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Framing the Gospel for the Relational Context of Postmodernism

Stanley E. Patterson

Framing the Gospel for the Relational Context of Postmodernism

It is necessary that I begin this reflection on the adjustments necessary for the Christian community to reach Postmoderns with a note regarding the sitz im leben that nests this issue. I find myself tempted to write in the past tense as a reflection of what should have been done rather than as counsel on what should be done. The high speed rail of generational uniqueness rushes past so quickly that by the time we react to the social change with a solution, the solution has already surpassed its shelf life.

For this reason, I present the following counsel to the Christian community as an adjustment made necessary because it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus—not simply as an answer to reaching postmoderns. Jesus couples “truth” with “spirit” (John 4:23) to identify the primary dimensions of the true worshipper. Though I will direct my words at the issue of fine-tuning our focus more toward spirit in the postmodernism context, the healthy balance on the continuum of these two dimensions should serve people of all generations.

My “Boomer” generation spent our youthful energy marching with placards protesting social and political issues. Some of us made social statements by sleeping in parks, experimenting with drugs, declaring the Age of Aquarius, and challenging the basic institution of marriage. But eventually we settled for the change we did or did not effect and gradually settled into the mainstream, made money, married, made babies, went to church, divorced—sometimes multiple times—without giving much thought about the fact that those babies we cherished, along with their collective attitudes would go on to define postmodernism.

These children of boomers did not rebel as much as they simply eased into a culture that left behind much of what defined their parents. Nearly 50 percent of whom had suffered through the trauma of domestic meltdown (Bramlett and Mosher 2002:59) came to find more security in hanging out with friends and ultimately living with one than risking the arrangement of marriage and family (De Bruycker 2008:1451), which had contributed so mightily to their own pain. These are children whom the institutions of society and religion failed in subtle ways—multitudes of children who often could not see the relational fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, patience, goodness, gentleness, self-control, etc., promoted as the religious standard of behavior which did not protect them from childhood loss of mother and father. What good did the “Truth” do for them when corrupt religious and community leaders were preying on them or their peers? What did the savings and loan banks (Pontell and Calavita 1993:32), Enron (Seeger and Ulmer 2003), and WorldCom do to engender trust in institutions (Bachmann and Inkpen 2011:283)? Where were they to find their generation of heroes amidst the narcissism of national sports figures (Welch 1997:395)? How were American young people to emulate their national leader who so publically violated his family and honor (Rustomjee 2007:534)?

The recipe for postmodernism has been coming together on a macro scale for a couple of centuries but was molded soon to a micro level in reaction to the failures and excesses of the previous generation. Postmoderns embraced relativism, became cynical about the value of institutions, fearful of the traditional approach to family, and immersed themselves in the fearless and frenetic social, musical, and athletic activities that mark them as a unique group.

Organized religions, along with the standards and rules that define them, have largely been ignored. Giordin (2009:229) expresses it well: “The spirituality of seeking, by contrast, is open to the possibility of confronting and meeting diversity: new teachings, new experiences, new ritual practices. The spaces for this type of spirituality are no longer the traditional locations such as churches, but rather the multifarious situations of everyday life or, more deeply, one’s own self.”

In the wake of this new socio-cultural reality are parents, churches, institutions, and even governments who struggle to pick up the pieces that postmodernism has jettisoned along the way. Those ancient and often sacred narratives that provide the foundation of our faith and the underpinnings of our hope are among the castoffs we are gathering. Those sacred truths around which we and our forebears built and systematized our theology, our doctrines, and our absolutes of faith no longer have the power to convince that most likely age group from which new accessions to the church have historically come. How do we bring Christian conviction to this passionately spiritual population who are just as likely to find spiritual fulfillment elsewhere?

I would suggest that we, the predecessors of postmodernity, come to terms with our contextual role in creating it. We must face down the realities that our generation’s contribution to social and spiritual issues in the lives of our progeny give reasons to why they relate to authority as they do, to authenticity as they do, to truth as they do, to organized religion as they do, and to social institutions as they do. We must consider the possibility that our rational, truth-focused approach to spiritual life may have forgotten to emphasize the One after whom it is rightly named—the Holy Spirit. The postmodern emphasis on authenticity, relationships, service, freedom from authoritarian control all point to the first element that defines true worshippers (John 4:23)—Spirit. Truth follows and is companion to it, but it is Spirit that prompts relational behavior and enables an others-first attitude. Healthy relational behavior and the relationships that follow are Spirit-induced (Gal 5:22, 23) and often went missing for many postmoderns in their formative years.

