Narrative Archaeology: Are You American or Christian? (Part 1)

America City on a HillMy two of favorite movies are The Truman Show and The Matrix.  These films remove the scales from our eyes, and they help us to realize that the “reality” we apprehend is often nothing more than a construction of our culture, a novel story invented by our society, or, worse yet, a lie.  We live in a world built by stories.  We define ourselves, our mission, our relationships and the very meaning of life by the stories we believe inhabit.  So, what story do you believe inhabit?

Our views of the world require us to tell stories that help explain the world.  And, it is not so much that we believe these stories like a list of propositions, giving intellectual assent, but these stories root themselves in our heart, our loves.  These stories transform the entire way we see the world and ourselves.  We often get a sense of this when we go to see an engrossing film or read a page turning novel.  The experience changes us, even if only briefly.

But, these cultural narratives run more deeply into us than a single book or film.  Worldviews or narratives are the frames or lenses through which we view the facts, data or experiences of life.  Our worldview is constructed for us by our culture, family, friends, and experiences, and the construction of this worldview happens without intentionality, taking place at a pre-cognitive level.  The tough part of analyzing these cultural narratives is that, as N.T. Wright has pointed out, “worldviews (stories) are things we look through not at.”  As such, they are notoriously difficult for us to see, hence the brilliance of the films The Matrix and The Truman Story.

These narratives, however subterranean they may be, produce our beliefs, come to life in symbols and give us praxis by which we live, and what is disturbing about this is that as Christians we are being deeply shaped by forces (narratives) that are not immediately detectable.  Moreover, these narratives could be shaping us in very unChristian ways.  But, since these narratives produce beliefs, symbols and praxis maybe we can do a bit of narrative archaeology.  In theory, we should be able to examine the symbols and praxis of any group to get an idea about their underlying worldview or narrative.

Worldviews are by their nature abstract and difficult to grasp, so as embodied creatures we produce stories from our worldview both to sustain the worldview and to embody the abstraction.  The enactment of a worldview through story brings the worldview into focus.  It is important to remember that this is taking place at a pre-cognitive level, so that we are not aware of this process until we pause to reflect upon it.  The stories produced by a worldview are often a grand (meta) narrative that attempt to collect individual data points (the experiences of life) together into a comprehensive explanatory framework, or in other words, the metanarrative of a worldview makes meaning out of the data we encounter.  In this way these stories are understood to be myth.  By use of the term myth I do not mean to suggest that all worldview stories are fictional (although they might be) as opposed to “real history,” but mean to use the term in the sense that these are the stories that make meaning for us.  I will use the term myth in this piece with this definition in mind.

N.T. Wright argues that worldviews and their myths answer four essential questions that humans constantly strive to address.  Who are we?  Where are we?  What’s wrong?  What is the solution?  Let’s pause for a moment and give you an example to see how this works.  We will explore the worldview/myth of first century Judaism(s) as our example.

First century Judaism(s) had a worldview and a supporting myth to answer these questions.  Their metanarrative began with Adam ruling in Eden over the creatures and creation as a king and priest under the rule of God, but Adam revolted against the Sovereign, bringing chaos and evil to the realm.

Abraham was chosen to become something of a new Adam, a new creation.  His family was to become a nation and the truly human king/priests, ruling over creation and the creatures (gentile nations).  They were to possess the new Eden, Israel, and God would dwell among them in the Temple just as God dwelled with Adam in the Garden.  Moses was chosen to lead these truly human king/priests out of the bondage and chaos into the new Eden, and they would bring shalom to the whole world if they obeyed the covenant.

David and his offspring were God’s anointed to be king over Israel and hence the world.  He was to build a Temple that would become the symbol (and reality) of God’s presence among his people.  But time showed they were incapable of living up the the demands of the covenant, and they were forced out of the land, their king was dethroned, the Temple was destroyed and they were put under the rule of the creatures (gentile nations; see Daniel 7).  This was the Exile.  They looked back to the stories of Abraham, Exodus, and David, drawing upon them to expect and hope for God’s forgiveness and restoration.  By the first century different groups of jews were sketching out different stories for how the Exile would end.  The point of drawing up these eschatological stories of hope was to give the community an identity and a rationale for certain practices of group identity, such as baptism.  Also, their stories served as ways of bringing hope in the midst of what was for them chaos.

