I doubt that there are many folks who wouldn’t agree that our world could benefit from some change. Not everyone would agree, however, what that change should look like.
As a society, we have drifted farther and farther away from something called a “center.” We live in a time of deep polarization that leads to tensions in the international sphere, in our own political realm, even in religion and within families. Many of us are left feeling vulnerable and at risk. Who wouldn’t want the world to change?
“Change the story and you change the perception. Change the perception and you change the world.” (Jean Houston)
If Houston is right, we would do well to ask what the stories are that drive the perceptions we have about our world. I wouldn’t presume to try to identify them all, but there are some that, even to me, are glaring. I suspect that most folks, if given the time, could name them. The two that jump out at me are: power and the use of violence are required if we are going to have security and peace; and the “other guys,” especially those who are different from us, are the bad guys. Our ever-expanding militarism and gun culture aimed at “protecting” ourselves from “those people” (fill in the blank – Muslim/ terrorist/ black/ mentally ill) attest to these silent but powerful narratives.
We have told and retold these stories so many times that they have become the air we breathe. We rarely take time to question whether they are true, much less beneficial to life on a small planet. And few of us go so far as to entertain the notion that there might be different, more salutary stories by which we could live.
As a Christian, I find it disheartening, if not disturbing, that many of my sisters and brothers in the faith perceive the Bible through the lenses of these two cultural narratives. Like warped glass in a microscope or a telescope, these stories deform and twist what we think we see. For Christians, it is our scripture that becomes distorted, because we come to it already believing we “know” what it says. We then cherry pick passages to justify what we “know” and ignore the arc of the Christian story. Even more alarming, we simply don’t pay attention to the message of Jesus.
We inhale these cultural stories of power, violence and our own exceptionalism from our birth. We have grown up with structures that work to maintain their domination in the larger narrative of our corporate life. Not least among those structures is an economy that heavily depends on a large military. But these cultural stories, while threaded through our shared life, are not hardwired into our DNA. We do have the capacity to extricate ourselves from them. Stories have power, but they are just that – stories. And we could, if we had the imagination and the will, tell different stories. They could be stories that would change our perception of ourselves, of others, and ultimately of the world. Einstein wrote, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.”
I can imagine a time when more of us Christians stop using these cultural, death-dealing narratives as lenses through which to see Jesus and the texts his followers have gathered around him, the Bible. But it takes courage to challenge centuries’ long traditions, especially when those traditions will not give way easily. Telling a new story that can serve as a different lens for reading Christian scriptures will unsettle many. Those who don’t recognize how distinct and distant our cultural narrative is from the arc of the Biblical story will cry “heresy.” Those who are heavily invested in the old story of domination and violence will cry “unpatriotic.” For people of imagination, it will not be an easy time.
Collectively we will gasp for air as the old stories lose their power and influence to sustain life. It will feel as if we don’t know who we are or how we can live. The vulnerability and riskiness of life these days will feel as nothing. But with enough brave and creative folks to help us change our perceptions by changing our stories, I can imagine that we really could change the world. Can you?
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or [email protected].