Taking Lyotard to Church: Metanarratives

Well, since nobody has challenged me about deconstruction (the last post) then I guess that means that it makes sense.  I am glad.  Let’s look at another prominent postmodern philosopher and see why Christians hate his contribution to culture and history – but why we’ve got it wrong.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, another French philosopher, once tried to sum up postmodernism.  In his words, postmodernism is: “incredulity toward metanarratives”.  Dictionary.com defines incredulity as “inability or unwillingness to believe”.  Simply put, then, postmodernists are unable or unwilling to believe in metanarratives.

What is a metanarrative?  To break the word down, it means “big story”; it is often used of the epic tales that tell the story of the world, or even any view that claims to be able to explain everything – stories like the ancient Enuma Elish or…you know, the Bible.

Ah.  That’s it, right there; no wonder Christians hate postmodernism!  Because “postmodernism” is defined by one of its biggest figures as the inability to believe in the Bible!  That would certainly be grounds to dislike it, except that this isn’t in the slightest what Lyotard meant.

While it’s true that “metanarrative” is quite often used of any grand story that claims to have all of the answers (including atheistic metanarratives, like evolutionary naturalism – because we all know that guys like Dawkins have all the answers, or think that they someday will), Lyotard actually had a different use of it in mind.  Apparently, the rest of his extensive writings include a bit of fleshing that one simple statement out, so let’s see what he actually meant.

Lyotard called grand stories of the universe and everything “narratives” – like the Bible.  A “narrative” tells the story of the way the world is, and that’s it.  What it doesn’t do is try to offer you proof.  In fact, and the Bible is a prime example of this, a narrative usually depends on faith, not on proof.  Modernism hates this.  Modernism, a product of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is all about proof.  It’s such a big part of us that we don’t even believe each other in regular conversations without appealing to “proof”.  And in many cases, we’re right to do so – but that’s not the point here.  The point is that narratives (the Bible, for example) don’t offer proof.

Modern Science, on the other hand, is all about proof.  It discounts narratives like the Bible, looks down on them, de-values them and at best relegates them to the realm of helpful fiction, because there’s no proof.  Think of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, the modernist attempt to find the real figure of Jesus by ripping everything out of the New Testament that had reference to God or miracles or anything supernatural or unreasonable.  Modernism has no room for narratives, except for entertainment, or to be used as the “opiate of the masses” (what modernists back in the day called religion).  Modern science says that it can figure out what really happened in life, the universe, and everything.  It offers the real truth, that can be proven and verified.

But how can it be proven and verified?  By reproduceable experiments, of course.  But of course, that only works in the physical world; how can you prove something scientifically if you can’t put it into a controlled experiment?  By reason, of course.  And unlike religions, which each say sort of the same thing in different words, the language of reason is universal: everyone is reasonable, everyone has access to reason, and therefore nobody can dispute the cold hard facts of reason.  And this is what Lyotard called a “metanarrative”: modernism, science, reason, claims to be able to tell a narrative, but at the same time claims that it is not a narrative.  It tries to tell you the same story that narratives do, but tries to put itself above all the others by claiming to be universally provable – by claiming to not rely on faith.

I’m having a hard time getting this out, so I’ll appeal to the example James K. A. Smith uses in the book: O Brother, Where Art Thou? The main character of the film, Ulysses Everett McGill, spends his entire journey in the film ridiculing his travelling companions for their faith.  All the while, he contrasts their simple faith (“ridiculous superstition!”)with grand stories about how great things will be when modern ingenuity (in the form of electricity) will come to the South and all of the superstitions and ignorance will be washed away.  Of course, when faced with death, Everett gets down on his knees with his friends and prays for deliverance (but denies it after that deliverance comes).  Yup, Ulysses Everett McGill has it all figured out – not like those ignorant, superstitious friends of his.  It all comes down to universal, autonomous reason.

But does universal, autonomous reason really exist, or is it just another narrative?  Lyotard thinks that it is, simply by the fact that you can’t prove reason.  1+1=2, and I know this to be true because I’ve used my reason to figure it out, but where’s the actual proof of reason?  There isn’t any, because it’s in my head: perhaps it’s a faculty that I possess, but if you want to grant its existence without any proof then we can just as easily talk about faith.  In reality, the most devoted modernists have the strongest faith – in reason.

