Monday, March 24, 2014

Homo Narrans: How Our Penchant for Stories Fills all Theological Gaps

       Instead of spending a great deal of time and energy learning the stories that were handed down to us, these days people are more likely to make up their own stories. In fact, whether or not they receive stories from others, we all love to make up stories, and live by them. Some of these stories are believable, some are not, and some might even be (more or less) true to fact.

       For example, years ago I wrote a note to myself about something I saw walking home from work. My route took me past a small cemetery on Kalamazoo Ave., in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Very near the sidewalk, almost begging to be noticed, were three simple stones. The epitaphs read “Francis B. Whitney, 1886-1960;” “Nora Whitney, 1891-1928;” and finally, “Baby Whitney, 1917.”

       A bright spray of flowers planted at the head of Baby Whitney’s stone caught my eye. I’m not much of a gardener, so I can’t tell you what kind of flowers they were. It did occur to me, though, that it was too early in the spring for flowers to bloom. Looking closer, I realized that they were made of silk. They were white, blue, and shades between. They contrasted sharply against the brown grass.

       As I walked home, I wondered about those flowers. Baby Whitney had died eighty years earlier. Her parents (I’ve always thought of her as a girl—not sure why) were also both long dead. Who remembered her so tenaciously, so long after her death, and after such a short life? So my mind went to work. Could it be that a brother or sister, maybe an only sibling, left the flowers? Perhaps this person had an unwitting hand in Baby Whitney’s death, and was atoning for that—a house fire where a slightly older sibling escaped but left the baby behind. Maybe this sibling still struggled with guilt. Maybe this sibling had been returning here, for years, to atone. Perhaps this sibling’s whole life had been shaped by a nagging sense that he or she couldn’t ever do enough to get things right. Survivor’s guilt can be traumatic. It can weigh heavy. “That must be it!” I thought.

       And then it occurred to me to wonder why I would make up stories about a little girl dead eighty years.

         The answer, of course, is that making up stories is what humans do. In my last column, I suggested this penchant for making up personal stories might be one reason that so many people don’t bother with learning much about what their churches teach, the narratives they officially emphasize, or the confessions they make.
       We’d rather make up and live in our own stories. Watch children at play. They are usually acting out stories, often stopping to step out of character just long enough to clarify the plot lines. “This stick is a bazooka, okay?” or “Jenny, hide from the alien behind that tree. Let’s pretend that’s where the our elf-base is.”

       Stories are the woof and warp of our every waking moment. By some measures we have as many as two thousand daydreams a day. Many are story snippets. We write and read novels and poems, watch TV (and vicariously live the lives of their stars) and play MMORPG games like World of Warcraft. We set up our Google newsfeed to get only the stories we want—never mind what is really important in the world.

       We sit down for supper with our family, after a long day at work, to tell each other stories about our day, always making sure to elicit sympathy and understanding by how we tell them. So, sometimes even unawares, we embellish, we portray ourselves in a slightly different and usually better light than the people who actually witnessed the event might remember. We cast others in roles, including the role of antagonist.

       Some studies even suggest that some kinds of depression may be linked to the inability to gently reshape our worlds in this way. This depression is caused by being too honest with ourselves about our stories, an inability to see ourselves as the sort of heroes we’d like to be around the supper table. The truth hurts. We need creative, truth-stretching stories to get by.

       In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall discusses at some length all the reasons that social scientists, communication gurus, and even biologists have come up with to explain our penchant for stories. One recurring theme is that stories—from nightmares to child’s play to the novels we read—are all a way for us to rehearse and prepare for real life. Gottschall argues that the bottom line, though, is that we make up stories because our minds are allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and lack of meaning. We are always looking for the pattern that makes sense of things. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t” (Kindle Location 1246). His book is replete with examples. CNN's coverage of the disappearance of Air Malaysia's Flight 370 is a recent case in point. Judging, I guess, that any story was better than the regular news, CNN provided round the clock coverage of one theory after another, often spending inordinate amounts of time ruminating on wild conspiracy theories. It was a too good dozen or so stories to pass up.

