Christianity for Postmoderns: From Metanarrative to Storytelling
Postmodernism is a term coined by Jean-Francois Lyotard as a reaction to the Modernist worldview. The latter is characterized by Lyotard in his Postmodern Explained, by its love for meta-narratives, that is to say, all-encompassing ideologies under which all were to be subsumed regardless of their gender, religion, culture, and ethnicity. While this is true of modernity, this paradigm is also true of a certain brand of Christianity. This mindset that there is only one way to do things, whether ideological or religious has come under considerable attack, however, in the after-math of World War II. Indeed, and this is the essence of the postmodern critique of Modernity, the latter may be characterized by a systematic hatred of otherness or diversity, ever seeking to encompass all within one and a single direction. Such a hatred of otherness saw its final fulfillment in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Such a critique of modernity is deeply relevant, and post-holocaust Christian thought must take it into consideration in the formulation of its worldview. But how may Christianity do away with its central truth regarding the self-description of Jesus as the only “way, truth, and life”? How may Christianity word itself to a postmodern audience, deeply suspicious of meta-narratives, of all-encompassing truths, and still retain its specificity? The purpose of this paper will be to address this problem. I will attempt to show that, although Christianity has historically defined itself from within a modernist mindset, the biblical narrative itself is far from modern. On the contrary, I will show that the biblical narrative comes much closer to the post-modern mindset than it does the modernist mindset thereby paving a way to possible communication of the Christian truth to postmoderns.
Postmodernism is a term coined by Jean-Francois Lyotard as a reaction to the Modernist worldview. The latter is characterized by Lyotard in his Postmodern Explained, by its love for metanarratives, that is to say, all-encompassing ideologies under which all were to be subsumed regardless of their gender, religion, culture, and ethnicity. While this is true of modernity, this paradigm is also true of a certain brand of Christianity. Christianity has for the most part followed this pattern inasmuch as, for the Christian paradigm, there is only one way to redemption—Jesus Christ—and this, for all peoples, regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs.
This mindset that there is only one way to do things, whether ideological or religious has come under considerable attack, however, in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, and this is the essence of the postmodern critique of modernity, the latter may be characterized by a systematic hatred of otherness or diversity, ever seeking to encompass all within one and a single direction. Such a hatred of otherness saw its final fulfillment in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Postmodernity will arise out of this realization and will henceforth define itself as the guardian of otherness at the detriment of oneness and all-encompassing ideologies. After Auschwitz, observes postmodern thought, there can be no more thought of a single all-encompassing ideology, be it secular or religious, inasmuch as such a mindset inevitably gives rise to violence and barbarity.
Such a critique of modernity is deeply relevant and post-holocaust Christian thought must take it into consideration in the formulation of its worldview. But how may Christianity do away with its central truth regarding the self-description of Jesus as the only “way, truth, and life”? How may Christianity word itself to a postmodern audience, deeply suspicious of metanarratives, of all-encompassing truths, and still retain its specificity? The purpose of this paper will be to address this problem. I will attempt to show that, although Christianity has historically defined itself from within a modernist mindset, the biblical narrative itself is far from modern. On the contrary, I will show that the biblical narrative comes much closer to the post-modern mindset than it does the modernist mindset thereby paving a way to possible communication of the Christian truth to postmoderns.
This paper will then have three main sections: First, Lyotard’s definition of modernity as characterized by a love of metanarratives will need to be further described as well as its impact on the Christian worldview. I shall then go into the ethical problems that the metanarrative paradigm poses, both in its secular and religious uses. Finally, I shall approach with Lyotard an alternative way of communicating truth, that of storytelling. I shall describe what this mode of communication entails and how it avoids the ethical pitfalls of a metanarrative paradigm as well as how it resonates with the mode of communication of the biblical truth itself.