So when a modern scientist makes a claim about reality, he offers proof.  If we question the proof, he appeals to our reason – something which itself cannot be proven.  So, when pressed, modernism is itself a narrative that claims not to be a narrative.  Does that sound suspicious to you?  Perhaps we should be a little bit incredulous toward a story that calls down other stories by saying that they only appeal to your faith (and therefore must not be true), while hiding the fact that its own story depends just as much on faith.  Modernism is sort of like a politician running a negative campaign, trying to discredit the other politicians by revealing that *gasp!* they’ve said something that they can’t back up – when in reality, he can’t prove his own promises any better than his competitors.

I hope this is making sense.  So, if incredulity toward metanarratives doesn’t actually mean that postmodernists refuse to believe the Bible, what does that mean for the Church today?  Why should we care?

One huge reason that we should care is that science no longer has a monopoly on what is “true”.  Like Derrida pointed out, everything (even science) is interpreted, and every narrative has a competing claim for truth.  For the past few centuries, it was pretty easy for science to push Christianity (or any religion) out of the way by telling everyone that we can’t back it up with proof; now, we have a voice again, because people are more and more becoming aware that science depends just as much on faith as religion does.  Modernists are still around, and still try to tell people who believe in other narratives (like you and me) that we’re just superstitious, ignorant, archaic savages who don’t know where lightning comes from.  But nowadays, more and more people recognize that such statements are themselves pretty darn ignorant, not to mention rude and arrogant.  Faith is no longer seen as the polar opposite to reason; we can go back to the ancient notion that faith and reason work together – even that reason requires faith.  Faith comes first, and allows reason to work!

Secondly, this shift in thinking should remind us that we are a Church that is built upon a story – not a list of rules, principles, or even examples, but the story of how God came down to us.  Our culture doesn’t tell stories much anymore (modern reason said that stories aren’t true), but we can (and should) bring that back.  Our story is worth telling, worth exhibiting, worth enacting, worth presenting – and “postmodern” churches do just that, recognizing that there is a lot of value in telling or presenting the story, and not just reading it to look for specific points.  There are churches that re-tell this story in different ways, utilizing every art form to proclaim this great narrative.  They also act it out, not just in applying biblical principles in their personal lives but also in liturgy, where they gather together to reenact the story in things like the Lord’s Supper, recognizing the power and value in acting it out together.  Not just their personal lives, but their life together, is an enactment of the story of God, the universe, and everything, and in re-enacting it they participate in it.

FT, I miss you.  If anyone wants to see a church who is interested in reenacting the story, go to www.freechurch.ca They’ve been branded a “hipster church”, maybe because they’re young and “cool”, or maybe just because they’re (at least in this way) post-modern.  Sure, there’s lots of artists there, but there’s also scientists, engineers, doctors, and architects, who all believe (on faith) in the grand story that they re-enact together at the weekly and beyond.  They’re storytellers, and they have one heckuva story to tell.

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13 thoughts on “Taking Lyotard to Church: Metanarratives

  1. Good job on distilling that book. I remember reading it a few years ago in my Postmodernity class at Wycliffe. I’m just eagerly anticipating the discussion on subjective versus objective truth.

    Also, is this the book that talks about how Starbucks understands church marketing? I think I may be confusing that with something else. That made me mad.

    • Yeah, that was at the end of this chapter. I found it funny, and somewhat true: churches that try really hard to be “relevant” are often trying to pose as the unchurched, and “speak their language” to get people interested in what they really have to offer (like Jesus). Starbucks, on the other hand, has made their product (by this model) very seeker un-friendly – and it’s hugely successful. People learn the lingo required to buy a starbucks coffee (even I know it, and I hate coffee), and it’s not a deterrent, it’s actually a bit of a draw. If all I wanted was another coffee, I could go to Tim’s and get it cheaper (or other places and get a more expensive coffee). But Starbucks offers not only a coffee but an entire experience, an entire culture, and so people will learn a new language in order to experience and participate in it.

      While it’s always a bit crude comparing the truths of Christ to a coffee corporation, the point is that we have a lot more to offer than a new coffee culture, and do ourselves no favours in trying to dumb down or sterilize our churches, whether in our liturgy or terminology. What we have is worth learning some new terminology for, and the way that we’re different from the world is one of our strongest draws. We ought to celebrate it rather than sacrifice it.

