The question is: Does the Bible contain or advocate a specific metanarrative?
We begin by asking, What is a metanarrative?
Jean-Francois Lyotard in his classic postmodern text of 1979, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, said, "I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth." (xxiii) Conversely, he defines postmodernism as follows: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives." (xxiv, emphasis added)
We might say that a metanarrative is a grand narrative that has explanatory power. It is a reference point into which one fits their own story. We see this at work in the contemporary situation as the United States and other western nations seek to spread freedom, democracy, and capitalism worldwide. We are working under the assumption that these things have a universal explanatory scope that can bring prosperity and meaning to other countries; that if these other countries would only use the American story as their own metanarrative then they, too, can find life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
One thing that Lyotard does in his text is to compare and contrast science with narrative, saying, "Science has always been in conflict with narratives." (xxiii) What is "Modern," then, is any science that legitimates itself in reference to a "metadiscourse," as we noted above: "I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth." (xxiii)
A "metadiscourse" is that which legitimates the pursuit of science, while we might suggest that a "metanarrative" is some theory that explains and legitimates all the narratives/stories/lives of a society or culture. Perhaps we might say that as Americans we explain and legitimate our pursuit of the "American Dream" by virtue of referencing the metanarrative provided through capitalism and democracy. But metanarratives are also static, absolute, and universal. They have an explanatory power that extends across boundaries. They are totalizing.
We continue with Lyotard as he describes a "narrative" culture - a culture deriving its meaning from stories. Lyotard discusses “popular stories” where the “successes or failures” of the hero “either bestow legitimacy upon social institutions (the function of myths), or represent positive or negative models (the successful or unsuccessful hero) of integration into established institutions (legends and tales). Thus the narratives allow the society in which they are told, on the one hand, to define its criteria of competence and, on the other, to evaluate according to those criteria what is performed or can be performed within it." (20)
But Lyotard makes an interesting point here. In such a culture, narratives do not have their power in reference to the past, but in the very act of repeating the narrative and telling the story by the simple fact that they do what they do: "Narratives, as we have seen, determine criteria of competence and/or illustrate how they are to be applied. They thus define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture, they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do." (23) The reference is not to the past, as much as it is to the act of recitation, drawing the rather startling conclusion that a narrative culture has no need to remember its past: "By way of simplifying fiction, we can hypothesize that, against all expectations, a collectivity that takes narrative as its key form of competence has no need to remember its past. It finds the raw material for its social bond not only in the meaning of the narratives it recounts, but also in the act of reciting them. The narratives’ reference may seem to belong to the past, but in reality it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation." (22, emphasis added)
Perhaps a good biblical example of a narrative culture might be the Israelites of the Old Testament who had been emancipated from the slavery of Egypt. They journeyed into the Promised Land with explicit reference to their story of God's deliverance through Moses. They were encouraged to "remember" this story. (Deut 5:15) Later, Joshua takes over and directs the Israelites according to their frame of reference. When he is old and ready to move on he passes along the same imperative to "remember." (Joshua 23) As we know from even a cursory reading of the Old Testament the people of Israel often "forgot" to reference the stories of their past. This happened, for example, soon after Joshua passes from the seen. (Judges 8:34) In Psalm 95:8 we find a reference to avoid the hardening of the heart that occurred by many in the past, "do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert."
So, what was the problem of the Israelites? Was it the fact that they did not cognitively recall the stories? Did they, in fact, "forget" the narrative or allow the story to slip from their collective minds? Or perhaps we might suggest that the stories were used to justify the institution and the actions of the community, while the moral of the story itself was lost. The failure of the Israelites, then, was not in failing to recall but in failing to recontextualize. They settled for a narrative community where the reciting of the story was sufficient, while the God of the story slipped away. As such, the critique is not necessarily that they did not "remember," but that they did not remember in such a way as to affect the current context. The past was the past. The past belonged to the work of God, but the present belonged to them.
From the above, it seems quite clear that the Bible contains stories and narrative, but this brings us back to the question of a biblical metanarrative.
First, we might ask, can we live life without a metanarrative? Some believers suggest that everyone has a metanarrative, even if they do not know it. Everyone, they suggest, lives their lives in reference to a totalizing explanation of reality that fits their life into that grand plan.
I am not going to spend a great deal time on this, although it certainly makes for a good discussion - but I will merely register my disagreement. It appears to me rather self-evident that the postmodern condition is, as Lyotard says, "an incredulity toward metanarratives." (xxiv) Lyotard even suggests (remember that this is back in 1979) that narrative has been lost as well: "The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements—narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on." (xxiv) In the postmodern world that Lyotard sees, humanity has even lost the nostalgia for narrative, "Most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative. It in no way follows that they are reduced to barbarity. What saves them from it is their knowledge that legitimation can only spring from their own linguistic practice and communicational interaction. Science 'smiling into its beard' at every other belief has taught them the hash austerity of realism." (41)
What replaced both narrative and metanarrative? Briefly, it is localized language games. Lyotard borrows Wittgenstein's idea of language games to speak of the diverse ways in which we communicate with each other. The implication, I believe, is that we gain meaning by connecting with others via language in its various forms. This occurs at a very localized level. Simply put, we develop little narratives: "little narrative remains the quintessential form of imaginative invention." (60)
We do not reference a grand, totalizing scheme, nor are we strictly a narrative culture. We live out our individual stories through a variety of intriguing language games. I think this is even more the case 30 years after Lyotard wrote The Postmodern Condition as it was back in 1979. The technological explosions have occurred, in large part, in the area of communication and networks of communication that engage us in countless language games on a daily basis.
