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An Open Letter to Chuck Colson

Dear Mr. Colson,

I just read your column in Christianity Today, “The Postmodern Crackup: From soccer moms to college campuses, signs of the end” (December 2003, p. 72). I normally wouldn’t try to respond to a piece like this for at least four reasons:

1) Many of the people who think they understand postmodernism and write or speak about it lack the time, energy, or historical and philosophical understanding to begin to understand what they don’t understand about it, so it’s fruitless to even try to dialogue with them. It’s better just to let things slide.
2) In the big scheme of things, their misunderstandings don’t matter that much.
3) I know there are so many things I don’t understand myself, and whether my opinions are right or wrong, they don’t matter much either way.
4) Religious debate can be a lot like pornography, drug abuse, and gambling: stupid yet attractive and potentially addictive, and therefore dangerous spiritually.

“Just this once” is a dangerous thing to say (in pornography, gambling, drug use, or debate). But I guess I’m saying it, because 1) you have always impressed me as a thoughtful brother in Christ, and I believe you are more capable than many of better understanding the issues surrounding postmodernity than many of your colleagues, 2) because your public stature means that if you had a better understanding, you could do a lot more good than you’re currently doing, and 3) because … well, because I feel somebody needs to respond to your article, and I apparently lack the humility to realize how unqualified I am to do so.

Perhaps this recollection would help you understand why I’m taking this gamble. Several years back, you tried to bring Evangelicals and Catholics together, an effort which I applaud and in which I am involved myself. Some Protestants were so filled with prejudice against Catholics that they couldn’t see any good in what you were doing, in spite of our Lord’s teachings on being peacemakers, and they launched rather vicious attacks on you. I imagine you wished your critics would better understand what you were trying to do so they would stop doing harm to your good cause.

I don’t know if you ever wrote a response to them as I’m trying to do now, but my friends and I who are currently engaging with issues of postmodernity wish you could better understand what we’re trying to do. Sadly, what you wrote in this recent column, along with other things you have written along similar lines, feels unhelpful to us much the way the criticisms of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” must have felt to you some years ago. Back then, you saw some things your critics didn’t see about Evangelical engagement with Roman Catholics, and I think we see some things you don’t about engagement with postmodern people and their questions.

In your column, you pronounced “postmodernism” dead, or on life support, or at least losing strength. You’re kind of right, because the kind of postmodernism you describe – “the philosophy that claims there is no transcendent truth” - was never really alive. It’s a straw man, Chuck, a bugaboo not unlike Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy,” used to create fear, galvanize sympathy and support, and perhaps raise money. (Everyone knows how a good enemy is a fundraiser’s best friend.)

What you describe as postmodernism – a claim that “there is no such thing as truth,” a rejection of all moral values, or their reduction to mere preferences – may have been purported by a few crazed graduate students for a few minutes at a late-night drinking party. But to paint the whole movement with that brush is inaccurate. That kind of guilt-by-association would be like lumping you as a political conservative in with all the conservative wackos in Idaho who stockpile weapons and whisper about black helicopters and blame 9/11 on President Bush – after all, they’re against the “liberals” just like you. Or it would be like lumping us (you and me) as Christians in with the Branch Davidians (we all quote the Bible, eh?) or the wackos who blame 9/11 on the ACLU (we all pray, don’t we?). Those who live by hacking straw men with the sword will probably be rendered straw men by others, I think, and be hacked by the same childish logic. I hope in the future you’ll be more careful in this regard. (Some Branch Davidians – if there are any left – probably feel I was less than careful in the previous sentences.)

I can only assume your column takes this simplistic approach because you’ve been unaware of the rest of the story of what’s going on in the postmodern transition. I’m hoping that by writing this response, you’ll begin to realize that there’s more going on than you’ve realized, so in the future, your engagement can be more responsible and helpful.