Having sketched in very broad terms their metanarrative (myth), you can start to see how their worldview/myth address the four questions.  Who are we?  We are the descendants of Abraham, Israel, making us the truly human king/priests of creation.  Where are we?   We are in the holy land (new Eden) focused on the Temple, but still in exile since we are ruled by the nations instead of ruling them.  What is wrong?  We are in exile, and we need restoration.  The temple was not built by a Davidic king, the Romans rule over us, we don’t have our Davidic king ruling, and so it goes.  What is the solution?  YWHW has promised to come, defeat our enemies through David’s offspring, restore/cleans the Temple (dwell there within), establish his rule through us over the nations and bring the entire cosmos under his authority once again.

To be clear worldviews are not religious, and, in fact, to think in terms of religious and non-religious worldviews is itself to operate from an Enlightenment worldview.  All cultures and subcultures have them and rely upon the story’s explanatory force to make sense of the world; and we all do this at a pre-cognitive level as our cultures and families simply present the worldview and its myth as a given to us from a young age.

Once myth is in place we need beliefs, practices (praxis) and symbols to sustain the myth.  We create basic beliefs from these stories.  For example, resurrection was a common belief that stemmed from Israel’s story that YWHW would not allow their suffering and martyrdom go to waste, but he would, in the end, vindicate them as the truly human by resurrecting them.  At this point of construction we are now operating at the cognitive level.  To return to the analogy of the house, basic beliefs are the structural supports of the above ground structure (studs).

Also, we use symbols and praxis to sustain our basic beliefs.  Praxis and symbols are the finishing for the house (the aesthetics).  For praxis to work within a worldview, sustaining the basic beliefs, it must be ritualized and embodied.  Likewise, for symbols to function they must be apparent to the community on a daily basis.

For example, for the first century jew, Temple, Racial Identity Markers (circumcision) and Land served as powerful symbols that worked at an emotional level to bond them to the myth, helping them live out lives consistent with the myth.  Their praxis involved studying and living out Torah as well as worship (Temple sacrifice) and feast days.  The feast days in particular were regular practices that retold the myth and reinforced it throughout the calendar year, see for example the retelling of the Exodus during passover.

You now have a picture of how humans in all cultures and subcultures live and make sense of their life.  If worldview is the foundation then we might say that symbols and praxis are the finishing touches to the house, the color of the siding, window dressing, floor choices, countertops, etc.  Just as a person with a decorative palate in tune with mid-century modern styles might debate with someone with neo-colonial tastes about the most appropriate decorating style, so we argue with one another at the level of basic beliefs, symbols and praxis.  These disagreements typically get mired in fruitless argument, achieving no level of persuasion or understanding.  The reason is that we are engaging only at the level of decor and maybe the positioning of the studs, but to persuade another person or at least get them to understand your beliefs, symbols and praxis requires an engagement of the myth and worldview.

So if worldviews produce stories (myth), and myth produces basic beliefs, and basic beliefs in turn require praxis and symbols then it should be possible to reverse engineer a particular groups praxis and symbols to develop a picture of their worldview.  In fact, N.T. Wright, in his magisterial work The New Testament and the People of God, reverse engineers early Christian symbols and praxis to develop a picture of the Church in the first century.  One praxis that N.T. Wright picks up on in early Christianity is the creed.  He uses this praxis, among others, to sketch a picture of early Christianity and its worldview/myth.  But I want to use this system to reverse engineer a different group.  Modern, American Evangelicals.

Tomorrow we’ll return to put this analysis of worldview to answer the question, “are Evangelicals Christian or American?”

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