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04 October 2016

Postmodernism: Why we can’t take “truths” for granted.

It’s a worldview whose starting point is doubt. And it’s everywhere. Heck, I have it.

Postmodern /poʊs(t)'mɑd.ərn/ adj. Reflecting an attitude of skepticism and distrust of “modern” grand theories and ideologies.
2. Anti-modern.
[Pomo /'poʊ.moʊ/ abbr., postmodernism /poʊs(t)'mɑd.ərn.iz.əm/ n, postmodernist /poʊs(t)'mɑd.ə adj., postmodernity /poʊs(t).moʊd'ər.nə.di/ n.]

I grew up postmodern. I just didn’t know it had a name. I also didn’t realize it scared the heebie-jeebies out of Christian apologists.

The label’s not new. It first cropped up in the 1950s. Artists and architects started using it to describe the hip, exciting things they were doing. The current scene was “modern,” but they claimed they were beyond that; they were post-modern. Whatever modern was, they were no longer that. “Pomo” is the popular abbreviation.

Gradually people began to claim postmodernism was their worldview, their interpretation of the society we live in. Like the artists, they didn’t have a precise definition. They just figured whatever they were, they weren’t modern.

Now if you wanna talk the modern worldview, that’s actually been defined. Modernism is the way people have been looking at the world since the French Enlightenment in the 1700s: Humanity’s destiny is to achieve greatness by mastering (or conquering) our environment through the use of reason, logic, math, and science. With effort we can learn the universal truths behind everything, harness the great natural forces, and solve every problem. We can figure out the best way for everyone to live, and achieve peace and harmony and prosperity. You know, like Star Trek.

Whereas we postmoderns are entirely sure that’s just a pipe dream.

Nope, it’s neither cynicism nor nihilism. It’s doubt. That’s the one thing which defines postmodernism best: Postmoderns doubt. Doubt it’s our destiny to achieve greatness. Doubt we can master our environment; doubt it’s a good thing to conquer it. Doubt humanity’s reason and logic (or certainly your reason and logic) are sound. Doubt math and science will always be used towards good ends. Doubt we can learn universal truths, or that such truths even exist. Doubt we can solve every problem; doubt there’s a “best way” for everyone. Doubt utopian science fiction: Our technology may improve, but apart from the Holy Spirit, human nature never does.

Much as moderns might like to believe they, too, question and challenge everything… they really don’t. Moderns take a lot of ideas for granted. Lots of clichés in our culture go unquestioned, unanalyzed, and are swallowed when they ought not be. The belief in the American Dream, the superiority or exceptionalism of our culture, the presumptions that wealth means blessing, growth means success, hard work pays off, everything happens for a reason, Jesus won’t overthrow us when he returns… in general a lot of things with no real evidence behind ’em. The myths we tell ourselves to make us think we’re right when we’re really not.

We postmoderns grew up hearing these myths too. The difference is we discovered they were myths. Some are oversimplifications. Some are guesses. Some are lies, like what Santa Claus really does on Christmas Eve. Postmoderns learned—often the hard way—if you ever wanna reach the truth, you gotta keep insisting, “Prove it” till someone actually does prove it.

Making the apologist’s job harder?

Most conservative Christians are modernist in their thinking. They likewise take a lot of ideas for granted, and don’t ask questions when they should. Sometimes out of fear they’ll offend God. More often from the fear they’ll outrage fellow Christians.

Like the authority of the bible: All you gotta do to end an argument is tell someone, “But the bible says…” and present the appropriate proof texts. And for decades, that’s how Christians have challenged the popular culture: Point out how people behave nowadays, then drop “But the bible says” and show ’em where they’re wrong. Step back and watch the people, their eyes now open, drop to their knees in repentance. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Or it used to be. Nowadays, people respond, “The bible says? Well, maybe it does. But why’s the bible any kind of authority? Isn’t it just a collection of ancient myths? How’s some 2,000-year-old story relevant in this day and age?”

Entirely fair questions. And we have answers, y’know. Answers your average pomo would find entirely valid and helpful. But in order to present these answers, you need to

  1. Know the answer in the first place.
  2. Have the patience to explain it, and accept questions on it.
  3. Not assume the very act of asking the question, is in itself a rejection of everything good and truthful in the universe, and is in fact some devilish erosion of morality.

