Provides Christians with a guide to the contemporary landscape of the Postmodern era, and tells how to embrace the opportunities and avoid the traps of the age. Part of the Turning Point series.
About the Author
Gene Edward Veith (PhD, University of Kansas) provost and professor of literature emeritus at Patrick Henry College. He previously worked as the culture editor of World magazine. Veith and his wife, Jackquelyn, have three grown children and seven grandchildren.
Marvin Olasky (PhD, University of Michigan) is the editor in chief of World magazine, holder of the distinguished chair in journalism and public policy at Patrick Henry College, and senior fellow of the Acton Institute. He was previously a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a Boston Globe reporter, and a Du Pont Company speechwriter. He is the author of twenty books and more than 3,500 articles. He and his wife, Susan, have four sons.
Read an Excerpt
"THERE ARE NO ABSOLUTES"
Charles Colson tells about having dinner with a media personality and trying to talk with him about Christianity. Colson told him how he had come to Christ. "Obviously Jesus worked for you," his friend replied, but went on to tell him about someone he knew whose life had been turned around by New Age spirituality. "Crystals, channeling — it worked for her. Just like your Jesus."
Colson tried to explain the difference, but got nowhere. He raised the issue of death and the afterlife, but his friend did not believe in Heaven or Hell and was not particularly bothered by the prospect of dying.
Colson explained what the Bible said, but his friend did not believe in the Bible or any other spiritual authority.
Finally, Colson mentioned a Woody Allen movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, about a killer who silences his conscience by concluding that life is nothing more than the survival of the fittest. The friend became thoughtful. Colson followed with examples from Tolstoy and C. S. Lewis on the reality of the moral law. The friend was following him. Then Colson cited the epistle of Romans on human inability to keep the law. His friend then paid close attention to the message of Christ's atoning work on the cross.
Although the friend did not become a Christian, Colson felt that he finally had broken through at least some of his defenses. The difficulty was in finding a common frame of reference. Because of his friend's mind-set, the usual evangelistic approaches did not work. "My experience," says Colson, "is a sobering illustration of how resistant the modern mind has become to the Christian message. And it raises serious questions about the effectiveness of traditional evangelistic methods in our age. For the spirit of the age is changing more quickly than many of us realize."
THERE ARE NO ABSOLUTES
It is hard to witness to truth to people who believe that truth is relative ("Jesus works for you; crystals work for her"). It is hard to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to people who believe that, since morality is relative, they have no sins to forgive.
According to a recent poll, 66 percent of Americans believe that "there is no such thing as absolute truth." Among young adults, the percentage is even higher: 72 percent of those between eighteen and twenty-five do not believe absolutes exist.
To disbelieve in truth is, of course, self-contradictory. To believe means to think something is true; to say, "It's true that nothing is true" is intrinsically meaningless nonsense. The very statement — "there is no absolute truth" — is an absolute truth. People have bandied about such concepts for centuries as a sort of philosophical parlor game, but have seldom taken these seriously. Today it is not just some esoteric and eccentric philosophers who hold this deeply problematic view of truth, but the average man on the street. It is not the lunatic fringe rejecting the very concept of truth, but two-thirds of the American people.
Moreover, the poll goes on to show that 53 percent of those who call themselves evangelical Christians believe that there are no absolutes. This means that the majority of those who say that they believe in the authority of the Bible and know Christ as their Savior nevertheless agree that "there is no such thing as absolute truth." Not Christ? No, although He presumably "works for them." Not the Bible? Apparently not, although 88 percent of evangelicals believe that "The Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all it teaches." Bizarrely, 70 percent of all Americans claim to accept this high view of Scripture, which is practically the same number as those who say "there are no absolutes."
What is going on here? Perhaps those polled did not understand the question or the implications of what they claimed to believe. Some of the evangelical sceptics in the 53 percent may be solid Christians who were only parroting what they heard on television, oblivious to the theological implications of this pop philosophy. The polls may reflect ignorance or confusion. Even so, it amounts to the same thing. Holding mutually inconsistent ideas is a sure sign of believing that there are no absolute truths.
The rejection of absolutes is not just a fine point in philosophy. Many of those polled no doubt took the question as referring not so much to epistemology as to morality. Relative values accompany the relativism of truth.
Up until now, societies have always regulated sexuality by strict moral guidelines. This has been the case in all ages, for all religions, and for all cultures. Suddenly, sex outside of marriage has become routinely accepted. In 1969, well into the "sexual revolution," 68 percent of Americans believed that sexual relations before marriage are wrong. In 1987, a supposedly conservative era already frightened by AIDS, only 46 percent — less than half — believed that premarital sex is wrong. In 1992 only 33 percent reject premarital sex.
