Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Breaking the Master Narrative, Part 2

I wrote about the master narrative that gets improperly imparted on historical discussion yesterday. My intent was simply to introduce a different way of thinking about history. It goes along with one of my primary theories: life is what happens while you’re waiting for your plans to come to fruition. This is to say that historical events do not care about any master narrative. Things happen or don’t happen with no regard to how they fit in to the overall story. What we have done with history to make it tell a story is to create a post hoc narrative to put everything together. This is neither good nor bad. It is, in fact, necessary to teach history, since otherwise everything becomes a series of dates and events completely devoid of context. What matters is what we do with that narrative and how aware we are that the story we’re telling is an artifact created by the historian and that the people involved in the actual moment of history had very different narratives in their heads, assuming they had any narrative at all. This is the context in which it makes sense to take a tangential look at the master narrative and bring it from the remote world of history to the immediate world of self. Jessa left a comment on the last post that started thusly:
When I was sick, I read a lot of memoirs and fiction about people recovering from eating disorders and self-injury. I read these out of a desire to see what this elusive "recovery" thing looked like, how it happened, what it felt like. Reading those stories was, however, useless to attaining that goal. Most of the stories arced like most other stories. There is rising action (getting sick, getting sicker), a climax (some turning point that causes the protagonist to decide to recover), and falling action (the recovery itself). That would generally be fine, but these stories, even when they claimed to be about recovery, spent the bulk of the time on the rising action and glossed over the falling action, as per the norm. These narratives also rely a lot on very clear cause-effect relationships that over-simplify the complexity of life.
I have no personal experience with this particular type of story, but I have quite a bit of experience with a similar phenomenon: the testimony. The testimony itself is a weird little artifact of Evangelical Christianity. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but I can pretty much guarantee it’s not particularly Biblical. The reason for this is simple: the concept of a personal lord and savior was foreign to the earliest Christians. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t a master narrative. The bible, in fact, records the master record for us as an example of how to testify for Jesus. It happened during Paul’s visit to Athens.
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD ' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.' "Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead." Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, "We shall hear you again concerning this." So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.(Acts 17:25-34)
We can see in this passage the master narrative pushed by Christianity.[1] What we do not see, however, is any language about finding Jesus as a personal lord and savior. It says everyone should repent because they will be judged, but that’s different from the verbiage used by the modern church. Moreover, in the modern church – particularly the Evangelical varieties, but it has leaked in to most if not all other denominations – the purpose of Jesus has morphed from “savior of the world” to “ultimate self-help guru.” Which brings me back around to that peculiar institution of the modern church: the testimony. The master narrative of the Bible as encapsulated in Paul’s sermon is of a world of darkness that needs light. The master narrative of the testimony, meanwhile, is the story of an individual in darkness that needs light. Both stories follow a similar trajectory, but they have subtle distinctions with huge consequences. The testimony follows a simple template. I, as the person offering my testimony, say something like, “I used to do [list of terrible things]. I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t stop. Then I met Jesus and accepted him in to my heart. Now things are great.” In the testimonial, as in jessa’s tales of recovery, the rising action is all important. A good testimonial is filled with lurid tales of sins committed and godless acts. For some people it’s fairly simple. They’ve done some crazy shit and genuinely needed help to fix the mess they’ve made of their lives. These testimonials are filled with lurid details of drug use, homelessness, terrible deeds done in the name of survival, and all the things that make for interesting storytelling. So when the Jesus part comes in it’s a breath of fresh air, a moment of catharsis. For the majority of people, however, there is no real need for Jesus as self-help salvation. They simply live their lives, doing the best they can and failing in some ways while succeeding in others. Often they’re doing fairly well and living reasonably fulfilled lives. The Jesus of the meth addict is powerless against the life of such a person. This necessitates the invention of sin. This is why there are so many random, unwritten, and barely Biblically justified rules in the Evangelical world. Smoking or drinking in even small amounts suddenly become horrible sins. Watching pornography becomes the first step in an inevitable slide to omnisexual goat-based orgies. If the person in question once had an abortion or fantasized about sex with a member of the same gender they’re suddenly the worst person in the world. And, if all else fails, all that needs to come up is some amorphous sense of existential emptiness that indicates a need for god. When the Jesus part comes in to these stories it’s with a shrug, something like, “I realized I needed something else and that something else was Jesus.” What both versions of the testimonial have in common, however, is a relentless focus on how terrible life is without Jesus and how hard Jesus works to rescue the poor, lost soul. It ends with a happily ever after when the convert says, basically, “So all this terrible stuff happened, but then I asked Jesus in to my heart and it went away. Now I’m happy.” The problem is that that happiness is momentary and a psychological phenomenon, not an actual sign of healthiness. What basically happened was that the convert was seeking assistance in a crisis and encountered something that offered help, which in turn became a catharsis. But the testimonial conveniently ignores that part, instead sticking with the fairy tale convention of, “And I lived happily ever after.” This is, of course, the logical endpoint of Paul’s testimonial of Jesus on Mars Hill in Athens. The primary difference is that Paul’s happily ever after occurred too late for anyone to know any different. If Jesus is primarily there to absorb judgment at death then Jesus’s role can never be questioned. Conversely, it’s fairly easy to poke holes in self-help Jesus. There was, in fact, a lovely article about just this subject in the local paper this week. I go to it because it involves my old church and one of my least favorite flavor of the week Christian marketing schemes: the Alpha Course.