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The Demise of Metanarrative and the Implications for Culture

Introduction

“Simplifying in the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”1

“A massive intellectual revolution is taking place that is perhaps as great as that which marked off the modern world from the Middle Ages. The foundations of the modern world are collapsing, and we are entering a postmodern world. The principles forged during the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1780), which formed the foundations of the modern mentality, are crumbling.”2

The current situation, which is being referred to as postmodern, is intimately connected with the notion of metanarrative and its demise. Western civilization has, until recently shared a common story. This common story was not explicit, nor was it intentionally constructed. In the pre-modern period and in the modern period, Western civilization has held had a common story.

Such is no longer the case.

 

Definition

The word metanarrative is a compound word coming from the word “narrative” and the prefix “meta.” Narrative refers to story and meta has the meaning of “with, after, from”. Combined, they give the notion of going beyond the story. More familiar is the term metaphysics. Physics has to do the material composition of reality and its function. Metaphysics goes beyond physics to look at being or the essence of reality. It asks the questions such as “What is real?”, “What is ultimately real”?, and “What is man’s [sic] place in what is real?”3

Metanarratives are unifying stories that give shape to a culture.

In similar fashion, a metanarrative looks at the story beyond the story. We will come back to this below when we contrast metanarrative with worldview. Metanarratives are stories that are over-arching, all-encompassing. They have been referred to in negative fashion as totalizing. By this is meant that they place all reality within a common framework. Robert Webber refers to them as “comprehensive stories for the whole world.”4

 

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, defines metanarrative as follows:

A metanarrative can include any grand, all-encompassing story, classic text, or archetypal 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). The majority of metanarratives tend to be relatively optimistic in their visions for human kind, some verge on utopian, but different schools of thought offer very differing accounts.5

Note the terms “grand”, “all-encompassing”, “classic”, and “archetypal.” One cannot overestimate the unifying role and nature of metanarratives.

 

Metanarrative and Worldview

Do not confuse metanarrative with worldview.

It is important not to confuse metanarrative with worldview. So, how do they differ? One might think of worldview as related to individuals or groups of people and metanarrative as related to society or culture more broadly. Worldviews have to do with a view of the world. They are a view that I, the individual, hold. They are how I make sense of the world around me. They provide a framework or paradigm by which I understand my world. Individuals or groups within a culture may hold to varying or differing worldviews, but they still exist within the bounds a common metanarrative.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2017

About the Author: John K. Crupper, M.Div. (New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) and D.Min. (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), serves as a Project Manager with Our Daily Bread Ministries in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Following seminary, he pastored local churches in North Carolina, Virginia, and Illinois. Much of his career has been spent working on the strategic priority of ministry with children. He served key roles with Awana Clubs International where he provided significant leadership for the 4-14 Forum. He served as the first National Director for Shepherding the Next Generation, an evangelical nonprofit advocating for at-risk children. Later he provided leadership for key projects for Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree ministry. John's current area of interest and ministry focus is spiritual formation in the "third third" of life and end of life.

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