Home/Rod Dreher/Postmodernism Destroyed His Church

Postmodernism Destroyed His Church

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a top progressive Christian leader -- but wokeness doesn't always come to church wearing tattoos (Wild Goose Festival screenshot)

I received the following e-mail from a reader, in response to my “Race, Identity Politics, and Evangelicalism” post. He gives me permission to use it, so long as I keep his name out of it. There’s a lot to think about here. By publishing it, I’m not necessarily endorsing his conclusions. I just think there’s something here worth considering. Here we go… — RD


I can speak from first-hand experience on the effect of Race, Identity Politics, and Evangelicalism on the evangelical church. I left my evangelical church for another, and when reading the short quotes from the emailer you reference looks eerily familiar. I wonder if he is one of the several exiles from my former church.

There IS a significant theological difference between the woke and non-woke evangelical church. The woke-church is driven by the thoughts and assumptions of critical race theory. The traditional evangelical church is driven by the thoughts and assumptions of classic/traditional/stereotypical “American” understandings of the world (Locke, Adam Smith, Luther, Calvin, etc.). It is difficult to communicate how large of a gap this is. This long email proceeds in three parts:

1. Understanding the Postmodern Philosophy (of which Identity Politics is Part)
2. How I saw Postmodernism Break My Church
3. The way Identity Politics Goes to War With Evangelical Theology Under False Pretenses

Understanding the Postmodern Philosophy

As I have learned by reading books like Christopher Butler’s Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, by keeping track of the fake academia scandal, and by reading actual postmodern works (Ibram Kendi, stamped from the beginning), it is difficult to communicate how significant the conflict (note: it’s a “conflict” not a “debate”) between woke church and evangelical church is. If you’d like the shortest possible summary of the dangers of Critical Race Theory, then watch this video of Jordan Peterson breaking it down (He is explaining the maniacal coherence of the “incoherence” of Postmodernism, and Critical Race Theory is Postmodernism’s assumptions applied to race relations). Here are some mind-blowing quotes, but I thoroughly recommend watching the entire thing. [Quoting Peterson:]

And then what happened is the Postmodernists came on to the scene, and they were all Marxists. But they couldn’t be Marxists anymore because [of how bad economic Marxism demonstrated itself to be a failure in the 1960s-1970s]. And so they started to play a sleight of hand: Instead of pitting the proletariat — the working class — against the bourgeois, they started to pit the oppressed against the oppressor. And that opened the possibility of identifying any number of groups as “oppressed” and “oppressor” and to continue the same narrative under a different name. It was no longer specifically about economics. It was about POWER, and EVERYTHING to the Postmodernist is about power.

And that’s why they’re so dangerous. Because if you’re engaged in a discussion with someone who believes in nothing but power, all they are motivated to do is accrue all the power. Because what else is there? There’s no logic. There’s no investigation. There’s no negotiation. There’s no dialogue. There’s no discussion. There’s no meeting of minds and no consensus. [Personal note: And for the Christian, it is worth noting that along these postmodern lines, there is no “truth” or “doctrine” either.] There is power.

And so since the 1970s, under the guise of Postmodernism, we have seen the rapid expansion of identity politics in the humanities. It’s come to dominate all of the humanities, which are dead as far as I’m concerned [Personal Note: As is whatever church that adopts “woke Christianity,” from my experience.] and a large amount of the social sciences.

More Peterson:

I would also caution people against making the assumption that what the radical post-modernists SAY they’re after has anything to do with what they’re actually after. Because they’re not after “equity.” They’re not after “tolerance.” They’re not anybody’s friend. Not at all. They’re all about POWER. They’re after power. And they use all this compassion language, which — you just have to scratch the surface of that and you find how fast that vanishes. They use all this compassion language and “I’m on the side of the oppressed” and all that posturing; it does nothing but mask the underlying drive for power. And that’s in keeping with their own damned philosophy, because for the Postmodernist, there is nothing but power.

