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.