Article by: Ivan MesaIt’s been two decades since Don Carson published The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996). In more than 600 pages he addressed a number of societal trends and pitfalls, including hermeneutical pluralism, deconstruction, and the disappearance of objective truth—heady subjects with massive influence on our day-to-day lives. Since 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the Gold Medallion Award-winning book, I asked TGC’s co-founder and president why he spent three years writing this book, whether we’ve moved away from postmodernism, if he’s optimistic about the future, and more.
You wrote The Gagging of God over a three-year period and read more than 1,300 books in preparation. Why did you devote such a significant amount of time to this issue?
At the time, I’d been engaged in university missions for almost a quarter of a century, and I couldn’t help but detect a change in the questions I was hearing, a change in the degree of biblical illiteracy. Earlier, if you could make a solid case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, students weren’t slow to face up to some of the entailments; now, any claim of a universal truth was viewed with suspicion. All claims were dismissed as “totalizing”; little was more offensive than the Bible’s claims to exclusivity. I began to do some serious reading in the various forms of postmodern epistemology. A post-graduate student at Cambridge University heard me give an informal lecture on the subject, and she asked me to come and talk with a handful of her fellow students in the English department, because from her perspective they were losing any capacity to talk about truth in any historic sense.
A few weeks later I went along for this talk. Unknown to me, the student had plastered the university notice boards with posters advertising a lecture on “Christianity and the Possibility of Truth.” When I arrived, I found several hundred students there, and not a few dons (i.e., lecturers and tutors). The topic had hit a live wire. I gave my lecture and opened it up to questions, and the evening hummed with useful discussion. That persuaded me I needed to address these cultural changes, so I decided to write what became The Gagging of God.
I went down this path as a function of my efforts at evangelism—at gospel faithfulness to a new generation I needed to understand.
In addition to the reading I undertook, I sent drafts of most of the chapters to between one and six readers who know more about such things than I do, some of them deeply enmeshed in postmodern studies. I’m profoundly grateful for the time and care they took to offer rigorous criticism—not least to show me that thoughtful Christians will want to be suspicious of both modernism and postmodernism. From my perspective, I went down this path as a function of my efforts at evangelism—at gospel faithfulness to a new generation I needed to understand.In the preface you write, “In my most somber moods I sometimes wonder if the ugly face of what I refer to as philosophical pluralism is the most dangerous threat to the gospel since the rise of the gnostic heresy in the second century, and for some of the same reasons.” How so? And is that still your view? For the first three centuries of the church’s life, the most widespread and virulent charge leveled by pagans against Christians, the charge that subjected them to waves of persecution, was that Christianity is too narrow, too exclusive, too intolerant. At the same time, orthodox Christianity was re-jiggered into what is today referred to as the gnostic heresy. There were many varieties; it was, as C. H. Dodd called it, a “theosophical hotchpotch” rather than a well-defined error. As far as we can discern, however, it was enormously popular, playing off several cultural biases, and was intrinsically less offensive in the Roman world than was confessional Christianity, precisely because it had fewer hard edges. It was less distinctive. It’s hard not to detect some parallels with the current cultural climate in the West. There’s lots of space for arguing for the superiority of your own religious corner (as religions of various stripes did in the Roman Empire), so long as one never says, “Jesus is the only way to God.” Dogmatic belief in the non-exclusiveness of religious claims is so much a “defeater belief” (to use the expression Tim Keller has made popular) in our culture that public discourse about Christ and his cross is becoming ever more challenging. The shared cultural memory of Judeo-Christian beliefs has so dissipated that our task becomes more and more akin to bearing witness to biblical illiterates than to nominal Christians.
The shared cultural memory of Judeo-Christian beliefs has so dissipated that our task becomes more and more akin to bearing witness to biblical illiterates than to nominal Christians.Have we in the West moved on to post-postmodernism? What do you view as some of the significant worldview changes in the last two decades? Most who try to keep track of such things acknowledge that the heated period when postmodernism was being defended in countless university departments (especially English departments) has cooled down. Not nearly so many university students are reading Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, and the rest as there were 25 years ago. In Europe, such names are virtually unknown on university campuses. In that sense, we’re certainly living in a post-postmodern culture. Yet no well-defined movement has arisen to replace it. We are left with the widespread detritus of the debates and arguments that governed the end of the last century. Those arguments have brought about several cultural shifts (see especially Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and the excellent popularization of that book by James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular). The result is an array of changes in which many distinctively and historically Christian stances are ruled unthinkable: the public imagination has moved on to other worlds. Not all of these changes are bad, but the degree of unthinking commitment to unquestioned cultural norms is staggering, not least when we recall that 20 years ago few of these cultural norms had much standing. A bare eight years ago, for example, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in their contest for the presidency, insisted that marriage is exclusively for a man and a woman. Today, those who hold such a position are perceived to be dinosaurs. The government is exerting more and more pressure to bring all institutions into line with the new thinking, even at the sacrifice of the first amendment—and all of this in the name of tolerance, which has become extraordinarily intolerant. These days the U.S. government even withholds aid from East African countries that don’t go along with the new definitions of marriage. I don’t think it is particularly helpful to label all of these changes “postmodern.” On the other hand, only the willfully blind will fail to see how postmodernism has been one of the streams contributing to this mighty flow. A main fixture in your ministry has been emphasizing the Bible’s plot line—of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. How does a robust Christian worldview protect us from succumbing to the cultural challenges of our day? One of the perennial dangers of reading the Bible without having a grasp of how its books fit together is that we resort to a selective proof-texting that has more to do with our inherited biases than with faithful understanding. It’s important to know not only individual verses, or individual chapters, but also entire biblical books and the entire storyline of the Bible so as to grasp a little better how these books and their themes fit together. That’s what helps us establish a frame of reference—a worldview if you like—that trains our minds, fires our imaginations, and shapes our vocabulary and cherished images. Such a frame of reference not only makes us better Bible readers, but enables us to evaluate competing frames of reference with stronger God-given insight.
