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Foreigners in a Post-Christian Culture

January 22nd, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Christians are now the foreigners in a post-Christian culture, and we have got to wake up to this reality, if we haven’t already.” – Dan Kimball

I recently read an article about the inter-relationship of the terms “Post-Christendom,” “Post-Christian,” and “Post-Modern.” Most of it was academic mumbo jumbo but underneath was a very important observation about contemporary culture. The three terms are overlapping but do not represent identical concepts. In my mind “Post-Christendom” refers to the by now almost complete fading away of the medieval social order, “Post-Christian” refers to a culture that celebrates itself as pagan rather than Christian, and “Post-Modern” is the failure of the meta-narrative that accompanied liberalism and industrialization (modernity) in the West.

Historically the medieval social order (Christendom) was transformed into modernity during the era of the so-called “Enlightenment,” represented in the modern meta-narrative that asserted that humans could and would by the application of science, technology, and reason create a paradise through their own efforts without the need for a god. Historically Enlightenment philosophy is at least ambivalent to Christianity, in most manifestations downright hostile. The fact that we call the Enlightenment the Enlightenment indicates that the metanarrative succeeded in capturing the popular imagination.

But the social order created by the Enlightenment was founded on the culture of Christendom and thus there developed a kind of a strange symbiosis between enlightenment philosophy and Christian culture. Thus, for example, we see the prominence of the rather peculiar notion that the United States is a “Christian” nation even though it was founded on non- and even anti-Christian philosophical principles.

To put it briefly popular faith in the modern meta-narrative was called seriously into question by the middle of the 20th century. If the application of science and reason were supposed to lead mankind to liberation and enlightenment, how could you explain the Western Front, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb? So we see the emergence of what we today call post-modernism as the rejection of the modern metanarrative, but not the adoption of an alternative narrative. We have become a culture with no story to explain and give our lives meaning. I need to be very clear here that the transition from modernism to post-modernism is not a transition from one paradigm to another; it is to no paradigm: to disillusion and bewilderment.

The irony is that the result is a world whose Christian roots have been worn away by modernity so that contemporary culture looks remarkably like the culture the church was born in. Contemporary churches do not thrive because they are still identified with modernity (“God and Country”), and the culture has rejected that. So there is a lot of hand-wringing and lamentation about the culture becoming “post-Christian” when it is in reality “post-modern.” American culture has never really been Christian, it has been modern, and American churches have unfortunately historically hitched their wagon to that star. Now that the wheels have come off of modernity, the Church curses the road, when in fact the problem is the wagon.

What I really mean by that is that with the rejection of modernity the culture is hungry for a story that explains and gives life meaning. The Church responds with shrill cries for a return to modernity (pedaling harder) but that isn’t the church’s story. Our story is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In my opinion it is better for the church that the culture no longer thinks of itself as “Christian,” because if the culture is already Christian there is no need for the gospel. “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” Jesus said, “but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, ESV)

So, again ironically, the fact that the culture is “post-Christian” creates the very atmosphere in which the gospel can thrive. The contemporary church is indeed foreign to the “post-Christian” world. We want that. Our challenge is not to be foreigners to the gospel.

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