The Problem of Meta-narrative

by Dan Barnes on March 22, 2013 · 39 comments

My undergraduate work was in English Literature, and so I tend to see the world in more literary terms. Ya, I’m sorta nerdy like that. One thing that I have really begun to see is the meta-narrative issue leading people astray.  You probably have read that our good friend Rob Bell support same gender marriage.  How did Rob get to this place? I think it’s the danger of the meta-narrative.

What happens with the meta-narrative is it connects all things into one big ongoing story. We are linked in one big plot progression. The danger of the meta-narrative is it makes the entire story dynamic. Simply stated, everything is connected and therefore can progress and change. This includes the interpretation of scripture and the redefinition of our value system. Homosexuality may have been a sin in Ancient Israel, but the meta-narrative says as time progresses, those values can change, and since God is love, He becomes more accepting.

We fall into danger when we begin to define God apart from His revelation of Himself. When God spoke to Moses and said I Am Who I Am, there was a definitive statement made, God just is. Time and space and values and opinions have no effect. God is not subject to the idea of the meta-narrative, and God is not progressive. There is nothing about God that needs too or will change, He just Is!  The meta-narrative tries to put God as a character of the story who changes and learns and becomes more.

We can’t define or redefine God, and the truth of who God is will never change.  We can toss to and fro with opinions, ideas, understandings, theologies, and creeds, but it will never change who God is. To find the truth I believe we must reject the notion of the meta-narrative with God as participant and embrace the unchanging, eternal, limitless and perfectly complete nature of I Am.

1 Rick Morton March 22, 2013 at 8:01 am

Dan,

I am confused by your analysis. It seems that the problem you are describing is more an issue of trajectory hermeneutics than viewing the Scriptures as a meta-narrative. Rob Bell was pursuing the hermeneutic approach of trajectory hermeneutic as early as the writing of Velvet Elvis (see his trampoline analogy). I fail to see how helping people to approach the Scriptures as an overarching narrative of God’s story of redemption is so hazardous. If there is a problem, it is the postmodern tendency to believe the meaning is given to the story by the reader, not the author. The focus of any meta-narrative interpretation should be on what God has intended to communicate by the giving of story.

2 Dave Miller March 22, 2013 at 10:42 am

I too am confused. As an old codger, I have no idea what a meta-narrative is. Is it a medical condition?

3 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 10:49 am

I explained it in the post Dave.

4 Mike Leake March 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

I meta-narrative once. Or maybe that was a narrator. But after meeting him I was not impressed…he had coffee breath….but probably told less lame jokes.

5 Joshua T March 22, 2013 at 10:51 am

Rick,

I agree. It is the postmodern adaptation of the metanarrative hermeneutic. The reader-response approach you described is destructive.

Likewise, put the historical-grammatical approach in the hands of a liberal and you get the rejection of inspirational. But in the hands of Craig Bloomberg it is a wonderful approach to the Scriptures.

6 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 10:52 am

Rick, it’s not the scripture, it’s all or history. The issue comes when we say that the scripture is not the end all, be all, that the story as it continues will continue to unfold and change. It puts experience on level with scripture because the story continues to unfold. Scripture is seen as just part of the meta-narrative, meta, being all things so the narrative is scripture, but also experience and perception.

7 Ed B March 28, 2013 at 11:46 am

Dan

This response helps me understand the point of view of your post much better. I work in IT and I understand Meta-data. When I see meta-narrative I assume that is a discussion about certain properties or relationships that describe the complete or actual narrative. I assumed the actual narrative was Scripture and that your post was about a meta-narrative that takes a few properties about God or Scripture and runs wild with that using it to paint an incorrect view of the whole.
Now I think I understand that you refer to people within the broader Christian community using the Bible as one of many meta-narratives to describe the progression or lifecycle of human history. If that is true, from an IT or an engineering point of view, the Bible would represent what was true at a given point or from a given context in the lifecycle or human history but allows for and expects “advancement” or “maturation” of the human product.

