A Brotherly Critique and Response to “A Generous Orthodoxy”

A Brotherly Critique and Response:
There is no excess of civility in our public discourse these days, and sadly, that's too often the case in the world of the church too. This note from a respected theologian shows a very different tone, one that I think is much more in line with our message and mission. My responses are inserted
-- like this. - Brian
Just completed reading A Generous Orthodoxy. A good book. Good mix
of thoughtful and provocative material laced with powerful
illustrations and a nice touch of humor (especially the first
chapter). I also like the way you reframe, or out-frame, a number of
traditional positions or questions--this has always been one of your
great strengths.
I particularly appreciated the chapters 5,6, 9, and 14. The chapter
on Missional will be excellent for introducing people to the misional
discussion--the two diagrams are great. Your distinction between E
vangelical and evangelical is a useful way to affirm a valuable term
while trimming off some baggage--I liked it. And the mystical/poetic
theme gives voice to something that many of us have felt but not
articulated very well. Thanks. The chapter on Methodism is helpful--I
used your diagrams with a young believer at our church who I am
discipling and ecouraging to start helping someone else--he got the
idea immediately.
I have been chewing on a couple of other points in your discussion and
thought I would mention these to see if I am reading you correctly,
and if I am, to raise a question or two, or perhaps to suggest an
alternate perspective.
1. Exclusivism, etc.
I am wondering about a couple things in this part of your discussion
(pp. 112-14):
a. It seems to me that you have not worked up to your usual standard
of charity here--it has the feel of "my best against your worst" which
elsewhere you have encouraged us (appropriately) to avoid. I am
thinking particularly of your assessment of exclusivism: "I should
just rejoice that I am one of the blessed--meaning I can retire in
Naples, etc." This is a pretty strong ad hominem which I am sure did
not apply to your grandparents in Angola, although I suspect that they
would have lined up on the exclusivist side. No doubt there are some
exclusivists (and universalists, and inclusivists) who are playing out
their days on the links, but that probably has a lot more to do with
cultural influences than theology.
-- I think this is a really legitimate critique. I wish I had done a better job of being charitable in that section. I guess I tried to soften condemning or finger-pointing tendencies by putting it in the first person (maybe the reason Paul uses first person in Romans 7?), but still, I think this is one of the places where people could take offense, and I wish I had avoided it better. Thanks for pointing it out to me.
b. I am not sure that a moderate exclusivist position can't point you
to Los Angeles (again, it didn't seem to confuse your grandparents).
How about something like this for a proposal (using your basic
One signpost tells me that some people aren't ever going to be
blessed [ultimately, at least, because Jesus really seems to believe
in hell]. Does this mean that I should just rejoice that I am one of
the blessed--meaning . . .? Of course not, for I realize that the
story of God's people has always been that they are blessed in order
that they might be a blessing to all nations. So this signpost points
me toward mission, not away from it.
--Yes, that's well put.
c. If you feel the need to distance yourself from certain
formulations of exclusivism, as I think I would myself, couldn't this
be done by employing an upper case/lower case distinction as you did
with E/evangelical?
--Great idea.
2. Why I am Biblical
Basically I liked this chapter. I agree that we have for too long
"flattened" the Bible by a kind of "scientific" approach to exegesis
that treated its various genres like technical prose. This kind of
reductionism needs to be critiqued, and I find your discussion helpful
in emphasizing the narrative and poetic aspects of Scripture.
But I would also say that just here I have some concern. It feels to
me that in avoiding the reductionism of the past you bring in your own
reductionism which could be just as harmful. When you say " . . . the
Bible itself contains precious little expository prose" I wonder how
that applies to some pretty lengthy sections of the pentateuch or
particularly to the epistles. Granted (as you point out) there are
some poetic elements in the letters, but that is not the bulk of the
-- Sorry I wasn't clear enough here. "Expository prose" for me meant prose intending to explain - like essays or textbooks. So I'm not including history or law in the Old Testament as expository - they'd be narrative and law. And I'd put the epistles in the category of ... epistles. Letters aren't the same as expository prose, although I suppose the lines get blurry. What I was trying to say (not well
enough) was that there isn't much in the way of "First and Second Sexual Morality" in the Bible, or "A Treatise on Free Will," or "The Book of the Trinity," or that sort of thing. Again, I could have been a lot clearer.

I think the emphasis on narrative and poetry is important because it
opens up the way for imagination. By being less specific, it is (in
some ways) more mind-expanding. By opening up more possibilities, it
leads to less certainty in interpretation and hopefully more humility
on our part. All this is good and I am on board with you. But if we
minimize the sections that are more expository, don't we risk the loss
of some pretty important data that shaped the basics of the chrisitian
tradition. ... I am just trying to think through what we are going to
give the next generation to work with.
So those are my current thoughts/questions. I know you are busy, so
no need to reply.

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Brian’s Annotation to “The Emergent Mystique” – CT article

An Annotation to
The Emergent Mystique
By Andy Crouch | posted 10/22/2004

First, thanks to Andy Crouch for a compact and valuable overview of the emergent conversation. Thanks also to Christianity Today for the coverage. I’m offering this unofficial, unauthorized annotation to the article because I’m being asked about it by a number of people, and felt this annotation would be an efficient way to respond. My comments are in italics.
The 'emerging church' movement has generated a lot of excitement but only a handful of congregations. Is it the wave of the future or a passing fancy?
“A handful of congregations” is certainly a “misunderestimate.” The fact that tens (probably hundreds) of thousands of books about the emergent conversation have been sold, that thousands of people come to our events, and that speaking engagements and grateful emails are filling many of our inboxes tells me that something is brewing here. Yet I would much rather the emergent conversation be underestimated and ignored rather than be overestimated and turned into a fad (among friends) or target (among nonfriends). My advice to observers would echo Gamiliel’s: wait and see what happens. What is accurate about the statement is that there are a few congregations leading the way, but there are many many others on the journey.
One spring sunday morning, I was on my way to visit Mars Hill Bible Church, one of the largest and youngest churches in the country, with 10,000 meeting weekly for worship in a converted mall outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. As I took the freeway exit, unsure of the exact directions, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. "Love wins," it said, in distressed white type on a black background. In the rear window was a decal with an intricate pattern—half Art Deco, half Goth tattoo—that incorporated a cross and a fish.
Neither the bumper sticker nor the tattoo-decal alone would have induced me to set aside my hastily scribbled directions and simply follow the car straight to the Mars Hill parking lot. But I knew I'd found my mark when I saw the passenger lower the sun visor, look into the makeup mirror, and meticulously adjust his hair.
Gentlemen, start your hair dryers—not since the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the self-conscious cutting edge of U.S. culture.

This hair motif strikes me as a bit derisive, although being a baldie, I’m probably just oversensitive. The fact is, millions of good traditional Baptists and Episcopalians and Presbyterians can be seen primping, spraying, and otherwise adjusting their bouffants and combovers on any given Sunday on their pilgrimage to public worship: would they be written about in an article, say, on the Religious Right? Those who have hair must manage it, I suppose, which is one of the great advantages of a low-maintenance head.
Frequently urban, disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new—few have been in existence for more than five years—a growing number of churches are joining the ranks of the "emerging church."
The “overwhelmingly white” issue may unintentionally show a lack of respect for the Black church in America, which is by and large much stronger in respect to African-American culture than is the predominately white church – making the emergent conversation less urgent for them for now at least. In addition, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic churches fulfill roles for their adherents that white churches do not. Meanwhile, there seems to be a disproportionately high number of Asian-Americans sensitive to the postmodern conversation, along with many Hispanics – for a whole range of reasons we don’t have time to get into here (although if any of my Asian and Hispanic friends would like to explore this on a blog or article, I’ll link to it here).
Still, I have had a number of significant conversations with African-American leaders who tell me that they believe the time is coming when they’ll want and need to be part of this conversation as well. I think this is the case for two reasons, no, three.
1. Many young African-American Christians, especially those who pursue higher education and travel abroad, are every bit as “postmodern” culturally and intellectually as their paler counterparts, often more so.
2. Many older African-American Christian leaders seem to becoming more modern – especially those who pursue broadcast media. This strengthens their appeal for older generations and weakens their appeal to their children and grandchildren.
3. Increasing numbers of young African-American Christians feel somewhat out of synch with both the liberal Democrat leadership of the 1960’s generation – whom they admire but who do not seem fully in touch with their world - and with the conservative neo-fundamentalist leadership associated with religious broadcasting.
These young African American Christians, if welcomed into the emerging church conversation, will not only benefit from the association with other Christians of their generation and mindset, but will also bring great resources to the conversation.

Like all labels, this one conceals as much as it reveals. But the phrase "emerging church" captures several important features of a new generation of churches. They are works in progress, often startlingly improvisational in their approach to everything from worship to leadership to preaching to prayer. Like their own members, they live in the half-future tense of the young, oriented toward their promise rather than their past. But if their own focus is on what they are "emerging" toward, perhaps most surprising are the places they are emerging from.
Weak Is the New Strong
Mars Hill's teaching pastor, Rob Bell, hair tousled and reddish brown, hops on stage in the center of what must have been the mall's anchor store. The huge space has been redecorated in utilitarian gray; a wooden cross reaches from floor to ceiling. Communion elements—the broken crackers and grape juice that are standard issue at Bible churches of every generation—are set at its base.
Bell is almost certainly the only pastor to have begun a megachurch-planting career with a sermon series from the book of Leviticus. Today Bell's text—the story of Jesus rebuking Peter for drawing his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane—is more conventional. Bell has the comic timing, the charisma, and the confidence you'd expect from someone who speaks to thousands every week. And he has a gift for the preacher's memorable phrase. "Swords appear strong," Bell says, "but they're actually quite weak. Jesus appears weak, but he's actually quite strong." Inviting his congregation to embrace weakness, referring to Paul's words about his own infirmity in 2 Corinthians, Bell takes up a refrain: "Weak is the new strong."
It's a pithy way of describing Jesus' upside-down kingdom, and it's a striking way of introducing a Communion service at the foot of a large cross. But "Weak is the new strong" is also an allusion to fashion-industry dictates like "Gray is the new black." Bell is both echoing and subverting a fashion-driven culture of cool. You could say that he puts the hip in discipleship.

