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IS "SAVING SOULS" POSSIBLE IN A POSTMODERN WORLD?

"Don’t even think about it." "Don’t even consider manipulating someone else’s beliefs." "Don’t even try to control the way another person thinks."

That’s it folks!—the major mandate of the postmodern world.

Now. . . . How are you going to evangelize? How are you going to teach the Word? How are you going to shepherd your flock?

Before answering, let’s get something straight: The "Word" hasn’t changed. The "Hope of the World" hasn’t taken a vacation. We’re the ones who’ve lost our legacy.

And our poor preachers have lost the most. In addition to the "demons" already active in their own congregations, "postmodern" demons outside the church have already written a not-too-friendly epitaph. Postmodernists, for example, call our preachers "the worst of all manipulators." They call them "sermonizers" who use the "tricks of those in the know to control those not in the know." And, they call them "interlopers" who use the "strength of their will to get others to yield to their will."

Often—these critics say—the "controllers" among our clergy prove themselves "more selfish than selfless."

"If You’re Put in Charge. . . ."

I’m grateful for great preaching. I give myself to special moments of inspired teaching. I gorge on the spiritual food of my hidden hungers. So I’m grieved to hear arrogant comments from so many critical spirits.

Yet, I’m reminded that the strong need not be afraid. And the honest need not fear repentance. So let’s take a moment to consider this historical moment. And—searching for lucidity—let’s begin with the perfect products of our seminal seminaries.

We "know," after all, how to preach. Many generations hammered out these skills long ago. Still, when the best preachers faithfully follow the best traditions, "rhetorical" skill—by itself—"only produces an effect." And "expository" preaching—by itself—"only makes a point."

May I continue this candor?

More concerns come with the enormous pressures preachers face. After all, they want to succeed, and they want to be accepted. So they desperately need measurable success. That means, "If it works, do it." And, under that mandate, some soul-winners become "spiritual cowboys" with as many notches on their belts as possible.

After all, "It’s a rough world out there."

Then, add to these pressures the personal baggage we carry—the self-assertions of our own faith, the inventions of our own spirits, the compulsions of our own powers, and the goals of our own genius. That’s when even respectable preachers sometimes filter the message to suit their purpose. That’s when even "proof texting" sometimes borrows only one Scripture to fit the needs of only one agenda.

Of course, persuasive skills also require persuadable audiences. Suggestive influences also require suggestible listeners. So the speaker must see things from the perspective of the audience—and, then, the speaker must get the audience to see things from the perspective of the audience. That requires subtle mirrorings of the listeners’ in-house culture, comfortable code language, and psychosocial story. It requires reflecting back to the audience all those things that rank second to only their face and name.

In other words, persuasion often requires helping the congregation recall things comfortable and cozy, familiar and friendly. It frequently requires celebrating their "eye-candy" and "ear-candy." And, it always requires setting an emotional anchor within their likes and dislikes, identities and dialects. . . .

. . . certainties and anxieties.

Once the speaker and the audience are "on the same page," he can "exist" inside their heads—if he wants to. He can constantly second-guess their response. And, he can carefully process the implied opportunities. For soul-winners who need to "win" at all costs, that means selling easily-marketed "benefit plans" that guarantee health and wealth and shut out suffering and sorrow.

The message may not always prove biblically accurate, but it always fulfills wishful thinking.

"If you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate."1 (St. Paul)

Pathological Preachers

Am I too candid? Even my own words are designed to hold and mold your attention. Yet, there’s a huge difference between the simple exaggerations of traditional techniques and the demonic deceptions of concealed cunning:

We’ve all known, for example, self-righteous, self-exalted, and self-obsessed leaders who covertly control others because of their own pathologies. Sometimes they even get carried away by voices contrary to God. The worst of these cultic autocrats resembles the notorious Jim Jones of the Jonestown tragedy.

Con artists in these congregations depend on the sheer force of their personalities. So they continually crow about their heroic "spiritual victories." They endlessly boast about their starring roles in God’s religious dramas. And, they repeatedly brag about their "special knowledge," "charismatic gifts," and unique "voice from the Lord."

Of course, they make the most of deceitful techniques—like continuous, rapid-fire "words from God" followed by a simple command. This old psychological trick overloads suggestible listeners to the point of panic. Then, when they’re given a simple command, they grab it like a lifeline.

Con artists in these cults remind me of Pavlov and his dogs. (Remember that Pavlov taught his dogs to drool at the ring of a bell.) They also remind me of the Hollywood film composer who said that music "should just manipulate the hell out of an audience. Music shoves the emotions around, and it has to be done skillfully."

Right this minute some less overtly destructive version of the Jonestown deception is being played out in hundreds or thousands of Christian settings throughout the earth.2

Nothing To Do With "Words"

No one ever outmaneuvered God. No one ever controlled someone else’s salvation. And, no one ever manipulated God’s grace. For "What is born of the Spirit is spirit."3 Nothing else!

The Holy Spirit does not bow before sermonizing preachers, cowboy soul-winners, pathological leaders, or any other manipulators. "The wind (of the Spirit) blows . . . where it wills."4 It compels us, but we don’t control it. We allow it, but we don’t elicit it. It is for us, but it is not of us or by us.

It is a self-authenticating, autonomous force.

Revelation truth may enter through a medium, but the "medium is not the message." It may speak through divinely inspired words, images, sounds, movements, or stories, but none of these are the message. It may appear through the strange seduction of metaphor, but it is never the metaphor.

Any medium can be the means to life more abundant, but it is not—in itself—life more abundant.

