Like a slow-moving weather front gradually blanketing the horizon, a radical shift in the way young people view reality is bringing permanent change to the world's spiritual climate. The global forecast is both threatening and promising.
Postmodernity, as this mood-change is becoming known, is not a rational, consistent, philosophy. It is not a cohesive, logical mindset. It is a soup of contradictory ideas. Yet it is as radical a change as that triggered by the Enlightenment, when 'Pre-modern' thought gave way to the 'Modern' view of life.
This climate-shift is bringing major change to our daily lives. And it carries major challenges (and opportunities) concerning the way we present and demonstrate the Gospel today and tomorrow. Our evangelistic methods and approaches developed for the 'Modern' world will be irrelevant for a 'Postmodern' generation. Our local church life also needs total evaluation in the light of these changes.
From Sacred Canopy to Iron Cage . . .
Sociologist Peter Berger describes the 'Pre-Modern' period as 'life under the sacred canopy', when the Cathedral dominated the city, and the parish church spire towered over the town.
The Enlightenment shifted the focus of life from heaven to earth, from God to nature, from revelation to reason, from hope in the future to life in the present, and from worship of the transcendent to obsession with the transient. This 'Modern' period is described by Berger as 'life in the iron cage of laws and Newtonian cause and effect'.
For over two centuries science, rationality and the doctrine of progress have reigned in the western world. The Modern era has been the age of '-isms' - rationalism, humanism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, liberalism, capitalism etc. - all systems promising a better future through the application of reason and principles.
Modernity - the sum total of such shapers of today's society as urbanisation, industrialisation, science and technology - has created a prevailing climate of unbelief. Issues of faith have been sidelined in our modern world. Religion is tolerated only in the private arena. The result has been a steady exodus of church-goers, especially from traditional churches. Morality and ethics have been increasingly shaped by personal convenience and self-gratification, creating an alarmingly large hole in the 'moral ozone layer'.
. . . to Chaos
Postmodernists today, however, spurn Modernity's promise of progress. They reject all '-isms' and rational attempts to create a better future. They are disillusioned with ideologies. Peter Berger's apt description of this newest period is 'life in chaos'.
Although sometimes termed 'Postmodernism', this new perception is no '-ism' in the sense of a logical ideology. As with 'post-communism', it is a diverse response to the breakdown of a dominant '-ism'. The vacuum left by the collapse of Marxism in eastern Europe has attracted a wildly disparate collection of forces and influences competing for dominance. We can describe the resulting condition as 'post-communism', although it is no '-ism' itself.
Postmodernity is the obverse of the collapse of modernity. All sorts of irrational and contradictory beliefs have flooded into the resulting vacuum, creating a chaos of ideas in which there is no ultimate meaning or direction. Belief in a better future, a universe that makes sense, an overall explanation of reality, or the existence of objective Truth and Absolutes - all this has been replaced by hopelessness, cynicism and nihilism.
Frightening? Yes. But could this also be the breakthrough we have been praying for?
The term 'postmodern' was used prophetically in the 1940s by British historian Arnold Toynbee. He then predicted that the final phase of Western history would be dominated by anxiety, irrationalism and helplessness, cast adrift from any universal ground of justice, truth or reason.
In the 1980s the expression gained new currency in architecture, literature and art, referring to movements reacting to the restrictions of efficiency and logic. One writer claims that the postmodern era began at 3.32pm on July 15 1972 when a housing development in St Louis, Missouri, considered the peak achievement of high modernist architecture, was blown up after being judged uninhabitable!
Adrift and alone
The roots of postmodernity, however, are found in the writings of Friedrich Nietszche, the nineteenth century German philosopher, originator of the 'God is dead' thinking.
Man was alone in the universe, he taught. Therefore there are no rules, no absolutes. You are what you choose to be.
Your life is like an empty canvas waiting to be filled. You are the artist and you can make a work of art out of your life. Fill in the blank space as you please. There are no guidelines. No one can tell you how you should live. There are no rights or wrongs anymore, only preferences and opinions.
At the beginning of this century, Einstein's theory of relativity broke open the tidy, rational, predictable system of Newtonian physics. His theory upset all previous assumptions of the nature of reality, breaking open the bars of the 'iron cage'. Nothing was objective anymore; everything was relative. Even space and time were relative, not absolute, concepts.
After a long gestation period in academic circles, these ideas have eventually taken root in popular culture. From late modernity's mass culture and consumerism has emerged a generation - first called Generation X by author Douglas Coupland in 1991 - which no longer believes in progress, in the future, in absolute morals or objective truth, in divine destiny or purpose for humanity. The goal of this generation is simply survival - and fun - in a godless, mindless universe.
