Friday, June 08, 2007

Growing up with Forrest Gump :
The Conception and Birthing of Post-Modernity

The seeds of post-modernity were sown in the blood soaked earth of the no man’s land and trenches of France as well as on the beach of Gallipoli and untold number of other places wrenched and torn by that bloody conflict that raged from 1914 to 1918; that “Great War” as it was called, the war to end all wars. Those four bloody years of violence shredded the optimism of the rationality of the modern age.

Optimism and hope took it on the chin again with the economic collapse of the Great Depression. The gods of the materialism of the Roaring Twenties failed to deliver on the promise of ever growing prosperity.

If the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, it was the rain of bombs and terror, atrocity and betrayal waged by fascist and republican alike in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) that watered those seeds and young shoots of post-modernity emerging out of the cultural earth of the 20th century.

And between the wars and amidst the savagery of the Spanish Civil War that foreshadowed that second massive war, the art and music and writing of Western culture began to reflect the emerging pessimism that was to become the mark as well as the impetus for the growth of post-modernity in that culture. Impressionism and abstract began to dominate the art gallery. Hemingway and Faulkner and Steinbeck and others voiced their disillusionment in writing and the beginnings of anti-hero began to emerge. Dissonance and abstract form came into our symphonic music, and in the theater Samuel Beckett was “Waiting for Godet”.

Where was God in all this? He was there, and He was not silent.

The conservative Evangelical church came through the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920’s and 1930’s in a state of disarray and retrenchment, especially among those who found themselves outside of the mainline denominational structures they had been part of. There was generally within much of Fundamentalism a pessimism regarding the prevailing secular materialistic culture, and the future in particular. This pessimism cut across all eschatological perspectives, and was not peculiar to just dispensational pre-millennialism.

In all of this, the Evangelical Christian worldwide mission movement continued to gather steam. In some denominations the liberal/ fundamentalist fight had come to a head in battles over control of the denominational mission boards. The Evangelical response was creation of the independent mission boards, responsible to supporting local churches, but outside of denominational structure.

In Western culture at large, further impetus to the growth of post-modernity came in the betrayal that rent the fabric of the socialist movement when Comrade Stalin made his pact with Herr Hitler, carving up Poland and plunging the world into war once again. How could the man who was the hero and epitome of socialism make a pact of truce with an arch fascist enemy? With dismay and disillusionment, there were those who began to despair of their idols of modern rationalistic ideology.

That Second War bred its own versions of savagery and atrocity; the blitzkerg, the concentration camps and the gas chambers, the fire bombings and the carnage all resulting from the failure of the “isims”, the failure of the ideologies of the modern age. So blood was spilled on the beaches of Africa and Europe, and the lonely unknown islands of the Pacific. And to end it all was unleashed the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb that made us realize for the first time in history that our reason and rationality brought before us the possibility and potential for us to destroy ourselves. Along with the bomb came the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver those bombs. Here in the United States our oceans no longer provided the protection that had insulated us from the ravages of 20th century warfare. Such was the legacy the modern age had left us.

So in the 1950’s and early 60’s we grew up in the shadow of the very real possibility of nuclear warfare. As children, the Red specter of the East haunted the outskirts of our otherwise safe and peaceful childhood. Our parents had just fought a long bloody war against a Nazi Germany and an Imperialistic Japan. We saw the black and white images of that war played across the grainy screens of a new modern wonder we called a television. But the Red menace of atomic warfare and mutually assured destruction hung in the background and left a certain uncertainty in our minds, a shade of fear that could not be ignored.

The Berlin crises came. A wall was built in that city. The Cuba missile crises came, and we held our breath. A silly old man, a leader of that Red monolith was at the UN pounding on the desk with his shoe as he threatened to bury us,. Such was the personification we had of that threat. So in that vague fear we went through the 1950's and early 1960's. It would be another 30 some years before that Red specter collapsed under the weight of its own inconsistencies and illusions.

Where was God in all this? He was there, and He was not silent.

In the Evangelical community, some such as George E. Ladd, Carl F. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and others poked their heads out of the fundamentalist foxholes and began the process of engaging the culture around them; and this just as major cultural shifts that were beginning to break upon Western society at large. Evangelicalism split between this Neo-evangelicalism and the more die hard fundamentalists. Men like Billy Graham, and Bill Bright started ministries that sought to reach across traditional denominational boundaries, engendering more controversy by their methodology.

The war: In the mid to late 1960’s it was increasingly in the news. It increasingly became a part of our conversation. More and more it came to loom in the back of our minds; another dark cloud off on the horizon that keep drawing nearer and dominating the horizon of our thoughts; that war going on in a small Southeast Asian nation called Vietnam. We didn't understand it. Why didn't we just go in and clean up on those guys and get it over with? We thought of it in terms of the conventional kind of war fought by our fathers’ generation only a very short time before. We thought we were right being there, but people were getting killed over there, and there were anti war protests. How could this be? It was very bewildering.

Early my junior year of college the draft was changed to a lottery system. If your birthday was drawn with the short number you could kiss your college days goodbye, and plan on forwarding your mail to Vietnam. On our dorm floor we all put a bit of money in the kitty. The guy ending up with the lowest number would take it all.

I don’t remember his name. He was one of the boys from Flint. A group of those Flint boys had kind of ended up living in the same dorm floor. This guy had just gone through a hassle with his local draft board regarding his student deferment. He had just had that deferment restored. We gathered together to watch the drawing as it was broadcast on TV. When that first lottery drawing was over, he had the lowest number of any of us. He got the kitty. I can still picture his dropping shoulders, the dejected look of dismay on his face. My own number was one of the highest of those on the floor. He’d be going. I’d be staying. What could I say to him?