I probably didn’t help anything

8 Christiane March 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I may not understand the post in the spirit in which it was written, but the concept of the great ‘meta-narrative’ as the unfolding of God’s Plan is always worth discussion. I look forward to reading the comments.

One thought immediately came to mind, these verses:
” 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. . . .

and
“13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor:13)

and
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
(Revelation 22:13)

If we would know the Great Story, we look to Christ Himself.
He Himself IS the Meta-Narrative.

9 Joshua T March 22, 2013 at 8:58 am

Dave,

This is really good. Fundamentally and at your core application I agree completely. But for the sake of particulars let me ask, how does the incarnation of Jesus Christ fit into a nonparticipating God?

Or put another way because I love your statement “We fall into danger when we begin to define God apart from His revelation of Himself”, Is God allowed to change the revelation of Himself? And if so is that participation in the metanarrative? Great words. I’m glad someone else loves this topic.

10 Joshua T March 22, 2013 at 9:00 am

*Sorry Dan. Credit where credit is due. You are not Dave. Both my head and fingers now know this.*

11 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 10:00 am

I think God interacts in the meta-narrative by revealving new things about us. We are always discovering the depths of God, there is no reason for Him to change. Christ grew and had some changes as a man, but His nature of divinity was complete, nothing to change.

12 Joshua T March 22, 2013 at 10:33 am

Dan,

The growth and maturation of Christ was not actually my main thought. Since I confirm that the Divine nature never needs to change Its essential characteristics, I was more thinking about the duality of natures. They neither blend nor can they be distinct within the man, so one must ask questions concerning exisitence, death, etc.

I will ask another question, with reference to the law of God, on what basis can we deny the present application and/or affirm the present application. I know that we can answer that question apart from the metanarrative. But within the metanarrative, how does God’s rules for us change if they reflect His character? Do we simply deny that they reflect His nature? This principally is where the discussion with advocates of homosexuality needs to be focused.

13 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 10:55 am

I don’t think it’s the law of God that changes, it’s our position in relation to the law that changes, since the law accomplishes it’s purpose in the Biblical meta-narrative, by showing sin ton be sin and depravity for what it is. We then change our relationship to the law by adoption, God and His Law remaining unchanged.

14 Joshua T March 22, 2013 at 11:05 am

Dan,

I don’t disagree. But I would ask to what has our position changed. Or more practically how do describe out changed relationship and still find textual warrant to reject the practice of bestiality? Because this is the question that postmodern “Christians” are asking concerning homosexuality and I’m not sure we’re doing a good job teaching our congregants how to answer.

Please note I am not in disagreement with you at all. Just seeking a conversation partner.

15 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Our relationship to the law changes where first it existed to condem us, for by the law we are shown to be sinners, and as sinners deserving of damnation. The law exists to also keep society in check, keep us from self destruction as we see with every culture that falls into lawlessness. We have examples of pre-flood and Sodom that experienced ssuch lawlessness that they were destroyed, if God would not have done it, they would have done so themselves. They were already willing to attack and rape strangers and guests in Sodom. The law keeps us civil, showing us our depravity.

Post salvation, the law loses it’s power condemned, we are no longer subject to sin’s penalty. We are then free to live in grace by keeping the perfect law, not because we have too, but because the law God brings joy. We have changed as in we become sons and daughters of God.

For matters homosexuality, beastiality, we are not subject to the OT standard, because we would have to kill those people. The question becomes more of the moral of the nation and it’s people. God’s Word set a standard of one man and one woman, and I believe that standard still applies, yet if a woman is caught in adultery, if someone has same gender relations or beasitality, we don’t kill those people, which was the law of the OT. Not only are we free from the law, but we are now free to show grace.

I am not sure I have fully answered the question, because in some ways we have muddied the water with the combination of national ethics and morals with Biblical ethics and morals. We as a country must define our ethics, and as Christians, we would like them to be Biblical, but that is not the case today. We can’t use the Bible to make a legal argument, since we are not bound by the OT code, simply as Believers we are free to follow God’s law, which is freeing.

