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Postmodernity, mission and Orthodoxy

8 November 2008

A week ago I wrote a blog post on criticisms of the Emerging Church movement in South Africa saying that it was dominated by postmodernist ideology (Notes from underground: The emerging menace in South Africa). I suggested that this might be a useful topic for a synchroblog, but there weren’t many takers. Nevertheless, I thought it might be good to blog about it, to help clarify my own thoughts if nothing else. I’m not part of the emerging church movement — as an Orthodox Christian I don’t see any need to be, since we have very different starting points. But there some points at which our roads converge, and so I think I can say something about that, and leave it up to the reader to judge whether I’ve said anything useful or not. A substantial chunk of this essay is lifted from my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods.

In his book Transforming mission David Bosch presents the mission paradigm of the Eastern Church in these terms: “The Christian religion saves from this earth; it does not change or renew the earth” (Bosch 1991:198). Yet it was precisely in these terms that an Orthodox professor of History of Religions at Athens University distinguished between Orthodoxy and Japanese philosophy. Japanese philosophy, he said, unlike Orthodoxy, was not really concerned with the world as God’s creation. When, in the second part of his chapter, Bosch starts quoting Orthodox sources, his portrayal becomes more accurate, but it does not hang together with his presentation of the patristic period. There is a jump; Bosch fails to link his rather one-sided description of the patristic theological background with his largely accurate description of what modern Orthodox missiologists have said. There is a discontinuity.

Saayman (in Saayman & Kritzinger 1996:45) notes some of the weaknesses of Bosch’s evaluation of the patristic period, but I believe is also misled by it. Bosch (1991:200) attributes the repudiation of magic, superstition and idolatry to the influence of Greek philosophy on the Church in the patristic period, and tends to present this as a positive achievement. Saayman points out, correctly in my view, that the repudiation of these things by Western missionaries in Africa in the modern period sometimes had disastrous results. But in attributing it to the influence of Greek philosophy in the patristic period, he fails to see the real source of Bosch’s error. I have pointed out (Hayes 1995), that this repudiation was indeed a result of the Enlightenment, but far from being the result of the influence Greek philosophy in the patristic period, it was caused rather by the Enlightenment’s break with the thinking of the immediately preceding period, that of the Great Witch Hunt. The discontinuity is too great for it to be ascribed to the influence of Greek philosophy. The true Orthodox paradigm retained an attitude to magic and witchcraft that was a lot closer to that in most African societies than it was to the attitude of the Western missionaries who repudiated such things.

If Bosch’s six paradigms, and his Eastern Church paradigm in particular, fail to provide the tools to analyse Orthodox missiology, is there any value at all in thinking in terms of such paradigms? I believe there is, and Bosch himself indicates the way, though indirectly.

Martin’s classification into “pre-critical”, “Enlightenment” and “post-critical” (Bosch 1991:188) seems more useful. Martin’s division is related particularly to theology and textual studies, but such a tripartite division can also be useful for missiology, though I would suggest that the divisions would better be called “premodern”, “modern” and “postmodern”. And as Bosch gets further into his argument, he uses these terms rather than the six paradigms he initially posits (see, e.g. Bosch 1991:478). These paradigms are also not to be rigidly periodised. They are to be found in different places in different periods, and in many places all three can be found existing side-by-side. In many parts of Africa, for example, there are people whose outlook is predominantly premodern, especially in rural areas. There are also those whose outlook is predominantly modern or postmodern, especially in the cities. In using a term like “modernity” to describe the culture and worldview that developed in Western Europe, I would also put its beginning a lot further back than Martin. Martin classified the Protestant reformation as part of the “pre-critical” period, but I would trace the roots of modernity further back, to the theology of Anselm and the scholastic method that developed in the later middle ages. In other places, however, modernity appeared later, and had different effects. These paradigms can also be modes of thinking that can be adopted by people for different purposes, thus they need not be tied to particular periods. Perhaps part of the postmodern outlook is the flexibility with which people can switch paradigms for different purposes.

