Recently, I started corresponding with a young man who has been reading my blogs. From reading his email, it is clear that he is bright, quite articulate and painfully honest. When I first asked Tom (not his real name) to tell me about himself, this is what he wrote:
I’m a 28-year old white man. My parents are pastors in a suburb of Seattle. They founded the church they currently pastor when I was two weeks old.
I attended a private Christian elementary and junior high (but a public high school), then marched straight to a Bible college, my dad’s alma mater – it seemed like the logical “next step”. I never seriously considered any other colleges.
It’s an old, familiar story: fell in love, tried to have the perfect Christian wife and marriage…and was divorced 5 years later. I think that the breakdown of my marriage was just one, however significant, step down the road I’ve been on for years: if my faith, obedience, dedication and spirituality were not enough to keep my marriage together, what else could all the “Christian experts” have been withholding from me?
It was Tom’s last question that gripped my heart the most. A question that I never asked till I was well in my late 40’s, over 30 years after becoming a follower of Christ. A question that today Christians younger than my own children are asking me over and over again. How did we, evangelical Christians, come to the conclusion that our faith, obedience and spirituality should guarantee us of a life void of pain and failure? Of course, the preacher from the pulpit and the televangelist on TV are quick to point to the Bible. But I believe the answer lies in understanding the word metanarrative. However, to understand the phrase, one needs to understand two other phrases: modernity and postmodernity. I hope I don’t bore you to death!
First introduced in 1627, this term describes the knowledge, power, and social practices which emerged in Europe around that time. Modernity was not associated solely with ‘newness’, but also with beliefs in rationality and ‘progress’, and came to be seen as a central attribute of Europe, which the rest of the world were expected (or compelled) to adopt. (Answer.com)
Said to exist after modernity. Some schools of thought hold that modernity ended in the late 20th century, replaced by post-modernity, while others would extend modernity to cover the developments denoted by Postmodernity and into the present. (Answer.com)
A metanarrative can include any grand, all-encompassing story, classic text, or archetypal (original pattern or model) account of the historical record. They can also provide a framework upon which an individual’s own experiences and thoughts may be ordered. These grand, all-encompassing stories are typically characterized by some form of ‘transcendent and universal truth’ in addition to an evolutionary tale of human existence (a story with a beginning, middle and an end).
According to Jean-François Lyotard, a defining condition of postmodernity is a widespread skepticism or “incredulity” toward metanarratives. (Wikipedia)
Examples of metanarratives
1. The Enlightenment theorists believed that rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress.
2. Marxists believe that human existence is alienated from its species being, although capable of realizing its full potential through collective, democratic organization.
3. Freudian theory holds that human history is a narrative of the repression of libidinal desires.
4. An uncritical belief in the free market is a belief that through humanity’s acquisition of wealth all who work hard and are afforded the right opportunities will succeed materially.
5. Categorical and definitive periodizations of history, such as the Fall of the Roman Empire, are rejected by postmodernism. Other periodization schemes include the Dark Ages and Renaissance.
Do we, Christians, have our own metanarratives, or as I like to put it, “one size fits all stories”? Do we insist that all the stories in the Bible are universal and if something was promised or worked for Abraham, Jabez or David should work for all Christians? Let me give you a couple of examples.
A year ago, two weeks after I had had my second operation in less than three months, a dear pastor friend of mine asked if I would fill in for a speaker who could not fulfill her commitments at his church. I readily accepted his offer for two reasons: friendship and needing to make some money. My friend’s church was about two hours west of where I live and because I was in too much pain, I asked another dear friend to drive us to the church.
The meeting went well and many people stayed afterwards to talk to me. As I was saying goodbye to my friend and his wife, because of the pain, I was leaning against the wall and kind of hunched over. It was then that he asked, “Why did you have a second operation after your cancer operation?”
“My cancer operation unmasked a hernia which needed to be taken care of.” “A hernia is nothing like cancer,” he replied.
“True, but the operation hurts more,” I answered.
And, that’s when he said something that completely threw me for a loop: “Joseph had many trials, but he never complained.”
According to my friend, since Joseph suffered much in his life and yet, never complained, I should have also acted accordingly and not reveled that I was in pain. If the Bible gives us that story, it is because God wants us all to behave as such—a biblical metanarrative. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded keeping my mouth shut and had never said anything about my pain, if my friend could have guaranteed the second part of that formula: Enduring the pain would eventually have made me the ruler of Egypt.
Do you remember Bruce Wilkinson, the author of the best selling book, The Prayer of Jabez, a 93-page, $10 tract published in 2000? The book, which sold over 22 million copies, is based on a passage in the book of Chronicles, in which a man named Jabez prays, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.” And the Lord granted his wish. According to Mr. Wilkinson, the lesson is that God wants believers to ask for blessings. Those who ask—by reciting Jabez’s 33-word prayer—unleash miracles. Those who don’t ask don’t receive. Squabbling couples should ask for happy marriages, he writes. Business executives should ask for more customers—another biblical “one size fits all”.
Having heard the voice of God, in 2002, Wilkinson, whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.
However, in October 2005, Mr. Wilkinson resigned from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disney-esque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland, came back to the US and went into an early retirement.
According to everything I have read, Bruce’s failure was mostly due to his lack of intercultural understanding and refusal to listen to the advise of the western aid-workers who had lived in Swaziland for many years. But, to me, his greatest mistake was to fall victim to his own myth. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn’t materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer…”
To say that because God granted Jabez’s wish, He desires the same for everyone who prays the prayer, is as diluted and misguided as saying, “…rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress.” To believe that is simplistic, naïve and denies the complexity and mysteriousness of the God we serve. But even more heart-wrenching is not realizing how much damage Christian metanarratives have done to the faith of Christians like my young friend, Tom, a man who was taught that his faith, obedience, dedication and spirituality should be enough to keep his marriage together. And, of course, the reason his marriage failed was because he wasn’t faithful, obedient or spiritual enough.