I can agree with you that the “no transcendent truth” kind of postmodernism is dead, because as I said, it never was very alive. At most, it was an early, reactionary phase in a yet-embryonic movement that has much more mature, constructive, and positive voices emerging. Like you, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with college students and other thoughtful postmoderns. In fact, before entering pastoral ministry, I was a college English instructor – and as you know, English departments were the hotbed of postmodern thought back in the 70’s and 80’s. But I must tell you: I’ve never heard anyone articulate as their belief what you consistently assert that postmoderns believe. Sure, many college freshmen will resort to extreme statements when they’re approached by an angry Christian waving the sword of “absolute truth,” but if you (and George Barna and others) understood what they think you mean by “absolute truth,” you’d understand why they react as they do. Nobody likes having a sword waved at them!

I understand that you are reacting against something that’s really dangerous, and perhaps under those circumstances, a little hyperbole is excusable. Besides, I realize that a one-page column or short radio broadcast might require some … I won’t say “dumbing down,” but I will say “simplification.” Anyway, I fully agree with you that if people are advocating no morality, no ethics, no reality, well, that’s a truly pathetic and dangerous situation. Those kinds of people need medication, or hospitalization, or perhaps incarceration – at least a good vacation. But again, Chuck, even though people like you say that’s what “postmoderns” in general advocate, I’ve still not met any serious postmodern spokespeople themselves say what you say that they say. Even Jacques Derrida, a favorite whipping boy of modern critics, has been very clear to say that justice cannot be deconstructed. If you really understood these people you’re critiquing, you’d realize that they are driven in part at least –as you are – by a desire to fight against injustice.

But in the process of being against something worth being against (for you, moral relativism, for them, atrocities perpetrated by powerful elites), it’s possible to become for something not worth being for. That’s what I perceive to be happening – both among you and many Evangelical leaders of your generation and the extreme “postmoderns” you critique.

In fact, by reflecting on how you feel about “postmoderns” and what you think they stand for and against, you can begin to understand how real postmodern people feel about Christians like us, and things they think we stand for … things like “metanarratives.” That term, by the way, is a highly nuanced term. This isn’t the time to go into a lengthy exploration of the term (you can find a good reading list or two on this and related subjects at www.emergentvillage.com), but let me offer this analogy. The word propaganda is defined as follows:
1. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.
2. Material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause: wartime propaganda.

Based on this definition, would you want to define the gospel as propaganda? The definition fits, right? But you wouldn’t want to use this word for the gospel, because the word carries negative connotations – connotations related to half-truths, manipulative rhetoric, suppressed counter-information, etc. Similarly, metanarrative implies domination, coercion, eradication of opponents, imposition of beliefs or behaviors on minorities against their will, and the like. Many people don’t realize these connotations are associated with the term, because they’ve gotten their information from others in the Christian community who have never really understood or even read the primary source documents. While I’m sure you do not fall into this category, it seems to me that you have not really grasped the meaning of metanarrative as it’s used by postmodern theorists. It’s easy to misunderstand, in part because of the density of postmodern philosophical writing, but more because of the confused propaganda disseminated by too many of our not-fully-informed Christian brothers on the subject.

Having said that, I still understand that you are against something worth being against. You feel that postmoderns have developed a self-contradictory message (THIS IS THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH: there are no absolute truths!). This absurdity might allow them to do anything they want in the name of no absolutes (which to you means “no morality”). You know that if they pursue that path of moral anarchy, the personal and social result will be terrible pain and destruction – AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, divorce, and more. You want to save them and others from this pain. This is a good thing, and I applaud you for it, and I share your concern!

But try to understand this parallel reality: In the late 20th century, postmodern thinkers looked back at regimes like Stalin’s and Hitler’s. (One must never forget how postmodern thought developed in the aftermath of the Holocaust, as deeply ethical European intellectuals like Michael Polanyi reflected on the atrocities their peers had perpetuated or acquiesced to.) Postmodern thinkers realized that these megalomaniacs used grand systems of belief to justify their atrocities. Those systems of belief – which the postmodern thinkers called “metanarratives,” but which also could have been called “world views” or “ideologies” – were so powerful they could transform good European intellectuals into killers or accomplices. They thought back over European history and realized (as C. S. Lewis did) that those who have passionate commitment to a system of belief will be most willing, not only to die for it, but to kill for it.

