“Don’t curse the darkness. Light a candle.”
End-time Adventists can find value in that time-honored advice. As the world’s moral midnight deepens around us—greed, lust, war, unbelief, and so on—it’s easier to condemn the darkness than to strategize about how Christ’s light of truth might shine more brightly through His church.
Consider the DaVinci Code, that bestseller turned blockbuster which assaulted Christ’s deity and the integrity of Scripture. Many Christians counterattacked by damning DaVinci. But some believers recognized an opportunity to dialogue with unsaved friends about Jesus, as Paul did when the gospel was slandered in his day: “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). While others cursed the darkness, Paul illumined it with the light of truth.
DaVinci is Exhibit A of the postmodern assault upon Christian faith. Before explaining the bad news of postmodernism (and there is much to denounce about it: theistic evolution for starters), let me share some good news: Postmodernism provides Adventists opportunities for evangelism that we’ve never had before. In fact I believe that of all faith groups, Seventh-day Adventism is best positioned to connect with the postmodern world—if we wake up to the opportunity and contextualize our message without compromising it.
That’s quite a statement and I’m prepared to support it. First we must know a bit about postmodernism and its background.
Rise of modernism
Let’s travel back to medieval days, when the church told everyone what to believe. If you were born, you were baptized—simple as that. Individual freedom of choice was burned at the stake.
Then came the Renaissance, when the courageous and the curious insisted on thinking for themselves. Ancient literary classics were recovered and translated, including the Scriptures. Armed with the invention of the printing press, an explosion of knowledge resulted. The truth set Europe free from church-state shackles, unleashing the Protestant Reformation. Meanwhile, the world of science experienced its own rebirth through the discoveries of Newton, Galileo, Copernicus and others.
That’s basically how the medieval world gave way to the modern age, which during the last several centuries has been marked by:
1) Individualism: following personal conscience, making your own choices;
2) Knowledge focus: facts, not faith, are what matters most, and knowledge is inherently good;
3) Rationalism: through human powers of reason and observation, we have access to everything worth believing. The scientific method and secular philosophy replaced the Bible and the church as the test of truth.
Faith suffered much under the reign of modernism. For some, the symbolic Goddess of Reason replaced the miraculous virgin Mary. Then Charles Darwin devised a theory of origins that disowned divinity. Many who managed to maintain faith in God during modernism tended to gravitate to one of two extremes: radical liberalism that denied the miraculous in the quest of the “historical Jesus,” or rigid fundamentalism that clung to religious preconceptions whatever the facts might be.
Amid this religious discord, Seventh-day Adventists gave the trumpet of truth a certain sound. Our church has fared well under modernism. In an age of individualism, we’ve challenged people to stand alone for God amid their Sunday-keeping friends. In a knowledge-focused world we launched many churches by winning debates with our amazing facts about Bible truth. During the reign of rationalism we proclaimed a reasonable and convincing system of doctrine that withstood both liberalism and fundamentalism. Adventism was progressive and intellectual enough to flourish amid liberalism yet conservative enough to woo fundamentalists.
No wonder Adventists today tend to be modernists to the core. So how can we meet the challenge of postmodernism? Adventist outreach still thrives, but mainly in places and among people where postmodernism has not yet spun its web. In America, sustainable growth has nearly flatlined among Whites and declined among all but first-generation ethnic groups.
Demise of modernism
Postmodernism undermines our foundations of faith by denying that absolute truth is knowable or even desirable. This mindset did not happen overnight. Some scholars believe modernism began slowly sinking with the Titanic—that floating memorial to human knowledge. One person famously boasted that God Himself couldn’t sink that ship. Yet down it went, and with it the notion that knowledge never fails.
Two years later World War I proved that knowledge is not inherently good. Scientific expertise gave us mustard gas and the machine gun. Millions were efficiently murdered by knowledge gone awry.
