Why Western culture ceased to credit the Bible’s narrative is perhaps a question only God and his saints can now answer. But it is suggestive that the first step was a replacement metanarrative: the Enlightenment’s tale of self-sustaining (and so covertly divine) Western scientific, political, and economic progress. This preserved the teleological thrust of biblical narrative and promised similar hope and security, but it did not include that offensive item, the election of the Jews.
“Remember not the former things,” said the Lord through Isaiah, “for, behold, I am doing a new thing.” For a time, Western modernity could believe that faith in progress seemed to obey the mandate—and there are some especially sheltered popularizing scientists who still think that way. But for most of us, history itself has undone faith in autonomous historical progress.
We can roughly specify the period of the modern narrative’s collapse. Its epicenter was 1900, the year Nietzsche, the great prophet of modernity’s decadence, died in appropriate fashion, and Picasso came to Paris, where it was revealed to him that one could repudiate the modern bourgeois world and its illusions by new ways of putting paint on canvas. Perhaps we may locate the period’s dawn in 1863, when Édouard Manet exhibited Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, “The Luncheon on the Grass.” In this apparent genre painting, two men are having a picnic. There is a third figure with them, a woman, who happens to be naked. She pays no attention to them, and they—entirely improbably in view of her charms—reciprocate. She is in fact dropped in from another painting altogether, perhaps a Venus Observed, to disrupt any attempt by viewers to construe a coherent story about the picnic. The subsequent history of art is in decisive part the story of various strategies to achieve a similar disruption of modernity’s faith. And in 1918, Walter Gropius, future founder of the Bauhaus, formally proclaimed the end of modernity: “A world has been destroyed; we must seek a radical solution.”
So what happens when both the biblical narrative and its Enlightenment replacement are no longer trusted? Of course, another new narrative might be invented. But now the inventors would know, at least subliminally, that it was a fiction.Share
Thus in crisis-modernity (also known as postmodernity or high modernity in different areas of culture), the very notion of a comprehensive story that warrants the truth of our partial claims is suspect—or, indeed, forbidden. Among the illuminati, “metanarrative” is a bad word. Yet the West’s history with the Bible has left it with no other way of understanding itself. (Read more.)