Earlier today, Derek Rishmawy posted a piece entitled ‘My Evangelical Story Isn’t So Bad (Or, a Ramble on Experience, Biography, & Theology)’. Within it he discusses his generally positive experience of growing up as an evangelical and how this colours his engagement with critiques and critics of the movement. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that ours aren’t the only stories out there:
Often-times I’m so locked into seeing people as positions to be corrected, I forget that they are storied-people to be heard. People respond viscerally to words and concepts that have functioned fairly positively in my own life, many times because of our differing stories. My fairly positive Evangelical experience isn’t the only one out there, which is probably part of what accounts for the relative slowness with which I’ve embraced the theological changes I have made. I haven’t been in as much of an existential rush. If I don’t recognize that, I probably won’t be of much use to them as anything more than a sparring partner.
As we all appreciate that ours aren’t the only stories, we may also begin to realize that our story may be far from the whole story. This realization will have implications for all parties, challenging all of us to question what our personal experience may have led us to believe was an absolute. Derek proceeds to speak of the importance of Scripture in this area:
We need to see that in the Bible we have the normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story gets the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited, weighed down with baggage, or ignorantly blind like ours tend to be. It’s the story big enough to encompass all of our stories without denying, or ignoring them.
Derek’s post is worth reading and thinking about. What I want to do here is to pick up on a key issue that surfaces within it, an issue which I have reflected upon at various points recently.
The point in question concerns ‘stories’. ‘Story’ and ‘narrative’ have been all the rage in evangelical circles for several years now, somewhat eclipsing aging categories such as ‘worldview’. The presence of ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ within Scripture can often be appealed to as proof of the importance of this category. Unfortunately, the way that ‘narrative’ functions within Scripture is seldom given the sort of close attention that it merits, nor is it permitted to provide the norm for our employment of the category. Instead, the newly baptized category, exiled from its biblical roots, is then typically put to service within a foreign land of existential self-accounting.
The fact that scriptural narrative, in contrast to much preaching upon it, is not typically focused upon the subjective states, inner lives, and autonomous identities of its protagonists is seldom properly recognized. While Scripture speaks of many particular persons, it does not share the type of emphasis that our culture places upon individuality and personal narratives. Where we have elevated ‘personality’, often to the neglect of ‘character’, Scripture presents us with limited clues to the ‘personalities’ of its characters and seems to have little interest in the matter. In God’s eternal wisdom, he did not choose to reveal Jesus’ MBTI personality type.
In Scripture, individuals find much of their significance within the larger stories to which they contribute and in terms of the typological roles that they perform. Biblical characters are pretty ‘flat’, rather than possessing the ‘rich internal life’ that the self-reflection encouraged by such things as widespread diary-writing and the modern novel has accustomed us to. First person autobiographical narratives are not the norm. Rather, biblical narrative situates people within a story that is not their own and speaks of them from a third person perspective that clearly relativizes their self-accounts.
The valorization of people’s autobiographical narratives in certain circles has attained such heights that some have even referred to them as ‘sacred’. A person’s self-account is increasingly treated as inviolable and beyond challenge. While the motives for this might be well-meaning and even laudable—typically characterized by a desire to empathize with people, to treat them with dignity and sensitivity, and to attend to where they are coming from—the results can often be dangerous and unhealthy.
The chief issue here is the failure to recognize just how limited and deceptive personal narratives can be. Slavoj Žižek writes (borrowed from this post):
The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance. … The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie—the truth lies rather outside, in what we do.
A man with a rich internal life
Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.
In short, we need to be a lot more critical of our own stories and a lot more cautious when it comes to those of others. We have been practicing our wilfully distorting and self-exculpating narrations on ourselves for our entire lives and are past masters at it. Žižek quotes Elfriede Jelinek, observing the broader ethical wisdom in his understanding of theatre:
Characters on stage should be flat, like clothes in a fashion show: what you get should be no more than what you see. Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the “luxuriousness” of personality, losing ourselves in the depth of individual character. The writer’s task is to block this manoeuvre, to chase us off to a point from which we can view the horror with a dispassionate eye.
How does all of this relate to the issues that Derek raises in his post?
We ought to be a lot less indulgent when it comes to personal stories more generally, a lot more alert to the ways that they are most fertile grounds for the deception of ourselves and others, and a lot more prepared to call them into question. Personal stories, while they should not be excluded, should not be treated as ‘sacred’, but subject to testing and judgment. This is a challenge to the way that certain quarters of contemporary evangelicalism increasingly advance their positions in the form of personal narratives, rather than in open and rational discourse and argumentation, and treat all criticism as if it were personal attack.
The elevation of the personal story to an inviolable status is related to a move towards a different understanding of truth and ethics, as I have remarked before:
[W]ithin such an ethic, we gradually become the measure of our own selves. As this occurs, we cease to be expected to act in accordance with higher norms, principles, and realities, which provide criteria by which our lives can be judged and by which we can be held accountable. As truth is increasingly situated within the incommensurable particularity of people’s subjective narratives, our moral principles become partial truths—true for me, but perhaps not for you—bespoke rules that will sit awkwardly on other’s shoulders.
