Shattered Monolith: Inbreeding in the Church

In the beginning was the church.

No, not THAT beginning. I’m talking a little under 2000 years ago, when the first people professed belief that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, legitimising all he had claimed to be. It was a ragtag group of followers, that first church, ranging from tax collectors and fishermen to a doctor and even some women (at the time, this was super controversial).

These people told others about what they had experienced and soon this little band of believers had grown enough to intimidate the Jewish leaders of the time. Given some persecution and another couple of decades, the church grew to include the gentiles, non-Jewish believers from places like Antioch, Syria and Athens and Rome. It is basically impossible to imagine a more diverse set of people, but they were united in the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection and the strange implications it had for those who believed.

Trying to figure out what Jesus’ word meant for them brought many controversies. The people were divided and incensed. They struggled with all the strangeness inherent in the Christian message. It took them 600 years to find the language to try and describe the idea of the trinity, this supremely weird three-in-one God that Jesus and the Jewish scriptures alluded to.

The more we feel we’ve figured something out, the stronger we hold our convictions. This is true of institutions too. As the church grappled with Christ, it hardened into a doctrinal faith, with very specific affirmations of what it entailed. Hard things are very often brittle and the harder the church became, the more easily it shattered. The more intensely the people within the Church enforced their conception of orthodoxy, the more easily it schismed, scattering chips and fragments all over the world…

Gene pools are interesting things. They need diversity to work. If you confine any set of animals to an enclosed gene pool for long enough, it will start imploding. I think this is an apt analogy for the church.

You see, I found a little certificate in my desk drawer a while back. This little slip of paper stated that I had made a confession of faith. Interestingly, it also stated that I had confessed to believing that the Dutch Reformed church’s teaching were all true. Whoah.

Thinking back now, I realise that this has always been the assumption. Whenever I’m asked about the church I attend, there is an implicit question about what I believe. I do it too. Somehow, in the intricate splintering of the church based on the tiniest theological differences, it is expected that the church you attend is the one you agree with completely, but the only people I’ve ever met who completely agree with everything their church espouses are the ones who don’t think very hard about it.

The church has never been homogenous. I don’t think it was ever meant to be. Toeing the theological party line leads to spiritual and theological inbreeding. It’s toxic and dangerous, because that is how cults work. If you have enough people patting each other on the back because they believe the exact same things, you tend to become inflexible and judgemental.

The church is a conversation. That’s how it started, at least. Finite people trying to figure out the infinite (Hint: it can’t be done). And that was OK. They disagreed vehemently before sitting down and sharing meals, because that’s how you figure stuff out. Not by simply affirming what someone says and congratulating ourselves on our similar beliefs.

I want to go to a church where I’m free to disagree, where the conversation is as important as the conclusions we reach. I want a place where I can be shocked and challenged by those who differ wildly from me while still sharing our connection in Christ.

I think that’s what the church was meant to be: chaotic, diverse, challenging, but in the end, because of this, humble, loving, and alive.

Amen.

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You are not a storyteller. Or are you?

So this happened (WARNING: The video contains naughty words):

Watching the above video, I found myself curiously drawn and repulsed by the idea that it espouses.

You see, according to Terry Pratchett, we are Homo Narrativus. The storytelling ape. Our ability to construct narratives around seemingly innocuous things like the way that grass moves is part of the reason that we are alive today. It is why we get scared when we’re alone in the dark. Stories are coded into our genes, they colour every waking moment of our lives. It might be one of the main things that distinguish us from most animals.

Two famous editors once taught a class of film students about story. They split the class into two groups and gave each the same documentary style footage. The first group was told to cut the seemingly unrelated footage into a narrative. The second was told to stay away form narrative completely, to edit the footage in a way that’s as far away from a story as possible.

Once the class handed in their assignments, some of the resulting films were shown to them. The interesting thing is not that the first group managed to craft a story from disparate elements, it’s that the second group, no matter how hard they tried, always seemed to convey some kind of narrative in their films.

Which tells us one thing with two possible interpretations: We cannot get away from story. We are caught in narratives. The question is whether we create them or are just so well programmed to look for them that we cannot NOT see them everywhere we look. This means not only that we weave narrative into the fabric of everything that we create, but that we instinctively imbue otherwise storyless objects with narrative.

Now, when you design a roller coaster, you structure an experience. Within that brief you will always have some sort of narrative. It’s about movement through spaces with different emotive aspects, as Stefan Sagmeister mentions in the video. Yes, it is based in some sort of narrative, but does that make the designer a storyteller?

Calling yourself a storyteller seems to me to say something about the primacy of storytelling in what you do, like, you are primarily a storyteller. But if we take the above idea to its logical conclusion, then we are ALL storytellers, whether it’s the novelist or the accountant. Every act and object is imbued with its own little narrative through the fact that a human is participating in it somehow.

As with iconography, ubiquity goes hand in hand with meaninglessness. If everyone is a storyteller, then calling yourself a storyteller is nonsensical, on the level of trying to convince people that you are human (To any non-human reading this, please just swop human for your species. Which proves my point. It’s only in differentiation that we can truly make sense.)

It seems that my immediate reaction is to make a distinction. To say yes and no at the same time, like Pandora opening Schrodinger’s box.

Yes, we are all storytellers. Each and every one of us. Revel in it, live it, be inspired to create with your life a story that is great.

But no, we are not all STORYTELLERS. We are not all concerned on a day to day basis with structuring narratives, crafting stories. If that is what you do, great. If it isn’t, great. We don’t all have to be storytellers. That’s just the fashion these days. Calling nearly anything storytelling (which I think I’ve shown to be possible) reduces the concept of storytelling to meaninglessness. It makes less of those people who are explicitly trying to do it.

The problem is that there are no obvious lines to draw here. We ride the roller coaster of sliding scales, so don’t get too worked up about it. If you truly believe that you are a storyteller, why not tell your own story with more specificity? Be a writer. No, be a novelist, screenwriter, journalist whatever. Be a filmmaker, be a designer, be a landscaper, be whatever you are. Gleefully get on that sliding scale, but know that blanket terms are often counterproductive. It’s in the specifics that your true value lies.

Blankets are comfortable, but they also hide you from the outside world.