the culture right now, at least in intellectual circles, is couched in postmodern terms. The language might be new but the ideas are not. Yet the situation is different. Take the recognition of the other. The media saturation of our culture makes a huge difference in who is given a voice. People who are in control of the voices that speak and the voices that don't speak—on radio, television, print media—are the people who are in power.
Chris Simmons: Modernism changed the world. Nothing can take us back to the way it was before. Take that part of the modern we call the Reformation: Somebody said that before the Reformation there was one way to go to hell, and after the Reformation there were hundreds. You can't put the genie back in the bottle and talk about Christianity as if the Reformation didn't happen. Because of modernism—the naïve thinking that assumes that if, without God, we just keep applying reason, we can get to the bottom of everything—we think differently, we experience relationships differently.As a result of technology (one of the fruits of modernism), we experience the world fundamentally differently.
Simmons: In the 1996 movie Swingers, John Favreau's character has an entire relationship with a woman through an answering machine. He asks her out on her answering machine. Then he gets anxious about it, and he calls her back. And he calls her back again and again. And he finally calls her back one last time, and she picks up the phone; she's obviously been screening her calls. She says, "Don't ever call me again." It's an exaggerated example of how technology changes our interactions. The Internet, cell phones, media—the fact that we gain our collective history and our individual histories in large measure through mediated forms like these makes our experience of the world different.
Carlos Aguilar: I'd like to offer an alternative voice here. I think there is some reticence on behalf of emerging urban Christian leaders to buy fully into the postmodernist shift. We place a little more trust in reason, in what knowledge can do to empower people. Maybe we need to change our view as to what constitutes knowledge; maybe we only need a move away from the more radical modern view that it's certitude we're after, and maybe we should seek something like justified true belief.
Simmons: The pendulum always swings too far. Some postmodernisms talk about not being able to know anything, that we live in an illusion, and all that stuff. As a Christian, I do not subscribe to that. The response to the naïvete of modernism has been to be overly cynical about knowledge. But God has endowed us with the ability to know him and to know his world through our relationship with him.
In the previous seminar, when one of you said, "Modernism hasn't done us any favors," there was a visceral reaction of agreement in the room. Why the passion about this?
Andy Crouch: Has anesthesia done us favors? I would say yes. Has medicine done us favors? Sure. The fruits of modernity—obviously, we love them. It gives us ice cream, for example. Modernism—taking modernity to its extreme and absolutizing it, making ultimate claims for it—has been very problematic.
Where specifically has modernism undermined the church's mission?
Simmons: A new book by James Engel and William Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions (InterVarsity), talks about how missions has been co-opted by modernism, by capitalist models of missions, which are about dollars-per-soul approaches. It's been about reaching people groups as opposed to discipling them as Christ commanded us, making the church passive in the role of missions, as if it were a group of stockholders.
Then again, in 1792, just before the voyage of William Carey, Christianity was still largely a European religion. The modern missionary movement, which is founded on a lot of modern principles, over the next 150 years managed to make Christianity a world religion.
Simmons: Did it? Do we have converts or do we have disciples? Do we have hearers or do we have disciples?
In every culture, we probably have a little of both, but some 2 billion people now call themselves Christian. Surely, many of these are genuine disciples who wouldn't have been disciples without the modern missionary movement.
Simmons: It's not whether we do missions, it's how we do missions. It's following the biblical model. Rwanda is a great example: 80 percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christian, yet this is a country that in 1994 witnessed one of most brutal genocides in history. Christianity was a veneer laid over tribal hatred. Discipleship appears not to have taken place. Numbers should not matter in missions, and numbers have been first in the modern missions movement. Numbers matter to marketing people. They should not matter to Christians. What we should do is obey Christ, do it exactly the way he said to, and develop a blameless, discipled, spiritually mature church and let the numbers take care of themselves. Jesus took 12. He didn't use a mass-market approach, which is completely modern.When you listen to people from the Two-Thirds World, they will tell you, "Please, take back that Western stuff you brought over here. Develop indigenous leaders. Don't patronize us. Let us have a voice." A lot of what I often see is Western arrogance and just non-biblical Christianity in missions.
Where in evangelical theology has modernism done us disservice?
Andy Crouch: Modernism caused this massive failure of nerve among a certain segment of conservative Protestant theologians and locked them into a battle with the modernists; the conservative Protestants were conquered not by losing the battle, but by adopting so completely the terms in which the battle was set. In fighting against rational skepticism, they employed the logic and reason of Enlightenment rationality. When the modernists themselves had their own failure of nerve in the mid-'70s–'80s (with the rise of deconstructionism, feminism, and other critiques of modernism), many evangelical theologians were still on the field, still trying to do theology in a "modern" way, battling, for example, to prove rationally that the Bible is inerrant. No one in academia is asking those questions now.
