Why I Can’t Wait for the XSI

Since we’ve established that we should go to the Xenos Summer Institute after all, let’s get informed, too. The topic is being culturally relevant in an age when claiming the Bible’s authority seems the greatest sin of all. And D. A. Carson, who teaches theology at Trinity Evangelical School, should offer biblical, intellectual, and workable ideas on how we can be “True to the Word, True to our Mission.”

If you haven’t yet read Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, you should. Even if you’ve never heard of the emerging/emergent church movement, or you’ve never personally encountered it, this book is a worthwhile read for any thinking Christian. Carson articulates postmodernism’s strengths, weaknesses, and permutations with his usual impressive yet accessible prose, and also communicates the emerging church’s evaluation of and response to our culture.

In essence, the emerging church seeks to reach postmoderns by abandoning the institutional church, seeking authenticity through service and integrity, and questioning the Enlightenment’s tradition of epistemology (how we know things). None of that sounds too bad on the surface, which is why disenchanted fundies devour the clever writings of McLaren, Miller, et al like donuts in the fellowship hall. The danger lies between the lines of their manipulative language, where they effectually deny biblical truth, or at least our ability to know it, and question the exclusivity of the gospel’s promises.

From the title on, Carson shows a subtle and balanced understanding of both our culture and the emerging church, the leaders of which prefer to call their movement a “conversation.” For those of us who don’t have time to study the growing body of emerging literature ourselves (although I think I will read at least one of McLaren’s books), Carson offers a sampling of quotations and arguments from the emergents, along with his analysis. I don’t wish to outline his book here, but I want to share what is perhaps the most helpful point for dealing with postmodernism and the emerging church:

“So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? . . . Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? . . . Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate false idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Postmodernists rightly observes that we are inevitably products of our culture (a truism in itself), which means we have different perspectives and experiences that restrict our ability to know truth. The soft postmodernist may leave the discussion there, and I would agree. But the hard postmodernist presses further to argue that because our viewpoints are culturally determined and we are finite beings, we cannot know objective truth. Carson points out that while we cannot know perfectly, completely, i.e. omnisciently, we can know something of reality. We can asymptotically approximate knowledge of the truth in many matters. And this is the false antithesis hard postmodernism asserts and the emerging church tends to buy. It’s all or nothing when it comes to the truth, and since knowing all is obviously impossible, we are left with nothing.

I think this book is especially valuable for those entering college as they are about to confront postmodernism in a more philosophical and pervasive way than ever before, and will probably meet with all sorts of biblically shifty campus churches and ministries, too. It’s one of Carson’s shorter works at just over two hundred pages, and he is careful to explain theological and philosophical terms he uses. So check it out and join the conversation.

Should We Skip the XSI?

While reading a very good article in Christianity Today, I was shocked by a statement from the renowned William Lane Craig: “The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth.”

“What?!” I thought as I read on. After all, William Lane Craig is no schmuck. He’s a professor of philosophy alongside J.P. Moreland (see Joel’s most recent blog) at Biola University. In the dialogue with the “new atheists” he is one of the chief defenders of our faith. To his collection of well-respected books he recently added Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.

So is postmodernism “a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture” as he claims? Had I, along with fellow Christian thinkers, been misreading the culture for years? I considered myself lucky to have learned about the pitfalls of postmodernism my freshman year of college, which allowed me to survive an English education degree (two very affected fields) without becoming another brain-washed, politically correct, inanely tolerant convert.

Unsettled, I knew I needed to think through his reasoning. With the Xenos Summer Institute just weeks away the question was especially important. The conference’s theme “True to the Word, True to our Mission” points to the challenge of being relevant in today’s culture. But the keynote speakers respond to a postmodern culture. Meanwhile Craig’s article, “God is Not Dead Yet,” claims that “we live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.” If this is so, the XSI will be a waste of time this year.

A closer look at Craig’s argument reveals that postmodernism is not dead yet, either. His first point is that a postmodern culture is impossible because people are not relativistic in matters of science, engineering and technology. They are only relativistic when it comes to religion and ethics, which was true of modernism as well. I think he made several mistakes already:

First, under modernism, people didn’t play the picky-choosy, mix-and-match game about religion and ethics that we see today. It was a question of epistemology, how we know things: “Is there hard evidence that undeniably proves the existence of God?” a hard-core modernist would ask. If not, they would choose not to believe, not because they preferred it, but because they believed it was unilaterally untrue. If they disagreed with someone they didn’t take the stance of “whatever you believe is true for you.” Their position would be “you’re wrong,” whether expressed gently or viciously.

