The Danger of Postmodernism in the Church (The Turn of the Snake)


Phyllis Nissila

A pretty crafty one, that Satan, to initiate the downfall of mankind with an innocent-enough sounding question: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Genesis 3:1, KJV). And did he look Eve straight in the eye when he said that, one eyebrow raised ever so slightly, if snakes have eyebrows?

Note: Satan didn’t employ an out and out accusation: “God hath said, Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden.”

Nor did he employ a disbelieving exclamation: “I canst BELIEVE God won’t let ye eat of the fruit of all these trees!”

With such clear-cut approaches he might have risked putting Eve on the clear-cut defensive—no “ifs, ands, or buts!” (Case closed. Scram, snake!)

But that clever devil merely suggested deception with his question, and that provocative little punctuation mark en voce curved around Eve’s understanding to her greatest vulnerability: innocence (free will as yet untested), its sharp point pricking her certainty.

Eve came back immediately with the truth, all right, explaining that it was only one tree that was off limits—and for a pretty good reason, too. If she and Adam touched it, they would die!

But she hung around to hear more. After all, the pretty creature seemed harmless enough, no? And wasn’t he partly right? And weren’t those apples appealing? And the snake had a point, there, in the rest of what he said about being like God. So wouldn’t being like God Who was so good be a good thing?…


Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw tells another tale of the power of suggestion, the power of question.

In James’ story, a parson’s daughter gets a job as a governess in a nineteenth century manse embellished with dark towers, dank corridors, and mist-veiled grounds. She believes a ghost afloat and conjures up all sorts of thoughts about its evil intent with regard to the children in her care while the master is away. She works everyone into a frenzy fed by her (possible?) hallucinations until, sadly, the little boy in her care dies of—well, is it fright? Or does he see the apparition, too?

And that’s the power of this classic psychological thriller: suggestion so potent—and so skillfully worded—it takes a second read, a lengthy class discussion, six study questions and a research paper on psychological and semantic manipulation to get through it all.

And the screw plunges even deeper into the mind as various scholars come up with various interpretations all because the hard core facts, edged with suspicion and plenty of gothic drama, are called into question.

Satan’s question to Eve—also edged with suspicion—may not have been as intricately woven as James’ ghost story, but the effect was the same: black and white tinged gray, truth under a microscope, doubt cast. And Eve took the bait. Satan uses similar mechanisms today.

There was a spirit wreaking havoc in Eden, a spirit in James’ nineteenth century tale that may (or may not?) have been a-haunting, and there is a spirit abroad today calling into question a scrap of scripture here, a bit of doctrine there—casting bait for the unsuspecting and reeling in the unwary: the darker side of postmodernism, you might call it. First, a definition.

Put one way:
“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.”[1]

Put another way (or, How Memes Infiltrate the Masses):
“It’s your thing/Do what you wanna do/I can’t tell you/Who to sock it to.” [2]

Or another way (WARNING, cynic alert):
We’re bored with/tired of/more evolved than/dissatisfied with/smarter than (F: All of the above) the philosophy, or “spirit” of the age. We haven’t as yet come up with the ultimate meaning of life that scratches that existential itch (read: we’re not gods yet), so let’s think up some more stuff. Use a lot of big words. Make it seem better than the spirits of the previous ages (modernism, early modernity, antiquity…), call it esprit, maybe, just for effect. Get some really smart people with a lot of letters after their names to devise a sequence of courses in fancy universities to prime the cerebral pumps of the next generation and cast the line, baby.

Cynicism aside, generally speaking, we can always better ourselves. Some of what postmodernism posits is useful particularly the idea that there is more to human beings than just the flesh and bone of rational thought, a la the “spirit” of a prior era: the Age of Reason (ca 1650-1800).

But the problem with the spirit of this or any age is that the same students who espouse it as undergrads, so to speak, will inevitably turn against it later on. They will eventually see the shortcomings and commence work on yet another esprit du jour. Because, it never fails, as sure as mankind seems to conjure the wisdom of the ages, that other, real Wisdom of the Ages reveals itself again: man has a rebellious streak. And, truth be told, man knows he hasn’t come to the pot of gold, yet.

It has been suggested by those enmeshed in postmodernism that those who question postmodernism “don’t understand the conversation.” But here’s the rub: postmodernism is all about Questions and Skepticisms, about challenging certainties because, well, there is no real certainty, is there, outside of, as the idea goes, each his own?

Oh, except for one query that’s off limits, at least for now (see above): Are you sure about postmodernism’s own claims?

The conversation about postmodernism actually defies ultimate understanding because, well, there are no ultimates in this conversation. Essentially, in reaction to the all the certainties of prior ages, it’s not meant to be fully understood, that is to say, collectively. Individuals can understand their own certainties, of course. But no more one-size-fits-all thinking lest we spoil the whole premise and cause narrow-mindedness and phobias…

And so the conversation circles back to irony while Somebody, still slithering about, gets ready for another strike.

And Satan lurks, this time, this age, in the sanctuary—a place we think safe. This time, armed not with one question to prick our own vulnerabilities but with a whole pile of them. And with centuries and centuries of ideological and spiritual “experiments in truth” to support any which direction he wants to suggest. In new ways, of course.

