Some time ago I published in this journal an essay on “How the World Lost Its Story” (October 1993). Modernity’s project, I said with great unoriginality, was the attempt to maintain the Bible’s grasp of reality while dispensing with the Bible’s God. The long reading of Scripture in the West taught us—including those who did not notably obey Scripture—to perceive reality Scripture’s way, as a history that makes a whole because it has a conclusion and so a plot. The modern West tried to inhabit this world while believing no Teller of the story.
”Modernism” (if you are in the art–historical discourse) or “postmodernism” (if you are in the culture–diagnostic discourse) is merely the self–conscious collapse of modernity’s project. It is the despairing or gleeful recognition that you cannot very well have a drama without a dramatist. The recognition should not, of course, have been quite so long in coming, but humanity has a notable capacity for persistence in self–deception. If God is not, or is of deist persuasion and entertains no histories, that leaves only two possibilities: either we are to make up the world’s story, or the world just happens to have one. The latter possibility is remarkably implausible. As to the former, postmodernism proclaims the further unsurprising discovery that whatever universal stories we make up, whatever “metanarratives,” must be oppressive.
Then, more recently, I reviewed here T. J. Clark’s history of modernist painting (October 1999). Clark’s diagnosis is very much like mine. Clark construes modernist painting—not modern painting, which begins much earlier—as prophecy of a world freed from the bourgeois passion for comprehensible wholes, a world whose actual advent turns out, alas, to make no room for painting. The present moment is, he thinks, a “travesty” of the prophesied heaven, and hellish for art. Nevertheless, Clark wants to be hopeful: what we are in is not permanent hell but only “purgatory.” Unfortunately, Clark can give no account of this hope that is in him.
With this pair of First Things pieces behind me, I thought I might revisit the subject at the journal’s anniversary. So: can we have a story again?
It is not of course that there are no metanarratives still around. Modernity’s social–political story—running from initial situation through contract, fictive or actual, to the liberal society—retains its rule over our political self–understanding. And to very different effect, reality is forcing the hard sciences into story form. This would be a welcome development, if only popularizers did not make science’s story itself another metanarrative.
The framework of the biological sciences has been narrative at least since Darwin. The implications of this have been disguised by the ideological insistence that below the narrative there must be deterministic mechanism. This ideology has no evidential basis, but is nevertheless taught in seventh grade as “what science tells us.”
More remarkably, physics also assumes story form. The universe goes from big bang to big crunch/whimper; and at the other end of magnitude, we discover that an elementary particle just is its own history. Again ideologues among the scientists insist that a theory will yet be found that generates the cosmos and its story sheerly from timelessly underlying mathematics. Those not so desperate to avoid religion will be content to wait and see.
Moreover, postmodernist theories are themselves metanarratives. They are one and all stories about how it came to pass that we thought we had a story, and how we are now to be liberated from this delusion. (At an American Academy of Religion session a time or two ago, where the panelists were holding forth against oppressive hegemonic discourses, an elderly nonacademic finally interjected, “I wonder if you people know how you are oppressing me.”) The form of these narratives is quite directly dependent on Scripture; they are narratives of fall and redemption.
Scientists generally believe their own narratives. Postmodernists are supposed not to. No one but John Rawls any longer believes modernity’s social narrative, but we find none other to cling to. The joint effect is the problem. For the scientists’ narratives do not seem to be about us, the political narrative no longer suffices, and the postmodernist narratives, which are obsessively about us, finally conjure spiraling contradiction. At the turn of the millennium, what awaits appears indeed to be an eschaton, Nietzsche’s minus the superman—nihilism.
What is to be done within church and synagogue seems relatively plain. God’s people must gather the courage to subordinate other narratives to their own, to proclaim and live within a metanarrative that is “meta” in superlative degree. If the story the Bible tells, running from creation to consummation and plotted by Exodus or Exodus–Resurrection, is true, it is not just our story but God’s. If it is God’s story, it is universal. And if it is the triune God’s story, it cannot be oppressive.
Astrophysical cosmology and evolutionary narrative do not tell the encompassing story within which all others must be construed. For all this story’s melo drama, it is an abstraction of reality, and believers must have the gall to say this, indeed to say that such abstraction touches reality only as it is construed within the story of God and His creation. Modernity’s political narrative is not the comprehensive story within which the Church must be assigned its place. On the contrary, Augustine was right: the polities of this world are feeble imitations, for emergency conditions, of the divine polity.
If the coming period is to be any special period in the history of God’s people, it will be the time when we are at once reduced to a sect and forced to claim universality with unprecedented boldness, when we must openly and intentionally be tellers of a particular story that is either a fairy tale or the comprehensive truth. If the turn of millennium indeed is anything special, it is the moment when God’s people will have no choice but to summon such chutzpah and live by it.
Will we do it? Yes, because Hell’s gates cannot prevail. Will any particular segment of God’s people do it? Not necessarily; there is no promise that, e.g., American Protestantism will not disappear or adopt for good and all the mask of Nietzsche’s “last man.”
Will the world itself have a story? God knows. Perhaps there is indeed to be a penultimate end of history, not an end of newspaper events but a global imposition of storyless procedural society, of Clark’s “purgatory.” In any case, church and synagogue, in charity for humankind, must pray against such a time of trial and meanwhile do what we can for our fellows.
We can but make the claim. We can note the postmodernist critique of metanarratives, and then offer a narrative that, because it is about God and us at once, is of a different species altogether. Will there be enough people in the world who entertain this obviously self–serving offer to make a difference? God knows. We can strengthen the voices of those in the scientific community who are considering the implications and possibilities of their disciplines’ transformation into narrative; and we can actually produce such accounts of God’s history with creation as show the truth and benefit of the sciences’ stories. Will this suffice for the culture to acquire a new version of “what science says,” a version that helps folk inhabit a coherent history rather than hinders it? God knows. We can not only expose the mythic character of modernity’s social narrative—this is anyway almost universally admitted—but as synagogue and church display how there can be a polity shaped not only by measures to alleviate the love of domination, but also by love for the good. Will enough of the world look and emulate to make a difference? God knows.
Robert W. Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.