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Our Narcissistic Noise

As one whose professional mandate includes the task of “community building” I have begun to take a more focused interest in what brings and keeps people together, both inside and outside of a church context. I’m hardly the first to notice or comment upon this, but one crucial element of any kind of meaningful community is a meaningful sense of a shared history that we can participate in, both collectively and individually. Communities don’t just form because people really want them or think it would be a good idea to be a part of one. Some orienting story or purpose is a necessary component of any viable and healthy community.

Yet it is precisely this—a sense of a shared history, common purpose, or orienting story—that is most keenly absent in postmodernity. The political reality of pluralism brings all kinds of (different and sometimes contradictory) stories into the same geographic space. We can no longer count on significant shared assumptions about who we are, the purpose of life (if indeed there is or could be such a thing), and what (if anything) we can hope for.

Last month’s Walrus had an interesting article called “Brisebois Drive.” In it, Aritha van Herk takes something as apparently innocuous as an ordinary street name in the city of Calgary and uses it as a vehicle to explore our broader sense of historical rootlessness. Who was Éphrem Brisebois, the man after whom the street was named? Why has he been more or less excised from Calgary’s collective consciousness (as opposed to other more celebrated figures like James McLeod)? What does our selective accessing of history say about who we are and what we (seem to) need? Is history—whether the history of a city, a nation, or a life—simply one more malleable entity to be pressed into the service of our self-identities in the present?

For van Herk, the interesting issue is our relationship to the past, and what our neglect of (elements of) it communicates about our way of being in the present. She seems uncertain as to why, exactly, the obscure figure of Brisebois should draw her attention. Does she want Canadians to remember him? Why? Did he play some crucial, previously unacknowledged role in shaping Calgary’s future? Not really. Rather, her interest seems to be in the narratives we live by, and how these are (or are not) constructed in postmodernity. Here’s a few quotes that caught my attention:

And yet this naked and needy city produces a constant archive of arrivals and accommodations. In this respect, we are no different from any other metropolis, ancient or recent. We take for granted our over-documented and over-documenting age. Trivial emails are kept and archived, security camera tapes hold images in an endless loop of coming and going, cellphone records inscribe the time and length of quotidian conversations. Every moment is confined, numbered, and dated, photographed and Facebooked. This amassment of detail is destined to overwhelm itself—on what virtual garbage dump will so much unselective data end up?

The technology that gathers it becomes obsolete as quickly as the minutes roll by, and even retrieving these details will pose a challenge, not in 100 years but in ten. How will the future make a narrative out of our narcissistic noise?  Our contemporary story is overwhelmed by brutally tangential detail. Even while we obsessively document and hoard, we cannot remember what happened five minutes ago, let alone 100 years ago. Contexts change so swiftly that even a shared vocabulary cannot be assumed.

This is the deep irony of our cultural moment. Never has so much information been available. Never have so many and varied communication options been at our disposal. Never has so much “brutally tangential detail” been so accessible to so many. Yet for all of the options and opportunities our cultural moment presents, our chief production seems to be the publicizing and archiving of the trivial, the banal, the stupid, and the offensive. We are “story-less” creatures who are, nonetheless, providing ourselves with blow-by-blow descriptions of our story-less lives.

How will the future make a narrative out of our narcissistic noise?

In one of my conference workshops last week the presenter remarked that the chief task of the church was to help people “renarrate” their lives “in light of the gospel message.” This “renarration” is certainly difficult in postmodernity, where suspicion about metanarratives—about anyone claiming to tell or point to the story of human life and the life of the cosmos—abounds. It will take patience, sensitivity, and skill from our churches to tell a better story, and to invite people—even people as noisy and narcissistic as us—back into the Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption, into a wider hope of a God who is making all things new.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Her lament is like that of Hauerwas and Bellah. She names the demon narcissism, while they named it individualism – two names for the same evil according to communitarians.

    I think we do have a strong belief in one master narrative, one grand orienting story: chance and necessity (natural selection) are the authors of life and the world. And when we have that narrative it is hard to care much about shared history. We wish history and the present and the future mattered, but our master narrative says that they do not matter in any way that transcends our personal misery. That is our community narrative. It is an awful narrative to live with.

    We keep hoping that there is substance to the old myths. We do still find ourselves in our religious communities, but their lack of credibility gnaws at us. We feel grief and I think it is that grief that Aritha van Herk, Robert Bellah and Stanley Hauerwas mistake for narcissism.

    May 12, 2009
    • I think that some might subscribe to the narrative you describe, but I think there are many whose metanarrative could only be described as either highly confused and contradictory or simply unarticulated. Some hold to some form of the Enlightenment myth of progress, some to the narrative of pantheistic salvation through environmental action, some to reincarnation, gnosticism, and various combinations of these and other options. Some (like Richard Dawkins) even manage to convince themselves that “natural selection as master narrative” is a positive and hopeful story. All this is to say that I’m not sure that existential alienation/grief as a “community narrative” tells enough of the story of our cultural moment.

