Postmodern Christians, We Have a Problem (Or Two)

Guest blog by Dallas Nord, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary student, farmer and writer.

Here’s the situation: We are millennials. We grew up, came of age, and entered (or are entering) adulthood all within a postmodern society. That’s important—and perhaps problematic—if you’re a Christian. If you’re a millennial Christian like me, then you probably don’t really love the ways that Christians and the church have behaved, how they’ve read Scripture, or how they’ve engaged society and politics in recent years (or in recent centuries!). Why not? Well, it has something to do with the transition from modernism (key words: reason, proof, objectivity, universal truth, etc.) to postmodernism (key words: culture, context, subjectivity, diversity, relative truth, etc.) that has been happening over the last few decades in our part of the world. Young folk like us who are accustomed to this postmodern landscape are far more comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and diversity than our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were. While these older generations (who grew up, came of age, and entered adulthood within modernism) have trouble accepting ideas, lifestyles, and beliefs that seem to contradict their own, our generation is actually pretty good at being generous and accepting of those who differ from us. We recognize value and validity in each person’s experience and the beliefs that emerge from those experiences. We think it is a bad idea to hate people just because they’re different, and we think it’s a really good, Christlike idea to love everyone no matter how different from us they may be. Props to the millennials for figuring that one out! (Ok, so we’re not the first ones to figure out the whole “love everyone” thing, but we certainly say it louder than generations past.)

However, we may have a problem. Actually we might have two problems. Well ok, we have lots of problems, but I’ll only address two of them here. First, those modernist, older folks that call themselves Christians but don’t seem to be following the same Jesus as us—we don’t like to allow them the title of “real Christians.” That title we reserve for people like us who truly care about social ills in the world, who value ethics over doctrine or tradition, and who know how to be nice to people who are different from us. Aside from the fact that this causes us to be mean to “the mean Christians,” this posture assumes that we can judge who belongs to God’s people and who doesn’t. Karl Barth—the most important theologian of the twentieth century[1]—argued that there have been multiple bases by which some Christians have tried to discern who the “true Christians” among them were. Some tried basing it on sacraments like baptism—if you’re baptized, you’re “in.” Others tried basing it on holiness or morality—if you don’t screw up, you’re “in.” Both of these were misled, Barth says. While we cannot know with certainty who is like chaff and who is like wheat in God’s eyes, we can know with certainty that Christ’s redemptive act is as much for them as it is for us. Barth writes,

But when we believe in Jesus Christ, presupposing that we are in the community which is before us and that we live with it, we are required to accept as a working hypothesis that other members as well as ourselves can be holy and not unholy; not on the basis of their own thought and will and action, but in spite of the doubtful nature of all human thought and will and action, as those who are separated by the Lord of the community and therefore genuinely, as real Christians.[2]

So even though those old, stiff-necked modernists in our church are old, stiff-necked, and modernists, we do not get to exclude them from the body of Christ. This should be easy for us—we are all about inclusion, not exclusion—but it is terribly difficult to uphold that virtue when it comes to our own people.

Speaking of inclusivity, that leads us to our second problem. It seems that in our effort to be loving and to embrace everyone no matter what, we have sacrificed our ability to truly speak into each other’s lives. When we take postmodernism’s tolerance virtue to its extreme, we become unable to call our friends (and ourselves) away from certain ideas or behaviors (in church we call this “repentance”) and toward better ways of life (maybe we can call this “salvation”) because to do so would seem intolerant or unloving. We are a generation that is really good at affirming others; we know how to say “Yes.” We have trouble, though, ever saying “No.” In reaction to modernism’s failure to embrace others in love, we have chosen to err on the side of silent acceptance. Again, I’m pretty sure that this is better than outright hatred and rejection, but if we truly want to love our friends and neighbors, won’t we want what’s best for them? Sometimes while saying Yes to them, that Yes will need to include a No. At least, that’s what Karl Barth said.

I think Barth is right. Just take a look at Jesus. I’m sure most of us millennial Christians would affirm that Jesus is a Yes kind of guy. He didn’t reject anyone, even if they were unclean, poor, foreigners, liars, traitors, racists. He’s the very person that inspires our loving embrace of all people! And rightfully so. Notice, though, that he also wasn’t afraid of confrontation. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly says that his kingdom is for the poor and the vulnerable and the outcast. That’s a pretty big YES! But he doesn’t leave it at that. He still has words of admonition: don’t be angry at each other (Mt. 5:22a), don’t insult each other (Mt. 5:22b), don’t give into lust (Mt. 5:27-30), don’t act violently (Mt. 5:35-42), love even your enemies (Mt. 5:43-48), etc. These are the Noes. But recognize that these are not bad ideas. These are all good ideas for better living. Jesus only gave a No within a larger Yes. Now think about the disciples—especially Peter. Jesus gave each of them a big Yes when he called them to be his followers and friends. All along the way, though, he was calling them out wherever they were failing or missing the point. Despite those moments of rebuke, however, they never felt rejected by Jesus. They kept on following him (except for Judas I suppose) and continued his mission once he was gone.

This should be a model for us as we dialogue with our neighbors and friends. We should lovingly embrace each one of them—certainly!—but let’s not be afraid to encourage real transformation in their lives when needed. A “Yes” without a “No” is just a “So What.” A loving Yes will want the best for the other and will include a No to the things that are not life-giving for that person. Sometimes we will need to say to our friends, “I’ve experienced this new way of life in Jesus and have given up [insert old way of life here]. I think you would find it refreshing and life-giving as well.” Were there things that you felt called away from once you started following Jesus? Name those things and explain how life was better as you left those things behind. When I began to encounter Jesus in a meaningful way, I felt compelled to give up my aspirations of wealth and “success” as popularly defined. I totally rerouted my college and career direction in search of a more service-oriented lifestyle. And that has made life so much fuller for me. Based on that experience, I can suggest a similar repentance and transformation in other’s lives.

Today, my wife and I like to borrow a line from Wes Anderson’s film, Moonrise Kingdom. In the film, Suzy tells Sam that she wishes she were an orphan. Sam, an orphan, responds, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Suzy pauses briefly, then replies, “I love you too.” Sam’s response to Suzy’s insensitive remark is a No within a Yes. It is a loving rebuke. And it is effective. Suzy gets it. She hears and feels the No, but it is the Yes that she feels most deeply and responds to. So while we probably shouldn't use Sam’s words exactly, we should carry the spirit of them when we need to communicate a No to our friends. Let the Yes be so true and so meaningful that the No is understood as an act of honest love.

In sum, if we want to be embracing of all people, then that will include embracing our modernist brothers and sisters in the church. Even when we speak a No to their actions, attitudes, or theology, let’s be sure we situate it within the Yes of affirmation to their membership in the body of Christ. And if we want to be good neighbors to our fellow postmodernists, then we cannot be afraid to include a No with our Yes as we engage them in relationship. To give only a No to the church and only a Yes to our friends is to fail to love on both fronts. Let us be people of love on every front.

[1] If you don’t know who Karl Barth is, Google him after reading this. For now just know that he was a brilliant preacher and theologian who didn’t really love the whole modernism thing either.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, 699.

Posted on April 5, 2017 .