This evening as my brother regaled me with the latest plot twists in the TV show “Fringe,” I began reflecting on just how many shows there are about paranormal or supernatural phenomenon, from “Fringe” to “Supernatural” to the menagerie of vampire-inspired shows such as “Vampire Diaries” and “True Blood” to shows like “Ghost Whisperer” and “Ghost Hunters.” Then, of course, come the movies obsessed with hauntings, epic battles between vampires and lycans, supernatural beings that inhabit the dream world, etc. Our culture’s hunger for the supernatural has never been higher – even twenty years ago such TV shows and movies would have been very much the “fringe,” but now they are mainstream. While some might attribute the growth of such programming to path-breaking shows such as “The X-Files,” there is really something much deeper going on.
To understand what that something is you’ll need to indulge me for a moment as I explain a little bit about two of the largest trends currently shaping our culture. The first of these trends is Modernism. While the word “modern” is normally used as a word of praise for an idea, a facility, a technology, or a methodology (“modern teaching methods,” for instance), Modernism is a sort of philosophy or way of viewing the world. Modernism emphasizes things such as reason, empirical evidence, structure, science, and institution, and avoids the subjective in favor of the objective. Have you ever noticed how stilted it sounds to say, “It is this author’s opinion that…” instead of simply “I think that…?” You have Modernism to thank for such awkwardness, because, under Modernism, it seems so much more objective and professional to eliminate the subjective form of expression. It also avoids the supernatural in favor of the natural and prefers to fix the world through “education” rather than through ethical training.
Of course the consequences of such a philosophy are quite predictable. Humans are not just objects but subjects, with feelings of their own, with not just bodies but souls, and with not just minds but consciences as well. Neglecting the feeling/relational, spiritual and moral components of humanity has left many with a deficiency in all of these components. The reaction to supply these deficiencies has led many to the opposite extremes, especially in their entertainment. Are you short on relationship, the supernatural/spiritual, and an ethical foundation? Watch a moralistic show about the relationships of vampires!
Our culture’s reaction to the sterility and coldness of modernism extends beyond merely our entertainment choices, however. A counter-trend called Postmodernism has emerged in our culture to attempt to fix some of the problems introduced by Modernism. If Modernism is about reason, structure, science, objectivity and institution, Postmodernism is about feeling, structureless-ness, spirituality, subjectivity and relationship/belonging. Some have characterized Postmodernism as essentially an aversion to and absence of metanarratives; there are no stories that are true for everyone, only stories that are true for the individual. Postmodernism is also connected to moral relativism. While individual ethical sentiments might be felt keenly, the lack of a meta-narrative means that such sentiments cannot be uniformly applied to others, leaving one with strongly conflicting convictions.
It might be tempting to think that Postmodernism and Modernism are somewhat opposites, such that the action of each in our culture would tend to undue the excesses of the other. This is mere wishful thinking; Modernism and Postmodernism no more cancel out one another’s effects than do alcohol and caffeine or nicotine. In fact, it’s really more like speedballing.
Because of its sterility, de-emphasis of the subjective, and relationship-killing naturalistic view of man as merely a glorified animal (via the naturalistic view of science), Modernism as a worldview or cultural trend tends to produce isolation. Postmodernism, however, does little to fix this; it offers emotions and subjectivity but not real relationship because there is no over-arching story for two lovers or two friends, just two individual stories that don’t line up.
Similarly, the anti-supernatural bias of modernism and the resulting spiritual hunger it brings cannot be corrected by postmodernism because, without a metanarrative, postmodernism must replace supernatural objects (beings, places, events, etc), with feelings of being spiritual in a vague, fuzzy, warm sense that is completely subjective and internal, and therefore of no real help against life’s challenges.
Finally, the meaning and purpose that were abandoned in the naturalistic Modernist worldview are not recovered in Postmodernism. With no context or structure, a person becomes merely a player in a game with no rules, becoming meaningless when not part of a larger story. If the part derives its meaning from its relationship to the whole, then what happens when the part either thinks it is the whole or that there is no whole, and still feels incomplete and alone?
So where does all of this take us as a culture? We are fascinated with the supernatural but can’t believe it, seeking relationships and belonging but remain isolated, lacking purpose but desperately needing one, and moralistic but with no real ethical foundation or framework. We are ripe for a great religious awakening.
But what sort of religious awakening will it be? Will the Church seize the opportunity before it and flourish as never before? Would it even be able to? Possibly. I am, in general, very optimistic about the Church; I find that many Christians often take too dim a view of our prospects, forgetting that Jesus told his disciples that the gates of hell would not withstand the onslaught of his Church.
Nevertheless, I do not anticipate another great Christian awakening for two reasons, with the second stemming from the first. This first reason is again due to how Modernism and Postmodernism interact. The unfortunate consequences of the Modernist view are the common and very mistaken beliefs that the Church has done more harm than good in the world and that the Bible is completely mythical. Postmodernism once again does nothing to correct this, since it is anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian, and anti-metanarrative. Beyond this, postmodernists (even Christian postmodernists – Rob Bell, for instance) often moralistically protest what they see as the excesses of the church and of Christians, and Christians often do little to disabuse them of this notion. All of this paves the way for the second reason.
With world opinion turning significantly against Christianity and against Jesus – the only true answer to the voids left by Modernism and Postmodernism – the situation would be ripe for someone claiming supernatural abilities. Such a person could be an apparent peacemaker, supposedly seeking to unite the world through a message of the unity and brotherhood of mankind. In other words, the stage of Western culture is almost set for the appearance of the anti-Christ. If that is indeed the next stage of world history (as other events and trends might indicate), then the church may not be around much longer to take this opportunity.
Nevertheless, because we do not know exactly when the Rapture will occur to call us home, it would be foolish to pass up the opportunities afforded us by the cultural crisis created by this clash of worldviews. As the true religion, Christianity can offer the best of both Modernism and Postmodernism without the drawbacks of either. We must be diligent in explaining that the fundamental truths of the existence of God, his creation of the world, the sinfulness of man, and the forgiveness and eternal life made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection are all foundational to peace in our relationships with God and one another.
Our context as important and inherently valuable parts of God’s intentional creation allows us to have belonging and meaning as we derive our identity and purpose from God. Our souls, ever seeking to worship, can finally find something of greater scope and glory to worship than ourselves or even the entirety of creation. Others desperately need to hear this message, but many will only hear it if we are willing to deliberately engage these two strongholds of our culture by speaking the truth in love.