By Dennis McCallum
(This originally appeared in the January/February 1997 MCOI Journal)
Within months after Charles Darwin released his Origin of the Species in 1859, a revolution in thinking gripped the scientific world. Although, at the time, most Christians had no idea anything was happening, no one today doubts the far-reaching results of that revolution. During the decades after Darwin. the notion of a natural world with no place for God became a new. nearly unanimous understanding among intellectuals, eventually reshaping even academic discipline, as well as education, government, and even the church. Now. by the close of the twentieth century, even popular culture accepts Darwin’s theory of naturalistic evolution as settled fact.
The Christian church wasn’t ready for Darwin.
At the time Darwin wrote, and even for decades afterward. Christian leaders thought it was important to defend the view that the world was created in exactly 4004 BC. as commemorated in the play Inherit The Wind. Christian arguments against evolution reflected not only dogmatism and weak reasoning, but something much worse. Early Christian apologists in this field often showed a lack of understanding of what natural selection was, not to mention the reasons people believed in it. Christians couldn’t respond in a convincing way to a doctrine they understood only dimly and, when we look back at some of the arguments Christians first advanced against the doctrine of naturalistic evolution, we can only grimace in embarrassment.
Most Christians today can answer evolutionists effectively, but their ability to change any minds on this issue is minimal. Why? Too much time passed without a coherent, credible, Christian voice to counteract Darwin’s theory. Darwinism managed to distance God from creation and the natural world … with the effect that even people who hold a dim belief that God exists regard him as irrelevant to their daily lives. We can only wonder what would have happened if some of the current sophisticated, convincing Christian arguments were at hand when Darwin first wrote.
Unfortunately, Christian leadership wasn’t ready for the intellectual challenges of the late nineteenth century, with devastating results.
The New Revolution
Now. in the late twentieth century, we are caught up in a revolution that will likely dwarf Darwinism in its impact on even aspect of thought and culture: postmodernism. Unlike Darwinism, postmodernism isn’t a distinct set of doctrines or truth claims. It’s a mood … a view of the world characterized by a deep distrust of reason, not to mention a disdain for the knowledge Christians believe the Bible provides. It’s a methodology — a completely new way of analyzing ideas. For all its diverse ideas and advocates, postmodernism is also a movement — a fresh onslaught on truth that brings a more or less cohesive approach to literature, history, politics, education, law, sociology, linguistics, and virtually even- other discipline, including science. And it is ushering in a cultural metamorphosis — transforming even area of even-day life as it spreads through education, movies, television, and other media.
Just as Darwinism wasn’t easy to understand 150 years ago, postmodernism and its impact aren’t immediately easy to grasp Postmodern thinking surrounds us — and sways us, even in the church. The postmodern revolution is still happening, and we as Christians still have an opportunity to influence the outcome — if we don’t wait too long
The Challenge of Modernism
Until recently, the consensus in secular (non-Christian) thought has been modernism. Modernists view the world, including humans, as one gigantic machine, placing their faith in rationality (the ability of humans to understand their world), empiricism (the belief that knowledge can only be gained through our senses), and in the application of rationality and empiricism through science and technology. Make no mistake — the modern world view continues to exert great influence on contemporary culture. Recent developments in the fields of animal intelligence, artificial intelligence, and the genetic basis for behavior, for example, are alarming and powerful challenges to God’s word. Each of these developments requires a response from thoughtful Christians.
Modernism continues to hammer away, landing effective blows on theism, the belief in an infinite personal God. But academicians, the thought-shapers who teach in our colleges and universities — whose opinions sooner or later influence the rest of society — are clearly discarding modernism and embracing postmoderism in growing numbers. Popularized forms of postmodern thinking are diffusing into mainstream culture with a speed never imagined in Darwin’s day. If we don’t energetically grapple with postmodernism and learn to communicate in its terms, we can never hope to push back the ideological tide.
The Challenge of Postmodernism
It is the death of truth as we know it.
Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, postmodernism originated in intellectual and academic circles, which is why most Christians are unclear about what postmodernism is. Even Christian leaders and thinkers become confused as they are assaulted by the strange or even seemingly nonsensical language of postmodern analysis. But postmodernists are far from insane. They present a dangerously convincing case for their view — a view that ultimately directly undermines all possibility of knowing objective truth (that is, truth that is true whether one believes it or not).
Postmodernism, as it applies in our daily lives, is the death of truth as we know it.
And once again, Christians aren’t ready for a major challenge to the Christian world view. Christians stand unprepared to answer postmodernism because its concepts are hard to phrase in everyday terms. Postmodern jargon is difficult for most people to decipher, and recent books on postmodernism, secular and Christian, offer little help because they are written by scholars for scholars. That wouldn’t be a problem if postmodernism were just another intellectual knot for academics to busy themselves untying. Yet, we see signs of postmodern analysis at every turn. We won’t say whether we think the following examples are good or bad in this article, but do examine them in the book. The Death of Truth. You may be surprised that they share a common basis in postmodern theory:
*The “political correctness” movement, an attempt by schools and corporations to control what students and employees say.
*A ripening view around the country that courts never provide fair trials to members of racial minorities or less affluent socio-economic groups, because courts operate only to guard the privileges of the dominant culture — wealthy, white males
*A reluctance among educational and parental experts to correct, confront, grade, test, or group children, based on the belief that labels stuck on children slick for life — so-called “labeling theory.”
*Tolerance gone extreme, as in the increasingly common view that we should never criticize another culture or question an individual’s moral decisions, because all views deserve equal respect.
*A declining emphasis in schools on helping students master the literature, history, values, and philosophy of Western culture, and a growing emphasis through multicultural education on students determining their own standards of literacy — accepting, for example, non-standard or “street English” as its own legitimate language.
*New calls for segregation based on race, such as Afrocentric schools.
*The increasingly widespread belief that every hurt is intentional, every accident legally actionable. Radical victimology means that victims of all kinds belong to a marginalized, repressed group with only one hope: to strip power from the dominant group — the victimizers.
*Histories that purposely leave out even major past events to further the agendas of oppressed special-interest groups (examples: feminist, or gay and lesbian histories).
*The belief that “male” and “female” are actually socially created categories intended to enslave women to men. Humankind is said to comprise not two sexes but at least five genders: heterosexual women, heterosexual men, homosexual women, homosexual men, and bisexuals. These genetically rooted identities arc to be affirmed by our educational system and protected by the courts.
*Hostility toward science: When, for example, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History received money to add an exhibit on American Science, the funders expected to see displays commemorating the achievements of science over the past century. Instead, they found mainly “a catalogue of environmental horrors, weapons of mass destruction and social injustice. Among all the displays of pesticide residue, air pollution, acid rain, ozone holes, radioactive waste, food additives, and nuclear bombs, there was no mention that the life expectancy in the United States has more than doubled in the last century, the period covered by the exhibit.”1
The list could go on. Here is the point: Although we might not understand how all these things are connected, they are, in fact, all manifestations of our culture’s alarming postmodern shift. In recent years, Christians have been concerned about relativism and the growth of New Age religions. But these arc only the lip of the iceberg.
In the book The Death of Truth, I and the other contributing authors seek to show where postmodernism impacts your culture. Occasionally, we will refer to thinkers unfamiliar to you. We encourage you to just keep going. Reading this book and finding your way through the maze of postmodernism won’t be the easi¬est thing you’ve ever done, but we hope it will be one of the most rewarding. Devoting time to digest the material will give you an invaluable understanding of this powerful movement — an un¬derstanding you will need in years to come. Parents, especially, can’t afford to miss the material covered in this book. For inter¬ested readers, we provide additional detail in notes at the end of the chapters.
