What have Christian thinkers and theologians been saying about our North American postmodern condition? Though many have decried postmodernism as an evil—and many elements of it rightly so—more and more Christian authors have begun to develop a hermeneutic that aims to thoughtfully engage postmodernism, and therefore the people living in the midst of it.
Lutheran scholar Robert Jenson begins by noting that not only is North American postmodern, but it is also post-Christian. And when asking, “Who is a post-Christian?” Jenson answers with an indictment: “There are whole immense congregations, of all denominations or none, that are post-Christian at least in their public self-presentation. Their theology is a collection of clichéd abstractions—‘love’ and ‘acceptance’ and ‘empowerment’ and ‘peace-and-justice’ (one word), and so on—and they could easily make any hero or mythic figure at all be the loving or accepting or empowering one, or the guru of peace-and-justice, instead of Jesus, and sometimes do.” His point is that “abstracted Christianity” is really no Christianity at all. (“What is a Post-Christian?” in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, p.28)
He is certainly not alone in his assertions. Carl Raschke, in his book GloboChrist, has much to say about the church’s movement toward postmodern cultural relevance. Combating this urge, he juxtaposes the “culturally relevant” church and the Apostles’ Creed to demonstrate what true relevancy means. “The church can never be relevant, however, when it seeks mainly to be attractive to a particular focus group or demographic constituency. It can only be relevant when it is the catholic church, as confessed in the Apostle’s Creed” (168).
It is an assertion with which confessing Lutherans would readily agree. Relevancy comes not through the culture, but by confession of the faith, particularly one that has been historically confessed throughout the ages. In other words, a confessing church speaks through the culture. It does not subject itself to it. There is a distinct difference.
Reformed scholar James K. Smith, in his book Whose Afraid of Postmodernism, aims to draw this out. He is resolute about dealing honestly with those who urge for cultural relevancy, while at the same time advocating an ancient, yet postmodern ethos for the church:
“The postmodern church resists the tendency of pragmatic evangelism, which tries to ‘dumb down’ the story to make it accessible or attractive to the culture. Instead, the postmodern church affirms the timelessness (and timeliness) of the biblical narrative as it is told. Rather than trying to translate the biblical story into a contemporary, more ‘acceptable’ narrative (which usually ends up compromising the narrative to culture), the postmodern church seeks to initiate listeners into the narrative. Authentic Christian worship both invites outsiders into the gospel story and provides a significant means for the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ” (p.77).
Christian formation by means of worship is a profound reality Lutherans have long understood! For Lutherans following the confessional and creedal tradition, this formation has historically been word and sacrament liturgical worship, set within the liturgical church year. LCMS Lutheran liturgist and exegete Arthur Just encourages Lutherans to simply do some thoughtful reflection:
“Is there an alternative between the ‘culture friendly’ and ‘culture critical’ camps that will allow us to be faithful to our liturgical tradition, while at the same time contemporary in our expressions? Yes! Lutherans have a liturgical tradition that mediates between the two extremes and still maintains a liturgical ethos that is incarnational and sacramental. Luther restored the historic liturgy in a relatively simple setting, especially when compared to other liturgical traditions. Lutheran liturgy is liturgical without being ceremonial, timeless without being inaccessible. Instead of seeking after greener liturgical pastures, we should look at our own tradition, learn it, and discover its riches.” (From his online article “Liturgy and Culture”)
Thus, there is a deep timelessness and timeliness about this ritualized worship. It is framed around the life and time of Christ while administering a timely (here and now) giving of His gifts of grace. Such worship moves beyond “attracting” people to church by being “relevant.” Such worship moves beyond simply getting worshipers to think about Jesus, it actually gathers them around word and sacrament and gives them Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
In short, the narrative of the liturgy and the liturgical church year weave the community of saints into the story of Jesus Christ, week after week, and year after year. Where postmodernism permits micronarratives, it would seem that the liturgy and the liturgical church year become quintessential narrative marks for the worship and witness of the Holy Christian Church.
Robert Jenson sums it up aptly, “In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be ‘relevant,’ here is the first step: it must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.” (“How the World Lost Its Story.” First Things. October, 1993).
Thus, given the contemporary debates about the need for the church to be relevant, it seems it would be most helpful for the church to understand that the effectiveness of the church’s message is not in how much the world likes it or thinks it hip or relevant, but how consistently and faithfully it confesses what it has historically confessed, along with how regularly it worships as it has historically worshiped.
As always, I invite your collegial reactions and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be the 21st century Lutheran church who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).