Postmodernism in Sunday School, What Should We Do?
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
- 2005 Sep 28
We live in a day of revisionist history and indeed revisionist thinking. Relativistic postmodernism is pervasive not only in our culture but across the globe. Postmodernism is in many ways a reaction to modernism. At one time the prevailing mindset of western civilization embraced the idea that science, rationalism, empiricism, and objectivity held the answer to the workings of the universe, the longings of the soul, and the problems of humanity. In reaction to and against that mindset of modernity is postmodernism. In this contemporary mindset is the essential idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth. According to Gene Edward Veith, this prevailing mindset "...goes far beyond relativism." The postmodern not only denies absolute truth but actually attempts to deconstruct truth altogether. In postmodernism, new paradigms are brought to bear on contemporary thinking "from the deconstructionism and post-Marxism of the universities to the relativism of popular culture."
No doubt exists that postmodern thinking has percolated down to and invaded pop culture. Many are apt to reject absolute truth and come to the place where they feel that the truth in anything they read is a subjective matter. In other words, no objective or universal truth is to be found in the reading, only what is "true for me." The sad reality is that this subjectivism, grounded in postmodern thought, has crept into the church.
At the same time, depending upon the book, much of one's understanding of the writing can be subjective. We all approach what we read with our own set of presuppositions. Of course, that very dynamic is the reason Christians must take careful pains to exegete Scripture in its historical/grammatical context. Unfortunately, wild opinions as to what certain Scriptures mean abound in the evangelical world because many have no understanding as to how to exegete Scripture, many are unwilling to do the hard work of exegesis, many are not aware of such a necessity, and many are simply an authority unto themselves.
In our individualistic culture, people tend to read the Scriptures and make them say what they want them to say. This subjective approach is indicative of the selfish age in which we live. Others are simply ignorant to the fact that our task is not first to determine what Scripture "means to me." We certainly get there with application, but not with interpretation. So often in evangelical Sunday school classes we witness nothing but pooled ignorance as each one says, "I feel this verse means..." We must always remember that a text can never mean today what it never meant to the original readers. Our task is to understand what the text means, not what it means "in my opinion." A text has only one meaning. It may have many applications, but only one meaning.
In our historically ignorant church context, we should understand, historically, that there is a large body of agreement on what the Scriptures mean. For example, I can pick up ten different commentaries on a particular text. If all ten commentators are careful, evangelical, and exegetical scholars, I will pretty much get the same interpretation from each one of them. Certainly, there may be minor differences here and there when dealing with an issue far removed from our twenty-first century western culture. Our presuppositions and our own historical context can certainly get in the way from time to time. However, in the main, there is widespread agreement in regard to the Scriptures. Certainly the issues concerning salvation are not in dispute.
For example, until recently, little disagreement existed in the evangelical world as to what Jesus meant when He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me." No doubt many are trying to reinterpret that statement in light of contemporary sensibilities and poor theological understanding. But, historically, agreement is pervasive. Simply looking at the statement, what do you understand our Lord to be saying? It looks plain to me.
Consider the fact that many liberal scholars who once argued that the conservative evangelical understanding of the different roles of men and women was in error now admit that our understanding is indeed correct. We do have a correct interpretation of the apostle Paul. However, they simply assert now that Paul was wrong. They understand the Scriptures on that point; they simply do not believe the Scriptures on that point.
The larger problem is that adopting a postmodern mindset or simply allowing the reading of postmodern literature to influence one's thinking can no doubt cause individuals to have doubts about whether or not Christianity is the only truth. However, we must remember that the postmodern worldview does not make sense. To take up one issue alone, it violates the law of non-contradiction. Simply put, an assertion and its opposite cannot both be true. If the light (a physical light bulb) is on it cannot be true that it is off at the same time. It is either on or off. The postmodern accepts the non-sensical notion that the light may be on for some but off for others. One may think that way, but in reality, he cannot live in this world by actually operating on that worldview. He may do so in regard to some things, but he is inconsistent. When the postmodern gets up in the middle of the night to get something to drink, he flips his light switch on that he may see. He does not walk in the dark thinking that the light is actually on. And the reality is that all postmoderns do the same thing in that situation. If one were to try and claim the light was on when it was not, he would have no explanation as to why he tripped over the vacuum and fell down the stairs.
Christianity is the only worldview that makes sense out of reality. For example, the evolutionary worldview is grounded in random chance, yet the evolutionist does not stick his car key in his ear in an attempt to start the car. In a random chance universe, sticking one's car key in his ear may work one morning. Yet, the evolutionist does what the Christian does: he sticks his key in the ignition switch. He operates on the assumption, in that instant, that the universe has order and consistency. That assumption of course is grounded in the Christian worldview that says that God is a God of order and that He has created an orderly universe that we might learn from experience that sticking a car key in our ear will not start the car, but sticking it in the proper place, the ignition switch, will.
We Christians must understand and wholly embrace a Christian worldview. That endeavor requires some thinking on our part. At the same time, must extricate ourselves from the trap of subjectivism. As noted, it is rampant in the church. Again, you will see it in most Sunday school classes this coming Lord's Day. That reality should stop us cold, not only for the sake of truth and the glory of God, but for the sake of souls. It is those very people in our feeling and subjective oriented Sunday schools who are open to being carried away by postmodern thinking given the right set of circumstances. Christians must be reinvigorated to an unswerving commitment to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Christianity is the only truth claim that claims man does not go to God for salvation but that God has come to man to save Him. Christianity is the only "religion" that says that salvation is by grace and not by works. It is the only religion that says that God Himself died for sinners. Our great prophet is more than a prophet. He is Immanuel, God with us. Christianity is unique and the claims of Christ are unique. "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)."
The subjectivism of our evangelical culture, combined with an aversion to theology and serious Bible study, can only serve to open the Christian church up to massive defection when influenced by the larger postmodern culture. A renewed commitment to the exclusivity of Christ is only the beginning in terms of where we must lead the people in our churches. We must lead them to understand that truth is absolute, that Scripture is our sole authority in matters of faith and practice, and that the text of Scripture has only one meaning. When we ascertain what the text means, then we may apply it to our hearts by the power of the Spirit that we might be unshakable in the hurricane force winds of postmodern philosophy.