The prophet Joel spoke of a day when the sun would be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood. This picture–besides giving us a glimpse of that terrible, coming Day of the Lord in judgment–is also a graphic picture of our own times. Even today, in the gathering clouds of our culture, we see darkness at noon.
One of the central realities of this darkness is the dawning of a post-Christian culture – and a central reality of our emerging culture is the closing of the postmodern mind. Something is happening to the worldview, the mentality, and the consciousness of this age. If we listen closely, we can hear something like the closing of a steel door — a solemn, cataclysmic slamming of a door. We have been watching the postmodern mind in its development, and it is now well developed. Not only do we see the themes of postmodernity taking hold of the larger culture, but we understand the challenge this pattern of thinking poses to Christian truth and Christian truth-telling. Tolerance is perverted into a radical secularism that is anything but tolerant. There is little openness to truth, and growing hostility to truth claims. Indeed, the postmodern mind has a fanatical, if selective, dedication to moral relativism, and an understanding that truth has no objective or absolute basis whatsoever.
The late French philosopher Jacques Derrida shaped the postmodern mind by arguing that the author of a text is effectively dead in terms of establishing the text’s meaning. One of the fathers of literary deconstructionism, his concept of “the death of the author” exerts a powerful influence on the culture at large. Derrida’s basically nihilistic philosophy suggested that texts mean nothing in themselves. In other words, it is the reader who comes to the text with meaning and determines what will be found within the text. The author is dead, Derrida proclaimed, and can no longer dictate by his totalitarian authority what the text means.
Even before Derrida’s death, new debates about deconstructionism arose in the academy. More significantly, these nihilistic philosophies have already filtered down into popular culture. Even now, for example, many of our judges are practicing deconstructionists, seeing the law not as what it was or what it was intended to be, but rather as a tool they can use for their own agenda of social engineering. In the elite institutions of American academia, deconstructionism is the order of the day. The text means what the professor says it means, and it eventually means whatever each student would have it to mean. The reader reigns supreme.
Unfortunately, deconstructionism has also found its way into many pulpits, sometimes in a hard, ideological form, but more often in a soft and seductive form. In the hard form of undiluted liberalism, it is simply the idea that this text, the Bible, may be a privileged text, but the authors are dead. Thus, it is now up to us to decide what it should mean, so we can turn the text on its head. And we can do so in the name of liberation, and freedom from oppression. We are no longer bound to the oppressive truth of the text because we can now twist the text to mean something it has never been understood to mean in the past – even the opposite of what the words and grammatical structure would seem to mean. In so doing, postmoderns seek to liberate themselves by deconstructing the text. After all, all the authors are dead.
Of course, it is worth keeping in mind that such a hermeneutic must also assume that the divine Author is dead. In its softer, subtler form, we find deconstructionism among some who would never consider themselves liberals, and who would even claim to have what they would characterize as a high view of Scripture. Yet when they encounter the text, they also deconstruct it. The biblical text, they argue, has to be understood in terms of our modern understanding. Modern psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and cultural studies have something to bring to the interpretation of the text, they argue, something to tell us which the human authors of Scripture missed. In other words, one may start with what it said, but now we ourselves can decide what it means.
In both its hard and soft forms, deconstructionism has filtered down to the popular culture, even to those who never heard of Jacques Derrida but have been nonetheless infected with this postmodern mentality and this subtle form of subversive relativism and subjectivism. You can hear Derrida in the discourse of adolescents in the mall. You can hear it in the conversation on the nightly news.
The closing of the postmodern mind is the opposite of what postmodernism claimed to be its aspiration. Postmodernism claimed that this new postmodern age–with the end of modernity, the demise of scientific objectivity, and the openness to new forms and understandings of truth–would lead to an opening of the mind. But as is always the case, the totalitarian opening of the mind always ends with the radical closing of the mind. There is nothing less tolerant than the modern ethos of tolerance. There is nothing less open than the modern idea of open-mindedness. In the darkening sky and the gathering clouds, we see the haunting closure of this supposedly open mind.
Sociologist Peter Berger reminds us that every single individual operates on the basis of plausibility structures — certain frameworks of thought that are necessary for our understanding of the world. For years, Berger and others have been telling us that the plausibility structures of most Americans have little, if anything, to do with biblical Christianity. The way most persons think about the world, the way they envision beauty, the way they conceive love, the way they understand authority and marriage and structure and principle and truth, all of these things are now basically secular in form. Not only so, but in recent years we have witnessed the acceleration of this secularism into something that is deeply dark, and increasingly nihilistic. What Karl Marx once promised would happen seems to be coming to fulfillment–all that is solid melts into air. In the world of postmodernism, all institutions are plastic, and all principles are liquid. We can reshape anything. Nothing is given. Nothing is objective.
