Metanarrative Power-Grabs that Result in Violence

Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – 4

The problem with metanarratives is not that they are “big stories,” but that they are “little stories” masquerading as big stories.

As Jamie Smith writes, “Postmodernism is not incredulity toward narrative or myth; on the contrary, it unveils that all knowledge is grounded in such.” A metanarrative, according to Lyotard, is a locally-born story that seeks to explain Reality and legitimates its perception of it by way of Reason as the ultimate arbitrator. So what we end up doing is playing “language games” in order to “prove” the stories that we want to believe—the language-games of modernity are its appeals to “Reason” and to the scientific method. Christians can affirm, as we did in the previous posts, that human metanarratives are constructed within the situatedness of local communities. Therefore, they are not “universal” at all; they are simply social constructs, and it is pretentious to think that any single community’s worldview could possibly be universal enough to rule over all.

“Truth”, according to Michel Foucault, “is a thing of this world. It is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power., Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanism and instances which enables one to distinguish true and false statements; the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.” (Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings, 1972-1977 ed. Colin Gordon [as quoted in Walsh/Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed])

At first, this sounds like a swipe at Christianity. But if we are honest about it, we do see that when any people come up with a “Truth,” this often is no more than the “will to power” flowing through the manipulation of language for the sake of making one set of beliefs rule over all others. The evidence of this ugly aspect of human depravity is seen by just looking at Marxism or Nazism or Freudianism or Darwinism or Western Capitalism in the past 100 years. Look at today’s radical Jihadist form of Islam and the retaliatory violence that results when the West fights back with its imperialistic-looking retaliation marked by the metanarratives of capitalism and democracy. All of these are attempts to create universal metanarratives that are professed to be “true” and “good” simply because the ones in power say they are. It has admittedly been evident even in Christianity—for the history of the Church is littered with the corpses of those who would not submit to the Church’s conception of the “true” and the “good” as defined by the people in power. It does not have to issue in bloodshed to be a power-grab, either. I believe that the main problem with the Religious Right's "Christian" agenda is an issue of power--their politics are power-grabs in order to violently thrust their conceptions of the "true" and the "good" upon the rest of the American public.

Postmodernity points out that metanarratives that say they are “True” simply because we either point to “Reason” or some local community’s interpretation of an authoritative text to legitimate it often lead to violence. And we, with tears in our eyes, have to agree. “Regimes of Truth” (as Foucault calls them) forged in local communities are not universal enough to rule over anybody, for they are created by fallen people from their myopic viewpoints and within the context of their limited conceptual languages.

  • Is there a story that does the opposite?
  • Is there a story that, instead of thrusting a worldview onto people through violence, tells us that we are to receive violence unto ourselves as a means to the “true” and “good”?
  • Is there a story in which, instead of violently enslaving people to another people’s ideology, actually seeks to set people free?
  • Is there a story that, instead of feeding on rules of order that induce guilt, offers a kingdom governed by forgiveness?
  • Is there a story in which, instead of creating exclusionary parameters that force people out and marginalizes them, creates a life of inclusion that actually reaches out to the marginalized?
  • Is there a story that, instead of privileging a single group’s interests, actually seeks to be for the good of all Creation?
  • Is there a story that, instead of being a universalized small story legitimated by way of the “authorities” of Reason or Interpretation, is in fact big enough to be universal, without any appeals to outside authorities?
  • Is there a story so big that no single local interpretation of the story could encompass its scope, so that we'd have to include many different voices to rightly scratch its surface?

Index of this series: Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity


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