Navigating in the Fog

by Mark Safstrom

Post-modernism is a phenomenon that, at least to me, seems more nebulous the more I hear it discussed. You may find yourself in this fog, as well. In particular, the implications for religion seem quite unclear. Both religious critics and critical pastors tell us that the needs of post-modern people are at odds with, or even irreconcilable to, traditional ways of devotional and congregational life. In order to meet the needs of these post-modern sheep, we are told, the shepherds and the rest of the flock must change to accommodate this trend. Part of what makes navigating this fog so challenging is that post-modernism is a moving target, a kaleidoscope of moral convictions and mindless consumption, social networks and self-centeredness. It is this diversity that seems to be its chief hallmark, and, furthermore, the primary thing that seems to unite post-modern minds is their collective dissatisfaction with modernism, rather than a common agenda.

Acknowledging that the ideological landscape has rapidly changed since the mid-20th century can be a good start. The smug certainty of modernism, which predicted and hoped that religion would die out as a result of scientific discovery and technological progress, has not yet panned out. Instead, Americans often still self-identify as religious. An Easter Sunday edition of the TV news program “This Week,” which was dedicated to religion in America, recently even suggested that we may be due for a religious renaissance. Be that as it may, the outright hostility of modernism has given way to a bewildering diversity of post-modern approaches to spirituality and self-expression, which although they may seem less hostile to traditional congregational Christianity, are nevertheless often apathetic to it. Old challenges have been exchanged for new ones.

A common thread in this issue of Pietisten is the attempt by several authors to engage this moving target of post-modernism. Prompting this discussion is a report by Ryan Eikenbary-Barber on a recent seminar at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., which focused on the topic of “Pietism and Post-modernism.” His summary highlights areas of conflict, but also some surprising commonalities between “post-moderns” and pietists.

Jay Phelan has taken a detour into the world of crime fiction, of which the Scandinavian book market seems to be the current epicenter. Several authors, he explains, have taken up their pens not only to entertain, but also to philosophize about the demise of democracy, the welfare state, human community and decency. In a time when many people attend movie theaters more often than church, crime novels and films like these, which contain profound philosophical and ethical speculations, may well be worth adding to your reading list.

Our resident wordsmith, Arthur Mampel, has woven together some poignant thoughts on the nature of metaphor, which he says is not only an essential feature of good poetry, but also essential to sound theology. His reflections remind us that God’s truth resides outside the frailty of human language, and as such, it is essential to reserve a place for metaphor against the onslaught of cold, hard knowledge. This is perhaps especially timely, as it seems from the Luther Seminary lectures, that one thing that pietists and post-moderns may have in common is a preference for metaphor over and against modernist rationality. Also on the topic of rationalism, Robert Blomgren adds a few more thoughts to the conversation about science versus religion, which is continued from previous issues.

Finally, historians Tom Tredway and David Jessup have mined the history of pietism looking to help clarify the relationships of pietists to the Church of Sweden, and Baptists to post-modern trends in evangelicalism, respectively. From both of these explorations it is clear that historical context is key to shedding light on present ecumenical relationships. This is perhaps especially applicable in Sweden, where three of the historic “Free Churches” (Methodist, Baptist and Covenant) are voting to finalize their merger this summer. Thus the questions raised in this issue are not idle speculation. Not answering them poses real and profound consequences. However, if the consequences and challenges are real, then so too must be the rewards for engaging in the discussion.

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and an assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom