Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Stories

Earlier today, Derek Rishmawy posted a piece entitled ‘My Evangelical Story Isn’t So Bad (Or, a Ramble on Experience, Biography, & Theology)’. Within it he discusses his generally positive experience of growing up as an evangelical and how this colours his engagement with critiques and critics of the movement. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that ours aren’t the only stories out there:

Often-times I’m so locked into seeing people as positions to be corrected, I forget that they are storied-people to be heard. People respond viscerally to words and concepts that have functioned fairly positively in my own life, many times because of our differing stories. My fairly positive Evangelical experience isn’t the only one out there, which is probably part of what accounts for the relative slowness with which I’ve embraced the theological changes I have made. I haven’t been in as much of an existential rush. If I don’t recognize that, I probably won’t be of much use to them as anything more than a sparring partner.

As we all appreciate that ours aren’t the only stories, we may also begin to realize that our story may be far from the whole story. This realization will have implications for all parties, challenging all of us to question what our personal experience may have led us to believe was an absolute. Derek proceeds to speak of the importance of Scripture in this area:

We need to see that in the Bible we have the normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story gets the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited, weighed down with baggage, or ignorantly blind like ours tend to be. It’s the story big enough to encompass all of our stories without denying, or ignoring them.

Derek’s post is worth reading and thinking about. What I want to do here is to pick up on a key issue that surfaces within it, an issue which I have reflected upon at various points recently.

The point in question concerns ‘stories’. ‘Story’ and ‘narrative’ have been all the rage in evangelical circles for several years now, somewhat eclipsing aging categories such as ‘worldview’. The presence of ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ within Scripture can often be appealed to as proof of the importance of this category. Unfortunately, the way that ‘narrative’ functions within Scripture is seldom given the sort of close attention that it merits, nor is it permitted to provide the norm for our employment of the category. Instead, the newly baptized category, exiled from its biblical roots, is then typically put to service within a foreign land of existential self-accounting.

The fact that scriptural narrative, in contrast to much preaching upon it, is not typically focused upon the subjective states, inner lives, and autonomous identities of its protagonists is seldom properly recognized. While Scripture speaks of many particular persons, it does not share the type of emphasis that our culture places upon individuality and personal narratives. Where we have elevated ‘personality’, often to the neglect of ‘character’, Scripture presents us with limited clues to the ‘personalities’ of its characters and seems to have little interest in the matter. In God’s eternal wisdom, he did not choose to reveal Jesus’ MBTI personality type.

In Scripture, individuals find much of their significance within the larger stories to which they contribute and in terms of the typological roles that they perform. Biblical characters are pretty ‘flat’, rather than possessing the ‘rich internal life’ that the self-reflection encouraged by such things as widespread diary-writing and the modern novel has accustomed us to. First person autobiographical narratives are not the norm. Rather, biblical narrative situates people within a story that is not their own and speaks of them from a third person perspective that clearly relativizes their self-accounts.

The valorization of people’s autobiographical narratives in certain circles has attained such heights that some have even referred to them as ‘sacred’. A person’s self-account is increasingly treated as inviolable and beyond challenge. While the motives for this might be well-meaning and even laudable—typically characterized by a desire to empathize with people, to treat them with dignity and sensitivity, and to attend to where they are coming from—the results can often be dangerous and unhealthy.

The chief issue here is the failure to recognize just how limited and deceptive personal narratives can be. Slavoj Žižek writes (borrowed from this post):

The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance. … The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie—the truth lies rather outside, in what we do.

A man with a rich internal life

Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.

In short, we need to be a lot more critical of our own stories and a lot more cautious when it comes to those of others. We have been practicing our wilfully distorting and self-exculpating narrations on ourselves for our entire lives and are past masters at it. Žižek quotes Elfriede Jelinek, observing the broader ethical wisdom in his understanding of theatre:

Characters on stage should be flat, like clothes in a fashion show: what you get should be no more than what you see. Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the “luxuriousness” of personality, losing ourselves in the depth of individual character. The writer’s task is to block this manoeuvre, to chase us off to a point from which we can view the horror with a dispassionate eye.

How does all of this relate to the issues that Derek raises in his post?