When looking for missiological paradigms, it can be useful to consider some of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist. His ideas were very much in vogue in certain circles in the 1960s, and he is now perhaps best known for some of his aphorisms, such as “the medium is the message/massage” and catch phrases like “the global village”. Some of his theories, such as his view that different media could be classified as “hot” or “cool” seemed to lack a solid foundation, and the classifications often seemed arbitrary. Many of his sayings were trite and superficial, yet his description of some of the differences between premodern, modern and postmodern culture are worth considering. Some of his observations on the effects of the invention of printing can illuminate the differences between modern and premodern cultures.

aural2In McLuhan’s categories, premodern culture is an aural, manuscript culture, while the age of print is a predominantly visual culture. Manuscripts were expensive, and difficult to copy, and few people could read, so reading was usually not a private, but a communal activity. People would hear scriptures read in church, rather than doing it privately and individually, for example. “With print Europe experienced its first consumer phase, for not only is print a consumer medium and commodity, but it taught men how to organize all other activities on a systematic lineal basis. It showed men how to create markets and national armies. For the hot medium of print enabled men to see their vernaculars, and to visualize national unity and power in terms of the vernacular bounds” (McLuhan 1962:138). Print, according to McLuhan, was the first form of mass production, and it promoted linear thinking, the idea of one thing following on another. Most printed books are designed to be read from beginning to end.

Similarly, McLuhan maintains that electronic media have brought about a change in culture. When referring to electronic media, he was referring mainly to the black and white television of North America in the 1950s and 1960s, with its flickering images and poor definition. He thought that colour television would not fit his theories. While it may be too much to say that the medium is the message, McLuhan did draw attention to the way in which the medium influences and shapes the message. A culture both shapes and is shaped by its communications media, and the manuscript/print/electronic division does in some ways provide an image of the premodern, modern and postmodern cultures. In this, I am referring particularly to verbal communication.

I believe, therefore, it is also legitimate to see premodern culture as an oral or manuscript culture, modern culture as a print culture, and postmodern culture as an electronic communications culture.

The postmodern form of communication, electronic communication, has more in common with the premodern, in that it tends not to be in sequential order. Television programmes jump from scene to scene, and present a mosaic of impressions. On the World Wide Web one may view text and pictures, but the hypertext links allow one to follow a single theme or idea through several different documents held in different parts of the world, rather than reading a single document, in sequential fashion, from beginning to end.


In the earlier chapters of my thesis I tried to show that there are common threads linking what I have called “premodern” mission methods, which in Western Europe might perhaps be called “early mediaeval” mission methods. Here I shall summarise some of those characteristics, and compare them with some of the characteristics of modern mission methods.

One characteristic of premodern mission, therefore, is that it is mission in an aural, preprint culture. Premodern cultures might be literate or illiterate, but before the age of print even their written literature tended to be read aloud. Premodern missionaries usually prized literacy, and taught it. They, like modern missionaries, promoted literacy in illiterate cultures, and if necessary invented alphabets in which to reduce languages to writing. Modern mission, and particularly Protestant mission, has promoted literacy even more. It has been much more dependent on, and shaped by, the print medium. The distribution of tracts and printed books and pamphlets has played a big part in modern mission.

Premodern mission tends to be communal rather than individualistic. The emphasis is on church planting, or establishing Christian communities, rather than individual conversions. Modern mission, and again, especially Protestantism, has emphasised individualism. Quite a lot of Protestant mission has emphasised individual conversion or “decisions for Christ” rather than church planting.

Premodern mission has often had a healing ministry, but the healing is through prayer, laying on of hands, sacramental anointing, holy water, wonder-working ikons or relics, the sign of the cross and such things. Modern mission has relied more on modern medicine for its healing ministry, using drugs, hospitals, clinics and surgeries. While there have been Pentecostal healing evangelists, the medical model of healing has been predominant.

In chapter 1 of my thesis I pointed out that Orthodox mission may be seen as holistic, but this is a characteristic of premodern mission, when contrasted with modern mission.

