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What is a metanarrative?

metanarrative audio

A metanarrative (also called grand narrative) is an overarching story or storyline that gives context, meaning, and purpose to all of life. A metanarrative is the “big picture” or all-encompassing theme that unites all smaller themes and individual stories. In building a house, there are many workers doing many individual jobs—plumbing, sheet rock, electrical work, roofing, etc.—but all of those contractors are working toward the same thing—completing a house. The blueprint is the “big picture,” the metanarrative that gives meaning to each contractor’s work. The plumber isn’t fitting pipes to nowhere; he is involved in a larger scheme.

The concept of a metanarrative is similar to a worldview—something that gives meaning to life and the individual events that take place in life. Marxism, Freudianism, Free Market Capitalism, and Enlightenment Emancipation would be examples of metanarratives in that every event in life and history is seen through one of these lenses. Religious worldviews are also metanarratives. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity all offer metanarratives to explain various events in history and the contemporary world. A metanarrative has the power to explain and purports to be true for all of life.

The term metanarrative was brought into prominence by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In this book, the author characterizes the postmodern condition as that of increasing skepticism of all metanarratives. Indeed, postmoderns generally do not accept any overarching story that gives meaning to all of life. Instead, they focus on small, individual narratives that give meaning to their own lives. A metanarrative speaks of absolute, universal truth. An individual narrative speaks of what is “true for me” and “gives meaning to my life.” Postmodern thinking rejects metanarratives because it rejects universal truth. Postmoderns view a single narrative giving meaning to all lives as an impossibility.

The problem with postmodernism is that it quickly becomes another metanarrative. The “truth” that there is no absolute truth is the metanarrative that gives meaning to the postmodern thinker. Relativism, ironically, becomes the one assured absolute.

The Bible clearly teaches the existence of metanarrative. Paul writes, “[God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9–10). This passage speaks of a divine will, a purpose, a timetable, a fulfillment, and a unity. The Incarnation of Christ occurred “when the set time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4), again suggesting an overarching plan, a metanarrative. The entire book of Hebrews traces themes begun in the Old Testament to their fulfillment in Christ.

The earthly ministry of Christ was part of a plan that extended all the way back to the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15. Jesus’ first sermon contained this declaration: “The time has come. . . . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). The Lord’s reference to an anticipated time that had finally arrived is another reference to metanarrative. The prophecies of the Bible all indicate the existence of a metanarrative (see Matthew 2:15, 23; 26:56; Luke 22:37; John 19:28, 36). History unfolds like acts in a play. The lights come up and down on various scenes, and different characters tread the stage, but there is one plot always moving toward the final curtain.

In the Bible, we have the metanarrative or grand narrative that gives meaning to our lives. We are told that we were created in God’s image and were meant to live in fellowship with Him and with each other. We have sinned and broken that fellowship, but God in His grace has provided a way that we can be saved, forgiven, and restored. Jesus is God born into the human race for the express purpose of dying for us, to pay the penalty for our sins. After His death on the cross, Jesus rose again from the dead. All who trust Him for salvation will be forgiven and made new. Jesus will return to earth one day to gather His followers unto Himself. In the meantime, we are to share this good news with everyone in the world, as it applies to everyone and is true for everyone. Those who have come to know Christ recognize that this grand narrative—this overarching story of redemption—gives meaning and purpose to the world, to history, to all of life, and to each individual.

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What is a metanarrative?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022