We ought to be a lot less indulgent when it comes to personal stories more generally, a lot more alert to the ways that they are most fertile grounds for the deception of ourselves and others, and a lot more prepared to call them into question. Personal stories, while they should not be excluded, should not be treated as ‘sacred’, but subject to testing and judgment. This is a challenge to the way that certain quarters of contemporary evangelicalism increasingly advance their positions in the form of personal narratives, rather than in open and rational discourse and argumentation, and treat all criticism as if it were personal attack.

The elevation of the personal story to an inviolable status is related to a move towards a different understanding of truth and ethics, as I have remarked before:

[W]ithin such an ethic, we gradually become the measure of our own selves. As this occurs, we cease to be expected to act in accordance with higher norms, principles, and realities, which provide criteria by which our lives can be judged and by which we can be held accountable. As truth is increasingly situated within the incommensurable particularity of people’s subjective narratives, our moral principles become partial truths—true for me, but perhaps not for you—bespoke rules that will sit awkwardly on other’s shoulders.

With this ethic comes a new form of discourse, a greater dependence upon a conversational and self-revelatory style, and typically leads to an overflowing of mutual affirmation. Any truth that claims to be public or objective is treated with great suspicion. When truth is largely situated in the subjective narrative and the immediacy of the feelings that ground it, ‘objective’ truth could only be the tyrannical and power-hungry masquerade of an imperious subjectivity (typically perceived to be that of the privileged white male). In such a context, any impression that the subjective narrative might be invalidated, challenged, or subordinated to a greater narrative will typically be reacted to with outrage, especially if white privileged males are seen to be doing this.

Recognizing the way that the personal narrative can function, we should appreciate the pernicious way in which it can often be used as a trump card, to close down debate. The personal story, especially if it is a painful one, is immune to challenge and is thus a convenient way to advance positions in a manner that prevents others from calling them into question, for to do so would be cruel and insensitive (I have addressed some of the dynamics of this here).

The first and most important application of this questioning of stories is always to our own stories. For instance, those of us who experienced an evangelical upbringing in predominantly positive terms and in relation to people we love and care about should be a lot more sceptical of our stories. We should recognize the ways in which our stories can whitewash our own actions, or the actions of people we love, through ‘psychological realism,’ failing to attend to the actual damage that we may have caused (this ethically blinding effect can be most powerfully seen in the moral latitude that can be afforded to people with ‘big personalities’). If we were to examine our actions more objectively, apart from the lens of our own stories, the starkness of reality would present our characters and those of the people that we love in a much less flattering light. This is uncomfortable but necessary. Starting from a position where we are prepared to subject our own stories to external judgment and to seek and learn how imaginatively to step outside of our own experiences is a crucial stage of personal and spiritual development.

The second application is to be much less credulous in our handling of the stories of others. The fact that a person’s story is something about which they are highly sensitive and in which they are deeply personally invested doesn’t mean that their story is true or ‘sacred’. We are often the most sensitive about the very lies that we use to suppress unwelcome truths within ourselves. While we should engage with people’s stories, we shouldn’t always take them at face-value. Derek actually raised this in a post that proved rather controversial some time back:

Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex.

While we shouldn’t adopt a hermeneutic of extreme suspicion when anyone tells us about themselves, we should recognize that we are all unreliable narrators, most especially when we are unwittingly trying to rationalize our actions to ourselves, and should treat people’s narratives accordingly. There are occasions when, taking people’s narratives at face value, we can become complicit in their self-deception. This requires prudence and discretion: there are occasions when people should be told clearly that their story is ‘bullshit’ and others when we must be exceedingly gentle in unsettling people’s unreliable accounts of themselves.

Within the post that I am interacting with here, Derek is primarily dealing with painful narratives of mistreatment or abuse, which would definitely fall under the latter approach. However, even an autobiographical narrative of abuse needs to be held in question in certain regards. This needn’t mean denying that abuse occurred. However, it should involve preparedness to question the account that is given of that abuse in certain regards. The narrative that is given of the abuse is not the same thing as its objective historical reality: the first can be questioned without denying the second. For instance, as Derek argues, ‘abuse doesn’t take away proper use’ and many narratives of abuse generalize from experiences of abuse to condemn non-abusive practices or teachings that were misused or twisted in their experience.

