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Scholar contends postmodern era requires new evangelism methods

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Evangelism methods must change if Christians are to impact a biblically illiterate culture in the new millennium, according to an internationally renowned New Testament scholar.

D.A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., said that when sharing the Bible’s message of salvation through faith in Christ, Christians should “assume that people know nothing … about anything to do with the Bible.”

Speaking during a Feb. 8-9 Page Lectures on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., Carson said that over the last 25 years Christian terminology, once commonly understood, such as God, the Ten Commandments, Bible, sin and faith, has been redefined by the secular culture, thus compromising the truth of God’s Word.

Describing the current secular philosophy of life as “postmodernism,” Carson traced mankind’s worldview — or the manner in which people make sense of the world — from the late Middle Ages to the present while contending that society’s once God-centered worldview has digressed to a man-centered perspective.

As a result, Carson said, the Ten Commandments have been reduced to “some sort of legalistic rules that religious people believe in,” and God is “merely a generic term for the Divine.” Meanwhile, faith is nothing more than a “personal preference in the religious domain.”

Carson, author of “The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism,” winner of the 1997 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion in the theology and doctrine category, identified several characteristics of the postmodern era by contrasting it with the pre-modern and modern eras of centuries past. As an author and editor of more than 40 books, Carson is a renowned scholar in the fields of biblical theology, the historical Jesus, postmodernism, pluralism, Greek grammar and Johannine and Pauline theology.

“There are no foundations,” Carson said describing postmodern thought. “We’re lost in a quagmire of relativity. There is nothing that we can agree on with everybody everywhere. Methods vary. Methods are also controlled at the end of the day by cultural norms and the like. To search for a historical universality, that is, truth that is true everywhere at all times to all people, is … producing something that isn’t there. It’s vain. Now that’s postmodernism.”

Key to introducing postmodernists to Christ, Carson said, is explaining the concept of redemptive history as recorded in the Bible. “You can’t understand what Jesus does unless you believe history is going in a straight line,” Carson said, citing the apostle Paul’s discourse on God’s redemptive plan in Acts 17 where he “set out the whole philosophy of history, and then he introduces Jesus.”

Today’s postmodernists, like the ancient Greeks, need to be told in words they can understand “that there was a beginning and then there was a fall, and there was a whole series of God’s active interventions, and more rebellion, and ultimately we’re heading toward a final judgment and a new heaven to be gained or a hell to be feared,” Carson said. “In the midst of all of this, God took decisive action in the person of his Son.”

One of the challenges to evangelism in the postmodern era is that biblically illiterate people are not necessarily religiously illiterate, Carson added. “It is extremely important that we understand the people to whom we mean to communicate the gospel.”

There now exists a “radical pluralism of knowledge,” and in this postmodern era the eternal gospel, “once for all delivered to the saints,” is now “simply incoherent,” Carson said, while acknowledging that many people have adopted a basic tenet of postmodernism of “Who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong?”

Evangelism methods therefore must change, or “you will find yourself immensely frustrated and by and large fruitless,” said Carson, citing the masses of people across the country who are completely unchurched. Carson said several studies have shown that the mass media, those involved in films, television and radio, are largely unchurched and without any context for a Christian worldview.

As an example, Carson cited a transformation of the modern worldview propagated in the original “Star Trek” movie and television series by the program’s slogan, “to go where no man has gone before, to explore the frontiers of knowledge, [and] learn new things.” “[This] presupposes that there is subjective truth out there,” Carson said. But the latest series of shows, Carson said, advocate the postmodern worldview that “there’s no good, there’s no bad, there’s no right, there’s no wrong. It all depends on your point of view.”

For evangelism to be effective today, Carson said a Christian would do well to model Paul’s use of the “meta-narrative” technique in sharing the gospel to the people of Athens, as described in Acts 17:16-34.

“Meta-narrative is to narrative what metaphysics is to physics,” Carson explained. Just as metaphysics is the framework for all of physics, there is a meta-narrative, “the big story,” of religion, Carson said, and that is what the Bible is about.

More importantly, “all of human significance, and all of human hope of salvation and the significance of Jesus on the cross all depends on buying into that meta-narrative,” Carson said. “If you destroy that meta-narrative, you can’t make sense of the cross of Jesus anymore.”

As it was with Paul in ancient Athens, Carson said, today “it’s the big story that gives meaning and direction and value judgment to all of our little stories, that judges our little stories and constrains them and puts them in a certain kind of pattern.”

Just as in Paul’s day, the concept of sin remains the most difficult idea to communicate, said Carson, who lectures regularly on university campuses. “To say something is wicked or morally wrong presupposes some kind of standard, some kind of transcendent definite, some kind of criterion by which you may assess other things,” Carson said. Yet without an understanding of the concept of sin, he said, there is no need for a Savior.

If Paul had introduced Jesus “with mere evangelical slogans before he had set out this framework, everything that they heard him say about Jesus they would have misunderstood,” Carson said. “What Jesus did, what he accomplished, the significance of his cross-work, what it means to be forgiven, what sin is, it all depends finally on this frame of reference, on this worldview.”

The effects of postmodernism are rampant in the culture today evidenced primarily by the redefinition of the concept of “tolerance,” Carson said. Under modernism, he recounted, tolerance was expressed as “‘I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ But under postmodernism, you must not say that anybody is wrong,” Carson said.

“That means of course that evangelizing and proselytizing are intrinsically evil,” according to the post-modernists, he said.

Still, when speaking to people who are biblically illiterate, Carson said “you are mandated to lay things out or you are not preaching the gospel faithfully. It’s as blunt as that.

“This is not an issue of doing something that’s highly intellectually difficult,” he emphasized. “It’s rather a question of getting across things [that] you and I merely presuppose, learning how to communicate the things we presuppose to people who don’t presuppose the same things and have never heard of them.”

Acknowledging that “a great deal of contemporary discussion turns on the matter of approach, [or] how we get a conversation going,” Carson said of most importance is “where you go once you’ve gotten started … and then from there you must have it clearly in your mind where you’re going.”

For example:

— Once you’ve defined the basic human problem as hopelessness, “then the gospel is simply that which gives hope.”

— When helping a person realize his reason for living or purpose in life, “then what the gospel does is give you authenticity.”

“You have got to get into the Bible’s storyline,” Carson said. “You’ve got to get into the biblical analysis and worldview to make sense of the gospel before you present the gospel, because otherwise you’re not faithfully presenting the gospel when you’re dealing with biblical illiterates.”

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