Reading Like a Postmodern

flaming planetAs I was (for nearly the last time?) riding the bus home today, I happened upon an abandoned book. At first I supposed it had merely been forgotten; it had an old stone arch through which shone the Earth, in flames, hurtling through the starry void. I was convinced that it must be a starry void, not simply outer space, on account of the ancient arch, so I picked it up expecting some kind of sci-fi/fantasy knock off. The title was An Open Door (Potter’s House, 1985), which, with the earth and void, brought to mind A Swiftly Tilting Planet and A Wind at the Door, making me quite confident I was about to read a delightfully incomprehensible fantasy novel. Surprise abounded when I began to read the text, which went like this:

In a little town in Arizona, God chose to unleash a spiritual revolution. A struggling pastor got tired of “religion as usual” and was bold enough to step out on the word of God. Step by step God brought them back to the Bible principles that caused the New Testament church to shake its world.

Birthed out of the Jesus People movement the Prescott church took those early concepts of radical street evangelism and harnessed them to the church. Struggling to obey, the congregation learned about discipleship, church planting and the power of the indigenous church

The result has been the launching of hundreds of churches, the raising up of powerful crusade and conference ministries, and above all; obedience to the gospel command, “Go Ye into all the world” This is that story.

It still took me two readings of this description to realize that this was not some kind of odd spiritual thriller/horror book. Such is the weight of evidence built up by a worn flaming planet/mystic ruin soft cover with a bright yellow sans serif title. It might as well have had a shirtless viking in there. After finally convincing myself that this book was for real by recalling my days as a student missionary, I opened it at random to a spot in the middle of the first chapter:

His struggle with L.I.F.E. Bible College began. It was a contradiction that the desert of Arizona would someday be an oasis of spiritual life for Mitchell, while the plush and fertile Los Angeles valley, teeming with life, was a spiritual wilderness. Here was a place of testing. His call had come; would he prove faithful to it? Like Moses who faced the wilderness and testing of commitment and denial, Mitchell would have to pay his spiritual dues.

School was a bad experience. Mitchell throbbed with energy ready to be unleashed. His wiry raw-boned frame sought release that never seemed to come. More was taught about what not to do than what to de, and many of the ill-directed concepts he learned took him years to forget. In their late 20’s, the Mitchells were not the formable lumps of clay the professors were accustomed to shaping. His wife refused to submit that first year to the school’s “no smoking” rule, and Mitchell wouldn’t accept teachings that leaned towards Calvinistic doctrine. Aggression had been one of his main characteristics before he was saved and he still saw no reason to bend before what, to him, was obvious error. Standing for what he believed, earned him the title of a rebel, as it does today.

The fifties were a time of growing American prosperity; Dobie Gillis philosophized about girls, and shows like, “leave it To Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Ozzie and Harriet” laid out a comfortable self-centred morality. The goal of the nation was to enjoy itself. Most people felt that prosperity, and all that went with it, was a spiritual right. They ran after it like a chicken after corn. Mitchell chose a different course. He wanted to give himself to school and study completely. It didn’t matter that the school wasn’t what he wanted it to be, or that his family limped from bill to bill, barely hanging on to financial solvency. God had called and he would follow.

He threw himself into college, but it was a battle. The school had sprung out of Pentecostal revival fires. Originally it had been formed to equip evangelists, but as time went on, it had drifted more and more towards a copy of other religious institutions. The faculty began to be filled with those who had failed as pastors and were promoted into teaching others. By the time Mitchell got there, many in the school’s faculty looked down on divine healing, the gifts of the Spirit, and even the revival ministry itself.

For Mitchell this was discouraging, because like the needle of a compass, his heart pointed in the direction of God’s moving. Not offering any actual practical experience, the school concentrated on concepts and ideas. This gave him a good foundation in the Word, but left him practically unprepared for the day to day realities of pasturing.

It was here at school that one of his most offensive habits began to show up – honesty. Mitchell was incapable of the duplicity and glad-handing of the plastic gospel that was becoming common.

As I stared at this passage with you-can’t-be-serious intensity, I realized: despite my best intentions, I’m reading this as a postmodern — altogether ironically. I’m not sure what to make of that. It seems a bit of a shame, but that it can hardly be helped — like modern cynicism. Even the writer of the book must have been watching 50s TV shows cynically to have seen in them primarily “comfortable self-centered morality.” I put the book back on the seat and got off at my appointed bus stop, wondering to myself about the value — or valuelessness of our present habit of cynical reading. Considering the “information glut,” it may be necessary, but it also seems a little mean — ungenerous, cramped.

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