Preaching Truth to Today's "Whatever" Listeners, Part 1

Whatever. Our culture today uses this word frequently. Its breadth of meaning within its pronominal usage spans from meaning anything or everything (“Take whatever you want.”) to a statement of surprise (“Whatever made you think that?”). The word’s adjectival meaning is similar as well (“He ate whatever food he could find.”). Perhaps the semantic range of whatever shines most brightly, however, in its use as an interjection. More recent dictionary editions include this use of whatever and describe it as indicating “indifference to or scorn for something, such as a remark or suggestion.” [1] This definition is more representative of today’s use of the word. Still, others have attempted to catalogue other nuances of the interjectory use of whatever. One author humorously lists over 10 uses for whatever used by modern speakers. Among them are the following: The Apathetic Whatever (“Oh, I’m immature? Whatever.”), The Pseudo-Impartial Whatever (“She’s dating the boss? Whatever.”), Self-pitying Whatever (“Never mind, I did all the work but whatever.”), The Sulking Whatever (Him: “I’m sorry, honey, let’s have dinner.” Her: “Whatever.”), The Get-over-it Whatever (“Dad, whatever, it’s just a tattoo.”), The Jealous Whatever (“His uncle got him the job but whatever.”), The Faltering Cliché Whatever (“Perhaps then you can get some closure or whatever.”), The Bashful Whatever (“Could we go steady or whatever?”), and The Doubting Thomas Whatever (“He said he sent the check last week, and I am like whatever.”).[2]

Although the use of whatever might be an interesting and even amusing linguistic phenomenon, it is more. Words and the way speakers use them reveal specific cultures. A ready example of how usage of words reflects culture would be the prolific use of the word like in our culture. High school and college students use this word repeatedly within the bounds of a relatively short story. We may hear the word like and wait expectantly for a simile to follow. Instead the storyteller pauses to make a facial expression and follows up with a rather weak adjective (e.g., “When he came around the corner, I jumped out at him, and he was like [facial expression] scared.”). Such usage suggests that our culture is immersed in multimedia. It is easier to show an idea than to speak it.[3]

The term like may reveal a culture flooded with pictures and sounds, but the term whatever reveals an entire mindset of our current culture. Utterances of whatever reveal a culture marked by apathy, dismissal, indecisiveness, non-discerning tolerance, and confusion. If the people to whom we and our students are going to minister are part of this “whatever” culture or at least affected by it, we must learn for ourselves and teach our students how to communicate the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ accordingly.

The Mindset of Today’s “Whatever” Listeners

The philosophical movements and historical events that led to a “whatever” culture are many and complex. Other books, articles, and papers have chronicled the history of this mindset in great detail. This treatment will be somewhat simplistic so I may highlight key elements within our present culture that relate to the preaching ministry.

The “whatever” mindset under consideration grows out of postmodernity. This discussion would be much easier if we could define postmodernity with a simple paragraph accepted by all who study the subject. The difficulty of pigeonholing postmodernism under an omnidescriptive statement of worldview is that the postmodernist himself rejects overarching worldviews or metanarratives in preference of the petite histoire (little story). For a postmodernist to describe or organize his movement according to a macrostructure would undermine the very heart of his understanding of history and reality. As a result, postmodernist thinkers tend to react and speak to those issues they have experienced personally. It may be better to speak of postmodernisms rather than postmodernism. The lack of formal definition on the part of the postmodernist, however, does not leave one without any knowledge of this mindset. As mentioned above, postmodernity is a reaction to the more clearly defined mindset of modernity. J.I. Packer aptly states, “The only agreed upon element is that postmodernism is a negation of modernism.” [4] Postmodernity is best understood in terms of contrast.

At the dawning of the Enlightenment period, the Cartesian doubts of past known truth fueled scientific inquiry which appeared to result in certainty of truth. It was science that began to replace religion as the source of absolute truth. Modernity was born with the goal of unlocking the secrets of the universe through human intellect so that man could master nature for his own benefit and create a better world. [5] Modernity, however, failed to fulfill the great dream of the Enlightenment. Increased scientific knowledge and technological breakthroughs did not produce a utopian existence. The heart of man had not changed. Wars were just as common and in greater scale. Technological benefits of productivity were virtually negated by technological advances in entertainment and amusement. Modern advancements have often served to facilitate more venues and means whereby mankind could satisfy his desire to sin. The optimism and arrogance that characterized modernity at the beginning of the twentieth century began to wane. Modernity’s failure has led to a very different attitude. Grenz highlights this change of attitude when he states,

