Editor's Note: Below is the Introduction to the book “How to Study the Bible with Postmoderns” by Marcos Torres. It is reprinted here with permission from the author. The free e-book is available on the author’s website, The Story Church Project.
I want to begin this book with a twist. Rather than introduce myself as a church growth guru, boasting about how much of a postmodern outreach expert I am—complete with my list of accomplishments including a growing church that meets in a cafe on Friday nights in the city’s main party strip (none of which is true)—I want to unfurl the theatrical curtains to show you a completely different and unanticipated scenario: My failures.
No, you are not overdue for your next visit to the optometrist. You read that right. I want to begin this eBook by taking you on a journey through every botched and dramatically fumbled attempt at outreach I can remember. Because the truth is, I have stuffed it up more times than I have gotten it right.
I was born and raised in a premodern1 Latino church, situated in Newark, New Jersey on a small hill overlooking the Hudson River into Manhattan. I have fond memories of that church. It’s where I learned how to play spin-the-bottle and truth-or-dare, where my first three girlfriends came from and where I slapped a nice lady (or so I’m told) right across the face, echoes and all, as she attempted to hold me in the middle of the worship service (I was one, so cut me some slack). It’s also where I was introduced to my Christian faith and taught how to share, express and experience it. But there was a problem: the premodern ethos of my home church did not exist in the world outside.
Modernism was winding down and postmodernism was gaining greater influence.2 But we had no idea. To us, the world was simply in rebellion against God. There was no attempt to understand the culture, to get to know their value structures or to befriend them. Our premodernism insisted that we were right and they were wrong because we had the infallible Bible as “the” only source of truth. Those who rejected it were simply sinful, rebellious people who were denying what they knew to be true.
Except they didn’t know it to be true. Their rejection of scripture was grounded in modern and postmodern sentiments. The questions were profound. The objections were intellectually compelling. There were strong cases to be made for atheism and relativism. But never mind all that. That’s too much work. Just stick to your bubble. The ideology that keeps you comfortably in the ivory tower of “rightness” and everyone else in the valley of “wrongness”. Because it’s comfortable there, and the world makes sense from up there. Step down into the valley to have meaningful discussions, to come close to the culture instead of attack it, to befriend the sceptic instead of debunking her and you might get soiled by their obstreperous heathenism. So I stayed. Far away from the culture despite the fact that I attended public school all my life. Far away from truly knowing and understanding. What was the point? I had this caricature in my head—a straw man if you please—that I found quite snugly. This cartoon of culture, how it thought and what it really needed, that informed how I felt about it. And because I had this, I didn’t need to get to know people because I already knew that so long as I told them the truth and showed them they were wrong then the little voice of conscience they spent every waking moment inebriating would eventually get to them and they would fall on their knees in contrition.
This shallow and one-dimensional picture I had of people, addiction, existential anxiety, brokenness, and doubt was fuelled by the assumption that everyone knew exactly what I did: the Bible was true, God was real, and Jesus was the only way to heaven. Those who denied it were really only denying what they knew to be true because they were looking for an excuse to party, get smashed and have sex with whoever, whenever. And all I had to do—good little Christian me—was tell them they were wrong and I was right. I could talk about how their lifestyle was sinful; and offer them Jesus. I could tell them their hearts were unsatisfied; and offer them religion. I could point out their nefariousness with undeniable conviction; and offer them salvation. It was easy!
Until it wasn’t.
One of my earliest memories “witnessing” was with a secular friend in High School. Aramir was his name. We hung out all the time. One day—for reasons I can’t remember—we got onto the topic of faith and somehow I ended up turning it into a discussion on why I didn’t listen to secular music. Here was my chance! I could tell him how bad it was, how it warped your soul and twisted your mind by awakening carnal desires and leading you to embrace mendacious ideological constructs. So I dove right in with all my arguments prepared. Nothing about Jesus. No relational expression of faith, God or scripture. Just a good old lecture on the evils of secular music that would have made my conservative community weep with pride and joy. My friend listened carefully. He never appeared upset. In fact, I thought I had somehow gotten through to him. But I was wrong. Dead wrong.
