The Church and Postmodernism? What about the Church and Modernism?

Like 200,000 other Melbournians I visited the art Deco exhibition at the NGV. Art Deco was an early 20th century movement which influenced art, industrial and interior design, architecture, film and fashion. In many ways Deco was a decorative reaction to the pure functionalism of modernism. 

The exhibition at the NGV was not so much an exploration of Art Deco in of itself but also of the macro themes of progressive culture in the 20′ & 30’s namely,

  • The Emergence of Urban Culture
  • A growing interest in non-European culture and art
  • The cultural fusion brought about by increased international migration and travel
  • The growth of consumer and commerciall culture
  • A fascination and optimism in the potential of technology
  • An increased emphasis on surface and style
  • The growing influence of mass media on public opinion
  • The influence of non-traditional and thus controversial music styles such as Jazz
  • The almost semi-religious devotion to the celebrity and glamour culture of Hollywood
  • A changing view of sexuality and gender eg flapper culture

mmmm sound familiar? It is interesting to note that many of the issues that we ascribe to our epoch in history have a much longer history than we think. Often in church circles there is a belief that society was chugging along quite nicely until sometime in the 60’s to 80’s then culture changed and postmodernity turned up and now we have to evolve in order to to respond to a changed cultural landscape. That we are in the midst of a hyper paced cultural change, this is true to an extent; however the more I read history the more I believe that we have been in a slow change that has been evolving over several centuries and the church has been struggling to deal and respond to this change for just as long. There has been much written about how the church can respond to postmodernism, but as we study history we realize that the church is still reeling and struggling to respond to modernism.

The Pink Elephant in the Missional Room

There is much discussion at the moment about the missional movement. The realisation that the church is on a back foot in the West continues to push leaders to develop solutions that will ensure that the church has a future. Therefore if you head down to your local Christian book store, you will find volumes of titles on how your church can become more missional. At anytime there is probably a bunch of Christian professionals somewhere running a conference on missional church and engagement with secular culture. At this time all over the world Christian bloggers are pressing publish on hundreds if not thousands of missional blogs, where discussions about how the church can share its good news, occur in a kind of professional dialect that is almost unintelligible to the average person.

But there is a fat, stinky pink elephant sitting in the middle of the missional conversation that everyone is ignoring. The majority of ordinary Christians are suffering a loss of confidence in their faith, this is particularly true of young adults who in the past were at the front of missional movements.

There is a parallel to be made between the missional conversation and the modern architecture movement that grew out of the German Bauhaus design school of the early 20th century . The Bauhaus school attracted fresh, hip and passionate students, who wished to change culture, by creating buildings and designs that did not feature the ornate styles of the rich, they wanted to create a new utilitarian style for the working class. The Bauhaus was the most cutting edge design and architecture movement of its day, and its influence can still be seen in design.

However there was a problem, the building designs for working class people that came out of the Bauhaus, were being designed by middle class intellectuals. Thus many of its buildings were despised by the working class people who had to live in them. Some have been demolished due to their unsuitability for habitation. The modernist architects of the Bauhas presumed that they knew what was going on in the lives of ordinary people, sadly they were only listening to their peers. I can’t help but feeling that the same dynamic is occurring today in the church in the West. Many missionalleaders, experts, authors and pastors, are simply out of touch with the day to day faith experiences of ordinary Christians.

I remember talking about the missional movement to a guy who works in a job full time secular job, after my extolling of incarnational approaches and cutting edge missional strategies he stopped me, he said “I work seventy hours a week, I have to work to pay my mortgage, I don’t even have time to cook myself a meal when I get home, At work I would love to share my faith with my co-workers but we are all so under the pump that we don’t even have time to have lunch, let alone muse on the nature of God and the Universe. When these new missional experts have a plan for how guys like me can that actually works get back to me!” I retreated with my tail between my legs.

As I get around I find that ordinary believers in the West are using most of the little energy that they have to protect their own faiths in the face of the corrosive effects of secularism. Such a crisis of confidence in faith has devastating effects upon our ability to share our faith. If you look at the success of the early church in spreading the gospel, much of this success was borne out of people being so positive and excited about their faith that they told whoever they were in contact with, and also from the transformative effect of faith upon the lives of non-believers. 

For me this is where so much of the missional movement thinking falls down. The average believer living in the MTV West is not running about telling everyone about their faith, often when I speak to groups of young adults and ask them to compile a list of people that they know who’s lives have been transformed by the gospel, they struggle to name more than a couple of names if any. In fact many young adults I meet tell me that they think that their faith erodes their quality of life.

It’s great to have wonderful new missional strategies but if you troops are suffering from low morale you are not going to win many battles.

A denominational leader who has heard me talk about this topic approached me the other day to tell me that their internal research has shown that in the last five years, people in their denomination have become far more involved in social justice projects, and in community activities outside of the Christian faith, yet they are less likely than five years ago to share their faith. The missional movement has inspired people to get outside of the four walls of the church, to get active and involvedin their community and their world, but it has made a fatal error, it has presumed that ordinary beleivers are happy, ready and willing to pass on their faith to others. The missional movement has failed to show people what it is to live a vibrant and relevant faith in the soil of 21st century culture. It has not developed a new apologetic for a hedonistic, hyper-consumerist world.

If we are to inspire a new misisonal movement in the West, we must learn to again inspire people about their faiths. 