We’ll look at some definitions and compare the fading, sec¬ular world view of modernism with the new world view of post¬modernism.2
Then, we will see how postmodern thinkers analyze and interpret several areas of contemporary life and thought. Again, if you feel confused at points, keep reading. Postmodernism is confusing, just as Darwin’s ideas were 150 years ago. But, as you see how postmodernism impacts crucial areas of your life, the definitions will make more sense. Soon, you’ll be able to spot your children’s classrooms, in song lyrics, and on the news. The book. The Death of Truth , brings together a group of researchers and experts who will explain in plain language how postmodernism applies to everyday concerns, such as:
*Your next visit to the doctor may drop you into the lap of occult healing techniques. Postmodern rhetoric has eased the introduction of alternative medicine into nursing and medical schools, where superstition is now taught as being no less credible than proven scientific principles.
•There’s a good chance your children will be educated in student-centered classrooms — not having teachers transmit knowledge to them, but the postmodern way — creating knowledge themselves.
*You will find out why people no longer accept the words of a written text, including the Bible, at face value, thanks to “deconstruction.”
*A crucial lesson for all students to grasp: History class has become a platform for radical political and social agitation. History is no longer the search for “what happened,” but an opportunity for formerly excluded and silenced groups in a society, such as gays and lesbians, finally to be heard. Postmodern analysis of history makes it possible.
* Reality is in the mind of the beholder. This central “‘premise of postmodern psychology shouts at us in bookstores, on TV shows, and in the advice our neighbors give.
*Court decisions seem increasingly absurd Why? Postmodern legal scholars and lawyers interpret the United States Constitution to mean what it means to them, not what its writers intended. The real and potential changes to government and law make the “liberal vs. conservative” struggles of the past two decades seem insignificant.
*Whv do our American students lag behind the rest of the developed world in the sciences? Part of the reason is Western imperialism. The front page of the Wall Street Journal quoted a postmodern “feminist historian of science” who said that male-dominated science has assaulted nature like a violent man exploits a helpless woman. “A passive nature had to be interrogated, unclothed, penetrated, and compelled by man to reveal her secrets.”3
*Your neighbors think your faith is “right for you.” Unlike modernism, which treated religion as superstition, postmodernists happily accept any religion — as long as it makes no truth claims to universal truth or authority. Religion is at the heart of the postmodern revolution. How does a Christian live and share his or her faith in a gullible, undiscerning world?
*You even may find that you have been influenced by postmodern ideas yourself!
After we see how postmodernism is impacting all these areas of life, we will work to glean some positive lessons from postmodern thought and, in the closing chapters of the book, suggest how Christians can respond to this attractive yet menacing world view.
The Journal would like to thank Dennis McCallum for untangling this issue’s “Spider’s Web.” Dennis is a contributing author and General Editor of the book The Death of Truth. This article is the first chapter of the book (with some slight modifications) and is used by permission from Dennis. Dennis is the author of numerous articles on apologetics as well as several books, in¬cluding Christianity: The Faith That Makes Sense and Walking in Victory and is also co-senior pastor at Xenos Christian Fellowship in Columbus, Ohio. Xenos focuses its ministry on evangelism, community development, and discipleship through home groups. His MA in Biblical Studies and Historical Theology is from Ashland Theological Seminary. We highly recommend the book The Death of Truth, which is published by Bethany House Publishers.
- Robert L. Park, “The Danger of Voodoo Science.” The New York Times (Sundav. July 9, 1995), “OP-ED.” ↩
- The boundaries of postmodern thought aren’t easy to describe, especially since postmodernists rebel against categories and labels, which they consider prisons. In addition, postmodernism has deeply influenced a number of related ideologies as they stand today, such as feminism and liberation theology. Some feminists may de¬plore the outcome of deconstructive postmodernism but, in fact, they depend on post¬modern methods and accept basic postmodern assumptions, which are instrumental in the spread of postmodernism. Just as intellectual historians identified a romantic revolt against enlightenment while nevertheless accepting its underlying assump-tions today, related groups do the same with postmodernism. For this popular study we are lumping all such groups with postmodernists. ↩
- Elizabeth Fee, The Wall Street Journal (Monday. July 10. 1995): p.l ↩