Modernism, postmodernism, & Christian witness (III)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

I’ve been trying in these three blog posts to capture a hint of what it means that our world has gone from modernism into what is often called postmodernism. Modernism saw people place faith in reason and science, optimistic that these tools could unravel the problems and questions that have always plagued humanity. It brought great advances in medicine, technology, and knowledge for which we can be grateful, but it’s central promise that humankind could solve all issues on its own turned out to be untrue. Postmodernism recognized that failure, and concluded there was no single story, no single belief system that was absolutely true for all times and cultures. With modern communication and transportation the world seemed smaller, pluralism increased dramatically in every area of life, and people found their time, consciousness, and relationships fragmented so that having a sense of wholeness and direction was so difficult as to seem almost impossible.

When we ask what Christian witness looks like in our postmodern world the answer is not that difficult to discover.

If we step back to get an overview, we can see that Christians have tended to do what groups always tend to do when they are a minority in a larger majority culture. “Sociologists tell us that dissonant groups within a larger society,” Dick Keyes says in Chameleon Christianity, “react to reduce the potential for friction in two predictable ways. One is to compromise their distinctive beliefs and way of life and so reduce their conflict with society. The other is to keep their dissonance and tribalize, retreating within their own group and thus losing contact with society.” The first option leads to compromise, and the second to withdrawal; the first slowly becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, and the second does not develop close enough friendships to make engagement meaningful. The two groups are often motivated by a reaction against the other—both see the other as hopelessly misguided and unbiblical. Keyes says the first act like chameleons, blending into the wider culture so that their Christian distinctiveness isn’t so noticeable. The second act like musk oxen, defensive and aggressive in a tight circle to protect themselves from the dangerous wolves circling outside. Both groups fail to follow Christ and misrepresent the gospel.

A great many evangelicals agree that things have changed as our world slipped from modernism into postmodernism, but they argue that because the gospel hasn’t changed, it really doesn’t matter. Usually the “gospel” these folks believe and preach is the sort of reduced message I wrote about in my September 20 post, “When the gospel is not the gospel.” Heirs of the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, these Christians have already lost the full orthodox message of the cross, and so unwittingly preach a gospel that has, ironically, changed. It’s true the biblical gospel has not changed, but their message has, and in the process the gospel’s scope, power, and depth has been sucked from what they present.

Many if not most of the younger generation in our postmodern world have experienced the fragmentation that comes when families are broken. Even many from intact biological families have sensed what abandonment means in all its disappointment, raising deep-seated fears. We know that children of divorce are usually nagged by guilt, believing against all evidence and in spite of reassurance that somehow their family’s fragmentation is their fault, that they did not do enough to prevent it. Now reflect on what the average Christian witness sounds like in the ears of this generation. These young adults usually are open about their yearning for spirituality, about their sense of drought of soul and longing for a deeper reality in their lives. So Christians could talk about living water like Christ did in John 4—but that isn’t often talked about. These young adults also often feel lonely as a result of being part of a generation who were abandoned by those who count most. So Christians could talk about being adopted by a Father who wants them so badly he’s been seeking for them—but once again, this biblical theme isn’t the usual one that is brought up. Instead, non-Christians usually they hear a message that runs (in their perspective) something like this: From before you were born you were alienated from your Father. Like any father he was very angry at your rebellion and disobedience. In fact, he took his anger out on your older brother who died in the process of absorbing your Father’s wrath. But that’s over now, and your Father says if you’ll come to him, admit it was all your fault and promise to obey him in everything from now on, he’ll forgive you. If you refuse, he says you’re not his child and will be punished. It’s up to you to decide, but one thing is certain: the alienation you experience is not his fault but yours. Is it any wonder so many young adults turn away unconvinced that evangelical Christian faith is worth considering?

