Christian Witness in a Postmodern World: A Critique

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Harry Lee Poe: The Author

Harry Lee Poe, PhD is the Charles Colson professor of Faith and Culture at Union University, a private Christian liberal arts university, in Jackson, TN.  Dr. Poe holds a B.A. from the University of South Carolina as well as an M.Div and Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.   Dr. Poe “has written several books and numerous articles on how the gospel intersects with culture; including Christianity in the Academy, The Gospel and Its Meaning, Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, The Designer Universe, Science and Faith: An Evangelical Dialogue, and See No Evil: The Existence of Sin in an Age of Relativism.”[1]  Dr. Poe’s interest in culture and post-modernity is not purely academic; he truly recognizes it is every-day life.  Dr. Poe recently chastised a friend on Facebook (albeit facetiously) for lamenting about eating “too much chocolate”, commenting, “Something has gone wrong with your sense of proportion. Have you been hanging around postmodernists? How can you eat way too much chocolate? Way too much liver – yes. We need to get together more often. You’re losing your values”[2] Dr. Poe is a man very cognizant of values and their place in society; his own are not hard to surmise.  Dr. Poe is a self-proclaimed, “old-fashioned Baptist,”[3] and therefore writes his books on the intersection of faith and culture (notably postmodern culture) from that perspective

The Book in Summary

Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (“the book”) is a work about imparting Christian values and truths on an increasingly valueless society.  Christianity, particularity in Poe’s Baptist form, holds that mankind is a sinful race that is damned in its sinfulness apart from salvation Jesus Christ.  In a postmodern world, Poe asserts, beliefs in absolute truths and values are an increasingly rare commodity among the populace.  For Christians who are charged with Christ’s great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded,[4]” witnessing in a postmodern world can prove to be more challenging than it was in times past.  Poe states, “The advent of postmodern thinking will force Christians to erase all the cultural assumptions from their practice of religion and recapture the vitality of simple New Testament faith, which arose in a pluralist culture…the church has no special status” (pages 9-10) Methods for and the challenge of  imparting the absolute truths of Christianity upon those who lack a concept of absolute truths and are generally ignorant about Christianity are the crux of Poe’s message in the book, which is presented in four parts.

Part I presents the postmodernist’s preference for personal, rather than institutional relationships.  This preference results from a more mobile society and the breakdown of the traditional family structure (the family itself being an institution). Postmodern people will often seek personal connections and discuss personal information with people who are generally unfamiliar to them.  At the same time, they do not necessarily seek membership in institutions such as churches.  While this situation makes it more difficult for churches to perforate postmodern society with the gospel message, it does make it easier on the individual Christian.  In a world where people will not shy away from discussing spiritual worldviews and very personal beliefs with complete strangers, the gospel is perhaps more presentable at an individual level than any other time since the first century when there was almost no church of which to speak.

Part II assesses the difficulty of getting postmodern society to receive the gospel message.  Yes, it is very presentable, but is it acceptable? Postmodern people tend to reject blanket ideologies and authority.  Jesus is a personal savior but he is also an authority.   Poe frames this situation as more opportunistic than challenging; in the absence of adherence to any other general authority, the Christian God can be presented as a candidate to fill the void of an authority with the “old story”. (page 76)  The time of Christendom, when Christianity was the major worldview is not to be glorified, but rather Christ himself.

Once the gospel is presented and accepted as authoritative, it must still be understood.  Part III emphasizes the change in the philosophical mindset from the modern to the postmodern age.  Poe presents postmodern society as “philosophically confused.” (Page 109) According to Poe; this is actually a good thing.  Modernist thinkers were more rational and empirical than are postmodern thinkers.  In the culture of modernity the church struggled to present the esoteric principals of Christianity to people who wanted to see hard evidence.  Postmodern people just want to hear a good story.  An effective postmodern witness of Christ can not only present the story of the gospel, but also the story of his own salvation experience in a relatable way.

Lastly, part IV of the book discusses the theological ignorance of postmodern society.  The theological position of the postmodern person (as Poe presents it) is basically, “I don’t have one.”  This does not mean that such a person is not spiritually inclined.  He is; he just doesn’t possess an understanding of God.  He may even search for God through other religious traditions.  Whereas the modernist might reject Jesus in favor of atheist, the postmodernist may accept Jesus as part of pantheistic worldview, thereby missing the boat in regards to the Christian message.  This situation creates a lack of moral standards in postmodern society while at the same time creating the opportunity make moral standards tenable.  Poe parallels the postmodern culture in the United States with that of Jonah’s Nineveh; Poe paraphrases God’s communication to Jonah about the Ninevites, “Jonah, these people don’t know their right hand from their left.  But Jonah, I’m not going to blast them into smithereens.  Oh no.  I’m going to send you to tell them about me, because they don’t know me.” (page 157)  The Christian is tasked with presenting a theologically understandable God to a postmodern society, thereby satisfying its thirst for spiritual understanding.

A Critique

On the surface the book is response to the changing requirements of effective evangelism in a postmodern world.  In Poe’s assessment, currently prevalent modernist methods are no longer effective.  Poe uses the book as a vehicle to decry the methods of modernist evangelism, such as trying to present the Bible in a scientific more rationalistic method, as no longer relevant in today’s postmodern society.   Poe touts first-century-style evangelistic methods, which are less intellectual and more personal, as the most effective means to reach a postmodern world for Christ.  When considering Poe’s worldview, however, one is left to wonder if Poe would still tout this message in a world that was not postmodern.  This is not to say that Poe doesn’t make a strong case that the environment in which to Christians are witnessing is postmodern; he does make such a case.  But what if no such case could be made?  Would Poe extol to modernist school of evangelist thought if the world was still in a state of modernity?  It’s doubtful.

Poe is an “old-fashioned Baptist,” specifically and old-fashioned Southern Baptist.  Intellectualism and modernist methods have never been popular with such people.  Poe himself points out that the Southern Baptists, unlike most other modern Protestant groups never produced a “great theologian.” (Page 149).  Poe, quite frankly, views all theology as “wrong.”  (Page 510).  So, in a postmodern world where people are looking for personal, relatable stories and not theology, Southern-Baptist-Style evangelism is the most effective method.  First-century-style personal evangelism and church governance is a hallmark of Southern Baptist methodology.  The most recent version of the Baptist Faith and Message states, “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation …In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.”[5]  “New Testament” is just another way of saying “first-century.”  The belief that each member is accountable directly to Christ rather than the institutional church is a basic Southern Baptist tenet.  It just so happens that this more personal, less institution style of religion is one which postmodern people are predisposed to accept.

Poe seems to have found the answer, “Southern Baptist polity and evangelism style is the best method,” before asking the question, “What is the best way method for a Christian witness in a postmodern world?” But just because he found his answer before he posed his question, it doesn’t mean he is wrong.  Poe is right about modernist society and the prevailing worldview.  First-century-style Christian witnessing is effective in a postmodern world.  Poe is certainly biased, but his answer is not incorrect.  His book presents this answer in a very understandable and encouraging method.  The book is, therefore, effective reading material for anyone seeking to produce a Christian witness in a postmodern world.  It must be considered however, that discipleship cannot be “postmodern” and theologically neutral.  In Christian community, doctrine matters; theology matters.  Churches are not authorities to lost people but they are authorities to their members.  Christians should keep this in mind as they bring postmodern people into the church through the evangelism methods recommended by Poe.

[1]  (Union University)

[2]  (Facebook)

[3]  (Poe)

[4] Matt. 28: 19-20

[5]  (The Southern Baptist Convention)

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

 

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