That last one sounds pretty bad, and an overwhelming majority of people wouldn’t say that anyone THEY know would be so terrible as to “say” they’re for equality but truthfully be after “power.” But let the following quote ground the discussion in reality. It’s an explanation about how ideas like Postmodernism percolate:

The people who are animated by the Postmodern ethos are not generally in-and-of-themselves thoroughly possessed Postmodern philosophers. First off, they don’t know enough about Postmodernism or its underlying Marxism to make that claim. Imagine that the philosophy has an impetus. It has a core tendency to move in a given direction, as a body of ideas, a coherent body of ideas. And then imagine that it’s represented in fragments among people who find its tenants palatable. So, most student radicals, for example, are not 100% committed post-modernists. They’re probably like 10% committed post-modernists. When they’re not being foolish with their mob. They’re out being normal people.

But you get a mob together that’s animated by that Postmodern ethos, then the collective spirit that animates the Mob has that power-seeking proclivity, and that antipathy to Western-seeking ideals that we’ve been discussing.

For a long time, Christians have laughed off post-modernism by viewing it as incoherent. I’ve seen little pat dismissals of Postmodernism in evangelical culture (Ravi Zacharias comes to mind) like “Oh, you don’t believe in objective truth? So aren’t you saying it’s objectively true that there is no objective truth? That’s a contradiction!” But that changes when you realize that Postmodernists don’t believe in truth, but they do believe in POWER. All the incoherent inconsistencies that they spout out are not to persuade. They are to shame and conquer. So Matthew Shepard was not actually killed by a violent anti-gay bigot? Who cares about correcting the record? The point is cultural power, not truth.

Here’s an analogy, that is not so far off. You see someone online saying stupid stuff and making wild accusations about you. You challenge the truth of what they are saying. They respond with more incoherent blabber. Seeking to persuade the masses, you challenge this person to a public debate for all to see. They agree. You know you’re going to beat them at this debate, because you know (and you’re right) that what they’re saying doesn’t make any sense. So you arrive at your public event with your suit and tie, and all of your notes and power-point slides. You look over at the other podium, and you see that they don’t have notes. Instead, they have a gun, a club, a rope, and three large friends. You “lose” the “debate” in that public sphere.

The reason they were happy with their “losing argument” is that you don’t need a winning argument when you have a club in your hand. As for those who watch? “I don’t want to get beat with a club” is a convincing argument for those who are cowards as well as those who have never been taught courage and those who are ignorant of true enemies. It’s not a real club (at least not yet). Instead, it’s shame. It’s charges of “racism.” It’s all sorts of feelings and accusations that are wielded like a club and which drive good people into the corner with their tail between their legs.

How I saw Postmodernism Break My Church

While there are several reasons my wife and I had to (painfully) leave our church, the driving factor is something I can only describe as “Our church got woke.” And our church was NOT a liberal church. Our church’s statement of faith was borrowed from The Gospel Coalition’s website. We had deep theological teaching. We had a concentration on community. We had great worship. We had some management issues, but so what. Doesn’t everybody?

But then things started to get weird. The first issue was a sermon on the Civil Rights movement. Now, I’m fine with the Civil Rights Movement, but I didn’t know how the Bible said anything about the Civil Rights Movement, so I was a little perturbed that we dedicated an entire sermon to it. During that sermon, the guest preacher (a black member who eventually became an elder) made a claim that made me pause. He was speaking about the “racist” origins of the Southern Baptist Convention (with which our church associated). He bemoaned the sinful origin of the organization and said “They even believed that because of slavery, God had brought more Africans to faith! That’s wrong! That’s sinful!

Woke Point 1.

