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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Biblical Metanarrative

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.

Notes:
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.

40 comments:

samlcarr said...

Agreed that the act of interpretation is a very individual 'thing'. The bible does not seem to internally project a metanarrative. But my own doubts on metanarratives are more a product of my lack of faith in my self. I don't believe that I am really capable of understanding beyond a very limited horizon, so for me to select a metanarrative and to assert that this is IT, would be very wrong.

ktismatics said...

Don't you think Christianity already had a good long run as THE metanarrative par excellence? The convergence of philosophy, government, social structure, architecture, etc. all under the aegis of the of the church defined the high middle ages throughout Europe. America didn't even get off the ground until the medieval era was at an end, so there's no traces of the original metanarrative in collective memory or the ruins that still lie under the cities and scattered across the countryside.

Modernity almost can be defined as the attempt to find an alternative to Christianity as the Western metanarrative. The Enlightenment and capitalism came together in the wake of medievalism's slow disintegration. I think some of the PoMo Christians, notably the Radical Orthodox segment, are looking to restore a kind of medieval totalization within the Church, while acknowledging that the Church can no longer dominate secular society as it once did. So the RadOrthodox metanarrative manifests itself only locally, within the alternate reality of the Church, an immanent force that will emerge in the cracks and around the edges of a crumbling postmodern age.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sam: I don't believe that I am really capable of understanding beyond a very limited horizon, so for me to select a metanarrative and to assert that this is IT, would be very wrong.

Sam,

I am sure there are a few Evangelicals out there who would be willing to help you find the biblical Metanarrative that is IT.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics,

Your comments are insightful, and they necessarily complicate the discussion.

The first thing that comes to my mind is that Lyotard, in particular, is interested in discussing metanarrative as it relates to "science." It would seem an indisputable point that one of the primary characteristics that differentiates the Modern era from the previous ages is the advancements in science and the corresponding philosophical activity that sought to take account of it. Lyotard specifically mentions that the "metadiscourse" is meant to legitimate "science" ("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])

I'm just speculating here, so feel free to disagree, but it seems to me that perhaps Lyotard's idea of "metanarrative" may have been expanded beyond his original intention. Lyotard's focus, at least in Postmodern Condition, seems to have been with Modernity, specifically with the scientific explorations/philosophy associated with it. (Hence, it is little surprise to me that he is intrigued with Wittgenstein, who assaulted philosophical perspectives that mirrored scientific methodology.)

It appears to me that we don't necessarily use the term "metanarrative" in the narrow sense of Lyotard. Rather, we refer to it as any theoretical framework that legitimates ourselves and our lives and the lives of our immediate community. So, our "little narrative" becomes a "metanarrative" if we assume that there is a grand explanation that can totalize all narratives for all peoples. It is in this sense of the term "metanarrative" that your point becomes relevant b/c were there not theoretical philosophies that provided a grand explanation for all of reality? For all people groups? I word this in the form of a question b/c my knowledge of medieval thought is somewhat poor.

If my distinction is correct (between Lyotard's intention for the term "metanarrative" and the way in which we now use the term), then I think I did not make this distinction clear in my post.

Even if there were metanarratives in the Medieval era, would you not agree that they were different than the Modern era? Or do you see more continuity than we typically presume? If so, then perhaps you can flesh out some of the continuity that you see.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics:
Don't you think Christianity already had a good long run as THE metanarrative par excellence?

Whether one calls it a "metanarrative" or not, I think it is more than clear that Christianity has been a dominant philosophical and cultural force second to none, even up through the current day....of course, I speak as an American. Things are a bit different in Europe, as I understand.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics:
So the RadOrthodox metanarrative manifests itself only locally, within the alternate reality of the Church, an immanent force that will emerge in the cracks and around the edges of a crumbling postmodern age.

Can you also expand this thought a bit. For instance, what do you mean by the "alternate reality of the Church"? Are you saying the church is now an alternative to postmodern culture or philosophy?

In what ways do you see the postmodern age "crumbling" and cracking?

ktismatics said...

