The forgotten allure of the Bible in a culture suspicious of words.

A few days ago I wrote about whether post-modernism might be waning as the predominant worldview in contemporary culture. This gave rise to some interesting suggestions of what might be replacing it, which you can read about here. However, even if we are beginning to see the tail end of the post-modern movement, it is still deeply embedded as a worldview so we can’t afford to ignore it just yet.

With this in mind, my second question as I came to lecture this week (on communicating ‘the written word to a visual culture’) was how the Christian church should respond to those who have a post-modern mindset, especially when it comes to Bible teaching.

Contrary to the view that many people hold, much of what takes place in the church is actually very attractive to Post-moderns. Authentic worship, genuine community, enquiry through discussion, and even the visual (and sensual) mystery of sacramental worship all tick the boxes on a checklist of ‘what post-modern people should like’.

But it is the Bible which should be our biggest asset when it comes to reaching post-moderns, because it is primarily narrative, and ‘story’ is THE defining method of communication for post-moderns.

Before I go on, I need to qualify that last statement, and it will come as no surprise that in an attempt to define post-modernism, I turn to Jean-Françis Lyotard, who in his 1979 essay ‘The Postmodern Condition’ writes “simplifying in the extreme, I define postmoden as an incredulity towards any meta-narrative”.

For Lyotard, a meta-narrative was a demythologised story, and what he was reacting against was the sort of the formula which Rudolf Bultmann had applied to the Bible. Bultmann was looking for a kernel of meaning in the text, but he sought to strip the story away to uncover this meaning (or truth) “so that modern people could still find the gospel relevant to their existence in the world without having to accept its miracle-laden stories” (view source)

Now with that definition of a meta-narrative, it seems incredible that evangelical Christians could claim meta-narrative as a Christian distinctive. But this is exactly what our natural response to post-modernism has been. In reaction to the claim that meta-narratives are bad, we have been quick to point out that the Bible is not a collection of unconnected stories, but the unified, unfolding, revelation of God by himself. Isn’t this a meta-narrative? Don’t we need to understand the meaning behind the story? Can we find a unifying system for understanding the text?

In the introduction to his recent book ‘The Christian Faith – A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way’ Michael Horton argues that to call the Bible meta-narrative in this way is to misunderstand Lyotard and so misread the post-modern reaction to the Bible. If we do this then we are in danger of a serious breakdown in communication with our culture, as we confirm their view that the Church has nothing to say to them.

For Lyotard, a metanarrative is a certain way in which modernity has legitimized its absolutist discourse and originated or grounded it in autonomous reason. “In philosophical discourse,” notes Merold Westphal, “meta signifies a difference of level and not primarily of size.” Biblical faith, however, does not legitimize itself or ground itself in this way. “Now, undeniably Christianity is a mega narrative, a big story. But the story that begins with ‘Let there be light’ and ends with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ under the baton of the angel Gabriel is not a meta narrative. (view source)

“The prophets and apostles did not believe that God’s mighty acts in history (meganarratives) were dispensable myths that represented universal truths (metanarratives). For them, the big story did not point to something else beyond it but was the point itself.”

Does this undermine our insistence that the Bible has ultimate meaning? Not at all, I think it reinforces it. In fact we need to see that a ‘modern’ approach to Bible teaching presents just as many pitfalls for the Christian.

“Christianity has at least as good grounds as Lyotard to be sceptical and suspicious, sceptical of claims to be the voice of pure reason … and suspicious when … modernity’s metanarratives are seen for what they are, the self-congratulatory self-legitimation of modernity.”

“Metanarratives attempt to justify “us” and judge the rest of the world, while in biblical faith God judges us as well and justifies the ungodly” (view source)

If we agree with Horton (which I think we have excellent grounds for doing) then our response to teaching the Bible in a post-modern context will not be to insist that we have a meta-narrative to be accepted, but rather to show that our personal story is wrapped up in the biggest story, and that this mega-narrative enriches and gives meaning to our lives.

So much for the theory, what does this look like as we stand up and try to communicate the Bible to our culture. Well, first of all we might want to suggest that ‘standing up and trying to communicate’ is a fairly modern way of operating, and that we would get further by ‘sitting down and exploring together’.

While this is undoubtedly helpful (see what I did there – in Post-modernism things are no longer true or false, they are helpful or unhelpful), I am going to spend the rest of this post thinking about how we prepare for teaching. Maybe the comments could develop practical ideas for taking this further to dialogue and more ‘inductive styles of preaching.

