Science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification – the art of discerning what we may with advantage omit. Karl Popper
Blinded by the language of scientific oversimplification with its emphasis on proceeding by falsification our culture no longer understands the nuanced power of story. Stories are things we tell our children as a substitute before they absorb a scientific simplified picture of the universe. Thus, we fail to see just how much our experience of reality is still story shaped because we are storied beings. So the important question concerns which stories are shaping our worldview. Stories can be dangerous.
Being unconscious of the multiplicity of stories shaping the way we see the world, we easily become vulnerable to the pernicious cultural-collective stories that claim us in ways we may not always be comfortable with.
In the Peanuts cartoon, the following conversation takes place between Lucy and Linus.
Lucy: I have a lot of questions about life, and I’m not getting any answers!
Linus: Looks at her blankly
Lucy: I want some real honest to goodness answers….
Linus and Lucy now gaze into the near distance
Lucy: I don’t want a lot of opinions … I want answers!
Linus: Would true or false be all right?
Story and culture
Like Lucy, do we not also insist on reducing life to a series of true or false answers? The problem is that stories that shape our awareness are never simply true or false. Instead, we might better ask – is this story effective or not – how complete or incomplete a description of experience is it – is it expansive or restrictive – inclusive or exclusionary? Stories that are more complete, more expansive, more inclusionary are more effective than stories that restrict human experience, imprisoning us in definitions of identity and worldview that are too small and cramped to allow us to flourish.
Materialism is the pervasive cultural story of our time. It’s a story that promises a good deal more than it delivers. We live out personal and communal stories that promote an illusion; that our pursuit of more and more things or a better, glossier experience will plug the emptiness inside us. Our drive for more and more success, more and more power, and more and more attractiveness delivers less and less of that for which our hearts yearn.
Satiation is often the illusion we mistake for satisfaction, an overarching story that ruthlessly claims our allegiance.
What happens when the materialist story, a principal narrative through which we explain ourselves to ourselves, comes under threat? In 2018, much of the fear and uncertainty we are living through is the result of our materialist narrative now coming under threat from changes in the world we can no longer control.
Healthy stories do not necessarily replace unhealthy ones. Under threat, our materialist story is giving way to more primitive stories, stories of nationalist, xenophobic, and tribal identity that once again seek to claim us. The materialist narrative gives way before older, primitive stories that define our identity through suspicion and fear of the other.
For instance, we mourn the loss of an effective political direction for our society, because our current political narratives imprison us in identity spaces that are actually highly toxic to human flourishing. Current political narratives are too tight and rigid. They fail to provide us with enough wriggle room, something essential for growth.
In unstable times we become vulnerable to pernicious cultural-collective stories that claim us in ways we may not always be comfortable with.
As storied beings, we humans shape our future through the stories we choose or reject. We can fill the uncertainty of the future with stories of fear and foreboding. Or, we can see the open-ended-ness beyond the shaken-up turmoil of the present, as a space to fill with the epic themes of courage, faith, hope, solidarity, and love.
As the old certainties of a social consensus collapse before our very eyes, we mourn the loss of shared civic values like honesty, truth, decency, and the cherishing of the common good. The vital question for today, Easter Day in 2018, surely, is this:
what stories will we choose to actively shape a future different from the present we are living through?
In 2018, we receive the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the next chapter in the longer Exodus epic story of liberation.
The Exodus-Resurrection epic story has indelibly and distinctively shaped American expectations. We hear its theme of expectation in the Founders Enlightenment language of liberty, fraternity, and the pursuit of happiness. We also hear it in the words of African Spirituals; slave songs of yearning-steeped-in hope, hope for liberation into the promise of new life. The expectation of inalienable – God-given liberation, is the shape of American cultural progress.
In a world desperate for the good news of God’s promise of new life, how might this story once again become the guiding story that shapes the choices to take us into an uncertain future?
I offer some brief observations on this question.
Responding to an invitation to collaborate with God in the restoration and healing of the creation, the first Christians became transformed, not as individuals by themselves, but as communities no longer afraid, no longer looking for places to hide from fear, no longer looking for scapegoats onto which to project their fear.
They became God’s instruments in a redemption from cruelty in a world long grown old. They discovered liberation from the cruelty of empire, i.e. harsh systems that worship power in a zero-sum game of winner takes all. Their liberation came through a story about love.
Learning from those who have traveled this road before us, we rediscover God’s promise of new life articulated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a magic wand, reducing the complexity of the world to a series of simplistic true or false answers. It’s an invitation.
God invites our collaboration in the ongoing work of restoring the creation. Such collaboration requires we live resurrection-story shaped lives.
New life is not an individual gift, but one to be participated in through our membership of faithful, and loving communities. The Early Church Father, Tertullian noted one Christian is no Christian. What this means is together we participate in God’s invitation to be part of the solution of the transformation we long for.
Living resurrection-story shaped lives we discover first-hand that faith-inspired-love is stronger than violence; more effective and expansive a story to live by than stories that feed our fear and hatred.
What Lucy can’t quite grasp is that truth and the courage to believe come not through the certainty of a series of true or false answers. Truth and the courage to believe come instead through story shaped living.
We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and to one another about how we see the world. Our future will be influenced by the stories we choose today to be shaped by.
Resurrection is our Christian story about God’s doing with Jesus on the third day. But Jesus is simply the first fruits of God’s promise to heal and to restore the creation; a promise that continues to unfold through us in our own day.
The old, hard stories of fear play themselves out, and history shows repeatedly the ends to which they lead. This means that on Easter Day, 2018, our focus is not on Jesus’ resurrection – true or false, but toward what God might be doing in our resurrection-shaped lives. We stare in the headlights of the resurrection story of new life .
Can our future be different from our past? The answer will depend on which stories we – and here I mean we as a people, choose to live by.
May the stories we choose, awaken us to the invisible geography that invites us to explore new frontiers,
as we break the dead shell of yesterdays we risk being disturbed and changed,
to live the lives we long to love.
Living our resurrection shaped story we postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.
Paraphrasing of John O’Donohue’s Morning Offering.