The Power of Story

While working on the screenplay for Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller learned a bit about the power of story. Stories adjust our moral compass, shaping our view of the world. You can hear him speak a bit about this in a sermon he gave at Mars Hill, or you can read about it in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

Pastors, and to a lesser degree, Sabbath/Sunday school teachers, are the story tellers of their local congregation. Week by week these stories subtly shift our focus, realign our priorities, adjust our values. These are powerful positions with significant influence.

So church leaders, why is church attendance positively related with support for torture in the US (Pew Forum, more)? Where is our disconnect from the way of Jesus? In my quiet time this morning (see pg. 35 in SCL listed below), I read Matthew 5:43-48.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Biblegateway)

How did we move from Jesus’ call to love our enemies to the point where greater church attendance is correlated with greater support for torture of one’s enemies? What stories are being told that are shaping church-goers moral compasses in a different direction? Naturally, I’m asserting that some measure of causation is lurking behind this correlation data (more on this logic in a bit).

Charissa has been reading Stuff Christians Like (not to be confused with Stuff White People Like or Stuff Unemployed People Like or… [hey, if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?]), and the author has fun with Christian attitudes toward R-rated movies. This is descriptive writing, not prescriptive. Notice his explanation at the end; he might have a point.

For Christians, it’s completely okay to watch R-rated movies, but only if they got that rating because of violence. If they’re rated R because someone is getting their head cut off or there’s a battle scene that’s so gory, blood splashes on the camera lens, don’t worry. God’s cool with that. However, if the movie is rated R because of sexuality… well, I hope you enjoy your fold-out couch bed in hell.

I’m not sure where this rule came from, but it’s true. Not only do Christians watch violent R-rated movies, we’ll quote them from the pulpit, build sermon series around them–even show clips from them during the service. I call it The Braveheart Rule, and my theory is that it’s because of the Old Testament…. It’s violent. I think that Christians read that and assume, “Cool. God’s down with some wanton violence. R-rated movies, here we come!” (pp. 18-19)

I can relate to the OT aspect. For example, I once heard three sermons in a row on David and Goliath. Three sermons in a row, in one congregation, by three different speakers. Isn’t that a bit of fixation? And not one sermon dealt with violence directly. It was mentioned as a matter of fact while the preachers made other points. But here’s the thing, if Donald Miller and his crew are right, the stories themselves are shaping our attitudes. If church goers rarely hear about Jesus and nonviolence, but get three sermons in a row about chopping someone’s head off, I can see why church attendance is associated with support for torture.

Another study on Christian attitudes to torture adds a point that does expand the cause of Christian attitudes beyond just violent OT stories. One study hints at the church’s lack of training people to use the teachings of Jesus as a guide for moral action, though this statement makes a jump. That is, the study demonstrates that the Golden Rule is not respondents’ common guide, and I am presuming it’s the church’s job to teach this very thing. When looking at what guides moral thought, one study concluded: “Despite high levels of religiosity, white evangelicals in the South are significantly more likely to rely on life experiences and common sense (44%) than Christian teachings or beliefs (28%) when thinking about the acceptability of torture” (PublicReligion.org).

Yet even here, I wouldn’t entirely throw out the OT hypothesis, since Miller’s logic is that stories heard over decades affect attitudes even when those stories aren’t at the forefront of our minds. We have already been shaped by them. This aside, going back to the problem of not directly using Christian teachings to make moral decisions, consider these findings from the same study just mentioned:

A new poll released Thursday (Sept. 11 [2008]) finds that nearly six in 10 white Southern evangelicals believe torture is justified, but their views can shift when they consider the Christian principle of the golden rule. The poll…found that 57 percent of respondents said torture can be often or sometimes justified to gain important information from suspected terrorists…. But when asked if they agree that “the U.S. government should not use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on American soldiers,” the percentage who said torture was rarely or never justified rose to 52 percent. “Presenting people with this argument and identifying with the golden rule really does engage a different part of people’s psyche and a part of their heart, their soul, and really does shift their views on torture,” said Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research, which was commissioned to conduct the poll. (Pew Research Center)

I believe these two studies demonstrate at least two general failings in the broad Christian church–not adequately emphasizing the life and teachings of Jesus (the way), and not directly training members to take Christian ethical thought outside of the church and apply it to life questions (more on that second point from Peter Rollins). I share more of these concerns in an admittedly poorly written assignment while studying in Guatemala (PDF).

What stories from the Bible, from my life, and from the world am I telling in church? How are these imperceptibly adjusting the moral compass of those who listen? Does my congregation hear as much about Jesus as other characters in scripture? Do my general stories sound anything like the stories Jesus himself told?

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One Response to The Power of Story

  1. Brian says:

    Great points made by the author. As Christians, I think we grossly underestimate the battle between good (God) and evil (devil) going on in our brains. That is where the battle takes place. If we have an inaccurate understanding of God (God is violent, angry, motivates by fear…) then we will support the treatment of people that follows those methods. The devil can subtly affect our understanding of God and thus affect a Christian culture. The power of parables, at least in part, is how it affects our brains. It will touch the emotional, limbic center of our brains, and if we are not critically using our frontal lobes for reasoning/filtering of the stories in regards to truth, our thinking will be affected without our knowing it.

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