16 Joshua T March 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Dan,

I hope it was not insinuated that I believe we should force Biblical ethics on the world through any legal process. In fact, the point of my discussion was not with nationalistic rules and regulations at all. It was the matter ensuring the church is taught to believe what is proper, true and right that was on my mind. This of course in practice would lead to the question of what is proper, true and right.

What I see in the church is that the explanation you just gave, concerning the law, is often applied by less conservative minds to the whole of the OT. So for us as church leaders, the question becomes how we get our churches to read the Bible and decide hermeneutically as you have, “God’s Word set a standard..I believe that standard still applies”. Because the true problem with the meta-narrative you described in your original post is that it will never lead the church to that statement.

I hope I have been clear in enunciating how I think this all relates to your critique of the meta-narrative and false applications of Rob Bell. Thanks again for the words.

17 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm

You were very clear Josh, and I thank you for the dialouge and interaction. You didn’t come across in any negative form, or with any insinuation, that was simply me thinking through and writing though a complex issue. Thanks for your participation today!

18 Dave Miller March 22, 2013 at 10:39 am

Dan idolizes me. It’s a little sad.

19 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 11:02 am

Not sure I idolize you. I greatly respect you. . . OK I respect you. Well I like you, that’s something, right?

20 Zack Stepp March 22, 2013 at 9:44 am

Dan:

I really appreciate this post. I’ve long thought that the contemporary focus on meta-narratives was potentially damaging when not applied correctly; though I’ve never really looked at it from this angle. Every time I’ve had misgivings, it’s been in the context of people using the meta-narrative to avoid, (ironically), having to deal with trickier issues in the Bible, especially in the OT. Rather than contextualize the more uncomfortable truths about the Christians faith—our sinful nature, God’s wrath, etc.—I’ve seen far too many people use the meta-narrative to simply brush those issues under the rug of Jesus, love, joy, etc.

That, of course, is not to say that every meta-narrative analysis flawed. I do think that there is tremendous benefit of reading the Bible as a cohesive progression; however, more and more the concept seems to be used to bolster pet projects or to avoid difficult truths.

21 Jim Lockhart March 22, 2013 at 10:09 am

Dan,

Your comments are a good way to consider what is happening in the world and it got me to thinking (which may or may not be a good thing). What your comments brought to my mind are the following observations.

I agree with you that God neither changes nor progresses; God remains God. However, your comments about meta-narratives do illuminate what can happen when our willingness to listen can change. Once we become more willing to listen, our understanding tends to enlarge and this can either further enlarge the parameters of our acceptance (thereby changing our understanding of God – like Rob Bell) or enlarge the parameters of our love (where revealed sin resonates against our sin and drives us deeper into the love that illuminates the Truth of God). Our challenge is not to fall into acceptance like Rob Bell; our challenge is to learn how to love better.

Once upon a time our response to homosexuality was simply that God said it was wrong and we did not listen to homosexuals. Instead, we ostracized homosexuals and even went so far as to criminalize homosexual behavior. We created vice squads to eradicate the scourge of homosexuality (read about the Stonewall riots) and mounted vigorous campaigns to identify homosexuals in order to drive them out of jobs and “decent society”, continuing campaigns which drove many to suicide. This was the work of the church and civil society for many years.

Now, for whatever reason (postmodernism, progressive meta-narratives), people are willing to listen to homosexuals. Rob Portman’s son told his Christian father that he had felt this way since birth and his homosexuality was who he was born to be and Portman had no answer except a father’s love. Or how about the note the father wrote to his homosexual son (the one that went viral on the internet) that he, the father, had always known his son was homosexual.

To listen to those who are afflicted with same-sex attraction is to learn that not all things are simple volitional sin, the kind where you simply make a decision to act a certain way. Instead, listening to homosexuals leads to the awareness that those struggling with same-sex attraction are caught in a creational disruption that can seem to be the truth of who they are. In the midst of this creational disruption where the truth of being seems so real, there is a truth that stands in opposition. It is the truth that only God can reveal and it is revealed in love through the person of Jesus Christ. It is, in fact, the transcendent and objective Word of God that offers the only hope for the healing of this creational disruption.