He never asked me about God or faith again. A year or so later we graduated school, went our separate ways and I never saw him again.
But I can’t stop there. I am compelled, for some strange, uncharted reason, to tell you more. Allow me to fast forward a few years to my early twenties. I had just joined the US Army and was stationed in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. A young soldier there whose name was Baner (we went by last names in the Army), found out I was a Christian. One day he came to my room and engaged me in a conversation on faith. He asked what would happen to all those people who had never heard of Christ. Could they go to heaven?
My conservative, premodern glasses wouldn’t allow it. After all, there was only one source of truth. And the Muslims and Buddhists didn’t have it. So I looked him in the eye and boldly proclaimed the unadulterated truth: “No”. That was my answer. And I was proud. In the face of the sceptic, I had stood firm for what was right and true. Baner was shocked. Is that the kind of God you worship? His peering eyes, a soft azure that cut through your soul, asked. He shook his head and stood up, “Nah. Forget it.”
Shortly after, my roommate challenged me to a friendly discussion. I had no idea how to have those, but I enjoyed it about as much as anyone can enjoy getting mopped on the floor by an intelligent agnostic who defied all of my caricatures. Then came Wilson, a drug addict who kept asking me where God had been during his dark nights of agony. Baner, also an addict, had the same questions. I had no answers. My premodernism had taught me that no matter what, you can always trust in God. But these guys had really good reasons not to. And I had lacklustre arguments that, while satisfying for me, left everyone else in the room wanting.
One day, Wilson came by my room and declared, “Someday, Torres. Someday, I will be free!” A perfect opportunity to invite him on a truth-seeking journey, wasn’t it? Except, I froze. I said nothing. He disappeared shortly after. For two years no one knew where he was. He turned up again, was consequently arrested and sent to military jail where he stayed until he was dishonourably discharged. I knew where he was. I knew how to get there. How to make an appointment. How to get in.
I never visited him.
Is that the worst of it? I’m honestly not sure. There was also the time that the Command Sergeant Major of my battalion had a once-in-a-lifetime conversation with me. It was remarkable. Command Sergeant Majors are among the highest ranking enlisted soldiers in the Army. I was separated from her by six ranks which meant the chances of her and I talking about the notability of Jesus’ claims were about as high as the average citizen going out for a pizza with their State Governor. Having even a basic, mundane interaction with people up there is rare, let alone an unveiling-of-the-soul kind of chat. And that’s exactly what happened. Mourning the recent death of her husband, the Command Sergeant Major looked at me, the file and rank of military structure faded, the wall disappeared, grace was up to something. “I don’t know what I am going to do with my life now,” she murmured.
There weren’t any tears or broken words. After all, she was a high ranking enlisted soldier in charge of an entire battalion. You don’t get there without freakishly high levels of tenacity and self-control. But her eyes, lost, as she gazed over the horizon of my cheap office table, unveiled an agony that few had ever seen and one which human eyes, I would venture to assume, would never see again.
My reply? “Sergeant Major,” I leaned forward with the paperwork she needed, “You have to sign right here.”
She snapped out of it. Signed the paperwork. And off she went.
We all stuff it up, don’t we? We do. But I can’t help but look back and wonder, Why was I so willing to stand so strong for the right though the heavens fall (referring to traditional Christian values I thought were important) and yet not be able to engage someone in a mutual truth-seeking journey?
Powers was next. She was going through a divorce. She asked me about divorce, adultery, and sex outside of marriage (she had hooked up with another guy in the unit). I answered. No journey. No mutual seeking. Just cold, hard facts. The premodern gurus would have bowed to me.
I was their poster boy.
Powers said I was brainwashed and never asked me about God or faith again.
