IT'S THE CULTURE - HOW THE WEST BECAME DEAF TO THE BIBLICAL VOICE THAT HAD LED IT
by Robert W. Jenson
What happens to a culture shaped by the Bible, if the culture ceases to believe that the Bible tells truth?” This was the question asked by my initiation paper for a liberal arts discussion group that met more than fifty years ago. In the meantime, we have been finding out the answer.
It is not my purpose, grimly enjoyable though it might be, to set forth a lament over our developing chaos—our nihilistic ideologies, the collapsing sexual order and related social and political dysfunction, the idiot’s greed of masters of the financial universe, and so forth. In order to understand more deeply, we need to attend to specific features of the Bible and to correlated aspects and developments of Western culture. The following is offered as a limited contribution to that effort.
Now, we may think of Scripture as both an encompassing narrative of the Creator’s history with his creatures, and as torah, his gracious communication of what is good for participants in that history. These of course are inseparable, but it will be convenient to take them up in sequence. Christians and Jews tend to order them differently: Christians make the narrative primary; Jews, the Torah. I presume the Christian ordering but think both Christians and Jews can agree about much of what I will say.
The Bible interprets the truth of events, institutions, and beliefs by locating them in a narrative account of reality, with a plot reaching from the beginning of all things to their final resolution. Because this story is universally encompassing, if it is true it is necessarily true, and so can provide the final warrants and guarantees for particular truth claims. This same principle also extends to subplots, to individual stories that stand for particular phenomena; thus, the many tales of origin in Scripture. There is a great altar at Bethel, for example. Our father Jacob was granted a dream in which he saw that the place is a gate of heaven, where angels carry on heaven’s traffic with earth. In the culture the Church built, partly from the relicts of ruined pagan antiquity, the history told in the Bible served as the frame within which all truth claims were understood and evaluated.
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.
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