Preaching and the Post-Modern Condition
by Jay Cooper Rochelle (November / December 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 6)
Preachers face an audience whose cultural perceptions are "post-modern." The author shows what this means among those who hear us preach and how proclaimers may begin to respond to it
The Ground Beneath Our Feet
In our age there are no privileged texts. People do not come to a text like the Bible willing to grant it priority or sacred authority in their lives. Christians grant the text authority. We understand that people outside the faith do not grant the text authority as we do.
What's new is that people within the faith do not grant the text authority as was done in prior centuries.
No a priori truth awaits us between the pages of holy writ, at least for most of the people whom we want to address in preaching. For most Gen X-ers and younger people, one set of stories is as valid or invalid as another set. These stories may give insights into truth, but the idea that the story could bear the whole truth about God is not part of the thinking of this generation.
Texts are simply not valued and prized as they were in previous generations. This makes the preaching of the gospel a difficult prospect. Why should anyone listen?
Post-modern writers call this shift in thinking the loss of meta-narrative. Jean-Francois Lyotard is the dean of post-modern critics and his 1978 volume The Post-Modern Condition defined the movement. Lyotard defines post-modernism in a nutshell as "the loss of meta-narrative."1 Meta-narrative means the myths by which we organized our lives, whether capitalist, communist, socialist, Christian, or Muslim, or some in combination. All the overarching stories that once held civilizations and mindsets together have been deconstructed as authoritative and governing powers.
The loss of meta-narrative is a good thing, according to post-modern thinkers, because it means we have awakened to the terrorism that accompanies a singular interpretation of reality officially supported by a culture.2 A culture's meta-narrative privileged some texts and interpretations above others. These overarching stories held civilizations and mindsets together by force. Texts supported power and power imposed texts for an interlocking interpretation of reality. Texts have been used to gain and hold power over dissidents.
We Westerners are slow to see the power of our own mythic structures. We saw it, however, quite easily elsewhere when Salman Rushdie was placed under Islamic ban by the Ayatollah for his novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie became, for a time, a symbol of this terrorism. We see it today in the Chinese opposition to the Falun Gong movement.
|In the 20th century we discovered what was previously hidden from our eyes, the principle of reflexivity. This means, simply stated, that we do not make objective statements about anything.In our age there are no privileged texts.|
Lyotard says terrorism occurs anywhere and whenever minority views are not prized but are, instead, ridiculed and marginalized as being less than real by a majority view.3 In our country, for example, women, blacks, Hispanics, and native Americans have had to contend with such terrorism in order to assert their ways of knowing as legitimate tools to interpret reality.
The battle against this sort of terrorism is far from ended. Opposition to terrorism permeates our society today even if people do not define it as such. We see it when anyone rises to offer a unified explanation of reality and becomes immediately suspect. For this reason Christian preaching has taken a humble tone in our day.
The loss of meta-narrative means that there is no "outside" left to our experience. We interpret the world only from our own viewpoint. We may point to phenomena that we believe to represent an "outside" to the world we know, but we have no way to prove such an outside.
We may make an appeal to "God" as the source of our life and being, for example, but such statements reflect our own belief-structure as much if not more than what is real — at least according to the spirit of post-modernity. We need a community of discourse in which there is an agreed-upon meaning to the word "God" for us to use the concept with precision.
Otherwise "God" is but a construct we use to address the world we perceive, and often — as many pointed out in the 20th century — this "God" is a god of the gaps, an explanation used until another explanation (i.e., scientific, behavioral) is found for a phenomenon of experience.
Thinkers with differing perspectives, from George Lindbeck to Stanley Hauerwas, have made this call for community.
There is no outside to our experience. In the 20th century we discovered what was previously hidden from our eyes, the principle of reflexivity. This means, simply stated, that we do not make objective statements about anything. Every statement we make is filtered through our own perceptual grid, which is shaped by custom, culture, language, and experience. Every statement we make about something "out there" is at once a statement about ourselves — how that something affects us or how we see it.
Twentieth century painting demonstrates the discovery of the reflexive nature of our experience. In the early 19th century, painting was still characterized by a representationalism that attempted to get the picture right.
The rise of photography, however, relieved painting of the need to "get the picture right" because photography would do that, albeit in monochrome (at first). Painting was free to move in other directions and did so beginning with the landscapes of Turner and Constable.
By the end of the 19th century, you had the pioneering work of van Gogh, and the Impressionists were rendering reality through the filters of their consciousness, rather than by attempting to describe precisely what was before them. The artist intruded into the artwork in a way not previously known, and the result was an enormous shift in the way art means.