In his essay, The Postmodern Explained, Lyotard makes a direct connection between the critique of modernity enacted by postmodernity and the question of “metanarratives.” “The more the discussion develops internationally, the more complex the ‘question of postmodernity becomes.’ In 1979, I linked it to the problem of the ‘grand narrative’” (2003:17). There is then, for Lyotard, a direct connection between the emergence of the postmodern mindset and a critique of the modernist love of metanarratives. But this concept still needs to be defined. In an earlier work, Lyotard describes meta-narratives as follows: “The ‘metanarratives’ I was concerned with in The Postmodern Condition are those that have marked modernity: the progressive emancipation of reason and freedom, the progressive or catastrophic emancipation of labor (source of alienated value in capitalism), the enrichment of all humanity through the progress of capitalist technoscience” (2003:17). What characterizes modernity, then, is the belief in certain ideals—here the ideals of reason, Marxism, progress, and capitalism—held to be universal for all human beings, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds.
The key to the structure of the metanarrative is then threefold. First, it wills itself universal. That is to say, it wills itself universally binding to all people, regardless of their cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. It is all-encompassing. Second, it follows from this that the meta-narrative is essentially coercive. That is to say, inasmuch as it defines itself as universally binding, it will not tolerate any resistance to its scope. Anyone not subsuming himself or herself to its universality will then be regarded as an obstacle to be eliminated, or as primitive or debased. Finally, the metanarrative, inasmuch as it wills itself universal, will be necessarily simplistic. The metanarrative always points to a single and simple goal, one that can be easily followed by all, thereby allowing for no nuances or critiques. Thus, the ideal of Marxism, for example, proposes a model of reality that it sees as universal: the struggle of the proletariat against elitist power structures. It is coercive inasmuch as it does not tolerate any critique of its model of reality. Finally it is simplistic as it does not accept that there might be alternate models of reality, other struggles worthy to be mentioned which do not fit under its simplistic proletariat-bourgeoisie model.
When one observes this threefold structure, one cannot help but realize how much Christian missiology has been informed by this paradigm. Like modernism, Christianity wills itself universal and holds the central belief that there is only one way to redemption for all human beings, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds. People from all backgrounds are hence invited into the fold of the Christian Church and asked to relinquish what constitutes their past beliefs and cultures. Moreover, and this to a lesser extent than in the past, Christianity still works under a certain form of coercion inasmuch as anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior sees themselves condemned to an eternal destruction. Although Christianity is not functioning as it did in the past, as the agent of damnation, it still follows the modernist paradigm of negating and neutralizing any form of otherness to its all-encompassing orientation. Finally, Christianity has often sought to expand its influence by an over-simplification of its truth, thereby neutralizing any trace of doubt, uncertainty, and problems in its discourse. Thus, it may be argued that Christianity has for the most part followed a modernist paradigm, one that is metanarrativistic in nature, in the formulation of its truth.
There are, however, a number of problems with such a metanarrativistic approach, the main one being, its allergy to otherness. Inasmuch as the metanarrative erects itself as the sole way or orientation to progress, happiness, or truth, it by the same token, neutralizes any alternative project. Anything which does not fall under the scope of the metanarrative thus becomes suspect, or inferior. From there, however, it is only one small step to the neutralization, or murder of any form of otherness that refuses to let itself be encompassed by the grand narrative. From there it is only a small step to Auschwitz as ascertained in Lyotard’s critique of modernity: “I would argue that the project of modernity (the realization of universality) has not been forsaken or forgotten but destroyed, ‘liquidated.’ There are several modes of destruction, several names that are symbols for them. ‘Auschwitz’ can be taken as a paradigmatic name for the tragic ‘incompletion’ of modernity” (2003:18). The problem with the metanarrativistic approach is then that it formulates itself as essentially suspicious of otherness and, as such, is ever in danger of degenerating into the actual physical extermination of that otherness—as incidentally, the history of Christian missiology has shown.
There is then an urgent need, in the light of the postmodern critique of metanarratives, to come up with an alternate form of communication of the Christian truth. One that does not fall into the structures of a metanarrative, and as such, erects itself as universally binding, coercive, and simplistic, but rather falls under an altogether different category. Lyotard himself will pave the way to this new mode of discourse which he will term “storytelling.” But more needs to be said about this.
