Metanarratives and the Tyranny of “Objectivity”

The word “metanarrative” gets tossed around a lot in biblical studies and Christian ethics anymore to describe the overarching, single story which binds together the themes, motifs, and narrative sub-currents within the Bible. The need for such a unifying force is obvious: in an era characterized by such rampant fragmentation as ours, the concept inspires hope for the reintegration of both knowledge and experience. Transcending the dozens of dislocated specialisms theology and biblical studies have splintered into offers a renewal of theological interpretation of Scripture and a more holistic approach to ministry. Teachers and authors such as D.A. Carson, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Andreas Kostenberger and Richard Patterson, and Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum emphasize its usefulness in providing a sturdy framework for two crucial things: 1) demonstrating the unity of the Bible and 2) situating the life of discipleship within the drama of that unity. The word’s derivation at least suggests such an application; meta, “after” or “beyond”, so metanarrative: that extratextual entity which integrates every component narrative; in Scripture’s case, that canonical plot encompassing every subplot within every book.

This retrieval of story as the fundamental basis for worldview is an oasis in the desert of sterile positivism, a sorely needed corrective to the reductive, rationalistic tendencies evangelicals descended into during the modernist controversies of the early 20th century. To counter their liberal opponents most evangelicals took on the “assured, critical” methods of the day to defend Christian orthodoxy. The problem with that was both simple and catastrophic: playing by their rules assumed a common starting point and equal legitimacy to both positions. It presupposed 1) the autonomy of Reason [1], 2) a universally valid, unbiased methodology for arriving at truth, and therefore 3) the need to empirically verify the contents of the Christian confession. As soon as it did this, evangelicalism capitulated to the Enlightenment. Once this breach opened there was no consistent way to return to the primacy of confession; instead, Christians uncritically assumed they had to keep pace with unbelief in order to maintain a rational warrant for that confession.

There is a bit of a problem lurking behind the scenes of this metanarrative coup, though: the history of its usage doesn’t reflect an original meaning of “overarching story” or the like. Jean-Francois Lyotard introduced the word as a technical term in his 1979 work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. A “metanarrative” for Lyotard is discourse which claims to explain the entire world as a totality. While there may seem to be significant similarities between his definition and the definition we began with, his emphasis on discourse seems to militate against the previously mentioned sense of “integrative narrative whole”; if this is so, then the meta-stem in metanarrative would seem to imply a discourse beyond narrative in the sense of surpassing and leaving behind. What’s interesting is that he only defines what metanarratives are in order to develop his definition of the postmodern condition as “incredulity toward metanarratives” (emphasis mine). That’s the one phrase quote you’ll find in most books decrying postmodernism these days. Right away you can see why many teachers assume it’s antithetical to Christian orthodoxy; if postmodernism calls into question big stories, isn’t it automatically irreconcilable with Christianity, the biggest, all-encompassing story on offer anywhere?

James K.A. Smith, however, is incredulous. He thinks incredulity towards metanarratives is a superb tool for combating rationalistic unbelief! Smith challenges the popular interpretation of Lyotard by informing us (in Princess Bride-fashion) that he doesn’t think the word “metanarrative” means what we think it means:

For Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason

Modernity, then, appeals to science to legitimate its claim- and by “science” we simply mean the notion of a universal, autonomous reason. Science, then, is opposed to narrative, which attempts not to prove its claims but rather to proclaim them within a story. [2]

By “prove” he means definitively, exhaustively demonstrate once and for all the veracity of its claim such that no objections can possibly be left standing; a total KO, in other words. The church has usually (at least until the 20th century [ahem, Ken Ham]) humbly acknowledged that it cannot prove its claims in this ultimate way until the last day when everything hidden is brought to light and every knee bows; instead, it has embraced, by and large, its role of witness, seeking instead to corroborate and substantiate the narrative it confesses and embodies by pointing to the congruence between normal human experience and the story of the world it submits itself to. Witness testifies to the coherence of its narrative and its fittingness with all the little narratives of our lives rather than trying to annihilate rival (non)narratives with the rationalistic methods of the world. The various ideologies we are assaulted by on a daily basis, however, shirk such cognitive modesty and boldly announce that anyone who isn’t a complete flippin’ moron can plainly see that democracy or fascism or free love (or whichever other platform you can think of- they’re all compromised) is right [ahem, Bill Nye].