Andy here shows that he can utter quite a pithy line himself. If this is interpreted by some readers to be derisive as well as pithy, it’s unfortunate. True, we all need to be warned about being sucked into the vortex of fashionable consumerism. But readers shouldn’t be too hard on Rob Bell without reading all the advertisements in any single issue of Christianity Today and asking what they say about the established majority that may here be tempted to deride an emerging minority.

Clearly cultural relevance was part of the reason for planting a church whose worship team requires a bass player who can play "in the style of Jimmy Eat World and Coldplay." No generation has ever been more alert to such nuances than the media-fed children of the 1980s and '90s, who can sense uncoolness at a thousand paces.
In today’s neo-fundamentalist circles, there are other nuances in play that are no less pervasive: think of the huge number of Christians today who can sense unRepublican-ness, unCalvinism, or undispensationalism at a thousand paces.
As Rob Bell's wife, Kristen, tells CT in a joint interview after the service, "It's a cultural jump for our friends to come to church. It's a cultural jump for us, and we grew up in the church."
But it quickly becomes clear that these Wheaton College sweethearts have more on their minds than just cultural adaptation. "This is not just the same old message with new methods," Rob says. "We're rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don't deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don't speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God."

I’m glad that Andy didn’t stop at the superficials, as some people do, and that he conveys Rob’s emphasis on the deeper issues at play.
In fact, as the Bells describe it, after launching Mars Hill in 1999, they found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with church. "Life in the church had become so small," Kristen says. "It had worked for me for a long time. Then it stopped working." The Bells started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself—"discovering the Bible as a human product," as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. "The Bible is still in the center for us," Rob says, "but it's a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it."
"I grew up thinking that we've figured out the Bible," Kristen says, "that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it's in color."
The more I talk with the Bells, the more aware I am that they are telling me a conversion narrative—not a story of salvation in the strict sense, but of having been delivered from a small life into a big life. The Bells, who flourished at evangelical institutions from Wheaton to Fuller Theological Seminary to Grand Rapids's Calvary Church before starting Mars Hill, were by their own account happy and successful young evangelicals. Yet that very world, as the Bells tell it, became constricting—in Kristen's phrase, "black and white."
An earlier generation of evangelicals, forged in battles with 20th-century liberalism, prided themselves on avoiding theological shades of gray, but their children see black, white, and gray as all equally unlifelike. They are looking for a faith that is colorful enough for their culturally savvy friends, deep enough for mystery, big enough for their own doubts. To get there, they are willing to abandon some long-defended battle lines.

Here Andy and Kristen and Rob Bell convey something very substantial and significant. A gray-free zone of stark easy answers (which were equated with bold, resolute leadership) won the last election, but it won’t win the hearts of the next generation. Neither, of course, will blandness and lack of proper confidence and direction. The challenge for emergent is to find a better alternative.
"Weak is the new strong," it turns out, is not just Rob Bell's knowing reference to the world of fashion, nor just his clever reframing of Paul's message of Christlike life. It's a roadmap for a new way of doing church, even a big church.
And how did the Bells find their way out of the black-and-white world where they had been so successful and so dissatisfied? "Our lifeboat," Kristen says, "was A New Kind of Christian."

A Story of Two Friends

Brian McLaren is not particularly young—he was born in 1956—and he doesn't have cool hair, if only because he has very little hair at all. With his blue-jeans-and-Birkenstocks dress code and a middle-age paunch, he looks like a suburban, nondenominational pastor who came of age playing the guitar for youth ministry meetings in the 1970s.

I’m guilty on all counts, except I’ve never owned any Birkenstocks. I’m not even exactly sure what they are. I’m a poster child for “What Not to Wear,” which I’ve heard of but never actually watched.
Which is exactly what he is. Yet he is also the de facto spiritual leader for the emerging church, thanks to his indefatigable speaking and writing schedule that produced, among his many books, 2001’s A New Kind of Christian.
I’m uncomfortable being labeled “the de facto spiritual leader.” It’s not inaccurate to say that I am a leader, but the problem comes with the word “the.” The fact is, there are many leaders in this conversation; the need to single someone out can be counterproductive for the conversation’s progress. People like Len Sweet, Holly Zaher, Doug Pagit, Nancey Murphy, Chris Seay, Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Rudy Carrasco, Ivy Beckwith, Tony Jones, Jen Lemen, Carl Raschke, ???, Stan Grenz, Sally Morgenthaler, Chuck Smith, Jr., and dozens of others bring resources and leadership that I do not and can not. My main contribution, I think, has been the ability to capture in writing some of the dynamic of the conversation that I have participated in with these and other fascinating, sincere, committed, and gifted people.
“A New Kind of Christian” became influential not just because of its content but also its form. McLaren cast the book as a story of two friends, a disillusioned evangelical pastor named Dan Poole and an enigmatic high school science teacher nicknamed Neo. On the brink of despair with his own ministry, Dan is led by Neo—who turns out to be a lapsed pastor himself—through a series of set pieces that introduce the initially skeptical Dan to a "postmodern" approach to Christianity.
The modern period of history, as Neo tells it, is coming to an end. We are entering "postmodernity," an as-yet ill-defined borderland in which central modern values like objectivity, analysis, and control will become less compelling. They are superseded by postmodern values like mystery and wonder. The controversial implication is that forms of Christianity that have thrived in modernity—including Dan's evangelicalism—are unlikely to survive the transition.

That’s quite a fine summary, better than I could have done myself.
McLaren managed to connect abstruse concepts of intellectual and social history to a visceral sense of disillusionment among evangelical pastors. Dan's dissatisfaction with ministry, in McLaren's telling, was not primarily a faith problem, a psychological problem, or a sociological problem. It was a philosophical problem—the result of a way of thinking that was no longer adequate. Pastors who would have had a hard time seeing the relevance of postmodernism could suddenly envision it as the key to finding, as the book's jacket put it, "spiritual renewal for those who thought they had given up on church."
I don’t see postmodernism as the key to anything. I see the gospel as the key. But the questions of postmodern, postcolonial culture challenged a number of us to see the gospel in – as was said – fuller color and bigger dimensions.
The book generated an outpouring of intensely personal response. To this day McLaren continues to receive grateful e-mails from readers. The book also confirmed the intuitions of many who sensed that major changes were under way in the culture. By offering a fundamentally hopeful, rather than despairing or defensive, reading of those changes, McLaren staked out an attractive position for young people like Rob and Kristen Bell.
I think that “direction” would be a better word than “position.”
But A New Kind of Christian has also attracted plenty of critics. The most persistent question they raise is whether "modern" and "postmodern" can be divided so cleanly. Wheaton College philosopher Mark Talbot points out that skepticism about values like objectivity, analysis, and control was already present in Enlightenment figures like David Hume. Meanwhile, Talbot says, "the great irony is that by giving us these sharp categories of 'modern' and 'postmodern' ways of thinking, McLaren is doing the very sort of categorization he describes, and implicitly condemns, as modern."
I’ve never met Mark Talbot (as far as I know), but if I ever meet him, here’s the conversation I could imagine having:
Mark: Nice to meet you. What did you think of my comments in the CT article?
Brian: Well, I agree with almost everything you said, except two things. First, while I do try to offer some sense of coherence around the terms modern and postmodern, I am careful both in print and in public to acknowledge that they are not sharp categories as you suggest. In fact, I frequently acknowledge the fact that these terms make some things clear and can make other things less clear, and my writing is full of disclaimers in awkward parentheses about the term “postmodern.” I often talk about the “minority report” of modernity – romanticism, which was a special interest of mine in college – and I do my best to avoid facile dualisms.
Mark: Well, I’ve read some of your books, not all of them, and I didn’t think you did a good enough job of making that clear.
Brian: I wish I would have done better.
Mark: You said there were two things?
Brian: Yes. Second, I don’t condemn categorization as modern. Categorization or classification is one of the fundamental mental operations of human beings – like discerning cause and effect, comparison and contrast. True, categorization can be abused; name-calling is a kind of illegitimate classification, as are guilt-by-association arguments. And even if categorization were modern – it doesn’t mean that it is bad. I say with a boring redundancy that postmodern is not antimodern. Modern isn’t inherently bad; it’s just not the only option. It’s not the only soil in which the gospel can grow.
Mark: I wish you had made that clearer in your books.
Brian: Well, again, I wish I had made that clearer. Sorry about that. By the way, your critique is not the most common critique of my work – not by a longshot.
Mark: What is?
Brian: It’s that I don’t rely on an exclusively modern epistemology. For example, someone who critiqued NKOC on Amazon.com wrote, “Brian McLaren doesn’t know anything.” That’s a rather obvious example of someone who can’t imagine knowing outside of his own modern epistemology. Another critic there wrote that propositional truth is the only kind there is. In contrast, I’d say propositional truth is one kind of truth among many, which really frustrates some people. Want to go out for a cup of coffee and dialogue about this some more? I’ll pay …

The point Talbot and others make is not just a matter of quibbling over definitions. If a self-avowed postmodern Christian can't differentiate himself from the moderns he is critiquing, perhaps the divide between modernity and postmodernity is less like the San Andreas Fault and more like a crack in the sidewalk. And if there is no massive change under way in the culture, why make a case for a massive change in the church?
Hmmm. This paragraph contains what I would call a faulty categorization, a false dichotomy. The options are not only a) San Andreas Fault, and b) crack in the sidewalk. A better analogy might be the move from childhood to puberty, or from puberty to adolescence, or from adolescence to adulthood.
Besides, I’m not interested in being a “self-avowed postmodern Christian,” nor do I really care about differentiating myself from modern brothers and sisters, nor do I want to critique modern people from being what they are. I’m interested in not being dominated by modernity or postmodernity either so I can be as faithful to Christ and my neighbor as I can.
If people don’t want to make a massive change in the church, I don’t want to bother them. If they would like to keep things just as they’ve always been (since the 1950’s), I wish them all the success in the world. True, some of us feel we need some pretty deep changes – and not just in “church” but more profoundly, in our understanding of the gospel. But that’s not for everybody, which is why I’m happy to be ignored by all who are happy with things as they are.