I winced, because what he just called sinful, I believed. I still believe it. No, it’s not a sufficient justification for slavery, but I do believe (as an accident of history and a proof of God’s sovereignty), that the slave trade exposed Africans to Christianity when they wouldn’t have been exposed to Christianity otherwise. I believe it in the same way I have no problem believing that “all things work together for the good of those who love God” and “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” For that reason, I have no problem believing that the trans-Atlantic slave trade led many people to saving faith. Plus, isn’t it objectively true? Regardless of the facts, I was troubled that one’s mental conviction on a factual (not theological) point was being called “sinful.”

So I emailed my pastor. And I had one of the weirdest conversations ever. Apparently, because of the Ethiopian Eunuch, Africa was already “evangelized,” so it was historically false that the trans-Atlantic slave trade spread Christianity in Africa. (Whaaaaaat?) Pay no mind to 1400 years in-between those events, the Muslim conquest, or the persistent tribal religions of Africa. The Ethiopian Eunuch evangelized Africa, so it’s historically incorrect to believe that God used slavery for some good.

Woke Point 2.

Oh yeah, I also got told that Jesus was black (not white) in that conversation. When I replied, “Wait, no. He was Mediterranean Jewish, not black. What do you mean Jesus was black?”, my pastor responded that “Well, he is what we’d call someone ‘of color’ so it’s essentially the same.” In stunned silence, I didn’t push the point.

Woke Point 3.

Later, in a Facebook post on the church’s page, that same pastor called Augustine of Hippo “African,” and I (not realizing who posted the comment) kind of laughed it off and slyly remarked that while he was the bishop of a city in Africa, he was actually Roman. Since “African” usually refers to sub-Saharan people with black skin, it is either wrong or confusing to call him “African.” We could call him “Berber” instead, if we wanted to. Had I known I was correcting the pastor instead of a random congregant, I never would have posted that. But my pastor (I am told) was extremely upset by this, and responded by calling me wrong, and also saying this is not the place to debate. (I know the etiquette of Facebook is fluid, but I can say the response certainly felt harsh).

Woke Point 4.

Later in the year, as police shootings were in the news, and Trump was a thing, we started having “discussions on race” in our church. These discussions were organized around racial identities. In the opening example to lead off the thing, the pastor asked all the attendees to raise their hands to see if someone was “from the South” and then against if someone was “from the North.” About 1/3 were from the north and 2/3 were from the South. So he asked, “So, we should be loving our neighbor in the church. We all know that. With this in mind, who should be giving up power in the church in order to love their neighbor.”

Note the phrase “Power.”

Woke point 5

In a list of books our pastor recommended, one was Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram Kendi. Not knowing anything about this guy, I bought a copy and tried reading (hoping to come to some common ground with my pastor who I was personally struggling with). I was ABSOLUTELY shocked by what I read. I noticed the absolute militancy of the book, and emailed my pastor again, and spoke to an elder (an elder is like a director on a board of directors, and the pastor would be and elder and the Chairman of the board). I pointed out the anti-Christian nature of his argument, and how twisted it is when Kendi saw beliefs about individual piety as wrong because individual piety allows oppressive structures like slavery to exist. An entire segment of the book tore Cotton Mather to pieces. Since our church at one point could be considered one of those “Young Restless and Reformed” congregations, my pastor recommending a book that ripped a Puritan to shreds was quite shocking.

Woke point 6.

We had a sermon on the #MeToo movement titled “Women in the Kingdom of God.” In response to many very public people being accused of sexual assault, our pastor noted that “Men are falling like dominoes” and that as we are seeing this:

“we witnessed the kingdom of God breaking into the kingdom of this world.”

I took issue with this, because often, the Kingdom of God is compared to people getting what they deserve, it is instead compared to people NOT getting what they deserve until the Last Day. (See Matthew 13:24). It seemed wrong to equate the Kingdom of God to “judgment” unless that judgment is on the Cross. But this wasn’t the judgment of the Cross. It was the judgment of courts and public opinion.

Woke Point 7.

Other quotes from this sermon include:

“In this culture, especially as a white male, if you have money and power and people need you — do you understand how that power is used? Especially on women.”

