Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: The Lisbon Earthquake, The Prosperity Gospel, and Some Other Stuff, Part 4

passioncartoonWe need to spend a little time mulling this phenomenon called Post-modernism. Now, “Post-modernism” is nearly undefinable. The word can refer to a school of philosophy, or of linguistics, or of hermeneutics, or of architecture, or of art. It can refer to contemporary American culture. And the meaning shifts depending on the context.

I’m not going to attempt a precise definition, but rather deal with Post-modernism at something of the popular or cultural level. And at that level, Post-modernism contends that there are no values — or more precisely, that true values cannot be known.

You see, “values” are a product of our culture. The Chinese have different values from Sub-saharan Africans, whose values are quite unlikely Fifth Century Christian ascetics. And values define what is right and wrong.

The Post-modernist would argue that American values have no particular privilege. They are not “true” just because we happen to believe them, just as the Chinese values aren’t true just because the Chinese believe them. And anthropologists will gladly point out how widely values vary from culture to culture, “proving” that values are culture-dependent. They don’t exist “out there” independent of the culture. Therefore, it’s quite wrong for one culture to impose its values on another.

And, therefore, values are a mere “social construct.” They are what a society agrees on, and the society can change its values simply by choosing. Hence, what my parents or grandparents valued is only as binding on me as I wish them to be.

As Crosby, Stills, and Nash wrote,

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.

Counter Melody To Above Verse:
Can you hear and do you care and
Can’t you see we must be free to
Teach your children what you believe in.
Make a world that we can live in.

Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

We adopt our own “code” because the past is just that — the past. We make up our own rules. And when we pick our preferred dreams (things we imagine to be true), then we’ll “know by” those dreams. Our values affect what we can know.

And because the generations have different experiences, they have different dreams, making communication nearly impossible: don’t you ever ask them why.

Depressing, really, but this is the Post-modern world — a world without universal values. To return to an earlier chart —


is replaced with —

The individual/values

— and the individual cannot cross the line to know the universals. Values are below the line, individually chosen and not at all universal.

N. T. Wright has recently commented on Post-modernism, concluding that Post-modernism is simply pointing out that the Fall is real. You see, in a world without God, the correct analysis is very much along the lines of Post-modernism. Without God, there are no universals; each man becomes his own value system. Why not?

Post-modernism is therefore true — but only to those without God.

Modernism has its own flaws, because Modernism is, at its heart, humanistic — that is, Modernism finds salvation in man. You can see the point easily if you’re my age (55). You see, I grew up in the Post-WWII age of great American optimisim. We’d beaten the Nazis and set things right in Europe. We had invented jets and rockets, and were on our way to the moon — getting there by 1970, just as President Kennedy had said.

America was ridiculously prosperous, and science was defeating diseases like polio and small pox. We were sure — dead certain — that we’d live to see scientists control the weather and defeat cancer. We knew the US would defeat communism — and that once communism was ended, we’d see peace and unity among the nations. The United Nations would soon reign over a united world, all speaking Esperanto — an artificial language being taught in the schools in anticipation of the Golden Age that was sure to come.

Meanwhile, schools were being built across the land, more people than ever were getting educated, and civil rights were being restored to the descendants of slaves. Surely, racism would be gone in a generation, and surely education would bring a time of equal opportunity and civility.

And welfare was greatly increased, because we just knew that a good welfare system would end the need to steal, and combined with science, would end crime. Yes, the Millennium was nearly here because God was shining his grace upon our land. The Golden Age of peace, prosperity, unity, and freedom was nearly here!

What happened? Well, we got our arrogance thrown back into our faces is what happened. Weather defeated the scientists. We can’t even predict earthquakes, much less control them. Politicians proved corrupt and self-serving. Crime got worse. And racism is very much with us. Communism lost, and yet we are nowhere near peace or a world government. Modernism failed.

Now, notice the parallels. Modernism is like the Christians who live day to day based on rosey, cheery quotes from the Psalms, ignoring all the hard verses. Yes, we have that can-do spirit, and we can do it! It’s up to us!

Post-modernism is like the gloom-and-doom Christians who see no joy in this life, and just want to suffer through it until they die and go to be with Jesus in heaven. And both have a tendency toward legalism. The Christian legalists are all about the rules — making sure they earn their way into heaven, because they can’t stand this life. The Post-modern legalists try to overcome their despair by imposing their own rules — no hate speech, no gender distinctions, pro-choice — whatever cause is in fashion. For a group that denies the universality of values, they sure impose a lot of universal values — because what they want is freedom from anyone’s else’s say so.

It’s two radically different kinds of legalism, but both seek salvation through rules that lead to freedom of a sort — freedom to be like the rule makers.

The church growth movement was thoroughly Modern. We did scientific studies, found out what people wanted, and we offered the public a church that meets their needs.