Lyotard is offering a critique of the modern, which was itself a critique of the premodern. The Christian story as ordinarily told certainly qualifies as a metanarrative -- a grand overarching narrative in which all other smaller narratives are embedded and by which they must be interpreted. The grand narrative: God created the universe and mankind, man sinned and became separated from God, Christ died for sinful man in order to achieve reconciliation between God and man, some day the dross of corrupt human endeavor will be removed and the kingdom of God will shine forth in all its brilliance. From the lowliest peasant to the most powerful ruler, everyone's story is encapsulated in this larger story. Kings and priests and husbands gain their authority from God, churches dominate every city, the law is underwritten by God's morality.

Science is one of the big forces that emerged out of the medieval Christian synthesis. It offers a different sort of explanation of how things work and fit together. In the grand scientific synthesis all subfields of empirical inquiry fit together and squeeze out any other sort of meaning. While a few professional scientists might look at things that way, not many do or ever did. Further, science is like a foreign language to most ordinary folk, in contrast to Christianity which penetrates all social and professional strata. Compared to medieval Christianity, science has always been a piss-poor metanarrative.

Christianity was much more of a "totalizing discourse" than science ever was. And as science gets more and more specialized and sophisticated it gets farther and farther away from ordinary discourse. Nothing has come along to equal medieval Christianity as a metanarrative in the Western world. It might be that Islam still serves that function in other parts of the world, what with the Koran defining the laws of the land and obligatory prayer 5 times a day enforced by roaming morality police.

ktismatics said...

I'm sure you know more about radical orthodoxy than I do. The alternate reality means that the church no longer occupies center stage, dominating society, art, politics, economics, etc. Now it's a side show, one among many kinds of activities that draw certain numbers of people. If Christianity is going to be a metanarrative in these postmodern days, it can only be so for those people whose reality is defined from a perspective inside that side tent.

ktismatics said...

I'm sure you know more about radical orthodoxy than I do. The alternate reality means that the church no longer occupies center stage, dominating society, art, politics, economics, etc. Now it's a side show, one among many kinds of activities that draw certain numbers of people. If Christianity is going to be a metanarrative in these postmodern days, it can only be so for those people whose reality is defined from a perspective inside that side tent.

Daniel said...

Ktismatics you exceed all expectations with your first response. You seem to have read Hardt and Negri's Empire. Am I right?

Jon what a great question you pose in your original post.

After printing it out and reading it at leisure God led me back to read the first chapter of 'The Divine Conquest' by Towzer.

I particularly want to respond to your last paragraph (... there is more to the story; there is the story of dynamic faith that must be recontextualised 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.)

Permit me a little direct quotation from Chapter 1 of Towzer's book:

The Eternal Continuum

AS I WAS WITH MOSES
SO I WILL BE WITH THEE.
Joshua 1:5

...

...


Some who desire to be teachers of the Word, but who understand neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm, insist upon "naked" faith as the only way to know spiritual things. By this they mean a conviction of the trustworthiness of the Word of God (a conviction, it may be noted, which the devils share with them). But the man who has been taught even slightly by the Spirit of Truth will rebel at this perversion. His language will be, "I have heard Him and observed Him. What have I to do anymore with idols?" For he cannot love a God who is no more than a deduction from a text. He will crave to know God with a vital awareness that goes beyond words, and to live in the intimacy of personal communion.

...

The spiritual giants of old were men who at some time became acutely conscious of the real Presence of God and maintained that consciousness for the rest of their lives... The essential point is, they experienced God. How otherwise can the saints and prophets be explained? How otherwise can we account for the amazing power for good they have exercised over countless generations? Is it not that they walked in conscious communion with the real Presence and addressed their prayers to God with the artless conviction that they were addressing Someone actually there?

***

There is so much more in this first chapter of Towzer's book that is relevant, and I encourage you all to read it in full if you can. However, at this point in reading I paused, and thought: is communion perhaps the counterpart opposite of narrative?

Jesus asked us to remember Him, when we take the 'bread and wine'. In a sense, it is a re-narration that connects his death on the cross with the God's redemption of Israel from out of Egypt. The metanarrative moment of the Bible, maybe - but expressed as a present connection with the living God.

"This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you." (Luke 22:19,20)

Jesus Christ enabling us to enter the throne-room with confidence and commune with Almighty God.

The book of Hebrews was a brilliant citation in this context.

True faith can only come through genuine experience of God, not through incredulous narrative.