They looked at powerful belief systems of the twentieth century – world views (extreme Marxism is one such world view), grand stories (anti-Semitism is one such story, White Supremacy is another, American manifest destiny is another), ideologies (such as the industrialist ideology that the earth and its resources are not God’s creation deserving care through reverential stewardship, but rather, are simply natural resources there for the taking by secular industrialists), and they were horrified. These dominating belief systems were responsible for so many millions of deaths, so much torture, so much loss of freedom and dignity, so much damage to the planet, that they sought to undermine their dominance. They advocated incredulity or skepticism toward such stories or belief systems.

By the way, you repeatedly referred to 9/11 as a watershed in this regard, but it seems to me the “metanarrative” of the Taliban and radical Islamists simply adds another reason for incredulity or skepticism towards belief systems which seek control by force or intimidation, don’t you agree? And rightly or wrongly, the U.S. action in Iraq may convince many people around the world that we’re just another powerful elite bent on domination, coercion, and elimination of our opponents through a messianic metanarrative of American Empire. So 9/11 may not mark a return to the good old days of modernity after all, at least not outside our borders, and not for long.

Anyway, Chuck, you’re legitimately worried that “postmoderns” will use their relativism as an excuse to do anything they want. But they’re worried that you and other “moderns” will use your absolutism as an excuse to do anything you want. (If you can’t see any validity to their concern, then I’m truly speechless, and it’s hardly worth your reading the rest of my letter.) From where I stand, I’m afraid both of you are seeing a valid danger in one another. Postmodern people like me – you can call us post-postmoderns if you want to continue asserting postmodernity is dead, but please don’t call us truth-denying relativists, because we’re not, even though we don’t like your unreflective use of words like “absolute truth” – people like me want neither the self-indulgent narcissism of the one nor the unreflective absolutism of the other. You’re against their supposed denial of truth in the interest of self-indulgence, and they’re against your apparent monopolization of truth in the interest of political domination, and you’ve convinced some of the rest of us that you’re both at least partly right about each other.

I hope you can see that this thoughtful concern can’t be reduced to the absurd assertion that there is truly no such thing as “truth.” Again, some postmodern people may overreact and say absurd things from time to time – but what they say in overreaction doesn’t look a lot different to me from what you say in your CT column – especially when I consider that Christian writers like us should be held to a higher standard of care for the truth.

