Jean-Francois Lyotard famously said, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Our present postmodern age has jettisoned any story that pretends to explain the whole of reality, and chief among those metanarratives is Christianity. Along with this rejection of anything that would impose a uniformity on our interpretation of life and the world, the postmodernist thinker Jacques Derridá taught the rejection of binary interpretations of reality, such as true/false, male/female, inside/outside, conservative/liberal, Christian/non-Christian, etc. Postmodernism insists that to accept predetermined limits on our ability to define the world allows others to define our lives and identities, robbing us of our most important freedom and responsibility. (To a modernist thinker, such radical freedom and responsibility seems tantamount to a war on reality itself, but to think that way imposes yet another binary: real/unreal.)
Such a view of the world would seem to leave no place for Christian missionaries, who have historically dedicated their very lives to addressing binary distinctions between the saved and the lost, Christians and non-Christians. While postmoderns would not accept the missionary’s division of the world into such binary categories, neither would they suggest that missionaries have no place in the world, since place/no-place is merely another binary way of conceiving the world. Increasingly, missionaries themselves seem to define their work in ways that offer non-binary value propositions, seeing the evangelization of the world in terms that go beyond the presentation of a binary decision to accept Christ or reject Christ, often favoring humanitarian service that points people toward Christ without insisting on an immediate decision. In the postmodern mind, the non-binary “both/and/neither” always offers a possible interpretation of any situation.
While missionaries must keep the Great Commission at the center of our efforts and our interpretation of mission, we would do well to consider that binary interpretations do not always offer our best lens for seeing all phenomena—not even for seeing our own role in the world as missionaries. As a realist, I believe that certain binaries tend to impose themselves whether people want to recognize them or not. But we should be careful not to treat as binary those things that are not binary—especially our interpretation of postmodernity and postmodern society. We should not assume that people who do not accept us necessarily hate us, and we should not assume that people are not interested in the Gospel of Jesus Christ just because they reject our simplest presentation of it. In the midst of the fog of postmodern interpretation of the world, we do well to continue to offer the message of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit regardless of the apparent receptivity of our audience.
Becoming an Amicus
Recently, I led the decision for my institution, Northwest University, to sign onto support for an amicus curiaebrief in the case of Woods v. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. At issue in the case stands a very postmodern question, to wit, whether a Christian ministry committed to a Biblical standard of morality can decline to hire a Christian and church member whose lifestyle does not fit the ministry’s moral standards. While the details of the case are directly germane to the present discussion, my purpose in mentioning the case has nothing to do with those details. Rather, signing on to the brief as a “friend of the court” gave me opportunity to consider what attitude Christians should adopt in dealing with increasingly postmodernist courts and governments and societies.
The Book of Acts represents the quintessential Biblical guide to Christian missionary work, with its thesis statement in Acts 1:8 serving as the preview of the books tracing of the advance of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. One of the theories that scholars and other interpreters have proposed for the book’s purpose considers whether Luke-Acts was composed as an amicus curiaebrief for Paul’s trial in Rome. Written to an otherwise unknown “most Excellent Theophilus,” who attorney John Mauck theorizes to have been Paul’s lawyer, the books of Luke and Acts offer such legal phrases as “eye witnesses,” “account,” “carefully investigated,” “know the certainty of things which you have been instructed.” The two books (or perhaps two scrolls of one book) are considerably pro-Roman, showing the Roman authorities and soldiers as never attacking Christians unless provoked by Jewish leaders and often supporting Jesus and Paul. Note especially the Centurion who inspires Jesus with faith in his authority, who loved the Jews and built a synagogue for them (Luke 7:5); the Roman soldier who declares Jesus “righteous” or “innocent” (Luke 23:47); and Cornelius, the centurion whose household was saved and filled with the Spirit (Acts 10-11). Consider among the many sympathetic Roman officials in the Book of Acts such persons as the proconsul Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12)who put his faith in Christ through Paul’s teaching or the Roman magistrates in Philippi who released Paul from prison and escorted him from there after the conversion of the jailor (Acts 16:38), or Publius (Acts 28:7-10) who received Paul with hospitality and honor after he healed his father. Throughout the books, the non-Roman authorities are the aggressors against Jesus or Paul and the Romans are either indifferent (such as Pontius Pilate, who was disgraced in the Roman Empire after he was ordered to commit suicide by Caligula, having been convicted of executing men without proper trial) or sympathetic to Jesus and Paul.