However useful it may have been for Modern man (or pre-modern in Ktismatics argument), the metanarrative reading of the Bible can never substitute for what Towzer calls an "arresting encounter" with God. At best, it only reinforces the 'letter' in man's hearts.

ktismatics said...

No, Daniel, I haven't read Empire, nor much else in contemporary Marxist theory. I expect their position is that we have a metanarrative already in place, which is the American-led globalization of marketplace economics and neoliberal ideology backed up by military superiority. Isn't that the idea? What appears to be PoMo fragmentation is really part of the overall strategy of divide-and-conquer combined with niche marketing. I think this combination has a much stronger claim to metanarrative than does science, don't you?

Daniel said...

BTW Jon, I love the link to 'The Biblical Metanarrative'. Thanks!

Daniel said...

Ktismatics, considering you didn't read Empire you made an excellent guess. I hurriedly posted a nice long reply that got smoked in cyber space!

Daniel said...

Here goes again...


What gave me the suspicion that you had read Hardt and Negri was your last paragraph:

So the RadOrthodox metanarrative manifests itself only locally, within the alternate reality of the Church, an immanent force that will emerge in the cracks and around the edges of a crumbling postmodern age.


This is H&N they argue, but they don't see the Church. Rather, an ensemble of social movements called "the multitude".

They also borrow some Foucault to describe how the neo-liberal paradigm is reproduced "bio-politically".

Interestingly, it is the success of early Church growing within the cracks of the Roman Empire that they take as the model for their radical politics...

And they have a "plane of immanence" in there, an "alternate reality" (autonomism) to global capitalism that becomes its undoing (the process of globalisation, they say, is heading towards a new political economy prefigured by the Roman Empire historically).

I used to be impressed by their imaginitive book, since becoming a Christian I regard it as parasitic to the truth.

Daniel said...

But it does make a better mn than science, I agree.

ktismatics said...

Thanks for the scoop on Hardt and Negri, Daniel -- I'll have to have a look. "The multitude" as in immanent force emerging out of the Empire interests me. Have the Marxists given up on revolution? It sounds like H&N have some commonalities with Deleuze & Guattari's immanence. It'd be interesting to know whether the Radical Orthodox crowd cite H&N.

Daniel said...

There's lots of d&g in h&n.

They are not Marxists in the conventional sense, rather they ground themselves in subjectivity.

Its a very clever book and I should probably read it again myself. Its a good sociological application of pomo ideas. Still to get the fame it deserves I gather.

Another kindred Italian is Giorgio Agamben. Heard of him?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics:
The Christian story as ordinarily told certainly qualifies as a metanarrative -- a grand overarching narrative in which all other smaller narratives are embedded and by which they must be interpreted.

Is it fair for me to dichotomize the Christian metanarrative "as ordinarily told" and the biblical scriptures? My question in this post was whether or not there was a "biblical narrative." You raise some intriguing points, so I ask you: Is there a difference between a "biblical" metanarrative and a "Christian" metanarrative? The latter would suppose that it has based its metanarrative upon the biblical Scripture, however, I'm not so sure (1) that the Scriptures were intended to function as a metanarrative and (2) I'm not convinced that metanarrative is the best use these days for Scripture.

What do you think? Is it a fair move to separate "Christian" metanarrative from "biblical" metanarrative?

ktismatics said...

Agamben is another one I've heard of but haven't read.

The emerging position seems to be that Scripture, community, and subjective belief cluster together as a sort of 3-legged stool that's foundational to the Christian narrative. The Biblical narrative separate from the other two is "modernist," or so I've heard.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics: And as science gets more and more specialized and sophisticated it gets farther and farther away from ordinary discourse. Nothing has come along to equal medieval Christianity as a metanarrative in the Western world.

Ktismatics: Modernity almost can be defined as the attempt to find an alternative to Christianity as the Western metanarrative. The Enlightenment and capitalism came together in the wake of medievalism's slow disintegration.

Let's follow through on your thoughts of Modernity's development and then work back to Lyotard. Let's tell it like this: In the Medieval era we have a totalizing metanarrative called "Christianity." It was institutionalized and the institution grew in power and prominence, dominating all areas of life and becoming a political machine unlike any other. Religion and state were one.