So here’s the big surprise for Christian "controllers": Spiritual language is neither "written" nor "spoken." Sacred records remind us, for example, that the only authority of Scripture is the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture. Further, "The Kingdom of God" is not based on talk, but "power."5

In short, spiritual language—at the deepest level—has nothing to do with "words." In fact, it breaks the bounds of language. It depends "on the ‘pre-semantic surface’ of human experience for its power."6 In other words, the only "Word" is Spirit, and the Spirit is the only "Word."

More important, it has the power to change things. It does not come as the result of our doing. Instead, it breaks into the present and transforms it. Unlike man’s words which merely "supervene" in life—that is, they only "add to" life—spiritual language "intervenes" in life—it actually "changes life."

In short, spiritual language is a far more powerful instrument of salvation than all the other things we’ve "manipulated" for good or bad. Even without this fact, we’re forced to admit that the world has already refused our "force-fed faith." Postmoderns have already turned down our prepackaged-propositional "truths." And the younger generation has already rejected our reductionist-rhetorical sound bites.

There are no more cookie-cutter salvations!

Manipulation for a divine end is finally a contradiction. Ulterior motive for the "kingdom" is ultimately self-negating. God will not be defiled. Any message coming only from man will only be from man.

Throwing Everything to the Wind

So what must we do?

Our clergy need a new integrity—a new "humble boldness." The modern world has ridiculed Christian leaders who are either humble or bold—either powerless or powerful. By contrast, the Lord of History lifts up those who are both humble and bold—both powerless and powerful.

Yes, it’s a paradox.

The "bold," for example, need a new honesty. They need reminding that what they do or say is never the message—that "prophecy never came by the will of man."7 They are only envoys, after all. And, if chosen, they point only out of the power to which they point.

For only Power incarnates Power.

The bold also need a new humility. They must quit robbing the Holy Spirit of its power. They must root themselves in endless cycles of prayer, reflection, and repentance. They must weave in and out of having answers and not having answers. They must stop "making things happen" and simply remain willing and available.

Like Jesus, they must "speak only what the Father tells them to speak."8

Yet, there’s a further paradox: The "humble" must also know boldness. They must lay everything on the line. They must risk ventures beyond their weakness. They must hazard Open-ended Power. And, they must take a chance on Immanent Otherness.

In other words, both the "humble" and the "bold" must throw everything to the wind!

Learning a New Language

The Lord of History demands—if for no other reason—a new way of thinking, a new way of "guiding" people to the Good News. He demands a language that transcends our instincts to manipulate and control. He demands autonomous events that move beyond man-made media. And, He demands revelations that surpass both the interpreter and the interpreted.

Amazingly, all these demands are fulfilled in damah or "prophetic metaphor."9 Scripture calls it the very language of God. This language, of course, is not the "literal" metaphor of our logical schools. It is not, for example, simply "putting things side by side that don’t go together." And, it’s not the obscure jargon of religious "insiders," either.

Prophetic metaphor, instead, results from the profound tension between the "known" and the "unknown." It is a transparent and transcendent revelation that lies beyond language, culture, or doctrine.

The greatest metaphor of all time, for example, was Jesus. Spirit became flesh and pointed out of the power to which it pointed. This God/man said, "Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father."10 Prophetic metaphor, in fact, confirmed His entire ministry. And finally, His very death and resurrection, Paul said, were metaphors of our own death and life in this lifetime.11

Today’s prophetic metaphor is the same, except it will increasingly explore the spiritual integrity of a virtual reality world.

Christian leaders who learn this language will become artists of analogy and affinity—virtuosi of similarity and similitude—and creators of comparison and contrast. They will participate in divine dialogues between the "known" and the "unknown"—meditative movements between art and enigma—and "give and take" creations between form and formlessness.

In turn, prophetic metaphor will miraculously reveal the "substance," "evidence," and "proof" of things we do not see.12 It will "call those things that be not as though they were."13 And, it will anticipate a future, real world that God is already bringing to pass.

<<<>>>

God is the great Creator, not the great Manipulator. His Kingdom was never meant to be a "Codependency." If we manipulate people into the kingdom, it is very likely that someone else will be able to manipulate them out of the kingdom.

Christianity must be free of cunning, and Christians must be free of come-ons.

Tragically, "Those who know all about the word of God may yet never have heard it and recognized it."14 If being "born again" means a changed relation within a changed existence, then many "managers of the sacred" will need a "new birth." They will need to speak Truth for the first time.

We all know the sense of right from wrong. Like tender nerve endings, all of us can feel the pains of guilt and the anguish of regret for what we’ve done—or not done. So what sort of witnesses we are will be "plainly recognized . . . by (our) consciences."15 A clear conscience will prove more valuable than any of the other "victories" or "ecstasies" we declare.

While the secular world manipulates a "virtual truth"—"cuts and pastes" a postmodern "word"—and assembles a collage of beliefs, the church must seek a new kind of "alter call". . . .

. . . a transcendent and transparent sharing yet to be explored in our time.

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt

ENDNOTES

1. Romans 12:6-8, Message Bible.

2. Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999) p. 187.

3. John 3:6, AMP.

4. John 3:8, AMP.

5. I Corinthians 4:20, AMP.

6. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 216.

7. II Peter 1:21, New King James Version

8. John 12:50 (my paraphrase).

9. Hosea explains in 12:10 that God speaks to us through damah, meaning "prophetic metaphor."

10. John 14:9, AMP.

11. Romans 6:5.

12. Hebrews 11:1.

13. Romans 4:17, KJ.

14. Willard, p. 184.

15. II Corinthians 5:11, AMP.



Future Church Administrator