As we attempt to engage with how we can effectively translate the message of the Gospel to out culture in our time, it quickly becomes apparent that a few “new” challenges have arisen (though it can be argued that these challenges aren’t particularly “new”, but maybe just forgotten). The task is complicated somewhat by the fact that our prior engagement with modernity led us to certain conclusions and methodologies (such as reductionism and “propositional truth”) that no longer communicate what they once did (they may in fact communicate quite the opposite). Meanwhile, many in the church are unaware or have become confused about what is Scriptural or “historically Christian” and what stems from engagement or even syncretism with modernity.
Even as we must embrace the fact that neither a modern methodology or a modern epistemology are required by the Gospel, we must also recognize that our emerging postmodern context brings both new opportunities and new challenges for the Gospel. Though postmodern philosophy cannot and should not be swallowed wholesale in an undiscerning manner, it can be useful in our task of disentangling our faith and the Gospel from post-enlightenment thought. While postmodern thought is in many ways still in its embryonic stages, one clearly identifiable trend is “incredulity toward metanarratives” . The basic interpretive lens utilized by most people in contemporary western culture is characterized by a deep suspicion. In my opinion, this suspicion cuts two ways: First of all, it is deeply suspect of anything that claims to be totalizing. Grand, sweeping narratives that claim to be the one, true narrative and/or sets of propositions that demand assent are simply seen as power games or a means of coercion. Secondly, through world events as diverse as Auschwitz, the Challenger explosion, and 9-11, the myth of progress has been exposed. Progress is the “new clothes” that the emperor believed he was wearing, when he was actually as naked as the day he was born. One doesn’t need to be a particularly religious person in order to see the idol that modernity made of individual, human reason. What once seemed “enlightened” is now seen as an arrogant sham. There is indeed a deep suspicion of any ideology, concept, or system that claims to be THE answer, THE way, or (certainly) the TRUTH. Quite frankly, in many cases this stems from being disappointed again and again by such claims. Nothing arouses suspicion, mistrust, and doubt so much as certainty. In the postmodern ethos, any claim of certainty from finite and perspectival beings (as we all are) smacks of the worst kind of arrogance and naiveté.
Innovative thinkers Walsh and Middleton point out that this suspicion toward metanarratives is problematic for our proclamation of what is essentially a narrative Gospel. The late Stanley Grenz articulates the same difficulty in his informative “Primer on Postmodernism”. Their point is well taken. If our Gospel is essentially a narrative, and if we would presume to say that it is in any sense “true” in a way that competing narratives are not, then we seem to have a problem. James Smith raises an interesting point, which he means more as a clarification than a disagreement with the previously mentioned authors.. He argues that a narrative is not a metanarrative simply because it is a big, sweeping, all-encompassing story, but rather due to the way it functions. According to Smith, it is only a metanarrative when it is used in a coercive way or as a means of domination. I suspect that Smith is technically correct, but I also suspect that the inherent suspicion that exists on the popular level is not so discerning (at least not on the surface). Therefore, the question that I believe we need to wrestle with is: “How do we proclaim an essentially narrative Gospel in and to a culture that is deeply suspicious of metanarratives, propositional truth, and claims of certainty?”
- Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Wm. B. EerdmansPublishing, 1996.
- Lyotard, Jean François, and Frederic Jameson. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. U of Minnesota Press, 1984.
- Middleton, J. Richard, and Brian J. Walsh. Truth is Stranger Than it Used to be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. InterVarsity Press, 1995.
- Smith, James K. A. Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Baker Academic, 2006.