On Our Current Divisiveness and the Role of Cultural Narrative

I

Are we seeing the predominant form and structure of our cultural narrative assumptions (I speak as an American) being deconstructed (intentionally or otherwise) into intuitive narratives of inherent divisiveness? I’m not one to romanticize the past, and beyond the innocence of my childhood, I don’t know what “good ole’ days” I would prefer to go back to. However, it seems to me that while I was coming of age the majority of past narratives presented in literature, media, and pop culture in general were all grounded in some basic common principles and ideals. The ideal that America would continue to strive to live up to it’s greatest ideas arising from a narrative of unity. The narratival principle that dysfunctional or unjust or harmful individual or communal relationships were the result of something that went wrong and needed to be fixed, with no exceptions. I grew up watching Boy Meets World and the original “classics” on MTV (including the first gruesome forays into reality T.V) and these shows portrayed narratives based on fundamentally agreed upon structures of unity (no matter how off base) – disagreements and divisions were simply a departure from this norm and would usually be fixed (or would be used as entertainment as they experienced a lack of ability be resolved). I know I am politically naive in terms of lived experience, because of my age, to partisan politics before the Obama Administration. But as a kid, I didn’t like George Bush or the war in Afghanistan and it wasn’t something that created tension, fear, or arguments that threatened to tear the family apart. It was a disagreement that made sense inside of the larger narrative of unity that agreed that human flourishing (or whatever political, spiritual, or humanistic term you prefer) was the ultimate goal and hopeful outcome of the collective narrative of humanity.

II

The Christian Scriptures present turning humanity against God, and ultimately against each other, as the oldest and greatest trick of the one eventually referred to as The Satan. The serpent seized on a division between Adam and Eve and created one between them and God. Cain and Abel divided themselves into a murderer and victim. Generations later, Cain’s legacy, Lamech, revered in his reputation as a mass murderer. Not long after that, the whole world was filled with violence which caused the cosmos to respond in like kind with the violence of the Great Flood. Humanity then tried to unite themselves, but not of a desire for the common good or to further God’s dreams for his creation. Their faux unity resulted in the largest original act of true division. Not diversity, division. It occurs to me that one could read the primordial account of humanity in Gen. 1-11 as the gradual division of humanity and the story of salvation from Gen. 12 onwards as the story of gradual unity. The church, God’s vision for humanity, his alternative society, is a community characterized by unity (albeit unity in diversity, much like the Triune God himself). This is perhaps the hallmark of the early Christian communities – here there were no slaves and masters, Jews and gentiles, males or females – there was a people united in Christ. How truly radical, today as it was then.

III

Division, of the destructive and irredeemable kind, has existed as long as the primordial tales of Genesis 3-11. It’s not a new plot twist onto the scene of the human theater. But might it have evolved? Might the principalities and powers manipulated it into a greater weapon against the world and the church than they previously thought possible?

IV

The majority of political commenters, both on the right (usually in praise of a diverting strategy from mistakes and miscues of a leader they must endorse) and on the left (usually in a cringe-worthy hand-wringing that risks losing its effectiveness), are noting that divisiveness is being used as a tool. I can’t give credit to Trump, or Obama, or the Tea-Party, or rifts created in the cultural eras of Modernism or Post-Modernism, or the Media to creating this tool or being its sole users. I propose that this tool of dividing people against one another is not longer being employed on occasion as much as it is now forming a new shared narrative to be taken advantage of. Divisiveness is not longer a norm outside a more mature narrative of (at least pretend) unity. Divisiveness is the foundation and structure of the assumed cultural narrative. All issues, crises, topics, and opinions are enslaved to competing inside the gym of a world of inevitable and dehumanizing division. The NFL protests are no longer capable of being an impetus for discussion of anything meaningful, they are identity markers of what side of the division you are on (see the repeated phrase “Our Heritage”). The Harvey Weinstein scandal receiving little attention by the self-proclaimed media defenders of truth, morality, and scorched-earth comedians is not serious material for producers, celebrities, and audiences that aren’t looking or able for a real discussion or cultural progress but just entertainment that serves to confirm the identity the of audience as they are enslaved to define themselves as players of the narrative of division. The examples go on Ad infinitum.

V

I think the term “post-truth” captures the reality, in my opinion, that I see and experience more each day. We are in a time, space, community, and culture where evidence and facts are barely seen as opinions to be used solely to support already drawn conclusions, usually as reinforced markers of one’s identity in the narrative of division. This is a time when emotion and tribalism are more determinative of communities and opinions than discussion and education. (A lesson is to be learned, I think. The Modern and Post-Modern world was always too temped to a reductionist anthropology were humans were at their core rational, thinking creatures. We are perhaps more creatures of love (or worship, if you will) – which can be and often is closely related to emotion. I mourn the loss of critical thinking, but am not surprised by the anthropology that is increasingly establishing its dominance. Perhaps a post-truth society was inevitable in a culture that so wrongly estimated the irreducible nature and motivations of humans.