Envisioning a Postmodern Church

The real significance of A New Kind of Christian, though, may be not its answers but its openness to questions that are clearly widespread.
Even now McLaren resists calling Emergent, the emerging church network that he and several other church planters and pastors lead, a “movement,” with that word’s connotations of a clear leadership and agenda.
“Right now Emergent is a conversation, not a movement,” he says. “We don’t have a program. We don’t have a model. I think we must begin as a conversation, then grow as a friendship, and see if a movement comes of it.”
Yet recently McLaren has started to sketch the outlines of his vision of a postmodern church. He sketches a big circle labeled “self,” a smaller circle next to it labeled “church,” and a tiny circle off to the side labeled “world.”
“This has been evangelicalism’s model,” he says. “Fundamentally it’s about getting yourself ‘saved’—in old-style evangelicalism—or improving your life in the new style. Either way, the Christian life is really about you and your needs. Once your needs are met, then we think about how you can serve the church. And then, if there’s anything left over, we ask how the church might serve the world.”
He starts drawing again. “But what if it went the other way? This big circle is the world—the world God loved so much that he sent his Son. Inside that circle is another one, the church, God’s people chosen to demonstrate his love to the world. And inside that is a small circle, which is your self. It’s not about the church meeting your needs, it’s about you joining the mission of God’s people to meet the world’s needs.”
With his circle diagrams, McLaren is popularizing the work of the late British missionary Lesslie Newbigin, who returned from a lifetime in India to spend his last years reflecting on the need for a new theology of mission. “According to Newbigin, the greatest heresy in monotheism is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of election,” McLaren says. “Election is not about who gets to go to heaven; election is about who God chooses to be part of his crisis-response team to bring healing to the world.”

This is a really nice summary of a long and complex conversation Andy and I had. If you want more detail on this subject, I’d recommend Guder’s The Missional Church, or again, my new book, A Generous Orthodoxy.
McLaren doesn't just want to turn the doctrine of election upside down (or, as Newbigin argued, right side up)—he has questions about other cherished words in the evangelical vocabulary.
"I don't think we've got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be 'saved'? When I read the Bible, I don't see it meaning, 'I'm going to heaven after I die.' Before modern evangelicalism nobody accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, or walked down an aisle, or said the sinner's prayer."
It's not that McLaren is interested in joining the liberal side of modern Protestantism. "I don't think the liberals have it right. But I don't think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy."
Comments like these make many evangelicals nervous.

Comments like those actually make me nervous! Andy is undertaking a really tough task – summarizing a long and convoluted conversation in a few words, not easy to do as any writers out there realize. I think he’s done a good job of summarizing, but I’m nervous that people will interpret what I said in the worst possible way.
It doesn't help that postmodernism, in the popular imagination, often amounts to pure skepticism about getting anything "right" at all. How can a worldview built on critiquing—or in the postmodern argot, deconstructing—concepts like orthodoxy and salvation be faithful to the gospel? What makes the emerging church's dissatisfaction with traditional Christianity any different from that of liberal Protestantism, which embraced the culture's values only to wither as the culture changed a generation later?
These are valid questions. I address them in some detail in A Generous Orthodoxy, especially in the beginning and end of the book.
Yet there are real differences between emerging-church leaders like McLaren and those who led the charge for liberal Christianity. Liberalism flourished in a time of Christian cultural dominance, and was championed by leaders eager to keep pace with modern culture. McLaren and his companions tend to be children of notably conservative churches—in McLaren's case, the Plymouth Brethren—who have never enjoyed, nor aspired to, cultural power. They are also evangelists who care passionately about reaching the unchurched.
The preceding paragraph is very important. Andy captures my perspective well. I would add, along with caring about reaching the unchurched for Christ, I am eager to reach Christians for Christ, beginning with myself.
I understand why many of my conservative evangelical or neo-fundamentalist brothers and sisters mis-label me “liberal.” They’ve grown up in a cold-war style world where there are two camps, us and them, conservative and liberal. It’s hard for them to realize that that polarity is as gone now as the old “better dead than red” rhetoric of the 50’s.

McLaren describes his dissatisfaction when he first became a pastor: "My gifts were in evangelism, but I was spending all my time with Christians. Then I encountered Rick Warren and his conviction that the church could be evangelistic. We decided to take 10 months to regroup. Then we reconstituted the church with about 80 Christians—and in a year or so, another hundred previously unchurched people joined us."
If critics overlook the evangelistic energy of the emerging church, they also often lump together two very different kinds of postmodern thought. The most notorious postmodern thinkers have been the "deconstructionists"—French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault who seek to show that the cherished ideals of Western society (and Christian faith) are fatally compromised by internal contradictions.

That’s not quite an adequate description of deconstructionists, but I’m sympathetic to Andy’s rising word-count limit for the article. Deconstruction is hard to describe in 300 pages, much more in three lines. I would add (briefly) that deconstructionists were keenly concerned about morality and injustice – and the ways that modern ideas like white supremacy, colonialism, manifest destiny, and the myth of progress are not ultimate absolute realities, but rather human inventions (constructions) that can be deconstructed in hopes of finding wiser and more just ways of thinking and living.
But another stream, less well-known outside universities and seminaries, has taken dissatisfaction with modernity in a more constructive direction. It is these thinkers—the late philosopher Michael Polanyi and Notre Dame professor Alasdair MacIntyre, along with theologians like Newbigin—who are gaining the attention of the emerging church's more theologically inclined leaders.

From Newbigin, McLaren has drawn the idea of the church as "missional"—oriented toward the needs of the world rather than oriented towards its own preservation. From Polanyi and MacIntyre, he concludes that the emerging church must be "monastic"—centered on training disciples who practice, rather than just believe, the faith.
My friend Diana Butler-Bass, working in a parallel track in the “mainline” world, is going in a similar direction, emphasizing the importance of spiritual and missional practice. See The Practicing Congregation.
He cites Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, with their emphasis on spiritual disciplines, as key mentors for the emerging church. None of these thinkers has any inclination to throw out the baby of truth with the bathwater of modernity.
I’m grateful to Andy for including the preceding, because many people doubt this.
Indeed, these constructive postmodernists have been read and appreciated in many evangelical seminaries for years—but their ideas have been more often appreciated than applied. McLaren's innovation was to ask what it would mean to actually live out their ideas in a local church. Like Rob and Kristen Bell, he is passionate about the Good News. He just wonders if there is more to that Good News than evangelicals have yet imagined.
I should say that this wasn’t my innovation. I had never even heard of Lesslie Newbigin until Chris Seay recommended him to me. This innovation is very much a fruit of a conversation among many friends. Also, many of us are simply trying to embed in our churches ideas about the reintegration of evangelism and social action that have been championed since the Lausanne Covenant, by evangelical speakers from John Stott to Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tom Sine.
Cultural Collision

At the Emergent Convention in Nashville in April, it becomes clear that McLaren's insistence that "Emergent is not a movement" is not false modesty.
In the cavernous hall of the Nashville Convention Center, jerky loops of handheld video—an urban streetscape, an artist at work, a cross-country ski trail—play continuously on three separate screens throughout each general session. On one side of the room, the ancient and currently fashionable tradition of a prayer labyrinth has been revived, with the addition of bicycles.

This might sound a little cheesy to some people, but is there anything wrong with lightening up and having some fun, encouraging some childlike-creativity, and using the setting to stimulate thought?
At the opening session, Youth Specialties president Mark Oestreicher (hair: two-tone wavy locks) urges attendees to come and go at will, cheerfully undermining the credibility of the proceedings: "A lot of what conference speakers say is not really true—they take 20 years of reality and turn it into 90 minutes of unreality."
Ah, the hair thing again. Would CT like to make this a habit? How about an article on some august gathering that says, “Dr. John Graham (comb-over from the left side) spoke to Dr. Wayne Van Brighten (three-inch-high pompador upheld by Brylcreem) about the work of Rev. Ken Stout (televangelist slick-back without part, held in place by hair spray, with three waves between forehead and crown)…”
Mark’s comment encourages critical listening, which I appreciate.

Thus prepared, the 800 conference-goers do indeed wander in and out through the videos, poetry, worship music, and plenary speakers, chatting on their cell phones in aimless motion. Like so much of American mass media culture, the overall effect is undeniably cool, but also seemingly designed to aggravate—if not generate—attention deficit disorder.
We could have a fascinating conversation about ADD, which may actually in some cases be the absence of OLTD - “obsessive-linear-thinking-disorder,” or the absence of LLFS – “long-lecture-fatigue-syndrome.”
At the Emergent Convention, emerging theology and emerging culture don't so much coexist as collide, thanks to the somewhat uneasy partnership between Emergent and Youth Specialties.

I don’t like the adjective “uneasy” here. The fact is, we’ve had an incredibly fruitful partnership with Youth Specialties, one that I hope will continue for a long time. Every partnership I’ve been involved in has bumps in the road from time to time; that means you have two real live partners, neither of whom is superfluous. The unease in the partnership is less about Youth Specialties than it is about the evangelical/neofundamentalist subculture, which is a reality both YS and emergent have to deal with, which neither of us created, and which we both hope to influence in better directions.
During one particularly experimental worship session, featuring a well-known British dj (hair: spiked) whose pulsating techno music (complete lyrics: "It's just you and God") builds to a climax that would have played well in pagan Corinth, I find Brian McLaren outside the convention hall.
"I hate it," he says ruefully of the worship music. Another Emergent leader tells a seminar, "The general sessions are a betrayal of everything Emergent stands for."

