One week ago today I attended a very insightful Q&A session with John MacArthur, James MacDonald, and David Wells at The Master’s College’s annual Truth & Life Conference. I brought my laptop and took detailed notes, so I’ll try to give you my best paraphrase of the best answers. The questions are in bold. When you read what David Wells says, think of a dignified elderly man who speaks deliberately and with a British accent. It will make more sense of the sentence structure. He spoke slowly, so it was easy to capture what he said. MacDonald spoke like a machine-gun, so I couldn’t record almost anything he said. MacArthur was between the two in terms of cadence, so I got some quotes down from him. I’m avoiding several more controversial comments because often those kinds of statements are only fairly understood in their original context, which I can’t recreate.
Postmodernism often gets thrown around as a catchword for everything that’s wrong with our culture, but this seems naive. Could you give us a beginner’s summary of postmoderism?
David Wells: What we’re talking about is a cultural mood, and moods are not always easy to define with great precision. But here, I think, is what has happened (this is really quick).
Postmodernism is a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. And when you think about it, the Enlightenment was a Christian heresy. It offered all the benefits of the Christian faith, but it offered them on the basis of unconstructed, foundational human nature — apart from God. For instance, eschatology was identified with progress and ethics were thought to be naturally found. It was a Christian heresy. It lived so long in the West despite an extraordinary effort by Chistian apologists to overturn it, because it made sense to people given the modernization of the world. And there are great benefits that have come from this like increases in the life expectancy rate and employment [and more].
That kind of world looked like a sort of progress. But in the 1960s, it began to dawn on people that if this was progress, they might not want it. Technology was expanding human capacities, but it was also producing awful weapons that could eliminate human life. So we’re nuclear giants but moral infants. We’re stumbling along in our darkness, toying with the secrets of life and death. Is this really progress? Is it progress when anxiety and depression and personal emptiness rule the day? These were the nagging doubts that began to creep in. This was the onset of this postmodern mood.
It is a reaction against enlightenment rationalism. So you have a lack of confidence in reason and much more confidence in intuition and feelings. This even pops up in our language. Today, would I say to you, “Here is a proposition”? No. I would say, “What do you think about that.” More likely, I would say, “How do you feel about that?” Further, it is a rejection of all absolutes. There is no overarching meaning to all of life. There is simply my private meaning, and yours. I have my values, you have yours, and the two might be entirely different. You might think of it as an extreme individualism. The problem is that we become isolated, disconnected, lonely pieces of consciousness. That’s really the postmodern mood.
Where is postmodernism going next?
David Wells: That’s certainly a very interesting question. As Yogi Berra said, “Prophecy’s a bit difficult, especially with regard to the future.” It’s certain that this mood is unsustainable. I don’t think that people can live like this. Already I see in younger people a yearning for the sort of structure and meaning and norms that this postmodern mood denies to people. And I actually find it very encouraging, because I think that Christian faith is now looking at a moment that is not unprecedented but is certainly golden. When we were living under the secular human enlightenment, people were so self-confident and self-assured. They had life by the tail. But people today are not like that. There’s a kind of emptiness, and people are wondering. This is a golden moment, because Christian faith speaks into this sort of situation so easily and so naturally because it is talking about the meaning of life and the norms and what happens when people are sort of hollowed out because they don’t know God and they won’t repent before Him. So I see this as a wonderful moment.
John MacArthur: The individualism that exists with postmodernism is the destruction of all relationships. You can’t connect with anyone because everyone has their own view of the world, and if you’re right (which everyone is), others must be wrong. So it destroys families and relationships. But we were created by God for relationships. We’re seeing this emptiness destroy people. People who’ve lived for themselves are now 50 or 60 after living reckless, self-obsessed lives, and they have no structure and no people around them. I agree with David [Wells] that this is a golden opportunity for us, but it’s also a golden opportunity for Islam. Islam has so much structure and rigidity and many people feel that this is a better community than what they’ve had. The rules are all the same — no one is an exception. You might think that this might cause people to run in the other direction, but it’s very attractive even to people in the West. People are looking for some stability and identity, and a community of people who stand for something bigger than themselves and do it with love and meaningful relationships. The church needs to manifest a strong commitment to absolute standards, good marriages, healthy relationships, and biblical community.
How should a Christian interact with culture? To what extent should culture impact the way we communicate God’s truth in evangelism or do church?
David Wells: Let’s remember what we’re talking about when we use the word “culture” today. We’re not talking about fads and fashions, though some people use the word that way. We’re talking about the ways in which we as a society collectively think about life (with those thoughts developing a kind of normativity to them). You hear this normativity expressed in our language — “Everybody’s doing it.” Well, that’s the way I’m thinking here about culture. And it runs very close indeed to what the New Testament authors are thinking about under the term “worldliness.” It’s what in our public environment makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange. So whether our culture is reaching us through relationships in the workplace or accepted standards of business or television or movies, when you look at it this way you can see that it’s very important for us to be able to see what’s what.
