There is a reason the Bible is a story. Even though it might embarrass us to admit it in this scientific age, we are a storied species. Our identity is simply the story we tell ourselves about our place in the world. We have constructed an incredibly intricate narrative that tells us who we are, what we are doing, who the people are that we are doing it with, and why it all matters.
Over the years I have decided that a large part of discipleship is learning to see all of these stories we are told and tell about ourselves through an ever-growing lens of the story of Jesus and the story God tells about us. And as a Christian, I believe that the dominant stories in our culture are opposed to the Gospel, they are stories of propaganda that enslave us rather than set us free. They are stories that disciples of Jesus need to be freed from and that freed disciples need to help free others from.
The Dominant Secular Story Walter Brueggemann has, rightly, I think, named the dominant story of our culture as technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism. To deny that you live within this story is to be completely enslaved to it. Even once we are aware of it, it is a daunting task to overcome. Through advertising, ideology, and propaganda, we are told that advances in technology means “things are getting better,” that we are safe, and that our consumption of technology will make us happy. Our therapy is purchase. Our identity is in stuff.
It is obvious that this story is what props up our economy. But it is just as obvious that this story is an utter failure. Americans are statistically some of the unhappiest people on the planet. But since we do not have an alternative story, we must ignore its failure. And to do so, we have become the most medicated and entertainment-obsessed culture in the world. This does not sound like a story of freedom but a story of enslavement and oppression.
The Dominant Religious Story Christian Smith has termed the dominant story in religious culture as moralistic therapeutic deism. This is perhaps the most disappointing story to recognize. It has slithered into our Christian consciousness like the serpent in the Garden. In the guise of selfless language, our religion has become one of self-centeredness. In this story God is the great Psychiatrist who heals our low self-esteem and the Bible is great Book of Self-Help, one that details how to be a “good person” and how to get along in the world. This story might free us from the fear of death or the reality of uncertainties, but it certainly does not free me from myself or my own oppressive ideologies.
How do we overcome these stories and replace them with more biblical trajectories for our lives? Well, we have a lot of work to do. But the most important, without a doubt, is The Church. Unless we come together to confront the dominant stories, we cannot succeed. If we think we can overcome the powerful forces of advertising, money, and politics on our own, as lone ranger Christians (it’s just me and Jesus), we are greatly deceived.
Unfortunately, many institutional versions of the local church today are simply not in a place to confront these narratives. In fact, they often participate in them with full force, often being the biggest evangelist for both of these stories. But I know the Spirit of God is at work as more people recognize we must come together to tell ourselves a new story.
It is through repeated, patient, and subversive storytelling within our safe Christian communities that our identities can be deconstructed. We must combat story with story, narrative with narrative. We cannot will ourselves out of the dominant stories of our culture, we must submit to new stories. And these new stories must be told to us again and again. They must be discussed within our families, debated within small groups, grappled with in Sunday schools, and preached vigorously from the pulpit.
It is also through learning new rhythms of life, allowing these new stories to determine the details of our lives, specifically: where we live, why we live there, where we work, why we work there, what we purchase, why we purchase it, what we eat, why we eat it, who we live with, why we live with them, what we strive for, why we strive for it, etc etc etc . . .
I do not find discipleship in showing up to a building once a week. I do not find it in abstract ideas. I do not find it in overlaying religious language and “practical application points” onto the unquestioned systems of my life. I find it in this continual process of unlearning stories/replacing stories/unlearning rhythms/replacing rhythms.
And as we, the people of God, find ourselves living out new stories, we will find that all our work was not for ourselves. It was to find an alternative to the dominant story for the rest of our culture. When we emerge from all our hard work we might just find that we have become a city on a hill, a light to the nation.