Communicating the Gospel with “Postmodernists”
By John Studebaker
Postmodernism poses a unique problem for the Christian communicator. We are aware that the gospel itself has an “offensive” sound to those who do not wish to receive it (1Peter 2:8). Today’s postmodern culture, though, seems to be more easily offended than ever! According to McCallum, The distance between us and postmodern thinkers is far greater than that between the (tribal) villager and myself. As Christians we not only believe differently from postmodern thinkers, our perspectives are automatically offensive to one another.
The offensiveness of the gospel lies mainly in its claim to authority. The gospel not only speaks of God’s mercy, but also of His rightful rule over our lives. Today’s “postmodern” attitude, is that, though this idea of “God’s authority” was certainly legitimate for those living in biblical times, “what was true for them is no longer necessarily true for us.” Since we live in a completely different time and culture, with completely different philosophical assumptions, many postmodernists feel they should have the right to choose which authority they want to submit to–or to not submit to any authority at all!
As a result, God’s authority–described in Scripture in terms of a Kingdom that transcends time–is not being “felt” in our culture. This situation is partly due to a defective communication model being utilized by Christians. Some churches have bought into postmodern attitudes, placing their desire to be relevant to “felt needs” above the impartation of the gospel. According to Osborne, Evangelical ethicists all too often seek political correctness rather than Bible-based stances on issues like homosexuality and abortion. Pastors in many churches sound like talk show hosts rather than like Whitefield or Spurgeon . . . The problem today is that there seems to be no controls. In our postmodern church, it is almost as if anything goes, as long as it brings people in the doors.
Even more extreme, worshipers at one church in England attend service on Tuesday nights, meet in a pub, smoke and drink during service, sit around tables, sing no hymns, hear no sermons, and have no minister. How such a church service is different from what goes on anyway in a London pub is not clear. The group, known a ‘Holy Joes,’ was started by David Tomlinson, author of a book entitled The Post-Evangelical, which argues that the church must adapt to the new postmodern culture.
Many Christians today do not seem convinced that the Bible presents a timeless and authoritative word for our present world. An editor of a leading evangelical magazine, for example, recently defended the lack of Scriptural references in the publication by saying, “You have to understand that the Bible no longer speaks to today!” For such believers, the communication of God’s authority into our world will be impossible.
In this article we will attempt to identify a solution to the problem of communicating God’s truth and authority (that which transcends history) to the postmodernist (who does not feel that any authority
can transcend history). First, we will examine the context of God’s Kingdom (particularly as it relates God’s authority to our present world), as well as the postmodern context. Second, we will look at the role of the ambassador–the present-tense messenger of God’s timeless authority. Finally we will attempt to develop a compassionate model for communicating the authority of God to postmodernists.
I. THE TWO CONTEXTS
As we examine the contexts of God’s kingdom and of the postmodern culture, we will attempt to discern the specific views of authority being espoused in each context.
- The Context of God and His Kingdom
- The authority of God
God’s authority is seen in Scripture as a loving yet powerful rulership over all the affairs of the universe. One of God’s titles as Father is “Adonia,” which means “Lord” or sovereign one. This position is reserved for the One who has the highest “office” in the universe. This is reflected in Acts 1:7, where Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own authority.” As such, God has supreme authority over our lives. He is creator, sustainer, provider, and judge of all our affairs. He is as a potter who has “authority over the clay to do with as He pleases” (Rom. 9:21; also Isa. 29:16; 45:9; Jer. 18:6).
Jesus, as God the Son, has been given all authority by God the Father (Matt 28:18). As a result, Jesus has supreme authority over all earthy powers (Eph 1:21), has authority to execute judgment (John 5:27), and grants authority to become God’s children (John 1:12). Jesus confirmed His divine authority through His resurrection from the grave. And, as we shall see later, Jesus’ arrival on earth brought God’s authoritative kingdom into direct confrontation with the people of His day, and even with us in our day.
The Holy Sprit’s supreme authority is witnessed in His several unique roles, which include the creation of the church (Acts 2), providing power for ministry (Acts 1:8, John 16:13), and disclosing truth (John 16:7,8). The Holy Spirit also empowers believers to speak with the authority inherent in Christ’s gospel. This is seen in Acts 4:31, “And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.”
