Incorporating Lyotard’s Narratives: How Does the Gospel Stand Out?

[This is a guest post by Andy Peloquin and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

James K. A. Smith in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? outlines the implications of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as the “incredulity toward metanarratives” on Christianity.  Smith states that Lyotard’s definition has been “bumper stickered” into a misconception of his critique of modernity, especially by Christians who see a threat to the Christian narrative of God’s overreaching purpose found in scripture.  He states that this misconception is to be found in misunderstanding what Lyotard means by metanarrative.  It is often thought to regard a story great in scope, but Smith indicates that this was not Lyotard’s concern.  Rather it was the nature of the narrative’s claims: “metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.” (65)  Thus there exist grand stories in non-modern periods but the distinguishing fact in modernism is legitimization to a universal.  This concept of legitimacy is what Smith indicates is the focal point for Lyotard to demark between modern and postmodern.  For modernity, it is science (universal reason) that legitimates its claim. Science is in opposition to narrative which does not attempt to legitimize its claims but only declare them in a story (65).  This point is important for Smith to draw out in order to claim that Lyotard’s denunciation of metanarratives is good for the church.  In brief summary, Smith indicates the Church has co-opted the modern methodology and so attempts to rationalize scripture through the use of reason.  Instead the church should simply proclaim the narrative of scripture on its own terms without worrying about legitimization.  Thus the church can legitimately speak of the grand story of scripture on its own grounds without compromising that story.  The problem that Smith notes, however, is that you then have a plurality of these narratives which are in themselves all legitimate, with none able to appeal to a higher judge of legitimacy.

How does this then affect our proclamation and defense of the gospel?  Smith critiques what he calls the classic view of apologetics as being modern in its use of reasoning.  He advocates for a ‘presuppositional’ style in which all presuppositions are laid out and then the gospel is proclaimed in its narrative through the power of the Holy Spirit.  I think this is the greatest difficulty to overcome and I was a little disappointed in the lack of explanation/exposition of this.

If the Christian story is one of many other equally legitimate stories and there cannot be an appeal to a higher judge to show one better than the other, than how can we speak clearly the message of the gospel among so many voices?  I like Smith’s appeal to the Holy Spirit but I would have liked a more robust defense and explanation here of what this looks like in the everyday.  What do we do with a culture (such as in Portland) that evaluates all these stories as equally legitimate (‘what works for you’) and/or thinks they are just the same story leading to the same end (religious pluralism)?  What is more, what do we do with this apologetic in the context of a culture (such as Chinese) that already easily syncretizes various religious systems and so would have no problem with accepting the gospel or just parts, into their narrative – especially if they see them as equally legitimate?  How do you adequately address the uniqueness of the Christian faith story as we see given in it (i.e. Jn. 14:6) in this system?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on December 1, 2010, in Hermeneutics, Philosophical Theology, Th.M. Program and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. We don’t. I think Smith and those who accept PoMo give up way too much! And they claim that presuppositionalism is the answer, which itself assumes a particular “meta-narratival” way of thinking; which itself, prior to assuming it as an methodological optic through which we might abductively discern truth vs. error (even Spirit induced) needs to first be “legitimatized” as “the meta-narrative”; which really only begs the question and thus is circular.

  2. I have not read enough Lyotard to comment on Smith’s interpretation, but if Smith interpreted Lyotard correctly, I do think he has a point.

    Christianity is not something that can be proven by universal reason (is there anything that qualifies)? To assume this is to undermine the multi-dimension work of evangelism that includes active agents such as God, the Christian witness, the other human agents minimizing the gospel, and demonic forces, as well as socio-psychological elements, all of which hinder the gospel from being “obvious” like 2+2 = 4. It is a story that must be adopted before it makes sense. It is “faith seeking understanding”. It is believing in order that knowledge may be made possible.

    Even at the judgment I can imagine the gospel will fail to serve as a legitimate meta-narrative for those who reject it. It will still not be meaningful. It will still not explain the world. It will still be “relative” to those who believed now. The judgment may include the bowing of every knee, and confessing of every tongue, toward Jesus as Lord…but not the understanding of every heart and the embracing of every mind.

