George Orwell’s 1984, a novel about the dangers of totalitarian government, depicts a society dominated by a government that attempts to control the very thoughts of its people. One of the agencies in the novel, the Ministry of Truth, publishes what is called “truth,” although the majority of the information that originates from the ministry is actually falsified history, meant to make the social situation look as good or bad as the government intends. “Truth” in the novel becomes an object that can be created and destroyed, altered and reclaimed at will, depending on the current agenda. Any notion of objectivity virtually disappears.
Many people today attempt to draw comparisons between the US government and George Orwell’s 1984, but there is a more compelling and legitimate comparison to be made. For many years, I have been fascinated by the use of language and knowledge in 1984 as a method of control in Orwell’s totalitarian society. Words are powerful, and, as the adage goes, ideas have consequences. It matters what we call “truth.”
While the obvious replacement of truth with lies in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is a scary thought, what is truly frightening is the far more subtle approach the secular world has adopted in dispensing with objective truth. Society has turned the notion of truth on its head altogether, claiming that no one has a monopoly on it—therefore (almost) everyone’s “truth” is truth. Secularists and even some professing Christians are attempting to redefine truth in more obvious ways than ever before.
Most people do not realize that they and their children are being quietly indoctrinated into a philosophy that runs entirely counter to Scripture. In our schools, our colleges, even our churches—places which tend to resemble “Ministries of Truth” in surprising ways—this philosophy makes an empty promise of happiness through freedom from all boundaries and authorities, convincing believers and unbelievers alike that boundaries are simply the invention of authority figures who wish to “oppress” those with less power. This philosophy preaches “liberation,” “tolerance,” and “equality,” and calls all beliefs it considers to be in line with those values “truth.” In short, this philosophy is known as postmodernism, and it has been at the root of many attacks on the authority of God’s Word and the resulting decline of society.1
Spearheaded by our universities, the rise of postmodern theories has given way to a denial of objective biblical truths—along with the ability to critique any truth claims—and the castigation of anyone who adheres to a biblical moral code. In this article series, I want to examine some of the major theories to come out of postmodernism and how they have influenced not only secular ways of thinking but also biblical interpretation by many Christian leaders and in many Christian colleges and seminaries.
Hollow and Deceptive Philosophy
As indicated above, at the heart of postmodernism is a war for the definition of truth and for the authority to determine what is truth. It is important to note that while the logical extreme of postmodern thought is a world with no governing system, no boundaries, and no ultimate truth, many postmodernists today, believers and unbelievers alike, are not advocating that type of a world. They have a moral code (which typically consists of treating one another “nicely”), even though they are looking for freedom from biblical strictures on marriage, gender roles, and other issues.2 However, the subtle ways in which some Christians have adopted postmodern ideals do a great deal of harm. These believers have given up certain parts of the ultimate truth of Scripture.
As Christians, we should derive ultimate, objective truth from the Bible. Second Timothy 3:16–17 says that Scripture is our authority:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Without the Bible as the source of truth, believers leave themselves open to the influence of any philosophy the secular world has to offer. Paul in Colossians warns believers against following after any philosophy not firmly grounded in God’s Word:
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
If there were ever a set of philosophies based on the “principles of the world,” they are those under the umbrella of postmodernism. Postmodern ideas challenge virtually every truth of Scripture as well as every route to confirming those truths. The advocates of postmodernism will even go as far as denying the validity of history in their bid to overthrow authority, because the realities history presents are often at odds with the assertions of postmodernism.
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered an excellent summary of postmodernism:
Postmodernists reject both these approaches, arguing that neither revelation nor the scientific method is a reliable source for truth. According to postmodern theory, truth is not objective or absolute at all, nor can it be determined by any commonly accepted method. Instead, postmodernists argue that truth is socially constructed, plural, and inaccessible to universal reason, which itself does not exist anyway. As postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty asserts, “Truth is made rather than found.”3
In other words, truth is whatever the postmodern adherent wants it to be. If postmodern philosophy is followed to its logical conclusion, even two conflicting truths in many cases can be true at the same time.
What Will Be Covered?
What follows is a list of the theories that seem to be affecting evangelical Christianity in highly profound ways today. These will each be discussed in turn in separate articles with examples of their natural outworking in the church. Because of how intertwined the following theories are, it is very hard to adequately separate and describe each of them. Readers should be aware that these categories and descriptions are simplified for ease of reading.
Deconstruction has had perhaps the greatest influence on postmodern theories and on social thought in general. The deconstructionist viewpoint argues that binaries must be criticized and often overthrown. A binary is a relationship between two parts, where one of the parts is typically dominant or in authority over the other (e.g., employer/employee). An authority relationship implies “oppression” in some way, something the deconstructionist cannot stand. Deconstruction assumes an oppressive hierarchy among things in relationship. Dr. Mohler described the end goal of deconstructionists well when he wrote, “According to the postmodern interpretive grid, every text must be deconstructed because every text contains a subtext of oppressive intentions on the part of the author.”4
New historicism is different from most postmodern theories because it will sometimes engage the past and the cultural context of a text. However, the new historicist views every text as an ideological statement and uses history selectively to make that point. For the new historicist, history is not about names and dates—it is about social agendas and marginalized groups. Those who advocate this view argue that history can never truly be known, but at the same time they claim to have discovered within texts and art the ideological issues a particular society was struggling with at any given period in time. The new historicist approaches any work with the idea that it is somehow commenting on the supposed “oppressed” of society (e.g., women, homosexuals, and others), and so the scholars’ presuppositions drive their conclusions.
Feminism proposes to “liberate” women from their God-given roles as wives, mothers, and helpers to their husbands.5 Feminists in the secular world characterize the Bible as oppressive to women, while evangelical feminists (i.e., professing Christians who believe feminist ideals are compatible with Scripture) claim that the passages on male headship are simply misunderstood.
Queer theory, founded on deconstruction, deals with identity, particularly in the context of sexuality and gender. Queer theory seeks, at its root, to deconstruct categories of sexual orientation, which it views as restrictive. Those who embrace queer theory look for examples of so-called homophobia and heterosexism in texts, history, and society. They argue that society should not label people as “heterosexual” or “homosexual,” because a person’s “sexual identity” cannot be categorized. Some professing Christians have adopted a model of queer theory in order to justify homosexual behavior, making the case that Scripture’s emphasis is on a couple’s commitment and love for one another rather than any sexual misbehavior.
Gender theory, which sometimes includes queer theory under its umbrella, also deals with identity and has challenged biblical definitions of masculinity and femininity. Those who look at the world through the lens of gender theory claim that society has forced men and women into “social constructs” of gender; in other words, all social categories of what distinguish men and women from each other have no basis in reality. Gender theory typically promotes an anarchic view of gender and sexuality; that is, everything from clothing to sexuality should be subject to each individual’s experience. The idea of androgyny (meaning the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics) plays a prominent role in gender theory.
True Freedom and Joy
As believers, we know that our single hope for true joy lies in salvation through Jesus Christ. After warning the Colossian believers against following worldly philosophies, Paul went on to remind them of the freedom found in the crucified and risen Christ, the authority who cannot be overthrown:
For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. . . . And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Colossians 2:9–10, 13–14)
In spite of the message of freedom that these and other postmodern theories carry, those who follow them will experience only enslavement to sin and death. And as we will see in the coming articles in this series, any believer who looks to postmodern ideals as a source of truth or happiness is fundamentally misguided.