The Big Story

Dec 19, 2002 |J. Budziszewski

Sarah's professors tell her there's no such thing as absolute truth. Theophilus says even they don't really believe that.

"Hi, Professor Theophilus — oh, your coffee! I didn't mean to startle you."

"My fault, Sarah. I didn't know you were there. Hand me that spill towel, would you? Right behind you — on the hook."

"Sure," she said, complying. "I've never known a professor who kept a 'spill towel' in his office. Is it always that easy to sneak up on you?"

"Yes, it's a good thing I'm not a Renaissance prince; I'd be easy prey for assassins." I tried to keep the coffee from running off the desk onto the floor. "Perhaps you're planning a little assassination yourself this morning?"

"Oh, no."

"Sure about that? No grading complaints, no protests that my shoes are made of leather?"

"None whatsoever, Professor T. I was just hoping you could explain something that's puzzling me in two of my other courses."

"The same thing is puzzling you in both of them?"

"Yes."

"What courses?"

"Literature and social theory."

Carefully, I encircled the puddle of coffee with the towel. "Haven't you tried getting help from your professors?"

"Yes, but my literature professor won't tell me his office hours. When I ask for them, he frowns, grumbles something about 'hegemonic chronologies,' and walks away."

"And the social theory professor?"

"She tries to answer my questions, but her answers make me more confused than ever."

"Did you tell her that?"

"Yes, and she said 'It's all part of increasing your negative capacity.'"

I opened my towel drawer, threw the soiled towel in with the others, stood and hung out a fresh one. Sarah's eyes became a little rounder, but she said nothing. "All right," I said, "tell me what's confusing you in these courses."

"Postmodernism. Both teachers are postmodernists."

"Ahhhhh. Yes, I see why asking questions didn't help."

"Can you help me?"

"Maybe. Be more specific."

"Can - you - help - me - understand - postmodernism?"

"No, no. I meant you should be specific about what's confusing you."

"Well ..." Sarah pondered. "My lit professor keeps talking about how 'the text does not exist.' At first I thought he meant that we're using a readings packet instead of a textbook, but that's not it."

"Go on."

"And he says 'We are all perspectivists now.' One day in class I asked, 'Do you just mean we all have different perspectives on things?' He said 'Yes! Yes!' So I said 'I get it. To see how things really are we need to compare our perspectives, right? And that's why we read literature?'"

"What did he say?"

"Nothing. He slapped his hand to his cheek, rolled his eyes, and said something about 'Philistines.' I knew I'd crashed, but I couldn't figure out why."

I smiled. "And in your social theory course?"

"Now that's really strange," said Sarah. "My social theory teacher keeps talking about 'constructing reality.' I asked 'Do you mean something like building a civilization? She answered 'No, that project belongs to your reality.' So I asked, 'What do you mean by my reality? How could there be more than one? Do you mean my interpretation of reality?'"

"And how did she answer then?"

"She looked owlish and said 'Listen closely: Interpretation is all there is.'"

"Anything else?"

"Lots and lots. For example I'm supposed to be 'suspicious of metanarratives,' whatever they are. Both of my teachers say that. Oh, Professor T, do you think I'll ever understand postmodernism?"

I laughed. "I think you understand postmodernism very well. The only thing that surprises me is that you haven't come across it on campus before now. Postmodernism is everywhere. It's one of the main ideologies in the modern university."

"But it all sounds like nonsense!"

"It is nonsense."

"Oh," she said, and was silent for a bit. Then she looked up. "So I'm not stupid?"

"Sarah, your only problem is that you have too much common sense."

She chewed on that for awhile. "That's nice, Prof, but it doesn't help me out in my two courses."

"No, I shouldn't think it would."

"Do you see my problem? I mean, postmodernism might be nonsense, but it's my teachers' nonsense. So knowing that it's nonsense isn't enough. I've got to know what kind of nonsense it is, why they believe it, and how to answer it."