I need to clarify my rather rude comment. I actually love this dj’s music, being a closet fan of techno in general and this fellow’s work in particular. What I didn’t like was using an avante-garde musical form to package a (to me) tired revivalist hype that reinforces individualism and a kind of erotic piety. I didn’t like the content, nor did I like the mismatch between form and content. Having said that, I also know a lot of other people liked it. A lot. Go figure.
Many people are simply looking for hipper packaging for old methods and messages – hip revivalism, for example. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but that’s just not emergent’s emphasis.

The truth is that the convention makes it difficult to tell what Emergent does stand for. Even the invited guests seem bewildered. Plenary speaker Robert Webber, whose book The Younger Evangelicals celebrates the emerging church, is clearly taken aback by what he sees: "They claim to be rejecting the last 30 years of evangelicalism—and they're repeating the last 30 years of evangelicalism."
This is a huge part of my frustration too. Youth Specialties is a great partner, and they’re not to be blamed for this. The fact is, emergent conventions attract a lot of evangelicals and neofundamentalists who are very early in the rethinking process. Many of them do just want to put the hip back in discipleship, as Andy said earlier. Again, many of us are interested in moving beyond the individualistic, revivalist piety many of these people want to reenergize and save, to discover territory that is both deeper and broader – deeper theologically and spiritually, and broader in terms of social justice and peace. The “Jesus and me” and “bless-me-more” tone of some of the music is deeply frustrating – but remember, we (emergent) didn’t invent this stuff. And I hope we’ll be beyond it – far beyond it – soon.
Twentysomething writer Lauren Winner, dismayed by the video loops playing incessantly behind her during her address, tells me, "I feel so alienated from my generation."
As often is the case, pendula overswing, and we’ve certainly done that at times at our events. But we’re learning, and I believe next year’s event will be a huge step forward. Of course, we’ll never get it right. We’ll always want to improve things, which is a good thing.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Any movement—or conversation—that can inspire such ambivalence, even among its friends, has an uncertain future. Nor is it easy to quantify the emerging church's present.

Yes. Everybody has an uncertain future, I’d say. Hopefully, Andy’s reflections can help emergent learn and avoid dangers it faces and will face.
McLaren guesses that "only a few dozen" churches across the country are fully committed to the theological journey he sketched in A New Kind of Christian. Even Rob Bell did not start that journey until after founding Mars Hill Bible Church. The number of churches whose pastors have cool hair is, of course, much larger—but hardly qualifies as a single movement any more than the number of churches whose pastors wear ties. For the moment, as the Emergent Convention demonstrates, the confusion of style and substance makes for strange bedfellows.
The analogy to adolescence comes to mind. Emergent is new, young, discovering itself. I’m not surprised by the confusion. I can’t imagine anything else being the case. And even though the numbers of “fully committed” might be small, the numbers of friends who are listening, learning, having hope re-inspired … is very high. And that’s much more significant than hair.
Meanwhile, McLaren's fellow travelers—whether they are dozens or, as Emergent book sales would suggest, tens of thousands—are not the only Christians responding to the challenges of postmodern culture. Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church attracts several thousand culturally savvy young people with unapologetically Reformed preaching and worship, and churches inspired by Redeemer are thriving in several cities on both coasts.
Many people would be happy, I think, if emergent would go away. What they’d really like is a kinder, more culturally savvy Reformed church. Many people involved in emergent are Reformed, and I think Reformed folk have a lot to offer. I’m a big fan of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian. I thank God for them. But I think we need many other examples of innovative churches, including some who move beyond the categories of modernity (I’m not against categories!).
Catholic journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell has documented the rise of "the new faithful," a growing group of young Americans, often drawn from the same locations and vocations as the emerging church, who are embracing orthodoxy without McLaren's qualifiers.
Again, I thank God for these folk. It doesn’t have to be either/or. I believe God works through all of these varied expressions of renewal and mission.
Implicitly responding to Emergent's disaffection with modern evangelicalism, in March the National Association of Evangelicals attracted more than 200 "young evangelicals" to the inaugural meeting of a network led by Carolyn Haggard, the niece of NAE president Ted Haggard. The 23-year-old Wellesley College graduate says, "The Bible has been relevant for 2,000 years, and popular culture isn't really going to change that. Saying that we're cooler than the generation before, we're more savvy, and we're obviously more intellectual than the generation before—that's not something we'd be at all interested in promoting."
I hope neither Andy nor Carolyn is suggesting that any of us are interested in being cooler, more savvy, or more intellectual than anybody else. I simply hope that we all can be more faithful – Andy, Carolyn, me, the NAE, emergent, everybody.
So Emergent has no lock on the next generation. In this respect it may prove no different from the previous Christian movement characterized by male hair, the Jesus Movement. It coexisted, often uneasily, with more cautious expressions of church, was animated by a combination of beautiful ideals and foolish ideas, and ultimately merged into an evangelical mainstream that had adapted to its presence.
I like Andy’s word “merged” in the previous sentence because it poses a nice contrast to “emerge.” My hope is that emergent can emerge as a convergence among some Christians from evangelical, mainline, Roman Catholic and perhaps Orthodox traditions, sharing our treasures and joining together in mission in our needy, wonderful world. I hope that evangelicalism will not be like the borg on Star Trek, against whose assimilating influence resistance is futile. As an old Jesus Movement guy, I for one think it’s a shame how the Jesus Movement was assimilated (domesticated, co-opted, sold-out, or whatever) without having much effect. That was sad both for the movement and for evangelicalism. In the next paragraph, Andy shares that hope.
But the Jesus Movement, largely composed of converts, was generally unconcerned with theology. Emergent, whose leaders are evangelicalism’s own sons and daughters, may yet contribute something more profound than one more fleeting form of cultural relevance.
At least that's what Rob Bell hopes. "People don't get it," he told me. "They think it's about style. But the real question is: What is the gospel?"
That question, of course, is not new. It was asked by, among others, a devout young German monk named Martin Luther who found church increasingly dissatisfying. His answer, rooted in Scripture, changed the direction of Christian history at a moment of epochal cultural change.
Is it possible that a compelling new answer could emerge from McLaren's "conversation"? If so, Bell may have a head start, with props to the apostle Paul. "Weak is the new strong." The emerging church, and evangelicalism, could do a lot worse.

This is a hopeful ending. Emergent is weak in many ways, some of them detailed by Andy’s article. Whether that weakness will become a spiritual opportunity for God’s power to be made manifest or not will depend on … on something other than our strength, size, ability, coolness, lack of coolness, or hair.
Because of word limits, Andy couldn’t recount a major concern of mine – the international dimension of the emergent conversation. In the last few years, I’ve become more convinced that “postmodern” is actually a small slice of a larger movement in social history that could be called “postcolonialism.” True, these days U.S. foreign policy threatens to return us to an ugly era that might be labeled “the return of colonialism,” but hoping against hope that it will fail, I am deeply committed to finding Christian leaders in the global south who, formerly colonized, now seek a more just and peaceful postcolonial future. I would like very much to meet these sisters and brothers, learn from them, and bring them into conversation with their counterparts in the former colonizing countries. Any future worth working for, in my opinion, is a future in which we collaborate with African, Latin American, and Asian Christians … seeking to be blessed together in order to be a blessing together to the rest of our shared world. Much of my time, travel, and energy has been invested in this project in recent years, and I expect that more will be so invested in the future, God willing.

Andy Crouch is a columnist for CT and a coauthor of Emergent's The Church in Emerging Culture (Zondervan, 2003).
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
November 2004, Vol. 48, No. 11, Page 36

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An Open Letter to Chuck Colson

