I’m convinced that the biggest emerging fissure in Western culture is not necessarily between political left and right as much as those fiercely committed to reality (even when it goes against the narrative) and those who elevate the narrative (whether left or right) above reality.
COVID-19 has offered illustrative examples of this. There are plenty of people on the political right whose approach to the pandemic is more informed by their political narrative, and its resultant posturing, than by a good-faith commitment to reality.
Their narrative—“nanny state” big-government overreach, corrupt Big Pharma, encroachments on personal liberty, vaccines as government control—becomes their reality. No level of scientific consensus or statistics will cause them to rethink or at least complicate their narrative.
There are plenty of people on the political left who act similarly, allowing their entrenched narratives and biases (e.g., taking off your mask in public signals you must be a vaccine-hating, genocide-loving conservative) to take precedence over objective reality.
In a piece for The Atlantic on the overcautious progressives “who can’t quit lockdown,” Emma Green observes: “Even as scientific knowledge of COVID-19 has increased, some progressives have continued to embrace policies and behaviors that aren’t supported by evidence, such as banning access to playgrounds, closing beaches, and refusing to reopen schools for in-person learning.”
Where are the people who live in light of the facts about reality more than their feelings about it? Where are those whose understanding of the world is shaped more by evidence and logic than by narratives and anger? Where these people exist, they’re the true radicals.
The biggest emerging fissure in Western culture is not necessarily between political left and right as much as those fiercely committed to reality (even when it goes against the narrative) and those who elevate the narrative (whether left or right) above reality.
Too many of us are too committed to partisan narratives, and not committed enough to reality. It’s tragic that this is true even within the church—where Christians’ politics often shapes how they interpret and apply the Bible. In a world of competing and ultimately subjective narratives, we need more people radically committed to reality. And Christians are well positioned to be such people.
But first we must be aware of why narratives are so magnetic in today’s information landscape.
Why We’re Drawn to Narratives
Humans have always been tempted to prefer convenient narratives over inconvenient reality—it started with Eve’s choice to believe the serpent’s narrative, after all (Gen. 3:1–7). But there are specific dynamics in our modern, technological age making the problem worse. Here are three.
1. We’re Too Overwhelmed. (Narratives Are Easier.)
In a world utterly glutted with information—far too many articles, studies, statistics, opinions, and “expert” recommendations to ever sort through—getting to the heart of reality is hard. Sometimes it seems impossible.
When a relentless barrage of information hits our brains, it’s easier to file things away in tidy narrative boxes (“This is proof of that”) than to lay them out on a table and see what reality emerges from the evidence. Quickly plugging data into established narratives is a coping mechanism in a world of information overload.
Quickly plugging data into established narratives is a coping mechanism in a world of information overload.
It’s understandable, but also kind of lazy and even quite dangerous. Reality is often more complex than our narratives demand. The pursuit of reality is a necessarily laborious endeavor. And it requires patience.
2. We’re Too Impatient. (Narratives Are Faster.)
Facts take time to gather, but narratives offer quick answers. Uncovering reality—in all its complex glory—is a slow burn. Who has patience for this in a world of instant gratification? Hot takes that neatly turn reality into narratives are more satisfying. And they sell.
When a breaking-news event happens, the narrative machine kicks in—jumping at the opportunity to shoehorn new “evidence” into a given narrative. When the Pulse nightclub massacre happened in 2016, it was immediately framed within a narrative of homophobic hate—and it remains framed that way in most of our memories.
But over the years as evidence emerged, the “homophobic hate crime” narrative was debunked. In a too-fast news cycle, we rarely revisit old news to correct false narratives. If a narrative is adopted en masse, it becomes “reality” for posterity, regardless of the facts.
3. We’re Too Self-Oriented. (Narratives Serve Us.)
We’re tempted to prize narratives over reality for another, more basic reason: we’re self-centered, sinful creatures. We like narratives because we can control them. Reality resists our attempts at control. We prefer narratives because it feels good to “be right,” even if reality would indicate we’re wrong.
And because we like how narratives make us feel (confirming our biases, patting us on the back for the supposed rightness of our views), narrative-driven news sells. Algorithms that feed us more of what we want to believe make us more addicted to social media and more lucrative to advertisers.
It’s a vicious cycle, but it feels good. Only an intentionally self-denying, “I may be wrong” posture is our way out of the quagmire. Only a humble deference to truth outside the self can free us from the prideful prison of narrative-skewed bubbles and self-serving distortion.
Truth Over Tribe
I love how former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss describes the goal of her Substack newsletter: “This newsletter is for people who want to understand the world as it is, not the world as some wish it to be. It’s for people who seek the truth rather than the comfort of a team or a tribe.”
People who seek the truth rather than the comfort of a team or a tribe. If that characterizes anyone in the world, it should be Christians. But it will only happen if we give up our comfortable attachments to narratives—cultural, political, personal.
The church is well positioned to be one of the clearest defenders of reality in a world of narratives. We have the foundation of truth (Scripture), and the truth that liberates (Jesus). This is the one entirely true narrative—the narrative that doesn’t just spin reality, but establishes criteria for evaluating it and a lens for illuminating it.
For these reasons, Christians of all people should be contending for transcendent truth rather than clawing for partisan power or in-group status, as I argued last year in “Exit the Echo Chamber. It’s Time to Persuade” and “We Need Prophets, Not Partisans.” Sadly, many Christians on all sides are now stressing narratives over reality, or letting narratives determine their perception of reality—and it’s ripping evangelicalism apart.
Christians of all people should be contending for transcendent truth rather than clawing for partisan power or in-group status.
This is why, in my book The Wisdom Pyramid, I call Christians to spend less time being fed by narrative-pushing sources (the internet and social media) and more time being nourished by sources that ground us in reality (Scripture, the church, nature): the transcendent, the time-tested, the tangible.
There are ample resources in Christian Scripture and tradition that can help us be people of reality in a world of narratives. Let’s avail ourselves of these wisdom-shaping resources. Let Scripture drive your understanding of reality more than QAnon conspiracy theories. Be shaped less by fleeting, viral narratives and more by the church’s 2,000-year tradition. Be constrained by the beautiful biology of God’s design in creation more than ethereal abstractions and expressions of self.
God-made, God-glorifying reality is so much more satisfying than self-made, self-serving narratives. Christians should be fighting for the former instead of falling for the latter.