Editors’ Note: During the last few decades books such as The Gagging of God by D. A. Carson and No Place for Truth by David Wells spoke prophetically about the church’s response to changing cultural trends. The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry affirms the need for such wise assessment, because “we want to be a church that not only gives support to individual Christians in their personal walks with God, but one that also shapes them into the alternative human society God creates by his Word and Spirit.” So TGC editors asked several writers to identify the cultural trends currently challenging the church to be faithful Christians in the world and suggest how we might we respond.
Facebook bums us out. That news set the internet ablaze (or at least a-twitter) early last year, when a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that subjects persistently underestimated how dejected their friends were—which made them more dejected in turn. Slate describes the origin of the study:
[Lead researcher] Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life,” he told me.
Most of us don’t require a scientific study to know this. Facebook lets us live vicariously through others—not just movie stars, but the people we sort-of know. Their lives, played out in front of us in real time, make us feel inadequate, because our own lives never seem as glossy or fun or interesting.
Yet—strangely—we keep on looking. We can’t tear ourselves away. There is something arresting about other people’s lives. Facebook is hardly the only place to satisfy this need: we can also turn to blogs, reality television, and catch-up sessions over coffee at church. We might feel unhappy when we close the browser, switch off the channel, or get in the minivan, but that doesn’t keep us from coming back. But why?
We Tell Stories in Order to Live
The answer is basic: We humans need the stories of others in order to make sense of our own. They give us patterns to live by and spark our imaginations; they validate our choices and show us paths that others have taken, and ones we might take, too. To (mis)appropriate Joan Didion’s famous line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
This need is nothing new. We humans do not begin as blank slates; we are born into traditions. From the dawn of time, we’ve passed on stories from generation to generation, whether around campfires, over the dinner table, or in the town square—stories of exploits, of origins, of great sorrow and great rejoicing. It’s important to note what we don’t do over dinner or in the square: tell each other bullet-pointed lists of bald facts and statements of value, to be regurgitated later on the exam. Why? Because we’re story-telling creatures. We can’t help it. And the stories we tell each other, the ones that form our traditions, are powerful transmitters of the values and ethos of our communities. They help us understand ourselves.
Yet this has taken on new meaning in our world, which is glutted with stories. We postmoderns may (as Lyotard says) be incredulous about metanarratives, but we love mini-narratives. Just look at the runaway popularity of radio shows like The Moth, in which ordinary people stand up and tell a story for ten minutes without notes. Consider the increased turn in sportscasting toward human interest stories. Or witness the growing popularity of the memoir—a genre in which, as opposed to autobiography, completely unknown writers can sell millions of copies because readers find the story gripping. Readers love memoirs because in those stories they find something that resonates with their own lives: a pattern that rings a bell, that lets them know they’re not alone, that gives them a roadmap from here. The success of Eat, Pray, Love was not really about its descriptions of food.
And yet, the stories we receive from our culture too often lack depth. They are performed in front of us, polished so as to attract the maximum audience. They lack any deep sense of history or values—and when they do transmit a value, it’s often that appearances matter most of all.
Telling Our Stories . . .
This focus on stories should be excellent news to the church as it seeks to minister in the 21st century. Christianity has always been a story-telling enterprise. Our Book makes the audacious claim to be The Book, the one that tells The Story: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. It is the metanarrative of metanarratives, the movie in which God is screenwriter, director, producer, and lead actor.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Book does not settle for being a long list of instructions for life, or a self-improvement manual, or even a single epic narrative. Instead, it contains many genres, and one of the most prevalent is the personal narrative—interlocking stories of ordinary people made extraordinary in different ways: Job, Abraham, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah, Peter, Paul, Christ. Telling the stories of this great cloud of witnesses is the first thing we do with children in Sunday school, because from these stories they start to understand what we value, what our God values: courage, obedience, faith, love, loyalty, steadfastness, sacrifice.
Yet the stories of the Bible are tied to their particular cultural contexts, and so we need stories that help us see God’s work repeating itself throughout history. Evangelicals have not always been very good at this; for most of us, our list of “heroes of the faith” is brief and relatively predictable. We tend not to be terribly well educated in Christian history—many of us have eschewed our histories, and we lack anything like the system of saints of the Roman Catholics.
. . . And Telling Them Well
Evangelicals have historically pursued one form of storytelling: giving testimonies. But in his book Looking Before and After, Alan Jacobs laments that evangelical Christians in the 21st century have tended to “abandon the traditions of personal narrative or testimony as tokens of misbegotten ‘individualism.'” While the impulse, he says, may be well-intentioned, the solution is wrong: “What we need is better and more responsible and more coherent personal stories, not the complete subsumption of all personal narrative into group narrative.”
Jacobs further explores the testimony’s importance because—as a form—it attempts to explore, explicitly, the shape of a life. We’re all familiar with the “shape” most testimonies take, and it’s one that causes despair in people who, like me, were raised in the church and can’t remember a time when we didn’t love Jesus, who haven’t hit rock bottom, and had a come-to-Jesus moment.
Perhaps the problem is that we’ve too long thought of testimonies as stories that must move along the same path: I was terribly broken, and Jesus turned me around. Though this is a vital form of testimony, there are others, too. Jacobs refers to these as “life genres.” The Christian life can take the form of many different genres, just like a novel: there’s the fantastical adventure epic, the quiet domestic drama, even the enigmatic mystery. Jacobs says:
If we Christians can learn to think of our lives as emerging, developing instances of one (or more) of the various genres of the Christian life—as stories that move along recognizable paths, paths followed by our predecessors and indeed by our contemporary companions in the faith—we will be better prepared for the status viator, better protected from the twin dangers of presumption and despair, better able to see changes in the road as continuations of it rather than detours from it or dead ends.
There is the testimony of fall and redemption; there is also the testimony of the Christian scholar, lawyer, parent, friend, husband, wife, student, artist, and many more. We each inhabit several genres, and telling those stories is vital to the continuing health of the church. Jesus saves us—and then he keeps saving us, every day. Telling stories of work, of relationships, even of finding strength in the history of others, helps us revitalize and deepen our tradition.
The church, if it wishes to speak into the culture around it, must regain its ability to tell testimonies. It must read its history and learn to tell its individual stories, and to tell them well, so that hearers hungry for a roadmap might find it in us. Our faith gives us the riches and depth of individual narratives that help us live into the life genre God calls us to—and to live with joy, not despair, when it takes a detour. Let us not settle for the shallow Hollywood ending or the witty Facebook gloss.
Also in “The Church and the Cultural Challenge” series:
- “The Danger of Running a Spiritual Deficit” by Fred Sanders