Saturday, July 17, 2004

Postmodern Christianity

At the Cornerstone Festival (mentioned earlier) I encountered what was described to me as "postmodern Christianity." My friend Chris - who is in the know about these kinds of things - described it to me, and I could see it reflected in some of the Cornerstone culture.

What is postmodern Christianity? Well, Chris and I discussed this on and off for a couple days, and I heard a talk that I would say was deeply influenced by postmodernism, and so now I have a clear understand about one aspect of it: it's vague. And quite likely it is intentionally vague.

Postmodern Christians seem to be deeply bothered by lists, or steps; by three-point outlines; by "Six Biblical Keys to Financial Freedom," and stuff like that, which I think appears to them to be a bit trite and simplistic. For example, one speaker said he asked a seminary student to list the steps to falling in love with a woman. He said the student came up with the first step (meeting the woman), but then puzzled over it and said that he wasn't sure that it was exactly a step-by-step process. Exactly! And neither, the speaker said, is our relationship with God a step-by-step process.

Also, Chris said, some postmodernists are kind of negative about "truth." It was unclear to me if they mean that truth is not always easy to grasp, or that it isn't worth pursuing, or that it doesn't exist. I heard a Christian speaker - not at Cornerstone - argue that we should hold our beliefs very lightly. I suspect some postmodernists find truth to be too much of a pat answer, kind of like lists. This is one aspect of postmodernist Chrsitianity I find very concerning.

So that's (apparently) part of what postmodern Christianity isn't, but what is it?

Well, Chris said it is about "story." And this was again echoed by the speaker. He said he had rejected his faith and was later brought back to it by the prologue to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. He said that in the prologue Shakespeare outlined the story, beginning to end, and it got him to thinking about the essential elements of a story. I can't remember them all (he listed them), but they were something like: Beginning, Problem, Struggles, Climax, Resolution, and Ending. He said all good stories have these elements, and the human heart actually longs for this pattern. Then he got to thinking about the Bible, and how it precisely follows this pattern. He didn't exactly say this, but I got the feeling he meant that a book from God should follow this pattern - which matches the human heart - and the Bible does.

So it follows that the Bible should be read and understood as story, not as lists of principles.

Chris kinda filled this out for me. He said a postmodern Christian gathering focuses both on the story of the Bible and the story of the church members. People are given the opportunity to share their journey in faith.

A lot of this strikes me as very good. I too have sometimes heard a sermon draw five points from a passage of scripture that I don't believe contains those points. I, too, think there is a lot of value in reading the story parts of the Bible as story. And I totally love the idea of church groups giving a lot of time to letting people share their faith journeys. (A couple decades ago I think this was called, "sharing your testimony," and I've always been a bit saddened to see it fall by the wayside.)

But what concerns me about Christian postmodernism is the potential of falling off the other side of the horse. I believe Martin Luther told a story about a drunk who left the tavern, got on his horse and fell off the right side. Determined not to do that again, he got on the horse, leaned the other way, and promptly fell off the left side. The idea, of course, is to stay on the horse.

I think postmodernists should be careful not to go too far in their dislike for lists. Just because there are stories in the Bible - and it is a story - doesn't mean there aren't also lists. I mean, the Ten Commandments, for Pete's sake. Also, did you notice the speaker actually cited a list (the elements of a story) and indicated they were critical to his return to faith? Lists are important, even for postmodernists.

Also, I think there are difficulties in applying a story to one's life. I feel less certain of this because a story, as a story, can have a profound impact on people's lives, and maybe this is what postmodernists are counting on, but how do you - for example - take Jesus' short list on how to live (1. Love God, 2. Love your neighbor) and apply that to your life as a story. It's a list, dogone it! And it needs to be treated as such.

But the thing I find most scary is the notion (which I do not believe was shared by the speaker and hopefully is not shared by most postmodernists) that truth is something to be held lightly. Certainly there are debatable topics within Christianity, and I don't want to confuse peripheral issues with core issues, but I don't think that saying, "Well, I kinda believe in God for now," cuts it. When I hear something like that I think of James' condemnation (James 1:6-8) of those who are blown and tossed by the wind, who are double-minded and unstable.

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