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Christians shape cultures, we know — but cultures also shape Christians.
Without consciously thinking about it, the stories that we tell ourselves shape what we hear in the pews. Spiritual realities are pushed and smushed into the pre-existing categories these stories have created in our minds.
On November 10, I moderated a panel of scholars at the University of Notre Dame’s Ethics and Culture Center about “The Stories We Tell.” It got me thinking about what stories our culture tells itself and how they change us.
Stories of political heroes
Americans today tend to identify much more strongly with a political affiliation than we do with a religious affiliation. Even committed, practicing Catholics do.
How did this happen? Bit by bit, the stories of political saviors eclipsed the story of the Eternal Savior in our schools and in our culture. The story of the five-day march to Selma meant more to us than Moses’s journey. The assassination of JFK captured riveted our attention in a way the martyrdom of Stephen doesn’t. The Washington Post’s confrontation with Nixon eclipsed John the Baptist’s confrontation with Herod.
With all of that in our heads, it is no wonder we come to the faith looking to find how it serves the major narrative of our lives: politics.
The magic of Disney
Another dominant paradigm comes from our movies and literature.
If you grew up a Star Wars fan, you will have to unlearn its vision of the vast benign Force that needs to be channeled rather than encountered. If you grew up reading and watching Harry Potter, you need to beware of turning religion into a specialized knowledge for the few instead of the foundation of every soul.
Both of those essentially Gnostic views of God also appear in Disney, which has taught a self-focused religion from the time Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother sang “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” to the demigod in Moana singing “You’re Welcome.”
The gamer life
For many of us, the stories we tell ourselves, sometimes over and over again, for hours, play out on video game consoles.
What do video games teach us? We get to work through several life and death cycles of characters whose only task is to impose themselves on the world around them. Excessive users might learn a “Call of Duty” that doesn’t call us out of ourselves, or perfect a “Grand Theft Auto” life of sin that doesn’t involve real consequences, or triumph as a “Legend of Zelda” hero without real suffering.
These games can leave ordinary life dull by comparison and make the struggle of conforming our minds and wills to God in the mundane circumstances of a real life even harder.
Marketing “me” on social media
If the stories we tell are bad, the stories we post might be worse.
Some people do social media extremely well. For others, it can be a spiritual pitfall.
Social media works by exploiting a human psychological weakness. First, we compare our life to the fun and adventure on our friends’ Instagrams and feel a pang of inadequacy. So we create a prettified version of our life to compensate. Then we feel a jolt of joy at each “like.” This is exactly the cycle of inadequacy and compensation a narcissist gets caught in.
But even when it doesn’t make us narcissists, there is something false about the Facebook culture. It is like a perpetual dinner party, where everyone is surface-level friendly – until they’re not. Easy “likes” and “loves” from nearly-anonymous Facebook friends can give way to anonymous insults and denunciations from near-strangers who decide to disagree with us.
In real life interactions with flesh-and-blood counterparts, compliments need to be returned rather than simply counted up, love has to be won and then nurtured, and arguments are tempered by human faces.
What to do about these stories?
The answer is obvious but difficult. If you are trapped in one of these story loops, leave it. Try service instead of politics, faith stories in place of fantasy, family games instead of online gaming, and parties instead of posts.
And then, as one of the panelists recommended, immerse yourself in the stories that matter most: the Gospels.
After all, the stories we tell ourselves will echo in eternity.
This story also appeared at Aleteia.
Photo: RichardBH, Flickr