The Ironic Intersection of the Modern and Postmodern Christian Experiments
Rob Bell made headlines again yesterday with his public affirmation of same-sex marriage. Bell, who is the former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of the controversial book, Love Wins, shared in a recent interview:
“I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”
For those who have followed the development of Bell’s theology, even from a distance, this comes as no surprise. We saw the same shift in Brian McLaren last year, who has long been a figurehead of one stream of the so-called emerging church. In a day when even the President of the United States has made the approval of gay marriage part of his agenda, Bell and McLaren seem to be on the winning side of culture. As Bell suggests:
“I think we are witnessing the death of a particular subculture that doesn’t work. I think there is a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized, Evangelical subculture that was told ‘we’re gonna change the thing’ and they haven’t. And they actually have turned away lots of people. And I think that when you’re in a part of a subculture that is dying, you make a lot more noise because it’s very painful. You sort of die or you adapt. And if you adapt, it means you have to come face to face with some of the ways we’ve talked about God, which don’t actually shape people into more loving, compassionate people. And we have supported policies and ways of viewing the world that are actually destructive. And we’ve done it in the name of God and we need to repent.”
What I find ironic about Bell’s post-evangelical rhetoric (and that of others like him) is that the Christian faith they are now espousing, the fruit of their postmodern experiment, has turned out to be nearly identical to the results of the modernist experiment from over a hundred years ago. In other words, what we’re looking at is humanism 2.0.
Strange Philosophical Bedfellows
The reason this is ironic is that postmodern philosophy has long identified itself as a rejection of or correction to modernist philosophy. The modernism of the past few centuries was built on the idea that absolute truth could be discovered and known through rationalism and empiricism. Reason and modern science held the key to understanding the meaning of life, the world, and everything. When applied to the Christianity, the obvious implication was that anything supernatural must be rejected. Science and reason, we were told, have no room for the divine. And so the biblical text was “demythologized”—any traces of miracles or the divine were removed. Jesus and his life had to be reinterpreted through modernist lenses if they were to bear any lasting contribution to a modern world.
In other words, the church was told to adapt or die. The result was either an outright rejection of Christianity, or a reconstructed Christianity that Richard Niebuhr famously described as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In either case, the fruit of the modernist experiment was humanism—a way of looking at and living in the world that begins and ends with humanity. What we might call Christianity from below. The heirs of this new kind of Christianity, liberal mainline Protestantism, are at present experiencing their own slow death.
Then along came postmodernism. Postmodernists recognized that underneath the bold claims of modernism lay a cultural preconditioning that not only blinded them to their own cultural arrogance but threatened to bind them to their particular worldview, essentially rendering any claims to truth as suspect. While it’s true that we all carry with us deep cultural and personal presuppositions that affect the way we read and interpret everything, including the Bible, postmodernists suggest that those presuppositions are so deeply embedded in us that we can never escape them; we are slaves to our conditioning. In that light, any claims to absolute truth are nothing more than a power play in disguise. The dominant culture gets to tell the story, and the story they tell is designed in part to keep other cultures in subjection.
Quite contrary to their own framework, postmodernists suggest that they have seen through this ruse. Their aim is therefore to bring liberation to the marginalized and oppressed. This begins by rejecting the notion that any one grand story of meaning exists (whether it’s the story of European Colonialism, American Capitalism, or biblical Christianity). From there the postmodernist deconstructs the dominant story, rereading it in order to identify the oppressed cultures or individuals and liberate them. This happens through a simple two-step process: demonize the dominant story, exposing their power play for what it is, and elevate the oppressed stories, giving them equal (or more often higher) footing. The claim is that no one is right, no one is wrong; everyone is welcome at the table of ideas. Unless you happen to be part of the dominant culture.
Applied to the church, postmodernists come to the Bible and champion the liberating values of justice, peace, and love, but then strip away from it all the unseemly parts—things like wrath, penal substitutionary atonement, sexual ethics, gender roles—anything that fails to promote their particular vision of love and friendship. Boiled down, Bell’s enterprise is nothing more than textbook postmodern deconstruction: identify the oppressed characters (e.g. homosexuals) and demonize the oppressors (e.g. conservative Christians), in order to liberate the oppressed and give them a place at the table of Christianity that they have long been denied (e.g. gay marriage). This is the flow of the culture. We must adapt or die.