As I said at the start, the Bible ought to be our biggest asset in reaching post-moderns, because it is narrative. That means that we need to let the story speak for itself, allowing the divine commentary to shape our interpretation and application.

At a recent PGP study day, David Jackman shared a very helpful equation, which has re-energised me to preach narrative (and to teach others to do so too).

Event + Explanation = Revelation

The Bible’s narrative passages come with their own commentary. These are the explanations which accompany the recorded events. Sometimes these are comments from the inspired author, sometimes more directly from the mouths of God’s human prophets and angelic messengers, but in every case they allow us to see the story from God’s perspective.

Take as an example, the passage I’m going to be preaching on this Sunday, 1 Samuel 13:1-15. This passage is a description of how King Saul (Israel’s first king) finds that his military skirmishes result in the full force of the Philistine army marching out to fight him, and as his courage and his army ebb away, Saul offers sacrifices to God.

Now as an event, there are a lot of lessons which we might want to draw out of Saul’s behaviour. It seems that his pride has led to the opposition from the Philistines. It seems that what today we would call ‘a serious failure of leadership’ has led to the desertion and demoralisation of his army. It might even seem to some that Saul’s hesitation to trust God and attack have already lost him the battle.

But none of these lessons are what I will be trying to draw out of the story, because this is looking at the event, without listening to the explanation. Because in the final verses of the passage the prophet Samuel comes to Saul and says (1 Samuel 13:13-14):

“You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’S command.”

Suddenly the story has meaning, and we can see that all of the events recorded in verses 1-12 reveal that Saul is not a ‘man after God’s own heart’. So we see that Saul’s actions (his disobedience to God’s commands) point us to someone whose actions show us that they are ‘a man after God’s own heart’. In the case of 1 Samuel, this explanation points us first to David, ultimately to Jesus, and then (as we receive what Jesus has done for us and seek to fellow his example) to ourselves.

So-far, so modern, but once we’ve seen this we can then retell the story and dwell in the narrative, but at each point showing how this small story is part of the bigger story, and how this encompasses our story as well.

I need to credit Nick Gowers for much of what follows, but my outline for this sermon will probably be along the lines of:

The man after God’s own heart:

  • Doesn’t panic in the face of insurmountable opposition (vs1-10)
  • Doesn’t attempt to justify himself (vs11-12)
  • Has a secure future in God’s plans.

(This isn’t a sermon writing blog, but of course, any comments that will help my preaching will be gratefully received.)

So, in summary, are we confident to let the Bible speak for itself? In a culture incredulous about reducing the story to a statement of belief, we have all the tools we need to connect with our post-modern culture.

So let’s tell our story, and lets help our hearers to discover how their story can be caught up in the greatest story ever told.

3 thoughts on “The forgotten allure of the Bible in a culture suspicious of words.

  1. Interesting, but I got a bit confused when you got to Lyotard and Horton… I don’t really understand the difference between ‘metanarrative’ and ‘meganarrative’ as Horton defines it. Perhaps that is the problem? Isn’t postmodernism suspicious of the event + explanation = revelation idea because it wants
    Event + personal response = meaning?

    Isnt that the main characteristic of PM (which therefore makes teaching the Bible hard)?

  2. Question – : Do we need to worry about ‘post modernism’?

    I don’t think that people walk around thinking – ‘I’m a post modernist, so this is how I behave / what I think’. So in light of that to say people are post modernists is probably incorrect, rather they have a degree of post modern thinking to either a greater or lesser extent but to define people as post-modern is probably not right.

    How does the concept of the Word of God being a two edged sword fit into that thinking too? If God is sovereign, the Word of God truly powerful, the Holy Spirit active and working, prayer powerful is not our job to proclaim Christ crucified in the knowledge that God will take our feeble efforts and use them wonderfully.

    If God is the one who will soften hearts and open blind eyes, and graciously allow us to be part of his salvation plan, does the method or the context and setting make THAT much difference or will God’s will be done?

    I think I’m asking questions about the need for investigations into post-modernism – but then that’s partly because you’ve used lots of words that I don’t understand, and yet I need to keep up my record of trying to comment on all your blog posts.

  3. Interesting discourse of the waning of post-modernism in a socially deconstructed and reconstructed world; how indeed do we respond, as Christians, to a post-structuralist relativist post-phenomenological world view? It’s enough to give you sleepless nights. Perhaps the answer is all locked up in Proverbs 3:5-6.

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