Volume 30 - Issue 2

Postmodernism, Free Markets and Prophetic Margins

By Carl Trueman

The last decade or so has seen a veritable industry developing within evangelical circles with reference to what is tiresomely referred to as ‘postmodernism’. I will attempt no definition of this hackneyed cliché since it often seems to operate in Christian circles merely as a vacuous shibboleth, demonstrating to the wider world that evangelicals can be trendy too. I consider it appropriate, however, to offer a number of comments on the broad cultural phenomenon of evangelical writing on the topic. Sadly, unlike so many of the postmodern evangelical pundits out there, I make my comments in the form of an editorial, and so I am unlikely to be able to build an entire career out of this, nor to massively enhance my standing with my bank manager. And therein lies my first point; commenting on postmodernism, producing yet another introduction to the topic, stringing together one portentously opaque phrase after another, has become quite a lucrative business in the wider academic world, and evangelicalism has, for once, not been slow on the cultural uptake. Postmodernism sells, and that’s what makes it attractive to many of its proponents. Ten years ago, the way to make a career at the trendier end of evangelicalism was to publish a book with ‘Revisioning’ in the title; now you would be well advised to make sure that some phrase in the title begins with the word ‘Towards’. This adds just that touch of modesty, and avoids the appearance of—horror of horrors!—dogmatism (though, as secular critics such as Terry Eagleton have pointed out, there are few people more dogmatic than those who have bought into any one of a number of postmodern dogmas). Whether the commentary offered by such books has anything of use to say to the woman battered by her husband or to the starving in Sudan or the myriad of AIDS victims in the Two-Thirds World is another matter—but then those people don’t buy evangelical books and sit on job interview panels, do they?

That brings me to my second point. Despite rumours to the contrary, it is increasingly apparent that the relativism that is so closely associated with many strands of postmodern thought is actually highly conservative in its implications.—Its radical disempowerment of all viewpoints and positions makes it impossible for the weak and despised to mount any major critical assault on their oppressors. If the beaten wife has her narrative, so does the wife beater; and who is to adjudicate between the two? One suspects that the one with the hardest punch, not the best narrative, will inevitably win that argument. Indeed, one might describe postmodern relativism as the classic modern Western ideology: consumerism and the philosophy of the free market applied to the realms of epistemology and belief. If you like an idea, if it ‘works’ for you, then, go ahead, buy it; if you don’t like it, if it leaves you cold, just leave it on the shelf. The consumer is king, after all. This sounds great, but by preventing any effective assault upon the real structure of the market, economic or ideological, such relativism leaves power in the hands of those who have it already. It then ensures that the weak, the oppressed, the outsiders are kept in their position of subordination and never allowed to challenge the dominant powers that be. That is ideal for the conservative who wants no real challenge to be mounted to the actual status quo. It is a problem for the radical who wants to see real change for the better.

This is the real tragedy of the evangelical writers who buy into the post-foundational relativist paradigm. What they appear to want is a bit of interpretative and doctrinal modesty; what they buy into is a way of thinking that destroys any critical edge which Christianity might have relative to the ways of the world around. It is perhaps no coincidence that so many of the evangelical postmodern gurus who maintain an orthodox faith have not studied systematics, philosophy or cultural theory outside of the seminary or Christian college environment, and have never worked in the secular university system. Instead, they have been surrounded by the safety of communities of teachers with no desire to take relativism to its obvious conclusion. Had they sat, as some of us have done, in university environments where postfoundational relativism is used to justify everything from female circumcision to infanticide, they might have a different take on the dark world into which their superficial grasp of complex secular philosophy is merrily leading us, like some garish and grotesque Pied Piper.

This leads to my third criticism of contemporary evangelical responses to postmodernism. It tends to be reductionist not simply in its analyses (pro and con) of the various movements to which the term refers. It is also reductionist in the alternatives it offers. One has to be either for it or against it. One must either abandon the idea of truth unchanged, unchanging; or one must hold to it with a vengeance. In other words, one must either become irrelevant by stripping oneself of any power with which to criticise the status quo; or one must become irrelevant by simply regurgitating the past as if there was no need to think critically about how to engage the church’s past with the church’s present. In either case, one loses the ability to criticise, to be, as it were, prophetic.

This is why evangelicalism needs to think about a third option for responding to the modern world, not one of nostalgic fundamentalism or postmodern relativism. I want to suggest that we should focus not on the free market consumption of ideas, or the mantra-like justification of the status quo, but on the prophet margins of the Christian faith.

That biblical faith is prophetic is obvious to even the most superficial reader of the Bible. The prophetic books themselves occupy a significant part of the OT, and the Torah and the historical books contain significant numbers of prophets, good and bad, throughout their narratives. Much is to be gained from thinking about such figures since they often operated in similar circumstance to our own.

First, we must not forget that Israel, even at its strongest, was a relatively minor and irrelevant state in the ancient world. Compared to Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and later Greece and Rome, Israel was politically and economically of little importance in the grand scheme of things. It looms large to us because we spend our lives reading about it in the Bible; but we must not let familiarity with it mislead us into having an inflated view of its overall importance in the wider ancient world. The comparison with the church is obvious: the church, at least in most parts of the West, is a poor and insignificant entity, scarcely likely to merit a mention in any primer on contemporary Western culture or politics except, perhaps, in a place like the USA where the religious right has a certain political influence.