The Holy Sprit plays the crucial role of communicating God’s authority to people as they hear His word being proclaimed. This is accomplished by “illuminating” God’s word in ways that prove it to be creative, living, and active. The Holy Sprit thus has a crucial role in bringing God’s authority into our present-day historical context. We will observe this further in section II.
- The authority of God’s Kingdom
The Kingdom of God refers to God’s dynamic reign or kingly rule, and the sphere in which this rule is experienced. In the Old Testament, this Kingdom is often referred to in terms of expectation and hope, as something yet to be realized (e.g. Is. 24:23, 52:7; Obad. 21; Zeph. 3:15; Zech. 14:9). Now, however, according to Jesus in Mark 1:15, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The idea here is that God’s Kingdom is intimately connected with the Person of Christ and His present activity on earth. “In fact, we may go even so far as to say that the Kingdom of God is Jesus and that He is the kingdom.” “At hand” portrays a Kingdom that has “come close to men in the person of Jesus, and in his person actually confronts them.” The idea that this present Kingdom continues into eternity, only to be fully exposed at Jesus second coming, is a major theme of the entire New Testament (e.g. Matt. 5:3,10; Acts 19:8; Rom. 14:17; Rev. 11:15).
It is this present Kingdom that men and women are being called to be in submission to. Ladd holds that “in biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live under it, and are governed by it.” And it is this present Kingdom which Christ’s ambassadors proclaim. The role of the ambassador will be examined further in section II.
- The authority of Scripture
In order to communicate God’s authority and the authority of His kingdom, we must also identify the crucial role of Scripture in this communication process. The Scriptures have authority because they contain a proper description of God’s character, and this character is revealed through His interaction with men and women in the context of history. As we have seen, God’s authority is continually revealed throughout the Scriptures. The authority of Scripture is thus an extension of the authority of God, its author, and as a result, Scripture holds the same “weight” of authority as God does. As Grudem points out, “to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God himself.”
Scriptural authority is proclaimed by Scripture itself. Paul states in 2Tim. 3:16 that “all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” In other words, whether our concern is for correct doctrine, correcting errant behavior, or spiritual development, God has personally inspired or “breathed” an authoritative word in this regard. Thus, in order to communicate that God is the ultimate authority over all areas of life, we need only to look to the Word of God in Scripture, which has authority over all other words. According to Luther, “Scripture by itself is the ultimate source of certainty as it proves, judges, and illuminate the words of all.”
Scripture does not only have authority for those living within the time of biblical history. The idea presented in Scripture is that, as long as God lives, so His Scripture has authority. Psalm 105:8 tells us that God “has remembered His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations.” Isaiah 40:8 remind us that “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”
The Bible is thus to be viewed as a historically “transcendent” (supreme, never-changing) authority. Newbigin states that the Bible is “universal history.”
Unlike (the sacred books of the East, the Bible) sets out to speak of human life in the context of a vision of universal, cosmic history. Although, of course, it contains a great variety of material–legal codes, prayers, wise saying, and moral instruction–it is, in its overall plan and in a great part of its content, history. It sets before us a vision of cosmic history from the creation of the world to its consummation, of the nations which make up the one human family, and–of course–of one nation chosen to be the bearer of the meaning of history for the sake of all, and of one man called to be the bearer of that meaning for that nation. The Bible is universal history.
- The authority of God
- The Context of Postmodernism
- What is Postmodernism?
Postmodernism holds that one’s philosophy of life is ultimately determined by the community or group which most influences one’s life. Other factors, such as personal choice or religion, are secondary. Postmodernism is to a great extent an attack upon what postmodernists call “metanarratives,” which are grand stories about the world, “overarching explanations of reality based on central organizing ‘truths.” For postmodernists, these “truths” are actually “myths,” fictional stories that embody the central core of a culture’s values and beliefs, and are in this sense fundamentally religious.
