The Problem with Metanarratives: Steven Keillor and God’s Judgment


“Taking an interest in the past / I am practicing the end of us”

— Thom Yorke. “Airbag.” Radiohead. OK Computer. 1997.

“I think that it could have been avoided, but it had to go down that way. Now that it’s over, it’s all about gratitutude.”

–Chuck Lorre, a CBS producer discussing the WGA strike

in the 29 February (2008) edition of Entertainment Weekly.

In his well-researched and fascinatingly complex book God’s Judgment: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, author Steven Keillor presents a startling indictment against both America and American scholarship. Keillor argues sometimes persuasively for return to Christianity as not just a ‘worldview’ but an interpretative key for doing history. Time and again he returns to this theme stating, “Christianity is an interpretation of history (not an alternative reading of it but an old-fashioned metanarrative interpretation) far more than a worldview or philosophy” (15).[1] For Keillor this idea of a Christian metanarrative is linked to the concept of God rendering judgment upon both the individuals and nations of the world. In this he does not mean what most evangelicals or fundamentalists would. He does not have in mind a God who may act in history, but whose actions often seem hidden and lost behind the confusingly diverse and sinful actions of people and societies. For Keillor these actions are discernable to anyone who would have ears to hear, and eyes to see.

The flashpoint for all this vitriol came in the actions of, and reactions to 9/11. In much of the response to his book, a connection has been made between what Keillor is doing, and the actions of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.[2] This is curious in that Robertson and Falwell receive little actual attention from Keillor. Whereas that dynamic duo is given a few sparse pages and terse comments, Keillor devotes an entire two chapters to the follies of the Leftist, Centrist, and Right-Winger. Despite the myriad reactions of each of these groups cataloged by Keillor, all can be lumped together as agnostic at best and atheistic at worst. Keillor means that at best these authors refuse to provide a solid answer (what he terms agnostic), and at worst refuse to even detect any possibility that God would enter into the realm of actors within this event.

In their refusal to perceive God in the DNA of these events, historians do a profound disservice to both their profession and to wider world. Keillor reminds us of a very important fact often missed in modern society; the Christian God is a God that moves in and throughout history. As one who spent his first 16 years of scholastic life in the public school realm, this argument holds plenty of merit. The urgency of his text should then be understood in this light, and should not be lightly dismissed. Yet the urgency of his point often leads him astray. He so wants to be able to see God move, that many of his analogies seem forced. He resorts to a midrash importing what he calls the mishpat principle that God is always sifting society moving it to seemingly arbitrary human judgments by which God’s judgment is seen and made known. His attempts to make midrash apply to the seemingly random collection of events (the burning of Washington, the Civil War, Cloning, Abortion and the Balanced Budget) overextends its welcome. Had he been able to hold himself to the 9/11 argument, he might have presented a clearer defense. It remains his best and clearest argument for God’s judgment within our history. Ironically it is also the one instance in which he does not apply his catchphrase of mishpat.

In his difficulty to show the interplay between these events and the dancing hand of God, Keillor disputes one of his own tenets: namely that the hand of God can be seen clearly in each of these events. To force both the scriptural subtext and the cultural context to mean what he so disparately wants it to say, Keillor often distorts the events as well as misinterpreting the analysis given by historians to these events. For instance in his discussion of slavery, Keillor writes, “God did not chose to use slave revolts to judge the nation and end slavery, or even to cause the war that did both. Lincoln’s election in 1860 caused secession and war” (149). As I reached this passage I yelled out in frustration, “so did God cause the war or did Mr. Lincoln?” One assumes that the argument on the table is that God caused events to occur which caused the election of someone who would cause the war which would cause the end of slavery. It is all interminably perplexing, and maybe even a little unknowable.

Distinguished scholar Mark Noll’s back cover blurb is inciteful, “I am not sure he has convinced me, but he has made me think.” In his rush to create such a debate, Keillor finds a second problem which he may not have anticipated or maybe he did and simply does not care. But at his polemical best, Keillor seems determined to make enemies out of those who might otherwise be sympathetic bystanders at worst, and allies at best.[3] The idea that God works in history by judging sin and evil stands as an important corrective to the Christian worldview historian attempting to play by the rules of the secular academy. However, in the rush to prove God’s importance, one cannot overlook the complicated shadowplay of history. God acts and humans respond. The interplay between the two appears to those of us in the midst of the play much like the cliché of chicken and egg. In overstating the work of God in history, the historian runs the same risk of making the same mistake Keillor shows up. One can be just as insufferably theistic as atheistic. At this other end of the spectrum humanity becomes simple puppets and chess pieces moved around the board from on high. This does a sincere disservice to the dignity of those created in the imago dei. It too resorts to the determinism which Keillor deplores in others scholarship.[4] One ends with an eighteenth century in which America could not do away with slavery because God was still in the process of sifting out a judgment which could only be worked out in the horrors of Antiem and countless other battlefields. In this movement God suffers as well as His people. Was God too weak to move otherwise? Are God’s actions even justifiable? The questions of the open theism movement (from which Keillor wants to distance himself) pop up regardless. This is a pronounced weakness of Keillor’s book. It offends his allies, and makes for some strange bedfellows whom he must denounce just as much. In the end Keillor stands alone and this is a great shame.

In his defense Keillor does what he does in some humility. Repeatedly he stresses the fact that he is not an Old Testament prophet but a simple historian; not a theologian presenting a theodicy, but a Christian presenting an interpretation of history. Perhaps he should have taken his own advice given to Falwell and Robertson. In attempting to provide a metanarrative that makes sense of it all, Keillor often overstates and oversells his project. Not surprisingly God’s judgments despite his best efforts to be unbiased soon reveal his own political leanings. Which is also a shame because it is a project much needed. It is also, perhaps, a project that can not be done with all proper respect and justice this side of eternity. To understand Christ as judge is to understand the tension between Christ the suffering servant, and Christ the returning King. Within this tension lies the challenge of presenting a truly Christian historical interpretation. If it is the thought that counts, then this book should remain an important part of the Christian’s historiographic debate for years to come. Yet in a world where judgments are as important, the book will also remain a flawed but intriguing work of commendable hubris. May we all have ears to hear and eyes to see.


[1] I have included his first use of the phrase, and his most coherent definition of the phrase’s meaning. The phrase also occurs in full on pp. 17, 35, 48, 140, 164, and 187. I have not included the illusions to the term .

[2] For an excellent example of this take see Steven Webb. “Was Falwell Right.” Christianity Today. August 2007. Available online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/august/24.55.html.

[3] The best illustration of this tendency can be found in his discussion of Henry Stout’s Moral History of the Civil War found on pp. 151-152. He attempts to contrast Stout’s “moral judgment” with his “divine judgment”; yet, the distinction is not so clear as he would suppose as both authors put similar focus on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and its language of God’s judgment.

[4] See pp 120-121 for an example exploring the “determinism” of modern scholarship on slavery.

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