While the metanarrative is today discredited by postmoderns as a mode of discourse capable of delivering truth, this does not mean that there does not exist alternative modes of discourse susceptible of having a truth-content. Lyotard himself acknowledges this: “This is not to suggest that there are no longer any credible narratives at all. By metanarratives or grand narratives, I mean precisely narrations with a legitimating function. Their decline does not stop countless other stories (minor and not so minor) from continuing to weave the fabric of everyday life” (2003:19). That is to say, although postmodernism wills to discard metanarratives inasmuch as they have a “legitimating function,” that is, inasmuch as they erect themselves as the sole and unique truth, it does not exclude other forms of communication such as “stories.”
Stories differ from metanarratives in a central way, however: They have no recourse to a “legitimizing function,” that is to say they do not erect themselves as a universal truth. This of course poses a profound problem: Without this legitimizing function whereby the story may be justified as true, how is it to convict its interlocutors of its truth-content? Does not the doing away of the legitimizing function take away any pretense of a given story to be held as true? Do we not then fall into a relativistic or subjectivist mode of communication whereby all stories are equally legitimate and true in their own way. But if this is the case of storytelling, how may it serve as a medium for the Christian truth? Can Christianity honestly have recourse to the mode of communication of storytelling while retaining its truth content, while escaping the pitfall of relativism or subjectivism?
In order to answer this question, I would like to have recourse to the biblical narrative, itself structured as storytelling. I would argue that we find, in the biblical narrative, a key to a mode of storytelling which both escapes the pitfalls of metanarrativistic discourse and the relativistic/subjectivist trap of postmodern storytelling. Indeed, the biblical narrative falls more closely under the rubric of storytelling than of a metanarrative. First, the biblical stories are not universal, but rather, profoundly particular. In the Old Testament, we do not have ideology, or a universal paradigm of salvation, but rather the calling of a single, particular, individual, Abraham, to a very particular calling: That of leaving his family and going into the unknown that God would show him. The stories that ensue continue to be stories of single individuals, with their own specific doubts, struggles, weaknesses, and often convoluted walk with God. But a modernist would inquire: What is then the power of such stories? What truth content is to be drawn from these intricate and particular stories?
The power of such stories lies in that, although they make no appeal to a universal way, or single path to salvation, they cut to the heart of their interlocutors. Indeed, the reader of the biblical narrative is less struck by the outlining of a universal way, than at what constitutes the profound humanity of the stories and the uniqueness of each approach to God. Thus, the Bible does not pave out a single way seeking to encompass everyone, but rather, narrates a pluralism of ways of approach and walks with God, that, inasmuch as they are so diverse, are bound to appeal to a diversity of interlocutors. The calling of Abraham and the nature of his faith is profoundly different from that of his son Isaac, and the latter profoundly different from that of his son Jacob. Not everyone can identify with Abraham. These will more likely identify more closely with Isaac, or even Jacob. Likewise the stories about Jesus show him engaged with a variety of interlocutors, from the learned Pharisee Nicodemus, the humiliated and accused woman, to the cunning tax-collector. Thus, far from appealing to a single mode of approach and walk with God, the biblical narrative outlines a variety of approaches and walks susceptible to appeal to a wide and diverse audiences and, as such, to cater to the postmodern concern of pluralism and diversity.
The biblical narrative is also deeply non-coercive. There is no attempt made, at the end of the story, to rally an audience under threat of extermination. Rather the stories are simply told. The only command given to the Hebrews regarding these stories is to recount them, to tell them to their children. We come here to a very different mode of transmission of truth than the modernist approach. While the modernist approach to the truth content of an ideology necessitates an effort of “legitimization,” that is to say, of foundation, or appeal to reason, the biblical approach consists in merely retelling the stories. The biblical narrative thus does not argue its position in a way that would appeal to human reason or cognition as would a metanarrative, but rather simply testifies to an event that took place at a given time in history. As such, the telling of the story is profoundly non-coercive, leaving it to the Spirit’s promptings or to its interlocutor’s discretion to decide as to the validity of the lessons narrated in his or her own life. This space given to the interlocutor is, incidentally, incredibly appealing to a postmodern readership as it demonstrates a respectful stance for the interlocutor, typical of postmodern discourse.
