Postmodernism: A Cautionary Tale

It is safe to assume whether you sit in a pew or stand in a pulpit, philosophical trends are trickling into minds all around you.  They drip, drip, drip into the intellectual habits of those you worship with, those who teach your children, and those who will eat turkey with you in November.  No one needs to read bad philosophy to be influenced by it. To borrow a phrase from Peter Berger, “cognitive contamination” happens every day in our ordinary work-a-day lives.  One philosophical trend trickling into western culture, first embraced by leftist academics 50 years ago, is postmodernism.

In his little 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard gave this definition of postmodernism: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”  Metanarratives are grand structural stories that govern and explain all other stories.

Postmodernists cynically teach that metanarratives are tall “tales” we have been told all our lives about existence, but these tales have not kept their promises. Instead, the postmodernist argues, these grand stories have been told so those telling them could gain power over the people.

This is why extreme postmodernists wish to dismantle all metanarratives. Abolish overarching stories such as Christianity, science, capitalism, Marxism, democracy so people can live their own stories without judgment and coercion. Your truth will be yours and mine will be mine.

The challenge of a growing suspicion toward metanarratives is that Christianity is unavoidably a metanarrative. Christianity is the one story that rules them all. It is the one narrative that explains mankind’s origins, miseries, death and ultimate destiny. Our faith testifies to an ontological and metaphysical reality that applies to all men - past, present and future.

Because Christianity is a metanarrative, it is targeted for contempt in cultures being saturated by the postmodern drip, drip, drip. People do not find the miracles of our faith so far-fetched anymore (that is a modernist reaction), they find our call to be reconciled to one grand story as vile power-mongering.

Though a growing suspicion of metanarratives creates a challenge in calling people to Christ, we should understand that proclaiming God’s glorious and gracious metanarrative is still the only way to face the challenge.  Consider Paul’s ministry to the idolatrous people of Athens.

In Acts 17:16 we find Paul out walking in the Greek city of Athens. He notices many altars to false gods. The text says, “His spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”  Being provoked by Satan’s achievements, Paul begins to speak to Jews in the synagogue and Greeks in the marketplace (v. 17). Eventually he is brought to the Areopagus where he publicly challenges the idolatry of the Athens before its top philosophers.

It is one of the greatest speeches of the ancient world.

The content of Paul’s speech is God’s glorious and gracious metanarrative. He begins with, “The God who made the world and everything in it” (v. 24). He goes on to tell how God cannot be contained by manmade temples (v. 24) - a direct critique of pagan altars in Athens. Paul then tells how God has ordered the time of each man’s birth and the place of each man’s dwelling.

The speech crescendos with an undiluted metanarrative claim: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (30-31).

Notice what Paul did in his message.

First, Paul critiqued the idolatrous stories the Athenians told themselves through their pagan altars.

We must see in this that critiquing metanarratives is also the task of the Christian. In our time and place men’s idols are embedded in metanarratives rather than stone. Things that were to be kept under God have been raised up by sinners to become gods. Sex. Science. The state. Particular economic systems. These are the uncarved idolatries of our age. Men hope and seek deliverance in these instead of in Christ. This should provoke our spirit. But to do something about it we will have to critique the very metanarratives where these idols have been erected.

Second, Paul told the one story to rule them all.

He proclaims the God who made everything; the God who commands all people; the God who will judge all the world. He preached metanarrative without embarrassment. Yet do not overlook that Paul proclaimed Christ! There is “one man” appointed to judge. But is not this what those suspicious of metanarratives hope to avoid, the consolidation of power into the hands of a few, into the hands of one?!

Yes, but who is this one man who has been raised from the dead? He is the Lord Jesus Christ, the one also crucified for our sins. What mercy! His power and authority are real, but his is power and authority that does not lie to you. His power and authority dies for you.

Christian gospel is a metanarrative unlike any the world has heard. It is not a metanarrative of corrupt power-grabbing, it is a metanarrative of holy grace. Proclaim it.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley