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With Great Story Comes Great Responsibility
By Matthew Loftus
I’m pleased to publish this guest post by my friend Matthew Loftus. Matthew teaches and practices Family Medicine at a mission hospital in Kenya. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org.
You’ve probably heard a thing or two about “the power of story” in the last few years, and “the power of your story” in particular. It’s true: stories are powerful. Humans have been telling each other stories for millenia because they allow us to communicate things in ways that propositions can’t; people enjoy reading, listening to, watching, and retelling stories not just for the pleasure that they bring but also because stories shape us. It’s not merely artists who make their living by stories—pastors, missionaries, salesmen, journalists, parents, and many others rely heavily on them too.
However, there's a dark side to the power of story. A compelling story can communicate something that’s true, but it can also communicate falsehood if crafted carefully enough. Perhaps more commonly, it can communicate a message that is not necessarily a lie but a half-truth, and leave an impression that reshapes people’s behavior for the worse.
We’ve all heard stories about children being kidnapped by strangers; a windowless van spray-painted “FREE CANDY” is a meme unto itself. Yet less than a hundred children in America are abducted by strangers in the course of a year; many more children drown in pools every year. Which image is more compelling, more indelible, and which one shapes more behavior? Parents everywhere are afraid to let their children walk unsupervised not just because of their fear of kidnapping, but also because they fear the third-order effect of busybodies who will report them to Child Protective Services, as second-order effect of the kidnapping stories. True crime podcasts and TV shows have told these gruesome stories of serial killers and child molesters for years, making a more distinct impression in our minds than any statistics ever could. A story’s power clearly does not depend on its factuality.
There’s a self-reinforcing aspect to this: the popular stories have a lot of replay value. Serial killer stories get made over and over because people enjoy watching evil deeds, with the ending either a spine-tingling “And the killer remains at large!” or a justice-satisfying “And after careful police work, the killer is now in solitary confinement for his own safety.” As much as human beings love stories and we love variety, storytellers keep telling variations of the same few stories over and over because audiences pay for the same few stories over and over. The hero with unique strength defeats the bad guy through determination and courage, the sins of the fathers visit themselves to the third and fourth generation, the ugly duckling with a heart of gold gets her man, and the underdog team wins the championship.
The Drama of Trauma
One could argue that the power of story has had deleterious effects for faith and family in recent decades. The stories told by Hollywood and popular music—that you must believe in yourself, determine your own destiny, and listen to the voice of your “true self”—echo in numerous “deconversion” narratives. It’s getting hard to turn around without bumping into a novel, movie, or TV show that’s not about identity and trauma, which in turn shapes the way that individuals think about their own stories.
After all, one of the biggest take-home lessons from the “power of your story” narratives we’ve been imbibing is that we’re always telling a story about ourselves to ourselves and others. This is just an inevitable aspect of human life; we constantly reframe the world we’re experiencing through the experiences we’ve had and vice-versa. If all of the stories you hear are about identity and trauma, you’ll start to perceive your own past, present, and future in those terms. And if the character you identify on a screen with suffered a devastating, traumatic betrayal by someone that they trusted, you might start to feel like your dad’s aloofness or your youth pastor’s ignorance was your trauma.
There’s an even deeper danger here, too, beyond the simplistic picture I’ve sketched out here. The power of your story is a power that you might use to understand where you are and what has happened to you, but it can also be a power that you exploit. This exploitation can be intentional or unintentional. Classic stories of revenge—The Count of Monte Cristo, the destruction of Shechem in Genesis 34, or The Iliad, just to name a few examples—rely on a narrative of trauma that must be avenged. But just like some people fall into pornography or drug addictions as a way of self-medicating their pain from trauma, other people can tell stories that are themselves driven by the story they’ve lived through so far.
Your lived experiences will inevitably shape the way that you perceive the world. Many experiences have the power to illuminate aspects of life that you might otherwise have had difficulty understanding. But that power to illuminate might also make it harder for you to perceive other realities that are draped in shadow for you. If you keep turning up the brightness on your own stories and their realities, eventually you might not be able to make out anything else at all.
