Loving Truth in a Narrative Age

Have you ever heard the old chestnut about the difference between truth and wisdom? It goes roughly like this: Truth is the right path, or the correct knowledge, or the good choice. It is real, but it is, in a sense, just lying there. That something is true does not mean you will automatically believe it or act on it. Wisdom, then, is the bridge between seeing the truth and making decisions that accord with it. Truth stands, and wisdom walks.

So then, we could also say something like this: Truth is the objective reality, and narrative is the idea that is weaved from the assembling of various truths. When truths collide with each other, they behave like molecules. They build something bigger than their individual selves. A narrative is a perception of reality that transcends the individual statements that prop it up. If you discover that two of your favorite businesses are closing, you may tell a friend something like, “Businesses don’t survive in this town.” The closings are reality, but the fact that your hometown is hard on businesses is a narrative.

Narratives are helpful. Without them we wouldn’t be able to put truths together into a coherent whole. And often, major positive change is brought about by someone who courageously forms a narrative out of many truths and helps other people see what they’ve been missing. But here’s an important point: Narratives are not always the same as the truths themselves. A narrative is, in fact, downstream from a worldview, a consequence of interpretation. Narratives are often shaped by someone’s experience, or presuppositions, or fears. This means that one of the most important things that thinking people, especially Christians, must do is to learn how to separate truths from narratives…not for the sake of throwing out any and all narratives, but for the sake of training ourselves to love truth regardless of the narratives that can be formed around it.

In a mass media culture like ours, truth-lovers are not nearly as popular as narrative-creators. We refer to our society as polarized—polarized by politics, religion, gender, race, class, etc. This polarization is in large part due to narratives that we construct for ourselves about the world. Polarization is what happens when our narratives about others, particularly those who are different than us, dictate our behavior. We are polarized politically when we de-friend someone because of their views, choosing to construct a narrative that says that people with these kinds of views are dishonest or dangerous. We are polarized racially when we avoid uncomfortable videos of American citizens being harassed or shot by law enforcement, due to our preexisting narrative that says that the police will only bother someone if they’re really breaking the law. And we are polarized by gender when men and women turn on one another, building narratives that either justify sexual mistreatment or presuppose its existence regardless of evidence.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse when he was 17, have exposed some deeply depressing hostility between our political sides, and also between men and women. Whether Kavanaugh is guilty of what Christine Blasey Ford accuses him of is unknowable for 99% of us. But un-knowability does not preclude building a narrative; in fact, narratives often thrive on the impossibility of confident knowledge. What I’ve seen in the past several weeks is a deep, emotional, and possibly destructive contrast in narratives between those who believe that Ford’s story is a watershed moment in a #MeToo reckoning, and those who believe that truth is being deliberately obscured for the sake of political advantage. The two narratives are incompatible and enemies of one another, even as the best evidence points toward the truth’s being far more complex than that.

What is happening is not that two groups on opposite sides of a cultural divide are wielding contrasting facts and arguments, and coming through reason and contemplation to two different verdicts. No. What’s happening is that two groups are unloading both of their narratives onto the other, and clinging desperately to notions about what must have happened, or what politicians always do, or how much this sounds like other cases. One narrative sees the world through a highly gendered lens in which men, especially privileged men, are instinctively predatory. The other narrative sees the world as controlled by gnawing politicians, who orchestrate far-reaching conspiracies to hold onto power and inflict their ideology onto the helpless masses.

Both narratives are informed by truth: Men can and do prey on women, and politicians can and do lie. Both narratives are buffered by experiences, the experiences of victimized women and slandered men. Most importantly, both narratives land squarely on two of the tenderest wounds in our national conscience. The Sexual Revolution has been ruthlessly cruel to women and the conservative Christian response has frequently failed to come to their aid. On the flip side, our national politics have arguably never been more cynical, more myopic, or more hostile to reason and good faith. Despair beckons, and its call is attractive.

But good news people—”evangelicals”—cannot give into despair, because despair does not accord with truth. Loving the truth in a narrative age requires cultivating habits that resist the “speak now, think later” spirit of the day. There are good books on how to do just this. But before we come to the skills, we have to remember why it is that Christians have to gravitate to truth before narrative. Narratives are formed by fallen humans trying to interpret life from a limited angle. Even narratives shaped by deep, real trauma are nonetheless liable to go wrong, because it is human nature to take something real and try to make it do something it cannot do. We cannot be known as narrative-first people, who traffic in mantras and slogans and hashtags and conspiracy theories at the expense of truth.

Whether Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Ford I do not know. Here’s what I do know: Men are sinners, and they sin against women, and they sin against women sexually. I also know that not every man has sexually abused a woman, and that not every accusation of sexual assault is true simply because it was made. I also know that drunkenness is a sin and that drunken people do indefensible things. I also know that “innocent until proven guilty” is a standard rooted in God’s law, and that an instinct to protect from allegations until evidence is presented is a good instinct that can protect poor and vulnerable people just as much as it can protect the privileged.

These are the truths I know. They do not build a tidy narrative. But I’m a gospel person, and thus I am a truth-seeking person first and foremost. No hashtag and no Supreme Court seat is worth ignoring the truth, because neither of those things can finally set us free.

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