AT 27: Evangelical Anabaptism: One Hope for Relevant Mission in a Postmodern Context

by Paul Rothwell
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today , Issue 27, Summer 2001

According to Bauman, postmodernism is ‘no more but no less than the modern mind taking a long attentive and sober look at itself, at its conditions and past works, not fully liking what it sees and sensing the urge to change’.1 Sixteenth-century Anabaptism could be described in very similar terms. In this article I want to suggest that Christians today can find useful points of contact between postmodern ideas and Anabaptist beliefs and lifestyle.

Anabaptism versus postmodernism

There are, of course, a number of real differences between Anabaptist perspectives and postmodern thinking, of which the following are the most significant.

First, Anabaptism is rooted in particular interpretations of Scripture, which is understood as being both truth and revelation from God. Postmodernists would challenge the assertion that there is only one truth or meaning, particularly in regard to the interpretation of biblical texts, and would encourage people to ‘treat all as provisional, assume no absolutes.’

Second, postmodernism suggests that every individual’s own interpretation of life, reality or even Scripture is valid for them as individuals. This increases the likelihood of the dissolution of communities that were formerly cohesive because of their shared interpretations. Anabaptists will try to find a balance between celebrating personal choice and individuality on the one hand, and protecting the well-being of their congregations from the negative influence of excessive individualism on the other. Use of church discipline or the ‘ban’ would appear to postmodernists as a gross infringement into a person’s private life.

Third, sixteenth-century Anabaptists were people of conviction who were willing to die for their beliefs. In contrast, postmodernists would consider it absurd that any personal opinion or conviction would warrant such loyalty.

Anabaptism engaging postmodernism

But there are also several areas of similarity and shared perspective, some of which may enable Anabaptists to engage creatively with postmodernists. For example, forms of centralised authority – those that exercise leadership without prior regard to the wishes of those impacted, or without giving consideration to the uniqueness of circumstances or contingencies in which people find themselves as individuals or in communities – are anathema to postmodernists. They are especially critical of centralised church leadership, where issues of power and reponsibility arise. An Anabaptist leadership style is primarily functional rather than positional, in accordance with the New Testament, and based on spiritual qualification. Leaders who behave as facilitators and initiators at a congregational level, rather than as dictators of the implementation of a decision or policy that has been arrived at by a centralised authority, will be more acceptable to postmodernists.

To the postmodernist it is unacceptable that the insights and interpretations of the ordinary person are of less value than those purporting to be ‘expert’. Anabaptism is well suited to this postmodern ‘demise of elites’, as Anabaptists do not consider there to be any ontological difference between leaders and other congregation members, irrespective of gender, standard of education or spiritual gifting. Shank discerns that for mission to have any chance of succeeding in a postmodern context it must be conducted by a ‘lay apostolate’ who have secular jobs, and consequently have greater credibility than professional missionaries whose very function in a pluralistic society is regarded as illegitimate.2

Another point of contact is the use of dialogue. Dialogue is highly valued within postmodernism, where Tarnas observes the ‘widespread call for and practice of open conversation between different understandings, different vocabularies, different cultural paradigms’.3 Traditionally, Anabaptists have been willing to dialogue and discuss theological matters with others, rather than imposing beliefs upon them. Anabaptist congregations have expressed this by their community hermeneutic, and in more recent times by interactive preaching.4 Neufeld Harder, a contemporary Anabaptist, believes that Anabaptists should welcome ‘dialogue partners’ because in former centuries Anabaptists were victims of oppression. They were deliberately excluded from dialogue; today’s Anabaptists should not practise such exclusivism.5 Reader, working within Anglicanism, encourages Christians to utilise the postmodern preference for dialogue as a way of establishing meaningful contact between Christians and others within their parishes or local communities.6

Postmodernism also appears to favour oral communication, and places importance on the telling of one’s own story. Nowadays soundbites characterise the utterances of politicians and slogans of advertisers, more than well-reasoned and written argument does. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists primarily communicated their beliefs orally, sometimes utilising popular tavern songs and superimposing Anabaptist theology upon them.7 Otherwise, they simply chatted enthusiastically about their new-found faith to their neighbours, co-workers, friends and family members. Groothius suggests that evangelicals ‘ought to capitalise on the postmodern fascination with narrative’, and adds that ‘postmodernists are correct in emphasising the centrality of stories in culture’, given that stories have more entertainment value, but more importantly offer meaning too.8 With the need for urban and inner-city mission to be conducted other than by use of printed material, and the move in society generally away from written to visible and audible communication, the oral tradition in Anabaptist mission is a pertinent model with immense potential.

