Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Awakening to a New (Old) Way of Being Woke

Written by: on April 26, 2021

“Explaining Postmodernism” is written by a professor of philosophy and seeks to make sense of why today’s society finds it difficult, if not impossible, to handle complex questions and function in ambiguity using methods like logic, reason, and rules for debate instead of resorting to extremist activism and identity politics. Stephen Hicks argues that the failure of socialism is the root cause and lays the blame squarely at the feet of those on the left.[1]

Hicks postulates that when socialist movements failed to gain traction, the Left- the side historically associated with reason, logic, and science- abandoned facts for feelings. Postmodernists believe that facts and reason are no longer as reliable guides as feelings and passion. These feelings often manifest itself in rage, power, guilt, lust, and dread. But it is important to distinguish that it is not independent individuals who determine which feelings are most necessary, but identities develop in group membership- racial, sexual, economic, and ethic.

There is much about postmodernism to be suspicious and concerned about. First and foremost, the abandonment of reason. My friend Dylan Branson once said that cancel culture was essentially “intellectual genocide,”[2] as we learn to dismiss and deny any argument, position, or behavior we do not like, rather than engage, interrogate, and debate for the purpose of greater understanding, both of the issue and of the other person. But Hicks’ argument comes up short for me when he wants pin the whole problem on one particular ideological side.

It is not as if the Right has demonstrated any greater capacity for rational, reasonable, logical conversation that is rooted in a sincere desire to discover truth and a respect for the perspective and life experience of others in the conversation. Conservatives and Progressives alike have shown their willingness to trade facts for emotions when it comes to their tactics for winning the hearts and minds of the masses. Each side is perfectly capable of ignoring inconvenient truths, forgetting the inconsistencies in their own actions and behaviors, demonizing anyone who might think differently, and doing their best to fan the flames of outrage, conspiracies, and suspicion.

I would love to simply say, “a pox on both their houses” and be done with it. But it is not that simple. The genie is out of the bottle. Pandora’s box has been opened. I see this playing out within my family- among aging parents and college-aged children. The struggle is real within my church as people wrestle not only with how to be good Christians and good members of their political parties, but also good United Methodist Christians whose theology and faith practice does not always align with those of other Christian traditions.

But one of the greatest challenges for the preacher in the postmodern era comes from the “tyranny of the urgent” and expectations that weekly Sunday sermons must always respond to whatever social crisis may have occurred during the week. This is not to say that weekly sermons should not be relevant. Evangelist Billy Graham would proudly declare that he would preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

But today’s trend in the aftermath of a social crisis is for an activist-minded person to take to social media and essentially demand and prescribe the topic for preachers, without any regard for context or circumstance. Most of the time it sounds like this: “If your pastor doesn’t talk about ____ this Sunday, it’s time to find a new church.” Thus the pressure increases for a reactionary sermon that may or may not be the word of the Lord a given congregation needs on a particular Sunday. Even the most undefended, differentiated pastors cannot help but grow weary.

Again, it is not always that an issue should not be addressed. There are certainly appropriate times for a preacher to rewrite a sermon to confront a crisis or community challenge. And there are often other ways for a congregation to acknowledge something important outside of proclamation. The challenge in this postmodern era is how quickly an individual’s issue can take over the narrative and the attempts at shaming anyone who either has a different perspective or a different agenda.

The driving question for me as a pastor in the church is, what is our witness? Ultimately, our work is to invite people into a relationship with Jesus and point people to his truth, even when truth is seen as relative. We invite people to wrestle with the deep questions of life and faith and to stand on the “solid rock” of Christ. It would be nice to be trusted to faithfully live into my calling and giftedness to do that in ways that fit my context without the judgment. Personally, I am tired of the gamesmanship of who can be the most woke. I would rather us all wake up to the reality that we will never grow together if our only options in a disagreement are to walk away or yell louder or demand lock-step compliance.

The way I remember the gospels is that Jesus came to be an embodiment of God’s love for the world. The whole world. And somewhere in there, he invited his followers to do the same.

[1] Stephen R. C. Hicks, “Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foccault,” (Ockham’s Razor Publishing, 2011.)

[2] Dylan threw this out in one of our doctoral cohort Zoom chats (Portland Seminary, DMIN Leadership and Global Perspectives) in March 2021.

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

8 responses to “Awakening to a New (Old) Way of Being Woke”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    “I would rather us all wake up to the reality that we will never grow together if our only options in a disagreement are to walk away or yell louder or demand lock-step compliance.”

    That’s a mic drop if there ever was one.

    Has there been a time where you were confronted by someone in your congregation for not preaching on the social crisis of the hour? What role do you think that our culture of shame has in provoking or encouraging this type of behavior?

    • John McLarty says:

      I don’t know if people are really aware of how shame factors in. It’s certainly under the surface. I’ve had criticism for not addressing certain issues, or not saying enough, or saying too much, or addressing something at all. People are showing up to worship now with their radars tuned very sensitively and are ready to pounce at the slightest trigger. Proclamation of good news often gets lost in the translation.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    I’m struck by the dualistic thinking we gravitate toward as humans (effects of Plato?)- good/bad, right/wrong, us/them, heaven/hell. I think there must be a middle ground, a third way. Is postmodernism actually a philosophical manifestation of a chronically anxious society? Was modernism a philosophy of a chronically anxious society? How does the way of Jesus counter these dualistic ways of being? What does it look like to invite people into that integrated, non-dualistic, embodied way of living? I suppose for a pastor, that’s the million dollar question.

    • John McLarty says:

      There’s definitely lots of anxiety out there. It has probably been with us from the beginning. I think it manifests itself in different ways in different eras. The problem for people who follow Jesus is that the way of Jesus is the antithesis of chronic anxiety and people seem unwilling to make that trade.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    John well said. The challenge every pastor faces is what influences are molding the minds in the pew. In many cases it isn’t the bible or the sermon. The influence of both postmodernism and modernism are every where. Some of them are good some are bad. In a culture where truth is an abstract moving target it is hard to ground believers in seeing the bible as truth. I think that is why I tend to see Kant’s choice of choosing faith over intellect as a reasonable option. it definitely isn’t perfect but my belief in the bible has saved me a lot of headaches. Some may feel it narrows my vision, I prefer to believe it grounds me to a true north allowing me to navigate the influences of this world. I can still love those with other ideas with out agreeing with their beliefs. I pray they can do the same.

    • John McLarty says:

      It’s a moving target these days- that’s for sure. Even though the truth itself hasn’t changed, the ways we invite people to receive it change because otherwise we never get to start the conversation.

  4. Shawn Cramer says:

    I think some of the reactionary mindsets you discuss stems from our proclivity to reduce, take shortcuts, and draw boundary lines. I suppose the opposites would be to hold the grand scope in tension, do our due diligence, and foster community.

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