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Narrative Breakdown

Last week I did something I had not thought possible: I said something that shook the Buddha-like composure of my friend John Skillin. He somehow sat through some eight years of sermons by me without being ruffled. No heresy, no blasphemy, no enormity I could utter seemed capable of taking him off guard. But last week I did it. What I said was that John Lennon had me all figured out: that Jesus was less important to me than the Beatles, or Batman. (I should have added H.P. Lovecraft, but I guess it was obvious.)

Let me try to dignify by explanation what may have seemed a silly remark by explaining how I came to make it. Somehow even the silly can be made to sound profound if you can explain it in abstract terms. Here goes.

Let me start with the coming of the Secular City. Harvey Cox proclaimed its advent in the 1960s in his book The Secular City and set the tone for the theology of the decade. He said that America was no longer a Christian country, that it was no longer any particular sort of country. In other words, there was no longer any sacred canopy of common value and belief, no overarching, ruling ideology. This was the result of both those trends I talked about last week: pluralization and modernization. There ceased being a consensus reality that everyone believed in, except, of course, for the pragmatic nuts and bolts, the lowest common denominator of a livable society.

Cox didn't mean we had arrived at a secularist society, a society that had repudiated all religion. The communist states had such societies, at least in theory. They tried, unsuccessfully, to impose state atheism from the top down. But the point is, atheism, materialism, secularism was the official ideology. It was the official version of reality. If you rejected it you might well end up classified as insane and packed off to a Gulag.

No, a secular society simply means there is a vacuum of meaning, of identity, a pluralism of belief and value. You can be religious, any religion, or non-religious. Let 100 flowers bloom!

Francois Lyotard made the same point some years later in another influential book called The Postmodern Condition. The way he put it, all societies traditionally lived out their own narratives, their own historical epics centered on themselves. Each national-cultural narrative told the glorious past of the society, its saintly, godlike founders, its manifest destiny, its ideals. The narrative would be celebrated in national holidays, anthems, taught to school children. To deny it would be treason.

But in this century the "master narrative" of the western countries (and many others) broke down. We saw it happen chaotically in the 1960s. The USA was no longer the messiah of nations, the world policeman, the winner of all wars, always right in every conflict. We questioned our destiny, our identity, our narrative. We were a cast of characters, mostly extras, with no script.

Religious pluralism was part of this, a vital part, because the biblical heritage of the Christian nation had always provided the master narrative for America, the city on a hill, the chosen people. "God shed his grace on thee." Once this master narrative fragmented and pulled apart like Gondwana being slowly shattered by the centrifuge of continental drift, there was no narrative any more.

Henry Kissinger was the first to loudly repudiate the master narrative of Millennial America. He pursued a foreign policy based on a long historical perspective: America was the latest in a long series of dominant nations, and its day was slowly passing. Foreign policy had to be based on cutting our losses, preparing to face a new world in which we were a player, but not the only game in town.

Ronald Reagan tried to reverse this trend. He wanted to restore the narrative of America that he used to act out in his movies. And people got on board: America was once again standing tall, the once and future king. The thousand year Reich.

But I think the illusion has again fallen apart. Cynicism, disillusionment, apathy reign. This is a kind of anomie. There is no real meaning for the culture anymore, only entertainment.

What has happened to the culture has happened to many of us within it, sometimes for other reasons. Traditionally, religions have claimed totalistic devotion over their adherents. "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength."

When all else is demythologized, the totalism of religion remains. Paul Tillich says we do and must have an Ultimate Concern: something that is of utmost concern to us personally, and which, ideally, is actually of utmost importance in the scheme of things. This Ultimate can wear many names and guises. Beauty, Truth, the Right, Love, God, are all facets of it, all legitimate aspects of it upon which to focus your devotion. You can be a Hindu, a Christian, an artist, a philosopher, Tillich isn't choosy. But there has to be some one thing that grabs you deeply and provides the integration point for everything in your life.

H. Richard Niebuhr, who if anything was even more of a demythologizer than Tillich, bemoaned the "henotheism" of our culture and national life and wanted us to embrace what he called "radical monotheism." Typical for theologians, he made this into such an abstraction that you wouldn't have been able to tell whether you were a radical monotheist or not! He said we ought to make Being more important than any particular beings, causes, concerns, interests.

Already back in the early 60s Walter Kaufman called this bluff. He said that to have a single Ultimate Concern, if you really meant it, was a recipe for fanaticism. Sure, you might be able to make up a list of priorities and rank them. One might be top of the list, but that can't be all Tillich and Niebuhr meant.

