Effects of Modernism and Postmodernism
One can see in the art and literature the trends of a culture, and I think the biggest challenge for Biblical preaching is modernism and postmodernism. Indeed one can hardly have one without the other. Rabbi David Lapin describes modernism correctly as the automatic rejection of “old” ideas, “Modernism is the odd notion that mankind should view revolutionary change as inherently good. It is the views that, almost by definition, modifying today’s society will produce a better tomorrow” (Lapin 1999). This bodes well for our economy, as old things are discarded to make room for new products and commodities, but it rejects the notion that anything could be learned from the past. Ironically modernism was perhaps at its height during the 50’s and 60’s (a time that many cultural critics hearken back to nostalgically), when schools and education were being reformed in the destructive ways mentioned earlier in this essay. When modernism becomes consumerism, it starves the soul. If ideas about spirituality are consumed in the process, nothing takes root. The focus is on quantity, not quality; on breadth, not depth. There is no space for reflection, let alone application. Listeners at a sermon might react with “I’ve heard it before! What’s next?”
Consumerism feeds the natural human desire for instant gratification. But while our ancestors worked long and hard to grow food, and sat down to enjoy the evening meal with the family; our culture has given us fast food. Lapin reflects on this: “The rapid growth of fast food, however, conditioned us to the notion that anytime and anywhere is suitable for a snack or meal….Or national personality was shifting. We became more self-indulgent and less disciplined; more attuned to immediate gratification than to what was best of the long-term” (1999). Technology may have made life easier, but our problems are more complex than ever because of it. We expect fast, easy solutions. We expect to sort through things to find what is relevant, we are taught to weed through data to find answers that apply to our lives. Our culture isn’t looking for truth, because the truth isn’t always easy.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, goes beyond that. Quoting the neoconservatism philosopher “Irving Kristol defines ‘postmodern art’ as a ‘politically charged art that is utterly contemptuous of the notion of educating the tastes and refining the aesthetic sensibilities of the citizenry. Its goal, instead, is deliberately to outrage those tastes and to trash the very idea of an aesthetic sensibility’” (Medved, 1992). This is, perhaps, where the anti-moral filth in Hollywood comes from. Its purpose is to offend and shock.
But there is more to postmodernism than that. It is a reaction to everything that has come before. Americans may not remember well their own history, and modernism may have us ripping down buildings that have not had a chance to become historic, but Americans remember atrocities. One need only look at World Wars I and II, and lament with T.S. Elliot in The Waste Land to illustrate this point. I work at a private school in Bellevue, with students from all walks of life, where I co-teach a class about art, culture, and contemporary society. These kids cannot understand what is so miraculous about a Jackson Pollack painting. They do not see the genius of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They figure you could just take a picture of something if you wanted it to look real. They miss the art because they have seen just about everything. Only the most atrocious and abominable images get any reaction to it. They aren’t trained to see the subtlety of brushstrokes, or understand the religious symbolism, or understand the suffering by the artist to create beauty. And why should they, when Pollack has been highly copied, and you can get Michelangelo’s “Hand of God” printed on a t-shirt? They know that art is supposed to move them, but it takes a lot to do so.
For Biblical preachers, their duty becomes more difficult as people in our culture turn against the methods for the very same reason they turn against modern art. They see traditional things as threatening and cling to science for truth. The professional atheist Dawkins argues with religionists saying that “of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this [a book about atheism], which is surely a work of Satan” (2006). As a member of this culture, it is difficult to turn away from the many accomplished and important people who have publicly turned away from faith. The inventor of the new physics Einstein has said “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion…The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve” (as quoted in Dawkins, 2006).
Kids These Days
One author declared that “If there is a moral movement in each generation, we need to know the direction and the velocity of the movement. This helps us understand what tomorrow might look like, and it helps us decide whether we welcome that particular vision of tomorrow for our children” (Lapin, 1999). I am here to tell you: the future for Biblical preaching ain’t pretty. Being receptive to Biblical preaching requires a certain thinking paradigm which does not mesh with our current culture.