You might look at this and say, “That’s just the way it is. People are always going to reject truth!” And I don’t blame you. I believed the same thing. It was a convenient belief, really. I could avoid the responsibility of coming to know people, mutual searching, admitting I didn’t have all the answers. I could excuse my poor judgement, lack of interpersonal skills and black-and-white view of reality. I could stay in my self-aggrandising bubble—cosy and content—never bothering to consider, even just for a moment, that people were not rejecting truth, they were rejecting me. Oh, how commodious it is to live in a state of such self-delusion that you can emerge an instrument of the dark intelligence by becoming the very kind of presence that drives people away from the truth, and yet believe—I mean truly believe—you are right because you said what the Bible verse says (in the King James Version no less!).
How commodious indeed.
How many of us exist in this prison of misapprehension? This fantasy world where we have written a script of ourselves and those around us. Our script is always heroic. Theirs is either the damsel to be rescued or the Wormtongue for whom there is no recourse—only sharp and unapologetic words to expose him. All the while we think we are doing God a favour, without recognising that—in all our zeal—we have become instruments of the rebellion! Satan laughs. He laughs because we think ourselves so faithful and yet it is through our unsanctified defence of the truth that he most effectively catapults his anti-God propaganda into the cultural consciousness.
But there were moments of success. Moments where I did get it right. They happened without me realising what was happening. Moments where I would take a fellow soldier’s Bible question, bathe it in relational intimacy and offer them—not a religion with rules and regulations, but a personal, intimate experience with the divine. They listened. I remember the nods. The eyes widening with possibility. I saw secularism and hedonism stop dead in their tracks. I saw in my friends’ eyes, a battle raging deep within. Somehow, their ideological structures were collapsing in the presence of this relational God. This God of withness who was inviting them to friendship. They had never encountered this before. Sensuality and the mindless pursuit of trivial pleasure bowed in the presence of something infinitely more invigorating, compelling and satisfying.
That’s when I began to realise the mind of the modern man is not reached like the mind of the premodern. The premodern assumes the authority of God, scripture and religious teachers. The modern man holds each of these in contempt for science, he believes, has made a mockery of them all. Thus, my premodern arguments continued to be met with an echo of rebuttals: “God can’t be love in light of our pain.” “Where is he?” “Oh, you are religious?” “What’s up with the crusades man?” “Religion has caused more wars and more horror than anything else. No, thank you, I’ll just stay over here with my beer and TV remote. That’ll do.”
And yet, when approached with authentic relationship something happened. The walls came down. Their eyes betrayed a desire to explore. Somehow, the invitation to forget all the religious noise and just taste the goodness of God, to know him and be known by him, was a welcome proposition.
I left the Army and wound up in Australia. How? I met a pretty girl, that’s how. But that’s a story for another time.
In Australia, I was introduced to a truly secular, postmodern society. It was there in New Jersey, but my premodern bubble had shielded me from it. It was there in the Army, but my debates with modern sceptics took up all my time. Australia is a different monster. The secularism here is not anti-church. I wish it were! Anti-church crusaders acknowledge the church’s existence. They are angry with it! But this postmodern, secular Australian culture isn’t angry with the church. They don’t even know it exists.
Okay, they know it exists in a geographical, “Yeah, that’s St. Mary’s Cathedral over there,” kind of way. But church is not on their radar. The typical Australian, I was told, lived and died without ever setting foot in a church or even thinking about it. It just wasn’t important to them.
I was interested. So I began studying postmodernism, cultural outreach, and the art of truth-seeking relationships. The more I learned, the more I recognised signs of its presence throughout my life. It was a stimulating experience, reading those books and listening to those lectures. I even went on iTunes University and downloaded entire university lectures on philosophy, starting all the way back with Socrates and working my way forward through Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Kant, Hume, and others. And I learned a lot. But nothing prepared me for the real experience of setting the books aside and meeting with a living, breathing postmodern.
