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Postmodernism, Post-truth, Generation Z: What’s It All Mean?

Stephen D. Doe

The title of a recent class I took was intriguing: “Skating to Where the Puck Will Be.”[1] The title came from hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck is going to be not where it has been.” If the movement of the “puck” is our culture, the society in which the church finds itself, how does the Lord of both history and the church guide us in his Word to faithfully navigate these times?

The intensity with which cultural shifts are challenging the church is reflected in some of the books being written to try to make sense of what we are seeing:

  • Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics – Ross Douthat
  • Culture Shift: The Battle for the Moral Heart of America – R. Albert Mohler Jr.
  • The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West – Michael Walsh
  • The Disappearance of God: Dangerous Beliefs in the New Spiritual Openness – R. Albert Mohler Jr.
  • From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity – Thomas E. Bergler
  • How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor – James K. A. Smith
  • It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies – Mary Eberstadt
  • Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World – Charles Chaput
  • To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World – James Davison Hunter
  • We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, & the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong – R. Albert Mohler Jr.
  • You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit – James K.&nbps;A. Smith

No, this is not your reading list for the next year (and it is only a sampling), but it demonstrates that many people are thinking, discussing, and writing in books, articles, and posts, about what is perceived as an age of challenge.

God has certainly always given the church some men of Issachar to understand the times[2] in an especially pointed way, but all the people of God are also given the wisdom to learn how to live in a culture where the puck always seems ten yards ahead of us. The Scriptures do not simply make us wise for or unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:15); they are the means by which the Christian must “re-frame” the torrent of information which a culture, unmoored to any transcendent truth, flings at us. For example, as I wrote this, thousands of young people, hoping for the experience of a lifetime, flew to a very expensive musical festival in the Bahamas only to discover that the hype covered poor planning and execution, and left them desperately trying to get home. What was happening? The promise of “an experience” pushed away all thoughts of caution. The believer is told how to see such promises, how to re-frame in light of God’s Word[3] the near obsession with “experience” over clear thinking. The promise of experience has to be weighed in light of what is unchanging. Asking, “Is this worth it in light of what is eternal?” can challenge us when we are tempted to click on that website or give into the anger that swells in our hearts.

The church itself must think how to “skate to where the puck will be,” that is, how to proclaim the gospel in the age in which it finds itself, without marrying the spirit of the age.[4] It is inescapable that we live in a time of cultural change more rapid than any of us has ever faced. Born after the Second World War and growing up in the relatively stable 1950s and early 1960s, I know the sense of dislocation that many people in the church feel. We might be tempted to take comfort in the fact that the percentage of professing believers in the United States may stay at the same level, as pollsters prognosticate. The changes taking place around the church, however, are also forcing their way into the church, simply by virtue of the fact that Christians live in, and are subtly affected by, this culture.

Here is one example: if you had asked church-goers just twenty years ago if homosexuality was a sin, they would have said yes, although they might have been vague about the biblical reasons for saying so. Accepting current data, if you are to ask millennials or Generation Z[5] (those born after 1995) the same question, the number of those saying yes would be much smaller and perhaps more tentative, as they looked around to see if their friends approved. What’s going on? Is the difference due to age? Is it the result of poor teaching in their churches? I would suggest that Christians of twenty years ago and those of today are in fundamentally different places. Twenty years ago it was socially acceptable to be opposed to homosexuality, even if one didn’t have a clear idea of why it was sinful. Today, however, as Carl Trueman has pointed out, the challenge Christians face is not simply being out of step but being offensive by their very existence.[6] This is especially difficult for those living in a peer-driven culture. As sojourners and exiles (1 Pet. 2:11), we are not “idiots” but “bigots” in our current cultural climate.[7] And what young person (or older person for that matter) wants to be thought of as a bigot?

That is only one of the challenges facing the church in a ceaselessly secular age. Even if the portion of the American population that self-identifies as “Christian,” will be 24–25 percent over the next few years, the same as it is presently, how is the church to reach the other 75 percent, especially if that 75 percent is becoming increasingly disconnected from biblical Christianity? How is the church to bring the gospel to bear on a society and culture which are decidedly secular, and only growing more so? Given our doctrinal commitments to the centrality and infallibility of the Word of God, how does the church speak the gospel into this secular society? [8]

The foundational paradigm is that our thinking must be shaped by the Word of God if we are to speak clearly to our culture. Scripture must speak louder, and have more influence, than anything else. When we check our emails or newsfeeds first thing in the morning, is our understanding of what we read filtered by the Scripture? Do the doom-saying headlines of our news feeds shape our view of the world, or do we live with eschatological confidence in the power of God to glorify himself in all things? [9] We can be seduced by the promises of a culture that wants us to live for the (next) experience of food, car, house, movie, or relationship. The young people flocking to an island, at the cost of thousands of dollars for an immersive experience of music, tropical paradise, and great times found instead ham and cheese sandwiches and muggings. Their experience was the experience of a world which promises much but cannot deliver, and yet comes back to promise more the next time.

Many people are pointing out that the current mania for transgender rights is the archetypical picture of a culture which is unwilling to let anything besides personal preference define our personhood. Our often-fleeting desires, rather than something as robustly real as chromosomes, and as profoundly transcendent as Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:18–25, win the day. Beyond postmodernism’s questioning of objective truth is post-truth’s[10] focus on truth being determined by how we feel about something. For instance, “I feel like a female, though I have male parts, and you can’t deny my feelings.” The church’s answer, compassionately given to those captured by this confusion, is that what we are as image-bearers of God, is determinative because the Creator knows what he intended when he created us. Again, as we look to where the puck is moving, we must be grounded in what the Scriptures teach.