My point: we can continue our old ways of cursing the darkness and wielding God’s Word as if it were a sword to excise sin from the world, or we can listen, learn, and love (not accept) in a way that opens up a heart to the living and active Word that is, in fact, sharper than any two-edged sword we might righteously wield; it is the sword which pierces to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, allowing love to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart thereby exposing God’s true intent and desire for our being (paraphrasing Hebrews 4:12).

Thank you for your comments.

22 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 10:29 am

Very well said, thank you Jim.

23 Christiane March 22, 2013 at 9:59 pm

JIM LOCKHART,

beautiful comment!

24 Confused Baptist March 22, 2013 at 11:42 am

Dan said: “What happens with the meta-narrative is it connects all things into one big ongoing story. We are linked in one big plot progression. The danger of the meta-narrative is it makes the entire story dynamic. Simply stated, everything is connected and therefore can progress and change. This includes the interpretation of scripture and the redefinition of our value system.”

The Old Testament is best described as a meta-narrative. You cannot see this because of your systematic understanding of the Scriptures. A meta-narrative argument does not mean God progresses or changes, but it does suggest that God revealed himself slowly over the centuries. To argue against the meta-narrative overlooks, arrogantly or ignorantly, the Old Testament presentation of God as being in process or as I prefer to explain it, in a relationship. This argument is not open theism or process theology, but rather a sola scriptura reading of the Old Testament. That Rob Bell is a postmodernist who abuses a meta-narrative is undeniable; however, by dismissing the meta-narrative hermeneutic is to dismiss the contributions of Old Testament Evangelical scholarship. Painting with a broad brush is not always effective.

25 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I don’t believe you and I are viewing meta-narrative the same. I’m NOT talking about the scripture as meta-narrative, I’m talking about all of human history, which makes the Bible part of the meta-narrative and therefore non-authoritative. Please refrain from calling me arrogant. Thank you.

26 cb scott March 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

Confused Baptist,

Dan Barnes is not known here for arrogance. He is known here as an honest, patient, and gracious man.

You may have “confused” him with cb scott or Dave Miller. However, do not feel bad. Most people here do get “confused” at times . . . with the exceptions of cb scott and Dave Miller. We are never confused. Never!

27 Dan Barnes March 23, 2013 at 1:05 pm

CB, you just made my day, thanks!

28 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Confused Baptist, I just want to make sure I am clear, I am not referring the the hermenutial meta-narrative, but the historical meta-narrative that views all of humanity as one meta-narrative and says new revelation can come post scripture because of new learning or new revelation. God has revealed Himself fully in His word.

29 Truth Unites... and Divides March 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Jim Lockhart: “Once upon a time our response to homosexuality was simply that God said it was wrong and we did not listen to homosexuals.”

Did God rebuke, scold, reprimand, and/or punish OT Israel for “not listening to homosexuals”?

Mr. Barnes, excellent post. Unchanging Triune God is THEE Metanarrative, over and above all false metanarratives.

30 Greg Buchanan March 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Dan -

GREAT article with many applications. To interact with you and Joshua T above, I think that the meta- of the meta-narrative isn’t as all encompassing as the average wielder would imply.

Often I think meta- starts and ends with ME; the meta-narrative that I see, that I have experienced, that I can define. So, in the end, meta- isn’t as meta- as the speaker’s syntax would suggest.

We see it with the Rob Bell’s who redefine meta- from their own understanding and not always intentionally. This unintentional misuse of meta-narrative affects more than just the pro-homosexual crowd: the SBC struggles with this today, although they don’t call it a meta-narrative issue.

The BI issue was/is a self focused meta-narrative conflict as is the Calv vs Trad conflict (an offshoot of the BI debate):
— When viewed through the course of history and biblical narrative (from my perspective) WE have a claim to legitimacy (who ever “WE” are).