Second, Craig oversimplifies by creating a seemingly all-inclusive dichotomy between math/science and religion/ethics. He doesn’t acknowledge the man other affected fields, including social sciences such education, psychology, sociology, and linguistics, as well as humanities like history, literature, and art. Relativism has infiltrated fields where it was never seen before. For example, education is largely postmodern, which means the way kids learn math and science have changed. The current god of the education world, Howard Gardner, was quoted as saying that the laws of physics, like gravity, aren’t true until the individual experiences and understands them. Would-be English teachers are taught that all interpretations of a text are equally valid, or least somewhat valid. Which means The Cat in the Hat could be about abortion.

Third, as Neil pointed out, science isn’t so objective anymore. This was true in modernism, too, since the theory of evolution isn’t nearly as evidence-based as our biology books would have us believe. It’s actually quite lacking in evidence and requires more faith, i.e., “this is what I want to believe,” than believing in God.

Craig’s next big reason is that the new atheists, such as Dawkins, take a modernist approach. If this is a postmodern culture, he reasons, their literature would have fallen on deaf ears. He’s right that Dawkins comes from a modernist perspective, which isn’t surprising because he’s old; he’s from the modernist generation. And regardless of the culture, scientists are more likely to think in “modernist” terms like logic and truth. (Why do you think so many engineers get saved around here?) Dawkins and the like believe they’re right and we’re wrong. But ultimately his appeals aren’t logical, so the postmodern generation has no problem with that. Realistically, anyone who doesn’t want to believe in God, whether because their grandma died or they deeply cherish their autonomy, will latch onto anything that supports their preference.

Ultimately, Craig’s argument is motivated by a valid concern about the emerging church. He isn’t taking issue with churching like Xenos or Mars Hill that want to be “True to the Word, True to our Mission.” His warning is against Christians who “advise that we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it,” because he fears “Christianity will be reduced to but another voice in a cacophony of competing voices, each sharing its own narrative and none commending itself as the objective truth about reality.” Agreed. He says “tailoring our gospel to a postmodern culture is self-defeating” because he’s afraid the church will abandon apologetics altogether. While his conclusion is false, his concern is legitimate.

So don’t run to get a refund for your XSI registration fee. We need to know the truth more than ever in a culture where truth, not God, is dead.

Lessons from Mars Hill

This is a continuation of “The Postmodern Influence.” I’ve included the last paragraph of the first part to give a little context. 

The church is not immune to the movement’s impact either. The tenants of postmodernism have already caused churches to questions their doctrine and methods. Can Jesus really be the only way? Can’t the Bible be interpreted in as many ways as there are readers? While postmodernism is not without strengths, Christians must think critically about its claims and measure them against the word of God. Today the church must counter the barrage against truth and the undermining of knowledge. Failure to do so will lead to inane tolerance that distorts or rejects the Bible and fails to love the lost. If Christians have nothing to offer those with different beliefs, and if Christ is not the way, the truth, and the life after all, then the church has no other purpose but to serve itself and there will be nothing good left of the good news of Christ. 

But how can we reach a postmodern culture with the gospel? Is it possible to be culturally relevant without compromising the truth? A study of Paul’s witness to the pluralistic culture in Acts 17 offers insights that are quite useful in our day. The passage takes place in Athens, a center of worship for the Greek gods and goddesses. Like our postmodern culture where Christ can be a good teacher but not the only way, the Athenians were happy to hear about Christ as long as he was just one more god in their pantheon. Debating new religions and philosophies was a favorite pastime but the question of truth wasn’t important. They were willing to embrace all beliefs regardless of how contradictory they might prove. Sound familiar?

So how did Paul address these people and their misconceptions? He didn’t immediately join in the debate, which would have been easy but fruitless because of their indecisive curiosity. Instead he began by carefully studying their culture. His first statement to them was, “I observe that you are very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). Acknowledging their religious commitment shows he knows something about their culture. Instead of withdrawing from beliefs he doesn’t agree with, he’s willing to study them. Today we need to understand the postmodern worldview and its implications if we hope to effectively witness in our culture. 