In “medieval” times, the “metanarrative” was one of submission to ecclesiastical or divine authority. In “modern” times, the metanarrative was one that promoted the power of individual minds (guided by methods of observation, experience and reflection) to attain to truths needed for guiding one’s own life. John Dewey’s modern “man,” for example, was self-assured, in control of his own destiny, and needing no authority outside of himself. He was autonomous, a law or authority unto himself.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, has moved from this autonomy to anxiety. The “false gods” of modernity can no longer be used to save us. Metanarratives now need to be “deconstructed,” in other words, exposed for what they really are–myths that gave authority to those who wrote the stories, and ideological power-structures built upon oppression of others and upon domination of the earth. As a result, postmodernists now tend to question all authority: of history, truth, morality, tradition, science, education, government, etc.
- What is the postmodernist view of history?
Postmodernism presents a radical new philosophy of history, one that almost completely excludes the possibility of a historically transcendent authority. The impact upon one’s view of history is dramatic. According to Dixon, Today’s postmodern historians view history more as a study of people’s images and thoughts about their society and their past. What actually happened is no longer the historian’s primary concern, and in fact, can never be known. Instead, what matters is what people thought happened.
Stanley Grenz points out that this postmodern view of history developed through a series of philosophers who changed our understanding of interpretation. Dilthey in particular had such an impact. Hailed as the primary figure in a movement called “historicism,” Dilthey argued that we cannot escape from our own historical circumstances. Not even philosophers can view history from a standpoint outside of their own place in history because “their understanding is limited by their own ‘horizon,’ by the historical context in which they stand. They inevitably interpret the past through the concepts and concerns of the present.”
Such a view would not only destroy the idea of a transcendent authority but also the possibility of faith in a God of history. Our trust in God’s character (His holiness, love, mercy, etc.), in Scripture, and in Christ’s historical resurrection are all dependent upon our view of history. Thus the postmodern view of history must be contended with if we are to proceed in developing a viable Christian witness.
Such an extreme denial of historical truths, however, is not held by all postmodernists. Richard Rorty, for example, seeks to discover “bits” of the “onto-theological tradition” that might be useful for our purposes. We must remember that our culture has not completely abandoned the concept of authority. Instead, those who claim to have authority are now automatically questioned. According to Pazmino, “we live in a society that regularly and systematically questions authority . . . In Jesus’ time the authority of elders and teachers was generally respected. In our age, traditional authorities have been widely overthrown.” Though the idea of a historically transcendent authority is now questioned, the verdict is still “out” for the typical postmodernist as to whether historical authority can be effectively demonstrated in their context. Thus, the door of opportunity for demonstrating God’s authority has not been completely shut.
- What are the postmodern barriers to the gospel?
The Christian communicator must be prepared for the sort of questioning that results from the postmodernist view of history. Postmodern suspicion becomes high when Christians begin to talk about truth, and even higher if the postmodernist views Christianity as a modernistic religion. Specifically, this postmodern suspicion may appear in the form of three “charges:”
1) The charge that Christianity is intolerant, that is, does not encourage or allow the free discussion of ideas within a pluralistic society.
2) The charge that Christian communicators lack integrity. In their pursuit of “truth” their humanity becomes imbalanced (and in particular leans toward their rational or volitional abilities), and as a result their communication seems neither honest nor convincing.
3) The charge that Christianity is does not affirm people, but instead oppresses them. The Scriptures promote a metanarrative that disempowers some people while lifting others (i.e. the “chosen”) to a place of power.
These charges can be addressed by the Christian communicator who has a proper model for communicating God’s historically transcendent authority “into” the postmodern culture. Before we examine how to respond to these issues, though, we must identify the role of the ambassador, the one who represents God’s eternal kingdom in time and space.
- What is Postmodernism?
II. THE ROLE OF THE AMBASSADOR
How can God’s kingly Authority, as presented in the historical document of authoritative scripture, be “seen” and “felt” in postmodern life and culture? Paul’s manner of speaking in 1Cor. 2:4,5 and his concept of the ambassador as described in 2Cor. 5:18-21 demonstrate how God’s eternal authority is brought to bear in the context of a present-day culture and humanity. First, in 1Cor. 2:4 we see that Paul’s message and even his delivery clearly demonstrated God’s power. “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” “Demonstration” means “rigorous proof,” convincing logic that brings God’s eternal wisdom to bear on the human mind. This demonstration is accomplished by the power of God’s Spirit.