Finally, the biblical narrative avoids the typical over-simplification into which the metanarrativistic discourse often falls. Contrarily to the metanarrative which feels that it must be all-encompassing in order to be effective, the biblical narrative holds no such pretense. It knows that it must appeal to a mere remnant, to a mere minority and, as such, does not seek to veil reality in all of its complexity, twists, and turns. Thus, the biblical narrative never makes an effort to hide the weaknesses of its protagonists, their doubts, and their faults. It does not hide the lifetimes of doubt, failure, waiting, and patience often preceding the fulfillment of God’s promises. Likewise, Jesus never hides the demands of the Kingdom on his followers leading often to a life of exile and suffering, or to a life where truth often remains hidden from sight and can be only grasped through faith. But such an unveiled and raw account of a truth dressed in humble garb rather than trumpeted as the one-size fits all remedy to personal discontent, is in fact much more appealing to postmodern audiences intent on authenticity and realism versus the inauthenticity and deception often contained in the promises of a rosy future of metanarratives.
Conclusion: The Mission of the Church
This account of storytelling versus metanarratives thus brings us to a wholly new mode of discourse and of communication of the Christian truth. Rather than opting for a one-size fits all paradigm of truth, thereby occulting the diversity and pluralism of walks with God in the Bible, why not opt for a storytelling approach whereby the full richness and plenitude of the biblical truth is shared? This would entail of course that the whole of the Bible be studied and not just specific passages confirming the dominant worldview of the Christian church. This would entail teaching not only the law but also the sections on wisdom literature which interrogate and inquire into this law; not only the gospels, but also the early narratives of Genesis; not only the prophetic, but also the poetic sections of the Bible. This is the only way to reach a postmodern audience having recognized the supreme value of diversity and otherness.
Rather than opting for a coercive approach to the truth, intent on argumentation, and justification of the foundations of one’s faith, why not opt for the simple witness of the event of salvation as narrated in the biblical stories, in both New and Old Testament, leaving it to the Spirit to convict of the truth content of those stories? Such a non-coercive approach would dispel any distrust on the part of the postmodern interlocutor of possible power structures motivating and dictating the argument. Such an open-ended approach to religious discourse—leaving it to the interlocutor to make his or her final decision—would dispel any doubt that religious discourse results from a will to power on the part of the religious institution, applied in a coercive manner in order to secure established religious structures.
Finally, rather than opting for a simplistic narrative of the Christian faith, why not recover its mystery as a truth both above and beyond the limitations of human reason, thereby not excluding doubt, questions, and interrogations on the part of the believer? This approach to truth is far more appealing to a postmodern audience wary of the modernist rosy picture of truth and of happiness. The postmodern interlocutor is intent on reality as it is and not as it is constructed to be. Sharing one’s faith must not come as an easy one-size fits all self-help solution for one’s unhappiness, but rather must be exposed in all of its intricacies and complexities, for only as such does it maintain its ring of truth and relevance. Only inasmuch as faith does not do away with the questions and interrogations susceptible of deepening it will it appeal to a mature audience such as that of postmodernity.
Thus, the words of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” must be situated in their wider biblical context as an appeal for a walk with God which remains deeply personal and unique, and never doing away with the dimensions of doubt, questions, and struggles unique to each believer. There is no one-way path to God, but rather many individual journeys, each beginning at different starting points and progressing under different rhythms. Such is the truth of the biblical narrative and where it resonates profoundly with the post-modern’s critique of universal, coercive, and simplistic discourses on truth.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 2003. The Postmodern Explained. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.