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Preaching in a post-modern world ::

Phil Campbell reviews Don Carson’s September 1996 “Postmodernism” lectures…
Source: Perspective Vo4 No4 ©Perspective 1999


IMAGINE A WORLD in which there is no such thing as truth. Only opinion. Imagine a world where rather than holding strongly to a point of view, and allowing others to hold other strong points of view, the definition of “tolerance” was “not believing anything strongly.” Imagine a world where it’s impossible to say what you mean, and mean what you say, because “everything is ambiguous”, and “it depends on how you want to take it.”

That’s the world we live in. That, according to Dr Don Carson, is “post-modernism” at work. And for Christians, it’s a world that offers a whole new set of problems and challenges. If you think society has changed a lot lately, you’re right. In fact, according to Carson, there’s been a more profound social change in the last ten or twenty years than in the three hundred years that went before. Here’s a summary of what he had to say in his recent lecture series at the NSW Presbyterian Theological Centre in Burwood.


Since the late 1700s, the dominant world philosophy has been termed “modernism.” It’s a convenient label for a world-view that has produced much of the “scientific progress” we take for granted. Before the “modernist” era, western society took for granted that things simply were the way they were because that’s the way God made it. And that’s the way they’d stay. It was a simple, hassle free existence. However, with the rise of modernism, the idea was adopted that we could “work things out.” No challenge was too big – given the right tools, and enough time, mankind could solve almost anything. Logic, science, design, literature, almost everything was seen to be on an upward incline, progressing towards a self-improved future. Almost everything could be understood, comprehended, mastered and improved.

Not a bad system, in many ways. As far as Christianity was concerned, there were two reactions. On the one hand, there were “modernists” who said, “when we put our minds to the bible, there are supernatural things that we simply can’t accept.” Where once there was blind belief, now there was deep doubt, and a theological “liberalism” that picked through the bible for the bits that “reason” could accept. Man and his mind were placed above God and his revelation. On the other hand, though, were those who maintained their trust in God’s word, and grew to understand it better and better, helped by the clear thinking that modernism encouraged. While some dismissed the Bible altogether, others studied it and taught it more effectively than ever before. In all of this, there was still a basic assumption that the “moral teaching” of the bible was true, and formed a good basis for society. More than that, there was an assumption that truth remained true, no matter where, no matter when.

So what about POST-modernism? It’s a term that literally means “after modernism.” So what do you get in a society that has gone past modernism?


The biggest change has been in the definition of the concept of “truth.” Rather than searching for truth, the post-modernist says it’s a useless quest! “Everyone looks at things from their own slant. Everyone has a bias. There’s no way of finding REAL truth – when you do find “truth”, it’s only truth for YOU.”

This sort of thinking has had a huge effect in Universities, especially in areas of literature study and the arts. Literature is no longer studied in search of the “author’s meaning” – instead, the interest is in “the reader’s response.” Double meanings and possible alternative interpretations are seen everywhere, to the point where the post-modernist says clear communication is impossible.

In terms of religious thought, there are some big consequences.

  1. Religion is seen to be a private thing. If it’s true for you, that’s fine. Don’t try to make it true for anyone else.
  2. Don’t imagine you can understand the Bible! There’s no fixed message – just take it however you like. “Twenty years ago,” says Dr Carson, “people went to bible study to try to find out what God says. Now, the aim is to let everyone express an opinion.” And no opinion is counted any more true than another.
  3. As a result of all this, average people have absolutely no knowledge of the bible any more.
  4. There’s a whole new morality. The only thing that’s counted as wrong anymore is to say someone else is wrong. Having strong views about anything is considered intolerant.
  5. There is no longer any concept of sin.
  6. Evangelism is an increasingly dangerous business. Trying to convince people of the truth about Jesus will be seen to be narrow minded and anti-social.


In some ways, “modernism” claimed too much. It’s not always possible to grab hold of “truth” as easily as the modernist assumes. But on the other hand, “post-modernism” claims too little. For example, even though we do all have biases as we come to literature like the bible, it is possible to get close to the original meaning of the text – and to work in such a way as we move closer and closer to “truth”. And while language and communication can sometimes be ambiguous, it’s not always ambiguous. Our common experience is that growth in understanding is possible. And although it’s sometimes hard to communicate with one another, it’s possible – we do it every day.

We have a “talking God” – a God who has communicated in words. And those words are understandable – we can work towards a point of clearer and clearer understanding of those words, though never expecting a perfect understanding.


Don Carson says that in this new era, we must perceive our struggle to be a clash of “world views.” Until recently, most people had some degree of Judeo-Christian heritage. Even agnostics and atheists defined their dis-belief against the God of the bible. Evangelism assumed all sorts of basic knowledge of who the God is that we’re talking about. Suddenly, things have changed.

One thing we need to do, says Dr Carson, is keep re-building the logical structures of God’s whole revelation. We need to give the “big picture” of the whole bible, setting the framework in which the gospel of Jesus makes sense.

God has indeed spoken. And Jesus Christ is his final word. The figure of Jesus must be presented, so that people are confronted with HIM; Jesus needs to be presented in his context, within the wider structures of the biblical narrative, so that even the post-modernist is brought face to face with God’s revelation of Himself. It’s a challenge very similar to the one faced by the apostles back in the first century!

Copies of Don Carson’s talks are available on tape from:
Presbyterian Theological Centre, 77 Shaftesbury Rd, Burwood, NSW.
You can phone them on (02) 9744 1977.
The talks are pretty technical and heavy, but worth a listen if you missed the conference.

Phil Campbell

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