Knowing the Biblical Storyline, Postmodernism, and Metanarratives

September 18th, 2007

This post will be a book recommendation along with three particularly good excerpts. I’ll include some thoughts they sparked on the importance of thinking about the gospel in terms of the Bible’s overarching storyline–or in other words, in terms of the overarching storyline of human history. (This indicates some potential weaknesses of Four Spiritual Laws-type approaches, with post-moderns in particular.)

Last week I received my copy of Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, edited by D.A. Carson. It came out of a conference held in 1998 at Trinity Evangelical School; each of the speakers contribute a chapter based on his message. Carson says in the preface:

We decided that anyone invited to speak at the conference must be actively engaged in evangelism. This was not the sort of conference where we wanted mere theoreticians, no matter how capable. We also decided that we needed not only to hear thoughtful cultural analysis but also to probe some of the most important turning points of biblical theology, to listen to the experiences of those who are proving fruitful in contemporary evangelism, and to glean something from those who are thinking hard both strategically and practically.

Based on the first five chapters, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in postmodernism and evangelism. (Really, I recommend it if you’re concerned about witnessing to anyone in our culture, postmodern as it is.) The chapters are relatively short and self-contained, so it’s something you can tackle at your leisure piece-by-piece. The level of the essays vary; some are at a high academic level, others are more accessible. But all are written somewhat as introductions. (If you don’t already have some familiarity with postmodernism, I would recommend starting by listening to at least the first of three talks given by Carson in a series on the subject.)

One must-read (and short) chapter is Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All, by James W. Sire. That’s the title of a presentation he’s given at many universities, and in his essay he explains the layout of his presentation and how it usually goes. I think it looks powerfully effective for getting people to a point where they’ll look into Christianity for themselves.

Selected Quotes

On to the excerpts. The first explains the idea of metanarrative:

“Central to the postmodern structures of thought is the inadmissibility of any universal claim that is applicable and binding on all everywhere. While one is welcome to tell one’s own story, it may only be personal or parochial, never complete or cosmic in its sweep. Any such totalizing account is dismissed as totalitarian and taboo or, for those who follow [the philosopher] Rorty, naive. But the gospel is a story that is universal in its claims. It calls “all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 7:30). It is the ultimate metanarrative declared to a culture incredulous of metanarratives. Thus the universal claims of Christianity typically register as irritating atavisms of enlightenment hubris. And so the gospel is often rejected simply because it claims to be true, not because it has been examined and found to be false.” [bold added] – Jon Hinkson and Greg Ganssle, Epistemology at the Core of Postmodernism: Rorty, Foucault, and the Gospel

That last sentence is great. It sums up nicely the problem of how people tend to perceive the gospel in our culture.

The second is from Ravi Zacharias, where he tells a story that illustrates the role of metanarrative:

“On several occasions while I was driving and listening to music, every now and then a piece would come on that I found either unmusical or jarring. I would shut the radio off. But then one day I was taken to see a play called The Phantom of the Opera. Suddenly I realize that some of the music I had not quite enjoyed was from this play. I was amazed at the difference knowing the story made, whenever I heard the music subsequently. In fact, the music in some portions is utterly magnificent. The love songs, the discourses, even the arguments make sense when you know the story. Life needs a story to understand the details. Life needs to hold together at the center if we are to reach to distant horizons.” Ravi Zacharias, An Ancient Message, Through Modern Means, To A Postmodern Mind

The third is specifically about the Bible’s own story line, and how important it is to explain the gospel to post-moderns in terms of it:

“…[I]t is crucial that we present the gospel to informal pluralists within the framework of the Bible’s story line. There are at least two reasons for this. First, apart from the Bible’s story line, the content of the gospel makes little sense to biblically illiterate pluralists. Second, many informal pluralists assume that the exclusivity of Christianity is merely another manifestation of ethnocentrism. Presenting the gospel within the framework of the Bible’s story line helps them recognize that the exclusivity of Christianity is not the result of Christian ethnocentrism but is related integrally to the Bible’s diagnosis of the human condition resulting from the Fall and the solution found in Christ.” Harold A. Netland and Keith E. Johnson, Why Is Religious Pluralism Fun–And Dangerous?

The Storyline of the Bible

Over the last year or so I’ve been growing increasingly aware of the importance of understanding the Bible’s whole storyline. It started with Dusty’s semester-long sermon series on an overview of the Old Testament at Southcrest, my church during grad school. At the same time I was taking a wonderful class called Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, which goes through four aspects of missions & God’s eternal purposes: the Biblical background, the history of the growth of Christianity, cross-cultural issues, and strategy of missions. They talked a lot about the unfolding of the story of God’s glory.

It also came up during one of the messages at John Piper’s 2006 national conference on The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World. (I don’t remember which, sadly, but they’re all fantastic.) One thought that stuck with me is that, when we see the gospel in terms of the overarching story, it helps us to better appreciate not just what we’re being saved from, but what we’re being saved to.

One persistent problem in evangelical Christianity is the tendency to view Christ as a ticket-to-heaven. (That was the primary complaint made by an Orthodox friend of mine.) We can put so much emphasis on “praying the prayer” or “making a decision for Christ” that we can wind up with “Christians” who are not in any real sense followers of Christ. We can have people who prayed a prayer one time, but their “faith” is a dead faith that never affects the way they live. It’s been called easy-believism. I remember memorizing Ephesians 2:8-9 as a child, the banner verses of salvation-by-faith-alone: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But I wish people would always memorize verse 10 along with it: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” In three verses, we have the balance & relationship between grace, faith, salvation, and works.

If we have cried out to Jesus, relying on Him and His work on the cross to save us, then we are redeemed sinners, being transformed into the image of Christ, all to the glory of God. Salvation can’t be understood as a one-time event; a saved life is a changed (and changing) life. And when you see your own life as a part of God’s plan through history; when you see yourself as part of the Body of Christ, the church that Jesus redeemed for Himself; when you see your life in terms of the work of the Spirit bringing redemption to every tribe and tongue and people and nation so that we would be to the praise of His glorious grace; when you catch that vision, then you can be much closer to taking joy in obedience and serving with a glad & willing heart.

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