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The Postmodern Challenge

Michael Goheen
Trinity Western University
Langley, B.C.

Ephesians 4:14-15
Then we will no longer be infants,
tossed back and forth by the waves
and blown here and there by every
wind of teaching and by the cunning
and craftiness of men in their deceitful
scheming. Instead speaking the truth
in love, we will in all tings grow up into
him who is the Head, that is Christ.

New Winds of Change

A massive intellectual [worldview, cultural]
revolution is taking place that is perhaps as
great as that which marked off the modern
world from the Middle Ages (Diogenes
If the world has not approached its end, it
has reached a major watershed in history,
equal in importance to the turn from the
Middle Ages to the Renaissance (Alexander

What is postmodernity?
This word [postmodernism] has no
meaning. Use it as often as
New cultural period
Failure of modernity?
New worldview?

How are Christians to respond?

We are not intended to be conformed to the
world but to be transformed by the renewing of
our minds. God uses changes and chances in
history to shake His people from time to time out
of their conformity with the world; but when that
happens our job surely is not just to push over
the tiller and sail before the winds of change, but
to look afresh to our chart and compass and to
ask how we now use the new winds and the new
tides to carry out our sailing orders. Every new
situation is a summons to bring all our traditions
afresh under the word of God.
- Lesslie Newbigin

No longer tossed back and forth

Present: New postmodern winds
Past: Sailing peacefully before
modern winds
Our task: Not simply push over tiller
and sail before PM winds of change
Our task: Look afresh at our chart,
compass, sailing orders
Our task: Understand changing winds

How are Christians to respond?

The real question is: What is God doing in
these tremendous events of our time? How
are we to understand them and interpret
them to others, so that we and they may play
our part in them as co-workers with God?
Nostaligia for the past and fear for the future
are equally out of place for the Christian. He
is required, in the situation in which God
places him, to understand the signs of the
times in the light of the reality of Gods
present and coming kingdom, and to give
witness faithfully about the purpose of God
for all men.
- Lesslie Newbigin

Response to Changing Times

Enable us to see our conformity with
Not simply conform to postmodern winds
Nostalgia for past, conservatism wrong
Require fresh analysis of cultural situation
Analysis done in the light of Gods word
What is God doing in these events?
Understand for the purpose of witness

Postmodern Challenge
Postmodernity is skepticism toward
big cultural stories of progress.
Simplifying to the extreme, I define
postmodern as incredulity toward
metanarratives (J-F. Lyotard).

Big Stories of Progress

Humanistic vision
Build better world through science
and technology
20th century forms:


Why dont we believe these big

stories anymore?
Growing poverty
Declining economy
Depletion of resources
Destruction of the environment
Escalating militarization (nuclear
Social and psychological problems

Idols have not delivered on

Material prosperity? Poverty is
Freedom? Controlled by media,
education, big business, government!
Truth? Bewildering pluralism!
Justice and peace? Oppression, war,
violence, crime abound!

Impotence of Idols
Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved
it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who
makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols
that cannot speak (Habakkuk 2:18).
Their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands
of men. They have mouths but cannot speak,
eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but
they cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell;
they have hands but they cannot feel, feet but they
cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their
throats. Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them (Ps.115:4-7).

What is God doing in our time?

Judgement! shall suffer the penalty
and bear the consquences of
your sinful idolatry (Ezekiel

O Lord, my strength and my fortress, my

refuge in time of distress, to you the
nations will come from the ends of the
earth and say, Our fathers possessed
nothing but false gods, worthless idols that
did them no good. Do men make their own
gods? Yes but they are not gods!
Therefore, I will teach them--this time I will
teach them my power and might. Then
they will know that my name is the Lord
(Jeremiah 16:19-21).

Postmodern Challenge
Postmodernity is skepticism toward
big stories of progress
Postmodernity is a challenge toward
a rationalistic view of humankind

Christian view of humanity

Religious centre/direction
Serve God or idols
Many aspects: body, emotional,
rational, imagination, historical,
communal, aesthetic, judicial, ethical,
Creational harmony
Modernity: reason exalted

Idolatry and Depreciation

Idolatry of some part of creation
Depreciation of other aspects
Gods faithfulness to harmonious
interrelation of diverse creation
Suppressed aspects forces its way

Understanding Postmodern Times

God made human beings with numerous
functions and abilities
God made human beings to be unified in
service and knowledge of God
When that religious dimension is denied,
one of the functions is absolutized
Other aspects diminished
Rise of suppressed aspects to new

Non-rationalist dimensions of
humanity suppressed by rationalism
Desire, passion
Instinct, intuition

What is God doing in our time?

Human rationality cannot bring
Invitation to find true unity
Human beings are made to live in
communion with God
Faith, obedience, and love define
humanity not rational activity

Postmodern Challenge
Postmodernity is skepticism toward
big stories of progress
Postmodernity is a challenge toward
a rationalistic view of humankind
Postmodernity is a protest against an
objectivist view of knowledge

Modern worldview . . .
Stories of progress
Rooted in confident rationalistic
Science tool to enable man to
achieve goal

Objective knowledge of science

Science gives us objective knowledge
Our minds can mirror world
Scientific method gives us a neutral
standpoint outside relativities of
culture and history
Objective and neutral knowledge
enables modern man to shape the
world with technology and social

Subjective factors shaping



Change in knowledge
Certainty to uncertainty
One truth to pluralism
Objectivity to relativism

Need for new epistemology

Incomparably the most urgent missionary
task for the next few decades is the
mission to modernity . . . It calls for the
use of sharp intellectual tools, to probe
behind the unquestioned assumptions of
modernity and uncover the hidden credo
which supports them. . . .At the most basic
level there is need for critical examination
from a Christian standpoint of the reigning
assumptions in epistemology . . .

Postmodern Challenge
Postmodernity is skepticism toward
big stories of progress
Postmodernity is a challenge toward
a rationalistic view of humankind
Postmodernity is a protest against an
objectivist view of knowledge
Postmodernity is the triumph of
economism and consumerism

Late modernity (Walsh/Middleton)

(Idolatrous faith in economic growth as goal
of human life)
(Idolatrous faith in technology)
(Idolatrous faith in science)

Growth of Consumer Culture

Industrial Revolution
Technology, rationalization of work
Free market comes to centre
Liberalism and capitalism

20th century: Economism,

Global dimensions

Consumerism and postmodernity

The postmodern is rightly associated
with a society where consumer
lifestyles and mass consumption
dominate the waking lives of its
-David Lyon

Creeping consumerism
Once established, such a culture of
consumption is quite undiscriminating
and everything becomes a consumer
item, including meaning, truth, and
-Philip Sampson

Consumption of experiences
From rock music to tourism to
television and even education,
advertising imperatives and
consumer demand are no longer for
goods, but for experiences.
-Stephen Connor

Christian response: 1-5

As a believing community we are entering
into a new missionary situation
We need to understand the postmodern
shift not simply react
We must be committed understanding and
living within the story of the Bible
We must engage in dialogue from within
the story of the Bible
This dialogue with postmodernity will give
us a deepening insight into modernity that
has been shaping our culture for centuries

Christian response: 6-9

In postmodernity we will find dangerous
idols that bring death
In postmodernity we will find new insights
that bring life
We need to struggle with new ways to
understand our relation to postmodern
culture so we can be both faithful and
This dialogue with postmodernity must not
lead only to understanding but must take on
forms of communal life that embody life and
reject death