The following horse and water illustration that follows is taken from Millard Erickson’s book Postmodernizing the Faith. I use this and expand on it.
How should Christians engage a post-Christian, post-evangelical world, suspicious generation of people? How do we engage postmoderns?
Follow me here through this “Leading a horse to water” illustration. Here are the objects:
Rope=method of delivery
Question: How do we lead a postmodern horse to water?
Option 1: Deny the horse is really postmodern. No one can be a consistent postmodern. We simply need to convince them of the untenability of their professing worldview and show them how they don’t hold to it in reality.
Option 2: Convert the horse from being postmodern. Create common ground in epistemology (the way we come to know truth), then they will be able to drink the water.
Option 3: Change the rope. Christians need to change the communication method and style for a postmodern audience, being sensitive to the ethos of our culture.
Option 4: Change the water. The water we are calling “Gospel” today may not represent the true Gospel due to traditional folk theology and misinformation. Therefore, the water needs to be “purified.”
Option 1: Deny the horse is really postmodern.
No one can be a consistent postmodern. We simply need to convince them of the untenability of their professing worldview and show them how they don’t hold to it in reality.
This option is held by many in the Reformed tradition, especially of those who hold to a presuppositional apologetic. Presuppositional apologetics seek to make an offensive defense of the faith by bringing to people’s understanding that God is the presupposition behind all truth and knowledge. Without God, there is no such thing as an argument or a rational thought. He is required before any claim to truth can be made or any view can be held with conviction. There is a lot more to it than this, but hopefully this explanation will suffice for now. The most popular adherent to such an approach, especially when it comes to the issue of relativism, was Francis Schaeffer.
With regards to the issues surrounding Postmodernism, the one who takes this approach says that we yield too much ground when we concede that the “relativist” or “hard skeptic” is really such since in order to be such they have God as the very basis for their ability to doubt or deny the truth. Their logical reasoning shows that they already believe in the God of the Bible who is the presupposition behind all logical reasoning. As the old saying goes, “chaos cancels reason.” If there are reasons for relativism, this cancels relativism.
Those who opt for option one would not necessarily deny the other options a place, but they would say that we have to present the case as it stands, and as it stands, no one is really postmodern.
I don’t hold to this view much, although I do think it has its place. Yet I think the issues run much deeper than confining postmodernism to relativism. In fact, I think the ethos of the culture is not relativistic, but made up of varying degrees of skepticism and doubt. See my paper here which distinguishes between hard and soft postmodernism. I believe that our culture today is legitimately confused about truth, not necessarily denying its existence altogether.
Option 2: Convert the horse from being postmodern.
Create common ground in epistemology (the way we come to know truth), then they will be able to drink the water.
This option is very much like the first, but does have some major philosophical differences in approach. Like the first, this approach starts with the assumption that postmodernism is essentially evil and antagonistic to the Christian faith, associating it completely with its tendency toward hard relativism (the belief that all truth is relative). But there is a distinction. While the first option did not accept the notion that a person could actually be relativistic in their epistemology, this option does.
According to advocates of this approach, people hold to contradictory systems of truth all the time. Polytheism, for example, is self-contradictory since it does not make room for a first-cause or a necessary being. Yet many people throughout time have adhered to a polytheistic worldview. The Christians job, according to this option, is to create a common intellectual ground from which evangelism can take place. Many times this will involve attempting to convince someone of the existence of a perfect, personal, all-powerful, necessary being from whom all things have their being. Once this is accomplished, then there can be a conversation where a transcendent reality, whom we call God, is creating a meta-narrative to which all truth must correspond. This God is the God of the Bible. Typical biblical apologetics can be used once the common ground has been created.
Some adherents of this view might be R.C. Sproul or Norm Geisler. While option one was identified with presuppositional or reformed apologetics, this option is taken by those who follow a more classical apologetics approach popularized by Thomas Aquinas.
I believe that this approach, like the last has its merits. I think it recognizes that people’s thinking can become corrupt due to sin and bad influences within the culture. But I must contend with its understanding of the postmodern ethos. I think that it is too simplistic to identify the problem and solution upon the assumption of hard relativism. I don’t think that the average person is truly a hard relativist either in confession or practice. I think better designations are skeptical and suspicious. They do not trust other people’s claims to knowledge and therefore are normally not open to listening to their arguments. At the same time, I do believe that there is going to be a necessary time and place for this type of argumentation, but only once we have won their trust. And in a world where even self-trust is difficult to find, this is not going to be easy.
Option 3: Change the rope.
Christians need to change the communication method and style for a postmodern audience, being sensitive to the ethos of our culture.
To change the rope means that we evaluate our presentation method and change where necessary. This might be considered the choice of many within the emerging church (although number 4 will also play into this as well). It is also the method of many “seeker” churches.
When changing the rope, there are no sacred cows. As the culture changes, so must our methodology in presenting the Gospel and doing church. This might take many forms. It could be as simple as changing the worship style from traditional music to contemporary or it can be as radical as sculpting the Gospel out of clay instead of words. Whatever communicates best to our culture should be used as a medium for the Gospel. Whatever the culture shuns or distrusts as far as communication is concerned should not be used. If we live in a drama-driven culture that seeks to experience life through fictional movies, then the Christian community should be making movies that communicate truth. If we live in a culture that has acquired a disdain and distrust for traditional church gatherings, then lets change them. In other words, there is nothing sacred in the way we do things, only in what we do.
Those who adhere to this option would see a distinction between form and function. Function represents the basic principles (i.e. the water), the form is the way the function is made manifest (i.e. the rope). The form is always in need of change, even if the fundamentalists of each generation cry wolf-they always have and always will.