      • The question is: do we want people in Churches for the same reasons that people go to starbucks ie: for this ‘clicky insider’ feeling of being able to overcome the obstacle (that really isn’t an obstacle.)

        Having a ‘cool’ draw, like saying, “Jesus is, like, so super awesome. I love that dude” is not a good strategy because it is misrepresenting the actual Christian experience should the person stick around. Just as Starbucks is not actually a community (but try to act like one) the Christian life is not “just hangin out with the big G upstairs!” even tho we market it that way.

        I wrote a paper on this for the PoMo class. I like this subject 🙂

  2. really enjoyed this Jeff. i found your idea of faith coming before reason interesting … i wonder if its not a one before the other but a both/and. you can’t use reason without having faith in it … you can’t have faith in something unless your reason understands what it is that is being proposed. in any case, its true that reason doesn’t rule the roost but depends upon faith for its very existence. and thanks for the Freechurch love, you know we miss you very much too big guy. It seems that we’ve discovered a new gift though … your writing!

    • Thanks Cyr 🙂

      I heard a sermon at my folks’ church last year, talking about three horizons in our thought: reason, faith and mystery. The gist of the sermon (taken from something a Regent founder mentioned at a retreat) was that our modernist view has reason as the first horizon; what we can’t understand through reason, we take on faith; and what is beyond faith is a mystery. His thought was that we need to reverse that: begin with mystery, proceed to faith, and then finally reason. We must recognize the mystery all around us, recognize how much we exercise faith as basic to understanding, and only really understand very few things through our reason – with reason being informed by and presupposing faith.

      I think Smith’s notion is that because reason itself isn’t provable, we must have faith in reason itself before reason can provide us any answers. I think there’s certainly a both/and here: I have faith in reason, and my faith is reasonable.

      From another perspective (perhaps more Bonhoefferian), if Christ is the ultimate foundational reality, and he is perceived through faith, then all other realilty can only be perceived as it truly is through faith in Christ.

      • Yeah I guess we’re saying the same thing … my main idea is that I don’t know if by saying you have to have faith in reason, it is the same as saying faith comes first. Because in order to have faith in reason, my reason has to first tell me what ‘reason’ is. But In order for reason to tell me what reason is i have to have faith in reason and it just seems to me that faith/reason are like that heads/tail coin relationship Sassaure proposed for sign/reality. Which comes first the reason or the faith?

        To have faith in Christ I first have to know what I mean by ‘Christ.’ Funny thing is that Christ is the ‘wisdom’ or ‘logic’ of God, but we need to have faith in him, but said faith is given to us by the Spirit. Once again, which comes first … Christ comes first but how do I first experience him? I’d say by faith-reason.

  3. @ Graeme: You’re right, that’s the downside. If we were to use our different way of life as a gimmick, then it would just be clever marketing, like it is with Starbucks (because there’s nothing actually different about their coffee – it’s different and cool just because they say it is). But Christian life and community is actually different, and Christian worship really does invite us to see reality differently. I think that Smith (and the guy he was quoting) was simply trying to point out that being different, having different lingo, is not a bad thing. It’s okay for us to talk about “the body of Christ” in a communion service without dumbing it down to “seeker-friendly” language, because seekers are actually looking for something they haven’t heard before.

    @Cyr: Amen! I think Smith is saying (or at least implying) faith is foundational to reason (not necessarily first) because we must have faith in reason before we can trust the knowledge it provides.

    Good discussions guys! I wish wordpress would let us comment on each other’s comments past the third comment.

    • Yes, I suppose that is true. But I guess the editor in me is thinking its just a badly structured argument. He’s saying:

      1. Churches worry about being seeker-friendly, so they water down the difficult ‘insider’ language.
      2. Starbucks has built an entire marketing culture based around exclusionary language that people need to ‘get over’ in order to feel part of the group.
      3. Starbucks is hugely popular.
      4. The church shouldn’t worry about exclusionary language.

      But then we agree that the church shouldn’t draw people to church in the way that people are drawn into starbucks because it is a manufactured, surface-only feeling of inclusion, while the church wants real inclusion.

      So the logical conclusion he is leading the readers to is:
      5. The church should promote our exclusionary language to bring people in. Hey, it worked for starbucks.