          The truth of a story isn't nearly as important as whether or not its a good story. In fact, polls show that a many as 36% of Americans still believe that America was, somehow, complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Gottschall also notes that a recent Harris poll showed that 24% of Republicans think President Obama might be the antichrist. And in 2010 one third of Republicans believed that Obama was a stealth Muslim himself, while 45% believed he was not born in the United States. And so it goes with the Kennedy assassination, the UN-One-World-Government plot, and various wild theories about how a secret council of Jews is running the world, and the divine plot to wipe out the earth’s population with a flood. We make up such stories, says Gottschall, because “they provide nothing less than a solution to the problem of evil.”
       Humans may need stories to make sense of their lives and the world, but they can only rarely, and then with great effort, get their stories straight. And this must have a huge impact on how we interact with the church, with its teachings, and whether we much care if the beliefs and teachings agree with our sense of how things really are.

       So not only do people read less today (my last column) and read less deeply with less understanding, they also make up great stories to fill in what’s missing. The church may teach salvation by grace, but people think, “I’ve been a pretty good person. I’ll get into heaven when I die.” They are especially prone to thinking so when they’ve spent their whole lives embellishing the truth about themselves and not realizing it! The church may teach that sex is primarily for having babies, but people make up stories for themselves about how they could never live that way and get ahead. The church may teach that Old Testament characters all contributed something to God’s great plan of redeeming the world through Jesus, but Sunday School teachers still teach, “Dare to be a Daniel.” The church may teach that we need to pick up crosses and follow Jesus, but when we strike it rich we tell each other that it just goes to show that God helps those who help themselves.

       These examples just scratch the surface. Karma, reincarnation, channeling, dream catchers, the right to “life, liberty and happiness” or the Bill of Rights, and on and on—people incorporate these syncretistic elements into their personal faiths all the time. They are (to adapt Peter Berger’s famous phrase) always socially reconstructing the faith of their fathers (and mothers) to suit themselves. And they don’t really care what Barth or Berkhouwer or Bavink might say because they’ve stopped reading that stuff anyway—as have most of their pastors. What is more, you add this penchant for personal story telling to the individualism of today, the mistrust of institutions and priests, along with the difficulty most people have with really studying such matters—and we don’t even know the story the hymn writer thought we’d tell in glory.

       In sum, we don’t know much about the religious traditions we’re a part of, and many of us don’t stop to reflect on that, or much care. We know how to make it up as we go, after all.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Who Knows (Anything)?

           A few weeks ago a young woman approached me about teaching a Bible class for young professionals like her. She said that nothing much was available in the churches, or it was all at the wrong time, or it was too narrowly focused on truth as that particular church saw it, and none of her friends particularly wanted to go to a church anyway. But still, she had friends and colleagues who would love to get together to study what the Bible says. They were just curious. Would I be interested in sitting down sometime, with her, to discuss the possibilities?

            I was. I put a note in my agenda to set the meeting up as soon as I return from my study leave.

            I have to say that the request stunned me. I can’t remember the last time someone approached me about learning more about the Bible. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the things that has changed most in the thirty or so years that I’ve become a pastor is both how much people know about Christianity in general, and how willing they are to invest in that knowledge.

            When I started as a pastor, teaching kept me busy. I had two weekly catechism classes filled with teenagers. Those same teenagers also went to church once, or even twice, a week. I did a Wednesday evening adult Bible study that was well attended—sometimes as many as fifteen or twenty people crowding into my living room. Well-attended lay-Bible studies met in the church, some as women’s groups, and others following popular interdenominational curriculums. 

            I also preached twice a week—to dwindling audiences, I’ll admit. Still, the second service often had at least half the people in it that the morning service did. We usually covered the catechism. And whatever you may think about whether or not the catechism was “right,” at the very least going through the catechism introduced people to the basic framework of Christian theology. We’d cover the doctrine of God, sin and atonement, the Apostle’s creed, and last things, for example. The youth group meeting would also include some Bible study, and many adults belonged to small groups that focused on the Bible with the help of all sorts of denominationally approved study-booklets.

            These days—and for quite some time, actually—in churches both conservative and liberal, people don’t study nearly so much. Catechism classes have pretty much disappeared unless it is time to do confirmation. Youth groups meet during the Sunday service, so while they do spend a few minutes studying, they miss out on sermons. Adults may belong to small Bible study groups, though it is more likely (barely) that they belong to a book club. Sermons are preached only once a week.

            The nature of study, when it does happen, has changed, too. Where once study groups would read and discuss prepared materials, these days they tend to sit around a circle and offer opinions about what they “feel,” about some passage or issue or doctrine. The sense that two thousand years of reflection on almost every theological issue imaginable has already occurred is absent. People invent insight on the spot, if insight is what it can be called.