In verse 5 we see Paul’s intention, “so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” Paul’s desire was “to ground his converts in the divine power and make them independent of human wisdom.” The Corinthians were not to put their faith in some human “metanarrative” but in the present working of God’s Spirit. Amazingly, God’s authority benefits and empowers the believer (we will examine this further in the next section), and as a result, the believer’s faith rests upon the security of God’s authority.
Just as amazing is the fact that this faith is established through the words of the Christian ambassador! In 2Cor. 5:19-21 we see that Christ’s ambassadors have been given authority to be a voice through which God actually speaks:
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
In verse 19, Paul explains that God was “in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” and that God then “gave us the message of reconciliation.” It is obvious that we were called by God to continue the work that Christ Himself began. In verse 20, Paul goes beyond that past event to one in the present: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us . . .” Here it is stated even more plainly that God is actually speaking through the messenger of the Word of God. The manner in which God is “entreating,” though, is significant. This word means to implore, exhort, comfort, or encourage. Paul employed this word 15 other times in his letters to the Corinthians, often as a passionate plea toward godly living (see 1Cor. 1:10; 4:16; 16:15; 2Cor. 2:8; 8:6; and particularly 10:1, where Paul urges the Corinthians by the meekness and gentleness of Christ). God has provided reconciliation through Christ in the past, and is now making a passionate appeal in the present, pleading with hearers of our message to receive this message of reconciliation.
God is making this appeal, though, through His ambassador. The word generally refers to an elder or one with wisdom of age. Here it is used in the political sense as one who acts under the authority of another nation, Kingdom, or King. God is the King who is makes His appeal through His ambassador, and the appeal is to those who do not live under His kingly authority. The imagery of a high authority having stooped down to make a merciful plea cannot be missed.
God is also making this appeal in the context of the city of Corinth. Needless to say, the Corinthian view of authority was quite at odds with the traditional Hebrew view. This pagan colony was without tradition or well-established citizens. “Corinthians were rootless, cut off from their country background, drawn from races and districts all over the empire . . . a curiously close parallel to the population of a 20th Century inner-city.” Corinthian idolatry, sensuality, and paganism ran even wilder than in neighboring Athens, where pagans worshipped an “unknown God” (Acts 17:23). The Greek word for leading a debauched life was “Korinthianazein”–to live like a Corinthian. Temple prostitutes numbered over 1000, and idolatry, cultic practices, and homosexual indulgence ran rampant.
God’s passionate appeal in this passage is surrounded by reminders of His “irrational” act of pardon and atonement in Christ: God was “not counting men’s sins against them” (5:19) and “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (5:21). To the average Corinthian these were remarkable yet welcome statements. Corinthians would never be able to accept a legalistic authority such as the one promoted by the Pharisees, but a God who stepped down from heaven to become involved with the Corinthian’s sin was one they could relate to. Also, in a culture which valued sensuality over rationality, God’s authority is presented to the Corinthian as a plea that can be felt rather than simply a decree to be rationally understood.
In this context of God’s appeal to the Corinthians, Paul makes his own emotional plea. He personally urges them to be reconciled to God. This word means to beseech or beg, and in this setting “there is a warmth, and attractiveness, a winsomeness about it.” In Corinth, Paul recognized that the hearers of his message needed to “feel the truth” before they would begin to think about it. This is also the approach we need to utilize in postmodern culture. Paul’s begging is in accordance with God’s appeal, and yet is demonstrated as a “fresh” appeal to the Corinthian culture. Christ’s ambassador represents a Kingdom that not only transcends time and culture, but, through their very act of communication, can be “felt” in our midst as well.
The ambassador is not bound by a postmodern view of history and culture and the limitations therein. Human reason, for example, may be strongly influenced by one’s historical context, and yet there is a great difference between the idea that all human reason is permeated by one’s particular point in history, and the idea that human reason is completely influenced by one’s history. Christians can heartily endorse the postmodern recognition of the limitations of rationality and the humility of spirit that recognition should entail, without concluding that there either is no truth or that we are incapable of knowing truth.