Artists like Picasso, Braque, and in a different way Kandinsky, reduced the visual field to its individual components and re-arranged that field for the purpose of interpretation. Picasso's Guernica is a case in point, a painting Paul Tillich called the most religious artwork of the 20th century.4 By the end of the 20th century, no one questioned the insertion of the artist into the artwork.
Today, "performance art" makes the artist into the artwork. Performance art displays the evanescent nature of all attempts to describe reality because the artwork is gone when the performance is finished.
This principle of reflexivity teaches us that events and persons do not "mean" apart from our ability to place them into linguistic frameworks. We construct meaning through words as the painter does with paint. Meaning does not come as a given with each event; in fact, in contrast to Kant, the new way of thinking suggests that meaning is not even necessary. It is our "blessed rage for order" that presses us into the creation of meaning.5 Meaning is interpretation.
The knowledge that we "make God" (Amos Wilder's idea of theo-poiesis6) by our language is not a call to despair but to attention. We become attentive and engaged in the process of crafting a language about God, because we do not want to communicate any error, which for Christian preachers means deviation from the best understanding we can build of the biblical God.
The proliferation of texts creates an issue, which is that texts previously valorized are easily forgotten. They are forgotten, first, in the sense that they are no longer part of the cultural memory. It has become a maxim that "no one knows Shakespeare or the Bible any more."
There is a second sense in which texts are not remembered, because they are not retained. Because so many texts clamor for our attention, we suffer information overload and we no longer remember ones we once held to be important. They slip off our screen as quickly as they come on. Confirmation classes do not remember the stories they learned as small children. Our minds are becoming like Teflon; everything you put on them slides off and must be rehearsed again and again.
Lastly, in the post-modern world, apart from the realm of common sense and natural law, our opinions are the basis for our worldview. We form opinions through a combination of effects: nurture, education, biology, and emotional response. Since there is nowhere to point outside the perceiving self, so goes the argument, each of us is free and challenged to conceive the world in whatever way we wish to do so. There is nowhere to go beyond opinion, no appeal beyond the reasoning self with its constructed view of the world.
In this post-modern world, theology — which was considered in the Middle Ages to be the queen of sciences — is considered to be opinion. Theology rests on nothing beyond itself, in the post-modern view, even when texts are cited as loci for doctrine. Theology is no longer "systematic" but "constructive" in nature and that marks a telling shift in terminology.7
First Steps in Preaching
So the question is, how shall we preach in this milieu? How can we preach in this milieu?
You might begin by accepting this outline of the post-modern condition. Here's one example, easily replicated: I knew a young woman in Chicago who attended Moody Bible Church on Sunday mornings, a yoga ashram on weekends, and a Buddhist center on Sunday afternoons.
My mind boggled at the prospect of synthesizing these conflicting religious opinions; for her it was no problem. She managed to cobble together a ready-made religion out of conservative evangelical Christianity and the other two religions. Her number is legion, according to researchers like Wade Clark Roof (see his Generation of Seekers).8
Secondly, let us remember: Christian proclamation is based on the kerygma. Preaching is not my opinion, although it is hard to sell that to the post-modern crowd. As Christian preachers, we are pledged to use a public testimony. That testimony comes to us as a "handing over," a tradition passed along from one witness to another.
We study that tradition to a depth that contemporary culture views as exotic. Why bother to read the Bible in the original languages? Why bother to study commentaries, dictionaries, and concordances? We may be viewed as cultural archeologists. We mine text as an archeologist sifts sand.
|In an age that is skeptical about truth-claims, the positive note is that all approaches are equally legitimate. We are in an era when everyone has the right to mount his own soap box and proclaim the truth as he sees it. In the post-modern world, apart from the realm of common sense and natural law, our opinions are the basis for our worldview.|
In a confessional tradition, furthermore, we are free to alter that tradition only insofar as our alteration makes the meaning of the kerygma clearer for a new generation, and enables it to ring true today with the same clarity and forcefulness as it did in previous ages.
There, of course, is the rub: as preachers, we are called to the sort of internal faithfulness that holds us accountable to our understanding of the kerygma, yet allows us to faithfully change it for our own milieu. That call requires enormous effort and work. But that might be the topic for another article.
That testimony which we receive witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth, whom the early witnesses called "Christ" and "Lord," and whom they experienced as raised to new life after ignominious death on the cross. The one we call God has turned this death, which seemed to be a resounding defeat, into victory and vindication through the resurrection.
