The central theme of the Emergent Conversation is that we are moving from a modern to a postmodern world. An important part of this shift is that we are moving away from foundationalism to narratives. The days of identifying foundational principles and then building a belief system is over. It is the stories within communities that we must look to if we want to understand truth. It is through stories that we must communicate the gospel to cultures.
There is no question that stories can have a significant impact on culture. If we turn back the clock 150 years to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we find a book that many say flamed the abolitionist fervor into civil war. Another powerful story was D. W. Griffth’s movie Birth of a Nation in 1915, which portrayed the abuse of Southern Americans by tyrannical northerners. It glorified the exploits of the Ku Klux Klan which rose to its peak of acceptability in the mid-1920s, just as “Jim Crow” overtook the nation. Recently I saw a television special where several of the most innovative engineers and inventors of our day pointed to Star Trek as their inspiration for going into their life’s work. Of course, the greatest storyteller of all time was Jesus Christ. Stories matter.
Next week, a story is making its debut as a movie: The Da Vinici Code. It is an action packed adventure with intrigue, mystery and conspiracy. It is also a story that mixes fact with fiction in a highly compelling way. At the core of the story is the idea that the Christian faith is a ruse knowingly foisted upon the world by the Church. Church leaders are willing to kill to protect the illusion they have created.
As I read this story I wondered how well a fictional book leveling such charges at another religion would have done. For instance, how about a novel that has at its core the theory that the sacred writings of Judaism were really composed by Judas Maccabeus. He created monotheism to achieve world domination and formed a secret society to eliminate anyone who would reveal the truth. The strategy was to patiently and quietly seize control of the political and economic world sturctures. In the twentieth century, Jews realized they could more effectively accomplish their end by forming a nation. The events of World War II offered them the opportunity to concoct a story about concentration camps and persecution, thus making the world sympathetic to their idea of forming a nation. "Outrageous!" you say. "Inflammatory!" "Irresponsible! To which I respond, “What are you so worked up about? It is just a story.”
As I have surfed the internet in recent days I have taken note of conversations about The Da Vinci Code. Of particular interest to me are conversations within Emergent circles about the book and upcoming movie. Some have been quite insightful and helpful. Yet there is a persistent refrain that one frequently reads and hears in such discussions: “What is the big deal. It is fiction. It is just a story.” This from a community that supposedly has as one of its defining traits the belief that stories are what matter most! This also from many of the same people who wring their hands over the evil and corrupting impact the Left Behind series has on the way people think about things like Israel and the role of the United States in the world.
Now let us get real for a moment. A couple of years ago The Passion of the Christ was released and some in the Christian Community were nearly hyperventilating as they made predictions about massive revival and world transformation. (Ahem… seen in any massive revivals lately?) Two years later, some of these same people seem to believe that The Da Vinci Code will usher in the anti-Christ and the great apocalypse. Clearly some need to get a little firmer grip on reality (and possibly some prescription medication.) Yet for Emergent types, of all people, to flippantly dismiss concerns about events like The Da Vinci Code as “just stories” seems just a little inconsistent and a little too convenient.
When Evangelicals write books like Left Behind, we bemoan the way they twist minds. We pride ourselves that intellectually we have sufficiently evolved to see this foolishness for what it is. We recommit ourselves to telling better stories. When The Da Vinci Code comes along, suddenly it is no longer about the story but rather about those silly Evangelicals (God bless ‘em) who are so incapable of distinguishing facts and reality from fiction. (This despite the fact that all along we have said it is not about facts and propositional truths, but stories.) It is this kind of behavior that makes me suspect all the more that too much of Emergent is driven by being contra-Evangelical than by a new way of being the church. If there is to be a new way of being church, then we had better get our story straight, even when it might mean being confused with being a traditional Evangelical.