Saturday, September 10, 2016

Alastair Roberts at Mere Orthodoxy "Sometimes Narratives Betray the Cause", starting with the Elizabeth Holmes narrative and moving toward the observation that evangelicals can be even worse at buying into iconic narratives

In the wake of Elizabeth Holmes' narrative of founding a pioneering tech start-up looking to be more thoroughly narrative than anything else, Alastair Roberts has written about the propensity for the charms of a narrative to bludgeon out processes of confirmation.  Whether Roberts might wish this or no this can be thought of as a kind of part 2 for "Rob Bell and Don Draper: The Ad Man's Gospel".

Nick Bilton’s Vanity Fair article is definitely worth a read. Perhaps the most striking dimension of it for me was his attention to the role played by ‘narrative’ in Holmes’ rise and in the credence that people gave to her. Perhaps more than anything else, Holmes’ success lay in a story, a story about a revolutionary new technology that would transform the way blood testing is conducted, and a story about a young woman excelling in the male world of innovation and technology.

Roberts mentioned that Holmes was defended for a time on a ground that feminists needed icons of pioneers in male-dominated industries and that the need for the icon blinkered the ability of people to see that there were unraveling threads in Holmes' narrative.  Roberts, however, went on to state that evangelicals and Christians are, if anything, even worse about depending on these sorts of narratives.

This is certainly not just a problem for other movements: Christians can be as bad at this as any others, and often are much worse. Many of the prominent stories of the ‘persecution’ of Christians in the West that are publicized in the Christian press, for instance, turn out to be distorted, stories of employees breaching company policies, harassing or mistreating others, or of professing Christians making an unpleasant nuisance of themselves. We believe the stories that we are told without closely examining them because we want to believe them. They so effectively symbolize our narrative that their truthiness suffices to demonstrate their veracity.

The same can be true of attractive testimonies and iconic figures who represent us. As a young teen, I remember my church using the story of Hansie Cronje, the captain of the South African cricket team, in some of its evangelistic literature. Not only was Cronje a dynamic and popular sports figure, he was also a clean cut, ‘born again’ Christian. Unfortunately, only a few years later Cronje was discovered to have been involved in match-fixing, in a scandal that threw the entire sport into crisis. Rumors of serial adultery also surfaced.

Here in Seattle almost two years after Mark Driscoll decided to resign, and in the year after he hit the conference circuit to share retroactively how God released him from a ministry he'd spent a decade saying he didn't plan to abandon, it seems unlikely that we who are Christians can remind ourselves too many times that buying into an iconic narrative has drawbacks.  Mark Driscoll certainly presented quite a narrative of the history of how he planted Mars Hill ten years ago in Confessions of a Reformission Rev.  Back around 2005 he mentioned on the Midrash he was planning to write a history of Mars Hill.  Eleven years away from that it seems ... embarrassing and bewildering to think that a church that was merely ten years old could possibly have been significant enough to merit a history about it written by one of its co-founding pastors.  Twenty years on there seems reason to write a history of Mars Hill but even ten years ago when I read the published book Mark Driscoll wrote I was disappointed to see that this was not really a history of Mars Hill so much as a "how I did it" book written by Mark Driscoll about what was ultimately his own narrative, not the story of the formation of a Christian community.  It was a decade ago then, that some seeds were planted in which I began to think that it would be a good idea to record the history of Mars Hill in some way that was not just promotional copy for one guy's branded narrative.

One of the most pervasive frustrations I have had over the last ten years is discovering that the Christian and the non-Christian, left and right, have a huge investment in committing to some stereotyped branded narrative.  Sometimes these tropes converge closely enough to things that happened and to the people involved that it can pass for what happened. 

What has also been difficult is that in Mark and Grace Driscoll we have a couple that could not have been more, by Mark Driscoll's own account, explicitly trained professionally to formulate and master narrative.  Driscoll trained in speech communication and his wife trained in public relations.

I have a degree in communications from one of the top programs in the United States. So does my wife, Grace. We are used to reporters with agendas and selective editing of long interviews. Running into reporters with agendas and being selectively edited so that you are presented as someone that is perhaps not entirely accurate is the risk one takes when trying to get their message out through the media.

What made Mark Driscoll's case unusual within the history of American Christianity was not so much that there was what we could call a spin-doctored narrative of the sort that has unraveled lately for Elizabeth Holmes.  No, what made it unusual was that this managed to get formulated for the record by a man who pretty much told us along the way he got training to create this kind of narrative and that his wife worked in public relations.  To translate it at Driscollian levels of terms, this was a guy who told us his training and that of his wife's was for spin-doctoring. By the time Mark Driscoll was giving lectures on the methods and significance of engaging mass media platforms across media types this was a guy who was speaking as a vocational propagandist at every level except for calling himself a minister of propaganda.  Of course, in hindsight, this is obviously what he was and what he may yet hope to be again. 

In a culture that loves stars and icons, we can desire our own stars and icons like the nations, putting our trust in them. Christian culture so often recklessly invests its credibility, witness, and energy in fickle celebrities and prominent leaders, leaders that all too frequently are revealed to have feet of clay. As Christians we so often have narratives that we are invested in and attracted by, the sorts of narratives that disable the immune system of our critical faculties, just when we might most need them.