In his book The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism  David Klinghoffer notes that there is another creation story in Genesis besides that in chapter 1 and 2. Sure we know the creation story of Adam and Eve, who’s lives and world are filled newness and naivety. But Klinghoffer notes that there is another creation story that occurs in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, those two infertile, old and cynical desert nomads, who laugh at the idea of God giving them a child. Yet God remakes them in the midst of their exhausted cynicism, out of their tired seen-it-all-beforeness God changes history. If we are going to again learn what it is to do mission in the West we must listen again to this story, missional leaders must learn like God, to breath life into tired lungs, to re-educate, re-inspire and rehabilitate. The future of the church in the West depends on it.

We Need a New Generation of Cultural Prophets

 I am passionate as you can guess from this site about understanding the culture in which we live. Why? Because how we live out our faith, how we do mission and how we live as the people of God is deeply tied to our interactions with our culture. To communicate the good news of the gospel to our world intelligibly, we must understand our times if we are to speak with freshness and vitality.

The picture on the left was painted by Claude Monet. He was one of the group of painters known as the Impressionists. When people first saw his paintings at the end of the 19th century, people could barely believe what they were looking at. Monet and his friends captured the spirit of the day perfectly. They painted with feeling, Monet seemed to capture the essence of light on a landscape. They managed to paint in a way that was cutting edge, which captured the cultural moment in time, which spoke to the first generation of modernity. Monet put onto canvas how young people were feeling about their world. Put quite simply, Monet’s paintings were so vital and so relevant, they caused a cultural sensation, they changed how we see art and think about the world.

However Monet did not adapt. He kept painting the same paintings of landscapes and nature. The world around him began to change.

Monet presumed that what spoke with power and relevance yesterday would speak with the same force today.

The picture that you can see was painted during World War One. As Monet painted in his studio, he could hear the guns pounding the battlefield in the distance, as thousands of the young men died in holes filled with mud and blood. Trains would pass his country house, rattling his studio. They were filled with the generation he had inspired going to fight in the trenches of France. The world had changed, no longer did people feel excited about the future, they felt confused. People did not want pretty pictures of flowers and fields. Yet Monet kept painting the same paintings, yet a horrible irrelevance hang over them now. The world had changed. Monet had stayed the same.

The same danger always lurks for Christians. We cannot pay lip service to understanding our culture. We need a whole new generation who will watch, listen, keep their ear to the ground. We need Elijah’s and Isaiah’s for a globalised MTV world. The gospel remains the same, but how we communicate it changes, what worked in 1790 probably won’t work now, what worked in 1923 probably won’t work now, even what worked in 2000 probably won’t work now.

If you want to speak good news with freshness, vitality and impact, first open your eyes and ears to the world around you.  

Is the Sex and the City movie the last hurrah of the economic golden times?

Was chatting to my friend Ben this week, and we were discussing the almost unprecedented media blitz over Sex and the City. Ben after seeing the film asked if the film was the lash hurrah of the economic boom times that we have been experiencing for the last ten years. I think he may be right.

Sex and the City has proved to be one of the most insidious marketing machines of modern times. It pioneered and mastered a new kind of advertising where companies paid for their products to appear in the show. Whole storyline were sold to companies, the writers behind SATC wrote episodes around products such as a certain vodka.

The show created a kind of glitzy, bling world for women. When the girls on the show talked about men in the same manner as they spoke of products; it embodied hyperconsumerism par excellance. SATC echoed Swedish economists Kjell Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle sentiment that all that there is left in western culture is sex and shopping.  

The many luxury brands that have supported the show are being hit hard as the current credit crisis eats away at the contents of Louis Vuitton purses both real and fake. So they are pulling out all of the stops to save the sinking ship. Her Majesty the Queen of America Oprah Winfrey has decreed that all women must go out and support this film (um like it needs it?). Queen Oprah may wish her four girl pals well as they head off on their cinematic adventures, but someone better tell them about the economic iceberg in their path. 

The Unadulterated Pleasure of Limits

When it comes to pleasure God seems to be a bit of a fanatic. Upon first glance we often fail to notice just how subtly he has infused our human existence with all kinds of aesthetic, sensual and erotic goodies to discover and enjoy. Seriously what kind of deity are we dealing with here? Surely there were more important and sensible tasks for him to put his mind to when he created the world.

I mean imagine if the earth had been created with a pre-prepared and efficient sewage system? Now that would make sense! Instead God seems to be happy to create constellations as artworks that we can only now just appreciate thanks to the hubble telescope, not very efficient if you ask me. Humans could have been pre-programmed from day one with an ability to understand incredibly complicated mathematical equations; every human could have been a Steven Hawking. Imagine the advances in technology, imagine the infrastructure our cities could have had, the volumes of scientific journals that the average citizen could consume on a daily basis. Instead what does God do? He takes that vital brain power, and devotes millions of neural synapses and enough brain electricity to power a medium size Asian city to human sexuality.

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The Babel like tower of Tack: Superflat Part 3

Over the weekend I engaged as I do once a year in the orgy of kitchness and tack that is the Eurovision song contest. If you live in North America and have not seen Eurovision; imagine mixing American Idol with the Euro (the European soccer championships), and then having the the whole thing designed by drag queens from Albania with a penchant for pure grade cocaine.


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