Bauckham has told his whole story now, of the God who reveals himself to the whole world through particular people and times and places, most especially through Jesus of Nazareth. He sums up his argument by quoting Lesslie Newbigin on ‘election.’ In his book The Open Secret, LN says election is God’s way of relating to us as the humans we are, i.e. all connected. Instead of sending salvation to each man directly – an isolating salvation – God makes it pass from one to another. So then, someone must be called and sent first for the others. And this is how LN understands ‘election’: it is not for the person alone but for the others that he is called by God. A salvation that suits human needs must involve election.
That’s a pretty cool way of seeing it. And it gives an ultimate point or direction to the human story – what Bauckham has been talking about all along: from the one to the many. LN says ‘Christian faith is thus a way of understanding world history which challenges and relativises all other models by which the meaning of history is interpreted.’
But, Bauckham points out, since the 1970s Postmodernism has challenged the very idea of an overarching meaning to human history. It rejects metanarratives as tools for projecting power. So isn’t Newbigin’s view – which is also the theme of Bible and Mission – suspect from a 21st century point of view?
This is where RB lets his model for understanding Scripture confront the modern world we live in. He wants to hear the critique postmodernism would launch at the Christian story. Is this Christian metanarrative simply a way of silencing the voices of others and controlling them? Certainly the church has been guilty of doing this, during its history. Yes. But is this dynamic of oppression built into the biblical narrative itself?
The biblical story as a non-modern metanarrative
Postmodernism started as a critique of the metanarrative of Modernism, coming out of the Enlightenment. The dream of reason leading to progress was exposed as a tool of western domination. The biblical narrative does not share modernism’s dream of human knowledge and mastery. It sees history as the stage for the fulfilment of God’s purposes, not man’s. Much remains mysterious from our limited perspective. God’s action is not predictable but free, and often disruptive and unexpected. So mission is not a smooth expansion like Modernism’s ‘progress.’ Also, the biblical narrative, while telling an overall story, is told by many voices, and as such is manifold, untidy and multi-perspectival. It does not press all to adopt a single tidy viewpoint on life. And it does not suppress the minority voices as modernism would tend to do.
In other words the Bible’s metanarrative is not totalitarian and intolerant of diversity. There is plenty of room within it for the range of human experience and culture. The critiques of postmodernism are not really aimed at this sort of story.
That’s pretty convincing, RB. Great to have your summary of the book at the start of the chapter. Great that you open your view up to critique, and face it calmly. It’s good to have the Christian story distinguished clearly from the Enlightenment one I grew up with – we still tend to mix them up!
I can see how RB deals with and ultimately escapes the critique of postmodernism. Does it matter? Surely the gospel is going to offend people anyhow, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that? Who cares if we upset a bunch of postmodernists?
I care, actually. Because key elements of the postmodern case seem to me to be just and true. Their critique of modernism leaves it looking oppressive and cruel. And when I see those attitudes and behaviours in the church or in her message, I want to repent of that. I want to be confident that we are not silencing the weak and siding with the strong. That’s stuff I’ve learned from Jesus.
In other words, Postmodernism has brought out strands in the Christian faith that have long lain dormant. It has preached to us things that we should have been preaching, when we were instead embarking on the grand adventure of empire. Its voice has been prophetic. God who can speak through an ass can even speak through a french philosopher! And so where it is true to the gospel, it behoves Bauckham (and us) to listen carefully and examine ourselves and the story we are telling – which is what he is doing here.
If the biblical story doesn’t fall foul of the postmodernist critique, why is it that the church’s behaviour often is oppressive and totalising? Why are so many church leaders bullies? And what does this biblical story have to offer that might challenge the abusive narratives which have captured our world? More on this next time…