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.

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