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The Parable of the Sower: A Postmodern Parable?

The Parable of the Sower may be Jesus’ most popular parable.  The images are clear and the message is powerful.  However, I wonder if the Parable of the Sower helps us with something else: the discussion over the church in the postmodern era.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on postmodernism.  In fact, I regularly find myself trying to wrap my arms around this philosophical and cultural beast.  My current dive into postmodernism is re-reading James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  There are two things I appreciate about Smith: he is a professor at a great school (Calvin!) and he has actually read the most popular philosophers equated with postmodernity (not many of today’s popular commentators on postmodernity can actually claim this feat!).  But Smith says something in his introduction that led me back to the Parable of the Sower.  I wonder if Smith is on to something here…

First the Parable of the Sower: We all know this parable.  However, not as many of us are as aware of the deep discussion of Isaiah’s prophecy in the midst of this parable.  Jesus introduces this discussion by giving his reason for speaking in parables: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more…whoever does not have, even what he has, will be taken from him” (Matt. 13:11-12).  Then he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 which says in part: “You will be every hearing but never understanding, you will be ever seeing but never perceiving…”  The basic point being made is this: God is sovereign over who receives the message of the kingdom.  As David Turner says, “God gives some the capacity to understand these secrets but does not give this understanding to others.”  This portion of Matthew resembles a similar and even stronger pronouncement of God’s sovereignty in Matthew 11:25-27.

Now postmodernism: Smith sees a lot of continuities between modernity and postmodernity (such as self-sufficiency, naturalism, freedom, consumerism, etc).  However, he sees a significant discontinuity in terms of knowledge and truth.  Modernity adopted an Enlightenment optimism in reason.  Modernity said that it is possible to achieve neutral, objective truth via our reasoning ability.

The church in the modern era accepted this Enlightenment optimism in reason.  In the modern era Christian evangelism was equated with “proving” the truth of Christianity.  Christians believed that neutral, objective truth via reason was possible, so all we had to do was convince people of the reasonableness of Christianity.  This is classical apologetics and can be found in many forms, including Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

Postmodernity, on the other hand, rejects much of this optimism.  Postmodernity says that it is impossible to achieve neutral, objective truth via our reasoning ability because we all interpret the world through our context.  Therefore, neutral and objective truth is not possible.

I realize that this latter statement makes many Christians cringe, but there is a lot of truth in it.  The truth is that people do view the world through a lens.  Whether you call that lens our “worldview” or our “presuppositions,” we have a lens.  Therefore, we interpret everything we experience.

This is a good place for an important disclaimer: By the preceding statements I do not mean that neutral, objective truth does not exist.  I simply mean that it is impossible for people – sinful people – to achieve it on our own.

This is where Smith sees a tremendous connection with Reformed theology (though he doesn’t say so that explicitly).  Reformed theology teaches that humans are totally depraved: sin has negatively impacted every aspect of our being and relationships.  Therefore, our minds and our reasoning ability is impacted by sin (the “noetic effect of sin”).  The solution, according to Reformed theology, is that it is only possible to come to faith in Jesus Christ through God’s unconditional election.  In other words, it is God and God alone (not persuasive arguments, evidence, or proof) that changes our worldview/presuppositions so that we can see (interpret!) the world as God sees the world.

This is the message of the Parable of the Sower.  Acceptance of the truth of the kingdom of God is only possible through God.  It is God who reorients our hearts and minds to view the world through His eyes.  Without God, we will continue to interpret the world through our lens, not God’s lens, and will never see the world as it truly is.

For Smith, this is extremely helpful for postmodern evangelism.  Rather than evangelizing through classical apologetics, Smith prefers a presuppositional approach. In a postmodern era, we need not be concerned with “proving” Christianity.  In a postmodern era “The first and chief defense of the gospel…is not an argument but the life of the church conformed to Christ by the Spirit in service and suffering.  The church doesn’t have an apologetic; it is an apologetic” (p. 29).

There are a lot of troubling aspects about the postmodern era.  But the postmodern teaching that it is impossible to achieve neutral, objective truth need not be one of them.  Rather, this truth – which goes perfectly with a Reformed understanding of the impact of sin – makes us ever more aware that savlation is from the Lord and from the Lord alone!

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