On Narrative, Nostalgia, and Hope (Or, “The stories we tell ourselves”)

I sometimes feel like every post I want to write could be titled “The Stories We Tell Ourselves.” Anyone who has known me over the past fifteen years knows just how important the concept of narrative is for me. This sense has only been reinforced by my readings in theology, history and psychology (and by my own life, which included a significant rupture that robbed me of my story for a couple years). There is nothing more human than to make stories, and the stories we tell ourselves—the myths we make and uphold—go a long way in defining who we are, what we believe, and how we interpret the world around us.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past couple of weeks in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise win in the American presidential election, since so much of the Trump phenomenon seems to be driven by a powerful narrative of dispossession and loss, which in turn fuels another, related narrative of nostalgia for an America that once was “great” but has since lost its way. Coincidentally, last week I also started reading Mark Lilla’s wonderful little book The Shipwrecked Mind: On political reaction, in which he discusses the thought of several reactionary thinkers of the past century. Much like American Trumpists today, these thinkers all craft a kind of Golden Age narrative about some point in Western intellectual history after which everything went wrong and Western society declined and decayed into individualism and moral relativism. (I’m sure we’ve all heard at least one such story at one point or another!) Reading these narratives reminded me of a lot of Western theology of the past few decades, which has been dominated by similar (and similarly tempting if misleading and partial) grand narratives of failure and loss. Or even in a much lower-stakes situation, of many Canadian Anglicans’ wistful nostalgia for the ‘glory years’ of the 1950s and 60s, when churches were full and diocesan budgets expanding.

These narratives are so strong that no facts or statistics can overcome them. (Unsurprisingly in such a context, “post-truth” was just announced as Oxford English Dictionary‘s Word of the Year.) The stories we tell ourselves become to a great extent Truth for ourselves. And this is true whether these stories are political, historical, personal, or religious. This makes them incredibly powerful. And to my mind this makes it even more important to be aware of the narratives, the stories, the myths that shape our views of the world, and to try to be intentional in finding the best, most helpful, narratives possible.

The only way to counteract a story is to replace it with a more compelling story.

An intentionally narrative turn is, I think, both a tremendous opportunity and challenge for communities of faith, particularly in this moment. It’s an opportunity because—contrary to demythologizing agenda of liberal theology of the past two centuries—it insists that we tell our stories, that our stories are nothing to be ashamed of, that we try to strip Christian Truth from Christian narrative only at our great peril. To this end, I’m deeply gratified that the Christians I know under the age of 45 are unanimously creedal (in the sense that they are committed to the traditional formulations of Christian doctrine, which are themselves deeply narrative in character) and evangelical (in the sense that they are committed to telling the story of the Gospel (regardless of any other connotations that word may have today)). But it’s also a challenge because, if indeed the stories we tell ourselves interpret the world for us, we must give thought to how we tell our stories. Is the story we tell, preach and proclaim one of a lost Golden Age or does it point with faith and hope toward the future? (To use a nautical analogy, are we looking ahead from the bow or are we looking back from the stern?) On the flip side, however, is the story we tell naively dependent on political ease and ‘social progress’? Or does it understand what Fr Alexander Men beautifully called “the paschal mystery of the Church,” the idea that the Church is always suffering and dying with its Lord, but never defeated by the powers of darkness? Who does our story include? Who does it leave out?

It’s not surprising that my reflections this week and this morning would return to Fr Men, a man whose thought has influenced me more than probably any other aside from Jesus. As I’ve quoted time and time again, on the night before he was killed (likely for speaking out against the rising tide of nationalism in the Russian Church at the fall of the Soviet Empire), Fr Men proclaimed words that changed the course of my life, and which remain an incredible source of strength and inspiration to me, and which seem as good a place to end these reflections as any:

Only near-sighted people can suppose that Christianity has already happened. Christianity has only taken its first, I would say timid, steps in human history. To this day many of Christ’s words are incomprehensible because we are still neanderthals in spirit and morals. The gospel arrow is aimed towards eternity, and that which we call Christian history is in many ways a series of clumsy and unsuccessful attempts to bring Christianity about.

With Fr Men, I am heartily convinced that Christianity’s best days are not behind us. There is no Golden Age. That doesn’t mean the  road ahead will be easy; far from it. But as our story tells us—from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; through Israel in its troubled monarchy, devastating exile, and incomplete restoration; through our Lord Jesus in his betrayal, execution, and ultimate vindication; up to the Church which has needed every last one of its “clumsy and unsuccessful” Saints to survive to the present hour—God will be present with us in the midst of it all: in success, in failure, in consolation, in abandonment, in rejoicing, and in suffering. And as our story also tells us, no matter the times, the work is always the same.

Let us go forth, then, working out our salvation in fear and trembling, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, with our eyes firmly fixed on that Gospel arrow aimed towards eternity.

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