Lastly, don't be afraid. The post-modern condition offers new challenges for preaching, but it is not the end of the line. In the post-modern era, preaching may change but it is not finished. In an age that is skeptical about truth-claims, the positive note is that all approaches are equally legitimate. We are in an era when everyone has the right to mount his own soap box and proclaim the truth as he sees it. Our texts no longer have privilege, but they have as much right to public interpretation as any others. Our hope is that the truth we see in them can become again a truth for many others.
Besides, as Protestants we have long held a paradox about the Bible, which is that the word supersedes all historic containers, but the word cannot be separated from historic containers. God comes hidden in the proclamation as God was hidden in Christ. These core understandings fit well in the post-modern era.
Four Ways to Preach
1. Invitation: We must invite people into the world of the text, not force it upon them. We are inviting them to a dance, and the music is provided by the text, which is their partner. As with any dance partner, you may hold tight or you may hold loosely. As with any dance partner, you may be intimate or you may be formal. The dance is by invitation. We are the ones who issue the invitation. Black tie is not necessary. Come as you are, but come prepared for involvement.
2. Image: Our age is visually as well as if not more than, verbally oriented. Verbal images live in the consciousness and memory of the hearer. That is why preaching the parables and preaching as story have been two major themes in preaching in the last quarter-century.
People warm to images. This has always been true, but it is especially true now. Images allow for mind play. Images do not control their own interpretation, but rather serve as the occasion for free association and interpretation in the mind of the hearer. Biblical imagery, especially that of the parables, has as much power as ever to enable people to form an understanding of God.
At the same time, we must be clear that images are not the reality. They lead to the reality, but they are not one with it. Hence, a dose of contradiction may help preaching, e.g., you may want to argue that God is both the good shepherd and a fortress in the same sermon, so that people do not become wedded to one image.
3. Indwelling: We want to encourage people to dwell in the text, to live within its imagery and its pictures in order to discern its truth for themselves. This idea is related to the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, who taught his followers to meditate in such a way as to become each part of the text.
In this way, the text comes to life within us, and we see how to create meaning with it from a number of angles and perspectives.
4. Imitation: This means that we call people to live "as if the text were true." When I want people to think about the meaning of communion in their lives, I don't burden them with theological definitions for the sacrament. Instead, I ask them to walk through a week "as if" the sacrament's message of the presence of God in the material world were true for them. I ask them to walk through a week "as if" Christ were really present, mediated by God's Spirit, in their daily lives through the bread and the wine.
This is so opposite the cultural emptiness in which we live that it makes for a stirring spiritual exercise. We have difficulty asking people to imitate us, but Paul had no such troubles (see, for example, Philippians).
But as we get the hang of this Christian living, why not? Why not invite people to an imitation, since modeling is the primary way in which we learn how to become authentic. When we are young (in the faith as in age) we learn by modeling others' behavior. We "put on" Christ through watching other people. Preaching that invites people to imitation has a place in this post-modern era.
As we move into this post-modern era, we will need to share insights about how we preach. This article is a beginning, not meant to be conclusive in any way. Let us build new ways to preach together. But then again, isn't that the post-modern way?
Jay Cooper Rochelle is pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
1. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
2. Ibid., Lyotard, pp. 60-70. See also Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories (London: Verso Books, 1990), pp. 170ff.
3. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). See also Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition, 1984, pp. 71ff.
4. Discussions of the movement of art in the 20th Century may be found in Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), pp. 34-36; and Glenn Ward, Teach Yourself Postmodernism (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), chs. 1-3. Tillich's views are in the essay "Existential Aspects of Modern Art," in Paul Tillich, On Art and Architecture, ed. John and Jane Dillenberger (New York: Crossroad, 1987).
5. Hilary Lawson, Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament (London: Hutchinson and Co. Ltd., 1984). See also Ibid., Ward, 1997, chs. 4 and 5, pp. 51ff. An earlier argument from a different perspective was made by Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: The Contemporary Possibility of Religious Affirmation (New York: Anchor Books, 1969), well worth the read.
6. Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoiesis (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974). See also Stanley Romaine Hopper, The Way of Transfiguration, eds. R. Melvin Keiser and Tony Stoneburner (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), esp. chs. 7 & 10.
7. E.g., see the consistent approach of Gordon D. Kaufman of Harvard, especially In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). Kaufman announced this approach in a small book in 1975 and remained consistent in approaching theology as "imaginative construction" throughout his career.
8. Wade Clark Roof, Generation of Seekers: the Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), pp. 99-104. See also Ibid., Anderson, 1990, chs. 4 & 5, pp. 79ff.