We can conclude that God’s Spirit powerfully speaks through the ambassador in order to display God’s eternal authority in time and space. Therefore, it is the ambassador’s responsibility to develop and utilize a model of communication that sensitively relates God’s authority to the present culture. In the next section we will attempt to develop such a model for communicating with postmodernists.
III. A COMMUNICATION MODEL
It is tempting to try to build a communication model for postmodenists simply based on what works in reaching them. The prevailing church strategy is “If it works, don’t question it!” Osborne holds that, Pragmatism has ascended as the primary governing rod which determines church strategy . . . When one reads the vast literature on church growth and what passes for a philosophy of ministry in popular literature, it is rare to find any theological reasoning. Instead, the justification is usually a sociological survey and “what works in the super-churches.” We have become a market-driven church rather than a Bible-driven church.
Instead of following the culture in creating our communication model, we need to use Paul’s philosophy of ministry as an ambassador to bring God’s authority into our postmodern context. We can particularly be instructed by Paul’s begging, that which presents the rich theology of God’s authority and Christ’s historical redemption in the context of a present, winsome appeal. How can God’s authority be communicated in our context, according to the sense provided by the ambassador? The following model involves three interdependent methods of communication that together seek to accomplish this task. These three methods also correspond with the three suspicions held out by many postmodernists (as listed in sec. I).
- Christianity Must be Proclaimed in the Marketplace of Ideas as the Most Pragmatic Belief System
Over and against the postmodern suspicion of Christian intolerance, the ambassador demonstrates that when the transcendent God enters space and time, He does not use force to deliver His message, and does not make an intolerant claim that seeks to eliminate all foes. Instead, God attempts to woo people through His love, character, and wisdom. The ambassador knows that the authority of God and His Kingdom will emerge through the competition of ideas. In a pluralistic culture such as ours, each philosophy or religion is being asked to throw their ideas forth, and the general criterion today for “truth” is whatever idea proves to be most pragmatically effective. Such competition is not discouraged by Christianity, but confidently encouraged. The Christian knows that God’s Kingdom will prove to be more just, more fair, and more viable than other philosophies and religions.
This approach reflects the incarnation of Jesus, who shows people that flesh can submit to God’s authority, and that this submission, though risky, actually works in the real world. For example, Jesus spoke in parables which asked the audience to evaluate various lifestyles according to pragmatic results (e.g. the parable of the sower in Matthew 13). Though pragmatism is not a god for the Christian, a demonstration of the pragmatic value of truth can be extremely effective with the postmodernist, one who seeks to find a way of life that produces maximal results–particularly regarding such values as peace, quality relationships, life-purpose, and security.
This approach also demonstrates the type of authority the postmodernist seeks. Richard Rorty, for example, attempts to lead his followers into a new “postmodern utopianism.” His outlook is based on a positive view of inquiry. Rorty hopes that by asking questions we will discover what works within a particular community. His goal, to be achieved in the postmodern era, is that the community will find unforced agreement on some issues coupled with tolerant disagreement on others (in other words, an extreme form of cultural pluralism). Though Christians would argued with Rorty’s final goal, his view of inquiry as a positive and pragmatic endeavor within a pluralistic setting can be respected and utilized in our communication efforts.
An example of this approach is given by Walter Bradley. A fellow professor came to Bradley one day to explain his reason for taking a one-year sabbatical: his “live-in lover” was moving across the country to start a new job, and he wanted to help her get acclimated to the new area. The professor asked Bradley’s advice, and Bradley noncondemingly shared that God’s Word would proclaim that this arrangement was going to lead to great heartache on the part of the professor. Six months after the move, and after the professor’s lover ran off with a new lesbian lover, the professor came back to Bradley with a heightened interest in the Word of God. The professor now viewed the Bible as a book which makes very insightful observations regarding what works in life and what does not.
