Monday: Construct Worldview. Tuesday: Validate on Social Media.

This past Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a commentary entitled The Four American Narratives, wherein he offers a credible explanation as to why the United States has fractured so badly. In short, according to Brooks, our country is experiencing a painful transition from one over-arching, generally-accepted narrative into four primary narratives as espoused by writer George Packer (and relayed to us via Brooks).

American Progress by John Gast (1872)

Brooks nearly always has interesting things to say, but I believe this piece in particular is well worth reading whether you tend to agree with him or not. The overarching point is that as long as Americans were more-or-less united around the idea that we were building a new and exciting nation together, a Great Experiment not previously attempted in all of human history, we shared a commonality of purpose that has since been lost:

America has always been a divided, sprawling country, but for most of its history it was held together by a unifying national story. As I noted a couple of months ago, it was an Exodus story. It was the story of leaving the oppressions of the Old World, venturing into a wilderness and creating a new promised land. In this story, America was the fulfillment of human history, the last best hope of earth.

That story rested upon an amazing level of national self-confidence. It was an explicitly Judeo-Christian story, built on a certain view of God’s providential plan.

While greatly appreciating what both Packer and Brooks have to say on this topic, I still couldn’t help but think that maybe, as you dive deeper and deeper into the intellectual think tank, it gets easier to overlook some obvious, everyday truths, realities that hit the majority of Americans in the face so many times that we have become numb to their presence. (Just because I no longer observe something that has been on display in my living room for ten years does not mean it has vanished.)

  • Having read the four competing worldviews proposed by Packer, my first thought was, “Why just four?”
    • With the advent of social media as a means of communication, it has been my observation that anyone can construct a worldview – never mind how illogical or damaging. As long as any personal manifesto/screed gets an appropriate number of “Likes” on Facebook or followers on Twitter, that newly-minted worldview becomes hardened in moral and ethical cement: “I am ‘Liked’ on Facebook…therefore I am.”
    • Far from limiting the number of competing, primary narratives to four, I would suggest that the number of guiding narratives is multiplying at an alarming rate, and perhaps largely due to the artificial sense of community that social media offers.
    • The advent of social media has made it entirely possible for us to surround ourselves with people who think exactly the same way we do; this inauthentic oneness has such a soothing effect on our fragile egos that we erroneously equate “number of followers on Facebook” with “must be true.” Human history is littered with examples of the vast majority of people being dead wrong; the categories of good and evil clearly cannot be discerned by counting up the number of “Likes” on yet another Facebook rant.
  • Secondly, neither Packer or Brooks include any commentary as to whether or not our previous Great American Unifying Narrative was sufficient, let alone moral.
    • Though perhaps today’s extreme level of hand-wringing over inadvertent “microaggressions” is something of an over-response, can we really say that our country’s great press toward the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny – overlapped by two World Wars that threatened to undo the entire enterprise – was okay? True, it seems we all rallied around a single narrative that was bigger than any individual, and were thus enabled to accomplish much. However, my guess is that most Native Americans carry a very different point of view on our unifying national story.
    • Mankind is quick to embrace a powerful narrative in service of its own ego, oftentimes to disastrous effect. From the Tower of Babel to the rise of the Third Reich, there has never been a shortage of national self-glorification.
  • Lastly, as I surveyed the four competing worldviews suggested by Packer, I couldn’t help but think, “Not big enough.”
    • Most of the people I know do not make everyday decisions with the level of thought that Packer and Brooks are bringing to bear. As we put the keys into the ignition and start our days, I’d wager most of us are not putting much thought into how our approach to work, home and community fits into a Greater Narrative. Many of us do not even have the luxury to ponder these questions at length; we are just barely getting by as we face down urgent issues far closer at hand. As a result, we are increasingly looking to the opinions we can access quickly, and many times that lands us on social media: “OK, FB buds! Where would you go to finance a new car? GO!” This may work great for finding a pet groomer you like, but it’s hardly the approach we really need as we wrestle through the weightier issues of origin, meaning, morality and destiny.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)One of the more prominent features of the ministry of Jesus was His ability to tell stories, to draw listeners in with one all-encompassing narrative that both spoke to their greatest desires in love and rebuked their greatest failings with truth. The narrative Jesus weaves throughout Scripture is, unsurprisingly, the only unifying narrative that serves to cut clean through our artificial distinctions of race, gender, age and social status, stubborn dividing walls that no one else seems able to fully transcend. Only Jesus tells a story big enough to hold the immense longings of every human heart.

Matthew 13:31-32 (ESV)

[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Matthew 13:44-49
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous.”

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