In a recent conversation with a friend in ministry, I made a comment that I believed postmodernism as we know has come and gone. In the strict sense, anything that is post-xxxxx-ism reacts to a preceding ideology but is often (if not always) a transitional phase. Likewise, postmodernism reacts to the dominance of modernity, and it often celebrates diversity and is marked by pluralism. In rejecting the meta-narrative, the shift of paradigm empowers “truths” with a lower case “t”. The movement, as a whole, highlights tolerance and inclusiveness. Once threatened by its rejection of absolute truth, many Christians in the US have in fact adapted well with this new mindset. Since its inception, postmodernism has influenced our homilectics, our ecclesiology, and even our gospel message. Preaching in evangelical churches have been on a journey. The pulpit ministry that was mainly expository from before the 80s had turned topical in the seekers-sensitive generation and then narratives since the dawn of postmodernism. Brian McLaren’s experiment with the Emergent Church Movement successfully found a postmodern church expression; and the Christian gospel has waded beyond the shallow pond of conversionism into a deeper immersion into the kingdom-of-God-upon-us that we only find meaning of our lives in the bigger picture of God’s. In this sense, postmodernism has created a culture that we have sewn into part of the church fabric that will stay for a while. So, when I said postmodernism has “come and gone”, I did not mean that we are free from its influence. What I was referring to is that postmodernism is no longer the driving force that shapes our society – the Church included.
In recent years, our world seems to have lost that sense of “tolerance”. Instead, the pendulum has swung back to dominance. The difference from modernity is that dominance then was formed by reason; whereas dominance now is emboldened by “unreason” or “my reason”. In other words, in today’s world, people don’t want to hear your argument. Truth depends on how I feel it should be. Listening is the process to spot for your weakness and the waiting time for counter-attacks. Simply said, if you don’t agree with me then you must go! We hear this from outside the church and many evangelicals have jumped on the train. The “us vs. them” mentality was evident. While the alt-right and the antifa might have chosen a violent expression, those lesser extreme in the middle show no lesser hostility in their sentiment. From protesting speaking events on university campuses to appealing to lawsuits, the aim is one of the same – to silence the other side. In the midst of the cultural war, the Christian gospel has also silently become “God will help us to vote us in and vote them out” or “we shall overcome.” With such mindset, some evangelicals have taken their eyes off the kingdom of God and focused instead on Christendom. We’re looking once again for a Charlemagne!
With that being said as the backdrop, what interests me is how secularism and Christianity search for alternatives, and I am pleased to say that I witnessed creativity and boldness both outside and inside the church. Heineken had a commercial featuring three pairs of people with opposite views from feminism to climate change to gender identity, who came together to build a bar and confront their differences over a beer. New York Times reported a modern art artist who organized a non-verbal gun debate with more than two dozens of people in Guggenheim Museum. These efforts mirror that of Christian pursuit of shalom as described in the Bible (John 14:25-27). Although the context may not directly involve the ministry of the Holy Spirit, both projects displayed admirable values and the aspiration absolutely inspired hope. On the side of Christianity, similar efforts were also found. About a year before writing this article, I participated in a bold experiment called Culture Learning Group at Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California. People who were invited to join this group came from all walks of life that included African American, Asian American, millennials and people in their 70s, a white Republican from the Midwest, two lesbian Christians who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, career women who were sidelined by men at work, a former FBI agent who investigated the murder of three Civil Rights Movement activists as described in the movie Mississippi Burning, and more. We took turns telling our life stories with regard to our struggling or confronting with identity, racial discrimination, being marginalized, and how God intervened and shaped our perspectives of life. When one person was talking, the rest of the group was instructed to simply listen without judging or trying to “fix” something. The result was forming and powerful. While many of the participants might have already formed a friendship before this project, a much deeper connection emerged upon its conclusion.
Call me bias, but I tend to think that the Christian concept of shalom pursues a more grandeur vision than the postmodernist’s tolerance. Tolerance means exactly that. It allows co-existence. It may even connotes some sense of sympathy, but it also implies distance. On the other hand, shalom, or peace, is the work of Christ (Eph 2:14-16) and it is the result of love and compassion. In shalom, we envision that people who disagree with each other can do so in love and respect, for they all embrace Christ our peace as the higher value to whatever position they choose to affiliate with. It is for this reason that I neither have a nostalgia for postmodernism nor I look forward to something new. Just keep looking up!