- This Model Involves A “Holistic” Approach to Communication
The postmodernist is also suspicious of a lack of integrity on the part of the Christian communicator, and particularly of any approach that does not involve the whole person. Therefore, God’s transcendent authority must be demonstrated through wholly-present people in order to be believed. Such a “holistic” approach to communication is one that utilizes the entire “self” in the communication process (i.e. intellectual, emotional, and volitional aspects). The tendency in “modern” Christian communication has been to focus on one aspect of man–particularly the mind or the will–to the exclusion of other aspects.
Certainly we must not forget the crucial role of the mind. But today’s approach can no longer be a dispassionate exposition of biblical and theological concepts, disconnected from emotion and practical life. Without losing our theological heritage, we can learn to embody Christian truths through the very act of communication. Roy Clements remarks that,
Postmodern culture is in reaction against rationalism. Like romanticism in the 18th century and existentialism in the earlier 20th century, it demands experiential and emotional engagement with truth, not just cognitive information about it. In such context it is vital to do justice to the passionate nature of God’s heart The theology of an earlier generation that spoke admiringly of the impassability of God will not do any longer. Postmoderns need to know that God feels.
As a result, our communication “should include experiential involvement with truth instead of just a rational understanding of truth . . . It must invite listeners to feel with the text.”
Some “modern” preaching, for example, has had a tendency to focus on the will. Preachers have often been taught to rely on method (often aimed at influencing–or worse, manipulating–the will) rather than a more “holistic” approach. An example of such reliance on method is seen in Ronald Sleeth’s book, Persuasive Preaching. Sleeth tends to reduces persuasion to mechanics and methodology alone. Also, his goal of persuasion is quite nebulous (to “bring people closer to God and man”), and not correlated to God’s authority and truth. To this the postmodernist would appropriately ask, “to what ends are we persuading?”
Certainly there is a place for persuasion in ministry for the purpose of the gospel and exposing truth. Paul attempted to “persuade (the crowds) concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening” (Acts 28:23). He also employed persuasion in defense of his apostolic authority (1Cor. 9). And yet, Paul’s persuasion was as “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1Cor.2:4)–the idea being that God’s Spirit will utilize the preacher’s whole person to display God’s power.
As Clements has pointed out, postmodernists are particularly suspicious when passion and emotion are excluded from the communication process. As Paul’s impassioned appeal was a reflection of the passionate heart of God, so we must demonstrate passion in our communication: passion for God, passion for truth, and passion for people. The communication of God’s authority, therefore, must match the heart of God. Such a trustworthy witness may serve to help people to have faith in God.
Our culture is crying out for communication that models an active submission to God’s authority in one’s entire person, including one’s personal lifestyle. Only a commitment to radical discipleship under the authority of Jesus will emulate this God-centeredness, which will be displayed in the love, strength, and submission of Christ himself. In the face of the self-protection that often accompanies postmodern anxiety, such submission, lived out in the context of the church community, will penetrate the hearts of some postmodernists–particularly as they become recipients of the grace displayed by such a community.
Postmodern suspicion seems to also demand a display of communication that is more “honest.” In other words, the communicator must have an integrity that demonstrates humility and believability. Middleton and Walsh explain how this can be developed. They hold that the modernist approach to communication was an attempt to correlate the biblical message with contemporary culture, with the messenger of the Christian faith standing outside the faith and the culture, attempting to magisterially correlate the two. In a postmodern context, though, the messenger must “inhabit” or “indwell” the biblical story so that it becomes our story. The text is not applied to our situation, but instead our situation needs to be submitted to the text for fresh discernment.
Indwelling the Biblical story, we would suggest, means living with the text in such a way that we come to experience the story as fundamentally about us. We are the people whom God liberated from Egypt and led through the Red Sea; we are the disciples whom Jesus rebuked for misunderstanding his mission and to whom he appeared after his resurrection . . .
This communication model must be lived among postmodernists. Such a “live demonstration” of truth in a postmodern context is given in the following illustration,
Like experienced Shakespearean actors immersing themselves in the script, Christians need to indwell the biblical drama by serious, passionate study of the Scriptures. This indwelling requires us to become intimately familiar with the biblical text in order to gain a deep, intuitive sense of the story’s dramatic movement and the Author’s plot intentions . . . The church’s praxis or “performance” must be faithful to the thrust, momentum and direction of the Biblical story.