The Post-modern church is found in Christians who enjoy the experience of Christianity but who refuse to be a part of the Christian community. Who are you to tell me how to worship? Why should I meet with other Christians when I can experience God in my own way right here at home? I’m all about Jesus, but not his church. And Jesus died to meet my needs. He’s my personal Savior.

And the solution? Well, of course, it’s found in Philippians. God’s mission is to erase the line that divides man from God, the individual from universals. In practical terms, this happens by God entering our world in anticipation of the complete merger of our world with his as described in Rev 21 – 22, when heaven and earth are merged.

God knows that we can’t make things better on our own. The solution is for God himself to circumcise our hearts by his Spirit — changing us so that we’ll be equipped to work in his kingdom and work to transform the world — not through science and politics, but by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. By prayer. By sharing a gospel that is neither Modern nor Post-modern, but is in the tension between the two — a gospel that’s built on the incarnation and resurrection and the power and love of God that enters the world to transform it — by God’s power, but in part through the hands and feet of his Spirit-enabled people.

The mission changes everything. It tells us why we need to be a part of the church — the body of Christ — and why we need to live disciplined, moral lives. And it tells us how to find true joy and peace even in a dark, fallen world. The mission helps us to escape legalism, because no longer are seeking to save ourselves. Rather, we are seeking to transform the world by emptying ourselves.

The mission changes everything — but only if we participate in the mission as self-emptied, humble servants who incarnate Jesus.


5 Responses

  1. Many good insights here.

  2. Part of the problem that has led to a post-modern view of the church are the well-intended, but missplaced rules that organized congregations place on their members.

    So, I find myself content in two ways: First, my personal mission is to love one another the way Jesus loved us. And that can be an all consuming mission. I have to be engaged with each person I meet in a focused effort to do that. And it is only the Spirit in me that enables me to maintain that focus as much as I do.

    Second, although I find organized congregations often missed focused with their energies, and caught up pointlessly in imposing rules on one another, I continue to find engagement with people positive. And I will remain engaged with the congregation, as long as I think I can contribute to the general spiritual development of that group.

    However, I must confess that I am more spiritually fulfilled by my engagement with individuals with whom I’ve developed relationships outside my local congregation. I’ve “gathered” them over the years, and remained close to them.

    In a way, I think it’s the identification and focus on my own “mission” that has enabled me to remain engaged with a local congregation. Because too often, a local congregation gets distracted and spends too much time looking inside, rather than looking outside.

    So, Jay, I guess I agree with your last sentence. “The mission changes everything.”

    “A new command I give you: Love one another, as I have loved you.”

  3. Post Modernism is definitely complex. Modernism not only affects organized Christianity but modern science and art as well. The idea that we have it all figured out or must have it all figured out was an inevitable result of modernism. The same battles being fought in churches and organized Christianity are being fought in the broader science and social sectors as well. While postmodernism is self contradictory in its ideas that there are no values or truth (most postmodernist have strong convictions), it does suggest two good things always question what you have always held to be true, and there will always still be mystery. Specifically in our churches we do a very poor job truth seeking. We start with a supposition and then try to come up with evidence to support it instead of following the objective evidence with brutal self honesty even if that means backing up and changing our minds about things we already thought to be true. It is a death wish in many churches to even suggest that there are other ways to approach the Bible rather than CENI. Organized Christianity in America with the exceptions of some of the community churches are in a hermeneutical/ecclesiastical war. You have the real truth seekers (usually labeled change agents), those who are re-studying everything and coming to different conclusions and then the traditional Biblicist who thinks that re-studying objectively is the equivalent of apostasy. Modernism is dying a slow death and will not be replaced by postmodernism per se but with a more objective mode of truth seeking.

  4. Joe,

    You make some excellent comments.

    One word of caution. Many pre-suppose that we are suppose to change. Although I totally agree we should be willing to change should new truth be found, I strongly disagree that changing is necessarily good.

    For example, my career has me interacting frequently within the scientific community. Several times over the years I have been criticized for naively believing in God.

    Whether caused by post-modernism or just simply coincident, our society is changing into atheists and agnostics. Europe is already near there. This change is not good. Sometimes we should be labeled a traditionalist.

  5. I see no clear direction for the future church. Our era is rethinking traditions we don’t understand. It is probably better to use an old proven idea, than make up a new half-baked one, no matter how well intended. This ofcourse is primarily how to do church, not core doctrine.
    The largest recent half-bake was discipling. Like all ideas, it was fresh, vibrant, and effective. So was Francis of Assisi. It just comes down to everyone in the church doen’t have to be a monk or prayer partner to be an great Christian. Today, we imitate the music of our world and the latest mega-church fads. It draws crowds now, but will it last?
    Shakers attended the Cane Ridge Revival, and were impressed., and some early Stone-Campbell folks became Shakers. The movement was fervent and growing in early 1800s and extinct by 1920s.
    Its probably not a bad idea to do church like the early church, if for no other reason that the speechmaker’s motto, “keep it simple”.

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