[2] The bare-bones version of the story is of a couple that was going places (or at least thought they were) but got derailed by drugs. They couldn’t pay the bills, couldn’t feed their children, and were pretty much falling apart. Then they got help. He went to an Alpha course, she went to a place that offers financial aid and counseling. Then they found Jesus and they’re on an upward trajectory. It’s all very heartwarming, really. Except it really doesn’t illustrate the need for Jesus. See, what this couple needed, and have gotten, was drug and financial counseling. The fact that it came packaged with the Jesus message wasn’t a glitch, it’s a feature of the whole system. People don’t change unless they see the need and decide to do the work. So if you package the thing they need with this message of magic help from elsewhere they’re more likely to do the work because they say, “Hey, if I can’t do it then Jesus can.” What’s interesting to me is the drug part of the story. It says that David, our erstwhile addict, was clean for six months and had “attended some Narcotics Anonymous meetings” before attending the Alpha Course. The problem with any story of fixing drug problems is relapse. Relapse is far less likely if there is something or someone to assist, which is why so many people simply trade one addiction for another.[4] Simply attending a few meetings off and on isn’t the way to go and I’d be willing to bet that this contributed to David’s need to fill the emptiness in his life. So he found Jesus. Which, in the final analysis, I’m not really against. I’m all for people fixing their lives and finding redemption. If it takes religion then it takes religion. The problem that I see is that the Jesus part of the story is elevated to primacy over the drug counseling part of the story. More, whether it’s ex- or implicit, the message is that the individual is powerless against his or her addictions and that only Jesus can help. This is a feature, not a glitch.[5] And, over all, it doesn’t gibe with reality. The story shouldn’t be about how Jesus can change hearts, but how there were people in the right place at the right time to help people who needed help. Jesus can’t do a damn thing if the person in question doesn’t know how to manage a budget or is still willing to blow their entire paycheck on smack. But the stories of people who have the come to Jesus moment one night and are calling their dealer the next are conveniently ignored. Or, worse, they’re used to illustrate that the person wasn’t good or pure enough. The reason for that is simple enough, though. Those stories don’t fit in to the master narrative. Stories are clean. Reality is messy. That makes for some real problems. ------------------------- [1]More appropriately, Pauline orthodoxy. If you step back from the religious aspects of the New Testament and understand the Pauline Epistles and the latter half of the book of Acts in context it’s not so much the story of Paul spreading the Gospel as it is the story of Paul spreading his version of the Gospel. There is absolutely nothing to say that the Gnostics or the Judaizers were wrong in their interpretation, we simply know that Paul argued the longest and hardest and managed to make his arguments stick. And if we’ve learned anything from politics these past few years it’s that facts and accuracy take a back seat to a good story. [2]If you live in a major metropolitan area you’ve probably seen ads for the Alpha Course. They’re generic images of people standing on top of mountains with a question like, “Is there really more to life than this?” and a web address which I won’t reprint. The course promotes itself as a discussion of the deeper meaning of life, but pretty much immediately gets to, “Who is Jesus?” and, “How can Jesus make my life better?” Some discussion, that. Of course you can’t expect much of anything else from a meeting that’s specifically marketed from churches…[3] Meanwhile, it’s EVERYWHERE. I’d say that about half the churches in my area currently have or have recently had banners out front that announce, “Alpha is here!” I was not at all surprised to learn that it was at my old church… [3]I’ve only ever seen one description of the inner workings of an actual Alpha Course meeting. The one I read, and for the life of me I can’t remember where or when, indicated that the author of the article -- who was a skeptic going to see specifically what it was about -- was the only person in the meeting who wasn’t actually a member or parishioner of the church. This doesn’t surprise me one bit and I would hazard a guess that the pattern is repeated over and over again at such meetings. I hesitate to say that the church members who arrive are plants, since I know how such groups go and that some people will show up at any small group meeting at church, but it does serve to create a groupthink that’s not at all conducive to actually examining the deeper questions of life. [4]It’s also why there are so many stories that are about being totally trashed, then meeting the right person, falling in love, and getting the happily ever after. In the final analysis, Jesus is basically cast as the ultimate knight in shining armor/beautiful princess in the testimonial. [5]In college a friend of mine and I used to hang out with an itinerant evangelist who had a history of drug use. He described his drug habit as being like a doberman on a chain that wanted to attack him. Jesus, however, was holding the other end of the chain and keeping the attack dog just out of range. At the time it seemed like a really cool way to describe the situation. Now it just seems sad. And it highlights one of the problems that I have with the Alcoholics Anonymous type of drug counseling. The person in AA is encouraged to think of him- or herself as a recovering alcoholic and encouraged to know exactly how long it’s been since they had their last drink. They’re also encouraged to believe that it’s only with the help of a higher power that they can escape their addiction. This is a dangerous focus on the addiction itself coupled with an explicit message of helplessness in the face of the problem. I understand that some former alcoholics can never touch a drink again because they don’t know when to stop. But eventually you have to figure out that you’re free to move on with your life and focus on the thing that’s coming next, not the thing that’s anchoring you in the past. Actually, I recently read a fantastic book by a former alcoholic and drug user that ended with redemption while avoiding all that stuff and ended up being extremely uplifting. If you want to see a completely different narrative on the subject track down a copy of Craig Ferguson’s American On Purpose. It should be pretty easy to find. In fact it has plenty in it about the realizations that come along with the territory of addiction that things need to change, the search for someone or something to solve the problem, and that mortifying sine wave of recovery and relapse.


Michael Mock said...

You know, I sometimes think that my entire purpose in life is to break people's master narratives. This is sometimes fun, but more often it's a pain - back in high school, I'd have given a lot to have a code book (or something similar) that would have allowed me to decipher what narratives I was expected to follow.

The Woeful Budgie said...

Relapse is far less likely if there is something or someone to assist, which is why so many people simply trade one addiction for another.

Coming from a church whose primary ministry for a number of years was a "Christ-centered 12-step recovery program", I can't tell you how many times I saw this play out. I thought Tom Perotta did a pretty good job of exploring that theme (among others) in The Abstinence Teacher (which, I'll admit, I grabbed on a whim in hopes of indulging in the petty comfort of a little anti-fundie snark. Instead, I found a cast of well-written, sympathetic characters--even the fundies!--which, I think, ended up being a better sort of comfort anyway. Though I've come to the conclusion that Perotta either spent some time as a fundie, or he's proof positive that empaths really do exist in real life, because the man's ability to get inside the conservative Evangelical mindset is incredible. And sort of heartbreaking.)

Fiat Lex said...

May I say that "omnisexual goat-based orgies" is one of the best phrases I've seen anywhere in awhile? Just lovely. :D

I have a theory on why the "falling action" or recovery part of the narrative usually gets glossed over: it's embarrassing. It's petty. Tales of bad deeds done are shameful in a way, but they're also impressive and as such a form of boasting. "Look at this horrible thing I survived!"

Figuring out why you had the urge to do horrible things, though, is not impressively shameful. Just shameful, like kicking out at a looming shape in the dark, then flipping the switch and realizing you've just kicked a puppy. Recovering from any kind of crazy involves confronting just how weak and petty and selfish you currently are. It makes your story more real to leave those parts in, but it's really easy to convince yourself to leave them out. You feel like telling it makes you look bad, as a person and as a narrator.

I love your point about self-help groups fostering a false sense of helplessness. I forget who said it, but there's a saying that goes, "Do not destroy something of value unless you have something of value with which to replace it." When a person's life is filled with an addiction, to get the addiction out you've got to fill it with something else. People will say you can fill your life with Jesus--but without other human relationships to make your ideas about Jesus real, he's just a bunch of ideas you've glued together. The human relationships are what Aristotle would call the efficient cause of the recovery. They fill the functional, time-consuming, choice-determining role of the thing they're replacing. Y'know, the addiction or craziness.

Again, though, it doesn't make for nearly as good a story to describe the nitty-gritty of how it actually works. "Poof, cured! Me and my Jesus fixed it!" is way more boastfully delicious than "Some people I've come to trust gradually helped me realize what an ass I was and loved me anyway, so I found the strength to be less of an ass."

Geds said...


Yeah, I know what you mean. I've learned that the things that make us outcasts in high school are the things that make us interesting once we get to the rest of the world, though. Adults who still act like high schoolers are generally regarded as being sad.

I mean, when people compare Sarah Palin to the head cheerleader they aren't exactly being complimentary...


I'm so glad you liked the omnisexual goat-based orgies. I found it an amusing combination of words, too.

Also, that last bit about how it's easier to say problems were fixed all magic-like instead of through hard work with the help of others is interesting. There's a tendency within Christianity (at least, the Christianity I experienced and that's the most vocal) to say that we need to give thanks to god for everything. So say you're $100 short on rent for the month and your friend covers the difference. It seems logical to me that you thank your friend/do something nice for him/whatever. In Christian circles the correct response is to go to church and thank god for providing that $100 or that friend who is so generous.

It really doesn't make any sense. The whole thing is based on misdirected gratitude.