If Only This Astute Social Critic Had a Biblical Worldview, He Could Also Offer Hope

Book Review: The Crisis of Narration by Byung-Chul Han (Hoboken, NJ: Polity Press, 2024), 76 pages.

By Douglas Groothuis Published on May 10, 2024

Sometimes prophets come from unlikely places. As Paul Simon wrote in “The Sounds of Silence” (1964): “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…” Biblical revelation is the only sure source for predictive prophecy (foretelling) and exhortative prophecy (forthtelling). Yet, since all truth is God’s truth, a prophetic word of analysis and exhortation may come from outside the Bible, or even from those without a biblical worldview.

Byung-Chul Han is such an unlikely prophet — or perhaps a particularly astute social critic. In the last ten years, about twenty of Han’s short books (some are no longer than extended essays) have been translated from German to English. I have read most of them to my benefit (and sometimes puzzlement).

Although he is Korean, Han was a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at the Universität der Künste Berlin and is widely read in Europe. He is a continental philosopher and appeals to other such thinkers, such as Walter Benjamin. These philosophers are not known for conceptual clarity, but Han usually writes in an intelligible manner with few dark utterances or unresolved paradoxes. Some of his insights are reminiscent of Jean Baudrillard.

In this short book, Han worries over the loss of narration in contemporary culture. By that, he means the loss of a story that gives meaning to existence beyond what is temporary and arbitrary. He claims that when intellectuals latch on to a topic, they are typically in the dark about it. “A paradigm becomes a topic, and a fashionable object of academic research, only when there is a deep-seated alienation from it. All the talk about narratives suggests their dysfunctionality” (vii). Narratives are now seen as constructed and nonbinding; thus, they lose their “inner truth” (vii). But a compelling truth is lacking in Han’s work as an antidote to the problem he exposes.

Missing the Christian Angle in Storytelling

To identify his theme, Han begins with what is lost: the Christian narrative.

Christian religion is a meta-narrative that reaches into every nook and cranny of life and anchors it in being. Time itself becomes freighted with narrative. In the Christian calendar, each day is meaningful. (page viii)

While Han shows no sign of being a Christian, he laments the eclipse of narrative. Not long ago, many secular intellectuals criticized “meta-narratives” as illegitimate and totalitarian. This was a central complaint of postmodernism, as I observed in Truth Decay (2000). Now, Han laments the lack of a meta-narrative. Without it,

the calendar is de-narrativized; it becomes a meaningless schedule of appointments” (viii). Absent religious holidays, he says, “there are no festivities, no festive times — no festive moods with their intensified feeling of being. All is left to work and free time, production and consumption. (page xiii).

A Disenchanted World

Han also deems our world “disenchanted,” since it has no transcendent meaning, purpose, or value. This view of the world understands everything according to material causality. “The hegemony of causality leads to a poverty in world and experience” (36). This is contrasted with a “magical world in which things enter into relationships with each other that are not ruled by causal connections — relations in which things exchange intimacies” (36–37). Consider the Christian doctrine of having a calling, which dignifies work as part of our divine commission (Genesis 1:26–27) and delivers it from the mere material causation of working for a living. Han has no recourse to such worldview resources.

As in his other books, particularly Non-Things, Han traces our cultural and existential malaise to digital technologies. Instead of addressing people face-to-face, we manipulate images and data. He speaks of “the tsunami of information,” which overstimulates us and “fragments our attention. It prevents the contemplative lingering that is essential to narrating and careful listening” (6).

If we are defined by our online existence, we “are at the mercy of the algorithmic black box. Human beings are reduced to data sets that can be controlled and exploited.

The closest he comes to offering a solution to the crisis of narration is his reflection on Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea, in the chapter, “Bare Life,” which grapples with the meaninglessness (and lack of meta-narrative) of existence. The main character, Roquentin, finds the sheer facticity of things nauseating — that is, until he tries to give them his own narrative. This is a rather old existentialist trope, which offers no real solution to the “crisis of narration.” This is simply because if the whole of existence is unnarrated by God and lacks any intrinsic purpose, then each aspect of existence is equally affected. No amount of meaningless narration will create a meaning that sticks.

Han can be a perceptive critic of culture and his laments often ring true. What he sadly lacks is the true narration of Christianity, given by God himself in the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation — and that makes all the difference in the world.

 

Douglas Groothuis will become Distinguished University Research Professor of Apologetics and Christian Worldview at Cornerstone University this fall. He is the author of twenty books, including Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity, 2022), and, most recently Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal (InterVarsity, 2024).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Like the article? Share it with your friends! And use our social media pages to join or start the conversation! Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MeWe and Gab.

Inspiration
Military Photo of the Day: E-2 Hawkeye Launches
Tom Sileo
More from The Stream
Connect with Us