It would be naïve to assume that the crafting of postmodernism is simply a result of the failures of the generation that gave birth to those who populate it. But it is blind denial to assume that postmodernism emerged apart from the influence of the failures of the late modern period. Owning and embracing that responsibility can also lead us to new ways of proclaiming those eternal truths effectively in the postmodern period. The collective emphases of postmoderns betray the generational pain from which they emerge. The proclamation of Jesus’ saving grace must be attuned to their foci—relationships, authenticity, service, and freedom from authoritarian behavior, and it must be delivered by voices that truly honor those values.

Hamm (2007:77) suggests that humility may be the most necessary characteristic of the church that wishes to reach postmoderns. We must recognize that Christianity in the Western world is in serious decline. “Even America, for so long a bastion of a distinct and vigorous form of cultural Christendom, is now experiencing a society that is increasingly moving away from the church’s sphere of influence and becoming genuinely neopagan” (Hirsch 2006:51). The church must adjust its methodology and its identity in order to reach postmodern generations even as the Master adjusted his methods and identity to reach us.

The Word Made Postmodern

The incarnation of Jesus was a process of epic change. Moving from being with God to dwelling with humans (Matt 1:23; John 1:1) cost him his life and was necessary for one reason—God loved us and wanted us back. Transforming the Word into understandable form was the means by which he achieved his goal. Postmoderns require a similar process in order for the sacrifice of Jesus to be made effective for them. In this case, we must set aside our preconceived notions of how the Scriptures should be presented. We must adopt an incarnational approach that reframes the Word into language that maximizes the possibility of engagement and connection consistent with the platforms upon which their culture is built. What Jesus did for us, we must do for them.

In the Beginning

The biblical narrative of creation launches the traditional believer as a “creationist,” who is thus made distinct from the “evolutionist.” It establishes the Adventist believer as a seventh-day sabbatarian in contrast to those who choose to worship on the first day of the week, which subsequently sets us on a course that culminates in the mark of the beast (Rev 13). Those who are right are pitted against those who are wrong—a truth-driven but adversarial journey. This is a tension necessary for establishing truth, but certainly not attractive to your typical postmodern for it violates their relational assumptions. Where in the adversarial arena of doctrinal religion does the postmodern satisfy the quest for authenticity, relationships, service, or freedom?

The adversarial heritage marks Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas’ characterization of postmodernism as a threat to the survival of Christianity and warns Christians off of any attempt to draw postmoderns into fellowship with Christianity (1999:115). This assumes the rightness of Christianity without assessing the need for adjusting the Christian approach toward a legitimate spiritual offering that meets the yearnings of postmoderns and accepts responsibility for contributing to the condition we reference as postmodernism.

Baer (2012) quotes Nilofer Merchant’s reference to the postmodern period as the social era. Discussing the need for change in the approach to business and industry, she expresses the postmodern attitude as follows: “So if the industrial era was about how a central organization was needed in order to create value, the social era is about how connected individuals—independent of an organization—can create value. . . . The industrial model is [emphasis supplied] such an us/them archetype and yet today . . . you can co-create something. It is working much more fluidly in relationship to people.”

This mentality is radically different than what has been practiced in business and industry in the past but she is speaking to the need to adjust to the postmodern context. Those entrusted with the proclamation of the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (Rev 14:6)—including postmoderns—must also face the likelihood that a radical adjustment in mission as usual will be required for this generation.

The incarnation of Scripture for the postmodern will see the Creator in social context, working together as a team to make a planet into a paradise—a place to make life and friends that could be engaged on a daily basis to “hangout” just for the sheer pleasure of being together. A garden where the newly created friends have permission and responsibility to look after all that is in it, not in a controlling manner, but as loving caretakers. This is a spirit-driven pursuit that does not negate the truth-driven approach, but simply attends to the “spirit” side of the spirit/truth equation of John 4:23. Humans were created for relationship with the Creator (Gen 3:8; Jer 23:23) and with one another (Gen 3:18) and postmoderns long for such authentic relationships which eluded too many of them as children of the late modern period.

“In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) to support and sustain relationships—his and theirs. “Male and female created he them” (1:26) to enrich and add new lives to their relationships. “He gave them dominion over all the earth” (1:26) and “put him in the garden to tend and keep it” (2:15) to add the joy of service to their relationships. He bonded the man and the woman into “one flesh” (2:24), which anticipated authenticity and relational commitment. The specifics of this ontology of biblical creation provide the beginning point standards of meeting the heart’s desire of postmoderns.

