The Postmodern World in the Church

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken October 15, 1995

Several weeks ago—before we were interrupted by O.J. Simpson and the Pope —we began a conversation with postmodernism.

And we admitted that postmodernism is hard to pin down, and that even most scholars have trouble defining the postmodern world view. But we said that modernism is dying and that we are living in an increasingly postmodern culture. And we said that what was new about postmodernism was the idea that there are no absolutes. Postmodernism isn’t just moral relativism, like modernism was, but intellectual relativism, a chaos of mind. Modernism said you can do whatever you want to do; postmodernism says you can think whatever you want to think as well. Postmodernism throws out God, just like modernism did, but it also throws out human reason.

This is why postmodernism has such a negative tone to it. It sets itself over against God, and over against reason, and over against any coherent view of the world. The postmodernist says that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Something may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me. If God is true for you, that’s great, but he’s not true for me. If faithful marriage is true for you, that’s great, but it’s not true for me. If an inherent difference between masculine and feminine is true for you, that’s great, but it’s not true for me.

Now have you ever heard anybody say that there is no such thing as absolute truth? It would surprise me if you haven’t, since two-thirds of American adults say that they do not believe that there is any absolute truth. If you have ever heard someone say “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me,” then you have stared into the face of postmodernism.

Postmodernism presents us with a giant smorgasboard of ideas, and values, and truths, and impulses, and feelings, and lets us choose whatever we want, to be true for us, as long as we don’t try to make it true for anyone else.

You can see postmodernism at work in your own home, if you have cable TV with a remote control. In the palm of your hand you hold the controls to postmodernism. Cable TV is a giant smorgasboard of images, and ideas, and impulses all jumbled together, and you can choose whatever you want.

Plus, you never have to follow any single story from beginning to end. You can check to see if the Flyers are still beating the Rangers, and then pop, you can see what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, and then pop, you can watch a few minutes of Home Improvement. If you have a good sense of timing, you can keep track of 2 movies, or 3 baseball games, or 4 shopping networks all at once. And networks are offering more and more programming for people who are incapable of following a single idea for more than 30 or 40 seconds, bombarding viewers with a rapid series of images.

You can find the same restlessness and the same shortness of attention span in the church. Various examples of postmodernism in the church were identified in a recent article in The Christian Century entitled ‘Postconservative evangelicals greet the postmodern age’ [Roger E. Olson, May 3, 1995, pp. 480-83]. Now these so-called ‘postconservative evangelicals’ are not from some of the mainline seminaries and churches which ceased to be evangelical many years ago. No, these postconservative evangelicals consider themselves part of the evangelical community in the American church. I want you to hear what they’re saying about the proper source for Christian theology. Where do we get our theology, according to post-conservative evangelicals?

“Postconservatives seek to broaden the sources used in theology… According to [them]… the essence of evangelicalism is an experience and a distinctive spirituality centered around it… The essence of both Christianity and theology, then, is not… truths enshrined in doctrines, but a story-shaped experience… [Theology] aids experience and doxology. In this servant task, theology draws on several sources… These sources include the Bible, the tradition of Christian thought, culture (including philosophy, science and the arts), and the contemporary experience of God’s community, including popular religion” [p. 481].

Postconservative theology is theology with a remote control. We can listen to the Bible for a few minutes, and then pop, switch over to popular religion, and then pop, listen to what contemporary science is saying, and then pop, listen to the tradition of the church, and then pop, listen to our own experience, and that’s how we arrive at theological truth.

We used to have a shorter word for “postconservative evangelicalism”: we called it liberalism. You remember liberal theology, don’t you? Remember how liberal theology rejected the Bible as the unique basis, ultimate standard, and sufficient source for proper theology? Remember how liberal theology incorporated culture and religious experience into Christian theology? Well, postconservative evangelicals are up to some of the same old tricks. The chaplain at Duke University, a mainline pastor from the liberal tradition, surveyed the preaching landscape in evangelical churches and wrote an article about how familiar it all seemed to him. He called it “Been There, Preached That” [ William Willimon, Leadership, 16:4, pp. 74-78]

Now the proper antidote for postmodernism in the church—or for postconservative evangelicalism, if you prefer—is expository preaching.

Expository preaching is what we hear at Tenth every week, but it has seemed radical almost everywhere that it has ever been introduced. Ezra was an expository preacher. He read the law of God in Jerusalem after the children of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon, and as he read the law, he explained it so the people could understand it, and the people wept with sorrow for their sins. Ulrich Zwingli was an expository preacher. When the great Swiss Reformer started preaching at the Gross Münster in Zurich, he created quite a stir. One man was so electrified that he wrote that he felt as if he had been seized by the hair and lifted from his pew. What was so electrifying? Zwingli had simply started at the beginning of Matthew and preached through it, a chapter at a time, verse by verse.

Now in a postmodern culture, expository preaching is becoming radical once again. Consider for a moment some of the things that we are asserting when we open up our Bibles to hear the preaching of the Word of God.

We are asserting that there is a God and that he has the right to tell us what we need to hear. We are asserting that there is a single, authoritative standard for truth. We are asserting that the Bible is a coherent book, so that it can profitably be read and studied in the order it has been given to us. We are asserting that God has an orderly mind, and that it is worth our time to follow his ideas through from beginning to end. We are asserting that there is such a thing as Truth, and here is where it can be found.

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