About truth: I wish that you and some of your colleagues in religious broadcasting could be treated to a few off-the-air moments of thoughtful reflection on the word truth that you use so often. If truth matters as much as you say it does (and I know it does), and if words are important in the conveyance of truth (as we both know they are – otherwise, why write?), we need to think carefully about the word truth itself. What do you mean when you say it? Has the word become a club used without content to batter opponents, as “patriotism” and “tolerance” are used by conservatives and liberals in the political arena? As I reflect on this, I think truth means at least seven very different things depending on the context:
1. Reality – Sometimes, we use truth to mean “what’s out there,” or “what’s really, really, real.”
2. A human perception of reality – Sometimes we use the term to mean how an individual human or group of humans perceive what’s really out there. For example, in court, when a person swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we understand only God could fulfill that promise, unless we defined truth to mean “an honest and full accounting of what you perceived.”
3. Knowledge about reality - Clearly, there’s always some degree of difference between #2 and #1 above, and when we weave our perceptions into coherent, conscious generalizations and call those generalizations knowledge, the difference isn’t erased. In other words, reality as seen and known by our infinite and wonderful God is always fuller and to some degree different than reality as seen and known by limited, situated humans. Scripture affirms this, reminding us that we know only in part.
4. Statements or propositions about reality – When we take our knowledge, which arises in the context of our imperfect perceptions about what’s really out there, and then we share that knowledge with others in statements, we have to admit we add new layers of imprecision – through the wonderful but sometimes imprecise interplay of encoded, sent, received, and interpreted symbols we call language. Human statements clearly do some justice to the realities they describe, but if even half of my critique of your column (an attempt to make true statements about reality, I don’t doubt) is valid, you have to admit that our very best attempts to make true statements about reality still aren’t perfect. For example, do you believe, looking back, that all the statements in your column were perfectly, completely, absolutely, objectively true? If you give anything less than an unqualified “yes,” you are being sensitive to the same concerns postmodern people have about these matters.
5. Moral or ethical judgments – The situation becomes even more complex when our statements are judgments about moral or ethical behavior. Even for those of use who claim to know God and have faith in the Bible: we need to look back over our own history and realize that just as there are disastrous consequences to claiming there is no such thing as legitimate moral judgment, there are also disastrous consequences to claiming that we have unquestionably legitimate moral judgment. Our ancestors judged slavery as morally justified, and brought in Scripture to enforce their point; we now judge slavery wrong, also using Scripture. Are we so naïve to think that all our judgments are finally right, just because we quote the Bible?
6. A belief system or world view – I think that the concept of world view is very powerful. And for that reason, it can be very dangerous. For example, I suspect that for many religious broadcasters and writers, “The Christian World View” means “The Modern Western Christian World View” or “The Calvinist Systematic Theology” or “A Syncretism of Christian Theology and Conservative Republican Politics,” but neither they nor their listeners realize it. Anyway, there’s a lot of mystique and fog around the term. Adding the words “The” and “Christian” in front of a worldview doesn’t guarantee this worldview is now 100% in synch with #1 above, but it sure can give that impression to unreflective people reading a column in Christianity Today, especially if they’re already feeling intimidated and afraid by all the changes in our world, and are hoping for reassurance.
7. A feeling of certainty – When some people use the word truth, I think they mean a feeling of certainty, security, and rest that means they no longer have to think or ask questions. In other words, truth means “case closed.” This exemption from further thought is something we all desire at times, I think, especially after a long hard day of reading a column in CT and criticizing it (and then criticizing the critique). But one only has to talk to a person hospitalized for psychosis to realize that a feeling of certainty can have very little in common with #1 above!

I bring up these complexities not to “deny truth,” and not because I don’t care about truth, but because I do – believing that the pursuit of truth means being faithful to #1 above. My desire to be faithful to reality/truth (an indispensable facet of my desire to be faithful to the true and living God) requires me to face the complexities of how people in reality use the word truth in these differing ways. If that’s not complex enough, then people start adding modifiers like “absolute” and “objective” and “subjective” and “relative” – and they seldom realize the even greater complexity and unspoken philosophical freight that goes along with these terms. I’m afraid your column reinforces the most simplistic (mis)understandings of these issues.

If the relativism you rightly attack is as great a danger as you believe it to be (and I think it is!), then the simplistic critique you’re giving is not an adequate solution. (If you’re prone to reread sentences, the previous one might warrant a rereading; I know I’m tempted to repeat it for emphasis.)

Years ago, a colleague of yours was asked about postmodern thought. He replied that it should be opposed at all costs. When asked why, he replied, “Because it destroys our apologetic.” I thought about him, then, and you, now, the same way: “Thank God he’s over 55. He can afford to think the postmodern culture can be opposed. He can afford to stick with the status quo apologetic.” But for those of us who are either younger or more engaged with the true issues of postmodernity (in which sense was I using the word true in the previous clause?), we can’t afford that luxury.

The postmodern culture is the world in which many of us live and work and minister, sharing the good news and following the good ways of Jesus Christ. The old modern apologetic simply doesn’t work for us, or our children, or their friends. It’s not just that it doesn’t work: I’m not just being pragmatic. The modern apologetic doesn’t even address the questions that are being raised. So for us, the hard questions raised by real, thoughtful postmodern people (not the cartoon caricatures you present in this column) require good answers, and those answers require better, deeper, more careful, less simplistic thinking than you provided in your column, or in your other writings I have read on this subject, as good as they are in many other ways.