To make matters worse, the community of believers non-Christians see today tends not to be attractive. Consider asking ten non-Christians this question: If you converted to Christianity today, do you think your life would be larger, fuller, richer, more attractive and creative, more winsomely involved with the people, circumstances, art, & culture around you? Or do you think your life would be smaller, narrower, more withdrawn, judgmental, disapproving, and negative, less winsome and creative, less winsomely involved with the people, art, circumstances, & culture around you? How do you think they would respond? So far, everyone I’ve asked—non-Christian and Christian—have answered in precisely the same way. But consider: If Christianity is true why does it produce people like this? This situation is a travesty, a practical denial of Christ by those who claim to follow him. No wonder so many assume that evangelical faith has little or nothing of substance to offer them.

My spiritual mentor, Francis Schaeffer insisted that the more the wider culture turned from the truth of God the more need there was for pre-evangelism. This is the time between a Christian befriending a non-Christian and that non-Christian’s readiness to understand and respond in faith to the grace of God. It’s the time to show them that true Christians need not be jerks, negative, quick to disagree, and cultural philistines. That becoming a Christian does not mean becoming a Republican. It’s the time to answer honest questions and allow challenges to be raised against the claims of the Bible. “Cold-contact” or aggressive evangelism fails to allow for either true relationship or careful understanding so that the truth can be expressed in a way a non-Christian might understand and appreciate. “Friendship evangelism,” on the other hand, that waits until the Christian has earned a right to share, suggests the gospel is a package to be sprung on someone. Not true—right from the start we can ask questions (I’ve written about this here), find places of agreement, share a love for beauty and wholeness, and let the person know that we care that they flourish as a human being across all of their life, and that at the heart of our caring is a gospel that speaks to every part of culture and reality.

Someone commented recently that well, even if all this is true, at least the aggressive evangelists confront people with their need to believe in Christ so that can’t be wrong. Don’t we have the responsibility, they said, to warn people of the fire that endangers them? Yes, we do. But if we insist on warning them in ways that they misunderstand because we do not listen to them, if we warn them in terms that sound inauthentic and rote and impersonal, and if our warnings seem unrelated and irrelevant to the life-threatening dangers they recognize and are concerned for—do we not share responsibility for their failing to take our warnings seriously enough?

The gospel is The Story revealed in Scripture—Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration—the story of history and reality that makes sense of our personal story and brings direction and meaning to life. Because it is not a narrow message that applies only to souls, to be told with techniques designed to lead to a decision, Christian witness can be as rich and powerful and winsome and creative and life affirming as the grace it celebrates.

The wonder of this is that Christian witness need not be something Christians fear and non-Christians dread. As Christians we are free to engage our world as Christ did, without defensiveness. We are free to develop deep friendships, demonstrating the gift of community and the wonder of treating every person as created in God’s image. We can welcome people into our homes and lives with warm hospitality, giving the grace of unhurried time, asking questions and listening, proving we care about them. We can affirm their humanity and creativity, learn from them, be authentic about our failures, fears and struggles, and let them see how the biblical Story shapes our perception of everything. We can invite them to challenge our faith and freely say, “I don’t know,” when we don’t know. As we talk about the things that matter most, we can find creative ways to show how the Bible provides us a lens to see things. And as movies, music, or stories raise the big questions that must be answered, we can affirm where we agree, ask about what we don’t understand, challenge things that are doubtful, and explain the answers provided by orthodox Christianity.

Often Christians give the impression that we were once messed up, then we met Jesus, and now things are good. The reason that this message fails to resonate with non-Christians is very simple: it is untrue and therefore comes across as inauthentic. Like our non-Christian friends we are on a pilgrimage through a broken world, living out the story of our life yearning for meaning, transcendence, and significance as death bears down on us. The gospel claims someone has gone through death, triumphed in resurrection, and will be our God as we bow before him in simple trust. The Story continues to amaze and to invite us into deeper reflection on what reality really consists of. And as we reflect, we find ourselves grateful and humbled and rather awestruck that the Source of goodness, and truth, and beauty would not only be willing to be our Older Brother, but not be ashamed of us (Hebrews 2:11). How good is that?!