I sat with one of my friends on a low hill along the main street running along side of the campus. The marchers went by; led by the acting University President who has just given a speech declaring his opposition to the War. They marched by carrying their banners and signs. How many of them I know not, but clearly a number in the thousands. It was the high point of the protest movement, the apex of the radicalism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the “Age of Aquarius” with its false hopes and empty dreams.

The budding flower of post-modernity began to show itself in the music we sang. Woody Guthrie and a host of others warned that “The Times they are a Changing.” Were we on “The Eve of Destruction” or the “Dawn of Correction”? “You read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost. We mark our place with bookmarkers and measure what is lost.” in our “Dangling Conversation” and “our superficial sighs”, “Richard Cory” put a bullet through his head. Were the answers “Blowing in the Wind?” But why did it seem we were running “Against the Wind”? Or is it that all we are is “Dust in the Wind”? “Are you Going to San Francisco?” then put some flowers in your hair, but “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” And Don McLean told us about “The Day the Music Died”. Where were “Abraham, Martin, and John”? We listened to “The Sounds of Silence” as “the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls and tenement halls...”

Long held moral principles were left in the dust of so called “free love”. Drugs, mostly illegal, were supposed to take us to new levels of consciousness. Eastern pantheism flooded in to fill the void left by the betrayals of rationalistic modernism. Paganism, for so long mostly dormant, again raised it’s head in Western culture.

President John Kennedy died on the streets of Dallas. His brother Robert was also gunned down, and in the steamy Mississippi River town of Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr. took a fatal bullet, and several guys I knew came back from ‘Nam in body bags.

Where was God in all this? He was there, and He was not silent.

“..A patient Alchemist! --He bides His time,
Broods while the south winds breathe, the
North winds blow,
And weary self, at enmity with self,
Works out its own destruction, bitter slow,
Our gallant highways petered out in mire,
Our airy castles crumbled into dust,
Leaving us stripped of all save fierce desire,
He comes, with feet deliberate and slow,
Who counts a contrite heart His sacrifice.
(No other bidders rise to stake their claims,
He only on our ruins sets a price.)
And stooping very low engraves with care
His name, indelible, upon our dust;
And from the ashes of our self-despair
Kindles a flame of hope and humble trust…”
(Patricia St. John)

God was there, and He was not silent. Whatever one may think about some of the methodology or even theology of all that was happening in the Evangelical world, the Evangelical church was proclaiming and continued to proclaim, “God is there, and He is not silent.”

It was at this time that in its hesitancy towards cultural involvement, the Evangelical church in the United States missed an opportunity in working for basic justice in the area of civil rights, especially the civil rights of Americans of African descent. Sad to say, in some parts of the Evangelical world there was even out right hostility towards that civil rights movement. So it was that an opportunity to demonstrate how the gospel breaks down racial barriers was lost.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s there was a spiritual awakening among the disillusioned young people burned out on drugs and the sexual revolution with it’s false promises of free love. This was the Jesus movement. It did not just impact disillusioned radical hippies, it also reached down into existing Evangelical churches where young people in their youth groups and gatherings began to take the Christianity of their parents, and make it their own.

Some of those who came into the Jesus movement brought their more liberal politics with them. Broader Evangelicalism was increasingly put in the place of having to deal with the place of Christians in culture and politics.

Evangelical activism was finally galvanized by the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade which legalized abortion. It was in this atmosphere the Moral Majority was brought into being. Evangelicals began participating in politics, starting pro-life organizations, and developing crisis pregnancy counseling centers to reach out to and assist women who were dealing with unplanned pregnancies. This ministry was to also latter expand to minister to women who were dealing with the aftermath of having had an abortion.

In all of this, both in missions and home ministries there was a growing recognition of the need to minister to the whole person. Another development happening in missions was the realization of the necessity and importance of getting the local national churches to the point of self-sufficiency, and not letting Western culture be the definition of what it means to be Christian.

The church was never told it would win the cultural wars before Christ comes again. It was and is however called to be a witness to all fallen cultures, including modern and postmodern cultures. In asserting that God is there, and He is not silent, the church is counter-cultural. The fundamental assertion, “God is there.” directly challenges a secular materialistic modernism that effectively denied His existence or relevance. The assertion, “He is not silent.” challenges the emerging secular post-modern epistemology that effectively denies objective reality of any kind.

In the emerging post-modern popular culture, we had been told not to trust anyone over thirty. Those who told us that turned thirty and became stockbrokers. There was a return of optimism during the Reagan years, but sadly materialism remained the false idol in Western culture at large, and the dry rot continued. With the fall of the Berlin wall, we finally saw the last death gasps of the age of ideology that with its secular modern assumptions had plagued the 20th century with wars and rumors of wars.

It was also at this time it was recognized the Western world had left the modern age behind, and the seeds sown back in the bloodshed of WW-I now were bearing full fruit in the realization of the post-modern age that was now in full force upon us; a new world order. The events of 9/11 and its aftermath reminded us that in this fallen and yet to be fully redeemed world, there will always be enemies, uncertainty, and the need for the Evangelical church to continue to bear witness that, “He is there, and He is not silent."
~ The Billy Goat ~
© 2007, All rights reserved.


Unknown said...

Interesting in its poetic construction for such a quick survey of the century. Plese write on how you see the current evangelical embracing of postmodernims in theology.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written; thank you--for the look at continuities, context, and development. And especially, for the poignant, life-giving, "God is here."