At such times, we can benefit both from the development of communities of internal critique and from receptivity to external critics, which may require overcoming our urge to circle the wagons. Scandals are hardly ever without advance warning signs, if we pay attention, and listen to those warnings. Those warnings will often come from people we instinctively dislike. The warnings will run directly against what we want to believe. They will offend our sense of truthiness. But they should be heeded nonetheless.

Developing communities of healthy internal critique is difficult too. How often do you see evangelical Christians prepared to break ranks and sharply challenge someone in their immediate circles? The lack of examples and exemplars of such behavior perpetuates and intensifies a culture where prevailing narratives and icons are upheld uncritically. We all like to criticize the other side, yet are reluctant to ask tough and searching questions of our own. We don’t like to challenge our friends and to risk the possibility that they react against or marginalize us. We feel uncomfortable and defensive in places where everyone is rendered vulnerable to challenge and criticism.

How often do we see evangelical Christians prepared to break ranks and sharply challenge someone?  Well, yes, the lack of examples of such behaviors is depressing but it's possible, at the risk of pointing this out, that the decline of Mark Driscoll may be one of the very few case studies of how criticism of Mark Driscoll from within the broadly Reformed Christian scene may be such an example. 

There may be an advantage in actually being on the margins of a community but well-connected enough within it to raise questions about the group narrative.  It can be perilously easy to present prophetic activity as this sort of activity and that would, as Roberts is more likely to be aware of than others, as a kind of Hollywood-style narrative in itself about prophets "speaking truth to power" from the margins of society.  Prophets were generally an accepted class within ancient societies and, along with or in competition against sages, would advise power. Prophets within the biblical canon have a well-attested history of engaging in polemic with other prophets as those who corruptly condone power.  Thanks to all of the polemics and tools of narrative refinement we have a whole host of elites within subcultures who can fashion themselves as mediators for the narratives of groups that internally see themselves as oppressed underdogs while being overlords and spin doctors from within the community. 

One of the difficulties of internal critique is that it seems all too often the people who most need to be subjected to scrutiny are immersed in what some call a victimhood culture.  College students who have the privilege of writing about privilege may not be able to grasp that in comparison to people who only graduated from high school or didn't even graduate from high school that their position of privilege is not even relative to those who have never received a college education; but it isn't that difficult to come across writers who have been to liberal arts colleges who have convinced themselves that they are ... well, actually, as Alastair Roberts put it in a recent podcast people now go to college so they can be in the middle class.  If undergraduate college education has become a prerequisite for being middle class does this mean that's become the entry requirement or the maintainance requirement or both?  For the moment, before getting back to my earlier point, I'll say that Christopher Hitchens' remark that the trouble with religious moderates is that they have too rarely stood up against the abuses of their demagogues within their traditions is something I have tried to take to heart.

Now back to the matter of what some call a victimhood culture, the trouble with it, which authors like Friedersdorf have addressed, is that the idiom of this culture appropriates for individuals narratives of group victimhood that can essentially be invoked by anyone.  I made a long-form case that Mark Driscoll has been able to appropriate the first-person industrial complex and the power of an emotionally charged narrative to make use of the victimhood culture. I also pointed out that one of Mark Driscoll's gambits in asserting and implicitly defending some of his most tendentious readings of biblical texts has been to wrap his interpretation so tightly inside stories about himself and his children that in order to contest his interpretation you have to drill down into the exegetical minutiae that bore non-scholars on the one hand or directly attack the mercenary deployment of his children in narrative in a way that is almost pre-built to make you seem like a jerk.

I don't think it's really possible to over-emphasize a need for an analytic approach that explores how these narratives are constructed and the ways in which they can be used in defensive and offensive ways in polemical contexts.  Mark Driscoll proved good at this for a time;  the controversies that he did and did not directly engage in 2012 could be particularly instructive here.  From what I've read about the Elizabeth Holmes story of rise and fall there may be a comparable eagerness for the star to rush to discuss any controversy that deals with the persona and its narrative and a reticence to discuss the brass tacks of the actual content under contention. 

Leonard Meyer's postlude to Music, The Arts and Ideas mentioned that the future is no longer a source of shared optimism but that we have access to the past; this past, however, would not be historical research but histories of ethno-mythic fabrication, that as groups consolidated their respective group identities they would formulate mythologies of heroes and villains by inventing selective histories not to discover history as such but to formulate histories with the aim of confirming existing prejudices and aims. 

This would not just be seen in American Christian fundamentalists fabricating a set of Founding Fathers who were all Trinitarian Protestant Christians, it could also be found in attempts to arrive at mythic American Indians who have multiple categories for sexuality and gender while ignoring altogether the practice of slavery and the caste systems in place.  These propagandistic histories are not necessarily pure fiction so much as they are polemics that take the useful "tithe" of historically verifiable elements and present them as though they were the sum of the history.  That the Founding Fathers were more Christian in some generic sense than a Richard Dawkins of today is not that hard to propose, just as more flexible categories about sexuality in Native American groups compared to Victorian white Christians isn't that hard to establish, either.  The problem is in how the left and right are more attentive to the propagandistic fabrications of "them" vs the swiftness of embracing it for "us" in making use of these kinds of ad hoc just so historical narratives.  The propensity for people left and right to take refuge in histories manufactured for the sake of promulgating contemporary political agendas is just the human condition, as Roberts so generally noted.

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