“Ever since the Roman Culture, we have idolized power. And women and minorities have felt the horror of this idolatry. From Rome to Greece to England to America we all have respected money and wealth and property ownership and power and this has led to great injustice like slavery and brutal patriarchy and misogyny even in the church.”

“Many times in conversation related to what women’s role the women begins with what are women allowed to do rather than what women are empowered to do. I want [our church] to be a place where women are empowered to do ministry in the church. What are women EMPOWERED to do in the church.”

Note the persistence of “power.” Note the progression of “Rome to Greece to England to America.”

Woke Point 8.

In our church’s small group (basically a home-meeting connected to the church, not led by a pastor, but by church volunteers through the church), the subject was to discuss the sermon. After deliberately asking the women what they thought of the sermon first, the subject was opened to the men. After about five seconds of silence, I said “Well, I kind of hated it.” Silence. Why did you hate it? And at that point, I explained my point about the kingdom of God, and the conversation got REALLY awkward.

A week later, I was called to apologize for speaking out of place and hurting the women in the group. I was asked to meet with the small group members after church, at which point one of them said in exasperation once I wouldn’t recant my position, “Well, it’s clear you don’t care about women.” I left that meeting by agreeing to leave the small group (which I had been a part of for three years).

Woke point 9.

Also at this same time, our church nominated a new elder. That’s normal. What is not normal is that the elder wasn’t unanimously recommended by our current elders to be an elder. There was a slight controversy that he “took exception” to two articles in our statement of faith. Interesting, I thought. I wonder if he’s just being technical. What are the two articles that he takes exception to?

1. The infallibility of Scripture
2. The role of men and women

FULL STOP. What!? So the most basic unifying doctrine of evangelicalism and the single most controversial point of Christian theology in the modern age is what this guy takes exception to? Yes. I raised hell. I even publicly called him out when he cited a Bart-Ehrman-esque example of places the Bible has “mistakes” that “don’t really matter to the overarching narrative.” I wanted to know how I could share my concerns with others in the church. I was told (by the same pastor) to basically just do it among my friends, and not sow division with big public debates.

The elder was confirmed.

Woke point 10.

Eventually, my wife and I left. It was just waaaay too much. There were some really good people at that church, including a pastor (not the main one) who was excellent, thoughtful, pastoral, and available. And no, “woke church” wasn’t the only problem. But as I observe over and over again, when you have one problem, you have lots of other problems. Now I hear from our old friends that the one good pastor and the only elder who voted against the exception-taking elder are stepping away from their roles (not for any “explicit” reason, but just because life is moving them in other directions.)

And I can’t express how far of a fall this was for our church. We started off with teachings, recommendations, and books from conservative theological stalwarts like John Piper (who pretty much invented the term “complementarian” to counteract the egalitarianism pushing through the church). Then we were getting recommendations on books like The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning (Laicized priest who is basically preaching universal salvation). Then we were getting recommended Divided by Faith, a somewhat-CRT view of race relations in the American church by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Then we were being recommended Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi. IBRAM KENDI!!????!!!! This happened in less than five years.

I know of several people who have left the church. Many people are just drifting away. It’s hard to say why (though I know at least some are leaving for similar reasons as I am leaving). While I was still on the member email list, I know from a limited data-set that donations went down as Wokeness went up. But I’m almost afraid to say that because it’s not really the point. The real issue is the absolute loss of the Gospel. If it takes money to get people to pay attention, I’ll convince people with that. I just don’t know how to make people see what’s going on.

People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.

Identity Politics Goes to War with Evangelical Theology Under False Pretenses

The two philosophies of Evangelicalism and Identity Politics are at war, even though none of it is done explicitly. To talk about the war explicitly would be to actually name things. It would be to connect words to meanings. Abstract concepts would be made somewhat concrete to the point where they could be judged. That is anathema to Postmodernism. With Postmodernism, prepare to talk about what you “feel” and “experience” and “power” and “perspectives” but never end at the “truth.” And while of course it is difficult to actually know the truth, in Postmodernism, there isn’t even a “they believe that for that reasons, and we believe this for this reason.” Instead, Postmodernism says “They believe that. [drops head, sighs, and frowns in sad moral disapproval].”

