“There’s a tremendous amount of rot that’s in our agencies and institutions—Calvin University and Seminary. That needs to be cleaned out.”
Those are the words of a CRC pastor from Minnkota Classis, reporting on his time as a delegate to CRC Synod. The twenty-minute video in which he made this statement—now removed from his church website, but still available here—comes off like a coach’s post-game analysis. There he is at the mic in his study, chirpy background music setting the mood. Our triumphant coach describes (using slides to demonstrate) how his team pulled off an upset thanks to great game play. Next up: winning the championship! Go team, we can do it!
I’m actually not that interested in what this person says about the institution where I teach. Calvin has long thrived in what we consider a fruitful tension: for some, Calvin is a stodgy conservative bastion; for others, a slippery water slide to secular corruption. On most days, that tension is exactly where excellent education takes place for our students. I also know, by the way, that “rot,” biologically speaking, is exactly where new life begins on the microbial level.
None of that is my point. Instead, I want to focus on the power of meaning-making narratives. In the wearying events of the last few years, we’ve seen two tiny little denominations struggle to figure out (once again) what narrative we are living into. Is the future of our denominations a game where one side wins and the other side loses? Is it a war? Is it a detox operation? And what story-ending are we aiming for?
We all lament conflict and extol the virtues of unity. But honestly, narratives of winning/losing, two sides, battles—those are the best stories around. Best in the sense that a battle narrative is simple, tribal, pervasive, and sensational. Irresistible. There are heroes and enemies and clear goals. We long for that kind of clarity in a confusing world. A clear, simple story helps sort out the mess and gives us straightforward tasks and purposes.
Postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard proposed in 1979 that our present era is characterized by its loss of belief in grand narratives. Sorry Lyotard, but I disagree. I think what we’re actually seeing, at least in 2022 America, is not loss of metanarrative, but a mad scramble for more sensational metanarrative. We want big, simple, meaning-making stories that give us pleasing sensations. And few things are more pleasing than being in the right and winning the day.
And so we collapse complexities into two sides and set up battle and fight. We see it in American politics, and we see it in the church. In fact, the curdling of American politics is directly connected to decades of deliberately cultivating the battle narrative among White Evangelicals—Kristin DuMez brought the receipts on that one.
And so even our quarrels over scriptural interpretation become battle narratives and rise to the level of epic struggle. I appreciated James Hart Brumm’s apt comments on Tom Boogaart’s recent RJ essay, “We Are Better Than This,” in which Tom reflected on the vital role of the Holy Spirit in Reformed hermeneutics. Observing that many Reformed churches seem uninterested in actual Reformed hermeneutics, Brumm wrote: “In the modern sense, debates become a more intellectual form of football (the US kind, not everybody else’s): who can tackle whom, who can score the most points, who can ‘win’–all fine for a game, but bad for discourse on which to build community.”
Making a similar point, Cynthia Lindner (of the University of Chicago Divinity School) recently wrote a searing reflection on the Supreme Court’s recent rulings and the victory celebrations among some religious adherents: “The court’s reputed ‘turn towards religion,’” Lindner wrote, “should not be cause for celebration among the faithful. … Religion that is prescribed by a privileged few to control the lives of the many obfuscates human dignity, limits and cheapens life abundant, substitutes the trivial for the transcendent, and elevates a cruel justice that cannot admit its need for mercy.”
These objections to the battle metaphor in religious life return us to that bigger question: What is the end of the story we are writing together? If the story is a battle for rightness or purity, then the group who is right on every point wins, and they get to set the terms of the game going forward. Or they pack up their team and join a new league. That’s a story about power and coercion.
Literature scholars always like to blame things on a “failure of imagination,” but I think that really is the problem here. What other stories could we tell, then? If we refuse to succumb to a your team/my team binary, or a hero/enemy binary, then we have to imagine some story in which we’re all working together. Not as sensational, I admit. And a much harder and messier story to write.
Perhaps we could gain some narrative excitement by proposing that we are all working together toward some big goal. Everyone likes a story of struggle and achievement. Like, say, a home renovation. Well, predictably, I will suggest that we do indeed have a gigantic renovation project on our hands. It’s not about cleaning out rot so much as transforming the way we live on this planet. We ought to be working together to mitigate and adapt to climate change, which is already overtaking us, the poorest and most vulnerable first and worst. Now there’s a group project that would keep us plenty busy, require everyone’s participation, and maybe put some of our pettier arguments in perspective.
There are other ways to narrate our group project goal: justice, flourishing, belonging, peace. After all, we Christians are the caretakers of a beautiful grand metanarrative, a story of God’s longing love, God’s determination to redeem the whole community of creation. This is the story into which we have been invited, all of us as protagonists. Can we see ourselves that way? We’ll have to let go of our need for certain appealing, sensational narratives, like the smug satisfaction of winning and being right. But there’s something so much better on offer.
I realize that “group project” is hardly a narrative silver bullet. Even when we do manage to imagine ourselves working together toward a grand vision, we of course figure out how to quarrel about the details of how to get there, who’s in charge of what work team, etc. Still, my purpose here is to draw our attention to the narratives underlying our arguments, and to declare again that religious life and community goes far beyond our limited abilities to be “right” on difficult issues.
Perhaps Richard Rohr can help us on this point. Rohr’s reputation needs a little help on this blog, so I’ll let him have a word. Rohr is a Franciscan and a mystic, interested in the deepest work of what Calvinists would call sanctification. He has written perceptively in numerous contexts about our tendency to forget that religion is only the container for transforming encounter with God. Our religious systems are valid and necessary, but we tend to get obsessed with protecting the container and thus forfeit the entire purpose of religion. Rohr writes:
“We need transformed people today, and not just people with answers. … The marvelous anthology of books and letters called the Bible is all for the sake of astonishment—not ‘proof’ or certainty! It’s for divine transformation (theosis), not intellectual or ‘small-self’ coziness. Ideas are not a problem—but a true inner experience is something else. It changes us, and human beings do not like to change. The biblical revelation invites us into a genuinely new experience. The trouble is that we have made the Bible into a bunch of ideas—about which we can be right or wrong—rather than an invitation to a new set of eyes.” (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, 1–2, 135. Quoted in Center for Action and Contemplation Newsletter, June 30th)
Our religious affiliations, our arguments, our strivings and hopes need to be placed then, always, in the context of redemptive transformation, as individuals and as a whole creation.
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