In the previous column, I recommended we adopt “subversive habits”—practices that chip away at the lesser stories we often live by and exalt the Scriptural Story to the place of greatest prominence in our lives. Instead of relying solely on general habits (prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance), why not consider practices designed to counter the formative influence of lesser stories?
We’ve looked at three case studies: Cameron sees his life story light of his career, Pam in light of political battles, and Greg in light of maximizing leisure. In each of these cases, subtle temptations to idolatry lurk under the surface. Good things become ultimate, leading to a life controlled by a primary story other than the gospel.
But these three—career, politics, and entertainment—are only a few of the lesser stories that can capture our imaginations. Many more are available. The key is to discern what you love the most and to observe where your heart is drawn. That’s harder than it sounds. Often, we recognize when someone else is living according to a primary story other than the gospel, but we remain unaware of the ways in which our own hearts are most easily led astray.
Identifying Your Primary Story
Subversive habits are one way of countering lesser stories. But how do you know what habits to adopt for yourself or to recommend to others?
In order to chart a path, you must become aware of what lesser stories you find most compelling. We need a diagnostic test similar to the questionnaire handed to you when you visit the doctor, a chart that lists your symptoms and history.
Here are a few questions intended to help you see if a story other than the Scriptural one has grown dominant in your imagination. This is not an exhaustive list, but a springboard to further reflection and additional questions.
- If someone close to you were to ask you to take 10 minutes to talk about the last 10 years of your life, how would you tell your story? The key here is to see where your mind runs first. What would be the drama that takes up most of the narrative?
- In telling your story, what constitutes a “step forward” or a “setback?” This question helps you see the “plot points” of how you view your story. “Steps forward” and “setbacks” reveal the narrative drama of your primary story.
- In moments of quiet, where does your mind typically run to first? This question helps you diagnose what story is ever present in your thoughts and attitudes.
- What are your three biggest hopes for the next 10 years? What are your three biggest fears? Hopes and fears illuminate the dramatic tension you sense as you look ahead to the next chapter in your life story.
- What group of people is most important to you in fulfilling these hopes or avoiding these fears? We do not fall captive to lesser stories on our own, but often through the communities we associate with most closely. The group in which you find your deepest sense of belonging can shine more light on the primary story you live by.
- What do I value most in my life? What is the difference between what I say I value and the way I spend my time? Here is where we look for discrepancies between what we say and do.
Reality of Worldly Formation
Hopefully, you’re beginning to see a pattern of a lesser story developing. Perhaps it resembles Cameron’s career, or Pam with her politics, or Greg with his leisure, or perhaps it is another story altogether—one centered on family, on fame, or even ministry!
The next step is to take a look at the world around you. What is happening in the world that will reinforce the lesser story in your life?
We are not individuals on our own, taking stock of our life stories. The world is shaping and molding us all the time. For this reason, we must not only identify the primary story by which we live, but also the cultural pressures that make that story so easily adoptable. As we saw with the General Habits approach, it’s possible to believe the right things and practice spiritual disciplines yet still fall captive to an imagination that puts a lesser story first.
What is happening culturally that competes with the Scriptural Story?
- If you’re Cameron, you must consider what cultural pressures make it easy for you to put your career at the center of your primary story.
- If you’re Pam, you should become more aware of the vested interests of political parties and pundits to ensure that you are rapt with wonder at every breaking news story.
- If you’re Greg, you realize that the bottom line of the entertainment industry depends on attracting your attention to the latest game or newest series or blockbuster film.
Without understanding cultural currents, you will inevitably drift. The world is not neutral. We are constantly being pulled us away from the Scriptural Story toward lesser stories.
With self-assessment and cultural assessment behind us, next we should select subversive habits. More on that to come.