Then there is the emphasis on holism. Modernity, in the opinion of postmodernists, was overly reductionist in that it demanded that spiritual beliefs be regarded as private, compartmentalised values. Postmodernists favour a holism and pragmatism that refuses to view a person’s life as consisting of unrelated and isolated segments, and insists that the impact of one’s beliefs should be tangible and beneficial to one’s life. The Anabaptist expectation that salvation transforms the totality of a person’s life and results in an ongoing and increasing discipleship of Jesus fits well with this. It is incongruous to Anabaptists that those professing allegiance to Jesus would live in a moral and ethical manner at variance with his personal example and teaching found in the New Testament – salvation is not a preoccupation with the soul and its afterlife.9 A holistic understanding and presentation of salvation is required to reach people in the postmodern context.10

Postmodernism advocates an individualism that asserts that people are free to choose their own spiritual beliefs. Anabaptists are also adamant that individuals have the right to choose their spiritual beliefs without coercion.11 Indeed, modern Anabaptists Koontz and Harder highlight this and encourage the practice of respecting people’s ‘accountable right’ to make their own spiritual decisions.12

Yearning for community is another widely acknowledged feature of postmodernism. So too is diversity within community, as is reflected in the postmodern gathering under the umbrella of the New Age Movement where diversity abounds. Anabaptists also value community, expressed by shared understanding on a core of theological and ecclesiological issues, yet which also permits varying degrees of diversity and individuality from congregation to congregation. Anabaptists such as Koontz and Laurense advocate Anabaptism as an ideal spiritual option, one which facilitates people experiencing a greater degree of fulfilment as individuals within the context of belonging to a community.13

In a departure from the dry rationalism of modernity that has influenced much of western Christianity, postmodernists display a penchant for the subjective and experiential regarding their spiritual and religious preferences, although this is not based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Feeling takes precedence over fact or truth. Anabaptists usually measure subjective or charismatic promptings against Scripture, especially the New Testament, but they have been accused at times of charismatic excess. Anabaptism was at heart a charismatic movement, and open to a degree of (positive) subjectivism, and today to spontaneity and Spirit-led worship.

Postmodernists utterly refute the suggestion that one single philosophical or spiritual metanarrative is sufficient and suitable for all people in all situations. In practice, Anabaptists have habitually contextualised, theologically or otherwise, their message and practice to the circumstances in which they found themselves. No single or identical metanarrative has been worn as a uniform by all Anabaptists.

Postmodernism displays anthropocentric tendencies, in that for the postmodernist, humanity is the centre of the universe, and all life and events are interpreted through human understanding and experience.

Although Anabaptists were not anthropocentric in their fundamental beliefs, in their Christological focus on Jesus’ humanity, and also their emphasis on the outworking of salvation as tangible in a person’s daily life, Anabaptists might also be understood as displaying anthropocentric tendencies.

Finally, postmodernists are unwilling placidly to accept the status quo, be it philosophical or theological, and believe it incumbent upon them to challenge assumptions, in an attempt to unearth biases and flawed thinking. Historically, even at the risk of martyrdom, Anabaptists challenged theological and ecclesiological assumptions that for centuries had been accepted as the way things were intended to be. Holding this practice in common facilitates interaction and dialogue between today’s Anabaptists and postmodernists.

Embracing some of these Anabaptist emphases would provide us with vital missiological keys to present Christianity as accessible and attractive to those with postmodern preferences. This might then precipitate an expansion of the vibrant and biblically radical Christianity that has rarely been seen since the halcyon days of sixteenth-century Anabaptism.

Paul Rothwell is a leader in Fellowship Bible Church, Dublin, and has recently obtained a BA (Hons) in Theology with the Open Theological College.

Notes

1. E.A. Castelli, S.D. Moore et al (eds.), The Postmodern Bible: The Bible and Collective Culture (New York: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 3.

2. D. Shank, ‘A Missionary Approach to a Dechristianised Society’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 28 (January 1954), pp. 52-53.

3. R. Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (London: Pimlico, 1991), p. 402.

4. See J. Thomson, ‘Interactive Preaching’, Anabaptism Today (20, Spring 1999), pp. 14-21.

5. L. Neufeld Harder, ‘Postmodern Suspicion and Imagination: Therapy for Mennonite Hermeneutic Communities’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 71 (April 1997), p. 273.

6. J. Reader, Local Theology: Church and Community in Dialogue (London: SPCK, 1994), pp. 4-6.

7. See C.A. Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Tradition (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora, 1997), pp. 173, 178. See also B. Castle, ‘Hymns: Blueprints for Mission’, Missionalia, Vol. 21 (1993), pp. 19-25.

8. D. Groothius, ‘The Postmodernist Challenge to Theology’, Themelios, Vol. 25 (November 1999), p. 20.

9. S. Murray, Radical Christian Groups (Cheltenham: Open Theological College, undated), p. 11.

10. See L. Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans/WCC), pp. 128-40; and D. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis), p. 512.

11. See W. Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981), pp. 290-301.

12. See T. Koontz, ‘Mennonites and Postmodernity’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 63 (October 1989), p. 415; and L. Harder, ‘Mennonite Witness in an Urban World’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 34 (October 1960), pp. 278-279.

13. See Koontz, ‘Mennonites and Postmodernity’, pp. 410, 418; and L. Laurense, ‘The Catholicity of the Anabaptists’, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. 38 (July 1964), pp. 268, 426.