After rereading my first couple of posts for Advent, I called my friend Gordon to ask if they made sense. What prompted my call was his comment at the end of what was a rather heady post on my part: “REALLY looking forward to hearing about your first Sunday there.” Without assuming what I inferred was what he was necessarily implying, I took it to mean my posts were a little out of balance. Not bad or wrong; just out of balance. About half way through the post in question, I remember thinking, “This will be the place where Ginger rolls her eyes and says, ‘OK, Geek Boy, get to the point.’” I’m a better writer when I trust her instinct. (Smile.)
I started reading this morning and both my Advent books were talking about metanarratives. I sent Google looking for links and then, just for fun, I asked it to search for images and came across an old friend: Opus.
I started reading my books again this morning and found the philosophical terms swirling around in my head like some sort of theological tornado. When it finally put me down, I had this image of two guys talking in what we call the Middle Ages, wondering aloud what they were in the middle of. I suppose they considered themselves contemporary and intelligent rather than stupid and stumbling around in the dark. Whatever had come before, whatever was going on in their time, and even whatever was to follow, they were a fresh as history got in their day. Their world was small by our standards, but it was the world they knew and the world to which they responded.
Everyone knows what Post-it® notes are: They are those great little self-stick notepapers. Most people have Post-it® Notes. Most people use them. Most people love them. But Post-it® Notes were not a planned product.
No one got the idea and then stayed up nights to invent it. A man named Spencer Silver was working in the 3M research laboratories in 1970 trying to find a strong adhesive. Silver developed a new adhesive, but it was even weaker than what 3M already manufactured. It stuck to objects, but could easily be lifted off. It was super weak instead of super strong.
No one knew what to do with the stuff, but Silver didn’t discard it. Then one Sunday four years later, another 3M scientist named Arthur Fry was singing in the church’s choir. He used markers to keep his place in the hymnal, but they kept falling out of the book. Remembering Silver’s adhesive, Fry used some to coat his markers. Success! With the weak adhesive, the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the pages. 3M began distributing Post-it ® Notes nationwide in 1980 — ten years after Silver developed the super weak adhesive. Today they are one of the most popular office products available.
The irony, for me, is we use a lot of “posts” to describe where we feel like we are in terms of history – postmodern, post-liberal, post-Christian, Post Toasties – when we, like Arthur Fry, find our place when we learn how to look at what we have around us. It’s how great recipes are born. Some of the most imaginative flavor combinations have come about not because the chef was theorizing, but because he or she was trying to work with what was already in the kitchen or connecting the dots between otherwise disparate dishes. One of my last meals in New England, I had fried calamari with cashews, grapefruit segments, diced papaya, wilted spinach, and a Thai sweet chili glaze. I’m telling you: no one built that from scratch; they found it by surprise – by improvising.
In my reading today, James Smith has been discussing Jean-Francois Lyotard’s (I think I’ll call him “Stretch” – get it: “Stretch Lyotard”?) take on postmodernism as “incredulous towards metanarratives.” Smith makes his point by quoting a scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A miracle! It was a miracle!
Aw, don’t be ignorant, Delmar. I told
you they was gonna flood this valley.
That ain’t it!
We prayed to God and he pitied us!
It just never fails; once again you two
hayseeds are showin’ how much you want
for innalect. There’s a perfectly
scientific explanation for what just
That ain’t the tune you were singin’ back
there at the gallows!
Well any human being will cast about in a
moment of stress. No, the fact is, they’re
flooding this valley so they can hydro-
electric up the whole durned state…
Everett waxes smug:
Yessir, the South is gonna change.
Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and
run on a payin’ basis. Out with the old
spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstitions and
the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave
new world where they run everyone a wire and
hook us all up to a grid. Yessir, a veritable
age of reason – like the one they had in
France – and not a moment too soon…
Everett’s take is an example of a modernist metanarratives because he assumes his “criteria of legitimation [to be] understood as standing outside of any particular language game and thus guarantee universal truth” (67). I turn to my scientist friend Randy for further clarification. He often questions the conventional wisdom, or at least the conventional media coverage, when it comes to issues of climate change. He’s not saying there is no change, he’s just saying the explanations – the legitimation – is not necessarily accurate: the metanarrative of the global warming crowd sees their perspective as universal truth rather than a narrative that requires some level of faith to believe, as do all of our stories.
We aren’t going to find a universal theory of everything that holds the universe together in an easy-to-grasp explanation anymore than Spencer Silver was able to come up with his super strong adhesive. We are Post-It notes on the pages of history, living in a world connected by hands and hearts holding on to one another, not by ideology or institutions. Whether we are pre- or post- or once again in the middle, we are a people grounded in the story of an imaginative God who breathed us into existence and calls us to incarnate what we trust to be true about the life we have been given and the world we have to share.