Shortly after I arrived and became friends with Kyle, he sent me an email with a document attached. It was a manuscript written by an acquaintance of his who was giving it to pastors for feedback before it was sent to the publisher for release. Recipients were given explicit instructions to not share it with anyone else. I thought I had been given the digital equivalent of illicit drugs.
The manuscript was titled A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, written by Brian McLaren, a pastor in the Baltimore area. The book was a (loosely) fictional account of a pastor who developed a friendship with his daughter’s high school science teacher. It took the form of a conversation between a man who was at his wits end with regards to the Christian faith (the pastor,) and one who had passed through a similar difficult time, coming out of the other end with a new, vibrant understanding of what it means to follow Jesus (the science teacher.) It described the postmodern condition that Western society had found itself in, and explored what this might mean for Christians, and Christianity, in the future.
I printed it off (this was before smart phones and e-readers became so ubiquitous) and read it whenever I had a free moment.
Postmodernism, according to McLaren’s fictional science teacher “Neo,” was, simply, POST modern. He believed that all the major categories and tendencies that defined the modern worldview, which was born out of the Enlightenment, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, have passed away as dominant guiding forces for faith, or very soon will.
Modernism placed a high premium on conquest and control. Whether we are taking over a country or arguing a point, the goal was singular—Win at all costs. Within Christianity, this value could be seen most prominently in movements dedicated to placing evangelicals in high positions of power, but also in streams of the modern missions movements that sought to colonize foreign lands not just with Christianity, but an American version of it. Postmodernism, according to Neo, is best seen as the time that has moved beyond seeing conquest and control as a value, and toward seeing it as a in less glowing terms.
The modern era was the age of the machine, and everything, including human behavior and beliefs about God, was described in purely mechanical ways– Cause and effect, reducing input while maximizing output, etc. Terms used to describe how a car works became interchangeable with describing how human beings and human relationships work. Postmodernism is the time that will move beyond seeing the universe as a machine, and toward seeing it more as an ecosystem.
Neo said that Modernism valued analysis, science, objectivity, individualism and consumerism. Postmodernism was post all that. Not in place of, nor better than (though we all had our doubts,) just…after.
What this all had to do with faith was this: Churches (and especially Protestant ones) were thoroughly ensconced in a modern worldview. Evangelicalism was all about convincing other people, by argument and objectivity through apologetics, that we are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. Our “winning them over” was basically us conquering their non-Christian worldview.
One of the biggest theological discussions of the time toward the end of modernity—the Predestination vs. Free Will argument— centered around how exactly God controls the process of salvation.
The first “Leadership Training Youth Camp” I attended as a teenager had as its them “Plug into the power source.” (Actually, I’m pretty sure it was “PLUG INTO THE POWER SOURCE!”) The basic idea was that in order to be an effective Christian, believers needed to be intimately connected with God. But notice the language that was employed. “Plug into the power source” evoked ideas of electricity, which runs machines. Humans needed “recharging” in the same way that machines did.
All of these examples seem innocuous on the surface. But they speak to a basic, assumed belief about reality during the modern era. A belief that was never to be questioned.
According to McLaren’s character Neo, these basic assumptions were ones we had lived with for centuries and appropriated to all areas of our lives. But it was now time for us to step back from those assumptions and to question them, to ask if they are relevant, helpful or harmful. This stepping back, questioning, and sorting out was called “deconstruction.” It is what most of us do in young adulthood regardless of what times we live in, but this seemed different. More epic. As if society was deconstructing itself, and the church was following suit.
A New Kind of Christian implicated both conservative and liberal Christians in the “modern/postmodern” dilemma, painting both as a slave to the same assumptions about reality. Conservatives focused on the individual, liberals on society, but both read scripture and approach reality, essentially, the same. In one poignant scene of the book, Neo draws a line on a bar napkin. On the right side of the line are the conservatives, on the left the liberals. Moderates were in between. But he held the palm of his hand above the bar napkin and asked, “What if the real answers to life’s questions are found somewhere here above the line, outside of our already held assumptions?”
These ideas were invigorating and opened the door to the possibility that we could be on the cusp of something, well… new. It would take me years to remember that there is nothing new under the sun. But everything felt new, that we were on to something.