For the high school students at the school I work for, these students come from non-religious families that celebrate secular holidays and mostly pay lip-service to Christianity. Of the twenty-five or so kids I work with on a regular basis, only one identifies herself as Christian, and could find her way around a Bible. Others claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” as if they are afraid of the very word. There is very little that moves them, except for intolerance. They are politically and socially moderate, only advocating change if it seems like it will work quickly, and won’t trample on anybody’s freedom of speech or expression. They are terrified of somebody telling them what to think, yet are generally obedient to authority. There is a general lethargy to their generation: they would rather play video games than work, they are barely able to imagine their own futures, and they absolutely do not believe they can have any impact on the world. It is hard to say how much we must explain this with simple adolescent development, and how much is due to the culture they are indoctrinated into.
As a teacher, I was taught to avoid religious topics whenever possible, unless I wanted to cover all religions equally, in an academic manner. Teachers are to avoid sharing their religion with their students, which means they are not permitted to be a role model in this area. While there is a general expectation that teachers will have Christian values, they are not allowed to share them, or talk to students about how morals are shaped. Apparently, in order to create a society that has certain freedoms, those liberties are not extended to the very people responsible for passing them on.
What is Needed
To be receptive to Biblical preaching, one must have a belief that some things are absolute and true. Christians find this truth in the Bible, which contains God’s truth, His plan, and His expectations of us. Indeed, true Christians believe that “the words of the Bible are inspired of God. Divine inspiration has rendered the Bible infallible….The inspired Book is inerrant” (Holland, 1998). But our culture of secularism has taught us to look to science for answers, and to look to our subjective experiences to reason out what is true for us as individuals. This goes against the idea that Biblical preaching is for everyone.
To be receptive to Biblical preaching, one must also have a fear of the unknown. The Bible contains answers to the unknown by offering salvation through Jesus Christ. But American culture is based so much on instant gratification, especially through information, that I doubt people worry much about what is unknown. They can read about what other cultures believe, and they can look to science for answers (the answers of which, to me, seems quite soul-less and depressing!). The information is so overwhelming, that it is easy to just assume that someone somewhere knows the answer, and to give up looking for one’s self. Or one might adopt an answer they have read because it “makes reasonable sense” to them at the time, without regard for any objective truth. Good Christians know that “Salvation, either present, or future, is dependent upon a knowledge of and obedience to the Word of God” (Holland, 1967).
Ultimately, “popular culture…is a man-made product, generated by a surprisingly small community of vulnerable and insecure human beings. That community has reconsidered its values and modified its priorities several times in the past, and future changes are not only possible, they are inevitable” (Medved, 1992). The question is, how can Biblical preachers contend with this? How can they—or should they—change to meet the needs of their congregation living under a new paradigm?
There is much to contend with! It is clear that these paradigms do not fit together. While that is not to say that Biblical preaching is irrelevant, preachers must be aware of what they are working against, and do what is in the scope of their power and experience to create change. To reach this generation, the preacher to be aware of their real problems and offer comfort and real answers, not fear, prejudice and damnation. Appealing to the emotions of the congregation by scaring them into baptism is not going to work. Rather, the preacher must find the truth as he or she knows it, and make it relevant. They need to re-teach, and coax the starving soul back to health.
Bloom, A (1987). The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Dawkins, R (2006). The God Delusion. New York, New York: Bantam Press.
Goodreads, Inc, (2009). Quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Retrieved July 23, 2009, from Goodreads Web site: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/38442
Holland, T (1998). Preaching: Principles and Practice. Brentwood, Tennessee: Penmann Books.
Holland, T. (1967). Sermon Design and Delivery. Shreveport, LA: Gussie Lambert Publications.
Lapin, D (1999). America’s Real War: An Orthodox Rabbi Insists that Judeo-Christian Values are Vital for our Nation’s Survival. Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, Inc..
Medved, M. (1992). Hollywod vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.