  3. Very interesting article, although i am not sure what words are Smith’s and what are Peloquin’s. I am sympathetic to presuppostional style of presenting the gospel and then appealing to the Holy Spirit (as the higher judge). I do not think God meant us to have a silver bullet which could destroy all other competitive claims to truth. If this were so then Jesus would have appeared to his enemies or those who killed him, even to Caesar to show them he was King. But instead he appeared mostly to those who believed or would believe in him.
    Also John 14:6 is what got me thinking that the modernistic understanding of truth does not fit scripture. I think a good example of seeing where the two versions of truth clash is in the book of Job. This righteous man could claim that he did not deserve what was happening to him because he did not sin. Job’s statement was true. But Job went on to say that it does not matter because God is the judge, prosecutor and jury or God is truth.
    Scriptures are written from the perspective that God is truth and written to a largely Jewish audience. It needs to be understood in that context (presuppositional view) and presented that way too, otherwise we can end making scripture say anything we want it to say. Or let us get our meta-narratives right, then we can accurately present the gospel.

  4. Here are a couple of good links on the subject. First, D.A. Carson criticizes Smith’s use of Lyotard, arguing that Lyotard would not agree that the biblical storyline does not constitute a metanarrative (Christ and Culture Revisited, p. 103; you can read it at Google Books). But Peter Leithart offers a summary of Lyotard that is very consistent with Smith’s interpretation (http://www.leithart.com/archives/002041.php). They’re both pretty short and worth a quick read.

    • Marc,

      Leithart has become one of our best theological voices today, in my opinion! Not infallible of course, but usually tracking close to the Gospel and the “doctrines of grace’!

    • Leithart’s article is very clear. I especially liked this:

      “the language game of science desires its statements to be true but does not have the resources to legitimate their truth on its own.” (He may be quoting Smith…)

      Perhaps the key is realizing that while Christ’s truth alone is self-legitimizing (as He is the Truth), not everyone wil recognize this reality until that final day.

      Yet if more and more individuals are recognizing the limits of their own ‘truths’, they may become more willing to hear from Him who is the Truth.

      Mark 1:22 “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”

    • “There is nothing new under the sun.” Is not the meta-narrative critique of Lyotard but a recast of the mythos-logos discussion in new and clever terms?

  5. I don’t understand why science (reason) has to be in opposition to narrative. Couldn’t science explain or give some grounding to narrative in some sense. This doesn’t mean that it has too, and when it comes to the narrative of the gospel, there are elements that will not/can not be explained by an appeal to empiricism. This does not mean, however, that a modern notion of reasoning or apologetics is antithetical to the gospel. I think we can get boxed into a either/or type of thinking when we should be appealing to a both/and. (That Karl Barth class has ruined me!)

    What about Paul? I wonder if we can see in some of his sermons in Acts the appeals to both a Presuppositional declaration of the gospel narrative, as well as a more traditional (Thomistic) appeal. Acts 17?

  6. bcash..

    That is a sweet question! I think if we look at Acts 17 alone, we might come away with some kind of mere evidential position. But when we look at the later statement of Paul in 1 Cor. 1 & 2, he seems to see that the presuppositional revelation of God’s transcendence is the best and final argument. No doubt St. Paul learned that the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers could not be brought to belief by mere evidential argument..(1 Cor. 2:1-5).

  7. Good questions. I find myself torn. Knowing the One who is the Truth (Jn 14:6 above) I earnestly desire to share Him with others and for them to see how entering His story brings clarity and perspective to the whole of life – it’s truly a universal position – He speaks to the veracity of all other truth claims.

    Yet at the same time I find that often the ‘tools’ we would use to defend the very true Truth about Jesus are weak and insufficient. If I rely too much on reason, logic, or philosophy am I not granting them more ‘authority’ or ‘weight’ than the words of the one who is Truth?

    So I find myself in between. Perhaps the best approach is to proclaim to proclaim the Truth, and then as we interact with those who respond (“faith seeking understanding” ala Brian LePort above) we make the best use of our tools of reason & logic as we can…

    Perhaps the benefit of the PoMo context is a realization that our reason/logic alone does not provide enough of a basis to make universal claims. This could be viewed as a positive step for our apologetics. We can state therefore, that universal materialistic claims that leave no room for God are not sufficiently support by mere reason or philosophy.

