Trueman on Postmodern Evangelicalism

As the author of Ecclesiastes says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” That is the underlying tone of Carl Trueman’s first essay in Minority Report, an eclectic collection of his essays.

In this essay, “Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” Trueman (dean of faculty and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster) examines the arguments and purposes of postmodern evangelicalism, and finds them wanting. By postmodern evangelicalism, he does not merely mean emergents/ings, but the general state of evangelicalism that has been influenced by postmodernity. Postmodernism, as an ideology driven by advanced consumerism, has unassumingly made its way into the evangelical church. Trueman explains that postmodern evangelicals know next-to-nothing about postmodern aesthetics or philosophy, nor have they made any attempt to learn more. Instead, they just care about being revolutionary.

One quick look at the “religious” section of Barnes and Noble easily shows this, with titles like Barna’s Revolution or Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution as examples. The irony, as Trueman points out, is that these revolutions are neither revolutionary nor radical, but are repackaged attempts at conservative “mere Christianity” and have been radically influenced by the postmodern cult of consumerism. Further, no one outside of the intended audiences of these messages takes them seriously. Trueman’s point is that these postmodern Christians, who think they are saying something new, when viewed critically through the lens of history and Scripture, are not new nor revolutionary:

When one approaches the major texts of postmodern evangelicalism and asks what they are saying, the answer is exciting: they claim they are opening up radical new directions for theology; but when one approaches the same texts and asks what they are doing, the answer is somewhat more prosaic. Far from pointing to new ways of doing theology, these texts are on the whole appropriating an admittedly new idiom, that of postmodernism, in order to accomplish a very traditional and time-honored task: they are articulating a doctrinally minimal, anti-metaphysical ‘mere Christianity.’ Like pouting teenagers in pre-torn designer jeans and Che Guevara tee-shirts, they look angry and radical but are really as culturally conformist and conservative as a tall latte from Starbucks. (19)

There is nothing new under the sun, as postmodern evangelicals, in their attempt to create a radically new way of “following Jesus,” are really just repackaging attempts at mere Christianity to a radically consumerist culture by being radically consumerist themselves. To modify an old cliche, if everyone is a revolutionary, no one is.

By mere Christianity, Trueman means the minimum beliefs required for salvation. Trueman isn’t using “mere Christianity” like C.S. Lewis does (more on that later), and he’s not saying mere Christianity is bad in and of itself. But the problem is when Christians through the ages, including postmodern evangelicals of our day, take this concept and attempt to build ecclesiastical structures from it. Mere Christianity rejects traditions and confessions as too narrow or boring, and attempts to recreate church without them. And therein lies the problem:

Postmodern evangelicalism, like much of postmodernism, presents itself to the world with all the smug self-importance of a radical revolution. Yet this is an illusion, because the end result at which it aims is as old as the hills, as exclusively doctrinaire as it can be, and as traditional and conservative as it comes: an old-hat, mere Christianity, articulated in a contemporary cultural idiom which actually renders it utterly powerless to challenge the dominant culture and yet impervious to criticism. (23)

By capitulating to the postmodern cultural context in which it stands, postmodern evangelical “revolutionaries” have no power to challenge the status quo of the postmodern world. And by rejecting the validity of tradition and history, these “revolutionaries” avoid any standards of criticism. Mere Christianity is good to have common ground to fight side by side with other believers in parachurch ministries and the like, but it is woefully incompetent to uphold an ecclesiastical body.

To return to Lewis’ mere Christianity, Lewis likened it to a hallway in which Christians of different traditions and backgrounds could mingle with some common ground. But even in Lewis’ metaphor (remember that Lewis was decidedly not an evangelical), there are doors to other rooms which hold distinctive confessions, beliefs, and traditions. If the doors from the hallway were eliminated, as many contemporary postmodern evangelicals would like, we would be left with a bunch of loiterers in the hallway with a vapid, shallow, uninformed and definitely unrevolutionary faith that is powerless against the powers of this world.

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One thought on “Trueman on Postmodern Evangelicalism

  1. It is beyond my understanding how postmodernism inspires anyone, let alone Christians who have had the Scriptures in their own language for hundreds of years (and now have the NT on their iPods! Woohoo!).My exposure to postmodern evangelicals (quite a lot lately) has revealed, among other things, what I perceive to be 1) an almost intentional disregard for the sovereignty of God and 2) a very blurry 'gospel.' From the authors I've read, the stripped down version of the postmodern 'gospel,' is an eloquent/hip/engaging appeal to Try Harder…Live Better…A recent observation of mine is that postmodern evangelicals write almost exclusively in autobiographical style. At first it seemed a benign trend, but it now strikes me as maybe the only form in which postmoderns can, if consistent, attempt to persuade the masses?

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