In Which You Are Always the Hero
Much has been written about the harms of explicit outrage-mongering, less about the perverse incentives for selling your audience a self-reinforcing alternative reality. Just like people will line up outside the theater to watch the latest Marvel movie with the same basic plot, people will tune in over and over again to hear a story in which they (and their tribe) are the embattled defenders of truth and justice against a shadowy cabal of evildoers whose motivations are solely based on greed, power, lust, or cowardice. These stories almost always reflect some aspects of truth, but they’re even more compelling when the storyteller spices things up with a self-complementary assertion of identity.
The apotheosis of this shtick is found in full-blown conspiracy theories, where the storyteller and their audience are the only ones smart and brave enough to figure out the truth and embrace it. That and a few supplements are good enough for the rubes (and given Alex Jones’ net worth, there are a whole lot of rubes out there), but what really gets people like you and me, though, are the stories where your virtues are reinforced more subtly. If the bad guys in this story are ignoring a certain study, well, you, dear reader who’s outraged about their lack of respect for science, can draw your own unconscious conclusions about your intellectual prowess. If that mouthbreather with 10,000 Twitter followers is doing a racism and a sexism, why not join the right team? If those cowards over there are deluding themselves with fantasies of erudition and winsomeness, the dopamine hit from thinking of yourself as The Mighty Ducks of theology will last for at least 8 minutes.
Especially in the era of Substack and Patreon (however long this time may last), it’s easy for a writer to gain a following based on their own compelling story and then keep replaying that story in different guises as long as the retweets and subscriptions keep coming in. Some good writers compensate for this by sheer volume—they write so much that there’s enough novel content in between replaying the greatest hits twice a week. But many of the people we love (and love to hate) are, consciously or unconsciously, reproducing the narratives that caught people’s attention in the first place.
Most of these narratives, like I’ve said, are true in some respects. The truer the story, the more tempting it is to let it be the defining and recurring story. If I had been stabbed in the back by fellow believers while trying to do something good, sat through countless church services where the latest progressive buzzwords were mashed into the Bible like peas in guacamole, or had pictures of my children in gas chambers sent to me, I’d be mad about it and so would my followers. But if that story, however true, takes precedence to a point where no alternative story can counterbalance it, you’re in a precarious place because the next step will always be to twist vices into virtues.
Howard Thurman puts it like this in his classic Jesus and the Disinherited: “It is not difficult to see how hatred [...] provides for the weak a basis for moral justification. Every expression of intolerance, every attitude of meanness, every statute that limits and degrades, gives further justification for life-negation on the part of the weak toward the strong.” If real injustices (and Thurman, writing as a black man in 1948, is speaking of real injustices) dominate our moral horizon, then we will find ourselves justifying outrage-mongering and giving hatred a place to grow in our hearts. Thurman goes on to say:
Despite all the positive psychological attributes of hatred we have outlined, hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater. While it lasts, burning in white wheat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one’s fellows. Hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit. It is blind and nondiscriminating. True, it begins by exercising specific discrimination. This it does by centering upon the person responsible for the situations which create the reaction of resentment, bitterness, and hatred. But once hatred is released, it cannot be confined to the offenders alone.
The narrative tendency is inevitable and inescapable. If you can tolerate me getting meta for a moment, I have been indelibly shaped towards my middle-of-the-road, third-way tendencies by some of the experiences I’ve had—watching the malforming power of both “conservative” and “liberal” Christian communities. This essay, in turn, reflects the stories that I like to tell myself about how I veered between a few different extremes in my younger and crazier days and now I’m a proud defender of the second-greatest Judas in literature. I don’t regret the stories I’ve told over the years where I was a protagonist, but I have become more cautious about that temptation. And I’m looking forward to another few decades of (Lord, I pray) becoming less stupid in general and more careful in my writing.
So, then, our challenge is not to transcend or escape the power of story, but to treat it seriously and pull ourselves out of the inevitable ruts we get stuck in where we’re always the heroes. We can still work for and, yes, even fight for what is good and against what is bad. Stories still have the power to heal and build or destroy and kill, and to try to position yourself as above it all is just as bad as telling yourself that you must do evil in order that good may result. If you don’t know what story you’re telling yourself, though, stop and think about it—it might be that your narrator is less reliable than you think.