Seminary Viewpoints

Part Four: Living in a Postmodern Era (1/2)

Sam Horn | March 21, 2019
Viewpoint Blog

We understand that a crucial part of missionary work is understanding the cultural context in which you will be living and sharing the gospel. But, similarly, though we may not be penetrating into a new culture, our own culture can change significantly in just a decade.

“Give me that old-time religion” is a phrase that evokes a varying response as culture, even the church, changes over time. Being tolerant, embracing diversity, and staying open-minded are a few things in which the meaning and implications have changed.

Many years ago, General Motors’ Oldsmobile division launched a successful advertising campaign designed to market the Oldsmobile product to a new generation of drivers. In an effort to change the image of their vehicles, the company made a series of commercials, all of which contained the phrase, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” And that is the similar place we find ourselves in—a place in many ways foreign to our parents’ world.

This is part of a series that hopefully is helpful in understanding our current culture and what truth God has spoken to help us live and share his gospel in the midst of it. With postmodernism still fizzling out, here are a few areas in which it has affected the American Church.

Truth vs. Experience

One of the ways postmodernism could be described is a “mood.” Part of the movement away from dogmatic truth was the rising value of experience. Similar to the phrase “take a picture or it didn’t happen,” the mindset became “feel it or it isn’t true”—more specifically, it isn’t true to you. There still is, though, an increasing significance concerning, not what happened, but how it makes someone feel. Metamodernism (post-postmodernism) still carries with it this “structure of feeling.”

Postmodern culture has produced an environment where experience is the chief goal of worship. Worship will be primarily evaluated not by how it honors and exalts God or by how it conforms to his character, but by the feeling and experience produced in the heart of the worshipper.

In response to the recent focus on the worship experience, Matt Merker asks,

“What if composers of modern praise songs carefully selected lyrics that focus more on God’s character than on our experience? What if we embarked on a campaign to teach believers that worship is more about ascribing worth to God than pursuing an emotional response—that in fact, our emotions will often be stirred in the right ways when we focus more on God and less on ourselves?”

If you followed that quotation carefully, you may have picked up on a very key point that Matt makes—one that I’d like to echo. The point is that these two things—heightened spiritual experience and solid biblical teaching—shouldn’t be at odds. I’m not advocating dry, lecture-style messages from the pulpit. God is after hearts filled with worship, not heads full of facts. But we can’t expect deep joy in God with a shallow knowledge of his word. The joy comes through digging—they go together—and if not, then the spiritual high we’re seeking after is not Godward. Worship does not ignore God’s word, but rather roots itself in it—the deeper, the better.

What is the fear—dare I say expectation—for those lacking a deeply rooted faith in the Word of God? During WWI, particularly on the western front of France, trench warfare was heavily relied upon. Deep trenches were dug in order to keep the enemy from advancing. I use that imagery to serve this parallel point—our spiritual lives are incredibly vulnerable without deep trenches of biblical truth. Spiritual defeat is inevitable without it because “those without strong foundations can quickly find themselves swept away” [1].

Scripture is More than Stories

Now the question is, “Do we really view Scripture as the necessary foundation for our life?”

In terms of John Frame’s Tri-Perspectivalism, postmodernism has influenced us to rely more upon the situational and existential than the normative. For those unfamiliar with Tri-Perspectivism, it is essentially the theory that people have three perspectives of knowledge (I’ll define these a bit differently for sake of simplicity). One, the normative perspective could be considered the biblical perspective, when you rely on the facts. Second, the situational perspective is when you rely on what appears to be happening around you. Third, the existential perspective is when you rely on what feels right to you. These three perspectives affect what we accept as true. So when it comes to truth, do I accept it because the Bible says it is true (normative), because it makes sense in my life (situational), or because it’s what I want to believe (existential)? I would say that postmodernism has influenced us to embrace truth mainly on the basis of the situational and existential—if it looks right and feels right, it must be true (at least to you).

In regards to homosexuality and same-sex attraction, many are tempted to embrace it as an acceptable lifestyle because they feel their desires pulling them one way (the existential) and look at the culture around them promoting it as well (the situational). The situational and the existential trump the normative because both what we want to believe and what those around us are advocating is valued so highly that it results in ignoring or misinterpreting—perhaps intentionally—what God has spoken (the normative).

Throughout all of Scripture is the battle to trust God—Adam and Eve eating the fruit, Moses striking the rock twice, Peter taking his eyes off Jesus, and Thomas doubting. But what did Jesus say in response to Thomas? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). The call is to take God at his word and let that shape our beliefs and behaviors.

It’s an age-old struggle. Even Jesus was tempted, but his response to Satan is also instruction for us—our response must be based on “it is written” (Mk. 9:4). We are defenseless without it. There is no safety without the shield of faith, and there is no victory without the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:16-17). God’s Word is essential for every decision of every day, and every moment without His Word is reason for despair.

It’s more than just stories. Lord, help our unbelief (Mk. 9:24).

Not All Bad

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that everything about Postmodernism is bad by narrowing in on a few of the negative marks it has made. For example, this shift towards a focus on experience is probably part of the realization that good theology should not (cannot?) be separated from genuine doxology—the Bible is not only true; it needs to be real. When we overcompensate though, concerns increase. At one moment it may be strengthening the connection between doxology and theology, but the next moment weakening the connection between worship and the Word.

To Be Continued

There are two other potential dangers I see when it comes to how postmodernism has affected our relationship to truth. Not only has (1) a focus on experience resulted in an avoidance of solid teaching, but (2) a focus on “love” can result in abandoning divisive but necessary truth as well as (3) a focus on being open-minded result in shying away from holding firm beliefs.

I look forward to continuing this topic in my next post. In the meantime, remember that though this world is not much like our fathers’, it is still entirely our heavenly Father’s world, and the Word he has given is sufficient for life and godliness in every age.

[1] David P. Setran & Chris A. Kiesling, “Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry,” p. 21. (link)