All self-defined truths are not true. Much Evangelical commentary has been made against a culture where tolerance says all self-narratives should be treated respectfully… the Evangelical response is that this is an illogical and deceptive idea. Cultural “tolerance” for all narratives is too often, say these critics, equated with acceptance of all narratives as equally true — an idea which has obvious flaws
But there’s a whole universe of parallel truths here that many of us Evangelical and even post-Evangelical types miss. We fail to understand the creative — or destructive — power of the narratives themselves. My narrative is that when a person invests themselves in a certain story about what truth is, they in a real sense create that reality in their own lives. A person who believes only their needs and wants matter may be called a Narcissist (or even Sociopath) by the rest of us. But his or her own story is real to him or her. The want had is the only important thing. All else in that person’s universe becomes secondary to serving the want. Thus, their own story is “true” for them… though evil to the rest of us. A father shooting his wife and children because she threatens to leave him makes total sense to the killer. His world has been constructed around a narrative which, however horrifying to the rest of us, is true to him.
Less extreme is the example of sexuality. We all have self-narratives (often hidden by us from anyone else) about our own sexual desires. We believe certain things about sexuality. And here I am not talking about “belief” as something we pay lip service to, but rather something we are (in the sense Gabriel Marcel would have it) making concrete through our repeated actions. That acting upon our self-narrative “reifies” it — reify being a fancy sociological term for making it real to ourselves. And once our narrative is real to ourselves, all else becomes contextualized around that narrative: The Story of Me.
Politically we also see this principle in action. People become convinced of conspiracies against them by the government. They build survivalist bunkers in the wilderness and fill them with food. All that activity and effort further cements — reifies — the idea that they are under threat. Paranoia grows. Mass media personalities lend themselves to the narrative (my narrative says because there’s money in it). This, too, legitimates their own narrative. Certain persons — whether Barack Obama on one hand or Dick Cheney on the other — are endowed with satanic properties supernatural in their reach. A loathing for a political position develops into highly imaginative scenarios such as “Obama the Secret Muslim Terrorist” or “Dick Cheney Masterminded 9/11.” Either idea is as real to the person confronted with it as that person allows it to become. Logic, as Blaise Pascal pointed out, follows and is in fact dictated to by our imaginations…. fueled by what we desire truth to be.
I suggest that we all become aware of the power of the narrative to create realities. Some of them are very subtle, some are very extreme, but all have their source in what we choose to believe and thus allow to become real in our own experiences. A Satanist and a Christian cannot both be correct, yet both can create realities which “prove” to themselves that their corresponding other’s reality is false. This concept of created truth is psychological, it is complex, and it is with incredibly powerful consequences.
So, what as a Christian do I suggest we do about the power of the narrative? First, I suggest we live what we believe, and by that I do not mean live our hidden narrative which is often in contradiction to our stated beliefs, sourced in the broken nature we were born with rather than the redeemed self Christ creates / is creating in us. We need to integrate the Scriptural narratives regarding God’s Mercy, Justice, Grace, and Holiness — and in light of those narratives our own biblical calling to imitate He we say we love. We need to rethink (and repray) our attempts at addressing culture’s false narratives by direct confrontation and instead find ways to exhibit the reality of our own narrative.
The narratives are often in conflict, but not on all points. Demonizing all narratives but the Christian narrative is more a Rorschach of our own psychological unwellness than it is a reflection of Christ’s Grace and Truth. Our work needs to begin with love and end in love, truth framed by love. Attacking another’s narrative is not unlike attacking someone’s home. Why do it? What positive results are going to come from such an approach? Rather, the positive telling and living of the Gospel message — Jesus Christ’s Identity, Purpose, Life, Miracles, Crucifixion and Resurrection, and calling upon all human individuals to “come, take up your cross and follow Me” — this is our most powerful narrative.
To be absolutely clear, I do indeed believe that the Gospel is true for all persons whether or not they acknowledge its truth. My enduring concern is that we are blowing it, blowing it, in our vacillations back and forth from a “culture wars” mentality on one hand to a “capitulation” mentality on the other. We need to remember our own story, go back again and again to its source, Jesus Christ. We need to tell the story the four Gospels tell. We need as well to tell it as we’ve experienced it, show it as we are experiencing it, and confess over and over that it is in our weakness His strength is perfected.
All stories create realities. One story is “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and so being should also be “The Greatest Story Ever Seen or Heard.” Where is it seen? Jesus becomes real to others as His story unfolds in the midst of our small stories. Will we be ruthless in rooting out those secret tales that often rule us? If necessary, ask other believers around us to help pinpoint our greatest weaknesses, living transparent lives in fellowship with others so that what is hidden is dragged into the light.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3 NRSV).
How do we, then, deal with another person’s world which even if false in God’s eyes, is true to them? Love and Mercy. Prayer. If necessary, cease talking. The latter course comes when words provoke only hostility. We don’t like having to be silent (at least *I* don’t). But sometimes we must let go of another person, remembering that God not ourselves rescues and saves. Rather, our job is to reflect God’s character of Love and Compassion. Other times, we may be invited to speak into another’s life, only to realize in the end that we are a mere prop in their story. (We can use such moments to ask God if we in turn do that to others — humility has so many ways to meet up with us!) Finally, we may encounter someone who as any author does realizes their story is no good. They’ve crumpled it up and tossed it, or are looking around for a far different climax to the story.
Here is where our own wisdom is paramount. And, since James promises to us that God grants wisdom to us when we ask, it is important to be very prayerful before we tell our story. We want our story to be part of God’s story. If it is just our story, who needs it!? If it is God’s story in us, it can transform utterly a world weary of stories but desperate to know this one… the Story of God’s Redemptive Love.