Dear Mr. Colson,
I just read your column in Christianity Today, “The Postmodern Crackup: From soccer moms to college campuses, signs of the end” (December 2003, p. 72). I normally wouldn’t try to respond to a piece like this for at least four reasons:
1) Many of the people who think they understand postmodernism and write or speak about it lack the time, energy, or historical and philosophical understanding to begin to understand what they don’t understand about it, so it’s fruitless to even try to dialogue with them. It’s better just to let things slide.
2) In the big scheme of things, their misunderstandings don’t matter that much.
3) I know there are so many things I don’t understand myself, and whether my opinions are right or wrong, they don’t matter much either way.
4) Religious debate can be a lot like pornography, drug abuse, and gambling: stupid yet attractive and potentially addictive, and therefore dangerous spiritually.
“Just this once” is a dangerous thing to say (in pornography, gambling, drug use, or debate). But I guess I’m saying it, because 1) you have always impressed me as a thoughtful brother in Christ, and I believe you are more capable than many of better understanding the issues surrounding postmodernity than many of your colleagues, 2) because your public stature means that if you had a better understanding, you could do a lot more good than you’re currently doing, and 3) because … well, because I feel somebody needs to respond to your article, and I apparently lack the humility to realize how unqualified I am to do so.
Perhaps this recollection would help you understand why I’m taking this gamble. Several years back, you tried to bring Evangelicals and Catholics together, an effort which I applaud and in which I am involved myself. Some Protestants were so filled with prejudice against Catholics that they couldn’t see any good in what you were doing, in spite of our Lord’s teachings on being peacemakers, and they launched rather vicious attacks on you. I imagine you wished your critics would better understand what you were trying to do so they would stop doing harm to your good cause.
I don’t know if you ever wrote a response to them as I’m trying to do now, but my friends and I who are currently engaging with issues of postmodernity wish you could better understand what we’re trying to do. Sadly, what you wrote in this recent column, along with other things you have written along similar lines, feels unhelpful to us much the way the criticisms of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” must have felt to you some years ago. Back then, you saw some things your critics didn’t see about Evangelical engagement with Roman Catholics, and I think we see some things you don’t about engagement with postmodern people and their questions.
In your column, you pronounced “postmodernism” dead, or on life support, or at least losing strength. You’re kind of right, because the kind of postmodernism you describe – “the philosophy that claims there is no transcendent truth” - was never really alive. It’s a straw man, Chuck, a bugaboo not unlike Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy,” used to create fear, galvanize sympathy and support, and perhaps raise money. (Everyone knows how a good enemy is a fundraiser’s best friend.)
What you describe as postmodernism – a claim that “there is no such thing as truth,” a rejection of all moral values, or their reduction to mere preferences – may have been purported by a few crazed graduate students for a few minutes at a late-night drinking party. But to paint the whole movement with that brush is inaccurate. That kind of guilt-by-association would be like lumping you as a political conservative in with all the conservative wackos in Idaho who stockpile weapons and whisper about black helicopters and blame 9/11 on President Bush – after all, they’re against the “liberals” just like you. Or it would be like lumping us (you and me) as Christians in with the Branch Davidians (we all quote the Bible, eh?) or the wackos who blame 9/11 on the ACLU (we all pray, don’t we?). Those who live by hacking straw men with the sword will probably be rendered straw men by others, I think, and be hacked by the same childish logic. I hope in the future you’ll be more careful in this regard. (Some Branch Davidians – if there are any left – probably feel I was less than careful in the previous sentences.)
I can only assume your column takes this simplistic approach because you’ve been unaware of the rest of the story of what’s going on in the postmodern transition. I’m hoping that by writing this response, you’ll begin to realize that there’s more going on than you’ve realized, so in the future, your engagement can be more responsible and helpful.
I can agree with you that the “no transcendent truth” kind of postmodernism is dead, because as I said, it never was very alive. At most, it was an early, reactionary phase in a yet-embryonic movement that has much more mature, constructive, and positive voices emerging. Like you, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with college students and other thoughtful postmoderns. In fact, before entering pastoral ministry, I was a college English instructor – and as you know, English departments were the hotbed of postmodern thought back in the 70’s and 80’s. But I must tell you: I’ve never heard anyone articulate as their belief what you consistently assert that postmoderns believe. Sure, many college freshmen will resort to extreme statements when they’re approached by an angry Christian waving the sword of “absolute truth,” but if you (and George Barna and others) understood what they think you mean by “absolute truth,” you’d understand why they react as they do. Nobody likes having a sword waved at them!
I understand that you are reacting against something that’s really dangerous, and perhaps under those circumstances, a little hyperbole is excusable. Besides, I realize that a one-page column or short radio broadcast might require some … I won’t say “dumbing down,” but I will say “simplification.” Anyway, I fully agree with you that if people are advocating no morality, no ethics, no reality, well, that’s a truly pathetic and dangerous situation. Those kinds of people need medication, or hospitalization, or perhaps incarceration – at least a good vacation. But again, Chuck, even though people like you say that’s what “postmoderns” in general advocate, I’ve still not met any serious postmodern spokespeople themselves say what you say that they say. Even Jacques Derrida, a favorite whipping boy of modern critics, has been very clear to say that justice cannot be deconstructed. If you really understood these people you’re critiquing, you’d realize that they are driven in part at least –as you are – by a desire to fight against injustice.
But in the process of being against something worth being against (for you, moral relativism, for them, atrocities perpetrated by powerful elites), it’s possible to become for something not worth being for. That’s what I perceive to be happening – both among you and many Evangelical leaders of your generation and the extreme “postmoderns” you critique.
In fact, by reflecting on how you feel about “postmoderns” and what you think they stand for and against, you can begin to understand how real postmodern people feel about Christians like us, and things they think we stand for … things like “metanarratives.” That term, by the way, is a highly nuanced term. This isn’t the time to go into a lengthy exploration of the term (you can find a good reading list or two on this and related subjects at www.emergentvillage.com), but let me offer this analogy. The word propaganda is defined as follows:
1. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.
2. Material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause: wartime propaganda.
Based on this definition, would you want to define the gospel as propaganda? The definition fits, right? But you wouldn’t want to use this word for the gospel, because the word carries negative connotations – connotations related to half-truths, manipulative rhetoric, suppressed counter-information, etc. Similarly, metanarrative implies domination, coercion, eradication of opponents, imposition of beliefs or behaviors on minorities against their will, and the like. Many people don’t realize these connotations are associated with the term, because they’ve gotten their information from others in the Christian community who have never really understood or even read the primary source documents. While I’m sure you do not fall into this category, it seems to me that you have not really grasped the meaning of metanarrative as it’s used by postmodern theorists. It’s easy to misunderstand, in part because of the density of postmodern philosophical writing, but more because of the confused propaganda disseminated by too many of our not-fully-informed Christian brothers on the subject.
Having said that, I still understand that you are against something worth being against. You feel that postmoderns have developed a self-contradictory message (THIS IS THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH: there are no absolute truths!). This absurdity might allow them to do anything they want in the name of no absolutes (which to you means “no morality”). You know that if they pursue that path of moral anarchy, the personal and social result will be terrible pain and destruction – AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, divorce, and more. You want to save them and others from this pain. This is a good thing, and I applaud you for it, and I share your concern!
But try to understand this parallel reality: In the late 20th century, postmodern thinkers looked back at regimes like Stalin’s and Hitler’s. (One must never forget how postmodern thought developed in the aftermath of the Holocaust, as deeply ethical European intellectuals like Michael Polanyi reflected on the atrocities their peers had perpetuated or acquiesced to.) Postmodern thinkers realized that these megalomaniacs used grand systems of belief to justify their atrocities. Those systems of belief – which the postmodern thinkers called “metanarratives,” but which also could have been called “world views” or “ideologies” – were so powerful they could transform good European intellectuals into killers or accomplices. They thought back over European history and realized (as C. S. Lewis did) that those who have passionate commitment to a system of belief will be most willing, not only to die for it, but to kill for it.
They looked at powerful belief systems of the twentieth century – world views (extreme Marxism is one such world view), grand stories (anti-Semitism is one such story, White Supremacy is another, American manifest destiny is another), ideologies (such as the industrialist ideology that the earth and its resources are not God’s creation deserving care through reverential stewardship, but rather, are simply natural resources there for the taking by secular industrialists), and they were horrified. These dominating belief systems were responsible for so many millions of deaths, so much torture, so much loss of freedom and dignity, so much damage to the planet, that they sought to undermine their dominance. They advocated incredulity or skepticism toward such stories or belief systems.
By the way, you repeatedly referred to 9/11 as a watershed in this regard, but it seems to me the “metanarrative” of the Taliban and radical Islamists simply adds another reason for incredulity or skepticism towards belief systems which seek control by force or intimidation, don’t you agree? And rightly or wrongly, the U.S. action in Iraq may convince many people around the world that we’re just another powerful elite bent on domination, coercion, and elimination of our opponents through a messianic metanarrative of American Empire. So 9/11 may not mark a return to the good old days of modernity after all, at least not outside our borders, and not for long.
Anyway, Chuck, you’re legitimately worried that “postmoderns” will use their relativism as an excuse to do anything they want. But they’re worried that you and other “moderns” will use your absolutism as an excuse to do anything you want. (If you can’t see any validity to their concern, then I’m truly speechless, and it’s hardly worth your reading the rest of my letter.) From where I stand, I’m afraid both of you are seeing a valid danger in one another. Postmodern people like me – you can call us post-postmoderns if you want to continue asserting postmodernity is dead, but please don’t call us truth-denying relativists, because we’re not, even though we don’t like your unreflective use of words like “absolute truth” – people like me want neither the self-indulgent narcissism of the one nor the unreflective absolutism of the other. You’re against their supposed denial of truth in the interest of self-indulgence, and they’re against your apparent monopolization of truth in the interest of political domination, and you’ve convinced some of the rest of us that you’re both at least partly right about each other.
