By Nathan Hart
By now there seems to be broad agreement that something is deeply wrong in our society. We have long aspired to be a city shining on a hill, but the light sure appears to be dim or flickering now. So, what went wrong?
In my view the diagnosis can be summarized in two words: narrative and identity. We have lost the narrative and confused our identities.
Narrative: Two neighbors living across the street from each other could be living in two different realities depending on which news source they watch. With the society-wide expansion of televised news (and opinion), social media, and “infotainment,” every person is constantly being presented with a version of reality that may or may not be based in actual facts, or they are only hearing about some of the facts. (See: The Social Dilemma on Netflix). The latest iteration of this trend is that one citizen firmly believes that the 2020 presidential election was stolen while another citizen, living in the same country, firmly believes instead that the 2016 election was interfered with by a foreign power. Both think the other one is crazy or even evil. As long as these competing, splintering narratives exist, a nation has no chance of uniting.
Identity: In previous generations, more people belonged to organizations like the Rotary Club, the town softball league, or a local church. Over the last few decades, these local communities have almost entirely collapsed (read Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam). These memberships provided space for people with different backgrounds and worldviews to be in close proximity with one another. Those proximate relationships humanized the “other” in meaningful ways. Membership in these clubs was never intended to offer people a complete identity–rarely would a person introduce himself as the first basemen on his town’s softball team–because primary identities were found in higher ideals like patriotism and faith. Nowadays, without proximity to people of differing perspectives, and being isolated in our homes with those above-mentioned narratives constantly offered to us on our screens, we begin seeing ourselves–our primary identities–as belonging to those narratives. One citizen wraps himself in a Trump flag while another proudly displays a BLM yard sign. Both are signals of more than just politics; they are statements of identity. Once we have sublimated our very selves into such narratives, we cannot accept new/different ideas because they come as a threat to our existence. Political disagreements become personal attacks that must be avenged. It’s mutually assured destruction.
Thank God, there is a solution. If the diagnosis is summarized in the terms narrative and identity, the solutions are word and worship. Both are time-tested traditions that will offer the best way out of this mess.
Word: The Bible (God’s word) offers us a complete, better narrative of the grand sweep of history. From Genesis to Revelation, it shows us the universal story to which we all belong, that of a world created perfectly by God, broken by humanity as a result of our selfish rebellion (sin), but redeemed by the sacrificial death (grace) of Jesus who will come again to bring all nations under his authority as the King of Kings who conquered death. While we wait for his return, we are called to participate in his restoration plan as people of love and reconciliation in a world still stained by sin. God’s word tells the story of this eternal Kingdom which predates and will outlast all nations. Reading the word, instead of watching the news or scrolling Twitter, reminds us of our place in this better narrative. On a practical level, for example, last Thursday morning (the day after the riots at the U.S. Capital), I started my day in a men’s Bible study on Zoom. I started the meeting by saying to the twenty participants, “Guys, I’m sure the headlines are top-of-mind for all of us this morning. I feel tempted to set aside this week’s Bible passage and instead spend the hour chatting about the crazy news. But we’re not going to do that. We’re going to step into the eternal story told in Scripture.” We then read a chapter from the New Testament and had a wonderful conversation to start the day. The passage started with the phrase, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16). That’s a statement reminding us that there are false narratives always competing with the Truth. Reading the whole passage with those men on Thursday morning, I felt peace and even joy (!) while gaining some hopeful perspective on the previous day’s troubling headlines. I believe that if everyone in our nation started their days in Scripture like this, we would become a far more peaceful and united people. We would all belong to the same story.
Worship: The solution to our identity problem is found in how we worship. Each person was created with a divine stamp (or “image”: see Genesis 1:27) at the core of who we are. This means that God defines our identity. But our own sinful selfishness makes us want to ignore or remove that core piece so that we can replace it with the god of Self. In this distorted state we exhaust ourselves (being our own gods is hard work!) while we endlessly seek other means with which to fill the void. This is what Blaise Pascal described as a God-shaped hole:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” (Pascal’s Pensees, 1670)
When we worship God we come back into alignment with the way our core identities were created to be, that is to say, we behold who we truly are and who God truly is: creatures with a Creator, sinners who have a Forgiver of Sins, sheep in the care of a Good Shepherd. Our identities are collected into the glorious identity of God; we are safe in him. In worship, when we sing the hymn Rock of Ages, for example, we behold these truths in the opening line: “Rock of Ages, cleft for me; let me hide myself in Thee.” (Augustus Toplady, 1776). Or in a more contemporary praise song we sing these words to God: “You’re a good, good Father, it’s who You are… And I’m loved by You, it’s who I am.” (Chris Tomlin, 2015). These are identity statements that ground us in eternal realities. Without routinely worshiping, we forget who we are and who God is. We are left vulnerable to fill our God-shaped holes with imitation identities offered by the prevailing false narratives of the day. Falsehoods can never really satisfy us, but worshiping God brings us back into the Truth.
Word and worship. These are our ways out of the mess we’re in. The solution is not political but spiritual. It’s not in revenge but grace. It’s not in ourselves or our screens, but comes from God and his word.
So, that’s the diagnosis and remedy. Now here’s the prescription: Join a Bible study that actually studies the Bible. Attend every week. Read the word in community. Also, worship. Sing! This can be done even through virtual worship services but is best experienced in person.
How will we get out of this mess caused by narrative and identity problems? Through word and worship. Let’s get to it. It’s our only hope of once again becoming a light shining on a hill.
The Rev. Dr. Nathan Hart is the Senior Pastor at Stanwich Church.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: We have asked our spiritual community to share their thoughts after a difficult year and the turmoil in Washington last week. We are putting these online as we receive them and will print them in this week’s paper.