December 30, 2016

A tip for Conservatives in 2017: Tell a Story For Goodness Sake

2016 has proven yet again that when it comes to wooing and winning the hearts of the public  with a good story, conservatives are completely outclassed by progressives.

And Christian conservatives?  Don’t get me started!  You would think that with the best narrative in the world at their fingertips, full of highs, lows, dramas, intrigue, angst, pathos and joy, we would have a better handle on how to present our case.

But not a bit of it.  Once again progressives have provided the narratives that capture the public imagination, push the political agenda forward, and win friends in high legal places.

And it’s no good conservatives whining and moaning about it.  That’s what they’ve been doing all year!

A friend of mine posited two theories this week as to why the progressive movement has been so good at story:

1. Stories are about change, and so the progressive world has been better able to capture their use than conservatives

2. Progressive theology is built on a truthless empathy, which will always win against empathyless truth

Theory one stands up, especially in terms of the exception that proved the rule in 2016; Brexit.  Progressives suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to defend the status quo, and they did it poorly.  When they lost they presented a churlishness that has never defined their victories. They were exceptionally bad losers simply because over the past forty or fifty years of progressive politics in the West they have lost so rarely.  Mind you, the Trump debacle gave them an opportunity to redeem themselves, an opportunity they subsequently squandered.

I’m more interested in the second theory.  “Truthless empathy” versus “empathyless truth” is a delicious juxtaposition.  And a valid one.  As an orthodox Christian I am committed to words either revealing truth and exposing lies, or hiding truth and propagating lies.  Empathy that is truthless is neither morally neutral nor a place of safety.

The primary reason I am opposed to the new sexual ethic and gender theory agenda is not because it threatens my position, nor because it particularly turns my stomach, but because it’s a lie, and lies destroy.  Sexuality done outside the framework for which God intended will wreck a person, whether in this life or the one to come. That’s not all that will wreck a person, but the biblical narrative speaks about it so much that it’s hard to ignore.  And when the lie is presented in the exact opposite terms of what it is, then it’s all the more destructive.  It’s a lie that began in Eden when the serpent beguiled Eve with a story that she could be like God, and, coupled with how good the fruit looked, it was a killer story – literally.

The manner in which the sexual story has been crafted by progressives is proof that enough glitter, enough smoke and mirrors, enough of a well-crafted tale all have a potency for which humans are suckers. And progressives tap into this really well.

And conservatives?  Well, we’re pretty rubbish at story by and large.  “Empathyless”(a neologism?) is never something you want to be labelled.  But put together with the word “truth” and it’s shameful.  How did we get here? How did our responses to the progressive agendas sound so dry and unappealing? Here’s why: because we rarely frame truth in relation to actual people.  We get before the public and we don’t paint word pictures, we reel off lists.

So conservatives, tell a story for goodness sake.  Do it for the sake of goodness.  And if you can’t, then try to encourage the younger members of the tribe to do so.  Don’t push them away, or exasperate them with dry rationales or grumpy lists.  And don’t be suspicious of them.  Many a conservative story teller has been pushed into the arms of the progressive cause simply because they feel they’re a second class citizen in their town.

Think about Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated novel Gilead.  It is perhaps the best text on pastoral work I have ever read, followed closely by the creative genius of Eugene Petersen’s books on pastoral ministry.  Both are brilliant.  Robinson’s work does what all good novels do: it tells true things through an untrue story.  And Petersen just has that knack of painting an image so vivid that it clings like Velcro to your imagination, regardless of whether you agree with every jot and tittle of his exegetical method or not.

This is my 400th blog post on, and this year the stats have proven that when I tell a story the number of readers goes through the roof.  It was true of my ten part missional series, and it’s been true when I have told other stories too.  Why?  Because these stories resonated with people’s hearts.  They got through the Maginot Line rationale defences people put up.  In other words it’s hard to argue against them.

So, conservatives, don’t just write your blogs or your essays or your articles.  Tell us a story for goodness sake!  Let Truthful Empathy be our 2017.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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