"Well said."

"So."

"So," I echoed.

"So can you help me?"

I collected my thoughts. "All right, Sarah," I began, "think carefully. "Post-" means "after." "You've taken the European history course. What do you suppose is the modernism that postmodernism is post? What big intellectual movement does it come after?"

"Um — the Enlightenment maybe?"

"That will do. And what would you say the Enlightenment was all about?"

"I had to write an essay on that. I'd call it a time when the intellectual people were trying to make God less and less important. Do you think I'm on the right track?"

"Go on."

"Before the Enlightenment the intellectuals based their thinking on the Bible. You know — God made man, man rebelled and messed himself up, God responded by calling Israel to be His people and later coming in person as Jesus — all that."

"Keep going."

"The intellectuals were trying to see the world as though — as though it just didn't make any difference whether those things happened. They thought they could figure out Truth without God. No, that's not right. Some of them still believed in an abstract sort of God. But they thought they could figure out the Truth without the Bible — without knowing what kind of God He was, without knowing what He had done, without — without —"

"Yes?"

"I was going to say 'without getting the Big Story right,' but I didn't think it sounded very smart."

"Sarah, you must have had a good history teacher; it sounds very smart indeed, and my grad students couldn't have put it any better. Now, how did all that end?"

Sarah reddened. "I don't know, Professor T. My European history course ended in the nineteenth century."

I laughed. "How was it all starting to end, then?"

"Well, a lot of intellectuals were still optimistic about finding Truth without getting the Big Story right. But others were starting to say it wasn't working."

"Do you think it was working?"

"No. If it was working, they should have agreed with each other more and more. Instead they agreed with each other less and less. About everything. About what man is, what life means, how to live it, the works."

"If you understand that much, Sarah, then you'll understand what happened later."

"What?"

"A movement arose which said that we can't find Truth without getting the Big Story right."

"Oh, good."

"Now you'd think they'd be determined to get the Big Story right, wouldn't you?"

"Sure. Maybe even go back to the Bible."

"But here's the catch: Their deepest conviction is that no one ever gets the Big Story right. In fact they believe that there isn't any Big Story to get right. As the bumper stickers say in cruder language, 'Stuff happens.' That's all."

"And is that postmodernism?"

"Yes. For example, take the postmodernist slogan that you mentioned, 'suspicion of metanarratives.' The word 'metanarrative' is just fancy talk for 'Big Story.' So when someone says he's suspicious of metanarratives, he's just saying that no one ever gets the Big Story right."

"But Professor Theophilus — that makes sense in a way — I mean, now I understand what my teachers are talking about — but it's hypocritical!"

"Why?"

"Because if postmodernism is what you say it is, then postmodernism is a metanarrative! The postmodernists don't practice what they preach — they're only suspicious of everyone else's Big Story!"

"Just what do you think their Big Story is, Sarah?"

"Something like this. 'Once upon a time people believed there was a Big Story which would make sense of things if only they could get it right. Now we know better, because there isn't any Big Story, so no one gets it right.'"

"And what do you think of it?"

"Not much! How can anyone respect a Big Story that lies and pretends that it isn't a Big Story? I'd rather stick with a Big Story that admits it's a Big Story — like Creation, Fall, Redemption."

"I'm with you," I smiled. "Do you feel equipped now to return to the readings in your other courses and figure out what they're all about? You said you needed to find out what kind of nonsense postmodernism is, why postmodernists believe it, and how to answer it. Are you ready to get started?"

"I think so," she said. "I'm going to go back and study the assignments all over again."

"Good, but I want you to remember something. There is a grain of truth in postmodernism. Postmodernism thinks that everything is in pieces, that nothing hangs together. The grain of truth is that without Jesus Christ, everything does go to pieces, nothing does hang together — not truth, not life, not anything. You can't fight storylessness unless you remember that He is what makes the Story true."

"I'll remember," she said. "Thanks."

Copyright 2002 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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