More can be said on the way we communicate and find meaning via our language games, but we must return to the question of whether there is a "biblical" metanarrative. Does the Bible teach or hand us a metanarrative?
In our very brief examination of the Israelites we found that they likely fit more of a description of a "narrative" culture, rather than a culture that made reference to a grand narrative or metanarrative. I think this necessarily gives us a reason to be suspicious about the existence of any "biblical metanarrative." If Lyotard is even somewhat correct, then the idea of a "metanarrative" is something that is unique to Modern thought and as such it would have been a foreign concept to the mind of an ancient Israelite.
I have heard some believers defend the idea of a biblical metanarrative on grounds that the Bible presents us with the overarching theme of Fall and Redemption. This Fall-Redemption is a metanarrative that explains all of reality. Contained within it is the fact that humanity is in sin, that we cannot redeem ourselves, Christ came to redeem humanity, and we must place our trust in Christ for our redemption. There may be variations of the Fall-Redemption theme, but the argument for a biblical metanarrative generally comes back to these recurring key ideas.
I remain rather unimpressed by the attempt. The Bible may be used as a metanarrative - that I will not deny. In fact, I would even suggest that during the Modern era the Bible may have been put to good use as a metanarrative in competition with other metanarratives. I think that it was also misused as a metanarrative, but I allow God to use his Word in reaction to contemporary culture to accomplish whatever God wishes to accomplish. But ultimately I agree with Lyotard in the sense that metanarrative is a distinctly Modern development. I also agree that our culture is not currently either Modern or pre-Modern in the sense that we are not concerned with metanarrative nor are we nostalgic for narrative. We live in a rather strange time. Interesting, but strange.
Another concern I have with the idea of a biblical metanarrative is that we cannot escape the fact that what we call "the biblical metanarrative" is still a matter of interpretation. There is no one verse that states: This is the metanarrative that ye must use as a totalizing scheme and a vast explanatory theory. Instead, we must look at the various stories within Scripture and the various doctrines and even poetry and wisdom literature and somehow pull from that a metanarrative. But have we learned nothing from Modern Theology? Do we need to dust off the systematic theology texts once again? It is the interpreter who makes the decision as to what are the "grand themes" of the Bible. For Calvin it was the sovereignty of God. But not all agree. In fact, there are as many "grand themes" as there are theologians. This is because we are all interpreters. When we read the Bible we interpret.
Our interpretations are diverse. They are the product both of interacting with the text, but also of bringing our own presuppostions, questions and concerns to the text. But this is not a bad thing. This is a necessary aspect of interpretation. When we read the text the text impacts us, but we also impact the text. This is not a defense of absolute relativism. It is simply to suggest that as we interact with the biblical text it speaks not only of God's past work but also of the work of God in the present.
Nothing illustrates this better than a study of the hermeneutics of the book of Hebrews. In the book of Hebrews we find a dynamic interaction between the Old Testament text and the issues of the contemporary church. Christ had come. The paradigm had changed. As such, what was said to the Israelites was recontextualized based on what God was now doing through the Body of Christ.
Earlier I cited Psalm 95. In Hebrews 3 and 4 the warnings to Israel to pay attention to the past are recontextualized so that the believing community would not develop a hardened heart, but that they would encourage each other as long as it is called "Today." Additionally, believers are encouraged to "enter the Sabbath rest" by seizing the opportunities afforded by each "Today."
The recontextualizations are sometimes in close continuity with their original Old Testament context, while at other times they are very fluid and demonstrate a great deal of discontinuity with their original context. But what we see on display is that interpretation of the Word of God is never strictly a matter of reciting the past narrative but is simultaneously an appropriation and application of its meaning for the present. The Word of God is "Living and Active." (4:12)
There is s similar lesson here for the idea of a biblical metanarrative: We must always allow for dynamic interpretation. A metanarrative is a static idea. It is something that gains its Modern charm by totalizing and absolutizing our interpretation of reality. But this can be counter productive for faith, because faith must understand itself anew in each generation. Faith that grows static is complacency and has no place in the Bible. Hebrews 12 tells us that we are surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses." This represents the work of God in the past. It is an example for reference, but I do not believe that this necessarily implies that it must be used as a metanarrative that can be extrapolated and locked down in a static system. There is more more to the passage: We are to run the race with perseverance. This means that there is more to the story; there is the story of dynamic faith that must be recontextualized for every person in every moment of their life.
I want to reiterate that a so-called "biblical metanarrative" might be useful for some people and for some generations. However, I want to suggest that it is not a necessary ingredient for the Christian faith, and it is certainly not sufficient to produce faith.
For a perspective that favors the idea of a biblical metanarrative, see The Biblical Metanarrative. Also see Andrew's post at Open Source Theology for what one might call an "emerging" perspective on the issue.
A LOVE SUPREME
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Thursday, November 08, 2007
The question is: Does the Bible contain or advocate a specific metanarrative?