      Having said that, I do think that the picture you paint is certainly out there as one of the options. If natural selection is believed to describe our origins and our destiny without remainder, then grief would seem to be the most logical response. I suspect that the reason for the smorgasbord approach described above is that not many can consistently embrace the implications of this master narrative.

      May 12, 2009
  2. Ken #

    I agree with you about the variety of narratives or pluralism with which we live today. I think only that the strongest master narrative of our time is one that says that life and reality have been formed by chance and necessity rather than by design or purpose. The idea that natural selection drives evolution is one example of how this master narrative has been expressed. I think our idea of the free market is an another expression of that master narrative – something like natural selection explains what is happening in the world economy.

    I think that the other narratives all reckon with this one. I think, for example, that today’s version of the progress myth gives due respect to chance and necessity and natural selection or else it battles with it, just as theology gives respect to it or battles it.

    I think ecology is an example of a science that battles with it. I think Dawkins can be seen as an example of one who battles with natural selection even while affirming it. He uses it to fight his arch enemy, religion or God, but then he cannot take it on its own terms and he searches for the good in it. Dawkins is ultimately a moralist.

    I think that we do believe or hope, as Dawkins implies but does not say, that we will yet find that morality matters, that the way we live matters, beyond the way acknowledged by our master narrative (as one of many mechanisms our species has employed in the struggle for survival.) That belief or hope is a way of resisting the terror of chance and necessity.

    May 13, 2009
    • I think only that the strongest master narrative of our time is one that says that life and reality have been formed by chance and necessity rather than by design or purpose.

      You may be right about this, although I suspect it would depend upon where you are and to whom you are speaking. I still hear purposive language fairly regularly, in religious and irreligious circles. In my experience, people don’t think very coherently about questions like this; on the one hand, they might affirm that chance and necessity explain the origins of our world but on the other they would also claim to believe in all kinds of weird and wonderful theories about life that would seem to imply purpose, meaning, etc. This could, as you say, simply be due to the fact that people can’t bear to face the “terror of chance and necessity.” I would say that our inability to live or think consistently according to the master narrative of chance and necessity has other (more hopeful and suggestive) implications as well 🙂

      May 13, 2009
  3. It is intriguing to me that you suggest that the objective of the church is to provide a “better” story. It occurs to me that this is a qualitative change that suggests that former stories were not as good as the one needing to be told. What kind of a new story can be told that abandons the older versions in significant ways? How does a better story avoid the trap of catering to the prevalent narcissism in attempt to capture the orienting features that you have suggested are common to human experience? A common feature of Christian rhetoric has been the notion that the essential message of the gospel (theology) cannot be changed – but that it simply needs to be aesthetically reconfigured. It is my sense that if that is all that we get out of the challenges that postmodernity presents to intelligent theology then we may well have missed the point. On the other hand there seem to be very few theologians and church leaders who have the balls to advocate a ‘better’ theology that has significantly different (and more effective?) practical expression.

    May 13, 2009
    • I don’t have any problem admitting that we’ve told the story very badly in the past, or that certain elements of the way the story has been told ought to be abandoned. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s not just a matter of repackaging the message—as if we’ve had the message 100% right all along, and we just have to periodically adjust the medium in which it’s delivered. You’re right—if this is all that we learn from postmodernity, we’ve missed the point (and a significant opportunity to advance the kingdom).

      There’s obviously a lot that could be said about how to tell a better story or what it ought to contain. In my opinion, probably the most pressing place to start (and this would counter our narcissistic tendencies) would be soteriology. The story we tell ought to emphasize that the main point is not individual souls getting saved and that God’s plan has always been much bigger and broader (and better) than evacuating individuals who accept a certain set of propositions about reality from a world on the fast-track to destruction. What about you—what do you think ought to be in (or out) of a better story?

      May 13, 2009
  4. Ken #

    You wrote:

    “I would say that our inability to live or think consistently according to the master narrative of chance and necessity has other (more hopeful and suggestive) implications as well.”

    I like those implications.

    May 13, 2009
  5. Tyler #

    Aristotle: Politics books 1 and 2. (Most likely freely translated on the net)

    Loaded with community related ideas that apply in a Christian or non-Christian context. Relatively short books and worth the read. My net and the computer I am currently on is much to slow to type more than this. Sorry.

    May 14, 2009
    • Tyler, good to hear from you! I hope you’re enjoying your time in Italy. Thanks for the Aristotle tip.

      May 14, 2009

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