Metanarrative Maladies

I’m reading Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age by J. Richard Middleton & Brian Walsh right now and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a ten year old book, but I’m finding that it speaks well into much of the current fascination with all things “postmodern.” I’m only a third of the way in right now, so I can’t comment too deeply, other than to say that the authors have a solid grasp on the flow of postmodern thought.

As a quick intro to a section that I found particularly interesting, the authors talk about the postmodern critique of all metanarratives. Metanarratives, for those of you intimidated by big words, is simply a “big story” or “master story” by which a particular group makes sense of reality. Postmodernism loves to pick on the master story of Progress put forth by modernity, showing that it masked what was really a grab for power by white Euro males at the exclusion of all others (such as women, gays and blacks), while raping the environment for personal pleasure and technological advantage. Metanarratives, postmodernists conclude, are therefore a cover-up for power-grabs and should be done away with in favor of small, local stories.

Given that we are postmodern people, this suggestion probably sounds good to many of us. Middleton and Walsh raise a problem with this which I had certainly not considered beforehand. They point out that, ironically, postmodernity’s project of tossing out metanarratives is itself a metanarrative, but a weak and pathetic one:

…the postmodern metanarrative, while calling into question the universal claims of all other stories and traditions, does not itself have the resources to enable us to live with integrity and hope in a postmodern world. In its relativizing of all stories as merely local constructs, coupled with its inability to recognize its own character as a metanarrative, the postmodern worldview cannot sustain hope or empower us to live in the face of the ethical chaos and brutality that characterizes the ending of modernity. Indeed, if we seriously shaped our life by typical postmodern answers… we would be at the mercy of whatever socially embodied narrative we found ourselves in. We would be unable to resist oppression since we would have no coherent way of appealing to any larger, transcendent story which might call into question whatever story was presently dominant. (p. 78)

One final note: although the local stories mentioned above sound romantically nice, they can be just as oppressive as the big stories: they’re what produces the inter-tribal warfare in Africa (like Rwanda) and gang warfare in far too many cities. It is these small stories that cause Hamas and the PLO to fight each other within Palestine.

The answer to bad, oppressive stories is not no stories. The answer is a good, redeeming story that says a critical yes and a critical no to all that it finds in other stories. This good story is the old story of God’s love for all people. The good story is the coming of Jesus as God and humanity united; his life, death and resurrection. The Gospel is good news; news that tells the story of God’s intervention in history in Jesus to begin setting all things to rights.

I don’t know if this is what Middleton and Walsh will say, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

5 responses to “Metanarrative Maladies”

  1. You should read Colossians Remixed, too. Brian Walsh is one of my spiritual mentors. I met him at Cornerstone Festival (check it out: about four years ago. He did a seminar on the book–it hadn’t been released yet. He and his wife have an amazing, holistic ministry together. He’s pretty good pals with N.T. Wright, too.

    I think you’re “spot on” about the right metanarrative. And the task for Christians now is to go deep into the story and become part of it. That’s the only way we can embody the true Story of the kingdom.

  2. Beyond Words:

    This is quite amusing, because I was at that very same session Brian did on “Colossians and Empire.” I had just realized at the time that Christians might be able to think and not turn into flaming liberal heretics, so much of what Brian said went way over my head.

    However, I’m still grateful for the seeds that were planted about realizing that culture is something to be critiqued from the vantage point of the kingdom of God. Up until then, other than MTV, culture seemed pretty neutral.

  3. Kid you, I do not. And sadly, I will not be going this year. That was the last time I went. I had a peek at the seminar lineup, and you’re right, it looks great!

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