Note from Brandon: This is an exciting moment for Follow After Ministries, as today we welcome our very first guest blogger. Justin Burkholder, on the pastoral staff at Grace Pointe Ministries and soon-to-be missionary to Guatemala City, shares his thoughts on how to engage the elusive postmodernist lovingly and sensitively. In reading this, I am reminded of the old witticism, “How will they hear unless we listen?”
Before I say anything. I am neither condoning nor rebuking postmoderns. I am merely observing and explaining.
Now, I readily understand that postmoderns are very elusive. Frustratingly elusive. Illogically elusive. Irrationally elusive at times. And it is miserable to actually discuss matters of weight and depth with them. But, I think that the very fact that postmoderns can be categorized this way reveals a foundational postmodernist frustration in the way people approach them that they vehemently oppose.
It appears to postmoderns that the goal is not to listen to them or be with them, but only to categorize them. Once you can fully ascertain the system of thoughts by which an individual lives their life, you can ignore them, accept them, or even convince them of something else. Though many would not agree that this is their actual goal, this—unfortunately—is the experience of many postmoderns.
Experience Is Everything
Postmoderns do place much weight on their own experiences. And no matter who you are, your experiences shape your truth. No matter how a magazine/website reviews a gourmet restaurant, if you had a bad experience, you will tell all of your friends and you won’t go back.
Regardless of a postmodern’s religious history, almost all of them have story after story of belligerent leaders and authorities who disparaged and discouraged doubt, struggle, and anything else that rocked the theological/practical boat of their church/home/Sunday school class.
Take my background, for example. The problem for me was that the categories with which authorities and leaders arranged people didn’t ever actually fit the majority of my experiences. So, the authorities would talk about people who were “saved” and people who were not “saved.” These terms carried all sorts of moral baggage, establishing a pattern by which people lived their lives. “Saved” people had a standard of holiness. They didn’t do certain things (drink, smoke, dance—or go with girls who do). But the problem was that I was doing lots of things (pornography) that weren’t even talked about, which seemed to be a whole lot worse than the things that they did talk about. Was I “saved”? Was there room for someone like me?
Or take theology. The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election was very appealing to me. But I just couldn’t fully accept some of the teaching on the end times. I had met some charismatic friends and they seemed to love Jesus more than anyone at my church (including me), so I became open to the sign gifts. For a time I was categorized as a heretic of sorts, creating divisions and strife, when in reality I was just trying to make sense of things.
Regardless of what my issue was, it was a microcosm of the greater. This kind of categorization has taken place everywhere; and it is considered poison to postmoderns.
Poor people, black people, gay people, women, republicans, democrats, the wealthy, used car salesmen, people with long hair, black clothing, musical genres, Arabs, Christians…etc. It wasn’t just fundamental Baptists who had legalistic tendencies. There is legalism everywhere. If you don’t want to be __________, then you do __________. All __________ do or don’t do __________.
No matter where the postmodern turns, there seems to be this obsession by others from other worldviews to categorize people (enslave people to a law), and then make a judgment based upon that categorization. And much of it is done in the name of truth. This kind of categorization and assessment releases people from actually having to listen or understand. And, even worse, one presumes to understand entire populations of people without ever actually engaging them. The “judgment” cry is not empty; it is legitimate, reflective of a wound that almost every postmodern bears, many of them having been wrongly labeled themselves—as gay, emotional, distorted, disconnected to reality, idealistic, etc.
And so, no matter what you do or say, the postmodern will almost always be terrified of being labeled, categorized, or “figured out”—because once they are, they are certain that no one will ever actually hear them, or even attempt to understand them. Many of them are like abused puppies: in many conversations, at the first sign of an elevated newspaper (the Bible?), they run.
How Is This Your Greatest Asset? (Or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love the Postmodern)
If you can understand this approach to postmoderns, you will be light years ahead of everyone. Your words will change, your tone of voice will change—your demeanor, appearance, perspective. It will put you in a much more gentle and generous light. You should approach them as if they are terrified puppies instead of philosophical combatants.
Postmoderns want to hear stories. Stories resonate with them. They are broken and wounded by scandalous amounts of divorce, abuse, sexual promiscuity, and a general incongruence that they have seen in all of the institutions of which they have been part. Their lives have been a far cry from perfect. And stories express the pain and hurt they have experienced. They want to know that you aren’t perfect, because they aren’t. And stories convey that with power.
They want to know that you were/are broken too. They want to know that this world is a broken place, and that it is okay to be broken. They want to hear that you have failed and that it is okay for them to fail again. They want to be able to explain how they have come to their conclusions without you labeling them or categorizing them. They don’t want you to philosophically wrestle with them, they just want you to talk with them. They want to know that you and your God love them in spite of their brokenness and confusion.
More than that, many of them would just like for you to sit with them, and listen to them, and love them. Eventually, they will let you in. And when they do let you in, they want to be sure that you don’t have everything figured out. Because, despite their arrogance and pretense, they will always admit to not having anything figured out. They want the tension. Everywhere that they have been where people “have it all figured out” they encounter the judgment, categorization, and bullying spoken of previously.
They know there are flaws to their perspectives. Tons of them. Which is why they don’t ever have enough confidence to share them or to convince someone else of them. As a matter of fact, that just might be the theme of postmodernism: “There are flaws in everyone’s perspectives.” (And yes, I know that perspective may be flawed as well.)
But what many of them do know and believe without a shadow of a doubt is this: If being convicted and convinced about what you believe means treating people as they have seen them treated, then they will happily live in ambiguity for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately few postmoderns have met people passionate about their beliefs, who won’t go to any length necessary to wrestle them into believing the same. And when the postmodern doesn’t agree, they fear that the name-calling will begin.
The challenges of postmodernism are not some idiotic ruse that a group of dumb kids created so that they don’t have to answer questions; for many they are a defense mechanism. You must understand this to engage them. If you don’t, you will always be fighting and arguing an imaginary enemy, while the puppy—this beloved creation of God—flees in terror.