      But we just agreed that he probably isn’t wanting to say that. So my question is: why the starbucks reference at all? Should have been cut from the book. He brings it in as a clarifying example, but then needs to clarify and nuance the thing that was supposed to shed light on his topic. Bad argument.

      Now, the interesting argument: is the emergent church movement really dedicated to rediscovering ancient traditions because they believe in them and see that they bring life to the people of God? Or are they tantalizingly exclusionary enough that they draw people in, but surface enough that there is no real change? If that is the case, the problem that the emergent church will face is: severe member drop off or the need for perpetual novelty, ever increasingly more exclusionary, but just not enough to be too difficult. (This is my worry about the ‘new monasticism.’)

      Great blog, as usual!

      • Touche.

        I think that what we’re calling “exclusionary” isn’t exclusionary at all, which was probably the point of the imperfect comparison to Starbucks. The difference is that the Church doesn’t need to promote these “exclusionary” aspects; they already exist, because we really are different in ways that go beyond the surface. We don’t need to create that draw, but we certainly don’t need to suppress it.

        Interesting questions about the emerging church! I think that a lot of the return to ritual is a result of this postmodern return to the Gospel (and the Church itself) as narrative, to be played out. Rituals are symbolic actions that represent what we believe reality really is, and by enacting them we are participating in the Kingdom in a sense. I like it because it reminds us that there is a physical involvement that comes with being a part of the Body of Christ, that it isn’t just a “spiritual” membership that has no physical expression – it turns us upward and outward, makes us aware of the world and its place in the Kingdom.

  4. since religion does not provide us with the desired level of objective truth we have replaced it with psychology. we have the same oppression but in a different package.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I agree, but would like to point out that neither religion nor psychology actually oppresses us, but rather their misuse. Often, it is our own misuse of these actually rather wonderful things that oppresses us, because we seek from them something that they do not try to give: an answer for absolutely everything, so we don’t have to think for ourselves or struggle in life. When we use either of them for a blanket statement of what is true, we not only miss out on what they’re actually saying, but we miss out on life.

  5. this is really good stuff man. i’m not really a christian, but your article really makes sense. but i have a question. if faith presupposes reason, does it mean that religion is basically structured in faith and therefore cannot be grounded on reason? lyotard even dismisses logic, and religion has its own logic system that is, to be frank, often considered illogical by positivists (scientists, etc). Does it mean that we must discard scientific reasoning wholesale and keep on believing these ‘stories’ (religion, for instance)?

    • Hi John, and thanks for your comment! (I read some of your blog – the trashtalking post – and quite enjoyed it, though I’m not familiar with Baguio).

      I’m not sure that faith presupposes reason as much as reason presupposes faith – i.e. we can’t rely on reason without having faith that reason is true. To be honest, I haven’t read any Lyotard outside of the description of his thought by James K A Smith in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism,” but I wouldn’t go so far as to actually dismiss logic. Logic is real and true and trustworthy. I just know that as soon as I show such faith in logic, I can’t dismiss the faith of others in other things wholesale; I’ll have to evaluate their faith fairly, which is something that staunch believers in the metanarrative of reason rarely do.

      Christianity certainly has its own logic: in some ways it shares a logical system with other religions, in other ways it is unique, but either way it is logically consistent with itself – and usually, with the outside world. When it seems to differ logically with the observable physical world, we need to weigh the argument: is Christian belief rational and consistent with other things we know to be true? Some people think it completely is, other people think that it completely isn’t, and most of us are somewhere in between, but in the postmodern world, we’re still having the conversation! In the Modernist world, faith was dismissed out of hand as being the opposite of reason, so no conversation of the like existed.

      Philosophically and scientifically, it seems impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God. Some on both sides claim to be able to do it, and both sides have weaknesses, but we’re pretty much at a stalemate. It’s at this point that the theist usually appeals to faith, and the Modernist appeals to reason and tries to dismiss the theist – but they can no longer do so. So another upside of postmodernism is that scientists and philosophers are now able to investigate things that they had previously dismissed: the conversation is getting bigger.

      Sorry to have a long answer to your question, but the short answer is: no, never throw out your reasoning! Keep your faith in your reason, and exercise a reasonable faith, because you can’t have one without the other and still have the whole truth!

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