POSTSCRIPT

My very broad and inclusive statements and conclusions are obviously, and thankfully, not descriptive of many thoughtful people. They are nothing more than my stream-of-consiousness hypotheses, in all truth, though I fear many of my observations (if not larger commentary or conclusions) are in fact obvious and undeniable.  For my part, my pessimism on the human nature, apart from participation in the person of the Risen Jesus and the transformational work of the Holy Spirit, remains. I think I can propose a solution – both sides (politically, economically, racially) focusing on agreeing to a unifying underlying narrative as much, if not more than the issues, at least for a time being. To be clear, I am speaking pragmatically. I believe this not advisable, possible, or a live option for me because of m my conviction that ignoring systemic injustices in our society is a moral evil off the table as a choice for my private and public influence. Still, I can’t help but wonder if our just cause in fighting for these issues unwittingly deepens a narrative of division that will keep, further, and create new and perhaps worse problems that we can’t yet imagine.

My true hope, is in the church as witness, where unity in diversity is the norm. Where the narrative of one of the Almighty Father’s inevitable progress towards creaturely unity and an unmistakable call for justice and righteousness reigns. Where the narrative that in Christ there are no destructive walls of division. Where the narrative that through the Holy Spirit, equality for all is not only a dream but a possibility. Let us develop this narrative, fight for it, and pray for it’s development.
There will be differences and there will be divisions, but they can and will be productive  conflicts when they arise from a narrative of unity, or better put, a narrative of cruciform love.

 

4 thoughts on “On Our Current Divisiveness and the Role of Cultural Narrative

  1. Wow, Mike. A lot to unpack here. I’m 51, so I witnessed the politics of “Pre-Obama” times, from the tumult of the Nixon era, to the disillusionment under Ford and Carter and then to more optimistic times under Reagan. To be sure, there was divisiveness in each of these eras, but I think you are right in suggesting that today’s divisiveness may be in a class by itself. I might even submit that this divisiveness and tribalism are part of our current zeitgeist, which is a bit of an ironic statement if you think about it. Perhaps this is a logical result modernism and post-modernism as you say, but we must not underestimate how technology, especially the internet and social media, has influenced how we think. When I was a kid, Walter Kronkite and a handful of other media figures told just about everyone in this country what was going on in the world. Most towns and cities had newspapers that functioned much in the same way on a local level. The indivdual’s political or spiritual views, no matter what they might be, were still subordinate to a larger conversation that was taking place at higher, perhaps more rarified, levels.

    Nowadays, the pure democratization of information has encouraged the kind of siloed thinking that is rapidly becoming a hallmark of the current era. We don’t need to bother entertaining ideas that may challenge or contradict our own views because we can easily seek out and engage with others that think more or less think the way we do. Our current President is thus not an aberration. He is a product of this time and has shrewdly leveraged our divisive political climate to his advantage.

    So what should our response be as Christians? Sadly, much of the tribalism has spilled over into the body of Christ. Witness the “culture wars” over hot-button issues like gender and homosexuality, patriotism, immigration…I could go on, but you know what they are. Yes, all these issues have been simmering for a long time, but in this era, they have come to a full boil. They have become the “core issues” that define certain groups of believers. No longer are Christ’s examples of love for enemies, welcoming the stranger, and compassion for the “sinners” and outcasts of society, defining values of what it means to be Christian. These have been replaced by rigid fundamentalist narratives where you are required to check the boxes of expected beliefs (beliefs far narrower than any ancient creeds), or you’re out. This has become a defining feature on the right, but it happens on the left, too, though perhaps to a lesser extent. I wholeheartedly agree with your call to further the development of the “unity in diversity” narrative, for this has always been central to the message of any body of believers that has followed Christ faithfully, but I fear current cultral factors are working against this.

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    1. Hey Matt!
      Thanks for taking the time to read that little tome and confirming that at least some of it made sense. I was worried for a while that I had written myself into a hole of meaninglessness. Your experience is such a helpful context for my ability to even begin to think through these issues. I think you raise a pertinent point in regards to technology. I think it is hard to understate the way technology has (and continues to) shape our world every single day.
      Thanks again,
      Mike

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      1. You’re welcome. I read your post several times to make sure I was getting all you were saying. I get that it was more “stream of consciousness,” but you did make a lot of good points. It’s a complex issue and surely no single thing can be said to be causal by itself.

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