You can bet your bippy dark Christians wholly believe that third thing. Every time someone dares question the bible’s authority, they flinch as if the questioner just committed the unpardonable sin. Baptist pastor Andy Stanley recently changed his outreach methods so he avoids the whole issue of scriptural authority, and he’s getting serious blowback from fellow Christians who act as if he quit believing the bible.

See, these Christians don’t wanna be all things to all people so they might save some. 1Co 9.22 They don’t wanna confront, and deal with, other people’s doubts. They want them to stop doubting so they can more easily use proof texts on ’em, same as they do with their fellow Christians.

It’s why evangelist and apologist Ray Comfort teaches would-be evangelists a little technique he calls “bypassing the intellect.” The idea is to get people to stop thinking, stop doubting, stop asking questions. Turn off your brain, ’cause it’s only getting in the way. Comfort calls this “speaking directly to the conscience,” and claims it’s a “forgotten biblical principle.” I call it emotional manipulation, and reject the idea Jesus teaches and does any such thing.

The Latter-day Saints definitely use it, though:

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. Doctrine and Covenants 9.8

When you have any doubts about what Mormons teach, they instruct you to hold off thinking about it, pray really hard, and if God causes “your bosom to burn within you,” there y’go. Never mind the fact it’s really easy to psyche yourself into such feelings. Or, if you’re easily influenced, for others to psyche you into it. Bypassing the intellect is the Mormons’ standard cure for doubt, and plenty of other churches, heretic and orthodox alike, use it too.

Too bad it sets people up for becoming easy to lead astray.

Wanna bypass doubt? Show ’em something.

Back in seminary, one of my hermeneutics professors pointed us students to a book, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. The authors depicted postmoderns as people who don’t consider truth to be universal or absolute. Understandably, their worry was: How do we share the universal truth of God’s kingdom, how do we disciple people, when we’re never gonna agree on fixed points?

Like I said, that’s not what postmodernism is. The authors got the definition wrong. Postmoderns believe in absolute truths, same as everyone. The issue is whether postmoderns believe what you claim is an absolute truth. They got questions; they want answers. If you’re not gonna address the questions—worse, if you come across as unbelievable, ill-informed, arrogant, impatient, unkind—a pomo’s gonna trust you less and less, and doubt you all the more.

If you aspire to be an evangelist and teacher, believing a postmodern is never gonna believe you, is what’s gonna render your job impossible.

My prof assigned my class the book because he wanted us to know the sort of people we’d be ministering to soon enough. He wanted to know how we’d face this challenge. I told him (as any good postmodern would) I doubted the book’s premise. I have yet to meet a person who has no absolutes. Even “There are no absolutes” is an absolute statement. Everybody picks a fixed point to stand upon. René Descartes picked Je pense, donc je suis/“I think, so I am (I exist).” Me, I go with “I am wrong and Jesus is right.” Lots of Christians pick the bible. But everybody has a standard. Even postmoderns. Find out what it is. Ask the Holy Spirit to point you to it. Begin there.

The supernatural, I told my professor, kinda solves our quandary. You want evidence that God’s real, alive, and acts in the present day? Fine. We’ll show you.

Apologists worry because they’ve accumulated a whole lot of facts to back their beliefs. They fear all this effort will be a total loss, ’cause postmoderns don’t believe in facts. And as I keep telling them, ’tain’t so. Postmoderns definitely believe in facts. But first you’ve gotta prove these are facts. You’ve gotta answer our doubts. We’re gonna make you work for it.

For some of them, they find this outrageous. They’re not permitted to assume anything. It’s like being a missionary in a foreign land—in your very own homeland. A lot of the pique of moderns is this feeling, “I shouldn’t have to do that!” Just like Americans who don’t feel they shouldn’t have to know Spanish to get by in some parts of the country. They want their worldview to stay the standard—for their convenience.

Me, I find it difficult to evangelize out of selfishness. And stupid to demand people first adopt a modernist outlook of the world before they can become Christians. You may as well require circumcision. Ac 15.1