Book Reviews May 2000

Postmodernism: A Christian Appraisal

Kirsten Sloots

Christians are, like everyone else, people limited by time and space. The world we live in affects us, whether we realize it or not. We profess to hold on to the timeless truth of our faith, but in the details of how we live it out—in daily life, in thoughts, words and actions—over and over again we prove ourselves to be people of a certain culture.

In Postmodernism: A Christian Appraisal, Dr. E.G. Oosterhoff argues that we are better off if we realize what is happening. There are, if we look for them, discernible trends in history, influencing how people tend to think and act. “Postmodern” is the term used to describe where we are now; postmodernism being the current worldview or climate of opinion. As Christians of the postmodern era, we cannot remove ourselves from our environment, but we can take steps to lessen any negative impact it may be having on us. Positively, we can use our knowledge to figure out how best to serve God in the conditions in which He has placed us.

What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism, as Dr. Oosterhoff explains it, reacts against and displaces the modernist way of thinking. Since the Enlightenment, modern man has put great faith in the pursuit of truth by reason. Science was supposed to provide solutions to all the world’s problems. But this has proved to be a false dream. Science has failed us; more and more, people are beginning to see its limits and to realize that it cannot save us. We will never find out all the answers, no matter how much we try. The result, for many, is increasing disillusionment. Christians, of course, should have known all along that man could not save himself by following the scientific method. But sadly, under the influence of a dominating world-view, many Christians themselves have fallen prey to modernist thinking. They trusted so strongly in the objectivity of science that they would rather believe the Bible to be in error, than accept that we cannot understand everything, that faith might transcend reason. In this aspect, the postmodern approach presents a refreshing change.

The problem with postmodernism, Dr. Oosterhoff pOints out, is that people are now coming to feel that everything is relative. Since we will never grasp the whole truth, it is futile to pursue any universal absolutes. Instead, each of us must create his or her own version of the truth, based on personal experience. How can any one way of thinking, any religion, any cultural practice, be superior to another? Convincing people of any truth through reasonable argument is then no longer a priority. Why bother? In its extreme form, postmodernism becomes nihilism.

More generally, in its everyday form, we can spot postmodernism in the world around us. Reading Dr. Oosterhoff’s book may change the way in which you observe the news of the day. It will certainly help you to understand the motivations behind the things people do and say, the issues and events that our society considers worth commenting on. Standing back and looking at our times in historical perspective, we are better able to see each of these details in the context of a much bigger picture.

Studying the Past

In the final two chapters of the book, Dr. Oosterhoff addresses the effect of postmodernism on education. In these relativistic times, education is often seen as little more than programming people to fit into Society, and cultivating skills for the job market, with little emphasis on learning from the past or seeking further insight to guide us into the future. Not surprisingly, Dr. Oosterhoff argues that Christians must continue to value the study of history and literature -not because we idealize the past, but because studying the past allows us to listen to other voices. These subjects help develop an analytical mind, as we come to realize that throughout the ages people have held and defended many opinions, not just the ones we currently favor. We need to be able to think critically and to seek out truth, not accept mildly whatever theory is currently being served up to us.

Dr. Oosterhoff also insists that a Christian education should be knowledge-based. We need to memorize basic facts if we are to start out as thinking beings. Such education need not be “dry as dust,” as some critics would have it. Addressing teachers, Dr. Oosterhoff reminds them that it is their mandate always to show their students facts in context, especially pointing out relevance for them and their lives.

When she makes these comments, she speaks as someone who is herself an experienced teacher. (The five chapters of this book were originally delivered as public lectures, first for the Free Reformed Study Centre in Western Australia and later to audiences in Hamilton, Ontario). In the course of the book, Dr. Oosterhoff leads us through historical periods, introduces us to philosophers, and points out many discoveries and cultural changes. Indeed, this small book is thick with facts—a richness of knowledge distilled for the ordinary reader! But it is also extremely practical. Dr. Oosterhoff succeeds, not just in explaining a difficult topic, but also in encouraging and guiding Christians who want to know what it means to live as God’s people here and now.