            This turn away from an established tradition of theological knowledge—or, if you please—reflection about faith and life, isn’t restricted to people in the pews. One of the more interesting changes that has taken place over the past thirty years is that pastors themselves seem to know less. This is a harder thing for me to get my head around. I’ve taught at the college and seminary level, and had occasion to sit in many classes as a guest over the past few years. I’ve met many recent grads at pastor gatherings. And the bottom line, to me, seems to be that pastors just don’t study the same things, in as great depth, as they used to. Few study Greek or Hebrew. Books that pragmatically lay out how to grow your church or transform your ministry or give purpose and direction to your life abound—not that there is much evidence now of growth or purposefulness than there used to be. I’m not hearing young pastors talk about the big theologians anymore—no Karl Barth, no John Caputo, no Richard Kearney, no Nick Wolterstorff, no Charles Taylor. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy, stuck in my dusty tomes.

            I understand that I’m generalizing. But I do believe this is a pattern, even if some pastors are still avidly reading and studying the classic stuff.

            Now, in all fairness, it is probably important to note that for most of its history, most Christians and many of their priests were very ignorant. For the first fifteen hundred years of the church’s history, most people couldn’t read, for starters. Being Christian was just what people were by culture and habit. They knew the Apostle’s Creed (maybe), the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and some of the Bible’s highlights. They knew how they were supposed to behave. The education of most priests was a shadow of what seminary education came to be after the invention of the printing press (and a whole long train of other factors). Historically, there is a way for Christians to participate in their faith in a lively and personally meaningful way in spite of not knowing much about it.

            The other side of this reality, however, is that where Christians in earlier centuries had little opportunity to learn more about their faith, even if they had wanted to, Christians today are voluntarily turning away from knowing more about their faith in droves, even though they have the option of learning more than ever.

            What has happened? Many things, on many different levels, I think. Let me make a starting list of the usual suspects:

1.     People simply don’t read as much or with as much understanding and depth as they used to. There is extensive scholarly consensus here that I’ve gone into in other posts, and my book, Not Sure. The bottom line is that if you don’t pick up books you won’t be able to figure out or recall even basic theology. If Christianity is a religion of the word, and people are not interested in reading words, you can be sure that Christianity is going to be in trouble.
2.     People are too busy to read, or to gather to study or learn. In a way, this partly has to do with priorities, of course. But not entirely. If you live in a big city like New York or Toronto, it takes a very high level of commitment to fight the traffic and get over to church or someone’s home to study. The traffic is stalled, the kids need rides to hockey and basketball, both parents are working, more people have complicated patchworks of part-time jobs with odd schedules, and those who are on the big career track are facing huge demands at work.
3.     People are too distracted to make study a priority. Let me count the ways. Television, internet, gaming, cottages, kid’s sports and activities (again), juggling two careers (again). We work on backhands and putting, abs and pecs rather than reading. And then there is shopping at the mall, and movies, and a critical lack of babysitting.
4.     At the same time, people don’t feel the need to know. And perhaps this is the biggest change. There was a time in the history of the church when the three great estates each had their own area of expertise, which they were supposed to practice on behalf of everyone else. The nobility ruled. The peasants tilled the land. And the church saved everyone through prayer, ritual, study, and whatever it was that they did in the monasteries. In this system, people didn’t have to know and were not encouraged to know—some one else did it, for them. But, in a round about way, we’ve returned to that sense that whatever is in those theology books is great for theologians—but I don’t need it. I am particularly struck by the suspicion people have for learning, a sort of crawling anti-intellectualism that shouts “if it isn’t useful, if it isn’t going to advance my career, it isn’t worth it.”
5.     The culture in general has made church, and what used to be its demands for study and attendance, passé. This is mostly through a widespread—and well-founded—suspicion of institutions and the power they wield. When any institution tells you what to do these days—people bristle. Trust is low. The church—its philandering priests, its residential schools, its insistence (in some quarters) on what is perceived as outmoded rules, just doesn’t seem to merit much interest or study or attendance where you might learn.
6.     And finally, our individualistic culture has put a lot more trust in the spiritual narratives we spin on our own. More on the why and how of this in the next column.

            What do we do about all this? Can churches somehow plow against this cultural tsunami? I hope so. I think a lot about it, and experiment. In the meantime, However, I am taking up that young professional on her offer to help me establish a Bible study for her and her peers—probably in a pub. I’m looking forward to it.