People might say, “I went to your church, and I didn’t feel anything, so why should I believe that what you say is true?” When believers try to talk to “Nones”[11] and “Exiles,”[12] we can find that we are like “ships passing in the night.” We are speaking a language that Nones and Exiles do not understand. Our task is to speak biblical truth to those for whom the very category of truth is suspect, while trying to listen to them to see what lies beneath their words. We do this because we too were once disobedient, led astray until the goodness and lovingkindness of God appeared.[13] We must recognize that, in terms of postmodernism, a claim of having the truth is an act of oppression. We cannot surrender the gospel and cannot be ashamed of it, but how do we address unbelievers[14] in the time in which God has placed us?

It is because people, postmodern, millennial, or secular, are God’s image-bearers that we always have a communication bridge. Just as we have DNA that determines eye color, height, etc., so God has written into our hearts ways of thinking which, however distorted or twisted by sin, are still there. The pleasant young person waiting on me at the store may be male or female—neither the dress, hair style, or voice gives me a clue, but leaves everything ambiguous. He or she[15] is inescapably an image-bearer, and I should treat “them” as one. My discomfort or puzzlement needs to be replaced by a biblical viewpoint, that that person is created to be a worshiper, and is called to be a worshiper of God the Creator. In this way we are to love both our God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:34–40).

Because of the language Christians speak, we are oftentimes not being heard, so we have to think harder about not only what we are saying, but how we are saying it, and whether our words are reflected in our living. How are believers to see themselves? Though there are those in our society who see themselves as “exiles” from the church, Christians themselves are the exiles. This world is not our home, yet we are placed here to show forth the glories of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). While exiles long for home (Ps. 137:1–6, Heb. 11:13–16), God commanded his exiled people to live here to show forth his glory. We have to learn to speak to those around us and raise as few barriers as we can. In how many of our churches do we fail to recognize the enormous challenge a non-Christian faces in walking through the door and sitting through a service? So much is assumed that people will know how to find a hymn in a hymnal or sing a hymn projected on a screen, or understand that it is okay to put nothing in the plate when the offering is received. Do we realize how our Calvinist jargon is like a foreign language to many people? Do we expect people to simply understand things because it is second-nature to us?

People might be willing to risk coming to worship if we exhibit Christ-like words and deeds; and if we are willing to admit, when we fall short, that this is why Christians need the gospel, too, and need it all the time. We might ask ourselves: “Do I love the world too much, or perhaps, don’t love my true home enough? We cannot change the content of what we say, the gospel is the gospel, and we can’t change the fact that it is propositional truth (Rom. 10:5–17) that must be communicated. But the way we communicate it, in our words and lives, must take into account how it is being received.

People, whether Nones, Exiles, or those openly hostile to the gospel, are probably unlikely to be argued into the kingdom. The experience-oriented culture in which we live, with its rejection of absolutes, is perishing because it lacks the truth. The trajectory calls us to think differently about how we communicate the unchanging truth. Are we willing to grapple seriously with the question of the church’s faithful proclamation of the gospel in a society increasingly unwilling and unable to hear what we are saying? Christ is building his church, and no cultural shifts can stop that. I believe that we need to talk to and interact with others who are thinking about these things— even if we don’t buy everything they say. This will challenge us to ask ourselves whether we are understanding things rightly. The OPC is committed to being a confessional, Word-and-sacrament church. We are already countercultural in that way, and God can use us; but we shouldn’t be contrarians for the sake of being contrary. Do we really want to see the OPC shrink while we say that we are being faithful? If we believe what we say we believe, that God is sovereignly calling a people to himself, what is our part in that? How will we communicate the message of the gospel not only in 2017, but in 2030? We can only do so if we are ever more shaped by the Word of God and are not conformed to the thinking, culture, language, and secularism of our age (Rom. 12:2).

Endnotes

[1] Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC, November 17–19, 2016, taught by Rev. Randy Lovelace, lead pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church (OPC) and Dr. Michael Metzger, founder and president of the Clapham Institute based in Annapolis, MD, www.claphaminstitute.org.

[2] “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do …” (1 Chron. 12:32).

[3] For example: “… as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

[4] Cf. William Ralph (Dean) Inge’s quote: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” BrainyQuote website, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/w/william_ralph_inge.html.

[5] James Emery White, “Meet Generation Z,” Church and Culture (blog), August 28, 2014, http://www.churchandculture.org/Blog.asp?ID=6368. See also, Jonathan Merritt, “Forget millennials. How will churches reach Generation Z?” Religion News Service, May 1, 2017, http://religionnews.com/2017/05/01/forget-millennials-how-will-churches-reach-generation-z/ and “Generations X, Y, Z and the Others,” WJ Schroer Company, accessed May 25, 2017, http://socialmarketing.org/archives/generations-xy-z-and-the-others/.

[6] Carl Trueman, “Issues for the Western Church in the Twenty-First Century,” Grace Theological College, NZ, video recording of lecture, published July 3, 2015, http://www.gtc.ac.nz/news/issues-for-the-western-church-in-the-21st-century/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This was the thrust of the seminar at RTS-DC.

[9] Romans 11:33–36.

[10] “Post-truth” was the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year”: “post-truth adjective Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016.

[11] “Nones” are those who claim that they don’t fit into the categories of religious preference, and therefore don’t go to church, though they may consider themselves “spiritual.”

[12] “Exiles” are those who consider themselves “Christian” but are not connected to any organized body because they don’t see any that “work” for them; hence they see themselves as exiles from the church.

[13] Titus 3:3–7.

[14] We shouldn’t naively think that our young people in our churches are not being affected by these cultural shifts. The percentage of “churched” young people who think homosexuality is okay because they have friends who are gay, is significant.

[15] The preferred pronoun is actually “they.”

Stephen Doe is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as regional home missionary for the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic. Ordained Servant Online, June 2017.

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