But then comes the irony. The differences between the modernist and postmodernist experiments with Christianity are scarcely distinguishable. Niebuhr’s critique of old liberalism is equally true of new liberalism. The ethical flavor may taste different at places (like gay marriage), but it flows from the same basic ingredient: humanism. This is Christianity from below—the Christian faith retold by the people for the people. To hell with hell, and the God of the Bible for that matter. We’re offering people a new kind of Christianity—one that can swim with the new cultural current. But as Kevin DeYoung has said, this new kind of Christianity is really an old kind of liberalism.
Which raises a significant question for postmoderns: What if the present decline of liberal Protestantism is a sign and portent of postmodern Christianity’s future demise? Folks like Bell claim to be on the winning side of culture. And as far as the course of the world goes, they’re probably right (cf. 1 John 2:17). But will their new and improved Christianity—“a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”—really carry the day? Or will we read forty years from now the triumphalistic claims of an even newer kind of Christianity—humanism 3.0?
Christianity from Below
The fundamental flaw of both the modernist and postmodernist Christian experiments is their ground-up approach—that is, their humanist commitment. Rather than beginning with God and his vision for creation, his diagnosis of the problem, and his divine solution, as he revealed it in Scripture—his grand story—they start with humanity on humanity’s own terms, and build up from there. But humanism fails in two critical ways: authority and sufficiency.
First, humanism lacks authority. Constructing the faith from the ground up opens Christianity up to the whims of whoever is doing the constructing (another ironic twist in postmodernism—they fall prey to their own power play critique). Beyond lacking guidance, it lacks the ability to hold others to account. Who’s to say this is what Christianity should look like, and who’s to enforce it in the end? Any humanist expression of Christianity is destined to break down over time—whether modern or postmodern.
Second, humanism lacks sufficiency. It is incapable of dealing adequately with the problems in the world that it is trying to solve. The world longs for justice, peace, and love—we all resonate with those postmodern longings. Yet whatever new prescription humanism offers is doomed to failure for two reasons: (1) it is dependent on human ability and resolve, which are insufficient for the task due to sin; and (2) it is unable to deal with the fundamental problem of sin—both the holy anger of the Father against sinners and the pervasive defilement of his creation. It takes a dying and rising Savior to reunite us with the Father and remake the world.
In contrast to humanism, biblical Christianity offers both authority and sufficiency—not in and of itself, but as it submits to God above, the Creator who is both King and Savior. He has the authority to rule and judge his creation, and the mercy to save unfaithful sinners.
Christianity from Above
Christianity is and always has been a revealed religion—not a faith constructed from below, but one revealed from above. As such, Christianity requires recognizing and submitting to God’s authority, and the grand story he is telling in Scripture. That means that it’s not for us to rewrite it when it becomes personally or culturally unpalatable.
Yes, culture changes. And some of those changes can reveal blind spots in various cultural appropriations of Christianity and the Bible. It’s important to learn from these and repent. It’s also important to think creatively about how to apply the truth of Scripture in different cultural contexts and communities (i.e. contextualization).
But in all these things the Bible remains God’s authoritative, revealed Word. We may not be able to know it exhaustively, but we can know it accurately and sufficiently. Because God in his Spirit has chosen to make himself known. And whatever we do to engage changing cultures with the truth of Christianity, what we’re not permitted to do is change the truth because the culture doesn’t like it.
Second, Christianity from above affirms the sufficiency of Jesus to deal decisively with all that is wrong in this broken world, which he accomplishes through his life, death, and resurrection. If the problem in this world is that God’s vision for creation has been spoiled—his vision for his kingdom, including our relationship with him, then we need someone who has the authority and wisdom and power to fix it properly. No human person or strategy can pull this off. We need someone who was there in creation, who was active in it in the first place, who has been active in sustaining it ever since. Only someone like that can properly restore it and bring it to completion. Only someone like that can accomplish God’s purposes and establish his kingdom.
As “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15), only Christ is qualified to do this. And he does it through is cross and resurrection. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). And only through faith in Christ can we share in his redemptive work, being reconciled to the Father, “who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12-14). “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col. 1:21-23).
In this light, Paul’s encouragement and warning in Colossians 2 are timely and necessary: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:6-8).
In the end, the question has never been about who wins the culture. For much of the church’s history, Christianity has been viewed negatively in significant parts of the world. Biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity. And yet it’s still here. Jesus told us in Matthew 16 that the gates of hell would not prevail. And when he returns, the saying will come true: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).