On Paradigms and Postmodernism in the Church: Watch Your Step


Phyllis Nissila

What prompts this commentary is a brief conversation I had on the term “paradigm” with the hosts of Rapture Ready Radio’s “Afterglow” program a few weeks ago (May 27th, 2012). The term paradigm, coupled with the current “spirit of the age,” “postmodernism,” is being heard more and more in churches adopting the Emergent Church (a.k.a. Emerging Church) philosophy. What follows is an elaboration of both terms and how they work to subtly and blatantly change the Gospel message and an encouragement for believers to rely upon the ageless truths and guidance of the Word of God.

“Kenny” was a young man in a facility serving mentally and physically disabled people at which I worked my sophomore year in college. He was developmentally delayed and presented some other issues, yet from time to time he came out with the most profound statements. One day, he offered this: “You people plant us in the soil you want so we grow the way you want us to.”

Of course there would be no further comment on Kenny’s part. He could have merely mimicked the statement from some television program or from something heard in passing. So life went on in the classroom.

But I’ve thought of that statement many times since in various contexts. Just now, what with all the talk about paradigms and postmodernism in the church it has come to mind again.

In a nutshell, a paradigm is a standard, a pattern, a model [1], the “generally accepted perspective of a particular discipline at a given time” [2], a way to think about something, you might say. Paradigms are used to influence the acceptance and development of new ideas, innovations, and inventions.

Political bias is a good example of a paradigm. The editors of a newspaper may lean a certain way politically and from that paradigm craft editorials and features in keeping with their view by careful selection of words and rhetoric. Through those mechanisms, they blatantly or subtly try to persuade their readers to think the same way.

In order to fulfill the “generally accepted” part of the definition, a paradigm has to infiltrate as many aspects of culture as it can: art, music, literature, architecture, philosophy, science, religion, advertising, and so on. The more we hear some new idea in a variety of venues the more we tend to be influenced by it. Then, if we’ve not examined it closely, we tend to adopt it ourselves.

And of course when culture-shapers behind podiums, word processors—or pulpits—deem it’s time for a new, improved system of thought to emerge, the paradigm must shift.

Paradigm shifts can occur quickly, as in the case of a revolutionary idea (and might require force such as in a military coup that initiates a government takeover). Most often, however, paradigm shifts occur year by year, decade by decade, book by workshop by concert by media giving promoters time to set up, sell, and seal the deal.

Toward the end of a paradigm’s life, so to speak, many of its promoters are almost unaware that they are furthering the cause because the spirit behind it is already part of the warp and woof of their cultural upbringing. An example of this at a micro level is the use of euphemisms and “loaded words” to change minds, to soften a concept. For example, the political term “choice” is used regularly now to strengthen the paradigm shift away from thinking about what the term really means: abortion.

Words are exceedingly important in shaping thought and changing minds, which is why it is so important for Christians to stay in the Word of God and to question new ideas.

And over time, paradigm resisters, or complainers as they are also known, have been marginalized by various means and thus have less and less power to elicit critical thinking. They are reduced to a remnant, you might say.

The wind beneath a new paradigm is often the “spirit of the age.” This go-around it’s postmodernism. Since the turn of the twentieth century, particularly mid-century, postmodernism has been very successful in nudging a paradigm shift away from the spirit of the previous age, modernism, which was very scientific.

Postmoderns resist the hardcore empiricism of the previous, modern age and strive over the best way to define postmodernism, a notion that defies absolutes, as absolutes are also passé in this mode of thought. [3] But of course there is some truth to postmodern thinking. Life is more than what we can measure and codify, and the one constant in man-made culture, which by nature is in a constant state of flux, is change. But there is always some truth in any new idea no matter how revolutionary. It sells better that way.

So with absolutes out of intellectual fashion, then, postmodern pilgrims are encouraged to experiment and experience. Some of the more well known fruits of postmodernist thought are the concept of situational ethics and the notion that there are many paths to God/Enlightenment/ or whatever you might call the search for ultimate truth (without, of course, actually using the absolutist term “ultimate”).

