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How Long Is the Bridge to Postmoderns? (Part 1)

Take into account three changes in how people now think, and you can get a hearing.

This is part one in a five-part series.
part one
part two
part three
part four
part five

This article deals with preaching to the postmodern mind, and we will get to that presently, but first I need to make a disclaimer: People of the modern generation and people of the postmodern generation (and for that matter, people of the pre-modern generation) are more similar than dissimilar.

Before I discuss the shift occurring in Western culture, let's remind ourselves that the essential qualities that define humanity have not changed and presumably will not change: we are created in the image of God, yet we have fallen; we are created to fellowship with God, yet we make idols to try to fill the God-shaped vacuum; all of us need to repent and accept by faith the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

Our needs have not changed, and the gospel, the solution to our needs, has not changed so that the back-woods chorus from the modernist generation stands true: if it was good for pre-moderns Paul and Silas, it's good enough for postmoderns like me and my audience. The Word has power to convict (Hebrews 4:12), convert (1 Peter 1:23), and transform (John 17:17) people of all times and places, and our job is simply to herald it.

In many ways, postmodernism is simply an extension of modernism. Oden calls it "ultra-modernism"—modernism which has born fruit and gone to seed. Modernism was characterized by humanism, individualism, and anti-authoritarianism, and these "isms" have not waned in postmodernism.

Postmodernism also reasserts some pre-modern ideas. For example, Protagoras of Abdera (481-411 B.C.) sounds strikingly up to date with his assertion that "man is the measure of all things," and Gorgias of Sicily (485-380 B.C.), ambassador to Athens and pre-modern sophist, sounds positively postmodern: nothing exists; if anything does exist it cannot be known; if it can be known, it cannot be communicated. There is nothing new under the sun. Thompson argues that today's post-Christian context is similar to Paul's pre-Christian context so that we need to look to Paul for "homiletical wisdom for today."

To preach clearly and compellingly we must hear our words as the listeners hear them.

Further evidence that moderns and postmoderns are more similar than dissimilar comes from Gen X itself—the first generation considered fully postmodern. A 1997 Timesurvey of the attitudes and values of Xers, Boomers, and Matures concludes: "Newsflash! The youngsters are ambitious get-aheads—even more so than their parents or grandparents. They are confident, savvy, and...materialistic."

Xers outranked their counterparts on questions like: "If I work hard enough, I will eventually achieve what I want" (91 percent agreed), and "The only meaningful measure of success is money" (33 percent of Gen Xers agreed compared to 19 percent of Boomers and 16 percent of Matures). Early assessments of Gen X as community-loving, achievement-rejecting, pessimistic reborn flower children were off target. As Gen X moves into the marketplace, it seems they just become good Americans, not necessarily good people.

My disclaimer does not imply that all audiences are exactly the same. I simply want to temper the overstatement of those who claim the world has turned over. Hindsight, not prognostication, will tell us if today's paradigm shift "may eventually make the Reformation look like a ripple in a pond." I also want to hearten biblical preachers who labor under false guilt for not tracking up-to-the-minute progress of society's micro-evolution. Understanding what the Bible says about human nature is more crucial to effective preaching than demographic surveys. Personal knowledge of the flock is just as important as knowledge of philosophical trends.

But knowledge of trends is important too. Cultures shift, and the art of preaching, like the art of rhetoric, demands that we adjust ideas to people so that we can adjust people to ideas. The year 1985 was the first year that more videos were checked out of public libraries than books. This is a trend thoughtful preachers will consider. For American students, the name most associated with the word Christian—other than Jesus—is Ned Flanders of the Simpsons. This is a fact preachers must adapt to.

To preach clearly and compellingly we must hear our words ("Jesus," "Christian," "Bible," "truth," "sex," and so on) as the listeners hear them. We must "present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age....If you were sent to the Bantus, you would be taught their language and traditions. You need similar teaching about the language and mental habits of your own uneducated and unbelieving fellow countrymen."

The Postmodern Mind

What then are some of the mental habits of our postmodern fellow countrymen? Painting with very broad brushstrokes, we can characterize the postmodern mind as skeptical of certainty, rejecting of moral absolutes, and on guard against control.

The Knowing Smirk: Relativism about what we know

If modernism viewed the world with a confident gaze, eyes to the horizon, believing that sure knowledge of the universe and self was possible and that a single metanarrative—an overall narrative that makes sense of everything in life—could subsume all explanation, then postmodernism views the world with a shrug and a smirk.We know better today. We know that our knowing is conditioned by our perspective. We are trapped in the prison house of our own experience. "Modernism offers us visions and rival versions of everything—it's all a matter of economics (Marx), or repressed sexuality (Freud), or the will to power (Nietzsche), or collective self-government (democracy), or dialectics (Hegel), etc. Postmodernism, by contrast, protests against any one version of truth or of universals of the human condition—it rejects the imperialism of any single point of view being THE CORRECT perspective." Postmodern literary critic Jonathan Culler summarizes the current view of truth as meaningless and arbitrary.