Then comes along Modernity. Science begins to solve the mysteries that were formerly reserved for the God, with the Church cashing in on holding the keys to heaven. But science can now improve life and solve the mystery. Philosophers realize this. They also realize that there may be more a more objective playing field for religious and philosophical discussion to take place: Reason and Rationality. The Modern experiment may deserve the benefit of the doubt: Let reason/rationality or even revelation take the place of a dominant religio-political machine.

Back to science. Science begins to loose the human mind from its captivity to the church via mystery. Now we go back to Lyotard's comment:
"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)

In Modernity we are seeing a shift to take account for science and reason via the metanarrative. The metanarrative legitimates what we have come to know through science. The Church is out of the picture. No more institutional "say so" to provide the framework for people's lives. So, we now must develop something to take its place. A narrative on a grand scale. One ring to rule them all. A theoretical construct with exhaustive explanatory scope. Hence Marxism, Capitalism, Hegel's Spirit, etc.

The old Church Institution is out. No longer does the Church's saying it make it so. Christianity now must legitimate itself as a metanarrative on other grounds. But why must it develop a metanarrative? Because it lost its power. It is gradually feeling itself back peddling. Everyone else has a metanarrative with exhaustive explanatory scope, so why not Christianity? After all, we've got a great big book with a great big God! So, Christianity now enters the marketplace of ideas with a metanarrative all its own. A totalizing view of history: Creation-Fall-Redemption-Glorification.

But here is what seems to be the constant: Metanarrative used as a tool to preserve the Institution.

But I'm something of an Anabaptist, and I'm also a postmodern child, so I'm not so much into preserving the Institution.

With no institution to preserve, why do I need a metanarrative? As far as I can see, the only reason would be if it were integral to interpreting Scripture. But I see the metanarrative as a human construct, now a self-evident Divine idea.

How does the issue of "institution" figure into your interpretation of the Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

Thanks for posting those excellent comments from Tozer. Very timely.

One thing I also appreciate when I read Tozer is his ability to identify and expose idols. He had a good deal of wisdom in this area.

I also heard a recording of him speaking. He also had something of a sharp tongue! I recall him saying (remember, this was back in the earlier part of the 1900s) that he didn't want to get a car. After all, he joked, everyone he knew had a car and he could always get a ride! Interesting, isn't it, to consider that when vehicles were driving people apart and beginning the process of isolation so characteristic of Industrial/Post-Industrial America that Tozer would prefer to walk or hitch a ride!??!

Daniel said...

Sorry for incorrectly spelling Tozer's name! Embarrasment!

Yeah, he is a true prophet of the age.

This is another great thread Jon, and the links were great to. Much food for thought. Hope you and Ktismatics keep it up, I'll keep reading and if anything good comes to mind I'll throw it into the mix. Started to get the drift of your tag "play what isn't there"... very clever.

I've also been reading on your blog Kt, excellent writing there thats for sure. Enjoyed an old post about narcissism and education - very topical.

ktismatics said...

Don't toze me bro!

samlcarr said...

Jon, Brevard Childs tried to do something a little different with his canonical approach. He was basically a higher critic but thought that the conclusions for what a text from within the canon means is finally modulated by its presence within the canon or something like that.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I've always been sympathetic to Childs' approach, though I have never studied it extensively. He has a wider criticism that I can appreciate: the origins of a text should not be privileged as the primary area of study/criticism, but also the process of canonization and how a work might fit within the wider canon.

How might this relate to the discussion of metanarrative? That many "little narratives" i.e. books of the Bible might fit within a metanarrative of Scripture as a whole?

samlcarr said...

Yes, I thought it might tie in with your "biblical" metanarrative thought: What do you think? Is it a fair move to separate "Christian" metanarrative from "biblical" metanarrative?

ktismatics said...

What institution is science trying to prop up? Is it capitalism, with science's instrumental rationality keeping the engines of production running smoothly? If so, then surely Christianity has also served this institution too; e.g., Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Jonathan Erdman said...