Paul’s opening statement also communicates respect. He knew their gods were false and their devotion to them was ignorant. But he wanted to open the lines of communication, and offending them immediately wouldn’t be effective. We can take a similar approach in our witness today by discovering people’s spiritual interests and listening to them before we bring up biblical truth. We can listen without agreeing. Inviting people to talk about their beliefs, however mistaken they may be, is a useful way to show that we’re interested in them as a person, not just as a potential convert. Listening also gives us a chance to learn about their assumptions and discover both misconceptions and common ground.  

Paul’s next statement indicates that he was able to unearth both their true and false assumptions. He says, “While I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (17:23). He shows a more specific knowledge of their beliefs, which gives him a starting point for the discussion. They don’t know who God is so that’s what he’s going address. The principle applies still applies today.  The more we know about someone’s beliefs, the better we can dialogue about it. I’ve read Buddhist and Hindu literature to better understand my Indian, Chinese, and even American friends who follow these religions. It’s helped me know what to ask and where to begin.

This verse also demonstrates how Paul finds common ground. “Hey, we both believe in God,” he’s saying. We share much common ground with postmodernism. In addition to our critique of modernism, we have many similar convictions: we’re against racism, being socially exclusive, and thinking that we know it all. We are for showing compassion to the needy, practicing social relief, and affirming diversity. Our underlying assumptions often lead to different implications and applications in these areas, but the commonalities give us a place to start talking about deeper issues that can lead to the gospel.

It’s significant that Paul starts with cultural sensitivity, but when the time comes to proclaim the truth he’s not afraid to offend. He points out that they worshipped false gods “in ignorance.” Ouch! Now he’s in their face, not insulting but certainly challenging them. Their own inscription admitted that they didn’t know who they worshipped and now he’s ready to tell them about the only true God who deserves our worship. This is a useful conversation to have with postmodernists because they often assume that all religions are equally valid. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that different belief systems are “just different roads up the same mountain.” At this point we have to disagree. God can’t be personal, impersonal, and non-existent all at once. That’s logically impossible. 

We don’t get to make up what God is like, which is in effect what postmodernism tries to do. By showing the biblical view of God we can demonstrate that not all religions are equally valid. This is a long cry from showing that Christianity is the one true faith, but it is a necessary starting point. The issue of truth must be addressed or we can witness all we want but we’ll only hear, “That’s true for you, but not for me.” Paul goes on to describe God in a way that is very different from the gods of Greek mythology. He shows that He is the Creator, transcendent and self-sufficient yet also closely involved with us. “He is not far from each one of us,” he tells them and then illustrates the point with their own poetry: “For we also are His children” (Acts 17:27, 28). This quotation, carefully selected from their culture, implies that we need God like a child needs its parents. He has usefully contextualized without compromising the truth.  

Paul only addresses a few of God’s attributes; of course there are more. But it was enough to get to the real point: “we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (17:29). This is anything but politically correct: he’s directly contradicting their beliefs, unashamedly saying they’re wrong straight to their face. Now he’s ready to give the gospel. He’s already established that we need Him and He is near us, willing to be personally involved. His statements ring with boldness as he brings up the difficult truths of their ignorance, the need for repentance, the reality of judgment, and the resurrection of Christ (17:9-31). They need to hear the bad news with the good. He’s in their face, stepping all over their toes, making it clear that although he’s shown respect for them as people, he does not respect their superficial, false beliefs.

Frightening as it is to be bold, it’s the approach we must take to be effective in our culture. Acts says that while some sneered at Paul, others wanted to hear more, and still others believed (17:32, 34). The rejection we might suffer is worth it in light of the eternal impact we could have. We should be as bold as Paul was, abandoning the inane tolerance of our culture in favor of the offensive yet redemptive truth of the gospel.

Do you have stories from witnessing to postmodernists? Please post a comment about the struggles, strategies, and triumphs you’ve experienced.

The Postmodern Influence

“How could anyone even know that?!” Napoleon Dynamite exclaimed in the popular 2004 film. Audiences laughed and later quoted the socially awkward teenager, but this quotation may be more revealing that it seems. When taken seriously, this question reflects the attitude toward knowledge that has developed in our culture over the past few decades. It’s the idea that people can’t know anything for certain, since everyone perceives the world differently.

Starting in the 1960s, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the deep-seated “structures” in every culture that govern the way meaning is perceived by groups and individuals in that culture. Meaning, he said, comes from speech or writing that follows the rules of a given structure. Since these structures are culture-bound, meaning likewise varies from one culture to another. But what does it all mean? Quite simply, it implies that we cannot fully understand the views of a culture, or even a subculture, to which we don’t belong. And if we can’t understand each other, there is no basis for discussion or disagreement. 

