Being Justified is a series exploring the nature of contemporary evangelism and culture. The working thesis of this project is that evangelism in the 21st century America involves penetrating the electronic buzz of narrative idolatry to reveal the stark giveness of creation, our profound need for redemption, and the beauty of grace.
S. believed she was a wolf, really. Of course she appeared to be a normal teenage girl, but if you knew how to truly see, you could see that she was a wolf. Her insistance on this point was quite firm and public, which drew no end of mockery from her classmates. The hard thing was, for me, as the high school substitute teacher, I had to do my best to keep the other kids from making fun of S. [not her real name, obviously], but she kept inviting the abuse. It wasn’t enough that she personally believed that she was a wolf, she insisted on sharing this “fact.”
One girl came up to S. and asked the wolf to tell her what kind of animal she was–S. could see such things, she had the gift, she informed us. The girl was a cat, or something. The boys laughed and asked what they were. S. perked up and looked at each of them intently, searching their auras, I suppose, and slowly announced each boy’s animal avatar: “You’re a panda.” “A bat.” “A deer.”
She was eager to explain the whole mythical world to me. How she and her mother were both wolves, and how she must have gotten something special from her dad, some animal spirit gene that made her different from her mother (the only lasting gift of an otherwise absent father?). Her boyfriend was one too. They went hunting together at night–I didn’t ask what that meant. When she wasn’t doing her school work, I would find her reading a young adult fiction series about people who were part animal. This is what really troubled me. Her whole identity was wrapped up in this narrative that came directly from a book with FICTION written clearly on the spine.
How could she really believe and act and brag about such a ridiculous mythology knowing that it came entirely from fictional sources? Did she know it was nonsense and just not care? Did she realize that her classmates thought she was crazy and stupid? If so, why didn’t she care?
As odd as her obsession might seem, I don’t believe it’s all that uncommon. In fact, I’d argue that she’s doing what all of us–or at least the majority of us–do: we adopt narratives from our culture which seem to grant us existential justification (hence, the title) by dramatically elevating our mundane lives, enchanting otherwise trivial events and actions with transcendent significance.
So, in S.’s case, her rather odd looking and less-than-intelligent boyfriend became a partner in a secret, mystical reality with her. She wasn’t merely another bullied teen, she was a persecuted otherworldly creature who would one day win the admiration or fear of her mockers.
None of this should be particularly new to us; we all understand the ways in which people magnify events in their lives to make themselves feel important and special. This is typically what we’re getting at when we call someone a “drama queen.” I have two observations which relate this to my larger thesis.
First, the explosive growth of the Internet has drastically altered the kinds of narratives that are tenable for the modern person through the multiplication of plausibility structures. The eminent sociologist Peter Berger coined the phrase “plausibility structures” to refer to those institutions, practices, and communities that are necessary to support beliefs.
Whether it’s atheism, Christianity, birtherism, communism, trutherism, or liberal democracy, we all need a sociocultural structure to help us perceive our beliefs to be plausible. By facilitating the formation of intimate communities and the spread of masses of information (or disinformation), the Internet has allowed for the creation of these plausibility structures for the most absurd beliefs. And while people have always believed nonsense, it has never been easier to plug into a community which can validate your beliefs and biases no matter how outlandish or rare they might be.
Second, for the Christian who desires to be in the world and bear witness of Christ’s love and truth, it is essential that we understand the nature of these beliefs and how they are supported. The reasons that people adopt the various narratives that define and drive their lives are complex and not entirely cognitive.
Our desire is to identify specific cultural group (or worldview) in which a person belongs so that we can point out the weakness of their worldview and assert the strengths of the Christian view. We understand “worldview” in this sense as something someone consciously chooses and adopts from their immediate culture–a primarily cognitive decision.
But I suspect that for a great deal of people, this sort of conscientious questioning is foreign. We appear in media res, already a part of a narrative which is subtly altered and adapted overtime with or without our cognitive intervention. Again, this has always been the case, but our narrative and media saturated world accelerates this dramatically.
The temptation for some Christian apologists is to address the human person as basically a believing animal, rather than an acting one (James K.A. Smith’s Desiring Kingdom is good on this point). In this we devote our time to understanding their basic “worldview” so that we can rationally challenge it and force the person to recognize their need for Christ. However, since, as Smith points out, our worldviews are not primarily defined by what we consciously confess, but our habits, then addressing the rationality of lycanthropy (for example) will do very little to persuade S. that she is not a wolf.
In other words, what we are addressing when we critique contemporary narratives is not always or often a “worldview” as we typically understand them, but an aesthetic–a habit and style of living. If another student had confronted S.’s beliefs as occult and nonsense, I don’t believe she would have been phased, at all. Because for S., her being a wolf wasn’t exactly the same thing as her being a breathing human. It was at once more meaningful and less rational.
When we present the Gospel–the Christian narrative–as an alternative in this context, it is very possible that we will give the impression that we are merely doing our part in the pluralist game; we all chose our beliefs and then argue about them in public.
My fear is that all too often direct discourse about the truths of the Gospel are often misinterpreted by those outside the church as another example of pluralist dialogue, wherein nobody genuinely risks anything but everybody has their say. In the case of S., I suspect that if a fellow student came up and witnessed to her, she would likely co-opt the experience into her own narrative about a persecuted but powerful wolf-girl–I worry that the meaning and significance of the Gospel would be missed in this scenario, reinterpreted as just another narrative.
In light of these challenges, I’d submit that one way in which we can break through the electric buzz of conflicting narratives about the significance of existence is by embodying sincere love for our neighbor–love that is not entirely co-opted into some alternative narrative; love that does not accept false narratives on their own terms, but also does not set out to destroy them in the abstract (rather than in the concrete lived experience of the person), and love that stresses the irreducible wonder and goodness of existence which God has graciously granted us and the tragic suffering and sadness we experience in a fallen world.
Every kid who interacted with S. that day treated her in perfect keeping with the story she wanted to tell the world: she was a strange, creepy girl with potentially dangerous powers who all the cool kids mocked. My guess is that she needed someone to be with her and to care about her lived experience–her suffering, her desires, her hopes, her fears, her grades–someone who could help her feel and know her great need for a redeemer who loved her by grace, and who believed she was wonderfully and fearfully made in the image of God.