Then came World War II, in which the meisters of scientific knowledge invented the Holocaust. After that, the Bomb. Society became disillusioned about the goodness of reason and knowledge. Since the revolution of the ‘60s, the Western world has sought refuge in postmodernism:
1) Individualism is giving way to community because we need to transcend our selfishness and isolation and work together to save society. Interdependence is better than independence. It takes more than a single parent to raise a child; it takes a village—a community.
2) Knowledge is no longer the foundation of reality. Perceptions and even feelings are considered equally valid as facts—which themselves are no longer absolute. Now, “everything is relative.”
3) Rationalism has given way to the realization that we cannot figure out everything. Some things, like a sunset, must be experienced rather than explained.
The bottom line in the postmodern world is that concrete knowledge has succumbed to nuanced insight. “I feel” and “I think” are interchangeable—and beware of saying “I know.” Now one person’s—or denomination’s—view of truth is no more valid than another’s.
Prove the Sabbath from Scripture and your workplace associate shrugs and says, “So what? Explain how it matters. Show me how it makes my world a better place.”
Adventism’s allure for postmodernists
How can we Adventists make our case for truth amid the challenges of postmodernism?
The key is in the word narrative. “Tell me your story” is a favorite conversation starter for postmodernists. They care about human experience more than impersonal propositional truth. At first glance that’s bad news for Adventists with our 28 fundamental beliefs. But we also have the story of all stories in our Great Controversy narrative. Every Adventist belief, properly understood, synchronizes with the grand story of Eden lost to the earth restored.
The Great Controversy narrative is uniquely Adventist in both content and scope. Other Christians can tell with us the “old, old story of Jesus and His love,” but they don’t connect Christ’s mission on earth 2,000 years ago with the relevant story of what He is doing now in heaven’s sanctuary on behalf of human suffering. Others may talk about saving our planet, but nobody has our vision of heaven on earth made new for all eternity. Fellow Evangelicals may explain the origin of sin, but they offer no resolution to the sin problem—their doctrine of hell eternalizes sin and suffering. Besides, postmodernists are passionate about social justice; for them the popular notion of endless hell inflicted indiscriminately on unbelievers is abhorrent.
By contrast, our Adventist view of the future provides merciful closure, particularly when we teach the investigative judgment in the context of a God providing answers to the questions of His celestial universe. (Adventism’s much maligned and abused doctrines of investigative judgment and the sanctuary, cleansed of legalism and clothed with narrative, provide our strongest bonding points with postmodernists, as I hope to show in next month’s Outlook.) Also appealing is our doctrine of the millennium in which we humans get our own questions answered from God before sin and sinners are destroyed.
When hell is framed in the context of justice executed upon oppressors and hypocrites, administrated fairly and briefly, postmodernists often embrace it eagerly.
It’s true that most postmodern believers share the age-old misconception of life immediately after death. But they also view humanity holistically, rather than dualistically as did the ancient Persians and the Greeks, who taught false dichotomy between body and spirit. This is an open door for Adventist truth about death (and also an entering wedge for our holistic health message and our health system, which was launched by Ellen G. White with her eight natural remedies). Moreover, Christ’s second coming is in the context of community—we’re not ascending individually at death as disembodied spirits. We are going together when Jesus comes. What a blessed hope for the hopelessness of postmodernism!
And what of the Sabbath? Adventists under modernism emphasized the Sabbath as a Mosaic proposition. But it’s also the climax of the human story of creation. What’s more, the Sabbath is all about community. Other Christians might spare a couple hours for church time before football games, but Adventists value community with God and with each other so much that we give it a whole day every week. That says a lot to postmodernists.
What about God’s law? Well, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 8:10). Love fosters good human relations, which makes for a good narrative.
Everything we believe can be framed in the context of story. Everything! Even prophecy is narrative in advance, a spotlight into future events from a loving God who guides the universe.
In summary, no other church can offer what Adventists have for the postmodern world. Our life and death task is to shift emphasis away from presenting doctrine as a series of propositions, which appeals only to modernists. To evangelize a postmodern world, we must show our fundamental beliefs in the context of our unique Great Controversy narrative. Since the Bible itself is basically narrative, this should not be a problem for us.