In our Postmodern era, many young people have become uncertain about virtually everything. When we do Christian Apologetics, there is often a prior step we need to take before we can convince someone to believe the Bible. Before they can believe the Bible, they must believe that truth exists and that it is knowable.
If you don’t believe that objective truth exists, and that you can know it with at least some level of certainty, you will be skeptical of any and all truth claims, including Biblical ones.
After the Protestant Reformation, a new ethos pervaded the Western world. Christianity began to infiltrate every aspect of culture, from the Arts to Literature, from Philosophy to Science. But then French enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Decartes began to assert that we could know truth and reality apart from revelation; we could be good without God.
When Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, rationalists and empiricists began to win over the masses by claiming scientific support to their atheistic dogmas. 1859 was, in my view, the beginning of the Modernist era.
The Modern Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century typified the new cultural modus operandi. The new methods of industry were mechanical, predictable, mass-produced, calculated, and mathematical. The church is usually about twenty years behind the world in terms of allowing cultural trends to infiltrate her ranks. In time, however, Modernist tactics were seen in churches’ organizational structures and even in the evangelism approach of Billy Sunday and other Christian leaders.
Around the 1950s the seeds of Postmodernism began to grow. By the 1960s, America was witnessing a full-scale cultural revolution. In contrast to Modernism, its sociological step-child, Postmodernism is decentralized, relativistic, experiential, pluralistic and in many ways irrational. Again, it took 20 years, but soon enough Postmodernism found a foothold in many churches.
Today we find ourselves in a near civil war within the church. Postmodern Emergents are on one side facing off against died-in-the-wool traditional, institutional Fundamentalists on the other. The questions range from doctrine to style, with cultural presuppositions under-girding many of the arguments on both sides.
Culturally, I believe that September 11, 2001 has provided a sociological turning point into a new era. It has ushered in, in my opinion, the beginning of post-Postmodernism.
When a civilization is embodied by relativism and hedonism, history tells us that it falls apart from within. Despair first entered Philosophy, then the Arts, then General Culture and finally, the Church. (See: The God Who Is There, by Francis Schaeffer.) Dr. Schaeffer told us that the church is the final hold out in a culture against nihilism and despair. There are only two things that can keep a nation from sliding into the abyss of pleasure:
1. The gospel of Jesus Christ as preached by the true confessing church. The gospel exerts its restraining influence by means of he Holy Spirit working in someone’s heart to convict him of sin and empower him to live righteously. (i.e. Self-Government)
2. The arm of a totalitarian state. Totalitarianism can assault us from within or without. Neither one is very desirable.
Postmodernism is seen, in part, in the ordination of homosexuals in the liberal mainline churches, the embracing of higher criticism and skepticism of the Biblical texts, and the utilization of pop culture advertising techniques in reaching the masses.
While the church is waging internal wars about power-point choruses versus hymnbooks, praise bands versus organs, formal attire versus casual, our Postmodern nation is on the verge of losing the ability to maintain its foundational institutions. Wimps can’t govern themselves. God told Jonah that Ninevah was on the verge of being destroyed. “You’ve been concerned about this vine [something that made Jonah comfortable]…but Ninevah has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left…should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
We face the threat of Islamo-Fascist attacks on hand and Femi-nazi dictatorship on the other, and yet we are so busy with our personal “vines” that I think we’re missing the big picture. It reminds me of the musicians on the Titanic playing ragtime as the ship sank. Perhaps it’s time to change the tune to “Nearer My God To Thee.”
We can be part of the solution by believing, living and proclaiming the unchanging truth of the gospel. As Schaeffer said in his excellent book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, “There must be confrontation: Loving confrontation, but confrontation nonetheless.”
The issue isn’t whether Modern or Postmodern church is better. They’re both bad. Neither culture from which they sprung was based on Biblical ideologies. The issue is Truth. Truth isn’t a Modern invention. Absolute truth is only found in Jesus Christ, who said, “I AM the Truth.” (John 14:6)
The bottom line is this. Yes, we need to be concerned about secular cultural influence within the church, whether Modern or Postmodern. But we also need to be concerned about the fact that the church finds herself within a broader cultural context that is self-destructing at an alarming rate. If the church can’t get her act together and faithfully proclaim the Truth to a waiting world, we will find ourselves in a depressed cultural ghetto much like the weakened churches of Eastern Europe in the last century.