Just do it!
'Trainspotting', a film recently screened in New Zealand, is a powerful postmodern statement. The title refers to the compulsive habit of collecting train engine numbers from the British railways - ultimately pointless, but giving life some structure.
Train spotting is thus a metaphor of life, and the film portrays the lifestyle of four Glasgow heroin addicts, whose ultimately pointless and destructive habit also gives structure to their life. Why take drugs? the film asks. Answer: because it's wonderful - for the moment. It makes you feel alive.
Typically postmodern, Trainspotting suggests it is better to choose risk and excitement, to 'just do it!'. Better to die young than to "choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows . . . to choose rotting away at the end of it all, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f-ed-up brats that you've spawned to replace yourselves".
Illogical and repulsive, maybe. Yet many under 30 are influenced by this postmodern outlook. Such an outlook could seem all bad (if we dare still to use concepts of good or bad!). Yet in some respects, postmodernity marks a radical swing back towards a biblical view of reality.
In contrast to the modern, scientific perspective, postmodernity is open to the transcendent, to the mysterious, to spirituality and even to the Spirit. It emphasises the story rather than the creed or logical proposition, the need to discover life for oneself. It stresses the personal journey, the process of discovery. It emphasises the immanent, the here and now. It rejects materialism, and is in search of authentic community. In these respects, postmodernity resonates with the Biblical worldview.
But there is an obvious 'down' side too. Postmodernity clashes head on with scriptural revelation by claiming there is no Truth, only 'truths' for oneself. There are no criteria outside of oneself. Objective knowledge is not possible ('everything you know is false'). Sin and evil don't exist.
There are no absolutes - only relativism and pluralism. There is no 'meta-narrative', no 'grand design', no overall explanation of life and reality. There is no future hope. Only the present counts.
Resulting lifestyle features flowing from these ideas include the following.
· Consumerism: in choosing and buying we find identity and acceptance. Tesco, ergo sum - I shop, therefore I am. Shopping in the malls as individuals or as families has become the new religious weekly experience in the postmodern temples.
· Pluralism: by rejecting the general utopias, the grand schemes, we focus in on the small stories of separate individuals. We choose plurality over conformity and monopoly, and distrust all claims for what is good for humanity as a whole. We are free to choose and create our own identity, including our sexuality. We can be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual. We can change our identity at will. No one has the right to judge us. We should be tolerant of others' lifestyles. There are no right or wrong lifestyles.
· Image and appearances: since there is no objective reality, there is no identity behind the image. You are what others see you as. This is increasingly true in the political world as well as in the pop culture. Appearance, not substance counts. Madonna is the archetypal icon of postmodernity. Her ability to change her image every couple of years has been part of her success: from gangster moll to virgin in white; from neo-hippy to glamour queen; from androgynous, cold robot to naked sex symbol (all that's left for the world to see are her x-rays!).
In postmodern culture, we are always in search of the new, moving from one image to the next (as if surfing television channels), throwing off the old when we grow tired of it. Michael Jackson, another postmodern icon, has had several facelifts and nose changes. Perhaps he will be the first black man in HIStory to become a white woman!
The artist formerly known as Prince officially changed his name to an indecipherable squiggle, so that newspapers often refer to him now as Squiggle. Irrational? Sure - but so what? Who needs to be rational?
· Fragmentation and tribalism: there is no postmodern culture - rather many cultures. The focus is on the small personal stories, not a unifying culture. Talk of 'the generation gap' belongs to the distant past. Our present society is "splintering into hundreds of sub-cultures and designer cults, each with its own language, code and lifestyle", according to a TIME magazine report.1
The future could see increasing political fragmentation as the traditional solidarities of political parties and trade unions erode, destabilising the system. What if, as the Generation Xers grow older, they continue to reject the ideologies and '-isms' of the parties? Some suggest that postmodernity, as a collapse of idealism, is paving the way for new expressions of fascism. This may also be true in post-communist eastern Europe where postmodernity is spreading through MTV and other cultural channels from the west. Others predict a return to the city state as the nation state fragments and society implodes.
· Blurred boundaries: in a relativistic world, the old distinctions of right and wrong, good and bad, reality and fantasy, truth and error - even past, present and future - have lost meaning. Truth, capital 'T', does not exist. "That may be true for you but it's not true for me" is a typical postmodern response to Christians sharing their faith. Traditional, rational apologetics may be appropriate for modern people, but become irrelevant for postmodernists.
