Sharing stories from the heart: can reading about the lives of others really change us?

Here is the third of my Christianity Today history website series “Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor” Links to the first two articles in the series are embedded early in the article:

#3: Sharing Stories from the Heart
Chris Armstrong

[Back in the first installment of this diary, I interacted with the Emergents’ fear that evangelicalism’s entrenched, conservative church culture is just not reaching a young generation. Deep in writing my own “Patron Saints for Postmoderns” course, book, and blog, I suggested that the time might be ripe for telling and hearing stories—in particular, stories of our “foreparents” in the faith. Why not turn to the historical cloud of witnesses and see how they engaged their own cultures? That would seem to be one good way to learn how to translate the gospel for our own cultural moment.

[In the second (most recent) installment, I defended this idea of translating the gospel for new cultural situations against one potent objection: that such translation involves a dangerous compromise. When we set out to do such a translation, say some critics, we are allowing sinful human cultures to set the terms of the discussion. We are adapting and compromising Christ’s essentially countercultural message in illegitimate ways. The church, as Stanley Hauerwas and others argue, should be its own culture. My answer to this objection was to try to bridge the “translators” and the “separators” with a kind of ecumenical position that sees value in both approaches.]

Dear folks,

Perhaps, if you have read the first two installments of this “diary,” you are ready to launch into a lifetime of fruitful biography- and history-reading. But some of you may still be standing on the path, obstructed by one more roadblock: the postmodern claim that the cultural frameworks that have formed us as individuals so strongly condition and define us, that the experiences and ideas of people from other cultural frameworks (that is, other places or times) can never really speak to us or help us.

More technically put, this is the “strong-constructionist” view that every society, led and shaped by the agendas of its most powerful members, forms its own distinctive set of symbols. These symbols, embedded at the level of the language that every child learns from its mother’s knee, shape both individuals’ experiences of the world around them and their sense of their own personal identities in that world. This is what the word “culture” means in the lingo of the strong constructionists. Everything about our experience and identity is constructed by the symbol-set imposed on us by the social group in which we are formed.

We may recognize this assumption from the use the multiculturalist agenda-setters have made of it. These folks have been telling us for years that we must not ever try to convert, or judge, or even assess any distinctive “community” (“the Native American Community,” “the Gay Community,” etc.) against a purportedly higher universal standard.

Though we may not agree with this strong form of the “cultural uniqueness” assumption, most of us have absorbed it to at least some degree. It has become part of our mental furniture. And when this assumption takes temporal form (as, if you like, a species of what C. S. Lewis once called “chronological snobbery”), it can block us from gaining anything from accounts of past lives. Take for example this note posted to my blog by “Van,” a seminary student with Emergent sympathies:

I think there is a hesitancy for many in emergent to draw similarities between our current cultural scenario and those of the past. For one to do so would be to concede that this moment in time isn’t … unique. Many of my emergent friends suffer from an ecclesiology infused with American progressivism; if we can innovate enough, we’ll find salvation. The idea that some of the questions we ask have answers in our past seems distasteful.

By definition, I suppose, every time and place in history is unique and unrepeatable. There’s no denying that “the times they are a-changin’,” or that people in one place create a different sort of culture than people in another place. Rather, the question is, Do all people share something that it was once fashionable to call “human nature”—some common baseline of humanity that allows us to communicate helpfully to each other across times and cultures?

We can find at least two grounds for answering this question “Yes.” The first is theological, and the second social-scientific.

The theological reason is easily stated: the early chapters of the book of Genesis insist that all of us are created in God’s image. Inasmuch, then, as we share God’s image—whatever part of our being we think that image consists in (and that certainly has been a point of theological controversy!)—we also partake together of a common “human nature.”

The social-scientific reason I want to approach by posing a common-sense question to the postmodern culture-theorists: What about the inner experiences and emotions of people? Surely these are not so culturally conditioned as our ideas or our practices? Surely we can find in our emotional experiences clues to some sort of “human nature,” which will open the way for us to learn from each other at a deep level because we share a common emotional make-up?

The committed postmodernist would answer like this: Even our emotions, which we are so used to thinking of as pure, unconditioned experiences, are entirely constructed according to scripts learned from our formative cultural group. In other words—and I have seen this seriously argued in a piece of anthropological scholarship—a Malaysian, or French Canadian, or Mexican woman who has lost a child would not know how to experience grief without having a shared script for “grief” that she has internalized growing up. She would have learned how to experience grief by observing others’ behavior, by receiving direct teaching, and by absorbing the very meanings of words in her language. According to this “strong constructionist” view, there really are no universally experienced human emotions. All emotions, like all ideas and practices, are socially constructed.

Within the past decade or so, a small group of social scientists have pioneered a new field, “emotions research.” These folks have scoured the globe, seeking to understand what “emotion” means in different cultures, and how certain specific, named emotions differ or resonate from culture to culture.

Emotions research started off with the postmodern strong-constructionist assumption. But—and here comes our social-scientific reason for affirming something like “human nature”—more and more scholars in this field now say they have discovered certain clear, discrete “basic emotions” that show up repeatedly, across all human cultures. These basic emotions are closely tied to certain life experiences common to all human beings—like grief at the loss of a loved one, or protective love when one’s children are threatened or vulnerable.

These non-strong-constructionist researchers have concluded that although each culture does define and shape such basic emotions differently,* something universally human is at work in them. They are not wholly constructed within the framework of each culture.

So despite the insistence by postmodern theorists and multicultural activists that every cultural group acts out of completely different and incommensurable sets of assumptions, rooted in its own particular power-struggles, here is evidence from the very den of strong-constructionist theory—the social sciences—that “human nature” may mean something, after all.

Focusing like this on experience and emotion does leave us with a question, however. Bluntly put, the question is, “So what?” Where does the affirmation that we share basic experiences and basic emotions with other people, across cultures, really get us? Is that common bond really enough to help us learn and grow as we read the accounts of our spiritual forebears’ lives? Or should we rather, as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other thinkers have done, assume that “the image of God” in us is essentially our rational mind and will, and thus spend our time as we read biographies asking what ideas and rational, life-patterning practices they can teach us?

In the next installment, I will nail all of this down by looking at the influential 18th-century spiritual autobiography of the writer of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton. Newton wrote his life story using the conventions of a literary/philosophical tradition called “sentimentalism” (later on, Charles Dickens was also influenced by this tradition). The sentimentalists strongly affirmed the transformative value of reading about other people’s life experiences and the inner emotional states that come with those experiences. We’ll ask what this tradition looked like, what happened to it in Western history, and whether it has something to teach us today.

But for now …

Grace and Peace to All Who both Share God’s Image and Reflect the Unique Creativity of His Genius. May we Learn what we can from Each Other on the Redemptive Path to recovering his Likeness.

Chris Armstrong

Bethel Seminary

*I am inclined to agree with the social scientists that emotions are indeed not pure feelings, but also involve a learned cognitive component. Interestingly, that’s just what the “fathers of evangelicalism,” Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, said too. They used the term “affections” to name this holistic view of emotion.

Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

2 responses to “Sharing stories from the heart: can reading about the lives of others really change us?

  1. Pingback: “I laughed, I cried, I changed”–sentimental narrative in early evangelicalism « Grateful to the dead

  2. Chris,
    I am a firm believer that to understand the present we need to study the past. As a Christian who has had a lot of questions about how today’s church reflects the teachings of Christ & serves the communities, I’ve come to believe that studying the past, the history of the church & its leaders through historic & scholarly writings can we have a better, less biased understanding of what being a Christian means & how we are to relate to the world around us. I would say more but I’m on a Blackberry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s