Did, then, Luke-Acts serve as a trial brief for the Apostle Paul? Most scholars ultimately reject this theory, but our decision need not be binary. Luke-Acts may have been written too late to serve as a brief in Paul’s defense, and it certainly has a thorough-going theological agenda for the guidance and edification of Christians. Whatever the author’s primary purpose in writing the book, it did indeed serve as an admirable defense of Christianity before Roman society and government. Paul was not the only Christian to face accusations before the courts before the dawn of the Constantinian legalization and establishment of Christianity. Luke-Acts is a theological document and a work of devotion and a guide for missiology and a defense before society and many other things the Holy Spirit may illuminate to the mind of its readers.
Mission in Postmodern Societies
Paul’s attitude toward Rome as illustrated in the Book of Acts and as he expresses it in his own writings provides a remarkable guide to Twenty-first Century Christian missionaries. After centuries of Christendom—Christianity combined with secular power and prestige—Christians find themselves in a position very similar to that of Paul. The moral ambiguities and even the new moral certainties of the postmodern, post-Christian world are strikingly similar to those of Rome. In Greco-Roman society, abortion and infanticide were rampant. Birthrates were low and public morality demanded little restraint. Homosexuality was common and generally accepted—especially pederasty—and during Paul’s time, the Roman emperor Julius Nero Caesar, after kicking his female wife to death, married a transsexual youth publicly (whom he had castrated to halt further masculine development). To this point, no Western society has reached such a level of public rejection of binary definitions.
Yet despite the contradictions between Christian morality and Roman society, Paul never despaired of reaching Romans for Christ. In Romans 1:16, Paul avers that he was “not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” In Romans 13:1 Paul urges Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” That Nero reigned as Caesar did not shake Paul’s confidence that God stood above the government in authority. Throughout the Book of Acts, Paul proudly proclaimed his Roman citizenship and leaned on its privileges (Acts 16:37-38, 21:39, and 22:26-27). He preached the Gospel to the highest Roman officials he could get in front of, confident that they too could turn to Christ in faith. Although he had used the Hebrew name Saul at all times before the proconsul Sergius Paulus accepted Christ (Acts 13:7), he never uses that name afterward—adopting the Roman name of his most illustrious convert thenceforth. Even though he would certainly have won his freedom in lower-level Roman courts after his appearance before Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26:32), Paul appealed his case to Caesar for no apparent reason except to gain an opportunity to appear before Nero and share the Gospel with him. Undoubtedly, Paul believed that even so depraved a character as Nero could turn to Christ and be saved.
A Non-binary Approach to Society
Modernist thinkers like myself can easily fall into a binary, either/or approach to dealing with society. In particular, popular morality in the developed world has fallen out of synch with Christian morality. If people don’t agree with us about our morality, does that necessarily mean they won’t listen to anything we have to say? Is society as a whole bad in contrast to our good? Or is reality more complicated than a simple binary interpretation would expect?
Paul seems to have avoided such a binary approach in dealing with Rome. Despite the many contradictions between Judeo-Christian culture and Roman culture, Paul believed that the Gospel could overcome them. He preached the Gospel with total confidence in its efficacy. He believed that the Roman officials would turn to God in faith, and often they did. He remained a good citizen and believed for the best from government. He always remained, if you will, “a friend of the court.” Sometimes “the court” lived up to his best hopes; ultimately it did not. But in the long run, Paul achieved a level of missionary success that still inspires and instructs us in our struggle to navigate the contradictions, ambiguities, and fears that confront our ministry to pluralistic postmodern societies. We can do no better than to follow his model. We do not need to despair of receiving a just hearing, nordo we need to adjust the essentials of our faith to match the culture around us. Indeed we must not do so. But we have every reason to trust the power of the Gospel unto salvation as we carry it into the fog of postmodernity.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translation from the French by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Available: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Lyotard-PostModernCondition1-5.html.