As well, changing the rope can be seen as following the pattern set by God. God did not write in a “God-type” literature, but condescended to the culture in which He was communicating. He used Psalms where Psalms were common, He used Near-Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties when in the Near-East, and used parables for relevance to those who would understand them. Therefore, according to this position, God changed the rope, so should we.
Like the previous, I see much to commend with this option. We all have the tendency to see the rope as sacred as the water due to longevity of use. “I use this rope because mom used this rope, and her mom used this rope, and her mom used this rope. If it is good enough for them . . .” you know the rest. The rope is not sacred, yet we have the tendency to make it such. I agree very much with this view since it sees a great need to evaluate the culture and make change based upon the ethos of the generation. I do believe that God condescended His message to make it understandable and relevant. Heck, even language itself is a condescension in many ways. To the Hebrews, He spoke Hebrew. To those in the first century, He spoke in Greek. Why? Because that is the only way they could understand. He changed the rope. So should we.
Option 4: Change the water.
The water we are calling “Gospel” today may not represent the true Gospel due to traditional folk theology and misinformation. Therefore, the water needs to be “purified.”
I can hear the reaction. “Change the Gospel? This cannot be. This is the last thing that I would choose. The Gospel must remain pure and unadulterated.” I know that it is very easy to have an elbow-jerk reaction to this, proverbially slapping it in the face, but, like the others, let us consider it in the way that those who opt for it would.
There are many in the church who would say that the “Gospel” that we call the “Gospel” is not really the Gospel at all. In other words, the water is not pure. According to this group, the culture is reacting strongly against church, Christians, and religiosity in general. They are not only sick of the self-righteousness that is so easy to find, but against the dogmatism of the various groups represented. This dogmatism has the “I’m right, your wrong; Your going to hell, I’m not” feel about it. They like Jesus, but not the Church. What does that mean? Well according to those who hold to this option, it means that the church does not have Jesus, at least the real, essential Jesus. In other words, if Jesus is the subject of the Gospel, and the church does not have Jesus, then the water as it is now is nothing but a poisoned, bitter, and false representation of the Gospel. Therefore, the church needs to re-evaluate the water. The church needs to put the water to the test and purify the impurities.
There are two groups that represent this option:
- Radical water changers: Those who would say that the historic Christian faith is wrong in many ways.
- Moderate water changers: Those who say that the contemporary Christian faith is wrong in many ways.
How can we purify the Gospel? By removing unnecessary and bad doctrine that has misrepresented the truth and given the church a bad name. But the question becomes: What are these impurities?
The radical water changers would have no ties to tradition at all. They would entertain the thought that many beliefs that have defined the historic Christian faith are wrong. Included in these beliefs could be the doctrine of Hell (is it really eternal? Is it really real? Let’s not speak about it), the doctrine of God (is God really eternal? if so, how can He relate?), the exclusivity of Christ (is Christ really the only way?), the atonement (would God really enact “cosmic child abuse” to secure redemption?), the doctrine of sin (are we really condemned for the sin of another?), and the like. The water is purified to the point where all that secure is the fact that God loves all people and will eventually save all somehow (universalism). These can be found in the liberal church and many of the more radical representatives in the emerging church.
The moderate water changers, on the other hand, would say that the church must always be evaluating the water to make sure that no impurity has crept in unaware. Sometimes these impurities come as a result of reaction against the culture or other false teachings. They are added to the water during the battle, but never taken out – even when the battle is over. This group would look to historic Christianity for the basic essential elements of the Gospel, often looking to the early creeds and confessions. Additives that they would consider unworthy of the water would be issues of practice that have become normalized to such a degree that you cannot distinguish them from the Gospel. It may be how we do church (“big church,” “little church”), how we present the Gospel (the “sinners prayer,” walking the aisle, the Four Spiritual Laws), how we relate to the culture (“if the culture does it, Christians should not” mentality), and legalistic practices (Christians should not drink, gamble, dance, smoke, or go to the movies), political additives (Christians must vote Republican), and the like. According to this group, these practices have been traditionalized within the church to such a degree that they are now part of the water. As well, according to this group, non-essential doctrinal additives are present in the water. Some Christians have elevated non-essential beliefs to that of essentiality (political affiliations, views of the end-times, views on election, views on the inerrancy of Scripture). Therefore, the church needs to purify the water as it has become corrupt, getting the water back to the basic essentials. This option is held by many evangelicals and has much representation in the moderate emerging church.
I don’t believe that the radical water changers are on safe ground. How can one depart from two-thousand years of essential Christian belief and still call themselves Christian? Is God absent from history? Is He a cheerleader on the sidelines or is He in the game? You cannot justify a radical change in basic Christian doctrine. You may not like it or agree with the way God did things, but if the Church has held strong to these basic essentials, we must respect God’s work through the giants of the past. When they speak in unity across time, you had better humble yourself and listen. This amounts to diluting the water according to the feelings and opinion of a contemporary audience. This will not do.
The moderate water changer option, on the other hand, has much to commend. They don’t seek to dilute the water, but to remove the additives. We are always in need of re-evaluation and reform. I believe that the Reformers were moderate water changers with regards to the culture and church at the time of the Reformation. Interestingly, the institutionalized church of the day believed that they were radical water changers. I believe that the church does need to inspect the water to make sure that there are no impurities present. I do believe that the Gospel can become identified by non-essential methodology and folk lore. Indeed, this makes the water not only hard to drink, but it can become completely destructive to the representation of Christ. Christ, in this sense, can be separated from the Gospel and the church. We need to make sure this does not happen.
In short, the water needs to be mere Christianity. Once it is, then it cannot be changed.
To bring this to a conclusion, I believe that all the options have their place when rightly understood. How do we engage postmodernism? I believe that we meet people where they are and bring them the essential Christ. The options will be relative to the situation. Therefore, there is no one option that is always right or wrong. (Boy, that sounds postmodern!)