METANARRATIVE UNBOUND: REFLECTIONS ON THE 2016 ELECTION

By Jeff Cross

           On the night of November 8th, 2016, I knew Donald Trump had won the US presidency long before Hillary Clinton conceded and the major news networks finally called the election. Momentum often foreshadows a particular outcome and Trump had the momentum from the start of the news coverage. Realizing this made me angry and provoked me to seek out an outlet for my frustrations. I had to pray, what else could I do?

The following morning I had an exam in one of my classes. The primary instructor was not present, but I remember the TA offering some thoughts of consolation about the election before handing out the test. “If it makes you feel better, you can all hit the bar for drinks after the exam. I know that’s what I’m going to do,” she told us. I laughed along with everybody else, but this semi-humorous quip was an early hint of what the rest of the day would bring. Afterwards, as I walked from one side of campus to the other, I noticed a palpable silence on campus. The atmosphere seemed one of death and mourning. Had someone or something great died one night previous?

As a graduate student, I have a cubicle in an office with the rest of the TA’s in my program. I entered the room, anxious to hear the reactions of my colleagues, most of whom favored the progressive causes embodied by Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. There was deafening silence and a feeling of somber resignation. I noted looks of disbelief, anger, fear, and despair for the future of the country on many faces. Although I shared in the seemingly campus-wide feeling of disappointment and concern over the election’s outcome, I cannot say that I felt the same impression of impending apocalypse or utter despair that I saw over and over again. Something was keeping my spirit from falling to such extremes.

What I experienced that day and through much of the following week dovetails well with what I have learned in another setting. The Colin MacLaurin Fellows Program at Anselm House, the Christian study center located on the U’s St. Paul campus, is designed to provide its participants with a better understanding of how a student’s Christian vocation informs and is informed by his or her discipline of academic or professional study at the UofM. Alternatively, one could say that the Fellows program offers students a way to find the meaning of their own life-story within the narrative trajectory of the overall Christian metanarrative. This pursuit of meaning is not a uniquely Christian activity, for all people, whether they realize it or not, make some effort to see their life as part of a larger metanarrative.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “metanarrative” as “any narrative which is concerned with the idea of storytelling, specifically one which alludes to other narratives, or refers to itself and its own artifice. Also: a piece of narrative, especially a classic text or other archetypal story, which provides a schematic world view upon which an individual’s experiences and perceptions may be ordered.”[1] My concern is at the intersection of metanarrative and worldview. In Christian circles exponents of Biblical Theology routinely promulgate models of the Christian metanarrative. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, for instance, in their book The Drama of Scripture, formulate a version of the Christian metanarrative as a play of six acts: (1) God establishes his kingdom (creation), (2) rebellion in the kingdom (fall), (3) the king chooses Israel (redemption initiated), (4) the coming of the king (redemption accomplished), (5) spreading the news of the king (the mission of the church), and (6) the return of the king (redemption completed).[2] Although this model of the Christian metanarrative reflects only one particular interpretation of the biblical corpus and articulates specific emphases, it is intended, just as the OED suggests, to provide Christians with a template into which they can map their own unique experiences and vocation. According to this model, all contemporary Christians would locate themselves in Act 5, but each act and each individual’s life must be considered in light of the whole play. Thus, as a believer in Christ, his story, and his mission for the Church, my life takes on a new and greater meaning because of my identity as a son of God, coheir with Christ, and member in the body of Christ.

Christians are not the only human beings who locate their lives within larger metanarratives, nor is any individual limited to subscribing to only one metanarrative. Politics is full of metanarratives and politicians craft their rhetoric to entice citizens to identify their own life within the framework of a political metanarrative. Donald Trump’s famous (or infamous) campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” concisely suggests its own metanarrative. The slogan is designed to imply that America was once great but is so no longer, that America can be made great again, and that the candidate for whom the slogan speaks, Donald Trump, is the agent of change who can make America great again. Although the slogan does not say this directly, it is devised to appeal to a particular constituent, the voter who agrees with the premise that America is no longer great. It is rhetorically brilliant because it uses the vague term, “great,” to allow the targeted voter to project his or her own feelings of economic, political, religious, and social disenfranchisement onto the political messaging. There are many Americans who would like to return to an earlier era of domestic manufacturing, conservative cultural values, economic self-sufficiency, etc., and Trump’s slogan appeals to just these sorts of people. As a result, the tagline “Make America Great Again,” has become not only a political slogan but also a boundary marker for identity, defining as in-group those are dissatisfied with the current status-quo and as out-group those who are content with the current state and trajectory of the country. Trump voters thus subscribe to a metanarrative of 1) past greatness, then 2) present decline, followed by 3) future resurgence.

Liberals and progressives may not have had a catchy campaign slogan this election cycle that summed up their worldview, but that does not mean they are without their own metanarrative. One might sum this up by speaking of an ideology of moral progress. Although this ideology does not reflect the full spectrum of political concerns for progressives and democrats, it constitutes the flashpoint of conflict between liberals and conservatives. Clinton and Sanders voters, and many republicans and independents too, felt and still feel that Donald Trump’s rhetoric symbolizes a departure from the perceived moral advances in civil rights achieved within the last few decades. They fear that under a Trump presidency Roe v. Wade will be abrogated, advances in rights for the LGBT community reversed, and corporate greed and self-aggrandizement promoted. Whether such fears are legitimate or not, these Americans believe that their metanarrative of moral progress has been upended by a conservative demagogue. For those aligned with Trump or his policies, meanwhile, the new president brings the promise of a metanarrative fulfilled.

The problem with these political metanarratives is that they do not truly satisfy fundamental human needs and desires. As a Christian I believe that the governing end and principle of life is Jesus Christ. My faith in Christ ought to shape how I think (e.g. Philippians 4:8) and how I act (e.g. John 13:34). Metanarratives, likewise, do not escape the influence of Christ in the lives of his disciples. If I am a Christian, the ultimate metanarrative to which I must subscribe is that which Scripture plainly discloses. Other metanarratives, whether they involve politics, economics, or other aspects of life, ought to remain subsidiary in the mind of the believer to the Christian metanarrative. There are two reasons for this: (1) Christ is the fulfillment of the innate human need and desire for salvation, so his story is essential for the individual Christian’s understanding of his or her own purpose, and (2) the Christian metanarrative provides a bond of unity for the body of Christ that endures despite discordant, subsidiary metanarratives such as those of politics. Thus, when we pass around the bread and the wine at my church for communion, we unite ourselves under one head and a common purpose even if we have cast our respective votes for different candidates.

What my experiences in the days following the election and my conversations about metanarratives in the Fellows Program at Anselm House have led me to is a greater appreciation for the centrality of Christ in the life of the believer. It is so essential for me to view my life primarily in light of the Christian metanarrative because otherwise I am tying the meaning of my life and my identity to something else. But other metanarratives cannot satisfy the innate human need and desire for salvation like that of Christ can. I wonder if that silence and sense of despair I felt on campus in the days following the election came from a trust in the wrong primary metanarratives of politics. Did people, whether Christian or not, invest too much of their identity and personal meaning in the political slogans and ideologies at play in the 2016 election? It is a question worth pondering, for the issue at stake is idolatry. None of us are immune to it and we all must fight against it. But praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ! He enables us to repent when we have done wrong and to make that wrong right again.  

[1] “metanarrative, n.”. OED Online. December 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezp1.lib.umn.edu/view/Entry/245263?redirectedFrom=metanarrative (accessed January 04, 2017).

[2] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014).

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