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Making Sense of Church
Reality Check---Metaphors for Transition_25
The word 'postmodern' first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in
1949. Postmodern is what's come about after---and often in reaction to---modernism,
which dominated Western thought for a majority of the twentieth century.
In recent decades, every major sphere of life has evolved to become postmodern---
movies, literature, art, architecture, business, politics. Everything, that is, except
In many ways, the church is the last bastion of modernism in our culture. It's not that the church hasn't changed over the years, but the changes have been cosmetic.
We've unplugged organs, padded pews, removed shag carpet, and added video projectors. Meanwhile, everything else in our culture has undergone a complete metamorphosis. The changes are so radical that some parts of our culture are barely recognizable to modern eyes.
The world has changed
Been to a movie lately? Forget linear, moralistic plots. Instead, films like Memento and Being John Malkovich and newer releases continue to push the limits of visual storytelling. Bizarre, brain-twisting movies, these films demand their viewers to create meaning for themselves. Locations and time frames are deliberately ambiguous.
Characters are complex contradictions---a fascinating mix of good, evil, and things in between.
The same can be said of postmodern literature. In the past fifty years, a new character has emerged: the antihero. No longer can we assume that the good guy will win in the end. Such expectations seem nostalgic, if not painfully naive. In our experience, the world just doesn't work like that.
What about business? We've come to accept that profits, not people, are the ultimate priority. Corporate downsizing has become an everyday occurrence.
Chances of working for the same company for forty years and someday picking up a gold watch for your trouble are slim. Can you imagine 1950s TV dad Ward
Cleaver ever losing his job? I didn't think so. In today's world, though, nothing is certain. Dot coms are here today and gone tomorrow. Hostile takeovers are a way of life, and strategic mergers an apparent necessity. The landscape continuously shifts, and only those who adapt quickly seem to survive.
Our politics have shifted, too. Criticize big government in the 1950s and a sweaty senator from Wisconsin might interrogate you on national television and brand you a traitor. In the 1960s, however, the rules began to change. Sit-ins and protests paved the way for a greater degree of free speech. Today, we're able to protest to our hearts' content. Why? Because we've come to see just how fallible our leaders are. History has shown us that U.S. presidents, in spite of their power and prestige,
still manage to lie and lust like everyone else. We no longer have illusions about these things. As a country, we've come to distrust authority, recognizing instead that our nation is indeed capable of getting involved in unjust wars, and that we, too, have the potential to oppress people in other countries for our own economic gain. The divine right of kings---or authority figures, in general---is dead.
We've seen too much.
The reality is, postmodernism is not a fad. It's not a hot new trend we can ride out and ignore. Whether or not you realize it, you live in a postmodern world---and you have been living in it for quite some time! It's like Madge, the Palmolive lady,
used to say: 'You're soaking in it.' There's no point in pretending that you're not---
or wishing that things would go back to the way they were thirty years ago. They can't; you can't. No fountain of youth exists.
The challenge, of course, is determining what all of this means for the church and knowing how to move forward. What does it mean to be postmodern and
Christian? If such a combination is possible, then what does a 'postmodern church'
look like? And just how far are we willing to go in unwrapping the evangelical package?
Rising to the challenge
Oddly enough, Jesus found himself at the center of a similar cultural debate.
Remember the discussion about whether God's people should pay taxes to
Caesar? Forever trying to trip up Jesus, the religious leaders of the day sent out men to challenge him on his obedience to the law.
'Teacher,' they said, 'we know that you speak and teach what is right and are not influenced by what others think. You sincerely teach the ways of God. Now tell
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us---is it right to pay taxes to the Roman government or not?' (Luke 20:21--22 NLT).
What does Jesus do? He asks them to show him a coin. 'Whose picture and title are stamped on it?' Upon hearing their answer, 'Caesar's,' he simply replies, 'Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God.'
It's crazy, really. Considering that Jesus could make coins appear anywhere he wanted, including inside a fish's mouth (Matthew 17:24--27), did he really need to give an answer to this question? Since it's all God's, why not tell these people off, or just ignore them and move on?
Perhaps Jesus was making a point about respecting the culture in which we live. In a wonderful, sarcastic and playful way, Jesus affirmed his deity while acknowledging the reality of life on planet Earth. True, this world is not our home, so we don't necessarily have to play by its rules, but we may choose to do so for the cause of Jesus Christ. Yet in doing so, we may sometimes find ourselves at odds with other Christians.
I find it interesting that Jesus instructed the people to figure out what was Caesar's.
In most of life, that's not as easy as it sounds. The more I think about Jesus' statement,
the more convinced I become that taking a hard look at our lives is actually biblical. As I see it, postmodernism provides an unprecedented opportunity for selfexamination.
By its very nature, postmodernism offers us a chance to think long and hard about why we do the things we do. It forces us to wrestle with our beliefs and our traditions, our programs and our theology, all in an effort to uncover those aspects of our faith that are really and truly God's---and, by extension, those that are not.
Still, the concept of deconstruction is a scary one. We get nervous at the thought of deconstructing anything---primarily because we're afraid if we pull our religion apart, we may end up with nothing in the end. We picture home repair projects gone wrong---with heaven or hell hanging in the balance. Never mind an angry spouse. What if we aren't able to fit the pieces back together in any kind of coherent whole? What then?
I guess that's why I prefer to use the words 'unwrap' or 'unpackage.' As Christians responding to the challenge of postmodernism, we're not attacking our faith, we're simply unpackaging it. We're daring to pull off the shells of sentiment and tradition in confidence of finding a pearl of great price inside. We've lived long enough to suspect that maybe, just maybe, some of what appears to have Jesus' face on it actually may be Caesar's. Whereas postmodern secularists may deconstruct everything down to its essence, postmodern Christians ultimately will retain at least one absolute, Jesus Christ.
Playing by new rules
I think it's important to understand, too, that postmodernism isn't just about critiquing modernism. Whether or not we realize it, some of what we've called 'doctrines'
or 'truths' over the years are, in fact, cultural interpretations. In many ways, many of the church's messages today are similar but far from identical to those preached by Martin Luther. By the same token, the messages preached by Luther were similar but certainly not identical to those upheld by Constantine.