- The Christian message should affirm the “whole person” being communicated with
Finally, the postmodernist is suspicious of any signs of oppression. The Christian communicator, in affirming the “whole Person” being communicated with, says to the hearer that God’s authority is associated with His mercy, His wisdom, and His ability to empower others.
- This model respects the passions and emotions of the person, thus demonstrating God’s mercy.
Non-Christians, having perhaps observed a dispassionate version of Christianity, may conclude that becoming a Christian involves sacrificing one’s emotions. Instead, our communication model must affirm the value and the experience of emotions, and particularly of pain. Today’s most frequently asked questions have to do with “the problem of evil”: Does God really care about pain and suffering? Middleton and Walsh point out that the purpose of many of the biblical stories was to help the Jews remember that God does indeed care.
The significance of (the exodus story) is that Israel’s narrative memory was shaped decisively by the crucible of oppressive suffering and liberation into justice. The memory of suffering and God’s desire to relieve this suffering was kept alive in the constant retelling of the story. But this memory was kept alive also in the numerous psalms of lament which become part of the liturgical repertoire of ancient Israel. Constituting almost one-third of the Psalter, lament psalms (such as Psalm 22, which Jesus prayed on the cross) are abrasive prayers that give voice to pain.
We need to demonstrate God’s heart in this manner when relating to postmodernists. Clark shows that by affirming and listening to a person’s emotions we can get to a person’s true values:
The positive feedback that attentive listening offers goes a long way toward defusing intense emotions . . . Emotions are concerns or passions. Concerns and passions are cherished ideals or values. Concerns function as stable bases for emotions and so are called emotion-dispositions (i.e. they predispose someone to have emotions of a certain kind). Passions are particularly central concerns that integrate a person’s life . . . Since concerns and passions are values about which a person will have positive attitudes, emotional intensity reflects attitudinal intensity.
In this way, today’s ambassador demonstrates to the postmodernist a God who is merciful: He listens to the specific needs, passions, and pains of the individual. From this point, the ambassador can explain that God goes a step further–taking these needs and pains onto Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
- This model affirms the proper use of the mind, thus demonstrating God’s wisdom.
Second, Christian communicators must affirm and challenge minds by relating truth to real-world struggles and situations. The “modern” tendency was toward imparting theological knowledge without the passing on of God’s wisdom. God’s authority, though, is perhaps never more apparent than when we see that He is wise. His wisdom is passed on in the context of His covenants with man, that which ensures continuance of relationship. The story of the tower of Babel illustrates the “modern” attempt to construct a theory of knowledge outside of a covenant partnership with God. “The pursuit of the task of knowing, outside the context of authority, is always a self-defeating grab at mastery.”
Wisdom, on the other hand, is presented in Proverbs as protectional, healing, and transformational. Prov. 5 imparts wisdom to Solomon’s son to protect him from the ruin of an adulterous woman. Prov. 12:18 instructs us that “the tongue of the wise brings healing” (see also 1:2,6; 5:1; 18:4; 22:17; 23:9). Prov. 22:17 speaks of the wisdom that transforms a fool into one who experiences a pleasant life.
We must not forget the crucial importance of the mind. This is particularly true in a culture that claims to be “post-rational.” The Christian’s ability to address the issues of the mind (and the heart) in an intelligent matter is never more needed. In our desire to be relevant to postmodern concerns, we must remember to do our relating through biblical theology and truth. Whether in a vocational setting, in developing friendships, or in preaching sermons, truth must be communicated in a way that is both uncompromising and relevant to practical issues. According to Osborne, (Bible-centered preaching) has gotten a bad reputation as linked with preachers who use overheads and talk academics rather than applying Christianity to practical issues. This is not true exposition. The Bible may well be one of the most practical books ever written, and it is not hard to be relevant when preaching from biblical texts . . . Our postmodern culture thinks in picture language rather than in linear or prepositional form; God’s Word has as many creative metaphors as Shakespeare, and every one is a picture ready to be developed.