What I am advocating here is a serious tempering of the current fixation upon personal ‘story’ in evangelical circles. I believe that the degree of emphasis upon them is ethically dangerous and biblically unsupported. I am arguing for greater awareness of the contingency and artificiality of our stories, that they are things that we are constantly telling ourselves, rather than the actual reality of our past experiences. I am calling for increasing alertness to the deceptive and illusory character of the ‘rich internal self’ that these narratives depend upon. I am encouraging questioning of the prominence of personal narrative as a mode of evangelical discourse. I am suggesting that other people’s stories should not be off-limits when it comes to challenge and disagreement. I am calling all of us to be less trusting of the stories that we tell ourselves, more prepared to subject those stories to external judgment and critique, and more practiced in imaginatively stepping outside of our own stories and experience to see how our actions might appear from other perspectives.

My story is a story that I tell myself about myself in order to account for what I am doing. My story is not myself, no matter how closely invested I might be in it. Often it may be a tissue of lies designed to protect me from the unwelcome reality of who I am. My story can be invalidated without my deepest identity being invalidated. The subjection of my life to the narration of Another, to a narration that unsettles and overturns my self-exculpations, to a narration that exposes my deceit and punctures the comforting delusions, is a crucial dimension of Christian faith.

In the judgment cast upon our personal stories, we discover that we are being given another, better Story. It is no longer the self-narrated ‘I’ who lives, but the ‘I’ who is, by the breath of the Spirit, being re-narrated in the form of the story of Christ. Through the assurance of this re-narration, we are freed to distance ourselves from our own old narrations, to confess sins, to admit fault, to acknowledge blindness and weakness, to request forgiveness, to know ourselves to be in the wrong, to hold ourselves and our stories open to question. None of these things can challenge our identity, but only secure it.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Stories

  1. Dominic says:

    Reblogged this on Creakings of a Cog in the Machine and commented:
    Fantastic piece, a theme I’ve hit on again and again…

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  3. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I have noted before how a lot of progressive Christians relies heavily on the form of the memoir: Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, and Sarah Bessey are all primarily memoirists, and pretty good at it. But their writing tends to fall off a cliff when it comes to explicit theological argument.

    I’ve also noted that Marilynne Robinson is a much better novelist than she is an essayist.

    • It seems to me that the use of the memoir as a means of advancing theological positions is closely related to the effect that Carl Trueman remarks upon here.

      • WDO says:

        Speaking of personal stories and Trueman — I can’t find the exact video, but in one of his lectures Trueman mentions that John Owen had 11 children, all of whom preceded him death, and that in the 9,285 pages of his collected works, Owen remarks on this experience… never.

      • I remember hearing that same fact. That is definitely worth reflecting upon.

  4. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    RE: the relatively flat characterization of the Bible

    Interestingly enough, Harold Bloom once proclaimed the overwhelming aesthetic superiority of the Old Testament over the New, but rereading the history books in Robert Alter’s new translation, I find that the Old Testament stories, while they frequently have a nigh Tolstoyan narrative drive, don’t have a lot of deep characterization or even many particularly interesting uses of figurative language.

    The great exception to this is ironically in the New Testament, where the gospels do provide a relatively well rounded portrait of Jesus, accomplished with a rich use of metaphorical language. Indeed, it is no wonder that people have found him to be the most charismatic of all personalities presented in the Bible. Not of course that that was the main point of the gospels, but I do find it there nonetheless.

  5. Having read the article and the clarifying comments by Derek, I still find the whole argument of sexual activity vs. doubt to be a very cheap shot and not very useful in terms of correlation (or not as good a correlation as education vs. doubt, which is not as flattering to the good professor’s position). Students’ curiosity, intelligence and libido often reach a peak at the same period in their lives, so it’s not surprising that the conversation can be derailed that easily by challenging someone on a taboo practice (that Derek points out is a pretty good guess in the first place. If they’re not actually sleeping with anyone at the moment, ask them about porn.). My only guess is that the way it was directed at a student made it difficult for them to challenge it for the plain ad hominem attack that it was. I know that tactic was used on me more than once, and I’ve never slept with anyone other than my wife.

