The culture of narrative is both destructive and dangerous, and as Christians, we are not immune. All of us who live in the West inhabit a culture increasingly dominated by postmodern assumptions, which makes it easy for Christians to fall under the influence of powerful narratives, as I can personally testify.
This is particularly true for millennial evangelicals who have more recently come out of universities dominated by secular narratives. Evangelicals educated before the 1960s were typically trained in the use of reason, logic and critical thinking—subjects that are no longer valued, and for the most part, no longer included in educational curricula.
Here are four subtle ways Christians can become ensnared by destructive narratives.
- The temptation to seek out only sources of information that validate our preferred narratives
This is clearly a trend in the broader culture, and Christians are not immune to it. We have to be open-eyed to the ways that journalism and the media have abandoned the standards of unbiased reporting, and have largely given themselves over to championing their preferred narratives. This means that if you only get your news from National Public Radio (as I did for many years), while reading occasional articles in the Washington Post and New York Times, you will mainly be exposed to narratives championed by those in the left. The same can be said of news sources on the political right. It is important to be exposed to ideas that challenge the narratives on one side or the other. Otherwise, you will all too easily find yourself in an ideological bubble
- Falling for a postmodern version of truth
Postmodernism is based on the idea that there is no objective, transcendent truth. Rather, each individual is free to create their own personal notions of truth—up to a point. Those that wield cultural power will use that power to impose their preferred narratives on others. We see this most strikingly in the rampant political correctness on college campuses today.
Most Christians won’t deny the importance of truth, but may fall into a snare of saying that their faith is true—for them. Like the surrounding postmodern culture, they are comfortable with truth as personal, private belief, not as public truth with implications for everyone. Lesslie Newbigin challenged this postmodern assumption: “A serious commitment to … [the gospel], means a radical questioning of the reigning assumptions about public life. It is to affirm the gospel not only as an invitation to a private and personal decision but as public truth which ought to be acknowledged as true for the whole of the life of society” (italics added).
If you catch yourself describing your Christian faith as something “true for me” implying that it is only a personal truth claim, beware! You may be more influenced by postmodernism than you realize!
- Falling for a postmodern version of love
Christians rightly prioritize relationship. Millennial Christians in particular value relationship and resonate deeply with Christ’s command to love others. They actively look for ways to love their non-Christian neighbors—to reach out to gays, minorities, Muslims and refugees with the love of Jesus Christ. This is praiseworthy.
Yet even here, there are serious challenges presented by the culture. What postmodern culture defines as “loving” is very different from what “loving others” means biblically. According to the culture, “loving” requires validating and even affirming the personal beliefs and lifestyles of others—even if they are false and destructive. If you refuse to do so you will be considered unloving, even hateful. The postmodern culture rejects the concept of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” To love, you must abandon biblical notions of sin. The temptation arises for Christians to separate what they know to be true—including moral truth—from love, thereby validating a false, postmodern notion of love.
Biblically, truth, love and justice are deeply interwoven and wholistic. They cannot be separated, for to separate them is to destroy them. If you separate love from truth, you no longer have love. If you separate justice from truth, you no longer have justice. Darrow addressed this brilliantly in a recent post.
- Allowing emotions to lead, rather than reason
In a postmodern culture, truth is not something you discover, it’s something you create—and you create it if it makes you feel good. In postmodern culture there is no such thing as absolute truth. Feelings trump logic and reason. Narratives thrive in a postmodern culture because they appeal to our hearts rather than our heads.
Christians who succumb to this postmodern mode of operating can easily become ensnared in powerful cultural narratives, and the use of social media merely adds fuel to the fire. Its sound-bite tweets and visual images play on emotions, not reasoning abilities.
This is not to say feeling and emotions are bad. Far from it, our emotions are a gift from God. The biblical worldview affirms both head and heart—feelings and reason. Yet it insists that reason be preeminent. Like a train, our lives run well when reason is the engine and emotions follow. It malfunctions when emotions are out in front. Take the biblical concept of love. We are commanded to love others, whether we feel like it or not. In other words, love is not a feeling, but a rational choice to seek and do what is best for others, regardless of how we feel.
Emotions are good, but they are also powerful, and can be very dangerous when decoupled from reason. One of the fruits of our postmodern culture is the increasing tendency to advance a cause by emotionally inciting a mob through social media. In reflecting on this growing tendency, Rod Dreher wrote: “American politics has entered a stage where the passions of the mob increasingly rule both sides [Republicans and Democrats], because emotional extremism is rewarded” (italics added). This is playing with fire, and Christians should have nothing to do with it.
When confronted by narrative, the head must rule the heart
The only way to escape the grip of a powerful cultural narrative is by allowing the head to rule the heart. A narrative works though distortion—by presenting a small piece of the picture, while deliberately ignoring or suppressing facts and evidence that are needed to see the big picture. In a culture dominated by narrative, these missing pieces are not easy to find. It takes real effort to carefully seek out facts and evidence from as many sources as possible, and then a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads—even if it means rejecting a narrative you have a strong emotional attachment to.
But some Christians are reluctant to do this. Some prefer not to challenge narratives because of a desire to be seen as acceptable to the “in crowd,” those with cultural influence who promote particular narratives. Many are simply too busy to do the hard work of questioning narratives, and those that perpetuate them count on this. For those who value love over truth, challenging a narrative may put relationships at risk, and that is too high a price to pay. Still others have become cynical. What’s the point, if both sides can present “their facts?” They seem to accept the notion that different narratives are all that exist. Like Pilate, they shrug their shoulders and say “What is the truth?”
Christians must resist this temptation. Yes, we live in a culture dominated by narratives, but truth exists and we must pursue it. In that pursuit, we must allow reason to trump emotion. If we allow ourselves to willingly accept and affirm the distorted narratives of our day, we’ve abandoned the truth, and when truth is abandoned, both love and justice are harmed as well.
- Scott Allen