Interpreting Life

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

One can argue that a defining characteristic of the postmodern era is uncertainty, captured in the popular expression: “The only constant is change.⁠1” This uncertainty is compounded by a lack of consensus on basic values and the rapid pace of changes in technology and social conventions.

Postmodern uncertainty is also in sharp contrast with the stability of traditional society where tradition informs every important decision in one’s life—what gender roles we follow, who our friends are, who we marry, what profession we take up, and who and how we worship. Life has meaning in a traditional society because when we accept this guidance, we are rewarded with status and honor. 

Postmodern culture questions tradition and focuses on the individual who is responsible for every imaginable decision with little or no guidance. If we succeed as postmodern individuals, we are fully employed, have a medical plan, and can buy stuff, but we have no guarantee of status and honor because the culture’s standards keep morphing. Thus, anxiety has become a defining characteristic of the postmodern era.

The Indeterminacy Problem

Postmodern anxiety and uncertainty point to a more general problem of indeterminacy that is more typically masked when we act on consensus.

If you think that postmodern anxiety is a myth or an exaggeration, how do you respond to sleep deprivation? At one point, I got anxious and depressed. What was wrong with me? As I thought things through, I realized that my depression typically occurred on Saturdays. Then I realized that I was not depressed, I was tired from a long week. A good Saturday afternoon nap each week did away with my “depression.” I had interpreted my own physical condition incorrectly. Clearly, our attitude about the little setbacks in life can make all the difference in the living of it.

Indeterminacy arise in statistics because we know that correlation does not indicate causality. In theory, many causes can explain a particular correlation so a theory is required to suggest the cause of an observed correlation. Otherwise, the relationship can be entirely a random association.⁠2 If sunspots are associated with weather on earth, what explains this relationship?⁠3 The Rorschach (inkblot) test provides an interesting application of this indeterminacy problem (Smith 2001, 205-206). When a psychiatrist shows a patient a random inkblot and the patients sees patterns in the inkblot, the patterns arise from preconceptions of patient being imposed on the inkblot. Does the patient see angels or demons? Naked women or monsters? These preconceptions (or random associations) provide insight into the interior life of the patient that are hard to track any other way.

Telling a Faithful Story

The anxiety and uncertainty of postmodern society presents the Christian leader with a kind of cultural inkblot test. How can leadership successfully navigate through this perilous test?

One answer can be taken from my earlier comments on the book, Crucial Conversations, where I noted four stages in a dialogue: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting (PGMS 2012, 110). They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in. The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action. Crafting a vision for the church is an important starting point.

An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful. Three kinds of unproductive (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (PGMS 2012, 116-119).⁠4 More productive is to tune into the church’s history and to compare it with other faithful churches or stories from the Bible.

Example of Barnabas

The story of Barnabas comes to mind when I see many churches in action. In his book, Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement, Paul Moots (2014, 2-3) writes:

“The ministry of encouragement is the art of leading and supporting others in the discovery of their own spiritual gifts and call to discipleship…We can become a Barnabas…encouragement allows the congregation to shape its ministry around its strengths rather than to base its work on some model derived from another congregation’s story, another pastor’s experience.”

Notice the role of story in this description. Each of us and each congregation has its own story of its Christian walk that deserves to be honored and built on. Herein lies our spiritual gifts and our strengths in ministry.

Encouragement is at the heart of the multiplication of gifts and church growth (Moots 2014, 6). It stands in contrast to the usual concept of discipling that implicitly (or explicitly) defines discipling almost exclusively in a teacher-student role and seeks more to replicate than to strengthen. At the heart of encouragement is respect, much like Barnabas clearly respected Paul. Imagine what might have happened had Barnabas attempted to fashion Paul into a mini-me version of himself?

In Hebrew, Barnabas literally means “son of the prophet,” but Doctor Luke gives it a metaphorical translation: “son of encouragement.” Interestingly, it is a nickname given to Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Would that we all be remembered in such a way.


Greene, William H. 1997. Econometric Analysis. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Moots, Paul. 2014. Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement. Herndon: Alban Institute.

Patterson, Kerry Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (PGMS). 2012. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.


1 Ironically, this expression is attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) who actually said: πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει (everything changes and nothing stands still).

2 Statisticians frequently talk about the problem of inferring causality from correlations, but they seldom write about it because it undermines a lot of popular, but spurious statistical procedures. Greene (1997, 816) provide a review of the problem in discussing a statistical procedure called Granger casualty, a kind of statistical work around.

3 Superstition can be defined as a random association being confused with a particular causality. If seeing a black cat is a bad omen, exactly how does that relationship work?

4 Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around. The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things.

Interpreting Life

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Value Of Life

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