One of the hot topics emerging within the last decade or so has been the Church’s response to and engagement of a “postmodern” culture. This is an interesting discussion, for it is largely limited to a Western, and specifically American, context. The Church is, without a doubt, shrinking, and many blame the relativism and “anything goes” attitude promulgated by society at large.
This may well be true, and so I wonder at the church’s desire to “speak to” postmodernism. The following is a response I composed today for a class on biblical archaeology:
Before discussing postmodern interpretive systems and their relevance in the field of biblical archaeology, it is important to first define what postmodernism is. Unfortunately, no solid or universally agreed upon definition is forthcoming – and this is a prime example of postmodern thought in action. Some common elements of the worldview are “fragments, hybridity, relativism, play, parody, pastiche, an ironic anti-ideological stance, an ethos bordering on kitsch and camp. . .postmodernism is long on attitude and short on argument.” 1 The hallmark of postmodern thinking, then, is a rejection of metanarrative, meaning that “no story can have any more credibility than any other.” 2 Language itself, rather than the story, becomes the center of focus.
This flies directly in the face of what the Apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of Godmay be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 3 Orthodox Christians believe the Bible to be inspired, accurate and entirely truthful – metanarrative is thus a hallmark of faith. The story matters a great deal.
Postmodern interpretive structures undermine the efforts in the field of biblical archaeology as well, namely in their “determined ‘anti-historical’ stance.” 4 As language is fluid and meaning always debatable, records of cities or conflicts cannot be trusted. This makes archaeology impossible, for it is fundamentally linked to history, and biblical archaeology cannot be divorced from the history of or the story contained within the Bible.
History and archaeology both are dependent upon texts, and these texts must be seen as “a product of a particular time, place, culture, language and. . .must be placed back in that context to be understood at all.” 5 Without this understanding, a historian or archaeologist must “deny the existence of. . .fundamental data;” 6 indeed, it would not even be possible to define any such data, for the text would exist in a vacuum, independent of all else. How then could biblical archaeology focus on the “Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods,” 7 if those periods have no meaning, no impact upon the text?
“In biblical faith, everything depends upon whether the central events actually occurred.” 8 This does not mean that military numbers or dates must be precise in every instance; this does not tear apart faith nor does it tear apart the Bible. What matters is that God is real and that He acts within humanity’s timeline, as the biblical record – and archaeological findings – attest to again and again. “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,” 9 Paul wrote. Postmodernists would insist that it is impossible to validate such a claim. Orthodox Christians must insist that, without this claim’s historical validity, faith is a sham.
The only conclusion that I am able to draw, based not only on this week’s reading but on several years of study, is that it is impossible for the Church to engage a postmodern culture. This culture rejects the ultimate truth and overarching story that the Church claims as bedrock. Culture and Church are diametrically opposed. No favors have been done by the “seeker-sensitive” movement, and attempting to read the Bible through the “deconstruction” lenses of postmodernism results in no faith at all.
This does not mean that the Church abandons culture, for that would result in those who are saved hiding from those who are not. A sorry state of affairs indeed. Instead, this means that the Church should stop obsessing about speaking the language of relativism and instant gratification. There is one God. There is one way. That is the message of Christianity, and it cannot be shaped to fit the postmodern mold.
What is the Church to do in a world that rejects ultimate truth? The Church is to continue to offer that truth to the world. It is to speak differently, live differently and think differently. It is to bear the marks of the transformation wrought by Christ.
There is nothing postmodern about the Church, nor should there be.
The Church, instead, should be timeless and transcendent, devoted to the God who is both.
1 James W. Sire. The Universe Next Door. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 213.
2 Ibid., 214.
3 2 Tim. 3:16-17.
4 William G. Dever. What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 15.
5 Ibid., 16.
6 Ibid., 17.
7 John D. Currid. Doing Archaeology in the Land of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 20.
8 Dever, 21.
9 1 Cor. 15:20.