Keller describes five basic narratives which all cultures have about the world. He compares the ancient worldview before Jesus (B.C.), the Christianity worldview, and the current postmodern worldview.
These five narratives about the world really point out what our culture believes, and this is valuable not just for those of us writing sermons, but for every Christian living in this culture.
1: THE NATURAL WORLD
- B.C.: The natural world and human bodies are basically bad (or at least, inferior) and that the world of ideas and spirituality were superior or "more real."
- Christianity: God created the natural world and our bodies "good" and that studying them is an honorable thing--this belief caused the Scientific Revolution and the founding of all modern science. Anything bad in nature is the result of sin.
- Postmodernism: The natural world is the only reality and is neither good nor bad, but neutral. It simply is.
Today's society takes the Christian idea that the natural world is good and worth studying, and goes to the extreme of saying that it is the only reality and only what we learn by studying it can be trusted as true.
2: THE HISTORY OF CULTURE
- B.C.: History is basically cyclical and endless. What has happened before will happen again; "there is nothing new under the sun."
- Christianity: God has a specific plan in history and God will bring it to its conclusion. We are progressing toward His end. Part of our job is to help create "The City of God" (to use Augustine's term) here on Earth; we pray for this and seek to live this way in our lives.
- Postmodernism: History is always progressing, so every era is "better" than the prior era. Today is better and wiser than the Renaissance, which is better and wiser than the Middle Ages, which is better and wiser than Classical Culture, etc. Whatever is new, is better.
Today's society takes the Christian idea of progressing toward God's kingdom, but removes God's kingdom from the idea. Thus the progression is somehow an end to itself. This is what Lewis called "chronological snobbery" and now the idea is that those who came before us were foolish and superstitious but now we have everything pretty much figured out.
- B.C.: The individual doesn't really matter, at least when compared to the tribe/clan/society at large. To think of the individual instead of the collective good is always bad.
- Christianity: God created us all in His image. Each individual has incalculable value and dignity--and yet, we are also supposed to place a high value on giving up our own rights and wealth for the betterment of the collective community.
- Postmodernism: The individual's choices and desires are all that matters, and society should never encroach on that freedom. This is why abortionists, anti-vaccine parents, pro-gun lobbyists, and gay marriage advocates all make the same basic argument: it's my choice, society can't tell me what to do.
Our society took the Christian dignity of the individual and the Christian call for individual civil rights and took it to libertarian extremes. Now, the only true virtue in our society's view is freedom of choice; and the only sin is to discriminate against someone for their choices.
4: FATE AND FREE WILL
- B.C.: Our lives are controlled by the Fates. Individual choices don't matter, things will turn out as they would have anyway. No matter what you choose, Fate will make everything work out so you still make the same choice. (See Oedipus, the Odyssey, the Iliad, etc.)
- Christianity: God gives us the free will to truly choose our actions, and this has a significant impact on the world around us. He will return and culminate history as He plans, but we have a significant impact on the justice of the world in the meantime.
- Postmodernism: Our choices matter and can change the world, and we as a society get to define what that progressive future should look like. As Woody Allen said, "Every artist chooses their own moral space."
Our society took the Christian idea of free will and our ability to shape culture and separated it from its root of God. As a result, we as a democratic society simply choose what is 'moral' or 'immoral', without any actual absolute truth. We are supposed to achieve justice but can redefine justice whenever we want.
5: HUMAN VALUE
- B.C.: The individual's worth is determined by society. If your actions bring honor on your family and tribe then you have honor as an individual. If your actions bring shame, then you have no value.
- Christianity: God imputes your value to you, as you are His image-bearer. So no matter who you are, you have immense human value. Your emotions and feelings are very important, as a proper theology will ground you with self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Postmodernism: Self-esteem and self-confidence are granted not by God or by society but by your own mind. You simply need to "do you" and "be real" and "chase your dreams." As long as you don't allow others to define yourself, then you will have high self-worth.
Our society took the Christian idea of self-worth and emotional intelligence having value, and made them the only part of the equation of importance. They not only removed the influence of society in determining your worth, but also took God Himself out of the equation, so that if you are feeling down it is only because you have failed to free yourself from the 'judgment' of others.
In each instant--similar to the ideas of Turek's Stealing from God--what we see is that our postmodern society has actually taken Christianity's ideas and perverted them, by choosing one (good) aspect and taking it so far that it becomes a negative thing.
What is fascinating about Keller's observations is that they affect all people regardless of political stripe--liberals and conservatives and libertarians all make the same basic (and wrong) arguments. And often we don't even realize that these narratives are worldviews; they have become so ingrained in our thinking that we have to purposefully think about the Christian worldview.
Preachers, you inherit the task of the Hebrew prophets--to point out to the culture its errors and bring them back to the Christian mindset. All Christians--read this as many times as it takes to internalize it, and it will help protect you from the deceptively-attractive memes, worldviews, and narratives of our increasingly-broken world.