Postmoderns have no problem 'mixing and matching' elements from various religious belief systems, however contradictory and illogical that may seem. What counts is not Truth, but the 'feel good' factor.
· Nihilism . . . with a smile: in an incoherent, pluralist world, idealism has died; there are no great causes to live for. This is a major difference with the counter-culture of the 1960s, buoyed by optimistic ideals of love and peace. Films and programmes like Beavis and Butthead and Wayne's World typify postmodern irony, distancing themselves in a relativistic, humorous way from public opinions. What use is it to have strong, lasting convictions?
The advertising for the film Trainspotting uses the phrase "Laughing in the dark", reflecting the attitude of enjoying the moment despite the ultimate meaninglessness of life. The dying words of Captain Kirk, recalled from the past to help on an assignment in Star Trek: The New Generation, are: "but it was fun!"
All of this presents obvious challenges for us as believers. Evangelistic methods effective among modern audiences leave postmoderns untouched. Traditional forms of church life no longer appeal to most modern, let alone postmodern, westerners. Yet Paul said he strove to be all things to all people in order to reach some. Can we be 'postmodern' to the postmoderns, in order to reach some?
The Lausanne Covenant affirms our need to be "rooted in Christ, and closely related to our cultures". Can we closely relate to the postmodern culture, and express the Gospel Story within that context, without compromising the content? After all, we have already noted that in some areas a postmodern outlook is more biblical than the modern perspective.
Firstly, as in any cross-cultural exercise, we need to find out where postmodern youth, Generation Xers, etc, are coming from, how they think, and what their needs are (and they are many). We need to listen, to understand and to identify.
Our starting point is not to present the 'Answer' - postmoderns don't believe there are answers. Rather, we need to lead people on a journey of discovery, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well, helping her discover who he was.2
Jesus did not publicly announce who he was; he did not go around teaching propositional truth or systematic theology. He let people discover who he was - as with the man born blind, in John chapter 9. Postmoderns need to discover the story of Jesus as being true for them, and eventually as being true for all.
Evangelism needs to be a process, involving quality relationships. People need to see credibility and authenticity at the local level. Postmoderns are in search of real community, and should be able to find it among fellowships of believers. Local congregations need to be communities of hope, living out the story of Jesus for others to see.
In an increasingly pluralistic society, we need to develop relevant expressions of being 'church', perhaps even developing different congregations within the one church, meeting the needs of the different cultures present in our area - one church, many congregations. Radical youth congregations are emerging in Britain, for example, to meet this need.
Specialised ministries will be needed to respond to the increased fragmentation of society. Within missions like Youth With A Mission, we can expect more diversification and multiplication of ministries like the King's Kids, No Longer Music bands, Island Breeze, etc.
Return of the Prodigal?
We have noted a new openness to aspects of biblical revelation. Could this signal a prodigal society at last 'coming to its senses' after squandering its heritage, and wanting to return to the Father?
Listen to the confession of Coupland (coiner of the 'Generation X' term) in his recent book, Life After God: "Now - here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love."3
Finally, let's recognise that anything named 'post-' is temporary. Because it has no clear identity of its own yet, it is defined by what preceded it. The terms 'post-Christian', 'post-communist' and 'postmodern' are used to describe much of contemporary society, east and west. But what will follow in ten years, or twenty? The new has not yet emerged with its own identity. The challenge for the Body of Christ is to help shape our culture with biblical values!
When Roman order collapsed across Europe, chaos and fragmentation reigned - until messengers of the Gospel, the Celts, Benedictines and others, came telling their Story. The communities they established in time became the building blocks of the new order, western civilisation.
Perhaps with the current collapse of the modern order, today's messengers of the Gospel have a new opportunity to lay fresh foundations for the future.
Kevin Graham Ford, Jesus for a New Generation, IVP, 1995.
Nick Mercer, 'Postmodernity and rationality: the final credits or just a commercial break?', chapter 18 of Mission and Meaning: Essays Presented to Peter Cotterell, edited by Antony Billington, Tony Lane and Max Turner, Paternoster, 1995.
Andrew Walker, Telling the Story, SPCK, 1996.
Jeff Fountain lives at Heidebeek in Holland with his Dutch wife Romkje. They have three boys. Originally from Auckland, Jeff was a journalist for the NZ Herald after completing his university studies. Following a year as Travelling Secretary for TSCF, he went to Canada to manage the Shekinah Company of singers, dancers and musicians. In 1975 he moved to Holland at the invitation of Floyd McClung. Since 1990, Jeff has been the regional director for YWAM Europe/CIS.