IS "SAVING SOULS" POSSIBLE IN A POSTMODERN WORLD?
"Don’t even think about it." "Don’t even consider
manipulating someone else’s beliefs." "Don’t even try to control the
way another person thinks."
That’s it folks!—the major mandate of the
Now. . . . How are you going to evangelize? How
are you going to teach the Word? How are you going to shepherd your
Before answering, let’s get something straight:
The "Word" hasn’t changed. The "Hope of the World" hasn’t taken a
vacation. We’re the ones who’ve lost our legacy.
And our poor preachers have lost the most. In
addition to the "demons" already active in their own congregations,
"postmodern" demons outside the church have already written a
not-too-friendly epitaph. Postmodernists, for example, call our
preachers "the worst of all manipulators." They call them
"sermonizers" who use the "tricks of those in the know to control
those not in the know." And, they call them "interlopers" who use
the "strength of their will to get others to yield to their will."
Often—these critics say—the "controllers" among
our clergy prove themselves "more selfish than selfless."
"If You’re Put in Charge. . . ."
I’m grateful for great preaching. I give myself
to special moments of inspired teaching. I gorge on the spiritual
food of my hidden hungers. So I’m grieved to hear arrogant comments
from so many critical spirits.
Yet, I’m reminded that the strong need not be
afraid. And the honest need not fear repentance. So let’s take a
moment to consider this historical moment. And—searching for
lucidity—let’s begin with the perfect products of our seminal
We "know," after all, how to preach. Many
generations hammered out these skills long ago. Still, when the best
preachers faithfully follow the best traditions, "rhetorical"
skill—by itself—"only produces an effect." And "expository"
preaching—by itself—"only makes a point."
May I continue this candor?
More concerns come with the enormous pressures
preachers face. After all, they want to succeed, and they want to be
accepted. So they desperately need measurable success. That means,
"If it works, do it." And, under that mandate, some soul-winners
become "spiritual cowboys" with as many notches on their belts as
After all, "It’s a rough world out there."
Then, add to these pressures the personal baggage
we carry—the self-assertions of our own faith, the inventions of our
own spirits, the compulsions of our own powers, and the goals of our
own genius. That’s when even respectable preachers sometimes filter
the message to suit their purpose. That’s when even "proof texting"
sometimes borrows only one Scripture to fit the needs of only one
Of course, persuasive skills also require
persuadable audiences. Suggestive influences also require
suggestible listeners. So the speaker must see things from the
perspective of the audience—and, then, the speaker must get the
audience to see things from the perspective of the audience. That
requires subtle mirrorings of the listeners’ in-house culture,
comfortable code language, and psychosocial story. It requires
reflecting back to the audience all those things that rank second to
only their face and name.
In other words, persuasion often requires helping
the congregation recall things comfortable and cozy, familiar and
friendly. It frequently requires celebrating their "eye-candy" and
"ear-candy." And, it always requires setting an emotional anchor
within their likes and dislikes, identities and dialects. . . .
. . . certainties and anxieties.
Once the speaker and the audience are "on the
same page," he can "exist" inside their heads—if he wants to. He can
constantly second-guess their response. And, he can carefully
process the implied opportunities. For soul-winners who need to
"win" at all costs, that means selling easily-marketed "benefit
plans" that guarantee health and wealth and shut out suffering and
The message may not always prove biblically
accurate, but it always fulfills wishful thinking.
"If you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate."1
Am I too candid? Even my own words are designed
to hold and mold your attention. Yet, there’s a huge difference
between the simple exaggerations of traditional techniques and the
demonic deceptions of concealed cunning:
We’ve all known, for example, self-righteous,
self-exalted, and self-obsessed leaders who covertly control others
because of their own pathologies. Sometimes they even get carried
away by voices contrary to God. The worst of these cultic autocrats
resembles the notorious Jim Jones of the Jonestown tragedy.
Con artists in these congregations depend on the
sheer force of their personalities. So they continually crow about
their heroic "spiritual victories." They endlessly boast about their
starring roles in God’s religious dramas. And, they repeatedly brag
about their "special knowledge," "charismatic gifts," and unique
"voice from the Lord."
Of course, they make the most of deceitful
techniques—like continuous, rapid-fire "words from God" followed by
a simple command. This old psychological trick overloads suggestible
listeners to the point of panic. Then, when they’re given a simple
command, they grab it like a lifeline.
Con artists in these cults remind me of Pavlov
and his dogs. (Remember that Pavlov taught his dogs to drool at the
ring of a bell.) They also remind me of the Hollywood film composer
who said that music "should just manipulate the hell out of an
audience. Music shoves the emotions around, and it has to be done
Right this minute some less overtly
destructive version of the Jonestown deception is being
played out in hundreds or thousands of Christian settings
throughout the earth.2
Nothing To Do With "Words"
No one ever outmaneuvered God. No one ever
controlled someone else’s salvation. And, no one ever manipulated
God’s grace. For "What is born of the Spirit is spirit."3
The Holy Spirit does not bow before sermonizing
preachers, cowboy soul-winners, pathological leaders, or any other
manipulators. "The wind (of the Spirit) blows . . . where it wills."4
It compels us, but we don’t control it. We allow it, but we don’t
elicit it. It is for us, but it is not of us or by us.
It is a self-authenticating, autonomous force.
Revelation truth may enter through a medium, but
the "medium is not the message." It may speak through divinely
inspired words, images, sounds, movements, or stories, but none of
these are the message. It may appear through the strange seduction
of metaphor, but it is never the metaphor.
Any medium can be the means to life more
abundant, but it is not—in itself—life more abundant.
So here’s the big surprise for Christian
"controllers": Spiritual language is neither "written" nor "spoken."