Identity Politics corrupts evangelicalism because it uses things that LOOK like evangelical doctrines, but aren’t. It is a doctrinal wolf in sheep’s clothing. For example:

Oh, you believe in original sin? Well, let me tell you about unconscious bias.
Oh, you see how entire nations were called to repent in the Bible? Let me tell you how this nation needs to repent of its racist past.
Oh, you see how Peter was corrected when he treated Jews and Gentiles differently? Let me tell you how we should correct our country when it treats illegal immigrants and citizens differently in our laws and policing.
Oh, you want to make the Christian gospel good news for all people? Let me tell you what you need to say to minorities and people of color to bring them into the church.

Also, there are several tropes of Identity politics that flip essential Christian doctrines on their head. For example:

What is “privilege”? How does it differ from something you should be grateful for. You parents are rich. Is that something you should be grateful for? Is that something you should see as a blessing that God has bestowed on you so that you can give yourself to others? Or is that evidence of your oppression? Should you be grateful for that thing, seeing it as a thing from God and not a result of your own merit? Or does calling that gift a “thing from God” just a justification for your own power over the marginalized? Shouldn’t you renounce it instead of being grateful for it?

The Woke Christian will love to talk about the poor widow Zarephath that Elijah fed (1 Kings 17), but they won’t really know how to talk about Naaman being favored by God. (2 Kings 5). So they make the story about Naaman about the poor (oppressed) slave girl who tells Naaman about Elisha. Why would God help a man who is not only rich, but a commander who CAPTURES SLAVES in Israel? Yet Jesus puts Zaraphath and Naaman right next to each other (Luke 4:27).

Let’s take LGBT issues. Are these people beset by an iniquity of their desires and a sin in whatever action enacts those desires? Or have they been “oppressed” by our prejudice, as we do not see the “value” they have in our society and congregations?

Likewise, what is “generosity”? If the default is to surrender your property and possessions, what is charity? Is advocating for a government program delivering healthcare to the poor what God calls us to do? Is it actual healthcare that God intends to provide to people or is it the heart that willingly gives up possessions that God wishes to institute?

For the old guard, the giving of money was Christian generosity, and the tax deduction was society recognizing the goodness of that generosity. For the new generation of Woke Christians, the government program that delivers healthcare is God working in the world. Individuals supporting such programs with a vote or with advocacy is God working in that individual.

(Note: This says nothing about whether such programs are good programs. They may be. But if your “charity” is “taxed” — forced — that is a radical departure from an evangelical Christian understanding of generosity.)

Most Christians KNOW something is wrong, but are absolutely unprepared to understand this. I feel like a lunatic when I get started on the subject. And I find sympathy with that feeling with Jordan Peterson in that same video:

It’s unbelievable. You know, every day, I come across new policy statements of this sort that make my jaw drop! It’s like as Canadians we’re so accustomed to our political system working that we don’t pay any attention to it. So when you ring the bell and say “Hey. There’s a problem!” People think, “No there’s not. This is Canada for Christ’s sake. There’s no problems here. YOU must be insane.

Canadians = Evangelical Christians. Political System = Theological Training. Canada = Whatever evangelical church you happen to be in that starts to get “Woke.”

Conclusion

I’m not saying that the stereotypical version of American Christianity was good, and that we should return to it. No, of course not. There were SOME things that need correcting, but the essential core of Evangelicalism is good and should be preserved, even as there are plenty of things to correct.

Instead, what I am saying is that Postmodernism is rotten to the core despite any fleeting appearances. Yes, the Postmodern fleece is quite soft, but the teeth are sharp. The wolf beneath is quite vicious as soon as you start to get close.

[End of letter.]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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