It's time to tell a new story or, how do we get out of this mess?

Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? asks George Monbiot in an article in Saturday’s Guardian Review. I had been drafting ideas for a blog about the Church of England before I turned to the Guardian, and was somewhat stunned to discover that George’s lengthy article was exploring in the political realm what I was trying to explore in the Christian realm. George wrote that the answer to his question appears to be no. Four observations he has been making reveal that the current political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. I think the failure of the Church of England to give hope for a better world is also a failure of imagination, a failure to tell an inspiring Christian narrative.

Monbiot’s first observation is the realisation that it is not strong leaders or parties that dominate politics as much as powerful political narratives. The two great political narratives of the second half of the 20th century have been the stories told by Keynesian social democracy and by neoliberalism. These stories overrode everything: personality, identity and party history. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world, he says. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals.

Says Monbiot:

“When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?”

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. People often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world.

Telling a story is, of course, at the heart of what Christianity is about – the story of creation, fall, redemption and transfiguration. This narrative is a simplified version of the complex series of stories recorded in the Bible, stories that underpin the faith of the church. The Christian story is powerful and has inspired people for two millennia. It is a story about which Christians now clash violently as the truth established in the minds of some clashes with what others label “revisions to the story,” adopted by people like me. If Monbiot is right, that those who tell the stories run the world, then those of us involved in church conflicts and reform of the story are playing for very high stakes. Do we have narrative fidelity? Does our story hand together and progress as the story should?

Monbio’s second observation is that although the stories told by social democracy and neoliberalism are starkly opposed to each other, they have the same narrative structure, which he calls the Restoration Story. It goes like this:

“Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero – who might be one person or a group of people – revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order. Stories that follow this pattern can be so powerful that they sweep all before them: even our fundamental values.

The Christian story is often constructed in this way, as a narrative of powerful forces working against the interests of humanity – good versus evil – and of powerful forces in conflict within ourselves – the good self versus the sinful self. We have, however, on our side the most powerful force of all – God. It’s easy to assume there is one, single, coherent Christian story – the story of Jesus told in the Gospels, of the followers of Jesus coming to terms with his death and resurrection told in Acts and the Epistles, and the story told by the church from then until the present day. But in truth there are many versions of the story. There is the story as told liturgically through the Christian year. To take just two other versions of the story, there is the story as told by conservative evangelicals and the story as told by revisionists and liberals and radicals in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Different versions of the story have been told at different periods of history, in different cultures and in different denominations. The growth of Christianity in the Global South is in part due to the version of the story being told there. The decline of Christianity in Europe is in part due to the failure to inspire by the version of the story being told here.

Monbiot’s third observation is that the narrative structure of the Restoration Story is a common element in most successful political transformations, including many religious revolutions. The success of the Christian story in the Global South in producing transformative growth in numbers and the conservative counter-revolution on sexuality is in part due to the success of their version of the Christian story being told. Relative failure in Europe is in part due to the failure of our current version of the story.

Monbiot’s fourth insight is that the reason why, despite its multiple and manifest failure in politics and economics we appear to be stuck with neoliberalism is that we have failed to produce a new narrative with which to replace it.

He says:

“You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace one story with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum. But the old story has lost most of its content and narrative force.  Without a new story that is positive and propositional, rather than reactive and oppositional, nothing changes. With such a story, everything changes. The narrative we build has to be simple and intelligible. It should resonate with deep needs and desires. It should explain the mess we are in and the means by which we might escape it. And, because there is nothing to be gained from spreading falsehoods, it must be firmly grounded in reality. This might sound like a tall order. But there is, I believe, a clear and compelling Restoration Story to be told that fits this description.”

At the moment, Christianity is stuck with two or more reactive, oppositional stories. In the UK, many people perceive our version of the Christian story to be an old, outdated narrative, discredited because it has been used to repress women and LGBTI people and fails to speak of their spiritual experience. If we follow Monbiot’s analysis of the political realm and transpose it to the Christian, our narrative has to be replaced by a new Christian narrative that is simple and intelligible, resonating with people’s deep needs and desires, explaining the mess we are in and the means by which we might escape it. This is startlingly similar to what the Christian narrative has always set out to do. But add Monbiot’s next recommendations and we might be into new territory: there is nothing to be gained from spreading falsehoods, and it must be grounded in reality. I don’t think the Church of England is able to move into that kind of territory at the moment. Nor, for that matter, do I think the Anglican Global South Churches are up to avoiding falsehoods and able to ground themselves in reality.

