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May 09, 2007


Justin, thanks for clearing this up for readers. I agree with you that semantics are, in fact, vital, and I also believe that my Christian faith is not based on a construct. So here's my question: do you think there are constructs that have arisen within Christian religion? apart from, or loosely connected with, or even derived from the basic truths of faith? How do you find the boundary between religious constructs and actual Christianity? I have been pondering all this for quite some time, and I'd be interested in your views.



Yes, I think there are constructs that have arisen in Christianity. Your questions are where the issue is. One difficulty is in determining what exactly is included in the Christian narrative. I am referring to the Christian faith as described in the classic creeds of the tradition. This represents the basics of “Christian theism” or what C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity.” As you noticed some difficult questions will remain. Would Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Dispensationalism, or Calvinism be considered meta-narratives? Or would they just be different systems of the same core narrative structure? Personally, I think there are numerous expressions of the Christian faith that act as metanarratives and are used to legitmitize human autonomy. My warning not to turn Christianity into a metanarrative follows from Luther's impulse in criticizing "theologies of glory."

Back to your question. On the one hand, Christianity proffers a vision of literally everything—God, creation, humanity, redemption, and consummation. On the other hand, this vision unfolds by means of a revelatory language filled with paradoxes (such as the unity and plurality of God or the humanity and divinity of Jesus) and characterized by an analogical form of reasoning that places strict limits on what can be said of the divine. So, it seems that Christianity both is and is not a “grand narrative.” It depends, ultimately, on how we define the term and its range of applications. In any case, the final point is that we may have to concede, even when we get our terms straight, that the line between “meta-narratives” and other forms of narrative is a blurry one. Posed as a warning—does the proclamation of the Christian gospel, if it is to be genuinely proclamation, not carry with it the danger that it will become the kind of legitimizing narrative that Lyotard wants us to reject?


Excellent work, Justin. It is difficult work to persuade someone that their grasp of a set of issues is fundamentally erroneous when they are utterly convinced otherwise (I do not mean to suggest that this applies to Dr. Trueman; I only refer to my own experiences). I hope this post gets the thoughtful consideration it deserves. May it lead to much wisdom.


Thank you for a very well thought out article.

I think that there are metanarratives that are somewhat timeless, but most seem to be linked to a certain period or thought process that eventually ends, for example those that you discussed in the following paragraph:

"A characteristic of modernity, according to Lyotard, is its reliance on 'metanarratives' for the legitimation of both science and the state. Metanarratives take many forms, 'such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.'[4] However, Lyotard isolates two basic types, representative of both of the main strands of post-Enlightenment thought: the 'narrative of emancipation,' implicit in modern science and in the politics of the French revolution, and the 'speculative narrative' of Hegelianism.[5]"

If metanarratives are seen to be often or even sometimes limited to a period, by calling Christainity a metanarrative do we not also err by suggesting that Christianity, a timeless truth, is limited to a period?


Indeed it is difficult work. This is exactly what my next book project is-- getting some clarity on important terms and concepts from critical or pomo theory and then thinking about the implications for theology.



You made a really good point here that I didn't think about: "If metanarratives are seen to be often or even sometimes limited to a period, by calling Christainity a metanarrative do we not also err by suggesting that Christianity, a timeless truth, is limited to a period?" I think you are correct...we would err in that way by calling Christianity a metanarrative.

Can you explain what you mean by timeless truth? I'm guessing that your point is that Christianity is true for all times and all places. I'm trying to figure out why you use "timeless" especially when Christianity is all about Incarnation, redemptive history, and God acting in time and space.



My mistake. I can see that my word choice was poor. God does work in time and space. I agree wholeheartedly with the incarnation of Jesus Christ and redemptive history as recorded in the Bible.

The point I was trying to make in a clumsy manner was that since the resurrection we have seen many metanarratives, many of which are attached to specific and relatively short periods of history. Christianity is not a metanarrative, and to call it one, to me, would liken it to these temporary constructs. In trying to make my point I confused it by referring to "timeless". I should not have done so, and withdraw that part (I was thinking about the word of God being eternal, but that truth does not really fit into this line of reasoning).


Very thoughtful article. I have two comments. First, I’m wondering if your reaction to the description of Christianity as a metarrative is a bit harsh. Christianity is not merely a human construct—to be sure. But are all metanarratives necessarily human constructs? Or is that part of the postmodern criticism? If metanarratives are simply defined as all-encompassing, grand stories about life, then the Biblical story certainly would qualify. God created the world, allowed the proliferation of sin, set apart the Jews, established a system of laws, spoke through the prophets, came in human flesh, saved the world from sin, established the church…all with the ultimate goal of ushering in a new heaven and a new earth. Obviously, we believe that this story is not a human construct because it originated with God and reflects the true state of affairs. But I don’t see why it cannot be a metanarrative, even a second order discourse or reflection of all other discourses.

Second, and completely unrelated to my first comment, I wanted to point out an amusing article that I read in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. The article, “Darwin is Everywhere, Human History Shows,” was written by David Brooks and originally appeared in the New York Times. Brooks writes, “…it occurred to me that, although we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, a newish grand narrative has crept on us willy-nilly and is all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversations, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.” Brooks goes on to write, “The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival. [¶]Human beings, in our current understanding are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semiadapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food. Furthermore, reason is not separated from emotion, and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn’t even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.” He concludes with: “Looking at contemporary America form Jerusalem and from the ancient past, it’s clear we’re not a post-modern society anymore. We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history. We have a central cosmology to embrace, argue with or unconsciously submit to.” I’m not sure if Brooks is using the idea of metanarrative correctly, but I thought the article was too good not to share. Sorry for taking up so much space.


If Christianity is not a metanarrative, does Lyotard have a category for it? Or does he even conceive of a theory that is neither mute beyond the borders of its own community nor implicated in the evils common to metanarratives?

Say you asked Lyotard: "is Christianity a metanarrative?" How would he answer? Would he construe a contemporary presentation of the Christian faith (say by a standard non-pomo-aware conservative evangelical) as a metanarrative? Surely he wouldn't say, "Oh no, Christianity's not a metanarrative. It's grounded in the mystery of Christ."

I'm trying to wrap my head around this. So folk like Lyotard are skeptical of grand narratives that appeal to universal transcendent propositions. So your concern would be that we not knee-jerk and run to the defense of (and thus align ourselves with) the category simply because we hold to our own set of universal truths (as if truth needed us to defend it.) Grand narratives make a claim to universals, but Redemptive History, of which all other histories are sub-sets, transcends the meta-narrative. So if Lyotard wants to chase windmills.. Let him? Am I on track?

Wings and Sinatra,

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