Columnists > Judgment Calls

Vanities, vanities

A postmodern evangelism primer

Issue: "Hail to the Fox," Sept. 15, 2001

When Francis Schaeffer wrote The God Who Is There, the book that escorted me into the kingdom in 1974, he spoke of a chasm between the generations brought about by a change in the concept of truth. That chasm is pretty much closed now. It's likely that your mother, your geriatric hairdresser, and the pastor of the mainline church down the road have all become part of the philosophical shift that was once claimed only by the hippies who roamed his Alpine home. When I told the woman next to me on the plane to Asheville that I was a Christian, she thought that was "sweet." It was no threat to her-whether she be Buddhist or Unitarian. All truths are equivalent. Antithesis is dead. (Give me the good old days before Hegel, when fist fights would have broken out at this point as the lady understood me, correctly, to be saying: My way is true; your way is false.)

A day later, at the World Journalism Institute conference, it was brought to my attention that most Christians couldn't articulate their worldview if their lives depended on it. This was not altogether surprising to me since I have the same problem. During a break I privately asked a speaker for a few one-liners to share on the plane ride home, but she smiled and said, "You want the 'four spiritual laws' for postmodern evangelism?" It sounded like a rhetorical question so I didn't say yes, though that's exactly what I wanted. I knew I had to do some thinking.

There was a time I could spin a pretty good worldview. With Nietzsche and a few other God-is-dead books in my knapsack, I had turned my back on bourgeois morality and my face to seeking the adventure that I believed Fate would hand me. You'd think my parents would be proud of such consistency to my presuppositions, but they just kept bringing up the $12,000 they had spent on college tuition. (Definitely people on the other side of the chasm.)

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Swiss L'Abri seemed as good a place as any to start suffering the meaninglessness of existence, so I honored a promise to my brother and made my way to Chalet les Mélezes, where I told Mr. Schaeffer to his face (and over his wife's cooking) what I thought of his Christianity: There was no way to know anything about truth or God starting from your own mind-and that's the only place we can start!

Turns out he knew exactly what I was talking about, and I wasn't the first person he'd heard it from. He even had a name for it-"Rationalism"-that distinguished it from "rational," which he believed Christianity to be. The "-ism" thing was older than Plato, and had run out of steam a while back as history was littered with its corpses-all the guys you've read about in Philosophy 101 who'd tried, building out from their own reason, to draw a circle that would encompass all of reality. (Aquinas was purportedly the culprit here, disseminating the mischief that while man's will was fallen, his intellect wasn't.) One weary day philosophers woke up and decided they weren't going to find that circle, and then there was a collective "so now what?"

If you have seen Samuel Beckett's 1955 play Waiting for Godot, you will know that when people reach the exit of "despair" on the highway of life, they still have to keep driving; life doesn't just end, however anticlimactic that may feel. You make conversation. You sing a little doggerel. You do a little dance. You fight and make up: It passes the time.

As tip No. 1 in your postmodern evangelism primer, for your next plane trip, it's a safe bet that the fella you'll be yoked with for three hours lives below what Schaeffer calls "the line of despair." This means he has no real meaning in his life. It doesn't mean he'll be weeping into his peanuts, because chances are he doesn't know he lives there, so full is his life with the little "Godot" type distractions. Maybe he is a businessman who tells himself, as did the hopeless Middle Ages Stoics, "Be worthy of your beard." Perhaps she is a housewife, ever rational (and disdainful of Christian "irrationalism") who escapes into a Harlequin romance because the existence of Romance gives her hope (a total "leap" from her more honest determinism) that somehow, somewhere, there is meaning.

You will do better than I did en route to Asheville. You will lend her a hand out of despair by saying that God is there, that He is personal and infinite and has spoken into the circle, that man is guilty but still has worth, and that this isn't "your" truth but "the" truth. And if she has been appointed unto eternal life, your words will not return to you empty.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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