In the postmodern world people are no longer convinced that knowledge is inherently good. In eschewing the Enlightenment myth of inevitable progress, postmodernism replaces the optimism of the last century with a gnawing pessimism….Members of the emerging generation are no longer confident that humanity will be able to solve the world’s greatest problems or even that their economic situation will surpass that of their parents. They view life on earth as fragile and believe that the continued existence of humankind is dependent on a new attitude of cooperation rather than conquest.[6]

Modernity boasted of answers, but postmodernity only has questions. Modernity felt secure in its certainty of truth through scientific method, but postmodernity views the world as relative and subjective. Not only have postmodern people abandoned the search for absolute truth, but they are also suspicious of those who say that they do have absolute truth. In short, postmodernity is a worldview that says no world view exists. It is a backlash against the arrogance of modernity that sought to provide all the answers through rationalism and scientific method. The postmodernist has surrendered his ability to know because the only thing he does know is that absolute truth cannot be known. David Harvey has provided a helpful list of contrasts between modernity and postmodernity toward a better understanding of the postmodern mindset. [7]



Modernity



Postmodernity

Romantic view of life Absurd view of life
Purpose Play
Design Chance
Hierarchy Anarchy
Word Silence
A completed work Process
Analysis from a distance Analysis through participation
Creation synthesis Deconstruction/antithesis
Present Absence
Centered Dispersal
Semantics/words Rhetoric/presentation
Depth Surface
Narrative/grande histoire Antinarrative/petite histoire
Metaphysics Irony
Transcendence Immanence


Postmodern people, therefore, are those who react to modernity and all its tenets by which objective truth is sought. They are skeptical of authority because past “truth” was made truth by those who wielded authority; authority-created “truth” that has turned out not to be truth at all. [8] Concerning their own self-understanding, Johnston writes, “They’re like missing persons in search of a self and identity.” [9] They shrug off morality for that which is expedient. They are immersed in a media-driven world because presentation of ideas means more than the supposed truthfulness of an idea. Our listeners today are people who live in a dark forest of doubt, suspicion, confusion, and amorality that respond to the pressing issues of life with a resounding, “Whatever.”

The mindset of today’s “whatever” listener presents unprecedented challenges for preachers of God’s Word. We are in the business of proclaiming absolute truth. God exists, and He has spoken that we may know Him through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ alone. This wonderful message, however, is often greeted today with a knowing smile that places our truth in quotation marks and dismisses it as a cover-up for a power play. In the face of such adversity we could surrender because the task seems too difficult. We may find it easier to spend our time whining about how hideous our current culture is because it makes proclaiming His Word impossible. Whining, however, is not answering God’s call to preach His Word. Graham Johnston pointedly sounds forth the challenge.

“Like it or not, this is our culture. God calls Christians to speak into this culture His thoughts and His message. As biblical communicators, your task is not a simple one – it’s to bring God’s truth to bear upon a people who are searching for, yet uncertain of, truth and falsehood; of people open, but skeptical…” [10]

As we meet this seemingly impossible challenge of communicating God’s Word to a culture that defines itself by denying what other people believe, we must be convinced of the sufficiency of God’s Word to work in the hardest of hearts and the sufficiency of His grace to enable the weakest of His chosen messengers.

The Pitfalls of Preaching to Today’s “Whatever” Listeners

As those committed to proclaiming the truth of the Word of God to “whatever” listeners, we must reaffirm our commitment to proclaim only the truth and nothing more than the truth of Scripture. The challenge of communicating to “whatever” listeners can seem so great that sincere preachers fall into grave error in their attempts. Tim Keller identifies two major pitfalls that deserve further discussion. [11]

One pitfall is that of pragmatism. Unfortunately, many preachers today are so overwhelmed by the challenge of today’s “whatever” culture that they lose confidence in the Bible they hold in their hand. They are under pressure to reduce the biblical view of God and His truth to a more palatable and workable perspective that accommodates today’s listeners more readily. The “whatever” culture is interested most often in whatever works for them. Too often a preacher will present truth simply as that which “works” for the listener rather than that which is absolutely true. And when the listener appears to respond to such pragmatic teaching, it “works” for the preacher. As a result, both the speaker and listener have been deceived. The listener has not submitted to truth but has incorporated the truth into his agenda. The preacher, on the other hand, has convinced himself further that outward listener response is more important than biblical truth. The only answer to the tendency of pragmatism in the pulpit is a commitment to proclaim biblical truth accurately and unapologetically. Proclaimers of biblical truth will often have to teach and preach that which runs against the grain of our culture. Christ’s own preaching went against societal norms. The demands of discipleship are high. Following Christ means taking up a cross rather than pursuing health and happiness on earth. Distorting God’s truth to fit the selfish pursuits of our listeners misrepresents God’s word and encourages our listeners to continue in error. Johnston states, “Genuine concern for biblical integrity and one’s listeners will demand that they come to understand God’s truth and calling in all its complexity and fullness.” [12] When we abandon our confidence in the Word of God as living and powerful in favor of our rhetorical skill or cultural insight, we rob ourselves of the only power God gives to the preacher.