I hope you can see that this thoughtful concern can’t be reduced to the absurd assertion that there is truly no such thing as “truth.” Again, some postmodern people may overreact and say absurd things from time to time – but what they say in overreaction doesn’t look a lot different to me from what you say in your CT column – especially when I consider that Christian writers like us should be held to a higher standard of care for the truth.
About truth: I wish that you and some of your colleagues in religious broadcasting could be treated to a few off-the-air moments of thoughtful reflection on the word truth that you use so often. If truth matters as much as you say it does (and I know it does), and if words are important in the conveyance of truth (as we both know they are – otherwise, why write?), we need to think carefully about the word truth itself. What do you mean when you say it? Has the word become a club used without content to batter opponents, as “patriotism” and “tolerance” are used by conservatives and liberals in the political arena? As I reflect on this, I think truth means at least seven very different things depending on the context:
1. Reality – Sometimes, we use truth to mean “what’s out there,” or “what’s really, really, real.”
2. A human perception of reality – Sometimes we use the term to mean how an individual human or group of humans perceive what’s really out there. For example, in court, when a person swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we understand only God could fulfill that promise, unless we defined truth to mean “an honest and full accounting of what you perceived.”
3. Knowledge about reality - Clearly, there’s always some degree of difference between #2 and #1 above, and when we weave our perceptions into coherent, conscious generalizations and call those generalizations knowledge, the difference isn’t erased. In other words, reality as seen and known by our infinite and wonderful God is always fuller and to some degree different than reality as seen and known by limited, situated humans. Scripture affirms this, reminding us that we know only in part.
4. Statements or propositions about reality – When we take our knowledge, which arises in the context of our imperfect perceptions about what’s really out there, and then we share that knowledge with others in statements, we have to admit we add new layers of imprecision – through the wonderful but sometimes imprecise interplay of encoded, sent, received, and interpreted symbols we call language. Human statements clearly do some justice to the realities they describe, but if even half of my critique of your column (an attempt to make true statements about reality, I don’t doubt) is valid, you have to admit that our very best attempts to make true statements about reality still aren’t perfect. For example, do you believe, looking back, that all the statements in your column were perfectly, completely, absolutely, objectively true? If you give anything less than an unqualified “yes,” you are being sensitive to the same concerns postmodern people have about these matters.
5. Moral or ethical judgments – The situation becomes even more complex when our statements are judgments about moral or ethical behavior. Even for those of use who claim to know God and have faith in the Bible: we need to look back over our own history and realize that just as there are disastrous consequences to claiming there is no such thing as legitimate moral judgment, there are also disastrous consequences to claiming that we have unquestionably legitimate moral judgment. Our ancestors judged slavery as morally justified, and brought in Scripture to enforce their point; we now judge slavery wrong, also using Scripture. Are we so naïve to think that all our judgments are finally right, just because we quote the Bible?
6. A belief system or world view – I think that the concept of world view is very powerful. And for that reason, it can be very dangerous. For example, I suspect that for many religious broadcasters and writers, “The Christian World View” means “The Modern Western Christian World View” or “The Calvinist Systematic Theology” or “A Syncretism of Christian Theology and Conservative Republican Politics,” but neither they nor their listeners realize it. Anyway, there’s a lot of mystique and fog around the term. Adding the words “The” and “Christian” in front of a worldview doesn’t guarantee this worldview is now 100% in synch with #1 above, but it sure can give that impression to unreflective people reading a column in Christianity Today, especially if they’re already feeling intimidated and afraid by all the changes in our world, and are hoping for reassurance.
7. A feeling of certainty – When some people use the word truth, I think they mean a feeling of certainty, security, and rest that means they no longer have to think or ask questions. In other words, truth means “case closed.” This exemption from further thought is something we all desire at times, I think, especially after a long hard day of reading a column in CT and criticizing it (and then criticizing the critique). But one only has to talk to a person hospitalized for psychosis to realize that a feeling of certainty can have very little in common with #1 above!
I bring up these complexities not to “deny truth,” and not because I don’t care about truth, but because I do – believing that the pursuit of truth means being faithful to #1 above. My desire to be faithful to reality/truth (an indispensable facet of my desire to be faithful to the true and living God) requires me to face the complexities of how people in reality use the word truth in these differing ways. If that’s not complex enough, then people start adding modifiers like “absolute” and “objective” and “subjective” and “relative” – and they seldom realize the even greater complexity and unspoken philosophical freight that goes along with these terms. I’m afraid your column reinforces the most simplistic (mis)understandings of these issues.
If the relativism you rightly attack is as great a danger as you believe it to be (and I think it is!), then the simplistic critique you’re giving is not an adequate solution. (If you’re prone to reread sentences, the previous one might warrant a rereading; I know I’m tempted to repeat it for emphasis.)
Years ago, a colleague of yours was asked about postmodern thought. He replied that it should be opposed at all costs. When asked why, he replied, “Because it destroys our apologetic.” I thought about him, then, and you, now, the same way: “Thank God he’s over 55. He can afford to think the postmodern culture can be opposed. He can afford to stick with the status quo apologetic.” But for those of us who are either younger or more engaged with the true issues of postmodernity (in which sense was I using the word true in the previous clause?), we can’t afford that luxury.
The postmodern culture is the world in which many of us live and work and minister, sharing the good news and following the good ways of Jesus Christ. The old modern apologetic simply doesn’t work for us, or our children, or their friends. It’s not just that it doesn’t work: I’m not just being pragmatic. The modern apologetic doesn’t even address the questions that are being raised. So for us, the hard questions raised by real, thoughtful postmodern people (not the cartoon caricatures you present in this column) require good answers, and those answers require better, deeper, more careful, less simplistic thinking than you provided in your column, or in your other writings I have read on this subject, as good as they are in many other ways.
You may find a thousand flaws in my thinking, Chuck, but I hope you’ll give these matters a second thought, and I hope you’ll pray for me and others rather than portraying all “postmoderns” as cartoons, because with all our flaws, at least we’re trying to deal with a world you apparently don’t understand and hope is just going to crack up and go away. If it doesn’t crack up and go away, you’ll be glad some of us took it more seriously and engaged it more thoughtfully for the sake of the gospel.
You suggest that Christians who don’t share your views are “dumbing down” and moving from a “Word-driven message” to an “image and emotion-driven message.” True, there’s plenty of dumbing down out there, but I’m sorry, that blanket assessment is not worthy of a person of your stature. Rather, many of us are trying to escape the dumbed-down understandings of current issues that you and too many others unintentionally purvey. We believe that image (the language of imagination) and emotion (including the emotion of wonder) are essential elements of fully human knowing, and thus we seek to integrate them in our search for this precious, wonderful, sacred gift called truth, which you and I both love – and too often betray in spite of our best intentions.
Your column concluded like this: “It would be the supreme irony – and a terrible tragedy – if we found ourselves slipping into postmodernity just when the broader culture has figured out it’s a dead end.” I’m tempted to point out the irony that some Christians like yourself seem to be more deeply entrenching themselves in “modernity just when the broader culture has figured out it’s a dead end.” Aside from noting the needed distinctions between a) postmodernity as a broad cultural movement (including, as all cultural currents do, contradictory counter-currents and wacko extremes) – which is alive and kickin’, and b) postmodernism as you define it (an extreme cartoonish position few if any responsible people would claim as their own – which is fine to pronounce a dead end, since it never had much of a beginning), and c) postmodernism as I and others understand it (a far more broad and nuanced philosophical turn that begins beyond both high modern absolutism/positivism and late-modern/early-postmodern relativism) … aside from noting these distinctions, I do want to end on two points of agreement.
1. Neither you nor I think that postmodernity or modernity is “the answer.” Rather, we both believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to salvation – for the modern and the postmodern alike. Like you, I think, I am at heart an evangelist. Just as you and your good colleagues in Prison Fellowship have spent decades now entering the tough world of prisons for the sake of the gospel, many of us are entering the challenging arena of postmodern culture. Many people think of prisoners as worthless good-for-nothings, but your evangelistic heart and personal experience won’t let you reach that dismissive conclusion. I believe you can understand when I tell you I feel the same way about my friends and neighbors in postmodern culture as you feel about prisoners. I love them. I seek to treat them with gentleness and respect when they ask me the reasons for the hope I have in Christ. Maybe you could think about me and others like me as “Postmodern Fellowship,” a sister organization to Prison Fellowship, seeking to bring the good news of Jesus to a forgotten, sometimes despised, often misunderstood population.
2. I share your sadness about the state of many Christian radio stations. Some stations are converting, you lamented, from “preaching and talk” to “all music.” Actually, I’m glad that there will be less religious-broadcaster-style rhetoric on the air – of which I find your columns and broadcasts to be better-than-average examples, by the way. I’m just sad that most of the music on Christian radio isn’t much better than the preaching and talk. The gospel deserves better preaching and better music than we produce.
And it deserves better writing and thought than either you or I have achieved, in your column or in this response. But at least we’re trying, both of us, all of us. May God help us grow. We have a long way to go.
I know you’re a busy man doing many good things, and may never have time to read this. But if you do, please don’t feel any pressure to reply. I’m sure I’ve misunderstood and misspoken in many ways, and as I said, I’m not very skilled at debate, nor do I want to get practice. In spite of my lack of qualifications and my many faults (known and unknown), I sincerely hope that some of my responses to your column here will be of help to you (or your staff) in some small way in your continuing and important work for Christ and his Kingdom.
Your brother in Christ,
Brian McLaren

