Recent events have made me aware of just how powerful various stories are in our lives. Perhaps our greatest story is that of our national history. Each of us has some vision or concept of that history and that vision has profound influence over our personal lives, encouraging some and discouraging other attitudes and assumptions. Then within the general history of the nation, we each experience a personal history which must somehow fit within the national history.
In this fashion, the national narrative becomes personalized for each of us. We have a collective narrative which is largely presented in the public schools, and then we have a private story which may or may not reinforce or coincide with the public one. Thus the public narrative can serve to validate or invalidate one’s personal life. Either you fit the prevailing narrative or you are invalid in some sense. This explains the powerful attachment some have to a particular narrative, while others have no such attachment. Additionally, certain personal “facts” become either vital or anathema, depending on how those “facts” support or deny personal experience and worth.
Within any narrative there is a message which grows in it influence over the hearer as it is repeated over and over. At some point in the process of repeating the story, its message becomes largely impervious to any concept of objective facts. The story becomes a vital part of the hearer’s personal identity and of their value as an individual. The power of the story is in its ability to create personal “facts”: beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and responses. This reality, the powerful effects of a good story, make the story teller a great influence among the many that shape our lives and thoughts.
This explains why businesses are willing to spend enormous amounts of money on advertising, ads which always tell a story rather than simply address facts. In fact, we mostly know that ads tend to be less than factual. Therefore the less facts presented, the less the ad can be challenged. Our attention is deliberately diverted away from rational discernment and the appeal is to our emotions, which are so easily manipulated. When dull facts, like the multitudinous disclaimers of the typical drug ad, are presented, our reaction to those facts is largely dismissive.
So advertisers rightly avoid facts and depend instead on a pleasing story, one which is endlessly repeated in the course of TV watching, internet viewing, or radio listening. Repetition is so obviously an essential element of the power of advertising.
The power inherent in a repeated narrative has never been more apparent than in our current political environment. Countless politically motivated narratives circulate in the various means of storytelling that are available to us in this age. The internet, with its social media platforms, is a hotbed of political storytelling and intrigue. Stories and counter stories assail the citizen and vie for their attention and acceptance. Leaks, anonymous insider revelations, and conspiracy allegations are mixed with a deluge of individual open political statements by politicians, commentators, social activists, and citizens of every stripe and demeanor. The result is a disconcerting mash up of powerful and conflicting stories which serve mainly to keep everyone off balance in a rational sense. We are manipulate emotionally to the point where few seem capable of rational assessment of even the simplest of issues, much less the many complex and essential ones which an advanced society must face and resolve.
One common response to all this noise is to give up on the idea of effective, essential collective action all together. Everyone should just go it on their own and forget about any meaningful union or divine purpose. It is a perfect atmosphere for cynicism and narcissism. Eat, drink, and be happy for tomorrow we die, so to speak.
The power of narrative is a large part of the appeal of the Bible or other religious texts. Such works are built on an elaborate story of divine revelation, which adds the force of supernatural wisdom, foresight, and sufficiency to the inherent effect of an oft repeated story. Once a narrative of God or the gods becomes engrained, facts easily become subject to the narrative instead of the other way around. Facts that contradict the divine story cannot be true no matter what our eyes and ears may reveal. The subjective interpretation of what has been divinely revealed defines what must always be true. The story must prevail over any “alternative facts”.
The common cause which Orthodox Christianity often finds with this politics of nihilism and materialism seems strange to many. However, the church’s theology of ever impending catastrophe is the perfect vehicle to support the prevailing politics of fear. The resulting alliance perfectly accords with a longstanding theological pessimism.
In this environment, where competing stories will determine our political future, the most compelling narrative, the one which responds to our most powerful emotions and attachments will likely prevail at least in the short run. Without argument, our most powerful emotion is fear, which coincidentally makes us the most irrational or immune to actual facts.
Thus any political narrative rooted in present day fear will be very difficult to counter with a different story of a better tomorrow. That better tomorrow narrative will often mean dismissing current fears all together or suggesting that current fears are too much a preoccupation with self interest versus the common good. The better tomorrow is a hoped for reality; the current fearful one is upon us, in the mind of the fearful. The only successful counter narrative must address current fears as well as future hope. Such a narrative is vastly more complex and difficult than the one which generates the fear in the first place.
Notably, all calls for rational debate of current issues and their complexities have been shouted down by vociferously repeating the fearful narratives. Until such time as we overcome fear enough to engage rationally, the fear mongers among us will wield the power and the rest will be their pawns.
We face a daunting challenge, one which demands faith in and respect for one another more than ever. Jesus was a uniter and his message for mankind was one of equality and unity. Any story which destroys my faith in my fellow man as an equally worthy child of God does not align with Christ. Jesus came to release us all from fear. Therefore any story which promotes and enhances my fear is not of Christ.
For those of a Christ-like persuasion, all discordant and fear producing political narratives should be automatically suspect. Christ was clearly not a politician because he rejected the politician’s most effective storyline.