K: What institution is science trying to prop up? Is it capitalism, with science's instrumental rationality keeping the engines of production running smoothly? If so, then surely Christianity has also served this institution too; e.g., Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

For me, it is not that "science" is propping up the institution, but that the various metanarratives of Modernity each had to take account of science and in doing so they established institutions. The establishment of an institution in order to perserve a particular metanarrative is primarily a religious inclination, at least, as far as I can see. The exception would be if a secular institution in Modernity establishes itself to preserve and fearlessly pursue "science," but they also simultaneously perceive science to be at odds with religion, and so by default religion would be eliminated or marginalized. In postmodernity, of course, these lines are not so sharply drawn: So Christians are pursuing secular thought for its own sake, not just to defeat it. Also, secular thinkers are exploring religious ideals for their own sake.

For Lyotard the various "sciences" seek to "legitimate" themselves by making reference to the metanarrative. The metanarrative seems to be the legitimizer. But maybe L is using the word "science" slightly different from myself.

I'm not sure, though, if I am getting at your question.

samlcarr said...

Ktismatics: "Modernity almost can be defined as the attempt to find an alternative to Christianity". i think this is very true, only somehow, the Church never seemed to realise it. I'm a great admirer of Schaeffer but even Schaeffer didn't really seem to get at this. He saw that the Enlightenment was a secular rebellion against Christianity but he located the problem really in Kant.

How the Church was able to embrace modernity, while schizophrenically ignoring where modernity leads, really is a mystery.

ktismatics said...

I was referring to your prior observation about Christianity: "here is what seems to be the constant: Metanarrative used as a tool to preserve the Institution." I thought you were making a general claim that metanarrative always serves institution. In that case, the Biblical narrative would have been serving the Church as a universal corporate entity holding the keys to the Kingdom and to the treasury at the same time.

So I'm wondering: if metanarrative serves institution, does the scientific metanarrative serve global Western capitalism? I.e., which is the master and which the servant in this relationship: knowledge or money? Or are they both subsumed under power? Money certainly wields power. Foucault shows how they hang together through history and in the contemporary scene. And similarly, does the church's alternative form of knowledge support the Western capitalistic metanarrative of money and power? Are church and science alternative knowledge purveyors, both subject to capital?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sam:
i think this is very true, only somehow, the Church never seemed to realise it. I'm a great admirer of Schaeffer but even Schaeffer didn't really seem to get at this. He saw that the Enlightenment was a secular rebellion against Christianity but he located the problem really in Kant.

How the Church was able to embrace modernity, while schizophrenically ignoring where modernity leads, really is a mystery.


I agree 100%, and I am as confused as you are. It makes for a fascinating study. Much of Modern Christian philosophical thought, as I see it, seems to be a god-of-the-gaps thing. They criticize the Modern tendency to eliminate God from philosophical thought by suggesting that all non-god systems are somehow rationally inferior. Yet Modern Christian thought still uses the same general framework and demonstrates the superiority of Christian thought when you plug God (and possibly biblical revelation) into the equation.

Regarding Kant, I have my doubts as to whether he was as much a villain as some Christians make him out to be. I haven't read Schaeffer on this issue, but I have read his Professor and fellow presuppositionalist, C. Van Til. Van Til even went so far as to develop a Kantian-like Transcendental Argument for the existence of God, all the while claiming that Kant had gotten things horribly wrong because he tried to philosophize as an "autonomous" subject without reference to God as the Ultimate Presupposition.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics:
I thought you were making a general claim that metanarrative always serves institution. In that case, the Biblical narrative would have been serving the Church as a universal corporate entity holding the keys to the Kingdom and to the treasury at the same time.

I do think that the biblical narrative has - in most cases - served the the corporate church institution, as you suggest.

Which comes first? The institution or the metanarrative? In Modernity the two just seem to be joined at the hip in many (though not all) cases. At least, as far as I can see it.

Let me just throw out my speculations here in regards to the questions you raise:

So I'm wondering: if metanarrative serves institution, does the scientific metanarrative serve global Western capitalism? I.e., which is the master and which the servant in this relationship: knowledge or money?

What do you mean by "scientific metanarrative"? Is there one scientific metanarrative, if so which one is it? Marxism or Capitalism, etc.?

Or are they both subsumed under power? Money certainly wields power. Foucault shows how they hang together through history and in the contemporary scene.

Tentatively, I think I would tend to say that they hang together.

And similarly, does the church's alternative form of knowledge support the Western capitalistic metanarrative of money and power? Are church and science alternative knowledge purveyors, both subject to capital?