The Cosmic Conflict

The rebellion of Lucifer (Isa 14; Ezek 28) marks a critical ontological moment in the context in which we live our lives. It was in this conflict between God and the dissatisfied Lucifer that the relationship, so carefully designed and so beautifully anticipated, fell apart. No more walks in the cool of the evening (Gen 3:8). No longer did the garden absorb the sound of the happy conversations between God and the man and woman it hosted. The collapse of the relationship meant that they had to move out of the home God had given them—not so different from the life-numbing pain and separation that so many postmoderns experienced as children. Life became difficult. The social order of Eden was exchanged for a hierarchical order wherein the woman lost equality with a husband who was now her ruler (Gen 3:16) and the first brother became a murderer in order to satisfy his desire for dominance and rulership over his brother (4:8).

Postmoderns want Eden back—the press for parity between the sexes is a pre-fall reality that was exchanged for a post-fall system that layered people according to graduated value and dominance. But postmoderns hope for something better outside of the dogmatism of religion. The Christian community must be willing to present the “great controversy” as a relational crisis that offers a way out even before the conflict is concluded. By faith the child of God may re-enter the Garden and rediscover authentic communion with God, equality in marriage, stewardship of created life forms, and lifestyle.

Equality between the sexes is an evangelistic calling card for those who wish to reach the postmodern who idealistically envisions an Edenic principle that can be acquired through the Spirit now. We need to leverage their hopes which are consistent with the reality that God promises to the redeemed, instead of criticizing them for looking for something different than what Christianity is comfortable offering.

Authority and authoritarianism, both of which are sensitive subjects to the postmodern, emerge as issues in the context of the home and expand to include school, church, and employment environs. Kennedy and Charles (1997:6) state that the current resistance to authority is likely an overreaction to authoritarianism—sort of throwing the baby (authority) out with the bathwater (authoritarianism). Authority is a necessary part of life and is an essential element in the healthy function of God’s kingdom. Our mental model of authority has, however, been badly spindled by Lucifer’s counterfeit—authoritarianism. A careful study of authority as demonstrated by God consistently reveals a generative impact—it always contributes to growth and improvement. It gives life. Even the authority promised to Jesus’ disciples is given with a mandate of transformation and life (Matt 28:18-20).

Authoritarianism was likewise a product of the rebellion that led to the ongoing conflict between the forces of God and Lucifer. We must analyze the behaviors associated with Lucifer’s rebellion which intended to obviate the generative authority model assumed by God. Consider Isaiah’s account of Lucifer’s rebellion and note the difference between what is revealed in the creation account:

13 For you have said in your heart:
‘I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High’ (Isa 14:13-14).

This authoritarian egocentric upward focus is revealed in the use of the first person singular by the speaker, Lucifer (v. 12). His goals were not authorized nor was he ordained to such lofty achievements, rather he personally coveted a position and a role to which he was never called. Lucifer journeyed counter to the direction established by the kingdom of God by climbing up the ladder of his dreams and from that ladder he fell with tragic results:

12 How you are fallen from heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!
15 Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol,
To the lowest depths of the Pit (Isa 14:12).

The postmodern aversion to the controlling leader, the despot or dictator is here affirmed in the justice meted out to Lucifer. There are consequences revealed in this prophecy that validate the prohibition against self-ascendancy, dominance, and authoritarian behavior that may be leveraged in conversation with Postmoderns.

Ezekiel continues this metaphorical message in his lamentation of the King of Tyre:

12 “Son of man, take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre, and say to him,
‘Thus says the Lord God:
“You were the seal of perfection,
Full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; ….
14 “You were the anointed cherub who covers;
I established you;
You were on the holy mountain of God;
17 “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty;
You corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor;
I cast you to the ground.”

The setting for both Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s depiction of prideful self-promotion and ascendant behavior is the “mountain of the Lord” (Isa 14:13; Eze 28:14). In both narratives the offender covets position and glory that were not his own and in both cases the consequences were tragic. The goal of this model of rulership or leadership is dominance, while coercion is considered fair play as a means to achieve that end. We must remember, though, that there are postmodern values regarding issues of position and glory. In both of these biblical passages the characters assume an ascendant attitude inconsistent with the collaborative behavior that accomplished the task of creation. Authentic relationships are violated in the process of Lucifer’s rebellion against God.

It is on the heights of this metaphorical mount that the “Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). It was from this lofty site that Jesus began his journey of incarnation—“the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). He became Emmanuel, not by requiring us to ascend the Mount but by coming down to serve our transformational needs. He adopted a postmodern attitude of diversity in that he dwelled with us (John 1:14), defied the strictures of polite Jewish society and ate with us—even with tax collectors and prostitutes (Matt 21:32)—he was betrothed to the church even while she herself played the harlot (Hosea 3:1), and he laid aside the prerogative of position and announced that his preferred relationship was “friend” rather than “Master” (John 15:15)—a narrative that is absolutely consistent with the values of postmodernism.