We can take the family, for example, and we can melt it down and make it something else. In fact, we can turn it into an infinite number of liquid arrangements. We can take any institution, be it government or church, or marriage, or family, and we can make of it what we will. All principles are liquid, too. We can simply pour them out in a different way. Since there is nothing really there anyway, we can reconfigure any principle according to our desires. So we will reshape our entire worldview. We will shape our new philosophy. We will be humanity come of age, and we will do this in the name of liberation and tolerance and diversity–and open-mindedness. George Orwell never saw it so clearly, yet this is where we live. Openness becomes closedness. Freedom becomes bondage, and tolerance becomes intolerance.
The closing of the postmodern mind is not a pretty sight, nor is it friendly to human rights and human dignity. We can look to Europe, where the post-Christian age is already coalescing into a system of laws and a pattern of culture. Sweden, for example, already has imprisoned a Pentecostal pastor, Ake Green, for preaching a sermon in which he spoke of the sinfulness of homosexuality. He was recently acquitted of that “crime” by Sweden’s highest court, but the fact remains that he was arrested and convicted by a lower court – and the law remains in effect. Across much of Western Europe there is legislation in which it is can be considered a crime to speak of the sinfulness of any sexual lifestyle, and of homosexuality in particular.
In Belgium and the Netherlands, there are now official protocols for killing children and infants in hospitals. Euthanasia has advanced to the point that, in the Netherlands, the largest medical school in the country just reported that 31 percent of pediatricians have admitted to killing babies, and 45 percent of neonatologists have admitted to euthanizing infants–even without informing the parents that that is what happened to their child. And all this is done, of course, in the name of health, even in the name of compassion. Then along comes the Christian to say “We have a message about the dignity and sanctity of life,” and he is told to be quiet. We can say, “Well, that is Europe. That is a post-Christian future that is an ocean away.”
But even in the United States, we see all this coming together, and the clinched fist of a closed postmodern mind is increasingly evident. In 1995, for instance, a U.S. District Court judge in the state of Texas ruled against school prayer, afraid that some teenagers might in the course of their graduation ceremony actually mention the name of Jesus, or mention the name of God. When he handed down the ruling, the judge warned teenagers in the state of Texas, saying, “If any of you shall mention the name of Jesus or God, or any other deity, you will rue the day that you were born and will spend up to half a year in the Galveston jail.” That is not Arthur Koestler warning in Darkness at Noon of the Soviet Union in 1941. It is the United States of America in 1995. Legal observers may argue that this judge’s comments were not indicative of a universal trend, but is this truly reassuring?
In the state of California, those who would be foster parents are now required to pledge that they will say nothing that is in any way opposed to homosexuality or to any chosen sexual lifestyle. Effectively, that means that Christians can no longer be foster parents in the state of California. What a switch in ten years! Ten years ago, homosexual couples could not be foster parents in the state of California. Now it is the Christians – who would raise their children as Christians – who cannot be foster parents in that state.
A recently published book by Sam Harris entitled The End of Faith even claimed that faith itself is a form of terrorism, and that the United States can no longer afford its long cherished ideal of religions toleration and religious liberty. According to Harris, religious liberty is simply too dangerous in a world like this.
We need to take notice of these developments in order that we might understand the challenge we are about to face, because I fear that as evangelical Christians, we tend to swing like a pendulum between a naive optimism and a wrongful pessimism. In reality, we have no right to be either optimistic or pessimistic. To be either optimistic or pessimistic is to be deluded, and in some sense to deny the sovereignty of God. We cannot be pessimistic because Scripture tells us we are to be a people of hope. Of course, that does not mean that we are a naive and ignorant people of hope who close our eyes to the reality around us. No, we find a hope in something that is far more secure than anything this culture can secure.
But, on the other hand, we cannot be optimistic, either. Optimism is the message sent down from public relations. Optimism is the happy face that tells us with a chipper voice that everything is all right. Well, it is not all right, and everything will not be well, not in this age or in this life. We have no right to be optimistic, but we have no right not to be hopeful.
Evangelicals, sometimes demonstrating a nearly breathtaking naivete, swing between these pendulum extremes of pessimism and optimism, when Scripture calls us to reality. Be sober-minded, we are told. Gird up the loins of your thinking. Be ready, be alert, be watchful. Be a watchman on the wall. Have your eyes open. Be ready for action. This is our calling as Christians, even as the darkness gathers. We are to be the community of the open-eyed, the intellectually alert, the broken-hearted, and the resolutely hopeful. Pulling that off will take more than wishful thinking.