In the September 2023 issue of The Atlantic, David Brooks writes a great article entitled, How America Got Mean. As the title indicates, Brooks deals with two fundamental crises facing American culture: first, why have Americans become so mean? Why have anger, divisiveness, and abusive behavior become cultural norms? And, second, why have Americans become so sad? Why is rising depression, drug use, and deaths from suicide and despair the order of the day?
Brooks notes that there are lots of commonly-offered reasons for these cultural predicaments–social media is the culprit, or the breakdown of community and resulting isolation, or that increasing diversity has the majority culture panicked, or that high income inequality forces people to withdraw and lose hope. While all these may be partially true, Brooks believes the real problem is a failure to form the moral fiber of our young people. Because society and its institutions have neglected to help people learn to restrain their selfishness, teach basic social skills, and help people find purpose in living, we no longer know how to treat each other with kindness and compassion. Selfishness has free rein.
Brooks makes a persuasive argument. To a large degree, American K-12 education, and certainly most of higher education, got out of the moral formation business decades ago, deferring to self-actualization and self-expressionism. Part of what gives a people and their culture its resilience is its ability to transfer its timeless, communal notions of the true, the beautiful, and the good to the next generation. This includes discipleship, the passing down of a faith heritage. Without them, a government and culture like ours can’t stand. John Adams said it best: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
But our cultural cure is more complex than simply sharing ethical concepts, social skills, or moral precepts from one generation to the next. These societal anchoring points must be rooted in story. Because we are fundamentally a people of story.
We live by narratives, or stories. They provide meaning, and make abstract concepts like loyalty, honor, and compassion concrete. They teach us how to think and to feel. Stories allow us to rehearse moral concepts, placing us into the role of the characters and allowing us to live the dilemmas they face, make the decisions they make, and live with their consequences, all before we actually have to do any of these things ourselves. Stories teach us how to act. You can teach me about love and sacrifice, but reliving A Tale of Two Cities: Sidney Carton surrendering his life at the guillotine in substitute for his look-alike, Charles Darnay, so that he and Sidney’s unrequited love, Lucy Manette, can live forever in happiness, will drive those ideals into my heart much more deeply than any lecture can ever do.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, stories guide our life, and even entrap us. We all live and operate according to a story. If, for example, I live according to the narrative that the American Dream is about making it big and rich, and that how much money I make is the measure of my value, dignity, and worth, I will be driven to find work and meaning in what I earn and what can buy, no matter what I have to do to get it. If I live by the narrative that my looks have and will always be what opens doors helps me find happiness and value, then I will invest all that I have and all I am to keep and maintain those looks, no matter the cost and even as they fade.
This is why shame is such a powerful tool in the devil’s arsenal. Shame is a false story about ourselves that he or others tell us, or that we tell ourselves, that we believe and internalize to our spiritual, emotional, and often, physical harm. Many have driven themselves to all sorts of horrible things by believing the story that they are unworthy, or not something (pretty, smart, strong, etc.) enough, or that they are unloved or unwanted, or any number of stories told by the father of lies, driving us to destruction.
We are a people of story, driven by story, because it’s in our blood; the image of God in us. We have been written into a story since the beginning of time: The Great Story, the metanarrative. The Story of God. God created the heavens and the earth, and created us as an act of love in His image, distinct beings, men and women. Through the original sin, and every one thereafter, we rebelled against God, breaking and distorting our relationship with God, with each other, with all creation, and with ourselves. So devastating was this fall that it impacted all of creation, causing hives and hurricanes, violence and viruses, tropical depressions and those I feel in my soul. But, God, in his love, sent Jesus, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to pay the price for our sin and to restore us to our Father. Now, as Christ’s Church, His redeemed followers, we live in the “now, not yet” of restoration, when death has been defeated and conquered, but God’s kingdom in all its fullness and perfection has not yet been restored, but will one day be.
That’s the Metanarrative: a story of love, and separation, and rescue, and happy endings forever. This is the story indelibly written on the human heart, the Great Story dimly reflected in every other great story, from the Odyssey, to L’Morte D’Arthur, to Two Cities, to Star Wars to Harry Potter. This is the great anchoring point for all our hope, all our aspiration, and all our ability to understand what is truly good, and true, and beautiful, worthy of our love, and necessary for passing down from one generation to the next. This is the context from which our children will learn all the things that will help them flourish and thrive and live and love, and do them all in the arms of the only One who truly knows and loves their souls.
This is why, as people of the Story, we can’t just read it like another book, or treat our perusing of it like an exercise regimen, something to check off our morning or nightly to-do list. This is about reinforcing the narrative of truth in our lives, about transforming us into the other we have been promised to be, and about guarding our hearts against the one who hates us and seeks to destroy.
We have to understand this Story deeply, and let it become a part of our living and breathing. We must “eat this book” as Eugene Peterson advises, channeling the prophet Ezekiel, digesting it and letting it become part of who we are. We have to understand how God has been at work since the beginning of time, and how He’s still at work toward the completion of time. We have to understand our own stories within the context of God’s bigger story, giving our whole lives meaning, in every aspect: work, live, play, home, family, all on mission for the Lord.
This story, this Book should be read in its entirety, in a year or however long it takes, cover to cover so that you understand the whole story and how it all fits together. It should be studied deeply in books or passages, for deep application to your life. And, small sections, just a few verses at a time, should be savored, meditated upon prayerfully, and internalized, so that your heart can be truly transformed, so that you can be obedient, so that you can be disciples, so that the story can be lived out in you and your children.
The biggest problem in the Church today, the reason why so few of us make much impact in our mean, sad culture, is that we don’t really know the story. We haven’t digested it, it’s not in our hearts, we don’t know our role in it, and we haven’t been transformed by it. So, we’re confused, lost, ineffective, and targets for the devil and those who would mislead us. Just crack the cover, and recapture the story.