Is Christianity a Metanarrative?

Lyotard famously summed up postmodern philosophy as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Despite the varying strands of postmodernism that have emerged in recent decades, one unifying factor is a suspicion of the “metanarrative.” This leads naturally to the question, “What is a metanarrative?” And for the Christian, “Is Christianity a metanarrative?”

Many evangelical leaders have argued that Christians must reject postmodernism precisely because Christianity is a metanarrative. If postmodernism rejects metanarratives, then it obviously rejects Christianity. According to James K. A. Smith, professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, this is incorrect. In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, Smith argues that Christianity is not a metanarrative. What Lyotard meant by “metanarrative”, says Smith, is not a grand, all-encompassing story. That would simply be a mega-narrative. “Meta” does not mean “big” or “all”, it means “beyond” (Metaphysics is not the study of all physics, it is the study of that which is after or beyond physics). A metanarrative is a story that claims not to be a story. It is a story that claims to simply be the bare, uninterpreted facts, or “just the way things are.” In short, a metanarrative denies its own narrative character and appeals to a neutral, objective “reason” for its grounding, unencumbered by any cultural or linguistic context.

As Smith argues, this does not describe Christianity. Christianity is a story. It is the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also the story of “the way things are.” However, unlike a metanarrative, the Christian story recognizes that it is a story. Only God can know “the way things are” totally unencumbered by culture and language. As human beings who are necessarily situated within a certain cultural and linguistic context, we can only see things from a certain perspective, to the exclusion of all others. Thus the way we describe the world is simply our interpretation (story) of it. Recognizing this fact, however, does not cut us off from reality. Smith parts with many of the more extreme strands of postmodernism by recognizing that, while everything is an interpretation, some interpretations are truer than others. Thus Christianity would not be a metanarrative, but simply the narrative that most accurately and truly describes reality from a human perspective.

Some will take issue with Smith’s account. Smith is particularly critical of Christians who embrace Foundationalism (the theory that everything we know is ultimately based upon a few certain foundational beliefs). Certainly Smith’s talk of everything being an “interpretation”, and not strictly speaking “objective” truth, will worry many Christians who will see such capitulation to postmodern language as a surrender to relativism. While I sympathize with this mentality, I believe that Smith has a number of good insights, and I hope to engage his arguments in more detail in the coming weeks. For now, it will suffice to say that Smith does make a reasonably strong case that Christianity is not a metanarrative as Lyotard originally defined the term. At the end of the day, no matter how squeamish we may get at some of Smith’s postmodern language, we are forced to admit that fallen and finite human beings are incapable of a genuinely neutral and unbiased perspective of the world, and that the gospel is first and foremost a story. If nothing else, this should help to enable modern evangelicals to move forward in dialog with their postmodern cousins.