Concerned about social injustice, Foucault also studied the relationship between power, knowledge, and discourse. Power, he believed, is passed on through discourse, or conversations, and is based on the knowledge one has. However, the truthfulness of knowledge is subordinate to the effect it has in the discourse. In other words, knowledge only exists in relation to power, and power determines truth. Take an example from history: the Nazi regime of bloodshed and bigotry was based on lies, but it became powerful because those telling the lies got others to buy into it. Knowledge was constructed by those in power, and when people took it for truth, it became truth.

While Foucault certainly didn’t condone the Nazis, his ideas imply that truth is inevitably subjective and essentially indiscernible. His work was both the result of and a catalyst for other works in the philosophical movement known as structuralism. In the truest sense, his thinking is not postmodern. Yet his ideas about the subjectivity of knowledge and meaning undoubtedly influenced the slow chain of thinking that has left truth nearly dead. Research studies by Barna and Gallup show that 78% of those who consider themselves Christians do not believe in absolute truth.

While such philosophy was originally isolated at the university level, the results of this thinking have now trickled down to affect the average person’s world view. The idea that what is true for one person is not true for another is one of the few absolutes most people will still accept. The postmodernist purports that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. The concept of tolerance for all people has evolved into a demand to blindly accept all ideas. This is inane tolerance, which calls us to operate from the uncaring and unthinking attitude underlying postmodernism. Inane tolerance isn’t tolerance at all. The desired effect is that no one is offended, often because beliefs are neither discussed nor debated. But while people may not be offended, they are often alienated, lonely, and confused as they are left unable to talk about life’s most pressing questions.

D.A. Carson refers to this inane tolerance as “the gospel of relativistic tolerance” and points out that it is being spread more passionately than any other belief in Western culture. Charles Colson calls it the “bitch goddess of tolerance,” and worries that we worship at her altar at the cost of passing truth and morals to the next generation. If the only absolute is that there are no absolutes, we are left with little to offer others.

Postmodern thinking does well to challenge the modernist glorification of science and Western culture. It also rightfully acknowledges the influences of culture, background, and experiences on interpretation. But while it rejects the modernistic conceit that solid facts and methods always lead to truth, it succumbs to pride under another guise—the arrogant insinuation that individuals create truth or reality for themselves. The modernist approach to truth was arrogant because it said humans can know anything with enough solid research. Postmodernism’s pride is perhaps more subtle, but just as insidious, because its claim that “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” implies that truth is up to us.

Postmodernism is no longer a philosophical movement among the intellectual elite—it has significantly and practically influenced education, politics, social movements, and many other facets of society. Most high school and university students have already unknowingly (and often unthinkingly) adopted this worldview, as evidenced by the polls of Barna and Gallup. Among Christian youth, only 9% believe in absolute truth, while a scant 4% of non-Christian youth believe in it. My own experience as a teacher confirmed the inane tolerance of our youth as more than one student asked quite seriously whether we could even mention God/god. Others earnestly informed me that “words don’t mean anything,” a statement I found particularly ironic in my English class. As Colson says, these beliefs are passed on by teachers and parents who have also absorbed feel-good, inoffensive subjectivism as they “worship at the altar of the bitch goddess of tolerance.”

The church is in no way immune to the movement’s impact, either. The tenants of postmodernism are already causing churches to questions their doctrine and methods. Can Jesus really be the only way? Can’t the Bible be interpreted in as many ways as there are readers? While postmodernism is not without strengths, Christians must think critically about its claims and measure them against the word of God. Today the church must counter the barrage against truth and the undermining of knowledge. Failure to do so will result in an inane tolerance that distorts or rejects the Bible and fails to love the lost. If Christians have nothing to offer those whose beliefs differ, and if Christ is not the way, the truth, and the life after all, then the church has no other purpose but to serve itself, and there will be nothing good left of the good news of Christ.

The Postmodern Influence

“How could anyone even know that?!” Napoleon Dynamite exclaimed in the popular 2004 film. Audiences laughed and later quoted the socially awkward teenager, but this quotation may be more revealing that it seems. When taken seriously, this question reflects the attitude toward knowledge that has developed in our culture over the past few decades. It’s the idea that people can’t know anything for certain, since everyone perceives the world differently.

