February 2001 – Postmodernism, the default worldview of our culture, is regularly played for laughs in the popular response, "Whatever!" But beneath the silly quip lies a belief system largely defined by what it disregards, rather than what it affirms. Few Christians can identify it, much less understand how to approach a world defined by it. Now a new book from a well-known pastor sheds light on the subject of postmodernism and explains why Christians should take note.
Imagine a world in which logic and reason carry little weight compared to experience and feelings; history is not valued as something from which to learn; there are no universal truths; what is believable is more important than what is true; and the world doesn't need to make sense--in any sense.
Welcome to the murky world of postmodernism. And, oh yeah, if you are reading this, you already live there.
Along with the rest of humanity, 21st Century Christians straddle a sociological fault line. How we respond to the shifting plates of ideas and values could bring great opportunity to advance God's kingdom, or render the Church irrelevant, especially to Gen Xers (those born between 1960 and 1980--the first generation born in the new postmodern world) and younger. Much depends on how we understand and respond to a world that is not stopping for Christians to catch up.
"The world that we inhabit has transformed around us," says Chuck Smith, Jr., senior pastor of Capo Beach Calvary Chapel in Capistrano Beach, California, and author of the new book The End of the World As We Know It. "The world we lived in 30 years ago doesn't exist anymore. That world has passed. So it's a question of understanding the environment in which we are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth."
Smith's book, published by WaterBrook Press, is a road map for Christians through the slippery subject of postmodernism. Although he skips much of the academic discussions of the subject--opting rather for real-life illustrations and clear, but challenging explanations--postmodernism is still a complex subject.
However, Smith's thesis is clear: rather than fight with postmodernists, Christians must understand their world and search for entry points from which the gospel can be shared and our future culture can be shaped to some degree by a Christian worldview.
"The message of Christianity does not change," Smith said in an interview with AFA Journal. "What changes are the forms in which that message is expressed. If Jesus, speaking to a largely agrarian culture, could make sense to them by talking about a farmer scattering seed, we simply need to find more apt examples to talk to a generation that has grown up with personal computers. Postmodernism defines the current mission field."
So, what is postmodernism? According to Smith, the term represents a sociological change in the world beginning in Western society, but potentially touching all of the world. That change extends to politics, entertainment, arts, fashion, education, and literature--virtually all areas of life. However, it is not easy to define--some say it defies definition--because it is not a single, complete, coherent movement or system of thought.
One way to begin to understand postmodernism is to contrast it to modernism, the sociological era now passing from the scene. During the age of modernism--which has historical roots in The Enlightenment--human reason, progress, knowledge, and science were held in the highest regard, even higher than faith in God. Postmodernity is what is left after those ideas have been rejected, or as Smith writes, "Postmodernity is what comes after we all stop thinking like engineers (i.e., rationalism)."
Some common characteristics of postmodern thought include placing a higher value on feelings, intuition and experience than reason and logic; skepticism of universal or objective truths; a view that history is going nowhere; and the notion that all belief systems are equally valid.
The results of postmodern thinking are everywhere, according to Smith. For example, 40 years ago actors dressed in white lab coats--posing as scientists--were commonly used as pitchmen for products from household items to automobiles. The unspoken message was if science says it's good, it must be good. Now those faux scientists have been replaced by celebrities, because marketers know that today's consumers believe a trusted celebrity whether or not his sales pitch is logical.
Another example can be seen in our culture's interest in spiritual matters. The postmodernist is free to mix and match religious beliefs from many--even conflicting--belief systems, and at the same time, take none seriously.
"We are living on a cultural fault line that is best seen as a jagged line--not a clean break. It represents the boundary between the modern age and postmodern age," Smith says. "That particular line is a distressing place to live because of the wide, sweeping changes that are happening. And those changes are not easy to point out because they are changes in worldview, and we don't normally go around consciously thinking about our worldview. So when we bump against another worldview, it sometimes makes it hard to communicate and so there is a crisis of communication that occurs."
But Christians must overcome the communication crisis if we are to have a voice in shaping the future and reaching postmoderns with the gospel.
"If we simply say postmodernism is evil and we're going to fight it with all we can, our culture will move into this era without us," Smith said. "By the time we finally say ‘OK, postmodernism is here,' it will have already shaped our culture. However, if we can be in on the discussion from the start, we don't have to be bystanders, we can actually be participants in shaping the new era."
The End of the World As We Know It is available at Christian bookstores nationwide, denominational catalogues, and in the religion sections of some national bookstores.
Although the author offers clear insights to help the reader understand postmodernism, the book does not necessarily reflect AFA's views on every issue or strategy discussed, nor does this article imply Pastor Smith's endorsement of AFA.