byFaith | 10.28.14
By Alan Dowd
Scripture calls on us to speak the truth in love. But how do we
do that in a culture confused by postmodernism—a culture that rejects
the very notion of truth? After all, witnessing to someone who doesn’t
know the truth but accepts that it’s out there, somewhere, is far
different than trying to convince someone that the truth even exists.
The good news is that Jesus has been there and done that.
which began in the fields of art and architecture as a rebellion
against the “blandness” of modernity, has grown into a philosophy based
on the notion that all truth is relative. The corrosive effects of
postmodernism are predictable and pervasive: We see its impact in
academia, which, oblivious to the irony, teaches young minds there is no
absolute truth except one—the absolute which declares there are no
absolutes; in pop culture, where the only wrong behavior is judging
something to be wrong; in our civic life, where, as historian John Lewis
Gaddis suggests, our eagerness “to question all values” has undermined “our faith in and our determination to defend certain values”; in Western civilization, where the healthy practice of
self-criticism has led to the evaporation of standards, to moral
relativism and ultimately to cultural suicide; and even inside the
Church, where timeless truths have been replaced by what one author
calls a “culturalized Christianity”—the very opposite of what God wants,
which is a Christianized culture.
The result is a message that is toned down for fear of offending: Yes
to the Beatitudes, no to the Ten Commandments. Yes to the Sermon on the
Mount, no to the Mount of Olives. Yes to Christmas, no to Good Friday.
Yes to the Wonderful Counselor, no to the Lamb of God. Yes to the Good
Shepherd, no to the Righteous Judge. Yes to forgiveness and acceptance,
no to repentance.
The postmodern depiction of—and approach to—Jesus is perhaps best
captured by an old REM lyric, which sighs: “I can’t say that I love
Jesus. That would be a hollow claim. He did make some observations and
I’m quoting them today. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ What a beautiful
Indeed it is. But it’s only part of the Gospel—something the Church
is supposed to explain when rock bands, movie stars, teachers, TV shows
and other products of the culture get confused. Put another way, the
Church is here to show the culture that Jesus didn’t take on human flesh
to make “observations.” Yet that’s how some churches are selling their
new-and-improved Christianity: judgment-free, truth-free suggestions for
better living. This has led to what Ross Douthat calls “the slow-motion
collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of
destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”
Consider the numbers: According to Pew polling, “One-fifth of the
U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated
today, the highest percentages ever.” Nearly 6 percent of the U.S.
public—about 13 million people—are self-described atheists or agnostics.
This is not caused by the Church failing to adapt to the world fast
enough, but rather by the Church failing to speak the truth clearly
To their credit, the PCA and many other denominations and congregations hold fast to the truth.
There’s no watering down the message. But could it be that some of us on
this side of the border separating the vibrant colors of truth from the
various grays of postmodernism are content to live in an echo chamber?
In other words, are we simply sharing the truth among ourselves rather
than broadcasting it across the divide?
Jesus didn’t take that approach. To be sure, he shared the truth with
believers and followers and seekers. But he didn’t stop there. He also
shared the truth with those considered outsiders: tax collectors and Canaanites and Samaritans—and a postmodernist named Pontius Pilate.
Far from rejecting the notion of truth or watering it down, Jesus
made an outlandish claim about it: “I am the…truth,” he declared. And
his encounter with Pilate shows us how to share the truth across the
divide, with someone who rejects its very existence.
John devotes some 22 verses to the exchange between the God of the universe
and the governor of Judea. Their interaction—especially Pilate’s
reaction to Christ’s claims—offers us an example of how to confront
postmodernism’s elastic view of truth.
Pilate wastes no time interrogating his prisoner: Are you king of the
Jews? Do you hear the testimony against you? What crime have you
committed? What is it you have done? The questions fly like arrows. But
for an unmeasured moment, Pilate relents and the cross-examination
becomes something close to a dialogue. The two discuss kings and
kingdoms, law and life. Then, Jesus offers Pilate a glimpse into
eternity: “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on
the side of truth listens to me.”
If there was a smirk on Pilate’s face during his cross-examination of
Jesus, it was wiped away as he learned the breadth of Christ’s claims.
“He made himself out to be the Son of God,” the crowd tells Pilate.
“When Pilate heard this,” John reports, “he was even more afraid.”Pilate
answers with an exquisitely postmodern response: “What is truth?” We
don’t know if it was a dismissive swipe or legitimate inquiry, although
the fact that Pilate is out the door before Jesus has a chance to
respond speaks volumes. For the postmodern Pilate, it seems the question
is more important than the answer, because the question is his. It has
everything to do with him. The answer is not his; indeed, it belongs to
someone else. And what could be gained from someone else’s “truth”?
Immediately, Pilate returns to the now-beaten prisoner. “Where do you
come from?” Pilate asks. But Jesus is slow to respond now. Perhaps it
was the flogging, perhaps the public humiliation. “Do you refuse to
speak to me?” Pilate stabs. “Don’t you realize I have the power either
to free you or crucify you?”
But rather than ignoring Pilate or watering down his message, Jesus
offers him one last dose of truth: “You would have no power over me if
it were not given to you from above.” That chilling rejoinder penetrates
to the very center of Pilate’s skepticism: There is something beyond
you, Pilate, something beyond what your eyes can see, something more
than the sum of your experiences, something deeper than your feelings,
something you cannot learn in books, something certain. There is Truth.
It stands before you. And like it or not, it controls the entire
For a fleeting moment, the Truth was within reach. And in that
moment, perhaps Pilate even grasped it. After all, he scrambles to free
the bloodied deity: “I find no basis for a charge against this man,” the
quivering voice of mighty Rome cries. Desperately wanting to free
Jesus, Pilate asks the crowd no less than three times to take Jesus
back. But they don’t want him, and Pilate doesn’t want to make them
unhappy. And so, Pilate gives in to the crowd.
There’s no evidence Christ convinced Pilate of anything. And there’s a
hard lesson in that for us. If even Jesus failed to persuade some
people of the truth, then so will we. But that shouldn’t deter us from
sharing the message, or tempt us to change the message. Our job is to
deliver the message.On a day rich in ironies, Pilate is oblivious to one
of the most obvious: Each step Christ takes toward Golgotha increases
the distance between Pilate and the Truth—the very thing he demanded.
As we grapple with postmodernism’s influence on the Church and the
world, we face what appears to be a futile fight. Christ asks us to
follow his example: To reason with postmodernists, even when they’re
unreasonable. To answer their questions, even when they walk away. To
speak the truth—always with love—even when it’s unpopular. To resist the
temptation to shrug our shoulders or wave the white flag. And to trust
that some in our postmodern world won’t make the same mistake Pilate
Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.