    For the record, I accept that our personal lives and our thoughts interact in a complex way, but something like this seems to be a way of imposing our own story onto other people’s experiences. (By story, I’m referring more to the Christian narrative rather than our story as individuals). Derek does seem to touch on this briefly in the ‘Evangelical Story’ article, but the fact that a straight white male had positive experiences within the Evangelical system (as I did) doesn’t mean that the same system is not hurting others – not just because of how it’s being implemented, but because of the way it is. Even if we see it as an overarching and positive narrative, our story can be self serving and fail to take into account the validity of others’ experiences outside our worldview.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan.

      Quickly in response:

      1. I think that the sexual activity challenge could indeed be used as a means of derailing and no doubt it often has. I would not excuse such uses for a moment. Also, even if people have been sexually active outside of marriage, this doesn’t mean that their questions cease to be valid in their own place. However, I think that there are occasions when it is appropriate to adopt such an approach of calling people out, recognizing that their objections are a smokescreen for their real issues. The ‘presenting issue’ is often not the actual issue and someone who is good at reading others will be able to pick up on this. We are gifted self-deceivers and the stories that we tell ourselves to account for our actions are often misleading.

      2. This approach cannot simply be dismissed as an ad hominem attack. If it were purely an academic discussion within which these issues were raised, this wouldn’t be the way to go about things. However, the context is one of spiritual counsel, when the spiritual state of the student is very much the issue under discussion. In such a context, a movement towards a hyper-rational approach—which one often encounters in certain types of young atheist circles, for instance—is all too often an attempt to dissemble motives, interests, and feelings, most particularly from ourselves.

      Shifting things to an academic register allows us to take refuge behind the defences of logical fallacies. Of course, the reasons why any of us hold the positions that we do are usually quite different from the reasons that we give for them. There are times and places to bracket the former and focus upon the latter. However, there are also times when we must all reckon with the fact of this difference. The fact that the reasons why we have come to hold positions typically differs from the reasons that we give for them doesn’t mean that we are unjustified in the former, nor that the latter shouldn’t be taken seriously on appropriate occasions.

      And this can apply just as much to Christians as to those who are moving away from the faith. This difference exists for all of us. There may be occasions when the question ‘why have you not struggled with doubts?’ may be just as damning in what it reveals as its inverse.

      3. Your point about the possibility of our positive experiences being a self-serving narrative that blinds us to the reality is one that I quite agree with: it is a point that I made within the post. To it I would add the point that our ‘positive stories’ typically whitewash our own experience in many respects, choosing to accent some things and to downplay others. It is easy to deny the genuinely distorted elements in our own pasts merely because we didn’t feel the full force of dynamics that would seriously have harmed—or even that did seriously harm—others.

      I would also point out that our ‘positive experience’ also remains a ‘story that we tell ourselves’ and that such stories are a lot less set in stone than we might think. The stories that we tell ourselves are often principally driven by a disposition that we adopt in relation to the events that we are are narrating, rather than directly by the events themselves. Our actual experience typically has deep and troubling ambiguities and contradictions that our stories overdetermine in a positive or negative fashion.

      • Thanks for the good points; I think we do agree on a lot here. When I was working through a number of these issues (coincidentally, this was mainly while I was in college), it was very important to me to question my motives for going this way or that. I’m sure you’ve similarly found that it is hard or impossible to address the big issues all at once, so we take mental shortcuts that mean that we can feel very different on large questions from one day to another when in a state of flux, based on a weird mixture of reason and gut feeling. At the time it all seems to make sense as part of the larger picture, but it gives you an idea of how subjective our beliefs or stories can actually be, even when they do reach a greater level of stability.