Starting in the 1960s, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the deep-seated “structures” in every culture that govern the way meaning is perceived by groups and individuals in that culture. Meaning, he said, comes from speech or writing that follows the rules of a given structure. Since these structures are culture-bound, meaning likewise varies from one culture to another. But what does it all mean? Quite simply, it implies that we cannot fully understand the views of a culture, or even a subculture, to which we don’t belong. And if we can’t understand each other, there is no basis for discussion or disagreement. 

Concerned about social injustice, Foucault also studied the relationship between power, knowledge, and discourse. Power, he believed, is passed on through discourse, or conversations, and is based on the knowledge one has. However, the truthfulness of knowledge is subordinate to the effect it has in the discourse. In other words, knowledge only exists in relation to power, and power determines truth. Take an example from history: the Nazi regime of bloodshed and bigotry was based on lies, but it became powerful because those telling the lies got others to buy into it. Knowledge was constructed by those in power, and when people took it for truth, it became truth.

While Foucault certainly didn’t condone the Nazis, his ideas imply that truth is inevitably subjective and essentially indiscernible. His work was both the result of and a catalyst for other works in the philosophical movement known as structuralism. In the truest sense, his thinking is not postmodern. Yet his ideas about the subjectivity of knowledge and meaning undoubtedly influenced the slow chain of thinking that has left truth nearly dead. Research studies by Barna and Gallup show that 78% of those who consider themselves Christians do not believe in absolute truth.

While such philosophy was originally isolated at the university level, the results of this thinking have now trickled down to affect the average person’s world view. The idea that what is true for one person is not true for another is one of the few absolutes most people will still accept. The postmodernist purports that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. The concept of tolerance for all people has evolved into a demand to blindly accept all ideas. This is inane tolerance, which calls us to operate from the uncaring and unthinking attitude underlying postmodernism. Inane tolerance isn’t tolerance at all. The desired effect is that no one is offended, often because beliefs are neither discussed nor debated. But while people may not be offended, they are often alienated, lonely, and confused as they are left unable to talk about life’s most pressing questions.

D.A. Carson refers to this inane tolerance as “the gospel of relativistic tolerance” and points out that it is being spread more passionately than any other belief in Western culture. Charles Colson calls it the “bitch goddess of tolerance,” and worries that we worship at her altar at the cost of passing truth and morals to the next generation. If the only absolute is that there are no absolutes, we are left with little to offer others.

Postmodern thinking does well to challenge the modernist glorification of science and Western culture. It also rightfully acknowledges the influences of culture, background, and experiences on interpretation. But while it rejects the modernistic conceit that solid facts and methods always lead to truth, it succumbs to pride under another guise—the arrogant insinuation that individuals create truth or reality for themselves. The modernist approach to truth was arrogant because it said humans can know anything with enough solid research. Postmodernism’s pride is perhaps more subtle, but just as insidious, because its claim that “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” implies that truth is up to us.

Postmodernism is no longer a philosophical movement among the intellectual elite—it has significantly and practically influenced education, politics, social movements, and many other facets of society. Most high school and university students have already unknowingly (and often unthinkingly) adopted this worldview, as evidenced by the polls of Barna and Gallup. Among Christian youth, only 9% believe in absolute truth, while a scant 4% of non-Christian youth believe in it. My own experience as a teacher confirmed the inane tolerance of our youth as more than one student asked quite seriously whether we could even mention God/god. Others earnestly informed me that “words don’t mean anything,” a statement I found particularly ironic in my English class. As Colson says, these beliefs are passed on by teachers and parents who have also absorbed feel-good, inoffensive subjectivism as they “worship at the altar of the bitch goddess of tolerance.”

The church is in no way immune to the movement’s impact, either. The tenants of postmodernism are already causing churches to questions their doctrine and methods. Can Jesus really be the only way? Can’t the Bible be interpreted in as many ways as there are readers? While postmodernism is not without strengths, Christians must think critically about its claims and measure them against the word of God. Today the church must counter the barrage against truth and the undermining of knowledge. Failure to do so will result in an inane tolerance that distorts or rejects the Bible and fails to love the lost. If Christians have nothing to offer those whose beliefs differ, and if Christ is not the way, the truth, and the life after all, then the church has no other purpose but to serve itself, and there will be nothing good left of the good news of Christ.