This is another section of a seminary paper I wrote titled: “Postmodern Biblical Authority?” You can check out the section on deconstruction a few posts back to catch up…
In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard published a book titled, The Postmodern Condition. This contains his most famous quote: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives.” In other words, postmodernism is the distrust toward “big stories.” What does this actually mean? For instance, when we reflect on the nature of scripture, it is the big story of God’s action in the world. Could this be the roadblock that finally causes us to give up on our quest to find a postmodern biblical authority?
In order to answer the above questions, it will be productive to probe a bit to more clearly distinguish what Lyotard had in mind when he discussed the metanarrative. William Stacy Johnson summarized it this way:
The “metanarratives” of which Lyotard speaks are the grand, self legitimating interpretive frameworks according to which we modern people seek to define our world as complete and whole. A metanarrative is the omnicompetent rationale according to which all individual narratives are thought to find their larger meaning and purpose.
According to Lyotard, metanarrative describes a uniquely modern situation. They do not only contain “big stories,” but it is the self legitimizing quality by appealing to a type of universal reason that makes a metanarrative. Ancient tribal stories tell “big stories,” but these would not fall into Lyotard’s category, because they do not rely on modern scientific knowledge to be considered rational. Homer’s Odyssey is a good example of a “big story” that does not meet the criteria to be a metanarrative. This is because this ancient story does not appeal to universal reason, but rather it is a story of proclamation that calls on faith. Postmodernists are suspicious of metanarratives, but highly value the “small stories.” Your story matters; my story matters. The modern metanarrative of progress has turned out to be a lie, but the “small stories” are what is real in daily life.
In light of this explanation of metanarratives, does the Bible fit into such a category? Is the Bible a metanarrative in the modern sense? The answer is clearly, no. As was discussed earlier, the New Testament church is not part of a metanarrative, but is a movement of resistance against such. The Roman Empire oppressed the early Christians with its power, but through weakness the church endured; and this is the proclamation that we read each time we open the Scriptures. Just as Homer’s Odyssey is a “big story” of proclamation, so also biblical authority is found in the story that is told, not in some form of scientific or universal reason. James K. A. Smith states:
While in modernity science was the emperor who set the rules for what counted as truth and castigated faith as fable, postmodernity has shown us the emperor’s nudity. Thus, we no longer need to apologize for faith—we can be unapologetic in our kerygmatic proclamation of the gospel narrative.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 63.
. The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 121.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 65.
. Wright, The Bible for the Post Modern World,” http://www.biblicaltheology.ca/blue_files/The%20Bible%20for%20the%20Post%20Modern%20World.pdf.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 71.