Stewart (1991) points out that in rural Greece, especially on the islands, modernity only began to be a significant factor in the life of people after the First World War, when people from those places began to move to the cities. There is a parallel here to the urbanisation of Africans and Afrikaners in Southern Africa in the same period.

Stewart (1991:5ff) also points out that the local religious practices in the rural areas were often regarded by 19th-century Greek folklorists and others as survivals from the ancient Greek pagan religion. There were two reasons for this: one is that such beliefs were, according to the official teaching of the Orthodox Church, superstition. The second was the desire to demonstrate a continuity between the modern Greek state and the glories of classical Greece. In addition, in the 20th century, neopagans have often maintained that Christianity was a mere veneer, and that right through the centuries people throughout Europe have continued to practice “the old religion”, while paying mere lip service to the officially-sanctioned Christian faith. Stewart, however, demonstrates that this is not so. The local religious observances, and beliefs in demons, are in fact thoroughly integrated into the Orthodox worldview of the people who practise them. They are not something apart.

Many Orthodox Christians, in the Balkans and elsewhere, have shared such a premodern worldview until at least the middle of the 20th century. In Russia modernity was in many ways confined to the French-speaking court of the successors of Peter the Great. The peasants and serfs were relatively little affected by it, until the Bolsheviks tried to impose it on the entire population. Many of the first missionaries to Alaska, for example, were monks who had been serfs. Thus even into the 20th century, Orthodox mission has been far less affected by modernity than Western mission was.

Western missionaries in the Victorian era, however, often showed a different spirit. Kapenzi (1979:18) contrasts the premodern and modern missionary styles as follows:

The true apostle, however, such as Peter, Paul and Steven [sic] in Christianity, or Usman dan Fodio, Ahmadu Bari, Al Hajj Umar and Abdullah ibn Yasin in Islam, separated his religion from his secular affairs of the state, and was primarily characterized by his puritanical approach to proselytization and near-monastic existence. The Victorian missionary, on the other hand, was more (or less) than the traditional apostle. He was first and foremost a product and spokesman of a very progressive and dominant materialistic and racist culture, which was also expanding over the same areas and peoples as his religious proselytization. Instead of being puritanical and otherworldly as the traditional apostles, the Victorian missionary was a secular Englishman, Frenchman, American, German, Belgian or Portuguese and religious missionary rolled into one. From a Christian point of view he failed to “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and in that respect he was unique.

This is not to say that Orthodoxy was completely unaffected by modernity or the Enlightenment. St Innocent of Alaska made clocks as a hobby, and the making of clocks was one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. Accurate clocks were essential for global navigation (Bronowski 1976:243), and by the end of Russian rule in Alaska in 1867, “Aleuts were sailing the ships, writing the books, keeping the accounts, engraving the maps, navigating the seven seas, and populating Alaska’s cities” (Oleksa 1987:17). Thus some of the scientific aspects of the Enlightenment were undoubtedly present in Russian missions in Alaska.

Like holism, the concept of postmodernism seems to have expanded a long way beyond its original reference to a movement in art, architecture and literature. Westphal (1990:114) suggests that “We should not get our information about postmodernism from Time and Newsweek but from the careful reading of writers like Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida, and the best secondary literature on them”. This is probably wise advice if one intends to make extensive use of postmodern and deconstructive techniques for analysing missiological texts. That, however, goes considerably beyond my aims here. Westphal (1990:115) does, however, go on to point out that the mark of the postmodern is the refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable, the unattainable in this case being the certainty of foundationalism. “The parliament of modernity includes the party of Enlightenment, with its rationalist and empiricist versions of foundationalism (from Descartes to Husserl and from Locke to logical positivism), and the party of Hegelian holism, with its antifoundationalist claims that certainty is never warranted at the beginning but only at the end, when totality is achieved” (Westphal 1990:115).

Though, by strict definition, postmodernism is a particular kind of reaction against modernity, I will also use it in a wider sense of meaning “after the modern age”, a period in which many of the values of modernity are questioned, and seen to be inadequate. The reasons for reaction against modernity can vary enormously. In Africa, as I noted above, premodern, modern and postmodern cultures live side-by-side, and can perhaps even be found in the same people.