This is exactly how people have come to the erroneous conclusions that on one hand, “there have always been “baptist” churches going back to John the baptist”, and on the other hand, “that Calvin didn’t invent his theology, but rediscovered what the apostles knew but was buried by the evil RC church.”

Both are distortions because of the romanticism of the meta-narrative. Therein may be the real problem: it is a romantic (classical, not flowers and chocolates) notion that “WE” fit into the course of history in a special way that we can trace back to whomever. Rather we should see through the meta-narrative of scripture that JESUS fits into the entire course of history in a special way; and we fit into Him.

31 Dan Barnes March 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I think you just poked about every bear within reach with a sharp stick. Nicely done!

32 Joshua T March 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Greg,

This was an excellent addition to our discussion. I appreciate the modern, conservative and practical application.

It is ironic that as you describe the fallacy of meta-narrative usage, it almost describes a departure from postmodernity and instead an autonomous modernity. When we use any worldview to simply inflate the validity of our opinion, viewpoint, etc over someone else we aren’t truly working in the postmodern spirit.

I’ll ask you a question because I believe you may enjoy answering it…Do you think the tendency to follow (read, espouse, defend, etc) specific writers, speakers and teachers is in fact an attempt to insert ourselves, so to speak, into a meta-narrative?

33 Greg Buchanan March 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Absolutely; and not from malice or petulance.

Who here DIDN’T pretend to be Superman or Batman or the lone Ranger when they were a kid (ok, Wonder Woman for the ladies)? We all like to feel a part of something or some group. We were created for community and I think we act on that desire in more complex ways as we get older.

Although, there is this one guy who likes to dress up like the Riddler in a lime green suit…

I think being defensive of another person’s writings or positions is definitely an attempt to insert ourselves, whether that is a conscious attempt (the way politicians position themselves) or unconscious (the need to belong).

34 Randall Cofield March 22, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Rather we should see through the meta-narrative of scripture that JESUS fits into the entire course of history in a special way; and we fit into Him.

Pure Platinum…

35 Eric Schumacher March 23, 2013 at 10:41 am

I’m glad you clarified what you mean by meta-narrative. You might edit your main post to reflect that.

I’ve found the meta-narrative of scripture to be one of the strongest arguments when discussing homosexuality.

Often, revisionists camp on the “seven passages” that explicitly deal with it. The strategy is to “muddy the waters”on those texts, and use the confusion to bring in the “trajectory of scripture” to say it’s ok.

What I rarely see is the meta-narrative dealt with. The Bible begins with a marriage, for it was not good for man to be without woman–a “traditional marriage.” After the fall, Yahweh takes Israel as bride. Jesus redeems his bride, the church–which Paul tells us marriage was always about. The Bible, and all history, ends with such a marriage, bride and groom.

So the “bookends,” the beginning and goal, of history is the marriage of bride and groom…and everything in-between understands it the same way. That must bear some weight in our interpretation of the texts in-between.

36 Christiane March 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

The Bible begins with the story of Creation. And that means it begins with CHRIST, the Eternal Word, the Logos

“For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him.”
(Col 1:16)

37 Stephen Beck March 23, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Agreed. A great edit to the original post would be discussing the difference between a conservative biblical theology of meta-narrative, that unites all of Scripture as the unfolding theme of God’s redemption of his fallen people through the gospel of Christ, and a more philosophical view of meta-narrative that is akin to open theism or progress theology.

38 Dan Barnes March 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

In a classical view of meta-narrative, scripture wouldn’t necessarily be classified as a meta-narrative because the cannon closes. There is an end to the narrative, making it not a true meta-narrative, which is why ?I never considered the differential. The term meta-narrative is somewhat miss used in speaking of scripture, which by the classical meta-narrative definition cannot be meta due to it’s completed nature.

39 Jon March 27, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Dan, while the canon is closed, the narrative covers all of history and eternity too, so it’s ongoing in that sense. The narrative implies the church continues its tasks into the future and into eternity. So doen’t that reopen it for us, and thereby make it a meta-narrative?

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