Public Square

The Power of Story: Why Our Post-Christian Culture Needs One Now

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He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. — George Orwell, 1984

“How can we be living in a post-Christian culture when over 70 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian?” asked a man in his mid-thirties at a recent conference.

While he is right, based on a recent Pew Study, 70.6 percent of Americans claim to be Christians (evangelicals, 25.4 percent; mainline,14.7 percent; Catholic, 20.8 percent; and others, 9.8 percent), but the majority do not drive the cultural narrative.

Stories do.

Stories have shaped the beliefs of individuals since the beginning of time. They move people emotionally, and they move people to take action. Today, stories told by educators, news media, entertainment, and other conduits of popular culture are playing a significant role in shaping our perceptions and building our common civic culture.

As one Christian blogger writes from Germany:

In a post-Christian society, the Biblical story that once shaped culture is no longer the narrative that gives meaning to life. The gospel is long gone. Jesus has become part of an outdated argument or distant figure haunting the past. The church has become a shadow of a once-flourishing community drawn together by the gospel. The story of God’s grace through the cross has become an echo of the past, and the remnant of the church has drifted back to the margins of culture.

While this is certainly true in Europe, it is also increasingly true here in the United States. Although there may still be some, as Flannery O’Connor describes them, “Christ-haunted” places in the South, the biblical metanarrative as an operating cultural storyline is almost nonexistent.

When the Story Is Rejected

Here’s an example of how the biblical metanarrative has not only been sidelined but practically forbidden in our culture today.

In 2016, Russell Vought, a graduate of Wheaton College, wrote a blog regarding a controversy at his alma mater over whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Vought wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” Vought’s statement confirmed an orthodox position held by the Christian church for over a thousand years.

Fast forward to June 2017, Vought is now President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and was questioned in a confirmation hearing by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders referred to the statement above made by Vought and then asked him, “Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?”

Vought responded, “all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs” and added that the blog post was written in defense of “a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation.”

Sanders ended his line of questioning with, “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.”  Later, in an interview with CNN, Sanders called Vought’s comments “indefensible” and said, “It is hateful. It is Islamophobic. And it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”

Perhaps the thing that is more surprising than Sanders comments is the fact that the story was only a blip on the radar screen for mainstream media. But this should not surprise us, Vought’s comments violated the current cultural norms around religion. This standard states that all faiths should be seen as equally important and no one should claim to hold the absolute truth.

The Elephant and the Blind Men

This view is exemplified by the well-known story of the elephant and the blind men. The fable, set in India, tells of six blind men who, during a visit to the Rajah’s palace, encounter an elephant for the first time. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and makes an argument for what he thinks the whole elephant looks like based on his own experience.

As the story goes, the first blind man ran his hand along the side of the elephant. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall,” he exclaims (See the whole story here.) The dispute that erupts between the six blind men is finally settled by the Rajah who explains that each blind man only has a part of the truth and that the actual picture of the elephant can only be found when the blind men combine their individual observations.

This story reflects our current culture’s attitude about religion; the story asserts that no one has the comprehensive vision of truth. And if one religion claims they have this ultimate truth, they should be shamed and immediately corrected. This is exactly what Bernie Sanders was doing, and because his reaction fit the current cultural norms, it should have been expected.

As pastor Tim Keller points out in his book A Reason for God, this argument for religious plurality is fatally flawed:

How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?…How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?

The Biblical Metanarrative: The Whole Elephant

Truth is, we as believers do have the better arguments and the truth. Why have we lost the ability to influence the culture around us?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that over the last century we have lost the ability to tell the story of the gospel in a relevant and powerful way.

In a 2007 essay, Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich makes this statement about the power of telling the right story:

Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step…If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

The reality is that the gospel is the better story. If we as Christians are going to impact the culture around us, we must find better ways to tell that story.

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