12 November 2005

Postmodernity, purpose, and mission

Usually, when a bunch of unrelated threads in my life seem to intersect (and I notice), I end up thinking and writing about it. This has happened recently.
  • I recently saw the movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence", about three young girls who trek 1500 miles to return home in defiance of an early 20th-century Australian national policy of "rescuing" mixed-race children from their Aboriginal families so they can be raised in the obviously "superior" white culture.
  • I'm reading a novel written by a friend of mine, in which the protagonist is a young woman whose face was severely scarred in an auto accident. In the section I'm reading now, she's coming to terms with the idea that the concepts of "beauty" and "ugliness" she's so far taken as self-evident are just social constructs imposed by society, nothing more.
  • Another book I'm reading is Darrell Guder's The Continuing Conversion of the Church. In it, Guder writes about the history of Western European missionary efforts, with their assumption that white European culture is the ultimate expression of the Gospel, and that the encounter between the Gospel and non-European culture necessarily entailed the reshaping of those cultures in the Western mold.
  • Finally, while I was walking this morning with another friend of mine (who's taking a class on postmodernism), she told me about some thinking and research she'd done on colonialism in the Philippines and on western feminine ideals. Both involve the establishment of a cultural construct as normative for everyone, often to the detriment of those it is imposed upon.

I think there is a common thread in all of this, and it has to do with the transition between modernism and postmodernism. Western cultural superiority, white racial superiority, narrow definitions of femininity and of beauty--all of these are metanarratives (big stories) that are a product of human cultures, but have been set up by those cultures as absolute and normative for all. In the modern age, it was common to accept these sorts of metanarratives as self-evident, or at least obvious to the sufficiently "civilized": since absolute truth was knowable, what the culture "knew" about civilization, about race, about gender, about beauty was usually accepted as absolutely true and normative for everyone.

There have always been rebels, of course, who bucked those norms. But if cultural observers are correct about this "postmodern" shift, for the last half-century or so (probably more like one or two centuries, actually), whole cultures have begun to rebel against--and relativize--these metanarratives, and to see them as mere cultural constructs without absolute value. Obviously, this can be very liberating. It can also leave us without a Story or Stories with which to interpret our lives. I tend to think this is something human beings need. Whether that's true or not, many of us postmoderns seem to be searching for a new Story--we may not want it to be absolute for everyone or think it could be so, but we do want to find some narrative that's authentic for us and helps us interpret and narrate our lives.

In the Western Christian world, one popular candidate for this life-defining story has been pastor Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven" Life/Church/etc. While Warren's ideas are being voraciously consumed, my sense is that they're much more popular with Boomers and others who are largely "modern" in outlook, and less so with younger postmoderns. I've read The Purpose-Driven Life, and I found it fairly compelling, although not wildly so. I couldn't put my finger on why not--other than some biblical literalism which wasn't central to the book, I couldn't identify a big problem I had with it. So what makes "Purpose Driven" more of a "modern" phenomenon?

I'm still not sure, but I've sort of decided that it's "modern" because it's setting up one more absolute metanarrative that's normative for all individuals. Let me pick that apart a little. Rick Warren's "purposes" are presented as the purposes in life for everyone, everywhere--normative and absolute, one-size fits all, like most modern Stories. Further, they primarily seem to represent demands that each individual needs to fulfill--it's all about the purpose in my life, which I need to live out. I suspect that Purpose-Driven Church, which I haven't read, takes a more collective approach, but my impression of Warren's approach is that it's pretty individualistic, another hallmark of modernism.

What I like about the Missional Church conversation, is that in some ways it's the opposite of this. Missional Church is about discerning the unique vocation that God is calling you to in the world. It's not about a one-size-fits-all, normative metanarrative; it's about looking at the context of the world around your faith community, your particular talents, spiritual gifts, and passions, and figuring out where and how you can do God's work in the world. On the other hand, the way that story is discerned and lived out is fundamentally communal--there is an individual aspect to missional discernment, but calling must be discerned in community, and that's also the way it must be practiced in the world.

So: to me, a Story appropriate for us postmodern seekers is one that's our story in that it's specific and authentic to us, but also our story in that it can only be told and acted out in community. It should also be one that promotes humility, openness, welcome, diversity, and health, unlike many of the metanarratives of our past. I believe the Missional Church conversation--a conversation fundamentally about authentic ways to follow Jesus in the world--a provides one path toward answering the question: as we leave behind or diminish many of these cracked old stories, what new story--our story--are we going to tell?


aBhantiarna Solas said...

Very interesting ... I like this perspective on PDL. I've read parts of it, not the whole thing. Different circumstances. But, if I may, I think there are going to be a lot of new stories, rather than just one. That's what is so frightening to the modernists. They are still very convinced that there is only one story; that everything is either black or white. And I think that's where many of the break downs are happening right now. So many people feel that they must choose one way OR the other, rather than seeing that really it could be both/and in most cases. But I'm drifting ... anyway ... I think that the finally emerged church is going to have many strands, with many stories to tell and they will all together create a lovely tapestry with dense texture and radiant color. I hope ...

Mike Croghan said...

Hi Sonja,

I enthusiastically agree. We'll have lots of stories, and good gravy, doesn't that sound like a heap more fun?