And then it happened. A woman in her 30s contacted me through a friend. She had never been to church before. She had never read a Bible. But one day she woke up with existential anxiety and was thirsty for answers. “How can someone as alive and conscious and full of life as me, just die and that’s it? It’s over?” We met. We studied. We talked. And I discovered she wasn’t some scary, unreachable millennial with a 30-foot thick philosophical barrier around her heart. Instead, I found her to be, well… human.
And then it happened again and again and again. A drug addict, a counsellor, a physics major. But perhaps one of the most memorable of them all was this one millennial who invited me to a cafe to talk God. She was the poster girl for postmodernism. From the very beginning, she lambasted me with questions about gay and transgender rights, the impossibility of knowing absolute truth and the value of feminism over against the supposed patriarchal biblical ethic (which she found repulsive). Her questions were tough. Tougher than anything my modern Army buddies ever threw at me. But by this point in my life, I had learned a few lessons. I wasn’t a postmodern guru and I’m still not. But I had learned, through failure and regret, that people don’t need gurus. They need partners. Someone to journey with them, wrestle with them, acknowledge the validity of their questions, doubts, and struggles. Someone who stops preaching and assuming long enough to hear—truly hear—what their hearts are searching for.
As I sat there with this humanistic, relativistic, left-wing university student I listened long enough to hear that despite all the philosophical finesse, what she was really struggling with was a sense of abandonment. Abandonment from within her own family and a perceived abandonment from God himself when, as a teenager, she had traversed the treacherous minefield of love, chemical explosions, and romantic adventure only to be broken-hearted—or more like shattered—despite her faith-driven appeals to God’s help. Where was he? He’s just like so and so. They let me down. He let me down. I’ll harp on about the injustice of empire long enough to forget just how unjust those closest to me have been—especially God.
We studied together for over a year. There was no baptism after. There was no metric by which I can measure my success with her—not by institutional standards anyways. But there was that last meeting we had where we put the philosophy aside and just spoke about pain, fatherhood, and insecurity. Before we parted ways, she looked me in the eye and said, “Thanks. This is exactly what I needed.”
We are still in touch and plan to study more in the future.
How did this happen? Not by accident. It happened because I failed. Over and over again. And with every failure, I learned. With every failure, I grew. They humbled me and drove me back to the Bible for answers. They also schooled me. They were the practical lessons I needed to discover how to reach the secular, postmodern mind. The young lady above is one of others—secular, relativistic and altogether different kinds of people with worldviews miles apart from my own. I have talked, answered questions and asked many more. In the end, I have discovered that people don’t need data, facts or propositions. People need incarnation. People need people. Relationship is the most potent conduit of truth.
I am still not a guru. I have much to learn. But in this short eBook, I want to share with you what I have learned through pain and disappointment. In five concise chapters I want to take you through my bruises and regrets, so you can discover something that will inspire and equip you to more effectively reach this wandering and broken generation.
Welcome to my school of hard knocks.
1 The term premodernism has been used in reference to the historical period following the middle ages or as a blanket term alluding to the worldview that all truth has one absolute source which, in the Western sense, would be the Bible and its derived authorities such as the church or the priest. Throughout this eBook, it is the later use that I employ.
2 Those well-schooled in postmodern history will find this statement difficult to reconcile since postmodernism was already in full swing by the 1950s and I, after all, was born in 1985. However, keep in mind that I was raised in a region that was primarily immigrant. The vast majority of the migrant cultures brought with them the premodern sentiments of their homelands where the cultural milieu was still governed by superstition, mythology, witchcraft, and Catholicism. As a result, the youth I grew up with tended to be the first generation of our migrant community to be raised in the US. This made us the first ones to be exposed to postmodern indoctrination.
Pastor Marcos Torres is a millennial Adventist pastor with a passion for Jesus, the narrative of Adventism, and the relevancy of the local Adventist church. He pastors in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. You can follow him at www.thestorychurchproject.com.
Image courtesy of the author.
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