Calivas (1995), referring to Thomas Oden, notes that modernity has three distinct strata of meanings comparable to a target with its concentric circles and a bull’s-eye. The outer circle refers to the dominant intellectual ideology of the West from the French Revolution to the present. The key features of this period are “moral relativism, narcissistic hedonism, naturalistic reductionism and autonomous individualism” (Calivas 1995:10). The second circle defines modernity as “a mentality, found especially among certain intellectual elites, which assumes that chronologically recent ways of knowing the truth are self-evidently superior to all premodern alternatives” (Calivas 1995:10). This could be extended from “chronologically recent” to geographically close, as it includes the Western attitude to societies whose values and culture were premodern, or at least not characterised by modernity, in the Western understanding. Westerners therefore described such societies as “primitive” or “uncivilised”.

The inner circle, according to Oden, is the decline of modernity which began to emerge rapidly about four decades ago, and he cautions that modernity should not be rejected in an undiscriminating way. We need to reject only its “pretensions, self-deceptions and myopia” (Calivas 1995:10). The decline, therefore, began in the 1960s, which, curiously enough, was the very time at which Western theologians began praising secularisation as a production of the Christian worldview.

The Western secular theologians wrote books in which they pointed out all the things that “modern man could not believe”, and which, by implication, the Christian Church should jettison. Among these were beliefs such as the resurrection of Christ, yet ironically, in that very same period, thousands of young people were marching the streets of cities all over the world, carrying posters with slogans like “Che Guevara lives” and “Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years”. It seemed that postmodern man had less difficulty in believing in such things as resurrection than “modern man” did.

One characteristic of the postmodern age, therefore, has been a revival of religious consciousness, and a greater value being placed on religious traditions. Modernism has generally been opposed to tradition, and since tradition is very important to Orthodoxy, there might be some points at which it has a greater affinity with postmodernism than Western Christianity, which has tended to absorb more of modernity than Orthodoxy has. But the postmodern approach to tradition is not simply a return to the premodern approach. Cahoone (1996:19), writing of postmodern trends in architecture, says:

The postmodern architect often incorporates ornamentation that modernism had banished into an otherwise modernist setting. But notice that this is not premodernism pure and simple: rather, it is a kind of pluralism. Architectural postmodernism uses premodern elements within a whole that is anything but traditional. Synthesising, juxtaposing, and ironically commenting on traditions is not traditional. To be traditionalist or premodernist is to be faithful to one tradition, not all traditions. To respect and sample from all traditions is precisely to be modern and cosmopolitan, not traditional. Traditionalism is no more compatible with a plurality of traditions than monogamy is compatible with a plurality of sexual partners. Nevertheless postmodernism may often exhibit similarities to premodernism, since they share the same enemy.

The same could be said of the postmodern approach to religion.

This could affect Orthodox mission both positively and negatively. It could make Orthodoxy more attractive to some, not because Orthodox Christians are better equipped to speak to the postmodern mind and culture than Western Christians; they are not. But in the West, at least, the postmodern mind may be more open to hearing the message of Orthodoxy than it is to hearing the message of Western Christianity, which is more tinged with modernity and therefore more alien. In the East, however, people who are attracted by Western values may move away from Orthodoxy because they see themselves as moving from traditionalism to modernity.

How does any of this relate to the Emerging Church movement?

That is perhaps for people involved in the Emerging Church to say, since it seems to me that the Emerging Church movement is a reaction against modernism and modernity, which Orthodoxy is not. Orthodoxy has not been affected by modernity in the same way as Western Christianity, and so has seen no need to define itself over against modernity. The self-definition of Orthodoxy may conflict with modernity at some points, but it is not fundamentally a reaction against modernity

The Fundamentalist critiques of the Emerging Church movement that we have seen in South Africa and elsewhere in the world are basically rooted in modernity. Fundamentalism was originally a protest against theological modernism, yet it is itself rooted in modernity and adopts modernist methods, criteria and worldview. The Fundamentalist battle against modernism was fought essentially on the same ground and using the same methods. The postmodern critique of modernity that is adopted by many in the Emerging Church movement is different — It is in fact a whole different ball game, perhaps not even a ball game at all.