The skepticism toward certainty, once the private domain of philosophers, now has filtered down to popular culture. Skepticism is part of the postmodern mind. Nearly one hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton saw the trajectory: "We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table." Don DeLillo's White Noisecaptures the spirit of the age as a father and son drive to school. It is raining, but Heinrich, the son, doubts the existence of the rain since the radio said it wouldn't rain until evening. His father is frustrated:

Father: Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.
Son: Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they're right....Don't you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There's no past, present, or future outside our own mind....
Father: Is it raining or isn't it?
Son: I wouldn't want to have to say.
Father: What if someone held a gun to your head...a man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses.All you have to do is tell the truth."
Son: What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone orbiting around a neutron star? Maybe if these people could see through a telescope we might look like we were two feet, two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today.
Father: He's holding a gun to your head. He wants your truth.
Son: What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? What we call rain he calls soap.
Father: His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis.
Son: He wants to know if it's raining now, at this very minute?...
Father: Here and now.
Son: If you want to talk about this precise location while you're in a vehicle that's obviously moving, then I think that's the trouble with this discussion.
Father: Just give me an answer, okay, Heinrich?
Son: The best I could do is make a guess.
Father: But you see it's raining.
Son: You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or is the earth turning?...How do I know that what you call rain is really rain? What is rain anyways?
Father: It's the stuff that fall from the sky and gets you what is called wet.
Son: I'm not wet. Are you wet?

Knowledge is intractably conditioned by our perspective. All that we have is interpretation based on the relative viewpoint and values of the interpreter. The words we use to describe things cannot be trusted to refer to actual things. Words refer only to words.

Yet by sharing words and perspectives, communities can tacitly agree to certain "facts" and arrange their lives by those "facts." For the postmodern person, knowledge is a social construction. A community like the Aztecs constructs knowledge that says God is immanent and angry and should be worshiped with sacrifice. A community like the deists constructs knowledge that God is transcendent and beneficent and commissions people to discover his laws.

For each community, such "knowledge" might be useful, so that the concept of truth is not completely jettisoned. Truth has utilitarian value—it can keep you from driving off a cliff or help you find a mate you are compatible with—but it is demoted.

While I was in graduate school in the early 90s, a postmodernist teacher tried to help his floundering class get a handle on his concept of truth. We pressed him, but like Heinrich, he kept recasting the issues. Eventually I asked him if he believed that Kennedy was actually shot on such-and-such a date and was in fact dead. He responded that he did believe this because society had so constructed an interpretation of the events, and that interpretation provided him with useful "answers." He was content with this "knowledge" but wanted to stay open to the possibility of a different interpretation.

Today we preach to a mind convinced that truth is socially constructed based on only one individual perspective.

Part 2 of this series will look at how Postmoderns make decisions about right and wrong.

This article is an excerpt from Preaching to a Shifting Culture (Baker, 2004), edited by Scott M. Gibson. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright2004. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group (http://www.bakerbooks.com).


1. Thomas C. Oden, "The Death of Modernity and Postmodern Evangelical Spirituality," in The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, David S. Dockery, ed.(Wheaton: Bridgepoint, 1995), 26.

2. Millard J. Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 16-17.

3. In James J. Murphy, ed. A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric (Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 1983), 8.

4. Summarized in George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1980), 30-31.

5. James W. Thompson, Preaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today (Louisville: John Knox, 2001), 1-36.

6. Margot Hornblower, "Society,"Time (June 9, 1997): 58.

7. Loren Mean, The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier, 84; summarized in Robert Stephen Reid, "Postmodernism and the Function of the New Homiletic in Post-Christendom Congregations," Homiletic 20/2 (Winter 1995): 3.

8. Donald C. Bryant, "Rhetoric: Its Functions and Its Scope," Quarterly J of Speech 39 (1953): 413.

9. Michael Quicke, "Applying God's Word in a Secular Culture," Preaching (Jan./Feb., 2002): 11.

10. Christianity Today (Feb. 2001) cited in Quicke, "Applying God's Word," 11.

11. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 93-94.

12. I am, of course, alluding to Jean-Francois Lyotard's oft-quoted definition of postmodernism: "Incredulity toward metanarratives." The Postmodern Condition (trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi). In Ray Lubeck, "Trajectories in Postmodern Hermeneutics," unpub. paper delivered at the conference of the Evangelical Theological Society, Santa Clara, CA (Nov. 1997): 1.

13. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism(Ithaca, NY: Cornell U P, 1982), 22, in Rick Gosnell, "Proclamation and the Postmodernist," The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, David S. Dockery, ed. (Wheaton: Bridgepoint, 1995), 375.

14. Don DeLillo, White Noise (New York: Penguin, 1984), 22-24, in David W. Henderson, Culture Shift: Communicating God's Truth to Our Changing World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 195-196.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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