A clear and compelling Restoration story

Monbiot continues to espouse his idea of a new Restoration story:

“Over the past few years, there has been a convergence of findings in different sciences: psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Research in all these fields points to the same conclusion: that human beings are spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals. This refers to our astonishing degree of altruism. We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies. This urge to cooperate has been hard-wired into our brains through natural selection. Our tendencies towards altruism and cooperation are the central, crucial facts about humankind. But something has gone horribly wrong. We have been induced to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other, and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. The story of our competitive, self-maximising nature has been told so often and with such persuasive power that we have accepted it as an account of who we really are. It has changed our perception of ourselves. Our perceptions, in turn, change the way we behave.”

We in the Christian realm are affected in our spiritual lives by this competitive, self-maximising individualism because we also inhabit the world of politics. I think part of the problem with our current version of the Christian story is that we have failed to allow the sciences of psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology to inform and transform the story. I also think the version we tell continues to be obsessed with sin and guilt and the need to remind people of their fallen nature rather than their divine image. One of the most powerful elements of Monbiot’s narrative is his conviction that human beings are invested with a high degree of altruism, unparalleled sensitivity to others, concern about welfare, and an ability to create moral norms and cooperation across difference. All these qualities Christianity at its best can exemplify, but we continue to be obsessed with reminding people of failure rather than nurturing innate goodness and virtue. The version of the story we tell ourselves is accepted unquestioningly as an accurate account of who we are. I reject core elements of the traditional version of our story.

Finally, Monbiot says:

“We have lost our common purpose. This leads in turn to a loss of belief in ourselves as a force for change, frustrating our potential to do what humans do best. Our atomisation has allowed intolerant and violent forces to fill the vacuum. But by coming together to revive community life we, the heroes of this story, can break the vicious circle. Through invoking our capacity for togetherness and belonging, we can rediscover the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid."

The Church of England’s version of its story justifiably sees us as at the core of life in many communities with a capacity to nurture togetherness and belonging, breaking vicious circles of deprivation and prejudice. Many Christians embody a high level of altruism and mutuality. But there are also deeply intolerant forces embedded in the Church in England and in the Anglican Communion, forces that threaten schism and retribution and that have a dangerously violent edge to them. I think this undermines our ability to have confidence in a common purpose and leads to a loss of belief in ourselves as a force for change. The parallels with Monbiot’s analysis of the political world are remarkable.

Monbiot believes:

“the strong, embedded cultures we develop will be robust enough to accommodate social diversity of all kinds: a diversity of people, of origins, of life experiences, of ideas and ways of living. We will no longer need to fear people who differ from ourselves; we will have the strength and confidence to reject attempts to channel hatred towards them. We can build a society in which our extraordinary nature – our altruism, empathy and deep connection – is released.”

I believe the Church of England can also do this, and must do this if it is to remain a recognisably Christian, redemptive, transformative body of people, manifesting the unconditional, infinite, intimate love of God. We must, must become a diverse church. We must develop the ability to nurture people’s altruism, empathy and deep sense of connection, with self, other people, and the sacred.

Monbiot believes that in the political realm, no meaningful and lasting change will be generated unless it is is supported by a new, coherent narrative, a compelling narrative of transformation and restoration that will rekindle our imagination.

This is the challenge for the Church of England. At the moment, attention is dominated by the challenges presented by coming to terms with the full variety of gender and sexual identity in church and society and by the opposition to any such accommodation from conservatives here and in the wider Anglican Communion. We are unable at the moment to give attention to constructing a version of the Christian story which embodies the values and qualities and vision George Monbiot identifies as being essential to a successfully transformative political vision. We need an equally compelling Christian narrative.