I have recently handed in my dissertation proposal ready for my third year studies at uni. I am looking into the role of narrative in personal and cultural formation. The starting point for my thinking leading to this was reading Pete Rollins’ book Insurrection and the chapter Story Crime, in which he says “We all have a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, a story which we begin identifying with from infancy, and as long as we don’t think too much about it, we re able to maintain this story. But this personal narrative often has little direct connection to the reality of who we are.” We protect the self from the self through the narrative that we tell ourselves and we also protect the self from the other as well. When we have done wrong and we know we have done wrong we tend to build a narrative around the event to help placate our guilt, to justify our actions to ourselves. Sometimes this means that we tell a story about the self, about why we aren’t as bad as our actions would suggest or we tell a story about the other, someone or something else, to help justify why we did what we did, again allowing us to believe that we aren’t as bad as our actions suggest. We are able to protect ourselves from ourselves. These stories probably have very little in connection to the reality of who we are and the world around us but they help us to continue to believe that we are good. The narratives help us to avoid encountering our own monstrosity , often by focussing on the monstrosity of someone else. We can see this happening in all sorts of situations, take a church group, by building up a narrative about why they have everything right and about why the church down the road has it wrong they are able to distance themselves from any thought about what they may be getting wrong, from encountering their own monstrosity because they are able to sustain the narrative that they are good and holy and that it is that group over there that is monstrous. All kinds of church, with all kinds of different beliefs and activities do this, as do all sorts of different groups. It helps form and keep a group identity and builds a protection around that.
I have started to wonder if this offers a way to look at some of the old testament narrative. When the Israelites wage war, attack enemies and pray for the downfall of others they are able to do so through their narrative of being the chosen, holy, ones where as the other group are evil as they do x, y and/or z and as such there is a justification for their violence. They are able to believe that what they are doing is right and good and holy by seeing how monstrous their neighbours are. They are able to believe that God even ordains the war that they wage. Of course in Christ, the prince of peace, we see God commanding a love of enemies, a love of those groups that we would otherwise demonise and commanding that we shouldn’t want tooth for tooth or eye for eye but to believe in forgiveness. I don’t believe that God changed his mind but I do think that through the narrative the Israelites told themselves they were able to misunderstand God’s revelation of Godself in such a way that this became acceptable to them.
Nadia Bolz-Webber offers some thoughts on a similar subject in her sermon “Being good doesn’t make you free. The Truth makes you free.” which really is worth a read or a listen to!
Perhaps we need to become more aware of the narratives that we tell and are being told, the way in which we can use these to demonise others and protect ourselves. To admit when we are doing this and to try to reconnect to the truth. To be able to encounter our own monstrosity rather then just pointing out the monstrosity of others. To lay down our own narratives in order to be able to understand God’s revelation rather then an altered version based on our narrative. As a wise man once said “The truth will set you free”.
A second part to this has been added here: The first will be last: narrative, power and gospel
Related post: The Unchanging word of God?