In issue after issue, people are casually dismissing timehonored moral absolutes. The killing of a child in the womb used to be considered a horrible, almost unspeakable evil. Today abortion is not just legal. It has been transformed into something good, a constitutional right. People once considered killing the handicapped, the sick, and the aged an unthinkable atrocity. Today they see euthanasia as an act of compassion.
These moral inversions are taking place not only in the secular world, but within what passes as Christendom. A recent study claimed that 56 percent of single "fundamentalists" engage in sex outside of marriage. This is about the same as the rate for "liberals" (57 percent). (Ironically, the church with the strictest teachings about sexual morality and the greatest emphasis on the role of good works in salvation may have the most permissive members. According to this study, 66 percent of single Roman Catholics are sexually active. American Catholics may be even more permissive than secular Americans. The study claims that while 67 percent of Americans accept premarital sex, 83 percent of Catholics do, in complete opposition to the teaching of their church.) Along the same lines, 49 percent of Protestants and 47 percent of Catholics consider themselves "pro-choice" when it comes to abortion.Some 49 percent of evangelicals and a startling 71 percent of Catholics say they believe in euthanasia, apparently assuming that "Thou shalt not kill" is not an absolute.
Certainly, opinion polls can be slippery, misleading, and subject to various interpretations. Other polls show that people have strong moral positions on other issues. As I will show, over-reliance on opinion polls is one of the signs of a particular kind of contemporary confusion.
And even if the polls are correct, they only confirm what the Bible says about sin. No one with a Biblical view of sin should be surprised to see that immorality is rampant throughout society and in churches and that Christians too fall prey to moral failure and hypocrisy.
Churches have always been packed with sinners, as is fitting (who else is there?). Christians admit their inability to keep God's Law, and so they depend solely for their salvation on the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ. Theologians have always recognized that church members, no less than the unchurched, need to be evangelized and discipled.
And yet the polls suggest something new. While people have always committed sins, they at least acknowledged these were sins. A century ago a person may have committed adultery flagrantly and in defiance of God and man, but he would have admitted that what he was doing was a sin. What we have today is not only immoral behavior, but a loss of moral criteria. This is true even in the church. We face not only a moral collapse but a collapse of meaning. "There are no absolutes."
THE SHIFT IN WORLDVIEW
What has happened? Once most people accepted basic Christian concepts. Now only a minority do. This moral and religious shift is not the only change we face. "We are experiencing enormous structural change in our country and in our world," says the Christian futurist Leith Anderson, "change that promises to be greater than the invention of the printing press, greater than the Industrial Revolution." Christians dare not be blind to change of this magnitude.
As Francis Schaeffer and other scholars have shown, Western culture has gone through many phases. One worldview follows another. In the eighteenth century the Enlightenment challenged the Biblical synthesis that had dominated Western culture. With the nineteenth century came both romanticism and scientific materialism. The twentieth century has given us Marxism and fascism, positivism and existentialism.
Today as we enter the twenty-first century, a new worldview is emerging. The "modern," strange as it is to say, has become oldfashioned. The twentieth century, for all of its achievements and catastrophes, is passing into history. The "modern ideas" that characterized the twentieth century no longer seem relevant. We are entering the "postmodern" age.
The term "postmodern" primarily refers to time rather than to a distinct ideology. If the "modern" age is really over, Christians have every reason to be glad. Ever since the battles between "modernists" and "fundamentalists"(and before), Biblical Christianity has been bludgeoned by the forces of modernism, with its scientific rationalism, humanism, and bias against the past. Today the assumptions of modernism, including those that have bedeviled the church in this century, are being abandoned. Christians can rejoice at the dawn of a postmodern age.
Modernism, however, is being replaced by the new secular ideology of postmodernism. This new set of assumptions about reality — which goes far beyond mere relativism — is gaining dominance throughout the culture. The average person who believes that there are no absolutes may never have heard of the academic exercise of "deconstruction." The intellectual establishment may disdain the electronic world of television. Contemporary politicians may be unaware of avant garde art. Nevertheless, these are all interconnected and comprise a distinctly postmodernist worldview.
