Remember when all the post-modernists were shouting about the vile oppression of meta-narratives?
You don’t remember that? What, you had better things to do, like go to work and earn a living?
Well, trust me, it was a thing, and it went like this.
Meta-narratives are big, far-reaching stories we tell ourselves and those around us to make sense of life. These stories aren’t big in the life-of-the-party sense, but they’re big in the all-encompassing sense. Here’s an example: Have you heard the one about the freedom-loving, god-fearing nation set as a democratic city on a hill for the rest of the world to witness? The American story, as many of us learned it, is a meta-narrative.
Well, back in the day, post-modernists were grousing that these types of stories oppress people by forcing them into certain singular ways of thinking, governing them with an iron fist—or iron tongue. Instead, they argued, we had to emphasize local stories, the stories of the neighborhood or family unit or, to the extreme, individual stories above all others.
Meta-narratives, the old t-shirt goes, happen. We cannot deny them. We all carry deep in our psyche worldviews—basic ways of interpreting the world around us that answer very basic questions about our core identity. Shout all you want about the “oppressive” nature of a meta-narrative, but we still have them, even when we’re not attempting to impose them on anyone.
But the post-mods were right about one thing. (Well, two things, really. They were right to say that individuals’ stories matter … deeply.) They were right to point our attention to the oppressive potential of meta-narratives.
You see, when we buy into certain overarching stories, we do so to our own detriment. This is one of the big lessons from Middleton’s Liberating Image.
Way back before the post-mods, you had the ancient Babylonians, and boy did they have a story to tell. Their big story, at least one of them, detailed how the gods conspired to create human beings and why. The long and short of it is that the gods were tired of doing the backbreaking labor of agriculture. Sure, the gods needed to eat, but did they really need to do all that hoeing and weeding and harvesting?
So the gods fashioned humans … as slaves. Let them do the hard work of maintaining irrigation ditches. Let them do the hard work of sowing the seed. Let them do the hard work of bringing in the ripe harvests. And let them bring that food for sacrifice to the temple, so that we the gods can eat.
But these humans can be unruly. They’ll need a master. Thus, the gods created someone in their own image (sound familiar?): a king. Yes, the kings of Babylon were shaped in the image of Marduk, the dominant god, and thereby given authority to rule over the people. And they, in turn, were to continue their toil in the hot Mesopotamian sun.
That’s a meta-narrative. And unless you happen to be king of Babylon, it’s an oppressive one. Buying into this story puts you in your place, saying you’re no better than a god’s slave and you never will be. Your only purpose is to supply the gods with food. There is no rising to a higher calling.
Contrast this with a biblical notion of humanity’s purpose—a competing meta-narrative. In this story, God creates all of humanity in his image. He places on all humanity the royal purpose of governing the earth. So it says in Genesis 1:26-28:
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
So, the post-mods were right about this: meta-narratives matter. And we should be careful of the stories we buy into.
But there are—and this is really the point of Middleton’s study—liberating meta-narratives out there. In fact, from a biblical point of view, we should say there is one liberating meta-narrative out there. There is a foundational story that, should we buy into it, would lead to freedom, to life, to shared responsibility and, ultimately, to the flourishing of the earth itself.
You are going to live within a great story one way or another. Make sure its a good one.