Reprinted from Reformed Perspective, January 2000.

Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air

Johan D. Tangelder

Albert Einstein (1879–1955), often regarded as the greatest scientist of the 20th century, founded the theory of relativity, which had all kinds of direct and long-term consequences in physics, astrophysics, and the development of nuclear power. Relativism was much talked about in the 1920s, but few people actually understood what it meant. Many people thought that Einstein’s theory contradicted absolute rules everywhere, especially in morals. Einstein was horrified by this miSinterpretation and abuse of his work as he was an “old-fashioned absolutist.” But relativism continued to spread and eventually prevailed. It undermined the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, led to the permissive society of the 1960s, the spread of Aids, the “coming out” of homosexuals without the restraints of the law, high divorce rates, the flourishing of the abortion industry, pornography, and other vices. Every day we are told, “There is no truth. Truth is whatever you believe. Therefore, you ought to tolerate the viewpoints of everyone and not pass judgment on their behavior and attitudes.” But if we deny the existence of objective moral absolutes, we must admit that Mother Teresa was no more or less moral than the vicious dictator Adolf Hitler.

No basis for morality

The title of the book, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, tells exactly what Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl think of moral relativism. It cannot offer a solid and objective foundation for values and morality. It leads to barbarism. The authors’ approach reflects their indebtedness to the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer (1912-84), widely regarded as a pre-eminent Reformed/Evangelical apologist (defender of the faith). Schaeffer taught that only by returning to Biblical absolutes can the rapid deterioration of morals be reversed. He admonished evangelicals to stand firm on the inerrancy of Scripture and to take a public stand against social and moral evils.

His purpose in writing his many books was both evangelistic and pastoral. Although the content of his starting point was the infinite personal triune God, the propositional revelation in Scripture, and redemption through Jesus Christ, Schaeffer invited people holding conflicting truth claims, to see and verify for themselves the truth claims of the Gospel. He showed that without the infinite personal God, relativism reigns. He argued that moral standards are absolute (universal and necessary) because they rest in God’s character.

Moral lawgiver

In their book, Beckwith and Koukl follow Schaeffer’s “verification of truth” method in their incisive critique of moral relativism, which they call the unofficial creed of much of American culture, especially in the area of education, law, and public policy. In chapters 1 through 3, they define moral relativism. Moral truths are considered preferences much like our taste in ice cream. The cultural setting in which it has become prevalent is also discussed. Chapters 4 to 7 show the bankruptcy of this new philosophy and provide a defense of moral objectivism—the belief that objective moral standards exist that apply in every place, in every time, in every human being. Chapter 8 focuses on values clarification and how it has impacted education in the public school system. Students are told that there are no objective moral standards—right and wrong. They must create their own values. Chapters 9 and 10 address political correctness and multiculturalism, which presuppose relativism and deny objective truth. Chapter 11 discusses what happens when autonomous man defines his own concept of existence. It also shows how moral relativism influenced America’s law, culture, and especially sexual politics such as the equality of lifestyle for homosexual so Chapters 12 and 13 explore the impact on three social issues: same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, and abortion. Chapter 14 provides tactics for refuting relativism. For example, we can readily show the obvious contradictions of relativism. The authors state that it is impossible for relativists to talk in a way that is consistent with their beliefs. And the two concluding chapters argue for a universe in which the triune God exists, which alone can account for the existence of objective morality. “Moral law,” the authors claim, “suggests a moral law-giver, one who communicates his desires through his laws. He expects his imperatives to be obeyed.” A violation of law, therefore, is not just a broken rule but an offense against God who made the rule.

Although Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air is written primarily for Americans, using illustrations solely from current trends in the United States, Canadians can also profit from the arguments of this book. It is a great resource for pastors, catechism instructors, and Christian school teachers. Our covenant youth need to know the disastrous implications of moral relativism and how to defend their faith.

Reprinted from Reformed Perspective, January 2000.