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.