Thinking Evangelically About Postmodernity

I spent several hours, over the past two days, writing my next two Weekly Messengers, for June 27 and July 4. (You can subscribe at www.reformationrevival.com.) The subject of postmodernism (PM), and how ordinary Christians should think about this often overused, and even more often misunderstood, word is my subject. I hope I have said something that is fairly simple and practically useful. That is my goal in most such articles.

Kevin Vanhoozer, a prolific evangelical theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL), has recently written of the four ways we might respond to PM. He says we can:

1. Deny it, or ignore it. We can thus refuse to recognize that it has any importance or has any right to exist. He writes that, "Not a few Christians are in denial over postmodernity."

2. We can defy it, thereby seeking to show how it is a threat to our security and way of life. Vanhoozer adds, "Not a few Christians have (in my judgment) overreacted in this direction. To describe postmodernity as ‘the latest chapter in unbelief’ is both simplistic and self-serving." This is the approach I am particularly interested in debunking in my two articles. It is an approach that divides faithful Christians and puts a whole new set of labels on thoughtful Christians.

3. We can deify it. By this approach we concede the authority of PM because it is new, popular, thus better than whatever came before it, i.e., modernity, etc.. By this means a number of Christians have revisioned their philosophies and theologies in order to connect them with postmodern themes. This is the approach taken by liberal thinkers who find in PM a new way to deny the historic Christian faith.

4. We can enter into a serious discussion with postmodernity. The goal here is to "engage it in a mutually edifying conversation." I commend this approach.

Vanhoozer also suggests that this last approach is commendable. However he sees dangers in this strategy. He writes: "This strategy may have the disadvantage of playing into its (PM) hands. For conversations and rhetoric are largely what postmodernity is about. Yet the concern to make the faith intelligible to contemporary ears—call it ‘correlation,’ or the ‘apologetic’ impulse—stands in some tension with the impulse of faith to seek understanding on its own terms."

Vanhoozer urges us to be aware of our situatedness. We are situated within a particular culture and within our traditions and language. He wants us to be very clear about where we are going. The map he offers is the same one that I have come back to again and again, namely that written on the lining of Pascal’s famous jacket. There the brilliant thinker put a fragment of paper that simply read: "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not the god of the philosophers." Vanhoozer rightly concludes that "What the world needs now is a Christian wisdom: a demonstration of how to follow biblical maps through the twenty-first century toward the new Jerusalem. But following the biblical maps also leads me to resituate postmodernity" (Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, Myron B. Penner, editor. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005, 73-74.)

These are very good words. They should help some who are nervous about this whole discussion to understand that some of us, like me, do not intend to give away the farm but we do want to talk to our neighbors so that they understand us better.

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