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Article No. 89

How to approach a postmodernist - Part Two

In part one I outlined some general principles that we might adopt when trying to reach the postmodernist generation with the gospel. That gospel doesn’t change - but how we present it must change with each new generation. It is not good enough to go on saying that we must preach the ‘good old gospel’ , because although the gospel doesn’t change, its hearers most definitely do! That is what we must take into account and seek to adapt to. So can we isolate some of the ideas and attitudes we will need?

So what do we need to examine about ourselves? I believe that we must start hunting for signs of the modernist attitudes in our own lives. Now this is where things can get contentious! I am no doubt going to upset someone with what I suggest we might discard. That’s all right. There are no prizes for not offending anybody! I don’t mind at all your disagreeing with me - even profoundly! What is important that we exercise our minds and hearts so that we present the gospel in the best way at the best time.

First we have to see that the assurance and what some might call arrogance of the old modernist approach must go. The certainty that we are right. The certainty that others are wrong. The confidence that things are going to get better. Maybe we have to learn a much more humble approach - one that in no way blunts our deep conviction that Jesus Christ is the answer to the world’s ills, but one that doe not assume that everybody else is wrong.

That is difficult for conservative evangelicals to do! They have been brought up to believe that they have the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth! They usually see others as wrong. They often see other religions as evil and dark. They see their mission as showing the blind sinful infidel the way to true salvation.

Isn’t it obvious how that approach - even in a mild form - is going to form an impenetrable barrier between the Christian and the postmodern unbeliever? There is a basic arrogance in this approach that is almost blind. It pervades many who operate in the evangelical area - where they have not yet come aboard the truth that the glorious certainty of radiant faith does not have to be irrevocably linked to an aggressive and dominating attitude to the unbeliever and other religions. You can listen to the other person and what they believe, whatever their faith is. That there is value in listening to the unbeliever because, you never know, it might just be that God has talked to them and shown them things that he has not yet shown you. The postmodernist assumes that all humans are equal and that the answers each person finds - or doesn’t finds - is of value.

Second we have to learn afresh what the bible really is and how it should be used. Here again it is the conservative evangelical who will find this difficult, though maybe all of us need to rethink our view of what the bible is. To just quote texts at anybody is gross rudeness. It says all sorts of things about the person quoting the text - and none of it is complimentary! The evangelical may ‘know’ that the bible is Gods word but it is not seen as Gods word by the person he is talking to. They don’t believe in the idea of God and they certainly don’t buy the idea that the bible is somehow divinely inspired, much less infallible! What about all those bloody fights in the Old Testament! And if the Christian tries to say that every word of the bible is ‘true’ then of course he may as well pack up and go home. Such an incredible statement will be rejected out of hand by the postmodernist.

To treat some book - any book - as if it should be reverenced because it is word-perfect is to be in a different world than the postmodernist. Instead the Christian has to copy St Paul on Mars Hill in Athens. He translated what he wanted to say into local thought forms. He talked of many gods and the unknown god. He spoke to their mind set. I can just imagine St Paul saying some pretty rough things to some of the conservative evangelicals that I know! He would call them insensitive, arrogant and unfeeling. He would tell them to go away and do their homework before they come again into the presence of thinking people who are seriously trying to understand life, eternity and everything.

So far we have talked of attitude and of the bible. What about the basic ideas of the postmodernist - for example, that there can be no certainty in this world? I suggest that the Christian will have to deal with this aspect by way of a story of someone who has found that there is a reality called God and that there is a way for a person to walk into that experience. There is no better way than telling honestly a true story. Above all, it is real and not just theory. Maybe the view of the postmodernist about what comprises ‘certainty’ will need to be revised!

Thirdly, we must live and present to others the whole gospel, not some truncated version of it inherited from our forefathers. In the last century there was a lively and prolonged debate at one period of whether the gospel was in essence the preaching of salvation through Jesus and the Cross, or whether the gospel really meant serving people in love. The penitent form or bread and soup for the starving. It sounds academic in today’s world where we have realised long since that the gospel is both caring for the souls’ and bodily needs of everyone. But it was a real dilemma at one period in the last century. Now we take a more holistic approach - we see helping the needy is an expression of Gods love just as much as preaching or speaking about the need for repentance. A holistic approach is essential to talk to the postmodernist. They have been raised in an atmosphere where the holistic approach is understood and applied generally. For the Christian to be just concerned for one aspect of need is foreign to their thinking. We have to examine ourselves to ensure that we are not a one note penny whistle! We need an instrument that plays the rich variety of notes of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ!

In order to reach the thinking of a postmodernist we must show that we too are released from the old modernist thinking. What does that mean? It means we are not of the cast of mind that thinks that we ‘know’ it all, or that anyone can know it all. We are not confident that humankind will progress into a kind of utopia eventually. We are realistic about the human capacity to foul up everything with materialism and selfishness. We recognise our severe limitations in our understanding of the universe.

However we must always remember that we can only go so far with the postmodernist. There is a gulf fixed between us and it is important to ensure that we know just what that gulf is.

Firstly as Christians we believe in a Creator God who is a Father. That is way beyond anything a postmodernist believes. He probably cannot believe in any overarching power that created everything. Secondly, we believe that man is a moral and spiritual being, and that we are aware of good and evil. God in Christ has reconciled us to himself. The postmodernist cannot accept any of that. He believes only that the world and universe exist. Beyond that he probably cannot go. And his concept of what existence entails may be very different from ours! Thirdly the postmodernist cannot accept the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are ’saved’ by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit empowers us and speaks to us of what God wants in our lives. All of that would be very difficult for the postmodernist!

So how do we approach a postmodernist? ‘With difficulty’ is the answer that springs to mind! But maybe the best answer is ‘with prayer‘! Of course prayer must precede and concern us while with them. But after prayer, what? Perhaps the ,most important thing is the manner in which we go to him. If we have any pride or arrogance within us then that will effectively screen out that the message of Christ is forgiveness in love. A humility that matches our Lord is needed.

I have hardly started into the subject, but my space is used up! Perhaps I will be able to return to this subject at some future time. It is as endless as the gospel itself, and as all inclusive as the love of Christ.

Tony Cross

January 2005

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