For a number of years now (since about 1995), I have been studying postmodernism (a sociological cultural shift that has influenced Western thought and behavior since the 1950s-1960s), and I have known the it was just a matter of time before postmodernity made its way down through philosophy, to the Arts, to general culture, and eventually entrenched itself within the Church (any serious Francis Schaeffer student will quickly recognize his “line of despair”).
The Death of Truth, by Dennis McCallum (general editor, www.xenos.org) and Postmodern Times by WORLD Magazine columnist, Gene Edward Veith, published by Crossway Books, are good primers for the larger context of postmodernism.
A mistake that I have seen made in some Emerging Church critiques is that some people see “emergents” as simply being a new trend or movement within church life. I think that totally misses the point. That viewpoint causes people to casually brush aside the emergents’ concerns as being arbitrarily provocative, almost as though emergents were merely trying to “get a rise” out of the older, traditional church folk.
To truly understand the movement, you have to understand the postmodern culture in which Gen-X’ers and Millennials have been immersed since their birth. Particularly for young adults who were educated in the governmental school system, they have absorbed so much postmodern influence that their very epistemological consciousness (the very way they think and process information) is postmodern. The grid through which they receive information and make decisions is postmodern, not Modern, nor Biblical. Reading books by George Barna or even books like The Last Christian Generation by Josh McDowell can help readers understand the results of this phenomenon.
In a nutshell, Postmodernism is not a movement, it is an anti-movement; a reaction against Modernism. In the same way, the Emergent Church movement is a reaction against the influences of Modernity in the culture and theology of the traditional American church. The critiques and criticisms the Emergents make of American church culture are often correct, although their solutions then towards Relativism, Universalism and Skepticism.
This issue is really immense, so instead of explaining what the Emerging Church movement is, I highly recommend this informative, balanced and well-reasoned view of this controversial issue. Dr. Carson is an amazing thinker who really tries to present a fair analysis of both sides of the debate. I know I’m putting myself in a box, but I don’t recall reading anything in Dr. Carson’s assessment that I found to be in error. That is pretty amazing for a subject this large! I have read so much shabby thinking over the past years that it is like a drink of cool water to hear a mature Christian leader like Carson who can come alongside younger thinkers (like those in the Emergent movement) and say in essence, “Now boys, you are thinking straight on some of these issues, but you are being ridiculous on others. Here is the balance.”
I also really loved his expanded vocabulary! In normal conversation he uses some great words like:
Exegencies, entomology, putative, irrefragably, patristic, insuperable, myopic, ryule, asymptotically tendentious, etc., etc.
If you only get one book on the Emergent Church issue, make sure it is this incredible title. Thank you Dr. Carson for bringing clarity to the issue for so many of us.
250 pages. On a scale of 1-5, I’d give this a 4.75 overall.
The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy, was written in 1894 and published in Germany, where liberal theology or “Higher Criticism” had already taken a foothold. Since Tolstoy used much of this book to lambaste the Russian government, I’m sure the Germans were all too happy to help the manuscript discover the light of day.
Tolstoy seems to very anti-institutional in his overall worldview. In this theological treatise, he rails against the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Protestants (specifically the Lutherans) and even the Salvation Army.
The main gist of his argument seems to be that religious institutions prey on the masses for their own financial gain and political power. He is rather heterodox in some of his theological views, such as denying the infallibility of the Old Testament, being skeptical of miracles, opposing the church creeds on their key points, declaring that modern science and the Bible are not compatible and even claiming that man is the son of God with the same essence of God himself, and this is what makes love for other human animals possible.
It is clear why this book has not become a household favorite of conservative Evangelicals. However, as with most people who are frustrated with religion as it is currently held, many of his rebukes of the church are well-founded.
Tolstoy’s view of Christianity is that it is the moral teachings of Jesus (found in the Sermon on the Mount) that have value to all humans. Rather than believing in the miraculous or the historical claims of the Bible, Tolstoy feels that Christianity has much to give to world in terms of loving neighbors, loving God and avoiding war and retaliation for wrongs.
Overall, if I didn’t know better, I would assume that I were reading Doug Paggit, Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Donald Miller or some other Emergent Church author who is decrying Modernity and the Modern church. Perhaps Tolstoy was ahead of his time. Or perhaps it is true that there is nothing new under the sun.