Beyond Passable Writing
The Paradox of Man

The Better Politics of Stories


If you've been a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that despite its variegated content it does assiduously avoid commentary on one set of topics --- politics and social issues.  It's neither apathy nor lack of opinion that prevents me from eloquence on such things, but both fear of embarrassment and principle.  First, I feel woefully ignorant about most social and political issues, and sometimes the more I read about them the more ambivalent and confused I become.  I don't watch the network news because, like the late Neil Postman, I want to be educated and not entertained with news.  Well, no I'm not actually like Postman. He's a really smart guy. I read the newspaper.  I read enough to know what I don't know.

But my second reason for my reluctance is on principle: I dislike the Manichean tendency of most political and social discourse, the sense that the issue is black and white, that there is a clear choice between right and wrong and, the writer would tell me, "I'm right and they're wrong."  I also don't like the prevalence of ad hominen attacks (attacks on the person), as when commentators simply call a politician a "liar" or otherwise suggest that they are stupid, lazy, or immoral.  The language of many commentators is so acerbic; witty is one thing, nasty and biting is another.  The language of talk show hosts, many politicians, and political weblog writers is tiresome and unilluminating.  I know this is a gross generalization, but I think it largely true.

In a recent editorial in our local newspaper, Peder Zane, who usually reviews books, nails the problem with much of the social and political advocacy surrounding big issues.  In "Rhetoric Heats Up, Reality Fogs Up," Zane asks "Are we being told the whole truth about global warning?"  He notes that one of the statistics used by Al Gore and other advocates of serious (and expensive) action to combat global warming is that the 10 hottest years in American history have occurred since 1995.  When it was subsequently pointed out that the statistic was dead wrong, NASA retracted it, but there was little to no coverage of the retraction.  Advocates of global warming action continue to use the statistic or, at best, ignore the contrary evidence, and conservative pundits trumpet the error as proof that the whole thing is much ado about nothing, or at least nothing we can or should do anything about.

What Zane concludes is that the error was buried or ignored because it constitutes an "inconvenient truth."  The findings don't necessarily undermine the case for global warming, but they do complicate it.  Complicated stories are difficult to sell to the public.  They do not create a groundswell of support.  Complex issues like global warming are full of research findings that are at times contradictory, paradoxical, and incomplete, with every conclusion qualified and provisional.  This leads to a public waxing over of the eyes --- a loss for the advocate.  And yet most people instinctively know that most things are never so simple, never so cut and dried.  Why?  Because we know that's how people are, their actions full of mixed motives.  And we know that's how we are.

Furthermore, we Christians should know better.  Despite the perspicuity of the Gospel --- its plan of salvation so simple and clear that even a simpleton can understand it and come to faith in its truth --- when we attempt to plumb the depths of each truth --- like Trinity, Incarnation, God's sovereignty and individual freedom, to name a few deep truths --- we grow in understanding and, yet, at the same time realize how utterly mysterious and paradoxical these great truths are (and how far short of understanding the mind of God we are).  It doesn't mean we don't act on what we know, and yet a humility undergirds our action, a deepening knowledge that the more we know the more we realize how much we don't know, the more we know God the more we realize just how incomprehensible He is.

The Gospel story is just that --- a mysterious story where not everyone acts the way we expect, where even God surprises us.  There's an adulterer and murderer who is deemed "a man after God's own heart.."  Another murderer is chosen to lead God's people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.  One murderous zealot becomes an apostle; a liar, too.  Even Christ himself has a prostitute in his ancestral line.  In true stories, there are all kinds of surprises.  People aren't always what they seem.  Things are complicated, wrapped in mystery, and sometimes impenetrable.  And yet these good stories seem so much more true than most of the "stories" told by the advocates of political and social action, who so often ignore or gloss over inconvenient truths because they don't fit their story and may distract the audience who may waver in their support.  As G.K. Chesterton once said, "The simplification of anything is always sensational."  Complexity is not.

I don't know a lot about politics and have even less of use to say about it.  I don't know what causes global warming, and I don't know what to do about it.  I'm trying to understand.  I'll act on what bit of truth I have.

But I do know people.  And what I read in stories (the good ones, anyway) tell me more about what to do in life than Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, or most blogger-advocates.  That's the politics of stories.  That's the Gospel.  That's the politics of the heart and soul.