I’ve been moved, and encouraged, by the response I have received from many of you about my last blog post about my mum’s incredible grace shown towards my dad. And people have shared their own stories of grace in the midst of trial too. I’ve written blog posts that have been read more widely, but never – I think – felt more deeply.
I write a lot in a year. Writing is my thing. And here’s what I’ve noticed: it’s the simple stories that connect with people. Sure I’ve got stuff to say about culture, politics and sexual culture in our times. And I say those things in different ways.
But there’s something about stories that get to us, isn’t there? Something that get under our defences; something that leaks through our otherwise impenetrable emotional skin, dripping through the layers of psychological epidermis before pooling in our existential core.
And it changes us.
And reading through that story again, I’m astonished in a fresh way by how grace just sweeps over everything in a way that nothing else can. No therapy. No counselling. No looking in the mirror and saying “I am strong, I am invincible”. The grace of God – in a person’s story – moves people – and often moves them to change – in ways few things can. “Come and see!” they beckon to us.
No doubt stories of grace at work in a graceless world change us in ways that our inarticulate hearts struggle to express.
And I am fully convinced that in our current cultural clime we’re in dire need of a good story that’s so much bigger than us. Because let’s face it, the stories our culture is writing are increasingly frantic. No sooner is the story written than it needs rewritten, edited, amended, parts of it suppressed, much of it photoshopped to fit the presuppositions that drive it. Not so much a story as an eternal marketing campaign with an increasingly worthless product.
Hence we have so much freedom, according to the story, but we are all so frightened. We are called to celebrate deep individuality but at the same time suffer an epidemic of loneliness. We are experiencing the high watermark of the sexual revolution only to find, as a report in the UK’s The Sunday Times highlights, the younger generation has turned its back on actual sex.
What was particularly revealing about the report was how the story of sex wasn’t being rewritten by a younger generation, it was being dumped for story-less sex altogether. Faced with the effort of tying your story into someone else’s story and making that work, young people are just not bothering because it’s all too much effort.
In final proof that there’s an app for everything, young men are signing up to an online site that encourages them to get off porn and not to masturbate for a month. Think of it as a “Dry July” campaign for steady to moderate “drinkers” so to speak.
The observation of a thirty year old London man, for whom porn had replaced actual sex was telling. Here’s how The Sunday Times reports the experience of this young bloke:
“The idea is that by not watching porn you get back the urge to meet someone in real life.” Did it work? “Yeah,” he shrugs, “but you ultimately realise that Pornhub is much less demanding.”
Much less demanding. Real life is more demanding. Much more. Stories are more demanding – especially someone else’s story coming in to contact with your own story. Building, creating, forming and sharing stories are demanding tasks, and many of our younger people are, quite frankly, not up to the task.
But, and here’s the missed opportunity for that young bloke; much more rewarding as well!
The loss of the Christian narrative, or more to the point, its deliberate dismantling, has left us with less rewarding, and less adequate replacements, false soundbites pretending to be something more, that are unproven barriers to the harsh winds of reality.
Yet, and here’s my concern with the current state of evangelicalism, you can’t tell a better story if you’re not a better story teller. Even if you’ve got a better story.
We have a better story. We’ve just not been all that adept at telling it. The general consensus across a swathe of conservative evangelical churches that take pride in biblical preaching, is that the message from the front is like the moon: clear, bright and cold. There is next to no application and what application there is is about serving in some ministry in the church or giving more, or being more (vaguely) godly.
And that’s just the preaching. And that’s the verdict from those within that system, not merely those sniping from the outside.
Our theological formation processes haven’t gone to any great lengths, no lengths at all in fact, to find the best storytellers we have and help them narrate our story better to a watching world.
The orthodox evangelical world has committed a grave error based on a false assumption. It believed that we were moving in to the Information Age, and it geared itself up for that.
And it has found itself exposed. The reality has turned out to be that we have always, always, inhabited the Imagination Age. And we have been poorly trained to either inhabit that age or engage with imaginations in the pew on a Sunday, or indeed in the world on a Monday, or the collective community imagination of Christian life throughout the rest of the week.
And our opponents? Singularly adept at inhabiting and engaging with the Imagination Age. Singularly adept at capturing the heart of the matter, namely the matter of the heart.
The stunning success of the Yes vote in the same sex marriage debate (was it even a debate?) proved it.
When it came to telling stories that gripped the imagination, we were woeful in 2017 in Australia. And we were woeful because we assumed our story had a grip on the imagination of the general population that it no longer had, if it ever had it in the first place.
The creative minority of the gay community, meanwhile, had spent decades on the margins crafting a story that had to look and feel as plausible as it sounded when it came to public presentation, because it had to look and feel plausible to them first. And guess what? When the time came, it did feel plausible to the wider public!
Yes we can gripe about how the No campaign was “under-resourcing”, or “under-reporting”. But the primary problem was that it was underwhelming!
It failed to captured an already captured public imagination. It’s not as if the public imagination is free-floating, waiting to be captured by some piece of information that will set it on a pathway of freewill choices.
No, the imagination, both public and private is already captured, and what the Yes campaign offered was a glowing confirmation of that capture.
And of course this is not just about stories of sex. It’s about all of the other stories that capture our imagination. If we reduce it to sex then we’re going to be suckers (already are suckers) for all of the other false stories that have captured our imaginations.
We wonder why there is such paucity of water at the church community river mouth, in terms of energy, vitality and desire, and most importantly, of plausibility in the face of the beautiful rainbow apocalypse. Well if there’s no water downstream it’s always a good idea to check upstream.
Over the coming weeks I’m going to proffer a number of stories that we can explore. First to see how we have failed to provide a serious alternative to the false narratives of late modern culture. The “sex and identity” is an easy one, but there are others pitched around desire, significance and meaning.
I’ll title them “A Better [FILL IN THE BLANK] Story” and fill in the actual blank at the time.
So for example, think about the story of Individual as Consumer, which so pervades us. Last weekend I went into Perth city with my son for some mooching around, and to buy the usual chips and drinks and trinkets that so captivate the heart of a 10 year old boy on a quick Saturday afternoon train trip to town.
The main city mall was heaving. With people. And with agendas. The JWs had their stall. The African Gospel Choir was singing down one end, while the Muslim crew were having walk up conversations at their gazebo outside the coffee shop. Meanwhile the Marxists – having dutifully paid their stall subscription like the obedient little capitalists they are – were handing out “how to not vote” cards or some such.
I stood watching the mall from the vantage point of a second floor arcade. And what did I notice? The stall owners, the spruikers of intellectual and religious wares didn’t have a hope of capturing the imaginations of the passersby. Why? Because their imaginations were already captured.
And captured by a much larger, more pervasive story. On the ground it looks like everyone is bidding on an equal footing. But from above? From my vantage point? I looked down on the heads of shoppers laden with Nike bags, logos of all sorts, stepping out of cafes and into surf clothing stores. Those stall holders with their earnest, holy appeals were simply renters, paying money for a slice of the holy ground of another’s temple.
And if you’re in a church setting which is pitched towards competing with the consumer heart, then two questions arise: First, why do you think your product will break the cycle of consumption? And second, why are you content to settle for a product pitch to a consumer in the first place?
But more of that in the weeks to come.