Religion & Liberty Online

One narrative to rule them all?

There is no one experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. National experiences vary wildly between New Zealand and Italy. Business experiences differ, as well. Pier 1 is going out of business, while Walmart sales have jumped. In West Michigan restaurants have expanded their distribution to grocery stores, while yoga studios have brought their teaching online. Some people are working harder than ever, while others are barely keeping it together. At a time when both prudent political leadership and scientific research are necessary, both are being confused. There is no one neat story which ties together all of these threads. The national media are in crisis and increasingly frustrated, as exhibited by this revealing tweet by CNN Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcy:

Long-running internecine media feuds, emblematic of the degradation of mass media as they are, are merely the smoke set off by the burning desire for one, all-consuming narrative. This disordered desire stems from a failure to appreciate the truth which Johann Goethe so eloquently observed:

Born is the poet ‘tis said; and we add, the philosopher also.

For it is certain that truth has to be formed to be seen.

Ten years ago, in the wake of the last financial crisis, the economist Tyler Cowen gave a wonderful TEDx Talk which he began by saying, “I was told to come here and tell you all stories, but what I’d like to do is instead tell you why I am suspicious of stories, why stories make me nervous.” He cautions us that while stories are necessary for us to make sense of the world, give our lives meaning, and establish connections with others, they always act as a kind of filter. When we think in terms of stories, what we are actually doing is telling ourselves the same thing over and over.

Some stories, such as those which come to us through our religious tradition, deserve to be told again and again. This is how they shape us and transform our lives by their truth. Other stories, such as those told over mass and social media, can be dangerous in that they oversimplify complex events and ideas or serve as apologies for the ideologies of this present age. Cowen reminds us that we are easily seduced by stories, and St. Paul warns Timothy of precisely this sort of temptation:

But evil people and charlatans will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived themselves. You, however, must continue in the things you have learned and are confident about. You know who taught you and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (II Timothy 3:13-15).

The only story we need to get straight is the story that really matters. Grounded in that story, the greatest ever told, we can deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world. Mass and social media can provide us with information that can aid our understanding, but we should never uncritically accept or believe the stories by which they relay that information. This is precisely how the Sage Patañjali defines ignorance in the Yoga Sūtras (II.5): “Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self: all this is lack of spiritual knowledge.”

Those unrooted in religious tradition can easily become entrapped by the stories presented in mass and social media. In his talk, Cowen observes that “non-fiction is the new fiction.” Narratives packaged in the latest best-seller, news article, or tweet act as secular talismans. In a time of crisis—when so much is unknown and when new information is constantly emerging—it is important not to get too attached to the stories we tell ourselves in mass and social media, and turn instead to reflect on the surer ground of faith and conscience as we try in our own ways and contexts to serve God and neighbor.

(Photo credit: tara hunt. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.