Scripture calls on us to speak the truth in love. But how do we do that in a culture confused by postmodernism—a culture that rejects the very notion of truth? After all, witnessing to someone who doesn’t know the truth but accepts that it’s out there, somewhere, is far different than trying to convince someone that the truth even exists. The good news is that Jesus has been there and done that.
Postmodernism, which began in the fields of art and architecture as a rebellion against the “blandness” of modernity, has grown into a philosophy based on the notion that all truth is relative. The corrosive effects of postmodernism are predictable and pervasive: We see its impact in academia, which, oblivious to the irony, teaches young minds there is no absolute truth except one—the absolute which declares there are no absolutes; in pop culture, where the only wrong behavior is judging something to be wrong; in our civic life, where, as historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, our eagerness “to question all values” has undermined “our faith in and our determination to defend certain values”; in Western civilization, where the healthy practice of self-criticism has led to the evaporation of standards, to moral relativism and ultimately to cultural suicide; and even inside the Church, where timeless truths have been replaced by what one author calls a “culturalized Christianity”—the very opposite of what God wants, which is a Christianized culture.
Our eagerness “to question all values” has undermined “our faith in and our determination to defend certain values”; in Western civilization, where the healthy practice of self-criticism has led to the evaporation of standards, to moral relativism and ultimately to cultural suicide
The result is a message that is toned down for fear of offending: Yes to the Beatitudes, no to the Ten Commandments. Yes to the Sermon on the Mount, no to the Mount of Olives. Yes to Christmas, no to Good Friday. Yes to the Wonderful Counselor, no to the Lamb of God. Yes to the Good Shepherd, no to the Righteous Judge. Yes to forgiveness and acceptance, no to repentance.
The postmodern depiction of—and approach to—Jesus is perhaps best captured by an old REM lyric, which sighs: “I can’t say that I love Jesus. That would be a hollow claim. He did make some observations and I’m quoting them today. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ What a beautiful refrain.”
Indeed it is. But it’s only part of the Gospel—something the Church is supposed to explain when rock bands, movie stars, teachers, TV shows and other products of the culture get confused. Put another way, the Church is here to show the culture that Jesus didn’t take on human flesh to make “observations.” Yet that’s how some churches are selling their new-and-improved Christianity: judgment-free, truth-free suggestions for better living. This has led to what Ross Douthat calls “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”
Consider the numbers: According to Pew polling, “One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever.” Nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public—about 13 million people—are self-described atheists or agnostics. This is not caused by the Church failing to adapt to the world fast enough, but rather by the Church failing to speak the truth clearly enough.
To their credit, the PCA and many other denominations and congregations hold fast to the truth. There’s no watering down the message. But could it be that some of us on this side of the border separating the vibrant colors of truth from the various grays of postmodernism are content to live in an echo chamber? In other words, are we simply sharing the truth among ourselves rather than broadcasting it across the divide?
Jesus didn’t take that approach. To be sure, he shared the truth with believers and followers and seekers. But he didn’t stop there. He also shared the truth with those considered outsiders: tax collectors and Canaanites and Samaritans—and a postmodernist named Pontius Pilate.
Far from rejecting the notion of truth or watering it down, Jesus made an outlandish claim about it: “I am the…truth,” he declared. And his encounter with Pilate shows us how to share the truth across the divide, with someone who rejects its very existence.
John devotes some 22 verses to the exchange between the God of the universe and the governor of Judea. Their interaction—especially Pilate’s reaction to Christ’s claims—offers us an example of how to confront postmodernism’s elastic view of truth.
Pilate wastes no time interrogating his prisoner: Are you king of the Jews? Do you hear the testimony against you? What crime have you committed? What is it you have done? The questions fly like arrows. But for an unmeasured moment, Pilate relents and the cross-examination becomes something close to a dialogue. The two discuss kings and kingdoms, law and life. Then, Jesus offers Pilate a glimpse into eternity: “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
If there was a smirk on Pilate’s face during his cross-examination of Jesus, it was wiped away as he learned the breadth of Christ’s claims. “He made himself out to be the Son of God,” the crowd tells Pilate. “When Pilate heard this,” John reports, “he was even more afraid.”Pilate answers with an exquisitely postmodern response: “What is truth?” We don’t know if it was a dismissive swipe or legitimate inquiry, although the fact that Pilate is out the door before Jesus has a chance to respond speaks volumes. For the postmodern Pilate, it seems the question is more important than the answer, because the question is his. It has everything to do with him. The answer is not his; indeed, it belongs to someone else. And what could be gained from someone else’s “truth”?
Immediately, Pilate returns to the now-beaten prisoner. “Where do you come from?” Pilate asks. But Jesus is slow to respond now. Perhaps it was the flogging, perhaps the public humiliation. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate stabs. “Don’t you realize I have the power either to free you or crucify you?”
On a day rich in ironies, Pilate is oblivious to one of the most obvious: Each step Christ takes toward Golgotha increases the distance between Pilate and the Truth—the very thing he demanded.
But rather than ignoring Pilate or watering down his message, Jesus offers him one last dose of truth: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” That chilling rejoinder penetrates to the very center of Pilate’s skepticism: There is something beyond you, Pilate, something beyond what your eyes can see, something more than the sum of your experiences, something deeper than your feelings, something you cannot learn in books, something certain. There is Truth. It stands before you. And like it or not, it controls the entire universe.
For a fleeting moment, the Truth was within reach. And in that moment, perhaps Pilate even grasped it. After all, he scrambles to free the bloodied deity: “I find no basis for a charge against this man,” the quivering voice of mighty Rome cries. Desperately wanting to free Jesus, Pilate asks the crowd no less than three times to take Jesus back. But they don’t want him, and Pilate doesn’t want to make them unhappy. And so, Pilate gives in to the crowd.
There’s no evidence Christ convinced Pilate of anything. And there’s a hard lesson in that for us. If even Jesus failed to persuade some people of the truth, then so will we. But that shouldn’t deter us from sharing the message, or tempt us to change the message. Our job is to deliver the message.On a day rich in ironies, Pilate is oblivious to one of the most obvious: Each step Christ takes toward Golgotha increases the distance between Pilate and the Truth—the very thing he demanded.
As we grapple with postmodernism’s influence on the Church and the world, we face what appears to be a futile fight. Christ asks us to follow his example: To reason with postmodernists, even when they’re unreasonable. To answer their questions, even when they walk away. To speak the truth—always with love—even when it’s unpopular. To resist the temptation to shrug our shoulders or wave the white flag. And to trust that some in our postmodern world won’t make the same mistake Pilate made.