Preaching to postmoderns

Also at the SEPA Synod convocation, Dr. David Lose of Luther Seminary tackled preaching in a postmodern age. Here are some notes from those sessions.

“Postmodern,” in his view, describes that shift from the modern age of reason to the emerging “age of skepticism.” Like the shift in the mid 1600s from an age of faith to the scientific/rational worldview, this shift is asking questions that shake the foundations of life.

At the end of the premodern age, the world and the church were stable. Then Luther defied the pope (and lived), political forces aligned and the church fractured. These political/religious forces fought the Thirty Years War, and Europe was devastated. At the peace of Westphalia in 1648, leaders looked back and vowed “never again.” Various traditions claimed to be Christian, but tried to destroy each other over doctrine, dogma and superstition. The leaders of the time were profoundly Christian, but their confidence shifted. In the following generations, the answer that emerged was to turn to reason – “If we think hard enough, there is no problem we can’t solve.” After this shift, the world was divided into areas that faith explained and areas that God explained. As science explained more, the space for God became smaller.

By 1945, we’d reached the height of our technological prowess, and we unleashed the atomic bomb – “a means by which we can kill more people more quickly than ever before.” In the following decades we learned that technology led us to the brink of ecological disaster; that the crowning achievement of medicine, antibiotics, led to the evolution of superbugs; that one-quarter of the world still goes to bed hungry; that leaders lie. This period has “led to a lack of confidence in the modernist enterprise.”

“Postmodern is not a movement, but a stance or attitude of profound skepticism that will not receive tradition uncritically.” Our daily experience of diversity and our access to many points of view have convinced us that “there is no God’s eye view of the world, where one of us gets to look down and say what is real.”

The postmodern age is marked by a sense that rather than one story of reality there are many, none of which can be proven absolutely true. Language, rather than just describing reality, creates it – you can’t experience something until you can name it. Truth is seen as those things that the dominant culture agrees on – cannot be proved but often is disproved. Postmoderns have a deep suspicion of power, which doesn’t arise from knowledge but decides what knowledge is. Authority is lodged in experience and relationship, not in titles and hierarchies.

“This is the situation we preach into. The values of a generation ago are challenged. People have access to so much information. You can’t just do a monologue about what is right.”

The shift has also created a window of spiritual openness. “Premoderns had a real sense of being dependent on God’s grace. Moderns said if we think hard enough we can save ourselves…but by the end of the 20th century we had been disabused of this illusion. We see this in GenX and millennials…they saw the wealth grabbing of their parents and saw that it didn’t get them salvation… There is more room for mystery and openness (now) than there has been in more than 3 centuries.”

In this world “truth is confessed and professed, but never possessed.” In the modern world truth was validated by conquering another point of view. But “in confession, the validity of your assertion rests not with its reception but with the integrity of the confessor… When we make claims about God’s action in our lives and our world, we can give people space to wonder or doubt” because our relationship with them doesn’t depend on their accepting our arguments. This “leaves room for the holy spirit to work” and allows us to follow God’s model shown on the cross. “God does not take the power route in the cross, but becomes very vulnerable.”

Moderns view the Bible as “the Encyclopedia Brittanica of the faith (and) open it looking it for answers. What if we imagine it as a collection of confessions of people so gripped by God’s story that they had no choice (but to tell it)?” Scripture is “a living word waiting to be set loose in you and in the community.”

“The Bible is the very beginning to the very end. We all live somewhere between the Acts and the Revelation. Our task is to take the biblical stories and stretch them, and drag our people into the stories..”

Preachers are not offering answers but “a world view, a framework to understand their lives.” There are many competing metanarratives in our world, one of which is the story of consumption. “Behind every ad and billboard is an assertion about the human condition – you do not have enough, you are not enough. But if you buy … maybe you’ll be OK. That narrative is of the devil. But if we do not offer a compelling alternative we have done nothing to advance the cause of Christ.”

“Preaching, like Christianity, is intensely relational… the preacher is mediating a relationship between the hearer and God.”

Preaching needs to actualize the tradition in the situation of your community.” If it is monologue, it needs to be “provisional monologue” designed to “catalyze conversation” among the people about things that really matter. “The message of unconditional love and grace is uncommon.” People who come to church should be able to “count on hearing this alien story…and be sustained in faith.”

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