Catherine Crouch: Similarly, the conservative church still perceives science as an enemy. Certainly, a few prominent scientists—Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, Stephen J. Gould, and Stephen Hawking, for example—make pronouncements saying that science tells us everything we need to know about the world, or even that science shows that religion is a delusion. But that's not the way most people who do science think about it anymore. That's an outdated attitude.Yet many conservatives still think this is where the battle is to be fought: they dig in and say, "We've got to defend ourselves against science."Instead, a more constructive approach would be for Christians to learn more about what science does and doesn't say about theology, learn that there are many scientists who read people like Weinberg and Hawking and think their conclusions, as science, are crazy. We can focus on the range of possible theological implications, and limits, of science.
Traditional evangelical theology hinges on the Cross, even more than the Resurrection in many ways. Postmodern Christians we're hearing think a lot about the Incarnation. Why are many postmodern Christians so fascinated with this doctrine?
Bacote: Relationships are so pivotal to impacting people with the message. In other words, you can't just use Evidence That Demands a Verdict to prove the faith anymore. I think a core aspect of incarnational theology is becoming incarnational. To use the phrase of some people, "You might be the only Bible anyone reads, the only Jesus anyone ever sees." We have to literally take that on and live that out to people, which is an applied incarnational theology.
King: The idea of incarnational theology, the idea of the embodied Christ, is extraordinarily timely and important in all areas of Christian life. And this gets to the issue of truth. At the end of the day, truth is not a syllogism. Truth is embodied in the person and flesh of Jesus Christ our Lord. And if we ever forget that, we fall into great peril and great danger.
Simmons: In our postmodern culture, there's a tradeoff between convenience and presence; things are so mediated with the Internet and television, versus talking to each other and being with each other. Yet we still live in bodies. The body matters, and the body is part of our identity and personality. It's the way we experience the world as Christians—intimate relationships where we're in each other's presence, presenting Christ as God not at a distance but as God intimately involved, sweating, living in this world, dying on a cross physically so that the tissues die.That's a profound message for a postmodern world that is immersed in cyberreality. To have the flesh of God here is the most profound statement we could make.
Andy Crouch: I want to put in a plug for a Cross-centered postmodern theology. I take on postmodernism skepticism quite deeply, and this has driven me to a rereading of the Cross, because the Cross is what guarantees the Christian gospel against the critiques of postmodernism, specifically the one that says all metanarratives oppress. The gospel is a metanarrative: it is "the greatest story ever told"; it claims to tell the truth about the world. The problem with most such stories is that they tell the truth in a way that benefits someone. But the Cross is a story in which the other is met by the non-other; God becomes the other and endures the full experience of marginalization. When you call it "marginalization," you realize what an awful piece of jargon that is—it doesn't even begin to do justice to what was endured on the Cross and what it means to be the other. What it means to be excluded, what it means to be crucified on the garbage heap—this is what the central figure in the story, indeed, the Author, the Person with all the power in the story, embraced. And once you have met God at the Cross in the crucified Jesus, then you'll never again imagine that this God is out to wield his power like a white male, because the Cross is where we discover that love is real and that power and love can go together without coercion.
This forum and these pages of Christianity Today were underwritten in part by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.
See our other related stories in this package, "What is Postmodernism? | The often-maligned movement is today's academic Rorschach blot." "Urbanites: More Justice, Less Epistemology | The emerging urban class is targeting capitalism and Christianity—often for good reason" and "Scientists: Just Leave Us Alone | Not all the academy is so taken with postmodernism."
Andy Crouch is editor-in-chief of re:generation quarterly. Until June 2000 he was a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard University. Listen to some of Andy's Crouch's talks given to the Harvard and Radcliffe's IVC Fellowship.
Carlos Aguilar is currently an M.A. student at Talbot School of Theology.
"Crews, Posses, Clans, and Cliks" by Carlos Aguilar and Brian Aguilar is available from re:generation quarterly.
Read a short bio of Bacote from Wheaton. Here's a list of Bacote's publications, including:"Coming to Terms with My Otherness," from Best Christian Writing: The Best Christian Writing 2000, "Called Back to Stewardship: Recovering and Developing Abraham Kuyper's Cosmic Pneumatology"for the Journal for Christian Theological Research, and "Say Amen, Somebody," from ChristianityToday.com.
Catherine Crouch is a postdoctoral fellow in physics at Harvard. Check out her web page and the Galileo project on physics education. She also presented two talks on science and Christian faith at InterVarsity's Urbana 96 convention: "Issues for Christians in the Sciences" and "Opportunities for Witness and Service as a Scientist."
Sherri King is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Dallas.
Chris Simmons is earning a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in its film/history of culture program.
Visit the Postmodern Christianity Discussion List site.
Previous Christianity Today articles on postmodernism include:
Abraham Kuyper: A Man for This Season | The surprisingly relevant advice of a Dutch statesman for engaging postmodern culture. (Oct. 5, 1998)
The Oxford Prophet | Lewis predicted a time when those who want to remold human nature "will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state (June 15, 1998).
A Theology to Die For | Theologians are not freelance scholars of religion, but trustees of the deposit of faith. (Feb. 9, 1998)
The New Theologians | Creating a theological symphony. (Feb. 8, 1998)
A Cultural Literacy Primer | Ten resources Christians need for understanding today's world. (April 28, 1997)
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