The Hegelian dialectic [4] is a key player in the shaping of postmodern thinking in that it helps shave off the hard edges of beliefs previously held sacrosanct in order to produce a much friendlier “consensus” of thought about them, or to change thought about them entirely.

The Hegelian dialectic is used to conjure group think out of a roomful of disparate thinkers by nudging them though a specific process toward a pre-determined “middle ground” by use of peer pressure and the implicit suggestion that the group is “owning” the process and the outcome. And then on to the next phase, more of the same, in the process of “softening” values and truths that are felt to be too hardcore, or that make it hard to sell the new-think. Very subtle. Very manipulative. Very effective. Even in the church (think “seeker friendly-ism”).

Theology becomes much more flexible via the dialectic process, not so dogmatic, you might say. Church can become much more welcoming if we come to consensus about how things have been and how they could be, if we lighten up on the strict old standards. Hawkers downplay or eliminate persecution and hell and hail peace and prosperity. And the paradigm shift away from orthodoxy moves, inch by inch, program by retreat by sermon by best seller away from Truth into many truths, from one path to many paths.

And so the carefully orchestrated (or simply culture-caught-in-passing) postmodern-driven paradigm shift away from “old” thoughts about religion turns out to be the perfect intellectual soil to foment all kinds of new innovations or re-cycle ancient ones.

And most people are unaware of what’s going on as postmodern church planters import the new soil to line a new path or paths to God, layer upon layer, and unwary believers step right in…

Except there is that nagging feeling a Christian might have that something is not quite right in The Church of the New Paradigm. Questions arise: Why are we now walking labyrinths and erecting shrines to dead Catholic saints? Practicing yoga? Awaiting a “fire” that will anoint us with uncontrollable laughter, jerking and falling down as if drunk? “Silencing” our minds in an attempt to achieve a “mystical” “oneness with God,” or other forms of the so-called “new mysticism”? [5]

Whatever happened to the Word of God, “[…] quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, (discerning) the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12) as our Guide and the final Arbiter of truth?

Whatever happened to the path Jesus referenced: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: / Because straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14)?

Come to think of it, whatever happened to the Bible as the core text?

Solomon had some relevant words of warning for his son with regard to the “moveable ways” of a wayward woman, a woman who resisted the straight and narrow path back then and who was a type of an apostate church today:

“My son, attend unto my wisdom, and bow thine ear to my understanding; / That thou mayest regard discretion, and that thy lips may keep knowledge. / For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: / But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a twoedged sword. / Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell. / Lest thou shouldest ponder the path of life, her ways are moveable, that thou canst not know them” (Proverbs 5: 1-6)

The pitchmen of new-church-think are, like the seductress of Solomon’s era, well-versed, charming, articulate, and often charismatic. They know their product, they know how to market it, and they have a way with people. They also know when to change the buzzwords as more and more people catch on.

And they are good subject-shifters: “We just want to love Jesus” “It’s all about the children,” “We are into peace and justice.”

Well, who can argue with that? Those are classic Christian values. But they are not the whole Gospel.

It took Someone (read, Jesus) to die a terrible death for sins so that those who should die (read, us) because we commit those sins could, via unmerited grace, receive salvation. It took one, and only one, “Way, Truth, and Life” to show us the way.

But of course in the paradigm driven by the postmodern spirit some of those old ideas are too judgmental, too limiting, too universal, and too old-fashioned. The new spirit wants whatever it wants if it has to spin it inside out, upside down, and as far as it needs to away from the original path in order to satisfy seekers and salesmen and fill the Big Top.

Believers are lured into all manner of feel good experiences and new notions about church and God. Jesus is reduced to just another savvy religious leader along with a growing list of gurus, holy men and women, desert monks, visionary nuns, and New Agers. The Bible becomes just another reference book of an ever-increasing stack of Postmodern Best Sellers in the vestibule back at New Paradigm. And those who reject the paradigm and the “spirit” behind it are often asked to leave, one way or another. Many choose to leave.