- Our model empowers people to live better, thus demonstrating God’s empowerment.
Third, our communication of God’s authority should empower its hearers. Whereas postmodern culture seems to value personal autonomy as one’s highest privilege, the sovereign Lord of creation is seen in scripture (i.e. Gen. 1,2) not as One who uses His power and authority selfishly or oppressively, but as “blessing His creatures with life and fertility, and in particular, sharing His power with humans–in the same way humans, as the image and likeness of this God, are to use their power and rule for the benefit of others.” Humans are given “dominion” over God’s creation so that they might participate in God’s ruling authority and, through this participation, come to know that God is ultimately in charge.
This model stands in stark contrast to the postmodern charge that the Bible promotes oppression. Instead, we can demonstrate that God’s plan is to fight oppression. The Scripture portray this through a display of “canonical pluralism,” which describes on one hand the grand scheme (or metanarrative) of God’s plan for His people, while on the other issues of humanity, particularly as seen in the margins of human depravity.
Why, in a story line of God’s mighty deeds of redemption . . . do we find tragic stories of violence and brutality in which the protagonists (or victims) do not experience God’s redemption or liberation? . . . (These stories that do not sit well with the metanarrative) function as an inner-biblical critique of any ‘totalizing’ or ‘triumphalistic’ reading of the metanarrative.
Canonical pluralism interacts well with postmodernism, because the Scriptures are seen to have built-in checks and balances against those who might attempt to build a “modernistic” or “oppressive” theology. Such critique against oppressive systems is quite pervasive in Scripture once we open our eyes to it, and is important in showing that the Biblical story is an unfinished drama. One example is found in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt on one hand, and their cries to an unresponsive God (in Psalms 39 and 88) on the other. Another is Tamar’s episode in the midst of Joseph’s rise to power. Canonical pluralism allows us to communicate a “biblical metanarrative” that re-tells the Biblical story in such a way as to correct the postmodern charge that oppression and victimization have been the status quo for most of human history (especially Biblical history), while at the same time “empowering” postmodernists by sensitively responding to postmodern issues of oppression and victimization.
In doing so, we can use our theology to speak to the individual searching for “self-esteem,” which postmodernism (unsuccessfully) attempts to restore through identity with one’s community of origin. Instead, the Bible presents an “empowered self” based on the image of God in man (Genesis 1:26,27), and the glory of man in God’s creation (Psalm 8). The idea of God’s “empowerment” speaks God’s authority into postmodern culture in a fresh and exciting way. God’s authority is not seen in Scripture as that of an unbending tyrant who demands blind obedience. On the contrary, His authority emerges from a loving Creator of the universe who cares intimately about his creation and who desires to see all creatures flourish.
This is the Redeemer who delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and who entered history supremely in Jesus to liberate creation from the bondage of sin and death. This is the Author of an unfinished drama who invites us to participate in a genuinely open future in which we can indeed make a difference, as we implement in new, even unforeseen circumstances the plot resolution that Jesus initiated through his death and resurrection.
Thus, God displays Himself as One who reigns over man with their best interests constantly in mind. Barclay illustrates this crucial interdependence of God’s authority and love:
In the life which the authority of God would have men live, there is this all-pervading kindliness and thoughtfulness, and the God who formed the earth and shaped the heavens and counts the number of the stars is the same God who cares that sanitary arrangements are made and kept and a house safely designed.
- This model respects the passions and emotions of the person, thus demonstrating God’s mercy.
In conclusion, when communicating the gospel in postmodern culture, we must be prepared to engage in dialogue regarding issues of authority. The best model for communicating God’s authority to the postmodernist involves becoming an ambassador for Christ, and yet one with a special sensitivity to postmodern suspicions of intolerance, lack of integrity, and oppression. With these issues in mind, the Holy Spirit is able to powerfully speak through the ambassador into the world of the postmodernist, so that submission to God’s kingly authority will not only be seen as viable, but even desirable. God’s authority has substantial benefits for the seeking postmodernist–who, in trusting Christ, can experience God’s mercy, wisdom, and empowerment in actual space and time.