At this point I would say "yes." I think this is particularly true as the Institutions expand and grow in power. Money and knowledge are inseparable from the objectives of the Institutions, which is to support the metanarrative. But what typically seems to happen is that, ironically, the metanarrative itself gets lost in the pursuit of capital. At least, that's my observations from my perspectives. The Christian Institutions in the U.S. are impotent and unable to respond to the shifting culture, at least not until the urgency and need to change has passed.

samlcarr said...

To be very cynical, the institution does not believe the metanarrative but uses it to keep the followers in line. No one who has gone to seminary comes out really believing the metanarrative.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I agree that the metanarrative becomes a means to and end, but come on, Sam! The Seminaries are pumping out plenty of wide-eyed little preachers every spring who buy into it all.....when harsh reality sets in things might be different, though....

It is interesting, though, b/c there are many instances where faculty at conservative seminaries will sign on to doctrinal statements that include out-dated statements about inerrancy, inspiration, or other things that the profs. might not really agree with, but they end up signing on, anyway. Heck, its tough to find teaching jobs these days!

Gotta' love the institution!

samlcarr said...

One would have to be particularly insensitive and selfunconscious, to convince oneself that in spite of it all one has retained one's faith in the metanarrative.

Certainly seminaries will successfully reinforce the candidate's faith in the institution and in the "mission" and these are then used as props to carry one through when the harsher realities of the truth dare to intrude.

Finally those with a better ability to do mental gymnastics and who have a less sharp conscience will find themselves sailing blissfully on to a career of keeping the sheep as sheep and the more the merrier.

samlcarr said...

Jon, I was just looking at what you said about the professors and it struck me that it's possible that students could go through a BD and perhaps not even realise that the state of the art in bibklical studies is something totally different from the metanarrative that they are blissfully allowed to keep believing. This is a level of intellectual dishonesty on the part of the Profs that makes signing a 'faith disclaimer' look inane.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sam,

It's something that I have wondered about quite a bit: Are professors selling out their convictions? Is this "a level of intellectual dishonesty," as you suggest?

I don't know that I can say, and to some degree it would depend upon the person. I know some good Profs. who sign statements they don't really believe because the ends justify the means. They make an impact on students in smaller numbers: Don't disturb the institution too much in class, but impact a few more open-minded students on a personal level.

There is a balancing act of priorities that I can sympathize with. For me, personally, I couldn't cut it, and honestly in the back of my mind I classify the above Profs. as "sell outs" to a large degree. But that doesn't mean they aren't making a difference by battling the institution from within. They just have to hold their nose sometimes. The problem with this is that after a while you can get used to the smell, and it affects your sensibilities.

samlcarr said...

One doesn't need to be very vocal. Just a decent reading list should do the trick and if that doesn't generate discussion... or is honest discussion itself out of bounds - in an institution of learning???

Seminary bashing used to be the in thing 3 decades ago when I last had these discussions with friends. Fuller was already a 'gone case' (meaning sold out liberal) and Gordon Conwell was following it down the old slip slidey slope of European Liberalism-Existentialism. But even in those days I remember that seminarians generally had to struggle through with their required readings.

Daniel said...

Bible Narrative

I heard the whistle of the damnation train
Dat pulled out from the Garden of Eden loaded wid cargo goin to hell
Ran at break-neck speed all de way thru de law
All de way thru de prophetic age
All de way thru de reign of kings and judges
Plowed her way thru de Jordan
And on her way to Calvary when she blew for de switch
Jesus stood out on her track like a rough-backed mountain
And she threw her cow-catcher in
His side and His blood ditched the train.
He died for our sins.
Wounded in the house of his friends.


Sermon transcribed by Zora Neale Hurston in Florida in 1929. Quoted in Stanley Crouch 2006 Considering Genius - Writings on Jazz (p189)

Anonymous said...

Guys and gals Ya'll are some high talking windbags that don't know come here from sic em, and ya'll really need to stop smoking pot! Plus do not let the culture determine your views on the Bible but let the Bible determine your views on the culture. Remember Colossians 2:8 Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.
2 Tim 3:16 is another good passage to look up.
Sola scriptura (Latin ablative, "by scripture alone") is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.
Clinton Stephens