Sacred records remind us, for example, that the only authority of
Scripture is the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture. Further,
"The Kingdom of God" is not based on talk, but "power."5
In short, spiritual language—at the deepest
level—has nothing to do with "words." In fact, it breaks the bounds
of language. It depends "on the ‘pre-semantic surface’ of human
experience for its power."6 In other words, the only
"Word" is Spirit, and the Spirit is the only "Word."
More important, it has the power to change
things. It does not come as the result of our doing. Instead, it
breaks into the present and transforms it. Unlike man’s words which
merely "supervene" in life—that is, they only "add to"
life—spiritual language "intervenes" in life—it actually "changes
In short, spiritual language is a far more
powerful instrument of salvation than all the other things we’ve
"manipulated" for good or bad. Even without this fact, we’re forced
to admit that the world has already refused our "force-fed faith."
Postmoderns have already turned down our prepackaged-propositional
"truths." And the younger generation has already rejected our
reductionist-rhetorical sound bites.
There are no more cookie-cutter salvations!
Manipulation for a divine end is finally a
contradiction. Ulterior motive for the "kingdom" is ultimately
self-negating. God will not be defiled. Any message coming only from
man will only be from man.
Throwing Everything to the Wind
So what must we do?
Our clergy need a new integrity—a new "humble
boldness." The modern world has ridiculed Christian leaders who are
either humble or bold—either powerless or powerful. By contrast, the
Lord of History lifts up those who are both humble and bold—both
powerless and powerful.
Yes, it’s a paradox.
The "bold," for example, need a new honesty. They
need reminding that what they do or say is never the message—that
"prophecy never came by the will of man."7 They are only
envoys, after all. And, if chosen, they point only out of the power
to which they point.
For only Power incarnates Power.
The bold also need a new humility. They must quit
robbing the Holy Spirit of its power. They must root themselves in
endless cycles of prayer, reflection, and repentance. They must
weave in and out of having answers and not having answers. They must
stop "making things happen" and simply remain willing and available.
Like Jesus, they must "speak only what the Father
tells them to speak."8
Yet, there’s a further paradox: The "humble" must
also know boldness. They must lay everything on the line. They must
risk ventures beyond their weakness. They must hazard Open-ended
Power. And, they must take a chance on Immanent Otherness.
In other words, both the "humble" and the "bold"
must throw everything to the wind!
Learning a New Language
The Lord of History demands—if for no other
reason—a new way of thinking, a new way of "guiding" people to the
Good News. He demands a language that transcends our instincts to
manipulate and control. He demands autonomous events that move
beyond man-made media. And, He demands revelations that surpass both
the interpreter and the interpreted.
Amazingly, all these demands are fulfilled in
damah or "prophetic metaphor."9 Scripture calls it the
very language of God. This language, of course, is not the "literal"
metaphor of our logical schools. It is not, for example, simply
"putting things side by side that don’t go together." And, it’s not
the obscure jargon of religious "insiders," either.
Prophetic metaphor, instead, results from the
profound tension between the "known" and the "unknown." It is a
transparent and transcendent revelation that lies beyond language,
culture, or doctrine.
The greatest metaphor of all time, for example,
was Jesus. Spirit became flesh and pointed out of the power to which
it pointed. This God/man said, "Anyone who has seen Me has seen the
Father."10 Prophetic metaphor, in fact, confirmed His
entire ministry. And finally, His very death and resurrection, Paul
said, were metaphors of our own death and life in this lifetime.11
Today’s prophetic metaphor is the same, except it
will increasingly explore the spiritual integrity of a virtual
Christian leaders who learn this language will
become artists of analogy and affinity—virtuosi of similarity and
similitude—and creators of comparison and contrast. They will
participate in divine dialogues between the "known" and the
"unknown"—meditative movements between art and enigma—and "give and
take" creations between form and formlessness.
In turn, prophetic metaphor will miraculously
reveal the "substance," "evidence," and "proof" of things we do not
see.12 It will "call those things that be not as though
they were."13 And, it will anticipate a future, real
world that God is already bringing to pass.
God is the great Creator, not the great
Manipulator. His Kingdom was never meant to be a "Codependency." If
we manipulate people into the kingdom, it is very
likely that someone else will be able to manipulate them out
of the kingdom.
Christianity must be free of cunning, and
Christians must be free of come-ons.
Tragically, "Those who know all about the word of
God may yet never have heard it and recognized it."14 If
being "born again" means a changed relation within a changed
existence, then many "managers of the sacred" will need a "new
birth." They will need to speak Truth for the first time.
We all know the sense of right from wrong. Like
tender nerve endings, all of us can feel the pains of guilt and the
anguish of regret for what we’ve done—or not done. So what sort of
witnesses we are will be "plainly recognized . . . by (our)
consciences."15 A clear conscience will prove more
valuable than any of the other "victories" or "ecstasies" we
While the secular world manipulates a "virtual
truth"—"cuts and pastes" a postmodern "word"—and assembles a collage
of beliefs, the church must seek a new kind of "alter call". . . .
. . . a transcendent and transparent sharing yet
to be explored in our time.
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt
1. Romans 12:6-8, Message Bible.
2. Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a
Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, Illinois:
InterVarsity Press, 1999) p. 187.
3. John 3:6, AMP.
4. John 3:8, AMP.
5. I Corinthians 4:20, AMP.
6. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of
Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 216.
7. II Peter 1:21, New King James Version
8. John 12:50 (my paraphrase).
9. Hosea explains in 12:10 that God speaks to us
through damah, meaning "prophetic metaphor."
10. John 14:9, AMP.
11. Romans 6:5.
12. Hebrews 11:1.
13. Romans 4:17, KJ.
14. Willard, p. 184.
15. II Corinthians 5:11, AMP.