Isn't it just romantic-sounding rhetoric that sounds good in church or in stirring speeches? It is the kind of rhetoric that inevitably makes you feel guilty for not living up to it, since it's so vague that you can't even stipulate what it would mean to live up to it!

Again, we can translate the static-sounding language of Ultimate Concern and Radical Monotheism into the more fluid language of narrative. James Fowler suggests that we have a hard time coming up with an answer if you us about the "meaning" of our lives, because we don't think of it in static, abstract terms like that. At least we don't and can't live it that way. Instead, we live by a story we have adopted as our, dare I say it, "master narrative."

Some theologians have learned this lesson. They ask us to adopt the narrative of biblical salvation history as the story in which we will live. We should see ourselves, they urge, as members of the people of God beginning with Israel and continuing on with Jesus and the apostles, etc. My girls like to make fun of an insipid hymn they heard at my mother-in-law's church: "We Are an Easter People." That's the idea. You're adopting a guiding fiction in which to place your life imaginatively. In a sense church is a piece of theatre in which you are all playing New Testament characters. In synagogue you pretend you are all Israelites. The point is to identify yourself with characters in the Bible.

Parenthetically, this insight has made it possible even for demythologizing liberal religionists to join in the action. They know enough to know that, as Gerhard von Rad admitted, the Bible can provide only a "theology of recital," not of literal history. But that's okay. The script, they figure, is a good one. The play's the thing.

I have experimented with this understanding of belief and worship. When I was a church pastor, this perspective gave me a way to explain that church, faith, was an essentially cathartic, transformative theatrical experience. I still think it is. It is like going to see Miss Saigon or Cats or Le Mis. You go because you feel like emoting, wallowing in sentiment for the evening. You're going to church.

This explains how come we can be genuinely religious for a few hours a week, then live in the public, mundane world without feeling like stinking hypocrites. You're only supposed to live in the sacred cosmos, be part of the Renaissance Fair, on Sunday Morning. The rest of the week you may try to keep in mind the lessons you learned there on Sunday, but since you probably just heard a bunch of fortune-cookie platitudes there anyway, that's not all that important.

Religion is esthetic, liturgy is theatrical, the transcendent is the imaginative. Nothing will rescue your life from the mundane except for the imagination, and you can get that breath of fresh air various ways.

Joseph Campbell certainly thought so: he used to quote James Joyce and the Gospel of Thomas in the same breath. He never had a peak experience through religion, he says, it was running track! For all his seeming mysticism and nondualist profundity, where did he end up? Here was his guru-on-the-mountaintop revelation: "Follow your bliss." His example? If it's just sitting in your room, listening to Benny Goodman, don't let anybody make you feel ashamed of it.

That's not just demythologizing, pal. That's reductionism. But I'm a reductionist, too. And for me, it's not Benny Goodman; it's the Beatles. And Batman. And Lovecraft.

What has happened with the culture has happened with me: the single "master narrative" has broken down. I do not have or want a particular ultimate concern. Like Kaufman said, a healthy mature adult has a set of several concerns, some more important than others. Unlike Niebuhr, I am a happy henotheist. A henotheist is one who worships many gods, one at a time. That's me.

And another thing. I don't like to play "pretend." I will gladly suspend disbelief while I am reading or watching a movie. But as for this business of "living the narrative" as some theologians want us to do, singing "We are an Easter people"-- Spare me.

You see, to me, "living the narrative" is like being a Trekkie. I love Star Trek, but I don't wear plastic pointy ears. I refuse to set foot in a Star Trek convention. When I do attend horror conventions, unless I'm acting in an overt comedy skit, I make sure I wear a tie and look as mundane as possible. My flesh creeps when I see people dressed up in sci-fi costumes. I can't stand role-playing games because I just can't get into the spirit of the thing. And I don't want to.

And the same goes for church. I don't want to have a "religious identity." I just want my own identity. I like the things I like, because I am who I am. I'm not going to like or do what others say I ought to. I'm following my bliss.

Kissinger saw the need, after the breakdown of the American myth-narrative, to reckon on the basis of a finite life-span of a finite country. Less grandiose, more realistic. In the same way, I disassociate myself from any larger, longer story. My story is my life. I nourish myself on the things that have always nurtured and fired my imagination. I am not anybody but me.

Saint Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, arrogant, self-hating ascetic, was deeply learned in the classics. But he feared that these interests were distractions from monkish single-mindedness. His over-scrupulous conscience sent him a dream one night. In it, he says, an angel appeared to him and rebuked him, saying, "Thou art not a follower of Christ, but of Cicero." Guilty. And proud of it.

Robert M. Price
July 19, 1997


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