This is getting too long. So, here are three resources—two books and one movie—for further reflection: The Reason for God by Timothy Keller Learning Evangelism from Jesus by Jerram Barrs, and The Big Kahuna (1999).

Image: Makoto Fugimura, "Sacrificial Grace" (1997)

This entry was posted at Monday, October 04, 2010 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



Thank you Denis for your wise and challenging words. Why is that so hard for us to believe, understand and practice? I am not clever enough to convince someone to enter into a relationship with Jesus but I can offer a place at our table, a voice in our conversations and a window into my heart.

October 5, 2010 at 1:53 PM

Having now read all 3, I must spend some time pondering. Thanks for the extensive research you have done on this topic and now I must do some 'digestive' work.

October 5, 2010 at 9:53 PM

nice post denis. speaking personally i'd say that witness is difficult because of my own doubt, how to side with and defend this constellation of christianity, with elements that i myself attack at times - how to give a testimony that speaks to others, when it seems we share many of the same problems. i really enjoyed the paragraph on living water and children of god though - somehow restructuring this story, putting it in different words, coming from a different angle changes everything, and refreshes - erasing the 'default' tract story that so often comes to mind when mentioning witness.

October 6, 2010 at 2:53 AM

Thanks for bothering to read it all and to leave a comment.

You raise a very good question. Sometimes I feel we are so programmed--both by our culture and by the church--for efficiency, technique, and productivity, that we have to work with all our soul and strength and mind to simply be human. Maybe if we keep offering places at the table we'll eventually learn. I hope I do.


October 6, 2010 at 1:35 PM

I look forward to more after you've digested.

October 6, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Good to hear from you.

Like you, I find I walk a narrow line, wanting to commend Christ while being careful to distance myself from any number of things and voices that go under the term "Christian." The promise of redemption, if true, is a radical and precious thing, worth sharing, though if it is precious the sharing should be as real and grace-full and as precious as the promise itself. That's where things fall apart so often.

The various metaphors for salvation: lost and found, dark and light, spiritual thirst and living water, abandoned and adopted--all are biblical yet seem to be shunted aside so that only judged/forgiven is addressed. That's important too, but not the only point of contact.

I've long suspected that this is where artists like you might help the rest of us. Your craft engages metaphor as a matter of course so perhaps you can teach the rest of us to speak not just in propositions but in poetry too.

October 6, 2010 at 1:45 PM


Thanks for the thoughtful (as usual) post.

"the alienation you experience is not his fault but yours." Well, it is our fault. How do we say both things in a way that is both loving and true?

On another note, Tim Keller posted a blog yesterday on the Redeemer City to City site concerning modern and post-modern. You can see it here:

October 6, 2010 at 2:15 PM

I'm so glad you included the link to Tim Keller's comments on the topic--as usual he is right on the money.

And of course you are correct, it is our fault. I think that telling someone that when I've proven my care for them in a meaningful relationship, and merely informing them of it as a cold hard fact in an obviously prepared presentation is like the difference between day and night. Also of great importance is the unconscious image of "God" that is informing their understanding of alienation. Is this "God" in their father's image, the one who abandoned them, or is this God the father of the prodigal dashing embarrassingly through the streets, throwing aside all dignity to welcome them home and start the feasting? Part of what needs to be explored in pre-evangelism, it seems to me.


October 6, 2010 at 2:30 PM

This post is powerful. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

You say:

"Many if not most of the younger generation in our postmodern world have experienced the fragmentation that comes when families are broken."

This is very true.

I would also suggest that not only is modern family life fragmented but more broadly, much of modern living is fragmented.

We have little connection to the past (many individuals move far distances from where they were born or where their parents grew up, we siphon off generations - young kids in school, middle age at work, old in nursery home -- the perpetual present), we don't know where our food comes from, we have stronger relationships with "virtual" friends and tv personalities then family members and neighbors, work is something we put up with so we can buy stuff but it's not a meaningful part of life, etc. Life is all broken up.

The Christian witness, as you describe here and in other posts, really speaks truth and order into the fragmentation of modern life.


October 6, 2010 at 3:23 PM

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