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Chuck Colson’s Response

Introduction: Chuck Colson wrote a column in Christianity Today, to which I responded on this website. He kindly replied, and granted me permission to post his response here. If you would like to dialogue about his article, my response, and his reply, may I suggest you start a thread at emergentvillage.com, theooze.com, or faithmaps.com? I am not planning to reply, although there is much here that strikes me as deserving a response. My hope would be that some of Chuck’s close friends might engage him in dialogue about these matters, or perhaps he and I will have an opportunity to dialogue in person and in private in the future. This interchange at least makes our differences clear, and does so in a cordial way.
To Brian McLaren
From Chuck Colson
February 2004
I’ve just had an opportunity to read fully your interesting response to my column in Christianity Today. I appreciate very much the loving and constructive spirit in which you write, and also your encouraging remarks about my ministry, particularly my work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
I must say at the outset that the four points you stated in your opening paragraph as to why you normally wouldn’t try to respond to a piece like mine smack of postmodern despair. We should not say it’s “fruitless to even try to dialogue” or that people can’t understand things and it doesn’t make any difference. In my view misunderstandings matter greatly because there are consequences to ideas. As has been true from the time of the Greeks till today, vigorous healthy debate is vital as all of us search for truth. Our differences – yours and mine – need to be discussed in the service of Truth.
Admittedly, in the religious tradition debate has often been divisive, and therefore I suppose you could say it was dangerous spiritually. On the other hand, I believe in the sovereignty of God, that He uses many of our debates and differences to produce powerfully important movements of His church with an attendant impact upon culture. I think of the Reformation as a case in point. That was certainly a divisive religious debate. It even led to religious wars and in some ways had a very negative impact upon the witness of the Christian church at the time. But look at what has come out of it. The Reformation has produced religious reformation. Until the Reformation nobody read the Bible. Now it is universally and widely read. On the Protestant side in the Reformation, I believe the essence of the gospel was preserved and maintained; and the priesthood of believers has given enormous energy and resurgence to the church. On the Catholic side, as I have discovered in my discussions with ECT, huge progress has been made in the stance of the Catholic Church with respect to church/state questions and in some very significant doctrinal areas. The Reformation has affected the Catholic Church almost as much as the Protestants. So even though we’re divided, which is something all Christians should deplore, we have made huge progress religiously from where the church was before the Reformation.
On the cultural front, the effect of the Reformation has been nothing less than revolutionary. Do not forget that the Protestant work ethic, exported to this country, fueled the great Industrial Revolution. We should all be mindful of and grateful for the Reformation’s impact on politics; the whole doctrine of sphere sovereignty had huge political ramifications, as did the book Lex Rex and its influence on the rule of law. Remember, too, Calvin was a great advocate of a republican form of government.
It is significant as well that because of the Reformation and the vitality of the evangelical movement born in post-Reformation England great spiritual awakenings were birthed in the 18th and 19th centuries. I would dare say that were it not for the Wesley-Wilberforce awakenings, along with the leadership of Edmund Burke, the Jacobeans might have spilled across the English Channel and infested every land as they did France. This would have greatly weakened the church. Instead the precise opposite happened. Out of the Oxford movement in England came the spread of the gospel around the world, particularly in areas not reached before then.
So I do not agree that religious debate, discussions over opinions right and wrong, don’t matter. They do. Profoundly so.
On the matter of Truth, which is going to be central to what perhaps you and I disagree on, I think it is the critical issue of the day. The Greeks examined the issue, of course, as has almost every philosopher of note. Immanuel Kant spent his life thinking about whether truth is knowable and how you can know it. The issue is clear: are the answers to life found by a thinker sitting in a Dutch oven and exclaiming after much reflection, cogito ergo sum, which in some ways led to the rise of a humanist view of the world, unintended though it was? Or is the meaning of life found in Revelation (which I believe is aided by reason)? This is a very fundamental question.
On the subject of Truth, let me say humbly that I consider myself a seeker. Pascal said once that there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who have given up to despair or don’t think, and seekers. I want to stay in the latter. Postmodernists, by the way, are among the former, because, they say it doesn’t matter. Believe me, Brian, it does.
Let me clarify also what I believe can be said about postmodernity and postmodernism which you seem to think people have difficulty understanding. In one way, of course, they do, because vacuums are never easily described. But the fact is that postmodernity is not something to argue about or engage in passionate debate for. Postmodernity simply means that we have emerged, for better or worse, from the modern era and we are in whatever comes after it (which I would submit is largely an intellectual vacuum which leads to nihilism.)
The postmodern era was either ushered in by or reflected by a variety of movements, most of which have their origin in Europe; deconstruction, relativism, subjectivism, and existentialism (not an exhaustive list.) The powerful existential movement in Europe, which then swept the campuses of America in the 60’s, undermined the concept of reason and truth, which was of course central to the Enlightenment project. You could not have deconstructionism and at the same time any transcendent authority, or even guiding force of history. So postmodernity is simply a fact of history. It is an era which marks an end to the modern era. Someone, I’ve forgotten who at the moment, once said that modernity began with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Those are convenient delineation markers and pretty close to the truth, although modernity, I would argue, began to crumble under the assault of the existentialists and deconstructionists in the 60’s.
The issue you and I might have, I think, is not over postmodernity; that’s simply a chronological marking of eras; but rather over postmodernism. What happens when you add the “ism” to an era or any subject for that matter, is that you turn it into an ideology—a set of ideas and pre-suppositions that form a strong view about politics or behavior or life (ideology is the enemy of Revelation). It is not postmodernity I criticize—and particularly because there are some good things about it: in the Enlightenment reason stifled faith; it is postmodernism I object to, which is an attempt to make an ideological formulation out of those elements which contributed to the demise of the modern era.
I don’t have time or space here to delineate for you why I think each of those movements were pernicious, although I think you’ve probably read enough about deconstructionism and existentialism to agree with me if you think it through. To put it in the most shorthand way, relativism and deconstruction and existentialism have to lead to the loss of any transcendent authority. Whenever a society lacks transcendent authority, it is going to be governed by whoever can obtain power – and there will be no restraints upon that person or party. The process is almost inevitable. Even democracies – and remember Franklin said democracy is a good thing if you can keep it – must have some overarching objective standards to support a rule of law; without that it will fall into chaos just like any other governing structure. If postmodernism succeeds in destroying transcendent authority, the inevitable consequences are anarchy and nihilism. But nihilism is a vacuum and all vacuums must be filled; so without the restraint of a higher law a tyrant can always be depended upon to step in to fill the power vacuum; and people always choose order over liberty.
Some postmodernists are quite honest about this. Look at the writings of Stanley Fish – Fish was for a while at least the leading deconstructionist in America. He quite frankly acknowledged that in the absence of truth, all intellectual discourse eventually degenerates into a power struggle. Remember his book, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too, and his stirring defense of the politically correct movement, which in my view stifles academic debate on the campuses. If you stop looking for truth and you stop debating primary questions, that is, the fundamental issues people deal with in life, then whoever occupies the seat of power makes those decisions for us. The utopians may think this is a good thing. They believe the victors (their choice) will be more enlightened and benign than the white oppressors who wrote history and of course were only expressing their view of life, which they imposed upon culture. The utopian myth, which for generations has been the principal enemy of liberty, is based on false premises as Christians who are aware of the Fall know.
I’m sorry if you think I have resorted in my arguments in Christianity Today to hyperbole or that I have dumbed down or simplified the case. It is anything but a simple case, but a 750 word limit imposes constraints; I could only hit the highlights. And my point was, in any event, that postmodernism is imploding because it has no rational basis to defend it. It’s like Schaeffer used to say about modern man: his feet are planted firmly in midair.
You seem to think in your letter that I am attacking Christians who are postmodernists. I hope that’s not so because as a Christian I don’t think I should attack any other Christian. But as one who wants to employ the powers of reason and thinking, I think I have every right to debate and critique them as strenuously as I possibly can. It should all be in good spirit.
I think there may also be some confusion between us in distinguishing between those who are debating the post-modernists, which I do, and those Christians who are trying to reach the postmoderns. I’m sure you realize there’s a huge difference here. I can engage in vigorous debate and should. But if you’re trying to be sensitive to the postmodern mind, you should be loving and caring. You should be presenting our narrative as superior to any other, by letting them experience Jesus (but of course you cannot stop there. Once they know who Christ is you’ve got to lead them to the proposition that Christ is Truth and knowable. I’ll come back to that in a few moments.)
I for one have a lot of sympathy for post moderns. They’re drifting. They don’t even know the questions they’re supposed to be asking let alone the answers. They’ve been anesthetized by a culture which emphasizes pleasure and personal autonomy. A generation raised on channel-surfing has lost the capacity for linear thinking and analytical reasoning.
Let me confess at this point that I have had little experience in trying to win over post-moderns (by that I mean the people who live in this generation and have never known anything other than postmodern thought.) I’ve had experience, however, dealing with and battling postmodernists. I’ve also studied their writings, which I do not think, as you put in your letter, qualify for the phrase “density of postmodern philosophical writing.” It isn’t philosophical at all in the sense of the love of knowledge. It is, in my opinion, stridently ideological, which falls closer to the propaganda side of the fence than the side of reason. Okay, I’ll admit, Christians do the same thing, often unthinkingly, and hurt our cause when they do.
One of the areas in which we differ is the change that post-modern people resent Christians because we are trying to impose some morality on them. They are misguided. Remember that Lincoln in the 1860 campaign was bitterly attacked for attempting to “impose morality.” This is an old canard, probably in one way, going back to the Garden, God was imposing His morality. The serpent’s temptation was that we could figure this out for ourselves and didn’t need it imposed. I take this argument by postmodernists as spurious. (Whoever “wins” in a free political system “imposes” his will. Laws impose on people.)
There is no parallel reality, as you put it, with the rise of Stalin and Hitler. In fact the opposite case could be made. Surely you realize that some of the figures advancing leading postmodernist ideas have been Nazis. I think of course of Heidegger who was a member of the Nazi party (existentialism) and Paul de Man who was a Nazi sympathizer (deconstructionism), and Jacques Derrida who defended Nazi intellectuals. These men, among others, hated the West for its bourgeois capitalism, and saw an opportunity to challenge it first through the Nazi Socialist movement and when that failed, advanced their ideas on American campuses. These are men with an agenda, which includes gaining power for their ideas. Yes, to impose them.
Of course, the postmoderns are right in saying that looking over European history, those who have “a passionate commitment to a system of belief will be most willing not only to die for it but to kill for it.” But is it wrong to die for a noble cause—or to kill in a just war, restraining evil? The Greeks recognized courage as one of the four cardinal virtues – courage to defend justice. Where would we be if people did not have a wholehearted commitment to a system of belief like democracy, freedom, and liberty? We’d still be living under monarchs. The issue isn’t whether you’re willing to die for a particular system of belief – or in some way to kill for it. The problem is whether that system of belief is truth or a lie. In the case of fascism and communism, it was a utopian lie, predicated upon a number of ideas common to postmodernism. So I really think you’ve got that one backwards.