You may find a thousand flaws in my thinking, Chuck, but I hope you’ll give these matters a second thought, and I hope you’ll pray for me and others rather than portraying all “postmoderns” as cartoons, because with all our flaws, at least we’re trying to deal with a world you apparently don’t understand and hope is just going to crack up and go away. If it doesn’t crack up and go away, you’ll be glad some of us took it more seriously and engaged it more thoughtfully for the sake of the gospel.

You suggest that Christians who don’t share your views are “dumbing down” and moving from a “Word-driven message” to an “image and emotion-driven message.” True, there’s plenty of dumbing down out there, but I’m sorry, that blanket assessment is not worthy of a person of your stature. Rather, many of us are trying to escape the dumbed-down understandings of current issues that you and too many others unintentionally purvey. We believe that image (the language of imagination) and emotion (including the emotion of wonder) are essential elements of fully human knowing, and thus we seek to integrate them in our search for this precious, wonderful, sacred gift called truth, which you and I both love – and too often betray in spite of our best intentions.

Your column concluded like this: “It would be the supreme irony – and a terrible tragedy – if we found ourselves slipping into postmodernity just when the broader culture has figured out it’s a dead end.” I’m tempted to point out the irony that some Christians like yourself seem to be more deeply entrenching themselves in “modernity just when the broader culture has figured out it’s a dead end.” Aside from noting the needed distinctions between a) postmodernity as a broad cultural movement (including, as all cultural currents do, contradictory counter-currents and wacko extremes) – which is alive and kickin’, and b) postmodernism as you define it (an extreme cartoonish position few if any responsible people would claim as their own – which is fine to pronounce a dead end, since it never had much of a beginning), and c) postmodernism as I and others understand it (a far more broad and nuanced philosophical turn that begins beyond both high modern absolutism/positivism and late-modern/early-postmodern relativism) … aside from noting these distinctions, I do want to end on two points of agreement.

1. Neither you nor I think that postmodernity or modernity is “the answer.” Rather, we both believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to salvation – for the modern and the postmodern alike. Like you, I think, I am at heart an evangelist. Just as you and your good colleagues in Prison Fellowship have spent decades now entering the tough world of prisons for the sake of the gospel, many of us are entering the challenging arena of postmodern culture. Many people think of prisoners as worthless good-for-nothings, but your evangelistic heart and personal experience won’t let you reach that dismissive conclusion. I believe you can understand when I tell you I feel the same way about my friends and neighbors in postmodern culture as you feel about prisoners. I love them. I seek to treat them with gentleness and respect when they ask me the reasons for the hope I have in Christ. Maybe you could think about me and others like me as “Postmodern Fellowship,” a sister organization to Prison Fellowship, seeking to bring the good news of Jesus to a forgotten, sometimes despised, often misunderstood population.

2. I share your sadness about the state of many Christian radio stations. Some stations are converting, you lamented, from “preaching and talk” to “all music.” Actually, I’m glad that there will be less religious-broadcaster-style rhetoric on the air – of which I find your columns and broadcasts to be better-than-average examples, by the way. I’m just sad that most of the music on Christian radio isn’t much better than the preaching and talk. The gospel deserves better preaching and better music than we produce.

And it deserves better writing and thought than either you or I have achieved, in your column or in this response. But at least we’re trying, both of us, all of us. May God help us grow. We have a long way to go.

I know you’re a busy man doing many good things, and may never have time to read this. But if you do, please don’t feel any pressure to reply. I’m sure I’ve misunderstood and misspoken in many ways, and as I said, I’m not very skilled at debate, nor do I want to get practice. In spite of my lack of qualifications and my many faults (known and unknown), I sincerely hope that some of my responses to your column here will be of help to you (or your staff) in some small way in your continuing and important work for Christ and his Kingdom.

Your brother in Christ,
Brian McLaren