For those who navigate safely the pitfall of pragmatism there is yet another pitfall to avoid. It is the pitfall social moralism. In essence, this is engaging in the culture war apart from the gospel. The preacher may be so troubled by the current cultural climate that his sermons speak more to social reaction than spiritual transformation. Bad behavior that is typical of our culture is prohibited from the pulpit because “it is against the Bible” or “it is against our Christian principles.” Although these are valid reasons for avoiding sinful behavior, the aforementioned motives are somewhat anemic. Simply put, we are preaching “Don’t live by the prevailing worldview; live by a Christian worldview.” To our unbelieving culture, the elevation of one worldview over another is rejected. To the believer such preaching prescribes external behavior to propagate a Christian culture rather than to provide guidance by which to live out his position in Christ. Social moralism cannot change the unbelieving heart nor sanctify the believer. A change of worldview for the unbeliever is predicated upon his placing his faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our culture today views behavioral mandates apart from the gospel as a lifestyle being foisted upon them by a dictator, religion, or political party. For this reason, Christian morality can never be presented apart from the gospel. This combination is what makes Christianity unique. Other religions and world views teach that one must be moral in order to find truth and, more importantly, to find God. Christianity teaches that we pursue morality because God has found us. Christian morality must always be taught as a response to grace, not simply as a counter measure to the day’s prevailing culture. Only the grace of God can change an unbeliever’s worldview and motivate a believer to maintain biblical behavior.

As those called of God to preach to today’s “whatever” listeners, we are not free to use whatever means necessary for response. Neither are we to expect conformity to our biblical worldview by those who are ignorant of the gospel. The elements of truth and grace are the antidote to pragmatism and social moralism. Preaching today must confront postmodernity’s aversion to absolute truth. We must proclaim the truth that there is a God who has spoken in nonnegotiable absolutes. We must also present this God as our Redeemer who has paid the price of our sin. If preachers are faithful to God’s absolute truth in the context of His grace, our message is most accurately understood by our listeners.

This first article has surveyed the mindset of today’s listeners as well as the pitfalls to avoid when communicating to them. Dr. Barney’s next article will address specific means by which to engage this mindset and to avoid the aforementioned dangers.

__________

1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000)
2. Maggie Balistreri, The Evasion-English Dictionary (Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing, 2003).
3. This is not the only reason for the popular usage of like. This word is often used as a filler for inarticulate gaps in a conversation much like um and uh.
4. J.I. Packer in David Goetz, “The Riddle of Our Culture: What is Postmodernism?” Leadership (Winter 1997).
5. Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 3.
6. Ibid., p. 7.
7. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), p. 43.
8. One can see why Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code (New York: Anchor Books, 2003) has been wildly popular, for it dares to suggest that even the history contained in the Bible is the product of authority-made history. One of his “scholarly” characters by the name of Teabing explains, “…History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books – books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe.” In speaking of supposed ancient documents that contradict the Gospels, Teabing continues, “The Sangreal documents simply tell the other side of the Christ story. In the end, which side of the story you believe becomes a matter of faith and personal exploration” (emphasis mine). Though Teabing’s next statement has little to do with the subject matter of this paper, I find it so amusing that I must share it with New Testament teachers and students of NTI whenever I get the chance. Teabing is speaking of what he calls the Purist Documents. “Also rumored to be part of the treasure [of writings] is the legendary “Q” document – a manuscript that even the Vatican admits they believe exists. Allegedly, it is a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in His own hand.” p. 256.
9. Graham Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), p. 26.
10. Ibid., 59.
Chris Barney11. Timothy Keller, “Preaching Morality in an Amoral Age” Leadership (Winter 1996).
12. Johnston, p. 62.


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Dr. Chris Barney, serves as Dean of Heart of America Theological Seminary and is part of the pastoral staff at Tri-City Baptist Church (Independence, MO). He has also taught on the Bible and seminary faculty at Bob Jones University in the areas of homiletics and the New Testament. He and his wife, Emily, have been married for11 years and have two children–Christopher, Jr., and Coleman. His hobbies include music, college sports, and golf.

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