The incarnational model of Jesus Christ sets the standard for leadership behavior by the Christian. Note that I did not say it is a standard for the church even though that would be true, but the danger is that we might assume incarnational behavior only toward fellow believers. Incarnational behavior is our testimony of Christlikeness that can validate Christianity to the postmodern who seeks authenticity over formalism in spiritual matters. How we lead our families, our communities, our businesses, and work environments is the test that bears witness of our commitment to ascendancy to dominate or descent to serve. Our behavior toward others marks our leadership orientation—service or control? This matters to the postmodern.

Religion as Service

Notice how frequently Jesus’ posture of service includes the element of descent: he sat down and taught them (John 8:2); he leaned down and healed them (Matt 15:30); he leaned down to place his healing hand upon the little girl (Mark 5:32); He came down and healed (Luke 6:17); he cast forth the demon from the child at his feet (Luke 9:42); Zacchaeus was called down to be with Jesus (Luke 19:5); he sat down with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:6); he stooped down to write the words that delivered the woman taken in adultery (John 8:6); Jesus looked down upon the paralyzed man and offered to heal him (John 5:6); he reached down to mix saliva with clay and anointed the blind man and he gained his sight (John 9:6).

Likely the most powerful expression of Jesus’ descent to serve is recorded in John 13. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded” (John 13:3-5, emphasis added).

In this act we have a clear statement of Jesus’ expectation of us: “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:13-17).

Laws That Govern Life

Jesus was addressing men whom he had discipled to the expected end that they might lead the process of establishing his church on the earth—world class leaders who would within the first century stand at the head of a movement that changed the world forever. The expectation that spiritual leaders are called to walk down the path of service could not be made clearer. We are not to function as rulers after the pattern of this world where “lording it over others” (Matt 20:25, 26) is not only accepted but often encouraged. Greatness comes from service, not dominance. Traveling the ascendant-dominant path not only dishonors the Master, it ends in disappointment, pain, and ultimately death. The greatness of Jesus Christ was established by coming down to serve and ultimately down to the grave. He became the ladder that connects heaven and earth (John 1:51). He never lifted himself up but rather asks us to lift him up in our words and in our living (John 12:32) as a means of making his transformational gift available to all.

The laws that govern traffic on the leadership path find their foundation in the law of love—love of God and fellowman (Matt 22:37-40). All other behavioral standards are nested in this great law—avoid selfish ambition and consider others before self (Phil 2:3); bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23); apply the “golden rule” (Luke 6:31), and all of the other dictates that govern relational behavior. Spiritual leaders are others-oriented and the focus of their love, while appropriately honoring self, never obsesses upon self. Love is the motivator that urges us to descend to serve, while all that we are apart from Christ urges us up the down path in pursuit of dominance and self-glorification.

There is a great irony contained in the narratives of these two models: the throne that Lucifer coveted (Isa 14:13) and which incited his rebellion is given to the redeemed children of God (Rev 3:21). While Lucifer is cast down from his ascendant climb, those who submitted to their Creator and live a life of loving service are lifted up and granted the privilege to sit on the throne upon the Mount of God.

Postmoderns have largely rejected the competitive values of the industrial age in favor of a more relational collaborative model. This reality challenges the church to edit the language of the gospel to minimize the competition between right and wrong and to emphasize the striking difference between the two models of behavior that have been observed upon the mountain of the Lord. We, then, have a dependable relational gauge by which to assess ourselves in connection with God and others. Our actions will either be up or down, generative or destructive, loving or uncaring.


Postmodernism finds its beginnings in the inadequacies of the late modern age. Boomers struggled to maintain marriage and uphold family. Churches and public institutions of this period failed to maintain integrity in regard to the fiduciary responsibilities they shouldered and too often betrayed. Government performed no better. These and other failures mentioned in this chapter seem to create reasonably congruent cause and effect links with postmodernism. As a result, the church that is still primarily represented by moderns ought to shelve the criticism of postmodern values and explore the voice of repentance and humility when reaching out to postmoderns.

By God’s grace, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we may follow the footsteps of Jesus which honor the values of authenticity, healthy relationships, meaningful service, and freedom from authoritarian control. This will require a reframing of the gospel wherein God is made flesh in the postmodern context. In the wake of this spiritual witness, transformed people should remain who are better off than when we found them

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