    I would also add, that I firmly believe that Christ and His words ARE a sufficient basis for universal truth claims – yet as mentioned above, it’s a basis that has little meaning for those who are not willing to accept what the Creator says…

  8. Is it possible to combine the approaches? Suppose you believe that nothing can be proven according to the criteria of science, i.e. reason, (including science itself). Is it still misguided to show that Christianity is as reasonable or perhaps more reasonable than another system? It seems like this approach could be quite useful to someone who is still enamoured with reason as a the end all and be all of thought and argument.
    In essence it seems like this is what the presuppositionalists are doing, although not with reason as the standard. ‘Let’s all lay our presuppositions on the table…’ they say, but then what? Aren’t we still looking to see who comes out on top? If not are we suggesting that mere proclamation is enough? If proclamation is enough why do we spend all this time learning instead of just preaching the simple gospel?

    • Combination is a good idea… not discarding reason, but acknowledging that it goes hand in hand with faith… whether I’m a materialist or a super-naturalist I end up believing and reasoning…

      Materialists need to be more honest about the underlying ‘faith’ elements in their systems, and dare I say those of us in the “religious” camp need to be less dependent on reason

      Reason is an important tool for explaining and clarifying our presuppositions, but cannot by itself legitimize them (and here’s the key) from outside of the system we are within… once you enter the language-game/presupposition narrative you’ll find reason supporting things, but EXTERNALLY, reason alone is not sufficient to ‘prove’ the legitimacy of the system….

      this may explain why it’s so difficult to ‘argue’ someone into the kingdom…. belief, like so many things is spurred on by so much more than just brute facts and ideas…

  9. @Adam: Yes, I think this is why many Christians of a postmodern persuasion say things like “Christianity is the best way” when their forefathers would say “Christianity is the only way”. I think there is a similar belief (Christianity is where it is at) but a different approach (positive epistemology v. negative epistemology).

    • Brian, if you are right it is somewhat amusing (in a way that makes one want to cry) that so much anger is spewed between the “only way” modernist camp and the “best way” postmodern camp when it sounds like the goal is the same while the approach is slightly different.

  10. @Adam: I am sure that, as with any issue like this, there are the two “sides”. One who does think it is just the “best” way but others are acceptable and those who see it as the “only” way and others are corrupt. But I assume more people are somewhere between these two poles than realize it.

  11. So then is it safe to say that Jesus is the “best way,” or should we stick with Jesus as “the way?”

    • Indeed the Biblical reality is John 14: 6 / Acts 4:12, etc. God is His own absolute!

      • How can I interpret what you mean by “God” Who seems other and beyond me as “absolute” which signifies that which I seem in my finitude unable to grasp?

      • @Jerome,

        Why not start with union with Jesus as the ground floor of entering into knowledge of the “absolute”; and work from there?

        Although, the language of absolute might provide a little different flavor than I would like. How about the ‘ultimate’?

      • Jerome,

        We can also begin with what God has revealed of Himself, see Rom. 1:20, etc. God is a personal God, even in the OT, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. Even Jesus revealed God as “Spirit” (Being)..”God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)

    • I think it should be safe to say that Jesus is the best way. I think of in the book of Daniel how after Nebuchadnezzar was driven crazy and brought back to his senses so that he would acknowledge God, his acknowledgment was that God was “Most High God” and not “Only God”. Though i lean towards only God, i think we do not need to get uncomfortable with “Most High God”.

  12. “We” don’t have to do anything. It depends on you, the person you are in dialog with, and what you are emphasizing! 🙂

  13. From my understanding of Smith, I don’t think he is saying that we can’t have narratives that are more reasonable than others. I think he is trying to address how we often define reasonable. The modernistic framework describes reasonable in a scientific proof and if it doesn’t meet that scientific criterion it cannot be reasonable. The criteria for what is reasonable are different depending on one’s narrative. The goal shouldn’t be to show the gospel narrative as scientifically true or give universal proofs as the only narrative. Tell the gospel narrative with the posture of humility and what will stand out are the values of love, goodness, grace and forgiveness. Those are the things that might make this narrative more ‘reasonable’ than other narratives. Am I misunderstanding Smith?

    • I think the issue is definitely about what qualifies as reasonable. The issue for Lyotard is the modernistic appeal to “reason” as though it were had a universal standard that was not itself grounded in a particular narrative. So “reasonableness” is narrative-specific.

  1. Pingback: Week in Review: 12.04.2010 « Near Emmaus

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