With this ethic comes a new form of discourse, a greater dependence upon a conversational and self-revelatory style, and typically leads to an overflowing of mutual affirmation. Any truth that claims to be public or objective is treated with great suspicion. When truth is largely situated in the subjective narrative and the immediacy of the feelings that ground it, ‘objective’ truth could only be the tyrannical and power-hungry masquerade of an imperious subjectivity (typically perceived to be that of the privileged white male). In such a context, any impression that the subjective narrative might be invalidated, challenged, or subordinated to a greater narrative will typically be reacted to with outrage, especially if white privileged males are seen to be doing this.
Recognizing the way that the personal narrative can function, we should appreciate the pernicious way in which it can often be used as a trump card, to close down debate. The personal story, especially if it is a painful one, is immune to challenge and is thus a convenient way to advance positions in a manner that prevents others from calling them into question, for to do so would be cruel and insensitive (I have addressed some of the dynamics of this here).
The first and most important application of this questioning of stories is always to our own stories. For instance, those of us who experienced an evangelical upbringing in predominantly positive terms and in relation to people we love and care about should be a lot more sceptical of our stories. We should recognize the ways in which our stories can whitewash our own actions, or the actions of people we love, through ‘psychological realism,’ failing to attend to the actual damage that we may have caused (this ethically blinding effect can be most powerfully seen in the moral latitude that can be afforded to people with ‘big personalities’). If we were to examine our actions more objectively, apart from the lens of our own stories, the starkness of reality would present our characters and those of the people that we love in a much less flattering light. This is uncomfortable but necessary. Starting from a position where we are prepared to subject our own stories to external judgment and to seek and learn how imaginatively to step outside of our own experiences is a crucial stage of personal and spiritual development.
The second application is to be much less credulous in our handling of the stories of others. The fact that a person’s story is something about which they are highly sensitive and in which they are deeply personally invested doesn’t mean that their story is true or ‘sacred’. We are often the most sensitive about the very lies that we use to suppress unwelcome truths within ourselves. While we should engage with people’s stories, we shouldn’t always take them at face-value. Derek actually raised this in a post that proved rather controversial some time back:
Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex.
While we shouldn’t adopt a hermeneutic of extreme suspicion when anyone tells us about themselves, we should recognize that we are all unreliable narrators, most especially when we are unwittingly trying to rationalize our actions to ourselves, and should treat people’s narratives accordingly. There are occasions when, taking people’s narratives at face value, we can become complicit in their self-deception. This requires prudence and discretion: there are occasions when people should be told clearly that their story is ‘bullshit’ and others when we must be exceedingly gentle in unsettling people’s unreliable accounts of themselves.
Within the post that I am interacting with here, Derek is primarily dealing with painful narratives of mistreatment or abuse, which would definitely fall under the latter approach. However, even an autobiographical narrative of abuse needs to be held in question in certain regards. This needn’t mean denying that abuse occurred. However, it should involve preparedness to question the account that is given of that abuse in certain regards. The narrative that is given of the abuse is not the same thing as its objective historical reality: the first can be questioned without denying the second. For instance, as Derek argues, ‘abuse doesn’t take away proper use’ and many narratives of abuse generalize from experiences of abuse to condemn non-abusive practices or teachings that were misused or twisted in their experience.
What I am advocating here is a serious tempering of the current fixation upon personal ‘story’ in evangelical circles. I believe that the degree of emphasis upon them is ethically dangerous and biblically unsupported. I am arguing for greater awareness of the contingency and artificiality of our stories, that they are things that we are constantly telling ourselves, rather than the actual reality of our past experiences. I am calling for increasing alertness to the deceptive and illusory character of the ‘rich internal self’ that these narratives depend upon. I am encouraging questioning of the prominence of personal narrative as a mode of evangelical discourse. I am suggesting that other people’s stories should not be off-limits when it comes to challenge and disagreement. I am calling all of us to be less trusting of the stories that we tell ourselves, more prepared to subject those stories to external judgment and critique, and more practiced in imaginatively stepping outside of our own stories and experience to see how our actions might appear from other perspectives.
My story is a story that I tell myself about myself in order to account for what I am doing. My story is not myself, no matter how closely invested I might be in it. Often it may be a tissue of lies designed to protect me from the unwelcome reality of who I am. My story can be invalidated without my deepest identity being invalidated. The subjection of my life to the narration of Another, to a narration that unsettles and overturns my self-exculpations, to a narration that exposes my deceit and punctures the comforting delusions, is a crucial dimension of Christian faith.
In the judgment cast upon our personal stories, we discover that we are being given another, better Story. It is no longer the self-narrated ‘I’ who lives, but the ‘I’ who is, by the breath of the Spirit, being re-narrated in the form of the story of Christ. Through the assurance of this re-narration, we are freed to distance ourselves from our own old narrations, to confess sins, to admit fault, to acknowledge blindness and weakness, to request forgiveness, to know ourselves to be in the wrong, to hold ourselves and our stories open to question. None of these things can challenge our identity, but only secure it.