Friday, February 05, 2010

Nothing like a good story (Sunday Reflections for February 7, 2010)

Are you a rational person? Most people would answer “Yes, of course,” but there is a growing body of scientific evidence that we use our emotional faculties far more often than we are aware. In other words, we behave and make choices “irrationally” a lot more than we think we do. And recently this has prompted questions about what this implies for politics.

In a study during the 2004 presidential campaign, a group of men—half Republican and half Democrat—were given MRI brain scans while assessing statements by George Bush and John Kerry in which they clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, these men jumped on the statements of the candidate of the opposing party while looking past their own candidates’ bloopers. What the MRI showed, however, was that while doing so the men relied almost entirely on parts of the brain associated with processing emotion, conflict resolution, and making moral judgments. The brain area responsible for logical reasoning, however, was quiet as a church mouse.

Based on such evidence, politicians are being advised not to rely so much on information and statistics when making their case for laws or programs. It just doesn’t work; people aren’t persuaded. Instead, they’re either put to sleep or they get angry because they feel they’re being patronized and talked down to. The political struggles over health care and global warming are recent cases where this has happened.

Rather than lots of data, researchers say that what a politician really needs is a good story. In other words, they need to put their case in the form of a narrative involving people’s lives. People need to be able to emotionally engage in an issue and imagine how it involves them personally.

Reading about this recently made me think of the dilemma of contemporary Christianity. For the past two hundred years, churches have been struggling with both the growth of scientific knowledge and scholarly challenges to Christian teachings and worldview. Fundamentalist churches have simply rejected most of this and insisted nothing about Christian beliefs and teachings has really changed. More moderate churches, on the other hand, have tried to adjust to the modern world and work these discoveries into their theology and faith life.

It hasn’t worked very well, however, and the biggest puzzle has been figuring out what to do with the Bible. The problems with the Bible (as I’ve written about before) are pretty obvious, starting with the simple fact that it’s really, really old. It’s written in languages no one speaks anymore and comes out of cultures that disappeared long ago. As a result, it’s often difficult for people today to figure out what the heck it’s trying to say.

The other challenge has been the growing realization that the Bible is essentially non-historical. In other words, many if not most of the events and people it talks about didn’t happen or exist the way the Bible describes them. And in saying that, scholars tell us that makes the Bible fit in with all the other literature of the ancient world—it’s exactly what we should expect. To tell what actually happened or what someone actually said simply wasn’t the reason people wrote these books.

From before recorded history, people have told stories. Sometimes they were based on actual people and events and sometimes not. Whether they were or weren’t had nothing to do with the quality of the story. Nor did it stop people from changing or adapting stories for new circumstances or to use them in new places. One characteristic of a good story was that it was very flexible. Similar ancient stories, including biblical ones, can be found in many different cultures and told in ways that fit those cultures. And in most cases, there’s no way to tell where the original story began (if there even was such a thing).

Today, then, it’s not a surprise that most biblical stories have gotten pretty creaky, if not forgotten altogether. First, it’s a challenge for most people just to find them since by modern standards the Bible is so disorganized and loaded with “filler.” Then if they do find them, the stories as they’re originally told are often kind of bizarre, convoluted, and “foreign.” There is an appealing kernel in there somewhere but it’s buried in its long dead and ancient setting.

Recognizing the value of these stories, modern culture has responded predictably by trying to adapt many of them to contemporary life. This happens through movies, books, plays, TV, and all the other places story telling goes on. Often these stories don’t look like biblical stories because characters, settings and even plot lines have changed, yet the biblical and spiritual messages are still there.

Shakespeare was one of the first to integrate Christian themes into popular, non-biblical stories. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has a Christian holiday as its setting, and Christian themes of charity and personal redemption, yet uses no biblical characters, only contemporary fictional ones—including ghosts! The 1950s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still has a visitor from another world come to Earth to warn its people about the consequences of their self-destructive behavior. Indeed books and movies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre are often filled with spiritual and theological themes. Star Wars, the Tolkien Hobbit adventure stories, and just now Avatar have been popular block-buster examples.

And yet curiously churches have been mostly suspicious if not hostile to such efforts. They have been more approving of actual biblical adaptations. Yet even these they realize alter significantly the biblical story, as all historical re-enactments do—and often not for the better. And so you get The Ten Commandments, which (at least at the time) was highly entertaining but was certainly biblically and theologically rather dubious. Or there is The Passion of the Christ, which while moving probably told more about the wounded psyche of Mel Gibson than it did about the reality or theological meaning of Jesus’ death. (One doctor said that anyone who bled as much as Jesus did in the movie would have died long before he got to the cross.)

The result, it seems, is a church stumbling along trying to keep its stories frozen in the past while dismissing contemporary stories that are meaningful and moving for people today. Moderate and liberal churches then fall back on: 1) esoteric theology which to most people is as opaque as atomic physics, 2) the social benefits of congregational life which most people now find in other places or 3) appeals for political and social justice. This latter may be fine and even biblical but it runs into the same problem as those statistics-quoting politicians above. Without a good story it tends to put people to sleep or just really tick them off.

In 1960, when introducing John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson made this comparison: In classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, "How well he spoke" but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, "Let us march." Eloquence and reason certainly have value but ultimately the goal is to motivate people to act with compassion and, when necessary, fight against evil. For the church to recover its relevance in the world it must have more than good ideas. It must also have good stories which point people in the right direction and then move them to say, “Let us march.”


Anonymous said...

My friend and I were recently discussing about the prevalence of technology in our day to day lives. Reading this post makes me think back to that debate we had, and just how inseparable from electronics we have all become.

I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Ethical concerns aside... I just hope that as technology further advances, the possibility of transferring our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's a fantasy that I daydream about all the time.

(Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=]r4i dsi[/url] DS SeKu)

Erik said...

Doug - you must be tapping into a zeitgeist on narrative (a lovely post-modern theme). Alban's weekly article was on the power of congregational narratives to shape individuals' narrative: