an ever-new narrative of good news … a Sunday meditation

My friend Bob Carlton sent me this link to a Guardian piece by Madeleine Bunting, Market dogma is exposed as myth. Where is the new vision to unite us? (With religion outmoded and society fragmented, it will require a different kind of moral narrative to inspire change)
The twentieth century presented us, she suggests, with two types of narratives – collective and individualist. The grand collective narratives were primarily economic: market forces shape our lives and promise a better future. But once-promising economic narratives, whether in their communist, socialist, or capitalist forms, she suggests, have lost their luster – tarnished by a series of events including the current economic crisis and the longstanding environmental crisis.
Individualist narratives, she says, are still popular, but they are ultimately unhelpful. She quotes documentary film-maker Adam Curtis:

“What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It’s enchanting, it’s liberating, but ultimately it’s disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,” explains Curtis.

Curtis’ analysis reminds me of a conversation I had with philosopher/theologian Pete Rollins in Belfast pub a couple weeks ago. We were talking a shift we were both sensing in the postmodern philosophical community – a reappraisal of the importance of big stories or collective narratives. (I won’t call them “metanarratives” because I think that term is largely, though perhaps unconsciously, associated with the narratives of empire … which include the dominant Christian narrative, sadly … which is a subject I grapple with at length in my upcoming book, A New Kind of Christianity.)
Bunting explains that for Curtis, collective narratives

… shape our understanding of the world and of who we are, and how we make sense and order experience. Powerful, grand narratives legitimise power, win our allegiance and frame our private understandings of how to measure value and create meaning. They also structure time – they fit the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future. This is what all the grand narratives of communism, socialism, even neoliberalism and fascism offered; as did the grand narratives of religion. Now, all have foundered and fragmented into a mosaic of millions of personal stories. It is a Tower of Babel in which we have lost the capacity to generate the common narratives – of idealism, morality and hope … that might bring about civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose.

Can a new collective narrative – a good one, a healing one – emerge? If so, where will it come from? While Curtis is optimistic, Bunting raises a terrifying question: what if …

… the new grand narrative has already emerged and it is one of environmental catastrophe. Perhaps this reinforces the sense of political paralysis. That the only grand narrative on offer is so terrifying – of a world rapidly running out of the natural resources required to sustain extravagant lifestyles and burgeoning population – that it disables rather than empowers us to achieve political change. Terrified, we retreat into private stories of transformation – cosmetic surgery, makeovers of home and person – because we see no collective story of transformation we can believe in.

Bunting concludes:

Every other modern narrative – communism, socialism … neoliberalism and fascism – laid claim to a version of the kingdom of God, a better world that would nurture a better human being. They were all narratives of redemption and salvation. All that we have now is apocalypse, and it is paralysing. How then can we build hope?

Faith communities would be the logical source of a hope-inspiring narrative, but what are our religious communities doing? Some are closing in on themselves, digging into culture-wars bunkers, lobbing occasional grenades but offering zilch in the way of a hopeful narrative that is anything like “Do not fear. I bring you good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10), or “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor …” (Luke 4:18 ff). Some are offering the religious counterparts of “cosmetic surgery, makeovers of home and person,” focusing on personal prosperity or the suburban nuclear family or the maintenance of religious institutions, traditions, and staff, but hopeless about community, society, and the planet.
But – thanks be to God – I believe there are rumblings of a bigger and deeper collective narrative emerging in nearly all our faith communities. Although I don’t think any one religion will have a monopoly on it, but rather that each religion will bring treasures to the table, I believe Bunting is right to mention the Kingdom of God. I believe that the good news of the Kingdom of God – the essential (and still amazingly unappreciated) message of Jesus’ life and teaching – provides the heart and soul of the new narrative we need. This is where constructive faith meets our collective life (including our personal lives) – in politics, economics, ecology, poverty, and peacemaking. Here’s how I put it a while back (EMC, 300-301):

It’s interesting – astonishing really – that Jesus doesn’t simply say [in Matthew 17:20), “Nothing will be impossible for me,” or “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Instead he says, “Nothing will be impossible for you.” This is our call to action, our invitation to move mountains and so reshape the social and spiritual landscape of our world. yes, change is impossible through human effort alone. But faith brings God’s creative power into our global crises, so the impossible first becomes possible and then inevitable for those who believe. Mountains can be moved and everything can change, beginning with our stories, beginning with faith, beginning now, beginning with us.