But even in the middle of the cacophony of ideas bred of this new paradigm fed by postmodern spirits one clear voice still sings out: “Doth not wisdom cry? And understanding put forth her voice? / She standeth in the top of high places by the way, in the places of the paths. / She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. / Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. / O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart. / Hear, for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things” (Proverbs 8: 1-6).

One clear directive still invites: “In all thy ways acknowledge (the Lord), and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:6).

One way to experience God still remains: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. / Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

And for each person, one clear choice still beckons: “(Choose) you this day whom you will serve […]” (Joshua 24:15). Joshua completes that verse by identifying the false gods of his day: the gods the Israelites served “on the other side of the flood” and the god of the Amorites. And he clarifies his choice: “(But) as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Different gods, same choice today.

Jesus talked about soil, too, in His parable of the sower (Matthew 13, chapter 13). Explaining why some seed, a metaphor for the Word of God, falls on “bad soil,” that is, falls where it does not take root, Jesus lists several reasons:
• the seed fell on the wayside (a believer hears but does not understand the Word of God, thus it’s easy for the Word to be snatched away by “the wicked one”);
• it fell on stony places (a believer hears the Word and rejoices but becomes offended by it when hard times arise); and
• it fell among thorns (a believer hears but the cares of the world and desire for riches choke the Word) (verses 18-22).

And Jesus explains the “good soil”: “But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it […]” (23).

And there’s always the problem of tares amid the wheat.

Gardeners tell me that some weeds are easy to spot right away. However, what makes the work challenging is that other weeds look a lot like what is supposed to be growing in the soil while still other weeds quickly entangle themselves in the good crop making it hard to pull them up without damaging the good growth.

False teachings are like those weeds: some are very different from truth (easy for believers to spot, but harder for non-believers), some “look” and sound very much like truth (hard for even believers to root out), and others, through careful salesmanship, soon entangle believer and non-believer alike and choke off God’s words entirely (the most difficult kind of “weeds” to eradicate if not done quickly).

Fortunately, for assistance maintaining the “good soil” of understanding God’s Word, Jesus sent help: “(When) he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will (show) you things to come. / He shall glorify me, for he shall receive of mine, and shall (show) it unto you” (John 16:13-14).

If the length and depth and breadth of God’s words seem at times difficult to comprehend we can be of good cheer because we have a Guide. The Holy Spirit speaks through those He has gifted to teach, preach, evangelize, and prophecy even as He speaks through the Scriptures, glorifying at all times Jesus, “the Word Made Flesh” (John 1:14). And He helps us free for the asking.

Just as there wouldn’t be counterfeit money if real money were not so useful, there wouldn’t be a plethora of counterfeit paradigms or perspectives if there were not God’s original perspective, powerful and eternal.

There wouldn’t be a postmodern “spirit” or worldly spirits of any age were there not the Holy Spirit, powerful and eternal.

There wouldn’t be an ever present force attempting to lead us off onto other paths were there not a true path.

And there wouldn’t be “foreign soil” if there were not true ground.

Tend your heart carefully.

Ground yourself in the Word.

References on “paradigms”:
[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/paradigm
[2] http://www.synonyms.net/synonym/paradigm

References on “postmodernism”:
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism

References on the Hegelian Dialectic:
[4] http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/05/dialectic.htm

References on the “new mysticism” in the church:
[5] http://www.inplainsite.org/html/mysticism_in_the_church.html

There are, of course, multiple other good sources of information on these topics.


This entry was posted in Commentaries, Contemplative/Mysticism, Ex-Roman Catholic/Catholicism, Postmodern/Emergent Church and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Paradigms and Postmodernism in the Church: Watch Your Step

  1. Pingback: On “Precision Teaching” (1969) and “Meme Control” (2018): The Better to Manipulate You With | pnissila

  2. pnissila says:

    Thanks! That’s my hope. The Emergent marketeers are very clever, but really, if people know what a paradigm is and what postmodernism is and how they infiltrate every strata of society, it’s not so hard to figure things out. Sadly, though, we don’t expect worldly ploys in the church and that’s what makes the Emergent church tactics so insidious.


  3. Carl Gordon says:

    I appreciate the clarity of this article! It catches the obvious and not so obvious deceptive culprits and exposes them really well!


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