The Fundamentalist/Modernist debate may be likened to a game of hockey, with two teams battling for supremacy, using the same rules, the same techniques, the same equipment. . But put one of the teams on skates, and let them play on ice, and they are not playing the same game at all. The skills needed to move a ball over turf are not the same as those needed to move a puck over ice. And the Emerging Church people are saying that we are facing an analogous shift. We are not living in a climate where you can find grassy hockey fields in winter, because the fields are all covered by snow and ice. The climate has changed, the rules have changed and so the game needs to change.

So I have not found the Emerging Church people to be at all concerned about the endless and boring “creation versus evolution” games, which are essentially modernist games played by modernist rules using modernist criteria within a modernist worldview.

In Africa, however, we are playing a somewhat different game. In Africa we have premodernity, modernity and postmodernity living side-by-side, and even intermingled. And just as some people do code-switching with languages, starting a sentence in Zulu, switching to English, adding a thought or two in Tswana and ending in Afrikaans, so some code-switch between premodern, modern and postmodern thought patterns.

U tla uthwa makhooa are, are eng ko Meadowlands
Meadowlands, Meadowlands, Meadowlands sithandwa sam’
U tla uthwa batsotsi ba re, ons dak nie ons pola hier.
Meadowlands, Meadowlands, Meadowlands sithandwa sam’

(Rough translation)
You hear that the white people say, they say “Move to Meadlowlands”
Meadowlands, Meadowlands, Meadowlands my darling
You hear that the tsotsis they say, “We’re not moving, we’re staying right here”
Meadowlands, Meadowlands, Meadowlands my darling

As one writer about postmodernity once said

An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard — might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.

Over the last 20 years Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa has seen a huge shift from the premodern Christianity of the old African independent churches like the Zionists, with their colourful robes and cowhide drums and wheel dances under a tree beside a stream, to modern Neopentecostals, with their three-piece suits, electronic amplifiers and prosperity teaching. O, and witch hunts — don’t forget the witch hunts. Some might say that the Neopentecostals are the postcolonialist face of African Christianity, but I’m not so sure. I suspect that Neopentecostalism, Neoliberalism and Neocolonialism go hand in hand, and the Emerging Church people may be waiting at the wrong bus stop. And so are the Orthodox, but that’s a different story.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 November 2008 9:09 pm

    There’s emergent and emerging of course. In discussion with an adjunct professor of mine, Ryan Bolger, he noted: “Emergent is one movement among many emerging church streams. … Emergent just happens to be the most organized.” Whether rightly or wrongly, I’ve understood emergent Church in terms of Polanyi’s emergent evolution, or “ontogenetic emergence”, directed by a “creative agent”. Roxburgh and Romanuk referred to it as the “emergent future”. Postmillenialism, in short.

  2. 11 November 2008 10:28 am

    Hi Thomas
    What is ontogenetic emergence? In a nutshell?

    Steve – I am fascinated by the conjunction of pre-modernism, modernism & postmodernism in Africa. What I’d love to be able to do is look back from 100 years time – I doubt if we will still see postmodernism as a node – it will be seen as a transition or . . . something else.

  3. 11 November 2008 3:14 pm


    I’m sure you’re right. There’s too much “post-” stuff where people no longer seeing themselves as identified with the immediately preceding period, but are not sure what is emerging yet. I suppose that’s why so many people talk of the “emerging church”. But I’ve met post-critical, post-feminist and post-church people (perhaps for the last it emerged and crawled back again!)

  4. 26 November 2008 11:55 am

    Thanks Steve, a valuable read.

  5. 17 July 2014 10:33 pm

    Do you have your doctoral thesis handy? Id love to read it if you are up to it.

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