I know what you’re thinking and that is that Christians have used their passionate commitment to their belief system to not only die for it but to kill for it (wrongly, as in the Crusades). That’s true, because we’re fallen as well. But it is far less true than those who have abused their system of belief in non-Christian systems of thought (witness Islamists versus democratic liberals today). A dispassionate look at history bears this out. In the inquisitions, over several centuries, three thousand people were killed. (Moderns think it’s in the millions). That is absolutely horrible, indefensible; an abuse of Christian religious beliefs. But you see, it was an abuse of it, whereas often when people act in pursuit of a lie, that is, fascism or communism, they are acting consistent with their beliefs - a big difference. Remember, too, that in the Crusades, where thousands died and were slaughtered, the aim of the Crusaders was every bit as much political as religious. I am not a student of the Crusades, but I would dare say the political outweighed the religious.
On the other hand, Christianity has advanced the cause of humankind in ways that no other system in history has ever done—not Islam, certainly not communism, fascism, not Freudianism, not pragmatism, not socialism, not utilitarianism or any other “ism.” Just look at the glories of Western civilization—the great art treasures, music, learning, accomplishment, universal reading, education. It’s quite remarkable.
And as for being willing to not only die but kill for our belief system, if Lincoln, who was deeply motivated by his strong faith (informed admittedly by a confused theology) did not pursue the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the slaves, we might still live under slavery today. Yes, hundreds of thousands died, but it was tragically necessary to end evil.
So my only point is that the view that people have of Christians as being oppressors who have done these horrible things through the ages is a result of propaganda and misinformation and a lack of an objective study of history. We ought to be correcting them, not pandering to them. If you really look at the history you cannot support their conclusion. More people died in the name of atheism in the 20th century than had died in all centuries prior to that in any cause. You as a Christian and I as a Christian have to put down this terrible distortion, often promoted by America’s strongly secular cultural elite.
Your seem to worry, as the postmodernists do, that because some bad things have been done in the name of faith, our faith is no different than all the destructive ideologies. If there is no Truth, then that could be correct. But if some of these things are true and some false, and that distinction is made, then of course we take a very different perspective on the world.
I have great trouble with your argument near the end of the text before you get into the seven questions, which seems to frame the debate as between “my concern for the supposed denial of truth in the interest of self-indulgence” and the postmoderns belief that I am involved in “monopolization of truth in the interest of political dominance.” Apparently, you’re partly convinced that is true.
Dear brother, it is false. No one has a monopolization of truth. And the motive, of those of us who consider ourselves seekers of the truth, is surely not political dominance. It is cultural reformation. It is seeking justice, what the Hebrews called shalom, that is, peace and harmony in the community. For heaven’s sake, I of all people have worked for the poor, the marginalized, the suffering, the outcasts, the kids of inmates. Why? Because I’m a Christian, because I’ve seen up close what has happened to some of the most disadvantaged people in our society.
My sole desire is to pursue truth wherever it leads, never allowing it to be colored by partisan agenda or by cultural prejudice. I am a seeker, but being a seeker does not mean that one does not believe there is something to seek. If you read some of my writings, you will see that I believe there is Truth. I don’t know how a Christian could believe otherwise because ultimate reality has to be in God the Creator. But I also believe that this truth can be known through a variety of ways, not just through scripture. I believe we can also make a very compelling argument to the postmodern generation, which is what I am desperately anxious to see us do. I want to see us lovingly approach them (that’s technique or strategy), but then bring them to the point where they have to deal with the question of truth (substance). Schaeffer used to say that this was the issue of our age, and he was absolutely right, talking about “true truth” or “flaming truth.” He talked about the concept of the law of non-contradiction, which postmodernists have seemed to suspend. I shouldn’t say seemed to suspend, they have suspended it. They’ve dispensed with logic, reason and critical thinking.
I gather you also think that my colleagues and I in religious broadcasting would benefit from a “few off the air moments of thoughtful reflection on the word truth.” Perhaps. But, I for one, have spent twenty years thinking about it very deeply, talking with the best scholars I know, reading the best works I could find, both secular and Christian.
By the way, I believe we are winning this debate over the question of truth or ultimate reality or discovering the way things really are. In a number of debates, Stanley Fish has been pushed into a corner, so much so that in the New York Times last year, he answered an inquiring reporter’s question on this subject by saying: okay, there is truth, but it is impossible for human beings to know it. (That’s a paraphrase because I don’t have the article in front of me. It was a piece by Edward Rothstein, I believe, and you can find it, I’m sure, searching the Internet.) The postmodernist when pushed, finds it untenable to argue that there is no ultimate reality, no beginning, no origin, no source of authority. As I’ve noticed it, the postmodernist position is becoming more agnostic. We have a wonderful case that demonstrates that it can be known. I’ve lectured on this and would be happy to have you read or listen to my lectures. I’ve written about it in Being the Body and of course in How Now Shall We Live? This is where we must directly confront postmodernism, take advantage of all the opportunities it gives us – and I recognize there are some of course – to press the ultimate issue.
I have read your seven points in which you deal with the question of truth. I have no problem with point one in which you describe truth as reality, a description of what actually is. Where we get into some difficulty is when you start talking about a human perception of reality. People may think something is true, but of course truth is never determined by what people think. We might, as you put it, tell the truth as we know it and even swear to it. That happens all the time in a court room. What you’re getting there is a human perception of circumstances or something that was witnessed or believed. It is a pursuit of what is true, that is a true account of things that help settle the issues in that trial. That is quite different than Truth or ultimate reality. Truth is truth and all of us are seeking it – however imperfectly we may perceive events. But our perceptions do not make it truth nor does our imperfection negate Truth.
Point three, if I understand it, which I’m not sure I do, I think I agree with, but it has nothing to do with the question of truth, other than you are correct that it ultimately rests in God.
Point four I think says that we’re all seeking, and that sometimes in the process of seeking we make claims that are later proven to be untrue. Trust me, in my own intellectual pursuits, I’ve changed my opinion on things many times when I’ve learned more about them. But you have to be very careful in the way you’re describing your position in point four that you don’t fall into the great philosophical trap of believing that reality is only a mater of what we see, that it has no objective standing on its own, that truth is in the eyes of the beholder, or that the only thing we can possibly know about something is what we see in it. It’s that line of reasoning that caused C.S. Lewis to write The Abolition of Man and particularly the wonderful essay “Men Without Chests.” Two current day Christian philosophers have written on this powerfully. One is Alvin Plantinga, the other Nick Wolterstorff at Yale.
Your point five is whether moral truths change over the years. No they do not. It has always been true that murder is considered evil. We may gain a more advanced understanding of the truth as we seek to discover it and our moral consensus or moral understanding may change, we may become better informed about what is moral with respect to particular issues as the slavery example you use demonstrates. But that doesn’t mean that the underlying truth about human dignity, for example, is changed. On this point, note that in the NIV, in 1 Timothy, Paul describes slave traders in the category with murderers and adulterers and perverts. He also set slaves free. Christians were in the vanguard of that movement. What we were doing was conforming society in a fallen world more closely to what are enduring, unchanging truths.
Certainly we cannot say that God’s revelation changes over the years. The Bible is true yesterday, today and forever. It’s God speaking and it of course is the ultimate source of moral truth.
You and I could agree that we humans imperfectly attempt to formulate our understandings of truth. Perhaps. But this is why I’ve become such a strong advocate of natural law, that is a recognition of what C.S. Lewis called the Tao in Mere Christianity, an understanding all people in all societies and all cultures at all times have shared. We look to the wisdom of the past for guidance, we see what others have discovered and we try to learn from it, that we may order human affairs accordingly. The problem in the postmodern era is that according to all the polls and my anecdotal experience, people believe there is no such thing as moral truth and it is unknowable. Previous generations back in the age of faith and in the age of reason have believed there was truth and that it was the highest goal in life to pursue it. We have abandoned that now, which is why the postmodern era is marked by such despair. Postmodernism has no answers. But that does not change the fact that there is moral truth; post moderns have simply given up trying to find it.
As to point six, I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to read my book How Now Shall We Live? Or Jim Sire’s book The Universe Next Door, but these are attempts to expound a Christian worldview, not based on a particular theological system, and certainly not governed by conservative Republican or liberal Democratic politics. How Now Shall We Live? is rooted in scripture and in some cases natural law. I will grant you that many people do not understand even what worldview means let alone what a Christian worldview is, but hopefully we’ve been doing a half decent job of educating them. As you probably know from reading my Christianity Today columns over the years I have gone to great lengths to expound this.
On point seven, you may be right that some people use the word truth and then are closed to further intellectual inquiry. This is tragic. Somebody who thinks he has all of the truth can be both insufferable and dangerous. I suppose people do that, but just because some people abuse a concept, doesn’t mean that the concept is flawed.
Now we come to the question that really matters. How do we approach postmodernism and the postmodern vacuum? My most fervent prayer is that Christians will lovingly and gently give a reason for the hope which is within us and that we will rescue reason. In throwing out modernity, the postmodern era has gone to an excess. The pendulum always swings too far to one side or the other. It has abandoned reason. (Admittedly reason was once the enemy of the faith, but I don’t think it need be.) My ultimate authority is in the scripture, but analytical, critical thinking (reason) enables me to decide how scripture applies to life. It enables me to be discerning about false values. If I only knew what was in the scripture, I couldn’t possibly understand what’s wrong with many other propositions being advanced in general discourse. I believe Christianity is the ally of reason.
If we’re able to make a good, well reasoned case, and if people like you who are working with the postmoderns can show them love and a sensitivity to their need for a narrative and understanding but eventually lead them to the issue of truth, then there is a very good prospect that something good will come out of what I believe to be the emerging crack-up of postmodernity. It will not be a return to the age of faith, which to me seems impossible in a culture that has gone so far from its religious roots. Nor will it be a resurrection of the modern era, resting on reason and science. I think it could very well be a combination of both: a faith that is reasonable. I think 9-11 has moved us dramatically in this direction.
I saw something the other day that brings this hope to me. Louise Slaughter, a congresswoman from New York, was talking about how important it was that President Bush’s request for increased funding for the National Endowment of the Arts be enacted. (That’s one Bush initiative I’m not happy with, believing as I do that funding should be private and municipal perhaps, but not federal.) What Slaughter said is, “There’s nothing in the world that helps economic development more than arts programs…it was foolish for Congress to choke them and starve them. We should cherish the people who can tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we hope to go.” What this tells me is that people are still asking the same questions the Greeks asked. They’re still looking for ultimate meaning, still looking for first principles. They’re still plagued by the questions that exist within us because the Imago Dei is within us. The problem is that you are not going to find that answer in the art world. I think we really have a much better answer if we have the opportunity to explain this to her. And that, dear brother, is what my column was all about.
I do have concern that we are promoting in our churches “an image and emotion-driven message” when of course what we ought to be advancing revealed propositional truth. This generation has been largely raised on images. That’s one reason why postmodern people find the narrative so attractive. Now I recognize that we may use techniques, even some I don’t like, to get the attention of the postmodern. But we can’t assume their basic presuppositions. We’ve got to be guided by ours and lovingly and gently lead them to understand ours. Admittedly, this is very difficult because they have been deeply culturally ingrained and their natural capacities for reason and analysis impaired. But I refuse to submit to despair. I want us to press on. I want the church, for all her flaws, to clean herself up and be the bride of Christ, and I want us vigorously and lovingly defending truth.
This is a longer reply than I intended. I will ask apologies in advance for a bit of sloppiness, but this is largely stream of consciousness dictation. While I could spend the time to tighten up these arguments, I don’t have it. So imperfect though the presentation may be, the convictions are sincerely and deeply held. God bless you, brother.

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