On Lyotard’s view, then, the Christian faith isn’t a metanarrative whereas, say, Darwinism or Marxism or late capitalism is! Again, Smith turns the tables on our assumptions:

Whenever science attempts to legitimate itself, it is no longer scientific but narrative, appealing to an orienting myth that is not susceptible to scientific legitimation. Modernity’s science demands of itself the impossible: “The language game of science desires its statements to be true but does not have the resources to legitimate their truth on its own” (PC, 28). The appeal to reason as the criteria for what constitutes knowledge is but one more language game among many, shaped by founding beliefs or commitments that determine what constitutes knowledge within the game; reason is grounded in myth [ed. note: “myth” in Aristotle’s sense of plot or story]. “Metanarratives,” then, is the term Lyotard ascribes to those false appeals to universal, rational, scientific criteria- as though they were divorced from any particular myth or narrative. For the postmodernist, every scientist is a believer. [3]

Postmodernism’s problem isn’t with narratives at all; it’s with rationalistic ideologies that won’t own up to the fact that they are just as grounded in narrative as any other account. These ideologies pretend that their premises aren’t improvable and then try to bully every one else into accepting the obviousness of their paradigm. Modern (read: Enlightenment) metanarratives claim a totalizing hegemony over everything; given this, everything ought to get with the program: recognize this is the case, and quit with the objections already. This is how Nikita Khrushchev could threaten the West back in the 50s, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side– we will dig you in [4]” and treat it like it was a mathematical certainty. Nevermind that the supposedly inherent superiority of Leninism [5] isn’t a datum abstractable from empirical observation: it’s just the way it is.

This myopic deception is what’s so insidious about these ideologies: they are oppressive precisely because they sell their (anti)stories to the world as if they were indeed “just the way things are”, i.e. brute facts without need of interpretation. Smith highlights this point: “Lyotard specifically defines metanarratives as universal discourses of legitimation that mask their own particularity; that is, metanarratives deny their narrative ground even as they proceed on it as a basis.” [6] Smith’s close analysis of Lyotard leaves us with little doubt: metanarratives transcendentalize Enlightenment principles, nothing more. They bludgeon us with duplicitous postures of objectivity and neutrality. Facts have no bias- so get out of the way or be crushed. The problem with that is simple: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. These ideologies employ coercion through rhetoric (and later action) to brutally enforce conformity to their agendas and back it up by claiming that “universal”, self-evident Reason is the single basis for their program.

There are more condescending (read: more fitting) ways to denounce this for what it is (there’s a four letter word [7] that sums it up quite succinctly), but for now it will suffice to dismiss it as so much propagandistic hot air. This species of reasoning is belligerent and clueless. And this cluelessness is evident in this way: given the different modes of reasoning (analytic, aesthetic, deontic, etc.) human beings put to use to navigate reality, it is simply unjustifiable to elevate one of these modes as more basic or foundational than the others and assert that the others are nested within it. There’s no theoretical a priori that can’t be contested. Moreover, because metanarratives only pay lip service to historical narratives, they deliberately mask the their reversal of the order of knowing within their ideology. For most a priori concepts are funded by a posteriori judgments and assumptions: every “a priori” is encountered in history and appropriated a posteriori. And to pretend otherwise is to be either 1) self-deceived, or 2) a deceiver. If this characterizes your own thinking, whether Christian or no, please- repent of your pompousness and own up to the crack in your lens:

The positivist believes that there are some things at least about which we can have definite knowledge. There are some things that are simply ‘objectively’ true, that is, some things about which we can have, and actually do have, solid and unquestionable knowledge. These are things which can be tested ’empirically’, that is, by observing, measuring, etc. within the physical world. Taking this to its logical conclusion, things that cannot be tested in this way cannot be spoken of without talking some sort of nonsense. Though this view has been largely abandoned by philosophers, it has had a long run for its money in other spheres, not least those of the physical sciences. Despite the great strides in self-awareness that have come about through (for instance) sociology of knowledge, not to mention philosophy of science itself, one still meets some scientists (and many non-scientists who talk about science) who believe that what science does is simply to look objectively at things that are there. The reverse of this belief is that, where positivism cannot utter its shrill certainties, all that is left is subjectivity or relativity…

People this assume, within the world of post-Enlightenment positivism, that they know things ‘straight’. At what many regard as a common-sense level, this position may be called ‘naive realism’… The fact that that positivism has been subjected to damaging criticism in recent decades, being drastically modified even by its leading proponents (including Ayers himself), has not stopped it from continuing to exercise an influence at the popular level, where it accords well with the prevailing Western worldview which gives pre-eminent value to scientific knowing and technological control and power while relativizing the intangible values and belief-systems of human society

When, therefore, people talk about anxiously about whether there is ‘real proof’ for this or that historical ‘event’, usually concluding that there is not, the chances are that they are at least dangerously near the edge of the positivist trap, the false either-or of full certainty versus mere unsubstantiated opinion. The evidence of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon is ultimately of the same order as the evidence that what I am holding is a book. Very similar verification procedures, in fact, apply to both propositions. Neither is absolutely certain; neither is so uncertain as to be useless. If we do not recognize this fundamental similarity, we may find ourselves ignoring Cartesian doubt in everyday life and embracing it uncritically for more ‘serious’ issues. In the New Testament field, some critics have made a great song and dance about the fact that the details of Jesus’ life, or the fact of his resurrection, cannot be proved ‘scientifically’; philosophical rigour should compel them to admit that the same problem pertains to the vast range of ordinary human knowledge, including the implicit claim that knowledge requires empirical verification. [8]

