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People make sense of their lives by means of the stories they believe.
Those narratives can spring from many sources: parental guidance, childhood experiences, religious instruction, favorite teachers, friends’ ideas, and earnest personal study.
If you toss in a few favorite books, some videos on YouTube, and all the stuff that “everybody simply knows to be true,” what’s left is a patchwork quilt of ideas – some of which we only half-believe, others which we believe with all our hearts, and still others we don’t even know are banging around inside our heads.
Once those stories and ideas get fixed in our minds, however, they are notoriously difficult to dislodge.
One definition of “growing up” – becoming a more mature human being – is displaying enough humility and self-awareness to keep thinking, “I may be wrong about things, even very important things, so I need to keep an open mind.”
What we know for sure is that people don’t like it when you mess with their stories.
That includes historians.
Most of us grew up learning about the so-called Dark Ages – that lengthy span, roughly A.D. 500 to 1400, in which Western civilization is said to have almost died. The story goes that intellectual curiosity was squelched, science was trumped by religious dogma, and the flickering candle of scholarship was virtually snuffed out by closeminded medieval theologians. Then came the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. After the Church was finally forced to the sidelines, humanity was rescued by reason, common sense, and progress.
That’s the default story that’s been taught in most Western classrooms for the last 400 years.
That perspective, of course, was promoted by the same historians and philosophers who coined the terms Renaissance (the “rebirth” of the wisdom of the pre-Christian world) and Enlightenment (the “lights coming back on” all across Europe). These are the same writers who invented the notion of the Dark Ages, which they judged to be a desolate period when everything of value seemed to be at risk.
Today’s historians know better. The “Dark Ages” were anything but. It’s now widely acknowledged that medieval Europe was blessed with groundbreaking innovations in art, architecture, and technology, and produced some of history’s greatest thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas.
Unsurprisingly, those who have long embraced the story that “Reason means progress, faith means regress” have been reluctant to change their minds.
People don’t like it when you mess with their stories. That includes America’s favorite stories, too.
During my childhood, Christopher Columbus was a hero – the courageous sea captain who crossed the Atlantic to discover the New World. Today, one is far more likely to hear that Columbus didn’t “discover” anything at all, since indigenous peoples had been living in the Western hemisphere for centuries. All Columbus did was bring disease and domination.
Older Americans, in particular, feel that rewriting the “Columbus story” is an unwarranted assault on a beloved figure. And they don’t like it one bit.
Then there’s the jarring experience of being compelled to rethink the story of one’s own family.
Perhaps you’ve always looked back on your earliest years with wonder and gratitude. But then someone suggests that one of your parents had a secret addiction. Or a sibling announces that he or she was molested by a favorite uncle. The happy story you always believed is now threatened, and you’re starting to resent those who are stirring up the past.
People don’t like it when you mess with their stories.
That’s because when you challenge the veracity of a cherished story, you force the person who believes it to do hard thinking and make hard choices. And very few of us want to do that.
Now we know how Jesus’ listeners must have felt. He dared to challenge Israel’s story – the one, at least, that Israel was telling about itself.
First century Jews lived in the certainty that they were special. They were blessed to be God’s chosen people. That blessing came with special privileges. God would surely rescue his people from their bondage – their bondage to the Romans who had overrun their land – and all the nations of the earth would look up to Israel and glorify God.
Then Jesus comes along and flips the script.
Yes, the Jews are blessed to be God’s chosen people. But the blessing chiefly comes with special responsibilities. God will surely rescue his people from their bondage – their bondage to sin – and they will become representatives of God’s grace and mercy to all the nations of the earth. They will do this by turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and praying for their enemies.
That’s a very different way of telling the story.
And it left many people feeling unsettled, if not outright angry.
Today there are competing stories about what it means to be a Christian in America. Some would say that those who follow Jesus – with their insistence on ideas like good and evil – are traditionalists who are seriously out of step with the post-modern world, and will slowly fade from view. Others would describe Jesus-followers as a persecuted minority who should seek government assistance to obtain special privileges and protections. Still others see Christians as an angry voting bloc that has decided, “Enough of that stuff about turning the other cheek,” and has come out swinging.
Those are dreadful stories.
The good news is that we can still choose a better one.
Jesus’ understanding of reality remains alive and well.
Those who abandon their own agendas and choose to follow him become the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Our call is not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). We are now God’s ambassadors, extending to people everywhere – no matter who they are – his gracious invitation to new life (2 Corinthians 5:20). Best of all, Jesus promises to be with us every step of the way (Matthew 28:20).
Embracing such a way of living, with open hands and open hearts, may ruffle the feathers of some of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But that’s OK.
As stories go, it’s the only way to fly – for the simple reason that it’s the very story God himself has always told.
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