        In my case, aside from actually examining the evidence, there was a lot of pressure from both sides to accept or reject my faith – am I subconsciously rejecting the challenge of the gospel or Christ’s authority over my life? Am I just embarrassed about being an evangelical in an educated, secular environment that often seems to be very dismissive of the idea? On the other hand, there was a lot of comfort in Christianity for me: a clear narrative that encompasses the cosmos and our relationship to it, along with a definite sense of purpose and moral direction. Most people I knew, including my family and many people I had a large amount of respect for were active evangelicals. How would this affect our relationship? Culturally, I was raised as a Christian and won’t lose that if I change my beliefs. There’s no promise that everything will work out better for me as an atheist, or that my actions will fit into some divine plan. I had no intention of sexual infidelity or any other great departure from Christian personal morality, so it wasn’t really that I felt so restricted in the Christian system, but the other questions were real issues for me. This process took over five years, so I became quite familiar with the contradictory nature of my beliefs and my rationalisations for them. It’s also interesting to see how your story evolves as you change your beliefs: different moments of your life take on different levels of importance and are interpreted differently to make up your story, and you become aware of how much of a subconscious and subjective process this is.

        I guess context is key with this issue, although it looks like a) the pastor was the one who tracked down the students and brought up the topic, b) this is something he did as a matter of course with college students returning home and c) Derek justified its reliability by appealing to statistics and by suggesting that while it was ‘almost’ too cruel to do, it was an effective strategy. I understand that the pastor was coming from a perspective of spiritual guidance, but this is an approach I came up against time and again with spiritual leaders who had obviously not taken the time to think through the issues. I had this experience a few months ago in the US with the pastor of the church we were attending. The guy had never read a book on religion, evolution etc. by anyone who didn’t believe the same thing that he did. This is pretty much typical in my experience. I listened to his claim that I should consider the spiritual aspect of my doubts, then challenged him to educate himself more on the issues we’d just discussed (in a nice way; he was older than me and I do have a lot of respect for him as a pastor). Derek doesn’t go into the kind of ‘real’ discussion that the pastor had with the students, but one focusing on the spiritual aspect alone is just evading the question and will lead to disenchantment. On the positive side, the pastor can comfort himself in the knowledge that the student’s eventual abandonment of the church is a problem with the student, not the church.

        Our intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives are far from separate, but people in that position *must* engage with genuine doubts, even if they come from less than pure motives. I do agree with your point though; there are going to be times when the issue is a relatively naive faith exposed to a completely new environment, new authority figures and ideas and lots of young people with high libidos and the greatest level of freedom of their lives.

      • Thanks for the follow up comments, Jonathan. Despite our different angles on the issues, I think that we are in substantial agreement on the main points that you raise.

  6. I’m thankful to mentioned in the Bible as a “whosoever.” I didn’t have to be in there at all.

  7. Pingback: The Limitations of "Story" | Notes from Mere O

  8. Brittain says:

    I’ve been reading your stuff for the past few months, particularly your links of the week which did nothing but distract me from papers due the next day. I never comment on blogs but I had to on this one because this may be the best piece I have read anywhere. I particularly loved the emphasis on the hermeneutic shift that happens when we read Scripture as a narrative we are brought into rather than one we add to ours.

    So good. Thank you for making the internet interesting again. I am immensely blessed by your posts.

  9. Paul Baxter says:

    I’ll need to read this over again carefully (I’ve got limited time right at the moment), but I certainly like your general thrust. I remember ever since high school (mid 80’s for me) feeling skepticism about the idea of personal narrative as evangelism tool. Initially I think most of that was due to the facts that my story seemed absolutely nothing like the inspiring sorts of personal narratives I heard from evangelistic speakers, and because I feel that my own story would have all that much relevance to someone who was not already a Christian. I’m not a convert, so I have no personal knowledge of that particular sort of life change.

    As I’ve gotten older (and arguably wiser) I’ve only added to my list of objections to personal narrative as evangelistic tool, despite having been quite often advised to “develop a personal testimony.” And yet (dramatic pause), we really can’t get away from personal narrative. I find myself quite often intentionally crafting a personal narrative which seems to my mind to be both truthful AND gets across some point I wish to make. This happens particularly in very personal discussions with my wife.

    The question I’m left with is: in what ways can and should we discipline the ways we craft our own narratives? I suspect that we probably have a lot to learn from previous ages on this, from times when RHETORIC was taken more seriously.

    • I agree: we can never entirely escape personal narrative. Nor should we want to. Personal narratives can be very positive in their own place. At the heart of my concern in this post is our elevation of such personal narratives to a status that renders our subjective perspectives immune to true challenge, that presents them as a primary form of truth, that blinds us to the artificial, narrated, and often less than truthful character of our stories, and that arrests public and objective ethical discourse (‘don’t judge me before you know my story!’).