While modernist attacks on Christianity are losing their force, postmodernists are attacking Christianity on different grounds. For example, modernists would argue in various ways that Christianity is not true. One hardly hears this objection any more. Today the most common critique is that "Christians think they have the only truth." The claims of Christianity are not denied; they are rejected because they purport to be true. Those who believe "there are no absolutes" will dismiss those who reject relativism as "intolerant," as trying to force their beliefs on other people. Postmodernists reject Christianity on the same grounds that they reject modernism, with its scientific rationalism. Both Christians and modernists believe in truth. Postmodernists do not. Whether modernism or postmodernism will prove the more hospitable to Christianity remains to be seen.
Scripture tells us of the importance of "understanding the present time" (Romans 13:11). "Most Christians," observes George Barna, "do not perceive the Church to be in the midst of the most severe struggle it has faced in centuries." Many Christians, including theologians, are still battling modernism, unaware that the issues have changed. If Christians are to minister effectively in the postmodern world and avoid its temptations, they must understand the spirit of the age.
THE CURSE OF BABEL
Despite the endless claims of novelty, Christians know "there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new'? It was here already, long ago" (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10). Unbelief and sin have always been with us. The ancient pagans too were relativistic, in a way, and God's people have always been tempted to compromise their faith by selling out to the dominant culture. The Bible thus addresses the issues of the postmodern age with startling clarity.
The shift from modernism to postmodernism seems in fact a version of an ancient failure and an ancient curse. At one time, "the whole world had one language and a common speech" (Genesis 11:1). Exhilarated with their unity, their common understanding, and their technological ability, people said, "'Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves'" (11:4).
The culture that built the Tower of Babel parallels the modern age. Confident in their human abilities, their reason and scientific knowledge, the modernists had no need for God. To make a name for themselves, they not only built cities, they engineered new social and economic orders, such as socialism. Their technology, more advanced than the Babelites', enabled them to build not just a tower to reach the heavens, but spaceships to reach the moon.
God judged the pretensions of Babel. Noting their genuine accomplishments and the vast potential of human achievement, the Lord saw that a united, technologically sophisticated human race would be nearly unlimited in their capacity for evil. "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them" (11:6). God mercifully thwarted this primitive but dangerous beginning (what "they have begun to do"). He shattered their self-deification and brought their famous tower to ruin.
In our own time, it has become clear that reason, science, and technology have not solved all of our problems. Poverty, crime, and despair defy our attempts at social engineering. The most thoroughgoing attempt to restructure society according to a rationalistic, materialist theory — communism — fell to pieces. Technology continues to progress at breakneck speed, but, far from reaching the heavens, it sometimes diminishes our lives.
God punished Babel by undermining the faculty that made possible their success — their language. The human race splintered into mutually inaccessible groups.
"Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel — because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:7-9)
This is exactly what has happened with the fall of modernism. The monolithic sensibility of modernism, which seemed to have an unlimited potential, has fragmented into diverse and competing communities. People can no longer understand each other. There are no common reference points, no common language. Totalitarian unity has given way to chaotic diversity. Scattered in small groups of like-minded people, those who speak the same language, human beings today are confused.
God's people can only agree with the judgment on the Tower and the curse of Babel. They will likewise agree that modernism is idolatrous and will rejoice in its fall. The curse of Babel, while appropriate, was a punishment for sin. When Christ atoned for the sins of the world, the curse for sin was removed. When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church, the curse of Babel was undone.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:1-12)
What it means, among other things, is that the gospel is for the whole human race in all of its diversity, that through the Word preached by the apostles the Holy Spirit communicates faith to people of every language and culture. Far from being some unintelligible utterance, the tongues of Pentecost were uniquely intelligible — to everyone, no matter what their native language. The restoration of language was a sign of the Kingdom of God.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Postmodern Times"
Copyright © 1994 Gene Edward Veith, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 "There Are No Absolutes", 15,
PART ONE: POSTMODERN THOUGHT,
2 From the Modern to the Postmodern, 27,
3 Constructing and Deconstructing Truth, 47,
4 The Critique of the Human, 71,
PART TWO: POSTMODERN ART,
5 Playing with Conventions: Art and Performance, 93,
6 Towers of Babel: The Example of Architecture, 111,
7 Metafictions: TV, Movies, and Literature, 121,
PART THREE: POSTMODERN SOCIETY,
8 The New Tribalism, 143,
9 The Politics of Power, 157,
10 Everyday Postmodernism, 175,
PART FOUR: POSTMODERN RELIGION,
11 Spirituality Without Truth, 191,
12 Postmodern Christianity, 209,
13 Conclusion: "When the Foundations Are Destroyed", 225,
SCRIPTURE INDEX, 249,