Thinking back to Max Stackhouse’s comment, referred to in a previous post, that “every change in society is based on changes in personal beliefs” makes me wonder again about how our beliefs are changed, and the media through which those changes occur. They cannot just happen by accident.
Because these are deep things, altering what Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, calls our habitus, they need to be altered by media that have powerful emotional attachments to an imagined or real vision of the good life. Thus argues JKA Smith in his Desiring the Kingdom. Changes in habitus come about through the refocusing of our desires through a vision of the good life which is then continually reinforced by practice. Thus Smith argues for the centrality of worship (sustaining the vision) and liturgical practice (going through the movements that continually challenge our habits towards goodness and toward the nature of God’s grace). He argues over and again that we are affective beings before we are cognitive ones. Both worship and liturgy have their counterparts in the secular world, in entertainment, in the mall, in popular culture. And where this observation leads us is towards an understanding that we are motivated more by desire (the desire for our particular vision of the good life) than thought. In fact our failure to alter our habits (or the difficulty which many of us have in changing them) derives from our thinking not being strong enough to overcome our desires. And what that in turn reveals is that those agencies, those media, that alter our thinking most effectively are those that tap most deeply into our desires. We do not always think ourselves into new positions, we feel our way into them. And that feeling is done through our imagination being acted upon by other “imaginaries.”
A couple of weeks ago I attended my first (rather underwhelming) political rally in the UK. I didn’t stay long, but long enough to realise why I went. I didn’t think “I might go to a political demo to express certain views.” No. I went because I was livid at a leader of the UK government who was using calumny, insult, disrespect, fear and lies to run a country. I was embarrassed at how laughable we have become as a nation because of him. The demo that I attended was a “let’s all chant ‘stop the coup'” affair and was nowhere close to my fury, so instead of chanting (I am not really a chanting person) I wrote to my MP and expressed it all to him. I live in hope of a reply.
My political position – like most people’s, I suspect – is governed by our vision of the good life, not simply by clear argument. In fact, clear argument often leaves me cold (witness Sajid Javid’s budget statement – full of promised goodies for everyone). It is rooted in both a conservative view of the past (that which we hope to keep, where we still mattered) and a romantic one of the future (wouldn’t it be great if we could…). I choose social democracy for a political home because of its ability to give a voice to all, if managed well. I would like to see a greater level of cooperative effort in our society, and so, if pressed, my political vision of the good life is that written about by DJ Davies in his 1949 manifesto “Towards an Economic Democracy.” It tells the story of how a small, predominantly rural nation has been assaulted by capitalism and colonialism and seeks to find a way of being democratic and economic together. I love it because of the story and the hope it inspires in me.
That is why people like Cummings and Johnson and Corbyn can appeal to people’s gut, their sense of being left out, their sense of alienation, to get them to vote in particular ways. I felt my way to the demo on Monday, rather than considering it as an effective tool for thought and debate. It is how Vote Leave won the referendum, by using powerful lies and embellished half-truths that played into people’s fears and feelings of being ignored. Highly effective, deeply motivated by a story that all could engage in.
And so it turns out that the people who win hearts are those that tell the best stories, who have the best heroes, who place “outsiders” like us, vicariously, into the plot, and who end up with the best promised lands. That is why Johnson and Cummings and Gove are so busy supplying us with plot lines. I have my doubts that any of the money promised for public services by Javid will ever get there, but we long to believe in a vision of the good life. (I have never met anyone who feels like an insider, by the way – even Johnson, Eton and Oxford educated, former cabinet minister, sees himself of “outside” the elite – pah!)
And the church, repeatedly, has not really found a way to tell our best story, because we have turned the whole gospel-shebang into an issue of personal salvation and duties. Not a vote winner, this story. It is literally, a no-hoper. We have not “framed the discourse” (to use the academic jargon) in a way that inspires. This is why Tom Wright’s 2007 book Surprised by Hope and the follow-up Virtue Reborn have had such a huge impact on so many Christians: they tell us the story of the hope we have, and why we can have it, and how we are to live to get it. They replace the positivist evangelical theology that lots of us came to faith with, with a richer narrative of God’s hope and triumph, motivated and sustained by God’s affection for the earth and all who live on it. It is a story that tells of the final victory of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, but also one of a kingdom that has already burst upon the earth in the person of Jesus and which already is replacing the defunct kingdoms of the world with a whole new way of looking at the life of God.
In my much quoted copy of the 1958 HMSO publication “Primary Education: suggestions for the consideration of teachers and others concerned with the work of primary schools,” it talks about the power of story in these words:
In stories, the youngest children seek an opportunity to learn about themselves, to explore their own situation without the strain of personal entanglement and to reconcile themselves to it. This is the justification for the homely story, for stories about children and their parents and the routine of the day. For all but the very youngest children, such a story needs detail if it is to be convincing. It is even more important that the world of childhood that is portrayed should be authentic and its dark places neither shunned nor falsified. The child is fortunate who discovers in a story his own problems of self-control and who first meets the sorrows of separation and death in the setting of a story rather than face to face. And if in story children explore themselves and their relationships, they can also find in story a respite and relief from present strains. The lonely child forgets his isolation in stories of friendship, and most children need from time to time to escape from the pressure and frustration of the moment into the fantasies of the fairy and animal worlds. Sometimes indeed children may flee too far into fantasy but often they are only escaping from themselves, as they are, to the characters they may become. In the religious story and heroic story they can see the possibilities that are open to them: they can see the weak triumph by faith and persistence and they can see failure redeemed by heroism; and as children identify themselves, now with one hero, now with another, suggestion can help to form – yet not constrain – the self which will finally emerge. From the interchange of roles which story offers to children, the beginnings of sympathy can grow – the ability to put oneself in another’s place and to appreciate new relationships and an unfamiliar material background. This is one way in which detachment can be fostered, the detachment without which imagination and perception will be distorted. It is moreover from stories and from example that the abstractions are bodied forth in children’s minds: good and evil become more than actions prescribed or forbidden; gentleness, truth and justice become ideals which can help to create the virtues they represent (p. 166-167)
Those who have had the misfortune to work for me will know that I am always asking the question “why.” Articulate for me, please, why you are thinking this way, why you want to act this way, why you want to teach this way. Really annoying, I was. But this question will not go away. It is all very well to say that the current debate around Brexit is founded entirely on lies and calumny, on deceit and falsification of reality. But the Brexit argument coheres around a national story of victimhood and island pluckiness (which is why, given our history, it strays so far into fantasy). Where is the church in all this, with its story? Why are we doing what we do? Why is it critical? What’s the story?
If our story does not end with “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea” as Habakkuk saw, or with the triumph of the city of God, with all the nations streaming to it, as we see in Isaiah 60, we are in the wrong story, and have told the wrong story. If our narrative does not have at its heart the triumph of the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all the earth and the righting of wrongs and the comfort of the poor and distressed in a kingdom of peace, joy and hope, then we again have got ourselves into the wrong story.
One of my favourite songs at the moment has a bridge that says “Lift up our eyes, lift our eyes! You’re the giver of life!” The rest of the song has some pretty narrow evangelical theology in it, I think, but this line is needed. Any narrative that raises our eyes to the new city, to the presence of the Kingdom of the resurrected King in our midst and in our lives, makes immediate sense of the purpose of being on earth as Christians, gives history a purpose and focus and a meaning to the gospel. It is not an escape route, it is a call to follow and, in the nicest possible way, in humility and love, “enforce” the rule of God in the earth.
This is our story, this should be our song: not an escape route of salvation, but a people gathered to an alternative community, saved for something, and put to work in the world to anticipate the return of the King.