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A Talk About Nothing: Postmodernism, Culture and the Gospel

by Mike Gunn

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"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ" Colossians 2:8
"In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with the world that no longer exists." Eric Hoffer
Introduction Postmodernity in my estimation is a reaction within modernity and is quite possibly a transitional ideology; nonetheless, it remains a formidable factor in the modern 21st century life, and is still shaping our culture as we speak. To this David Wells writes, "The emergence of the postmodern ethos and the growing religious and spiritual diversity are by no means parallel or even complementary but they are unmistakably defining American culture in a significantly new way."1 As believers who care about people and the gospel, I think it is imperative to understand this transition in ways that can help us to understand our culture and reach it properly. We cannot resort to old staid methods for reaching a culture that rapidly morphs and changes it's identity at lightening speed. Since the Postmodern mind is often comfortable with irony, juxtaposition, complexity and paradox, as well as chaos and uncertainty, the classical method of defending and articulating our faith may no longer be of any assistance in gospel telling. Therefore we need to continue to be learners and students of our culture and construct ministries and methodologies that are contextual and authentic to the context in which we live. This is NOT an academic exercise; it is a gospel exercise, a missional exercise that begins with Exegeting (Interpreting) the culture.
  1. The Current Context of the Issue
    1. Modernity (Or Enlightenment Worldview)
      The western world has been, and in many ways continues to be dominate by an enlightenment worldview, which entrenched itself in "Cartesian"2 thinking by the middle of the 17th century. It is impossible to understand the basic thinking of Postmodernity without first understanding the 7 characteristics of modernist epistemology (Thinking).
      1. The Supremacy of Reason
      2. Subject-Object Dualism
      3. The Elimination of Purpose
      4. Undying Optimism
      5. Distinction Between Facts and Values
      6. The Potential Solvability of Humanity's Problems
      7. The Objective Autonomous Individual
    2. Postmodernity
      As I said earlier, I think Postmodernity is a reaction to the stale harshness of modernity. David Harvey (Author of the "Condition of Postmodernity") writes that, "There is much more continuity than difference between the broad history of modernism and the movement of postmodernism…to see the latter as a particular crises within the former, one that emphasizes the fragmentary, the ephemeral and the chaotic…while expressing a deep skepticism as to any particular prescriptions as to how the eternal and immutable should be conceived of, represented or expressed."3
      As David Wells notes it may be important to distinguish between postmodernism (The intellectual/academic) and postmodernity (The pop/social expression), since in reality it is the latter that toppled the modernist giant, and not the former, which has little or no connection to the mainstream public. Intellectuals like Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida certainly may have their place in postmodern philosophy, but the bigger question is how did we get "from Foucault to MTV?" 200 years of Christian apologetics and critique did little or no damage to the Enlightenment, while it took only 40 years for the postmodern attack to take root, and topple such a philosophical giant. Though by definition postmodernity would be indefinable, let's look at some of the major tenets of the theory that does appear to link most postmodern thinkers, and see how these aspects helped tarnish and topple the enlightenment.
      1. The inadequacy of "Pure" Reason
      2. The Subject-Object Holism
      3. The Elimination of Meaning
      4. Undying Skepticism
      5. A Blur Between Facts and Values
      6. The Potential Destruction of Humanity
      7. The Subjective Autonomous Self
  2. Towards a Biblical Commitment to Bring the Light of the Gospel in the Culture We Live
    Let's examine certain commitments that are both biblical and useful to reach a postmodern culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
    1. Commitment to a "Faith Tradition"
    2. Commitment to Gospel Telling
    3. Commitment to Contextualization
    4. Commitment to Biblical Community
    5. Commitment to an Embodied/Incarnational Gospel
Conclusion Postmodernity can be either the bane or the boon for Christianity. It has certainly opened up the doors in the marketplace of ideas, but it has also helped fragment our world, and relativize the truth, but with all the possible negatives of our postmodern culture, we have ample opportunities to reach this lost culture with the truth of God's word!
1 David Wells, Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World, 5 2 Relating to the rationalist thinking of Rene Descartes; specifically the foundational rationalism that was born with his "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am). 3 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 116

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