Follow the White Rabbit: Reframing the Spiritual Journey

October 5th, 2009

The use of the word postmodern by youth pastors is a curious and difficult one to define. It almost seems to be a catchword by which we might meancutting edgenon-traditional, or better than ever. But I think the phrase “follow the white rabbit” might be a good way to describe what the word means. This phrase is quoted from the original Matrix movie and obviously refers to the classic tale Alice in Wonderland.

“Follow the white rabbit” isn't some description of a drug-induced journey, although youth ministry might feel that way at times; instead, I think it could be seen as a more holistic way to imagine our journey of faith. Postmodernism—in my own vocabulary—is one word I use to describe a new kind of faith walk. If my evangelical forefathers marched forth to the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” I think I might resonate more with Delirious's “Deeper.” For me, the spiritual journey isn't a march into a great spiritual battle but more like a journey down into a rabbit burrow. It's not about marching towards evil with banners unfurled and flying in the wind but about traveling with a band of friends into unknown and mysterious territory.

I know when I use this kind of language, it can sound dangerous—like I am on a slippery slope. Well, I might respond to that with the words of a Bible college professor who said to me, “Everywhere is a slippery slope!” I think the prof. was right, and I believe that this is one of the benefits of postmodernism. Postmodernism reveals to us the (at times) precarious nature of human understanding. This used to freak me out; frankly, sometimes it still does, but there's some really good news to go with it, as well.

The Good News

My faith doesn't rest its confidence in my understanding; it lies in “the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known” (Lesslie Newbigin,Proper Confidence). Faith isn't confidence in my ability to figure it all out, but trust in someone greater than me who does have it all figured out.

I've sensed this intellectual move from confidence about faith in Christ to uncertainty about faith in Christ in the young people with whom I work. They seem to be asking questions like “How can I know the truth? How can I be sure that Christianity is true?”

It's similar to Neo in the original Matrix movie. Neo senses that something isn't right about the reality he's experiencing, but he can't determine what's out of kilter. I have a friend who used to be a youth pastor, and he referred to moments like this as “spider sense.” It's the sense that things are not exactly what they seem to be, which potentially pose either a liberating or devastating realization—or both.</p>

It's liberating, because it can suggest a new kind of faith. It means that one's faith doesn't have to be a carbon copy of the previous generation's. It can take on a life and depth of its own. It suggests that the faith is flexible enough to be profoundly true even in a new kind of cultural situation.

It's devastating, because the new suspicions about what is really real can make the Christian faith seem like a socially constructed universe. This is a frightening prospect. Then the Christian faith could be just one construction amongst many other religious constructions.

I've walked through discussions like these with a number of our teens and young adults, and many of them feel like their faith is being eroded by the influx of these new ideas—which is decidedly uncomfortable for them. Where can they dialogue about the seeming inability of faith to deal with the sophisticated philosophical suggestions that come from the media? Well, I'd think that youth ministers should be near the top of the list.

Perhaps the need for youth pastors is greater than ever. Perhaps young people need adult advocates who've “followed the white rabbit” themselves and found that God was with them, that God had been faithful in the journey, and that postmodernity hadn't derailed their faiths but rather recast them. The youth pastor could express a humble confidence in God's faithfulness and reliability even in the face of postmodernity.

Over the past five years I've begun to move in the direction of being able to dialogue with Christian and non-Christian teens alike. I want to be able to talk to them about the resiliency and depth of the Christian faith, even in the face of those who see it as only a social construction.

This movement on my part has been fueled by a concern that teens aren't ready for the rigors of secular academics. We have a sizable portion of our students who move on to university after high school. Are they equipped with the kind of understanding, teaching, and trust in God that will help them in the university environment? Have we fostered a community of believers who can gather around them to help and encourage them during times of doubt?

Throughout this process of dialogue with students, I began to see that I needed a more vigorous understanding of the intellectual climate that seems to be emerging. It was as if I was being beckoned to “follow the white rabbit.” So I did. This journey has certainly not been as slick looking as The Matrix or as magical as Alice in Wonderland, but it's been fascinating and has ultimately added strength and depth to my faith. It's also helped me understand more profoundly where my teens are and how desperately they need a word from God that addresses their postmodern state of being.

One of the teens in our group recently sent me an e-mail with this line: “I still find life and especially spirituality really confusing.” This statement may seem to be no big deal but it seems significant to me. You see, this note came from a good kid from a great home who had grown up with all the “right” teaching and good influences. Even so, he finds the prospect of “working out his faith” disorienting. I've had numerous discussions with him; and it's not that he still doesn't get the whole gospel, but rather that he's trying to sort out some complex ideas. He understands justification, salvation, the importance of the church, etc.; but he wonders how all that information connects with the philosophical ideas from this emerging consciousness we call postmodern.

It's because of experiences like this that I realize the grave element in youth ministry today. Although it's a simple gospel that youth ministers speak, it's being preached in a world that's questioning the very foundations of what make Christian belief credible. Teens are genuinely concerned about the ability of their faiths to survive in the postmodern world. They wonder if their faiths are intellectually credible, or just narrow and defensive? I realize that when I speak to kids, it's not just about how to challenge them to stay sexually abstinent or to talk to others about Jesus. It's also to demonstrate the profound meaning of the gospel even in this new intellectual environment.

The greatest benefit of this development is the powerful sense of engagement during teaching or preaching times. If teens are genuinely concerned about the state of their faiths in the face of contemporary realities—and I think they really are!—then listening and interacting at youth meetings takes on a more sober and thoughtful tone. I've become convinced that teens want to learn how to revision and reinterpret their faiths in light of different categories of thinking, which seems to add a new depth to Paul's words about working out your faith with “fear and trembling” (Phillippians 2:12b).

Books that have been helpful to me include:
The Survival Guide: How To Be Students and Disciples at the Same Time, Tony Campolo and William Willimon
Postmodernizing the Faith, Millard Erickson
Finding Faith, Brian McLaren
The Church on the Other Side, Brian McLaren
A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren
Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship, Lesslie Newbigin
Mustard Seed Vs. McWorld, Tom Sine
The End of the World as We Know It: Clear Direction for Bold and Innovative Ministry in a Postmodern World, Chuck Smith Jr.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.