And just by wonderful coincidence, postmodernism is also about experimentation as each individual tries on this, then that, definition of self and reality and belief system because, these days, interpretation is everything! And there will always be a fresh crop of freshmen to buy the books, CDs, lecture notes, and lies. But back to the “new ways.” Consider just the following:

1. New way: Did you ever play the “message in a circle” game when you were a kid, or in school, or at a party? The game where a message or phrase gets whispered from one to another around in a circle and by the time it gets to the last listener, who then repeats it out loud, it has changed? And everybody laughs because we had such a good time. And isn’t this a fun way to make a point: can we really trust oral traditions? (And doesn’t religion begin with oral traditions? Just wondering.)

Old way: Did God really say that? (Genesis 3:1)

2. New way: I read once where some archeologist said he was getting close to unearthing the real Fountain of Youth. Not only that, lots of people have actually lived before and will live in another body after this life. Under hypnosis, many are recounting some pretty amazing stories. And anyway, three or four religions teach reincarnation, right? And who’s to say, now, their beliefs aren’t as valid as anyone else’s? In addition, some technology gurus are discussing a way to extend life through robotics and bio-chips, and that will ensure longevity beyond our wildest expectations, not to mention the possibility of living fore _ _ r (that is, of course, if you believe in the “f” word)!

Old way: You won’t really die. (3:4)

3. New way: And have you heard the really good news, yet? It’s not about Christ, but about “Christ Consciousness!” It’s not about only one, Way, Truth, and Life, but about MANY ways, truths, and lives! I’ve heard this on television talk shows and talk radio and there are shelves full of books on the subject. And here’s something else new and exciting. You know how starting way back in the second and third centuries the desert fathers and mothers actually physically FELT God? Some of them even LEVITATED, and SWOONED under His power. And, guess what? We can feel God like that, too! Become “one” with Him, I think they call it. I’ve seen people doing all of that AND more (although I’m not quite sure about the barking and shrieking and the falling down laughing-drunk stuff). And there are even prophets today telling us brand NEW things about God, like there might not even be a hell and everybody, no matter what belief system, can get into heaven!

Old way: Don’t you know that you, too, can become gods? (5)

But even though postmoderns claim to know the way to truth(s), at least to know the path, though it snakes off in as many directions as there are seekers, there are still some annoying universal certainties that refuse to get out of the way of even the most egalitarian of “spirits,” indeed, that prompt all of the spirits to begin with:

1. Mankind is always searching for truth (2 Timothy 3:7),
2. mankind is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20)),
3. mankind is rebellious (Proverbs 17:11), and
4. mankind is easily influenced (Ephesians 4:14).

Sigh. It’s the same-old, same-old: we’re just not “there,” yet, we “can’t get no satisfaction,” we don’t want to do what somebody else tells us to do—yet we find ourselves wearing the same Nikes, drinking the same flavored lattes, and using the same slang as everybody else (at least the hip, slick, and cool everybody else), or we find ourselves doing things we never thought we would…

Alas, despite our self-betterment efforts—the good as well as the bad and the ugly—it does seem that there really is nothing new under the sun—oh, good grief!—there is ANOTHER one of those annoying universals! (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

And now in the twenty-first century, the deceptive side of postmodernism rears its scaly head in the church, too, the same spirit that brought us political correctness, situational ethics, and more angst than a room full of psychoanalysts arguing the mystery of James’ manse.

What to do?!

Fortunately, there is something more potent than artful questions, clever suggestions, and all other forms of communication that raise suspicion about the veracity of the words and ways of God. Jesus modeled the strategy.

As Scripture relates, at the beginning of His public ministry Jesus “was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Now, the same devil that knew Eve’s vulnerabilities and who has a good idea about ours, knew something about Jesus, too. After Jesus had fasted forty days and was hungry Satan began with Him thus:

“If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (3).

(Sssssssssss, Aha! Get Him while He’s weak!)

Jesus’ answer? “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (4).

Next, Satan took Jesus up to the holy city and sat him on a pinnacle of the temple and challenged Him to throw Himself down because “it is written,” the devil said, “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone” (6).

(Ssssssssssss, I know Scripture, too!)

Jesus’ answer? “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (7).

And finally, Satan, in one last effort to hook Jesus, took Him to a mountaintop, showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glories and tried this one: “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (9).

(Ssssssssssss, mortals can never resist power and money!)

Jesus’ answer? “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (10).

The strategy? When Satan coils nearby, suggesting or calling into question this or that core tenet, believers can overcome his words with God’s Word, his “truths” with God’s Truth—that two-edged sword that has the power to divide asunder soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12)—including the spirits of the ages no matter how appealing, how eloquently articulated, or how reasonable they may seem. It worked for Jesus.

The spirit of postmodernism, just one spirit-of-an-age in a long line of them, might seem like the latest greatest answer to our ills today—and may shed new light on a few problems—but behind the curtain might be just another old one pulling some strings to dazzle and deceive.

And for coming against the ever-increasing hodgepodge of postmodern ideas that oppose the Word of God, here’s the strategy in quick-reference form: “Scram, snake!” (James 4:7).

We engage with the devil beyond that to our great peril.

Just ask Eve.

[1] //
[2] “It’s Your Thing,” Isley Brothers, 1969.
For more on postmodernism, these, for starters:
For more on postmodernism in the church, these, for starters:


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