Everything Must Change: Chapter 5 (Framing stories)

We’re considering Brian McLaren’s 2007 book Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide.

[American Christianity] has focused on “me” and “my soul” and “my spiritual life” and “my eternal destiny,” but it has failed to address the dominant societal and global realities of their lifetime: systemic injustice, systemic poverty, systemic ecological crisis, systemic dysfunctions of many kinds. (p. 33).

McLaren then asks why so many Christians in so many nations have, over the years, been guilty of atrocities? You know the list. There have been plenty of enormous sins perpetuated by Christians — from slavery to genocide to wars of conquest. How do Christians come to do such things?

Thinking along these lines, I became convinced that, yes, many of our world’s worst atrocities were indeed the result of overconfidence. And yes, overconfidence was indeed resourced by foundationalism. And yes, deeper still, destructive framing stories fueled the hatred and fear and greed that perpetuated so much human suffering-whether in Africa, Latin America, or my own nation. (p. 39).

Instead of “overconfidence,” I’d say hubris (the Greek word for the pride that goes before a fall). It’s more pride than overconfidence, I think, but the two ideas are very close to each other.

“Foundationalism” is another way of referring to the Enlightenment, the idea that humans can figure out how to live logically from certain elemental principles — that life is like mathematics. Reason is the ultimate test of truth.

Part of the problem with Foundationalism is the fact that humans don’t reason all that well. The readers on this website can’t even agree on the relationship of faith and works, and I dare say the readers here are well above average in their intelligence and education.

Hubris combined with the notion that we have to figure all this out for ourselves is a deadly combination. We pretty quickly stop getting our guidance from God and make up our own brand of Christianity — and every reader can think of 20 examples of exactly that.

That leads us to the philosophical concept of metanarratives or framing stories. These are the stories we tell ourselves about the nature of the world. Some metanarratives are true. The Bible presents a collection of true framing stories. But America, the West, capitalism, the Democrats, the Republicans, and your family also provide framing stories, some of which aren’t very true at all. We are all driven by stories that define “truth” as we see it.

Thus, in some families, there’s a metanarrative that goes like this:

* College education is the road to success.

* Success is defined by having a good job and making lots of money.

* Therefore, work hard at school, load your resume up with extracurricular activities, join clubs, volunteer, and get admitted into the best college, make the best grades, get the best job, and make the most money.

Is that true? Well, is that the truth — as the New Testament defines “truth”? (Do you see why it’s so important that we get the meaning of “truth” right when we read our Bibles?)

Other families have this framing story:

* School is miserable, boring, and pointless.

* Drop out and don’t let the teachers fool you. There’s nothing to be gained from school.

* You can do pretty well without school if you know how to work the system.

Is that true? Well, is that the truth?

Both metanarratives presume a world where “how well you do” is the ultimate goal of life, and both do a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. Some think college is worth the cost (and it is for some, but not for all), and some think even high school isn’t worth the cost. Well, depending on what you want out of life, it may or may not be.

We are frustrated when those with one story won’t make the decisions that seem so obvious when they live within a different framing story.

Depending on your life experiences, you may well find one story or the other convincing, but it’s often the story that convinces, not the evidence. After all, what evidence is there that the typical school teacher or college professor is appreciably happier than an auto mechanic or even a drug dealer? The typical college graduate makes more money than the typical non-graduate, but does that lead to greater happiness? And does it lead to greater happiness for everyone?

I’m unquestionably happier as a college graduate than I would be working at a trade. But my gifts are intellectual. I’m terrible with my hands. But I have friends who are far happier wiring homes (for very good pay, by the way) than they would be doing book work. They are happier because they are where their talents led them.

You see, the stories we tell ourselves are often not universal although we pretend they are. Sometimes, they aren’t even true.

Do you see how our entire view of reality is shaped by our metanarratives — especially when we are unaware that this is so. Our goal, therefore, should be to find the true framing story and discover true happiness.

Now, watch this video —

What is Katie Davis’s framing story? How does her story differ from the typical American Christian’s? Does she have the true story? Is her story the truth?

What about these stories that most of us live, believe, and teach —

* The key to happiness is marriage.

* The key to happiness is college.

* The key to happiness is a good job.

* The key to happiness is living close to mom and dad (I tried to teach that one, but it didn’t work at all.)

* The key to happiness is financial security.

* The key to happiness is life in the West near good hospitals, with stable government and grocery stores.

Do you see how very far removed she is from the normal stories we teach our children? How does her story compare? Which story is closest to the truth? Which story would we be willing to teach our children?

You see, this framing story concept is tough (and potent) because it forces us to re-examine assumptions that we inherited from our parents, school, or the culture without serious examination. And yet, on every page, the Gospels present a Jesus who challenges our framing stories and asks us to adopt the Kingdom’s story, the only really true story that there is.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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3 Responses to Everything Must Change: Chapter 5 (Framing stories)

  1. I remember back in the late 70’s attending a lectureship at Great Lakes Christian College in Ontario. One of the speakers was born in Texas but was working for the Lord in Western Canada, where he had taken out citizenship. He related that when he, as a recent college graduate, informed his family where he was going and why, his grandmother cried, “Why are you doing this to us?”

    Her metanarrative was not the one he followed, but his was the truer one.

    Jay, I believe you have hit on a theme that is inherent in Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.”


  2. Enterprise says:

    Jay: I had to smile to see that this post touches on several points that I made just yesterday in the sermon I presented. It is always gratifying to me to see someone else, whom I have never met and may never, reach out and sound the same note.
    The points I made were from the parable of the Sower and the thorny soil. Jesus said that the cares of the world, the decietfulness of riches and the desires for other things choke the word and it proves to be unfruitful.

    The questions you ask about our metanarratives are those that reveal the thorns in in our soil.
    Good post/

  3. Charles McLean says:

    We would do well to remember how rough it was on the Jews every time Jesus said, “You have heard it said… BUT I SAY…”

    If I am reading the biblical narrative correctly, every time this happened, Jesus began by identifying a “common sense” or “everybody knows” portion of the cultural narrative. Then, he blew it up.

    We seem to have steered away from this sort of counter-cultural teaching over time. The real difficulty is to challenge the metanarrative without disconnecting from the culture which spawns it. We could head for the caves like the Essenes, but we are called to be other-worldly smack dab in the middle of the world.

    Or in the middle of the church, which may be harder.

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