Metanarrative How-To

by Matt Carter

This guide is a how-to for the metanarrative layer, which is often the scariest layer for a lot of people. We will use the story of Joseph found in Genesis 37-50 as an example. 

What is the metanarrative? For a Christian, it is our way of seeing and understanding reality through the eyes of faith. It is a big story that can be told in four acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. God creates a very good creation. Sin enters and corrupts creation. God redeems his creation. God will restore his creation. When we read the Bible or our lives, we should be able to see through faith that this story is being played out. We are situated at the point along this storyline where we have faith that all of creation will be restored as the new kingdom, but it has not fully happened yet. Sin still lurks at our doorstep ready to devour us, but we believe in this future restoration of all things in Jesus.  

The metanarrative layer is built on the foundation of the immediate layer and its proper interpretation from the covenantal layer. We need a good foundation from these two layers before we begin, and I will assume that you have read and are familiar with this story of Joseph enough to know its characters and scenes. If not, you may want to (re)read the guide on Biblical Narrative. 

At the immediate layer, Joseph is the protagonist. His character develops through dialogue and across scenes from a spoiled brat to a loving, wise, and generous man of God at the end. His hateful brothers are the antagonists, plotting evil against Joseph from the outset. His agonist father Jacob, also known as Israel, reminds us at the outset to hold off on our judgement on Jacob for a while. The narrator lets us know that "the LORD was with Joseph" throughout this story by repeating this phrase so often. At the covenantal layer, we also know from other Scripture like Acts 7:9 and Hebrews 11:22 that Joseph had faith in the promises of God and that God was with him. 

Using the immediate and covenantal layers of this story as our foundation, we can start to see how this singular story fits into the overarching metanarrative of the whole Bible. While Joseph is the protagonist at the immediate layer, God is the metanarrative protagonist. We see this here when we remember with Joseph at the end of the story that what his antagonist brothers meant for evil, God turned into good. At this deeper metanarrative layer of meaning, God is the primary actor. 

We can also see that while Joseph's brothers were the antagonists at the immediate layer of meaning, it is sin and the death and evil it spawns that functions as the antagonist of the biblical metanarrative. How so? I think the most poignant way we see this is in the personification of sin in Genesis 4:7 where sin is said to be crouching at the door waiting to devour Cain. It is this same sin that is at work in Joseph&apso;s brothers and in us.

So, we see in the Joseph story that God was with Joseph the entire time and always had a plan to save him. We also see how the sinful desires of his brothers spawned all sorts of evil that threatened to get in the way of God's promises and salvation. In the end, however, God triumphs over this evil, and even uses the intended harm to do good for a whole lot of people. God faithfully keeps his promises. That is how the overarching biblical metanarrative relates to the Joseph story.

What about other metanarratives and other non-biblical stories? Well, we encounter these all of the time. Every time we watch a TV commercial, we know that we are being told we would somehow be better off if we only had whatever product or service they are advertising. We also know that the somehow part of that comes from some underlying inadequacy on our part. The larger metanarrative here is that we are deficient in some way that a product or service can cure. 

In this consumerist metanarrative, who is the protagonist? Usually we are. Who is the antagonist? The deficiency we are told to pay attention to that the advertised cure focuses on. The redemptive mechanism is almost always to buy some thing or service from the company being advertised. Through repeated exposure to this metanarrative, we are taught and trained to look for deficiencies in ourselves and those we care for and to seek cures for these deficiencies from the sorts of companies who do a lot of advertising. This is how an individual story like a TV commercial teaches us how to understand life and reality so that we live our lives according to this consumerist metanarrative script.

When we pause our lives to reflect on this, we can see clearly that this is a lie through and through. Even if the advertised product works well at what it does, it is still a lie to tell us that the way we were created was not good, that we are the most important actor, and that some company can save us. We get this upon reflection.

The problem for us comes not so much from understanding that the consumerist metanarrative is a lie. The problem for us comes from trying to stop living our lives as though that were true. We are bombarded by these consumerist stories every day of our lives, and we often reaffirm their essential truth to each other through our conversations and behaviors. 

What is even worse is that the consumerist metanarrative is far from the only false metanarrative we adopt to make sense of our lives. What are the overarching stories about life and reality we learn from social media, sports, and pop culture? We canot really stop living our lives according to these scripts until we begin to see them for the lies they are. 

The Bible is the truth, not just in some shallow factual sense. It is truth in the deepest possible sense. Taking the time and effort to enable its individual stories and its big metanarrative to sink into our bones is a vitally important way for us to live lives of faith. The Spirit works through our reading and chewing on these biblical stories to transform us as the ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven on this Earth.  

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