It’s important to know not only individual verses, or individual chapters, but also entire biblical books and the entire storyline of the Bible. . . . That’s what helps us establish a frame of reference . . . that trains our minds, fires our imaginations, and shapes our vocabulary and cherished images.In 1996 you pointed out that “the inherited influence of a Judeo-Christian outlook has largely dissipated.” In the context of the challenge of postmodernism, you drew attention to several arenas in which the battle was raging—government, religious freedom, law and the judiciary, education, economics, and ethics and morals. Twenty years later, are you more or less optimistic about the future of Western culture? From the perspective of a Christian frame of reference, many cultural indicators are heading in the wrong direction. It’s getting harder and harder to see how God will spare the Western world the severe judgment we deserve. If the old adage is true, that nations tend to get the leaders they deserve, the current presidential race says as much about America as it does about the candidates. At the same time, God is raising up a new generation of pastors, evangelists, and church planters who are Caleb-like in spirit (“Give me this mountain!”), who want mentors, who are serious about the gospel and about faithfully teaching the Bible. This is the most encouraging and promising generation of seminary students I’ve known: How can I possibly be discouraged when I focus on them?
This is the most encouraging and promising generation of seminary students I’ve known: How can I possibly be discouraged when I focus on them?I cannot pretend to know whether God will impose judgment on us, or bring in a round of revivifying reformation—or both! I like to recall what Al Mohler has been known to say: “For the Christian, optimism is naïve, but pessimism is atheistic.”
Editors’ note: We invited several evangelical leaders to share how The Gagging of God influenced their lives, ministries, and the broader evangelical world.
“I read this book when it first came out. I was a college student trying to find my way, at my moderately liberal denominational school, through a maze of postmodern arguments and assumptions. Even though parts of the book were over my head at the time, it reassured me that there were good answers to the questions I was facing.”
— Kevin DeYoung Pastor, University Reformed Church (East Lansing, MI)
“Don Carson’s The Gagging of God was exactly what evangelical Christianity needed. At a time when many were repackaging old theologically liberal ideas under the guise of “postmodernism,” Carson articulated a stirring conviction about the intelligibility of truth and the authority of Scripture. At a time when some were dismissing classical theism in favor of an evolving God with an open future, Carson argued, compellingly, for the ancient, orthodox vision of God. As he did so, Carson did what he always does, brought together a diverse mix of disciplines, in a way that signaled that, at least in one sector, the evangelical mind is alive and well.”
— Russell Moore President, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville, TN)
“There is no issue more urgent in our time than the cruelty and creeping totalitarianism being inflicted in the name of excluding ultimate truth claims from the public square. We all owe D. A. Carson for his work exposing the bankruptcy of that ideology.”
— Gregory Forster Director, Oikonomia Network Visiting assistant professor of faith and culture, Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL)
“For several years prior to the publication of The Gagging of God, I had read the marvelously insightful works of Don Carson as New Testament interpreter and theologian. I had worked through his fine contributions on biblical authority and hermeneutics. In 1996, however, with the publication of the massive work, The Gagging of God, I was introduced to Carson as rigorous thinker, cultural interpreter, theologian, philosopher, and evangelist. Here I found more than just another popular sociological interpretation of postmodernism and its implications, more than just another commentary on our current cultural moment. What I found was a widely-researched, theologically-focused, and thoughtful guide for the issues with which so many were grappling at the end of the 20th century. More important than the brilliance of the work, which was recognized by the various awards the book received that year, was the serious manner in which Carson helped people understand and engage the post-Christian world with the claims of the gospel message. I have found myself returning to the book on numerous occasions over the past two decades. The volume remains essential reading for Christian leaders who are committed to church and ministry in the changing context and culture in which we now find ourselves.”
— David Dockery President, Trinity International University/Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL)
- Inerrancy Is a Place to Live (Ivan Mesa)
- Keller, Piper, and Carson on Staying the Course in a Changing Culture (Ryan Troglin)
- How to Read the Bible and Do Theology Well (Don Carson)
Ivan Mesa (ThM, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.
Read Source: Optimism Is Naïve But Pessimism Is Atheistic