What degree of objectivity makes your preference for carrot juice over chocolate milk knowable to another human subject? Or even to yourself? What criteria are antecedently available to all persons on the basis of “universal” reason alone to recognize such a thing? Positivist thinking ignores enormous swathes of what knowledge actually is and how it is acquired. It latches onto one mode of knowing and illegitimately tries to compress the entire category “knowledge” into this Procrustean bed. And history has demonstrated time and again how this presentation of knowledge can aid and abet the unprincipled acquisition of power, a pursuit made more insidious because it can be used to stifle discursive reflection and dialogue. The tyranny of metanarratives just is their boisterous insistence that they are more objective than any other account and that this ought to be immediately apparent to all. In concealing the historical origins of their conceptualities and values and instead presenting them as the “necessary truths of reason”, metanarratives bypass narrative almost completely precisely in order to bludgeon the unenlightened with “invincible” assertions whose invincibility simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Metanarratives absolutize the provisional and contingent to acquire power and shield themselves from critique.

This presumptuous gloss on the whole of reality is just another theology of glory in Enlightenment dress, nothing more. In its naive arrogance it completely disregards one crucial thing: apart from a worldview grounded in a narrative, facts are indiscernible as facts. No amount of handwaving will make this go away. A vehement emphasis upon narrative is a prophetic questioning of the powers that be because it can call positivism’s bluff by calling an ideology’s provenance and trajectories into question. The particularity of human agents’ location in time and space keeps their ideas and the movements they spawn grounded in dialogical reasoning that is open to public demonstration. By rehearsing the story of how we got to where we are right now and how we’ve come to know what we know we can resist the just-so stories that would assimilate us through their supposed “objectivity.” Our witness will have to incorporate this storied dissent against the tyranny of ideology and its rationalistic weapons, and as we learn to live into the story of our forebears’ witness to the world we will find a faithful guide to the unashamed recovery of the Church’s confession, a recovery that won’t adopt the weapons of the enemy to coerce.

In light of all of this, I’m uncomfortable using the term “metanarrative” anymore as I study with other believers and teach the teens in my congregation. It isn’t univocal and we shouldn’t pretend that isn’t the case. It smuggles aboard  insidious ideological baggage and denotes something antithetical to what the church ought to articulate when describing the unity of Scripture and the necessity for narrative in understanding the world. I’m not insisting that you stop using it, though. I get it: language is determined, in part, by usage. Words accumulate more meanings as they are used over time and in different contexts; this is the way of the world. I do demand, however, that you be aware of the term’s geneology and show exquisite care in making absolutely clear what you mean when you use it. That may mean devoting a paragraph to outlining the word’s original usage versus its contemporary, popular application or it may mean using subscripts to show that the two senses are radically different. I don’t know, but it is your responsibility to be intentional and attend to the plasticity of language. Words matter because truth matters, so take this seriously; otherwise, you may find yourself constricted by your own linguistic construct rather than defending the faith. And if the gospel you would proclaim begins to take on the totalitarian character of the present evil age, then it is no longer the gospel you are communicating but the death-dealing propaganda of the world, camouflaged with a crucifix.

[1] Please, please, please take note that the issue is with Reason, not reason. The Enlightenment paraded itself as the victory of autonomous, universal Reason, trumpeting it almost as if it were a god itself. The church has always relied on reason in its pursuit of faith seeking understanding but always subordinated it to special revelation (i.e., Scripture). So let’s always be careful to define our terms; reason is clear, logical thinking, whereas Reason is something different altogether:

…”autonomous reason” is human thinking born out of an insistence on living independently of God.  It is human thinking that demands ultimacy and priority for its own starting point, conceptual terms, and principles of method…When reason functions as a servant (rather than as a master, like autonomous reason), reason is the divinely created capacity to understand God’s revelation both in the Bible and in the world.” (David Clark, To Know and Love God: Method For Theology [Wheaton: Crossway, 2003], pp. 299-300), ht Nick Nowalk, “Reflection on Faith and Reason,” fn. 8;

[2] James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 65

[3] ibid., p. 68

[4] i.e., We will bury you. The reader will take notice of how this did not, in fact, take place.

[5] Itself only one strain of Marxist/communist thought… But how can its inherent superiority be assumed when it’s only a mutation of a pre-existing socio-economic paradigm? Its own existence can only be explained by narrating a particular history, not by making supposedly “unbiased” (which would mean unspecific and untargeted) observations of the world around you and turning the crank on universal, unaided Reason to churn out “the (“unquestionable“) facts”.

<<Obj. from Krushchev: Well, nevermind that. The facts are in: the West is toast.
Western Interlocutor:Why?
Krushchev: Because. Now shut up.>>

[6] idem., p. 69

[7] Usually preceded by the words “bull” or “horse”.

[8] N.T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume One: The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) pp. 32-34


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