      I think that the primary disciplines are those that situate us within a broader narrative and which challenge us to view ourselves from the perspective of the narration of others. Several such disciplines exist within the Christian faith, which subjects our private narratives to the formation and judgment of the narrative of Christ. We have to learn to retell our narratives in terms of his, rather than just slotting him into our narratives as an element within them. The shift here is more Copernican in character, rather than a denial of the existence and importance of our personal narratives. Our personal narratives are deeply important and much of that importance arises from the fact that they are refractions of the narrative of Christ.

      • Paul Baxter says:

        I’m entirely with you. There are a few party games out there where people wear something on their forehead or on their back that everyone else can see it but that person doesn’t know what it is. You’ve probably played one of those at some point. I feel like much of life is like that. In more ways than one we have to rely on others to know what sort of person we are. It strikes me as a serious weakness of the societies that you and I live in that people routinely deny that and act as if our personal essence is entirely self-created.

        I’ve been doing some theater acting over the past few years. It’s been amazing to me exactly how poorly I typically do at understanding what sort impression I’m creating. The director will say something like “you should look disappointed at this”, so I try to do that. This is quite often followed by the director saying “no, you look bored–you should look disappointed.” It takes a fair amount of experimentation for me to find that look that somehow communicates what I’m supposed to be feeling.

        Comedy is even more mysterious to me. I’m often complimented on how funny I am on stage. I have literally no idea what it is I’m doing that people find funny. When I think “funny”, I think of clever word play, but that’s fairly rare in theater. I just do what they tell me to with as much enthusiasm as I can muster, and for some reason people laugh. That’s the only way we know if we are funny–if people actually laugh.

        Samuel Wells is really good with drawing out some of the theological implications of improvisational acting, but I think we’ve probably discussed that before.

  10. thrasymachus33308 says:

    Jesus addressed everyone’s personal experience.

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  13. Baus says:

    Alastair, when you say “those of us who experienced an evangelical upbringing in predominantly positive terms and in relation to people we love and care about should be a lot more sceptical of our stories.”

    You mean people who had a positive experience with something should be more skeptical about their experience than people who had a negative experience? If that’s what you mean, what is it that make ‘positive’ experience more worthy of skepticism than ‘negative’ experience.

    I’m not of the mind that “personal/subjective experience” is immune from criticism. So, I appreciate what seems to be your main point (that personal experience is not immune from criticism). I also take this point to be somewhat obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. I also believe in the (somewhat obvious) value of being self-critical.

    I don’t mean to say any of these obvious things are trivial. They’re quite important.
    But it makes me wonder if I’m missing some less-obvious point you’re making. If there are some other crucial points, can you summarize them?

    • Thanks for the comments and question.

      In response to your first question, my point was not that negative experiences sometimes have a greater validity than positive ones, but rather that we must start with our own stories. Removing the plank from our own eyes always comes first. However, in addition to this, I would suggest that those who have positive experiences are less naturally inclined to question and examine their stories to begin with. Consequently, we probably need more of a challenge to do so.

      The main point that you mention has always seemed fairly obvious to me. Nevertheless, I am increasingly encountering peers for whom it is implicitly denied, so this obvious point is worthy of restatement.

      Some of the other key points that I was trying to make include the following:

      1. Scripture does not underwrite the importance of ‘story’ in general, but presents us with a very particular form of story. This form of story involves a different sort of characterization than that to which we are accustomed and, by implication, provides a framework for Christian subjectivization that operates according to a distinct logic from contemporary subjectivizing narratives.

      2. The inner self is much more artificial than we might think and, rather than being the deep and immediately encountered reality, can often be an obfuscating screen preventing us from seeing the truth of ourselves.

      3. We must recognize and address the connection between this concept of the self and particular accounts of or approaches to ethics.

      • Baus says:

        Appreciated. Thanks.
        I do agree that the less self-critical one is, the more bullshitty ones view of ones self will tend to be.

