Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – 1
One of the key issues in responding to postmodernity is to understand what postmodernity means by the “metanarrative.” Jean-François Lyotard wrote in 1979, “Simplifying in the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Ever since, this concept of the “metanarrative” has leaped front and center in discussions on postmodernity in Christian circles, for it seems to give us a simple definition that we can easily grasp. However, Lyotard’s conception of “metanarrative” has taken on a life of its own beyond his original intention. James K.A. Smith explains in an essay (which originally appeared in Faith and Philosophy journal and republished in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn) that what Lyotard meant by “metanarrative” is a distinctly modern phenomenon in which people create grand stories and seek to legitimate them via an appeal to universal reason. Lyotard’s point is that, in the view of postmodernity, there is no such thing as an objective, neutral rationality beyond narrative. Therefore, any narrative that appeals to this “phantom Reason” to legitimate itself must be seen with incredulity.
When you think about it, Lyotard is almost Augustinian in his demand that faith always precedes reason—that we believe in order to understand. According to Lyotard, the problem with universal narratives is not their scope (that they are big stories) but that they seek to prove they are valid by way of Reason as the ultimate arbitrator. As I understand Lyotard, he is arguing that the Enlightenment belief in Reason is as much faith as is any other religion, only it denies it the whole time, deceiving everyone that buys into it. James K.A. Smith’s analysis of Lytoard is that he believed that Postmodernity rightly shows us that we play “language games” in order to legitimate what we want to believe—the ultimate language-game is modernity’s appeal to “Reason.” As Smith writes, “Postmodernism is not incredulity toward narrative or myth; on the contrary, it unveils that all knowledge is grounded in such.”
This, I submit, is not antithetical to Christian faith; rather, it is antithetical to modern philosophy (with its grounding in “Reason” as the basis for all knowledge, as if “Reason” existed outside the parameters of any person’s belief system).
What many Christians are reacting against in postmodernity is not Lyotard’s definition of postmodernity, but a Neo-Lyotardism that takes this rather complex understanding of “metanarrative” and simplifies it to just meaning "we must be suspicious of all grand stories." This neo-Lyotardism is indeed a challenge to the grand story presented in the Bible, for it has crept into the public consciousness and is expressed by some “postmodern critics” of Christianity.
There are a number of possible Christian responses to neo-Lyotardism (I will offer a few posts coming up on this), but the first response is this: Let’s get Lyotard right!
Christians can point out that his definition of postmodernism is not against the grand story just because it is big and seeks to explain all of life; rather, he said that postmodernity, ultimately, is skeptical when anybody presents a grand story and then says it is true because Reason proves it to be so. He actually is saying that all of life is explained by narrative and myth, that the only way to understand reality is through story and faith in those stories.
And Christianity is a story—a narrative that needs no appeal to “Reason” for it to explain what is true. It is a grand narrative accepted by faith as you immerse yourself into the story—the story found in the Bible and its continuation found in today’s Body of Christ.
Index of this series: Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity
technorati: emerging church postmodernity