Second, Israel was surrounded by nations who worshipped other gods and operated according to different norms of morality. Do I really need to point out the contemporary relevance of this? The church is surrounded by a world which despises Christ and worships gods of its own making, paying homage to creatures as if they were the Creator. Some are tempted to despair at this. I’m inclined to think this has always been the situation and we need to spend less time fretting about the situation and more time addressing ourselves to it.

Third, Israel was continually being corrupted, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, by the ways of the nations around her: carved images; greed; lust; unholy alliances, political and otherwise. You name the sin of the nations, Israel indulged in it. Again, one can argue that precisely the same happens on a regular basis in the church: materialism, greed, sexual chaos, unbiblical ways of thinking and acting. You name it, the church has done it throughout her history, and continues to do so.

It was against this background that the prophets operated. One could write volumes on the roles played by the prophets, but space requires we note just a few salient points. First, the prophets did not care particularly about the power and status of Israel in the eyes of the world. Theirs was not a war being fought primarily for international cultural hegemony in terms of domination and power. It was a war being fought for the honour of God’s name in the world, demonstrated by the fidelity of Israel to her covenant God; and it was fought to ensure that Israel embodied in her particular corporate life a witness to God’s universal justice and righteousness and favour. We need to remember this as a church. We are not first and foremost in the game of winning elections or Nobel Prizes or appearing in the Fortune 500, worthy ambitions though all of these may be for some of us. We have the much more significant task of witnessing to the power, the righteousness, the mercy and the grace of the God of the Gospel in our lives, corporate and individual, and that so that God’s name might be honoured among the nations.

Second, the prophets, therefore, had to have a solid grip on truth. God’s truth was not negotiable, nor was it merely the narrative of one community which had no reference to another. The tirades against idolatry and injustice were rooted in the knowledge that these were universal standards to which all nations and all human beings would one day be called to account. If the prophets had drunk deeply at the relativist end of narrative theory, they would have had no universal relevance. After all, telling the worshippers of Molech to stop sacrificing their children would have been little more than an act of cultural hubris, imposing a local Israelite narrative upon another nation. This is why the church must not buy into the relativist mindset. It is utterly disempowering, it leaves everything just as it was, and it gives no basis for critiquing the ways of the nations that surround us. We need our Bible; we need our doctrine; we need our creeds. This is not to excuse us from thinking critically about either our own church traditions or contemporary culture, but to empower us to do precisely these things. The tragedy is that the postmodern evangelicals and the fundamentalists both, ironically and in their different ways, prevent us from doing these tasks. Buy into either scheme, and you will not be able to say anything worthwhile to the nations out there. A plague on both their houses!

Third, the prophets loved the nation to which they belonged. Their critiques almost always hit Israel the hardest and that was because Israel was closest to their hearts. They did not attack Israel out of contempt for her but because they loved her with a deep passion and commitment, and thus longed to see her enjoy the fullness of the Lord’s blessing. Again, there is need as always for constant criticism of her ways and attitudes when it comes to today’s church. In rejecting the trendiness of the postmodern relativisers, I do not want to be guilty of the opposite error, that of resting complacently in the status quo. Prophetic criticism of the church is a perennially urgent necessity, but if it is not to become merely a sterile or narcissistic exercise, it must arise out of a genuine love for the church and a concern for her future. Anyone can sneer and scoff at some of the crazier notions and actions of evangelicals. However, only the one who belongs to the community of God’s people, who loves and cares for them as one who is part of them, can make criticisms which do more than merely breed cynicism and bitterness.

Fourth, the prophets did not expect any thanks for their task. Any reward for most of them was definitely postponed until heaven. The prophetic path was a tough one, and it remains so today. Fortunes (comparatively speaking) are made by writing for the popular postmodern evangelical market. That, perhaps, should worry us a little, particularly when the focus of so many is on issues which do not cut us to the quick. The focus is typically not on those issues which come closer to home, such as greed, poverty, justice, materialism, etcetera. Read Isaiah 58, where the prophet points to the easy way in which God’s people have domesticated his demands upon them; and then ask yourself if the contemporary prophets of postmodernism in the church are hitting the same notes. The comparison is instructive. The prophetic voice is, almost by definition, one that most of God’s people, let alone the nations, do not want to hear. And there’s a lesson for evangelical theologians there too: woe to you when your ambition is that all should speak well of you.

In short, the church still needs prophets: those who will not capitulate to the latest trendy winds that are blowing across the theological desert, but who will also not sit and be smug and self-satisfied with the status quo. You don’t have to buy the stark alternatives that the gurus of the evangelical left and the ayatollahs of the evangelical right try to sell to you. The church needs neither trendy lightweights nor reactionary mullahs. She needs those who know God’s truth and who love the church to speak that truth to her in love, in a manner that may well be disturbing and hard at times but which will call the church to be that for which she was intended: a witness to the justice and mercy of God manifest in Christ, for the salvation of the nations.

So, this issue’s word of advice is that you might want to consider opting out of the postmodern free market and thereby boosting the church’s prophet margins. The pay is lousy, the hours are awful, the gratitude is—well, forget that for a start. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but somebody really has got to do it.

If you flinch at the idea of getting your hands that dirty, don’t forget, the culmination of the prophets was one who, though he considered not robbery to be equal with God, came and took the form of servant … Thank God that someone did that job.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.