  14. Gracie Bird says:

    Reblogged this on Graciebird and commented:
    I think that elevating personal stories/experience is a growing kickback movement against a very real squashing of personality/self-worth that exists within homeschooling, patriarchal organizations and families. One extreme (not treating our wives, sons, and daughters as valuable human beings with different personalities) begets another extreme (elevating our own personal experiences above Biblical morals). The funny thing is, with both extremes, elevating our personal experience is what makes for tyranny within relationships and families. Thank you for this article, I’m passing it on.

  15. Pingback: “I used to be a Christian, but…” and the Importance of Questions in Evangelism | Reformedish

  16. “The fact that scriptural narrative . . . is not typically focused upon the subjective states, inner lives, and autonomous identities of its protagonists is seldom properly recognized.” I agree and acknowledged this in one of my own recent posts. What fascinates me in those stories and characters is the sudden evidence of inner change/belief in the midst of the drama. It seems to me that God uses the power of metaphor to instantly counsel at the most personal, subjective level while simultaneously using it to objectively teach the masses about himself. Amazing communication and orchestration skills.

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  18. karen d says:

    I love this piece — very well written and thought provoking! There is so much meat in this piece it is hard to comment 🙂 It would be way better served as languid discussion with a nice scotch or maybe (gasp) a cigar… but i digress.

    One idea that is roiling around in my head tho’: all of this (the balancing out of personal narratives vs. rational scrutiny) would be ideally true in a power-vacuum, but we do not live in such a state. The world we occupy — the shared one anyway — is political (I mean that in the base sense of that word), and political power is, as you rightly point out, a motivating and impacting variable. The tendency you raise for white males to get the short end of the stick in battles of competing narratives is illustrative.

    In a perfect world, no one would be disenfranchised, all would be invited to participate with equal gusto in creating and managing the shared discursive (and material) space, and so yes, the ability to deconstruct personal narratives vis a vis the community’s broader experience or essential truths as explained in the Scriptures would ensue. But we don’t live in this world, and part of the agenda for those asserting personal narratives — the spiritual memoirs by women is illustrative here — is partly because those women don’t have a seat at the table otherwise. Having been denied a role in creating the discursive space, theirs is a rhetoric of resistance and as such, it isn’t going to go away. Further, historically, its been the powerful who have had the right to decide what part of a persons narrative is legitimate and what part is not — this is rarely done collaboratively, by the way. It is done through shame or censorship or manipulation. An extreme example of this could be found in “rape culture” rhetoric — the rape victim’s narrative been shut down with dominant assessment of “what were you wearing” and “why were you in that situation” and “you shouldn’t have had so much to drink” etc.

    So, while I concur that the personal narrative is popular and probably a reflection of a pendulum swing (counteracting the extreme intellectualism of evangelicalism in the 80s and 90s maybe), I wonder what the actual options are for those who are disenfranchised. They don’t want permission from the “powers that be” to tell the part of their story that is acceptable. And in fact, part of their work to emerge as agents in their own lives is the right to control the discourse and — I come again to the spiritual memoirists — the right to create theology. In most of evangelical Christianity, women do not get to do theology. We receive it from the male teachers and preachers who alone have the rhetorical “right” to say what the Bible means for the rest of us. Perhaps, for example, if women’s voices were understood to be shaping theology for the Church broadly, alongside the voices of their male peers, there would be less need for disenfranchised women to write their own narratives as a way of claiming a place at the table.

    Well, this got long-winded! Thanks again for such a thoughtful post … I’ll be pondering it for a while!

    • Thanks for the comment, Karen! You raise some important points.

      I would love to discuss and explore some of them with you. Unfortunately, things are ridiculously busy here at the moment, so I can’t. However, I might return to this at some point in the future.

      • karen d says:

        LOL, no worries. I had about 5 minutes to think and write, took 45 instead so am now horribly behind schedule, and that pretty much is the cadence for all my minutes, hours and days right now! If you get the chance, do circle back — you have a unique way of unpacking the places where language and lived experience intersect and I find that both helpful intellectually and just plain enjoyable too! Take care, karen

  19. Pingback: A few more links on personal narratives and trigger warnings | A Travelogue of the Interior

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  26. Pingback: Why Discourses and Arguments on Homosexuality are so Poor and Unpersuasive; Subjective Experience as an Unanalysable “Black Box” | Deus Ex Machina

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