The problem with discernment is that we as humans are these strange, almost hybrid creatures. We’re made in the image of God, but all of us are fallen. We’re these strange combinations of those two. So our culture is likewise a combination of these two — simultaneously divine image bearers and fallen sinners. This is why we have great artistry, sometimes put in the service of great depravity. And it’s that ambivalence that we need to be able to discern with great clarity. Why is this issue of culture important? It’s important because culture develops a status of normality. So we tend to go along with it, because everyone else is. It often doesn’t occur to us that there might be issues that we should be trying to identity so we can be aware of them. This is important because there are people who have a great biblical framework up front, but this stuff just seeps through unidentified. And it works chaos in the internal life of people. We know that this is happening because today if Barna’s figures are right, there is no discernable difference (ethical standards) between how those who claim to be born again and those who say they’re secular humanists. The only discernable difference is that 2% of those who claim to be born again don’t practice musical piracy. Big whoop. So something very bad has been going on. We need to be much more discerning than we’ve been.
John MacArthur: People who have been saturated with worldliness have become the identity of the church. Grunge Chrsitianity, where we laugh at the world’s movies, outrageous preaching, familiarity with the basest elements of the culture, shock-jock preaching. This is a way to accommodate that mass of people who make a profession of interest in Christ but couldn’t possibly have the discernment to sort out real righteousness and sanctification from all of the worldliness that has engulfed them. This is a frightening thing. We talk about wanting to reach the culture. You don’t reach the culture by becoming what it is. That’s exactly what the newest trend is. There’s a trend today to legitimize all the baser forms of worldliness that exist in the church. Instead, we need to run with the same passion toward our doctrine of sanctification that we’ve run with towards our doctrine of justification.
John MacArthur: The church today wants to be the aroma of life to those being saved but doesn’t want to be the aroma of death to those who are perishing [2 Corinthians 2:14-17].
What are some ways that you would encourage our students to model and to pursue discipleship?
John MacArthur: You have to find somebody who is also trying to walk with Christ, knows less than you do, needs to be nurtured, connect, and begin to disciple that person. I think that is the most fruitful dynamic for the church. Beyond evangelism, the whole idea of reproducing ourselves is absolutely foundational (2 Tim 2:2). Find somebody and pour your life into them. It creates accountability. All of a sudden, you’ve raised the stakes for your own life. And go the other direction. Find someone more mature than you and put yourself under them to learn. You still have to win the battle on the inside yourself, but discipleship is still a model you can’t live without. I’ve always wanted to put myself in a position where I was led by someone who was farther along than I was and where I was pouring my life into someone who hadn’t gone beyond where I was. This is counter to the trend today. In this individualized spirituality that everyone is talking about, people don’t want anyone to tell them anything. This is the opposite of what we should be doing. This is why the one-another’s fill the NT. Get in the chain and draw from those who are beyond you and pour your life into those who are coming behind you.
What encouragement would you give to someone going full-time into a secular field, day-in day-out?
David Wells: You’re a Christian believer. What do you think you’re on earth for? We’re all here on earth in different contexts, different parts of the workplace. My corner of the world is hostile and difficult, but what are we supposed to do? We’re supposed to walk with God and do what is right and exemplify what is true and speak what is true and in so doing reoccupy a little corner of life. We remember that though there has been rebellion, God has not yielded this world to evil. It does not belong to anyone except God. He is the Creator, He is the Sustainer, He has given life to every person on earth, He has given them every single gift they have and every gift they draw. So what are we waiting for? We should walk under the banner of Christ and His Word, in the power of His Spirit, and we should live out our lives to the glory of God in whatever context we find ourselves.
John MacArthur: Apart from the pastoral epistles, every letter of Paul was written to laymen. The instruction for all of that falls to the church.
James MacDonald: My dad, a teacher, used to say: The students hate you in the fall, they respect you in the winter, and they love you in the spring. I think that being nice is very overrated. Don’t make that your main goal. Make your goal unconditional love. Unconditional love is very unexpected. It has an impact. Look for people struggling under trials, minister to them, and talk to them.
David Wells: I think we should be clear about George Barna’s polling numbers. No matter what you think of his polling questions and his statistical strategies, his numbers are very important in the church world because people use them and build programs off of them. If that research is done well, what it is measuring with a fair degree of accuracy is people’s self-perception. And that self-perception may be accurate or entirely inaccurate. But even if it’s inaccurate, it’s important information to have because it tells us what people think of themselves and their spiritual state.
James MacDonald: Bad news sells in evangelicalism just like it sells everywhere else.
John MacArthur: The preacher creates a spiritual crisis in the hearts of people when he brings the Word of God to bear on the heart with force and conviction and clarity. And it is an event. Yes, I know that on Tuesday they won’t remember the details. But I also walk away knowing that they’ve faced the crisis of worship on Sunday morning. This is why I can’t get into frivolous stuff when the people of the Lord gather on a Sunday morning. I want to get as close to the Holy of Holies as possible.