We Began to See America as a Story


This epiphany really surprised us, because when we began this crazy assignment, we didn’t think of America as a story.

But now we have changed.

Like the Rushdie guy said…


We need all of us, whatever our background, to constantly examine the stories inside which and with which we live. We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives.

Salman Rushdie, Secular Values, Human Rights and Islamism, Point of Inquiry, October 27, 2006


And look what Paula showed us…


Every people has a story about where they came from and how they got here. The story we Americans tell usually begins with figures like Washington and Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. We talk about the founding fathers and their declaration that all of us are created equal. But the American story started long before that. At least two hundred years earlier, migrant missionaries were greeting the native peoples of the Southwest as brothers and sisters—from Florida to California, sharing with them the most precious gift they could imagine: the gift of knowing the living God. It is worth remembering that the first nonindigenous language spoken in this country was not English but Spanish.

A NEW STORY FOR A NEW AMERICA, by Jose Gomez, First Things, May 23, 2018


We must reread our national story as if for the first time. We must reclaim it, make it ours, for our time.

The Perpetual Battle for Freedom, By William Galston, Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2016


So, now we have been exploring the possibility that, if Christianity is the story we are in, what if you can see America as a story?

And because we had begun to study the work of Robert McKee and Shawn Coyne, we were open to seeing through that lens.

This essential explanation of story from Robert McKee helped us to see America as a story…


What is a story, precisely? The essential core event in all stories ever told in the history of humanity can be expressed in just three words: Conflict changes life. Therefore, the prime definition becomes: a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace


Conflict changes life.

The more we explored the story of America, the more that “essential core event in all stories ever told in the history of humanity” seemed to fit.

America is a story in which conflict changes life.

And it looks like your Declaration of Independence has ended up playing a key role in America’s unfolding drama.

In fact, it showed us how two simple story questions…


Which story are we in?


Who are we, here in the story?


… help light up the story of America.

For instance, as we note later in this report, although the Bible is a story about God, God the Great Storyteller is also telling the story of God and humanity.


The Bible is my story. Since the world rendered by the cumulative biblical narratives is conceived of as the only real world, it follows that it includes the world of the reader. It is thus the duty of the reader to fit his or her life into the events of the biblical story. In that way, as suggested above, the reader’s everyday world is made a meaningful part of the whole world in which God is actively at work.

John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch

And as we explored the story of America, we began to wonder if there is an unusual way to think about.

You see, if Christianity is the story we are in, then your God is the core character. But, what if the nature of the story of America also shines a light on the story of each person in America?

Remember what McKee showed us…


A story may, on the other hand, be Multiprotagonist. Here, unlike the Plural-Protagonist, characters pursue separate and individual desires, suffering and benefiting independently: PULP FICTION, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, PARENTHOOD, DINER, DO THE RIGHT THING, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, PELLE THE CONQUEROR, HOPE AND GLORY, HIGH HOPES. Robert Altman is the master of this design: A WEDDING, NASHVILLE, SHORT CUTS.

On screen the Multiprotagonist story is as old as GRAND HOTEL; in the novel older still, War and Peace; in the theatre older yet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Multiprotagonist stories become Multiplot stories. Rather than driving the telling through the focused desire of a protagonist, either single or plural, these works weave a number of smaller stories, each with its own protagonist, to create a dynamic portrait of a specific society.

Robert McKee, Story

So, what if the story of America tells the story of a community of human beings as their stories are woven together?

And since story is about change, look at this passage Paula Wong showed us…


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

So, what if the story of America is about change, just like the stories of our lives?

And we want to know if you Christians in America will also change and come to see America as a story.

Because you do have a problem which is growing worse…


Well-functioning citizens share a collective memory of how and why and toward what ends our polity came to be. Adult-citizenship presumes a substantial level of self-awareness and impulse control; it knows both rights and duties. Sadly, the United States today suffers from widespread collective amnesia. As a result, many Americans coming of age today don’t understand the country they’re inheriting. They’ve not heard our story. And thus many of them don’t even know what they don’t know. 

Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult

And Shawn Coyne also helped open our eyes to all this through his description of the Society Genre…


The Society Genre

These are stories that are most driven by big ideas. That is they are often used to present a particular point of view/argument for political purposes.

….

Political: is the struggle for power. Its core value is power/impotence and the core event is the revolution where power is either lost or gained.

Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid

And remember, when you look at the story in the Bible “from the inside out”, you see this…


An ACTIVE PROTAGONIST, in the pursuit of desire, takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him.

Robert McKee, Story

And that society/political genre fits with these descriptions of your God and the story in the Bible…


Scripture begins with the declaration that God, as Creator, is the sovereign ruler of the universe. In this important sense, the entire universe is God’s kingdom.

Reflecting on the Kingdom of God, Stephen J. Wellum, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Spring 2008)

You cannot read the Bible and ignore the political realm. The Bible is thick with politics.

….

There is no escaping God’s political activity. This means we cannot divide life down the middle, putting God on one side and politics on the other. 

Tony Evans, How Should Christians Vote?

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is telling us about the reign and rule of God. This is the Big Story of the Bible, the purpose for which it was written.

Jen Wilkin, Women of the Word

And the struggle for power certainly fits with these observations…


Satan’s greatest deception is to persuade us that we do not need to acknowledge the sovereignty of God. As with Adam and Eve, he continues to deceive human beings regarding God’s authority.  Not surprisingly, he is particularly keen to have people ignore or reject the biblical meta-story. By doing so Satan bolsters his own position as ruler of the world.

Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem

DONNELLY: That’s been – I mean people – I mean, this is almost baked into the human condition; the competition for power is – That’s what history is, is the story of the competition for power. And why should we ever expect it to be otherwise?

Thomas Donnelly, Conversations With Bill Kristol, July 14, 2017

For the secular leftist, the end state is social and necessarily political. It is all about getting everybody else on board and herding them into his imagined utopia.

Why Is the Angry Left So Angry?, By Robert Tracinski, The Federalist, March 26, 2015

Our dreams of bringing the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

The essence of the conflict between Pharaoh and Yahweh was the issue of sovereignty. Sovereignty refers to supreme power and authority. Regarding God, it refers to the fact that He has supreme power and authority, more than any other entity. Sovereignty does not specify how one exercises supreme power and authority. Specifically, it does not mean that God exercises His sovereignty by directly controlling everything that happens. Scripture reveals that this is not how He exercises His sovereignty. Rather, He allows people some freedom, yet maintains supreme power and authority.

Notes on Exodus, Dr. Thomas L. Constable

The major burden of the book of Daniel is the tension and conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.

Eugene H. Merrill, “Daniel as a Contribution to Kingdom Theology,” in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost

And we began to think of the society/political genre in light of these insights…


Politics (from Greek πολιτικός, “of, for, or relating to citizens”) is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the corporate, academic, and religious segments of society. It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and refers to the regulation of public affairs within a political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.

Politics, Wikipedia

What is Politics?

Government is the regulation of public affairs, and politics is the means by which people determine whose views of government will prevail. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” said the American humorist Finley Peter Dunne, pretty much summarizing Niccolo Machiavelli’s advice to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici in The Prince (1513).

Politics itself is a mixture of the high and the low. Politics is the realm in which we attempt to make real some of our highest aspirations: our desire for political freedom, our longing for justice, our hope for peace and security. At the same time, politics is laced with individuals and groups seeking their selfish interests at the expense of others.

What is Politics?, The King’s College

And consider how the Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield connects these things…


A person with nerve thinks himself more important than he is. But how do we back up the reproof: How important is he, how important are we? This is the central question in politics. Politics is about who deserves to be more important: which leader from which party with which ideas. Politics assumes that the contest for importance is itself important. In a grander sense, politics assumes that human beings are important.

Political science today avoids this question. It is inspired by the famous title of a book by Harold D. Lasswell, published in 1936, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How? The focus is on the benefits you get—on what, when, and how. It ought, however, to be on the who—on who you think you are and why you are important enough to deserve what you get.

……

Coming to religion, we arrive in the realm of what is particular and individual. Science and religion are nowhere more opposed than in regard to human importance. Religion declares for the importance of humans and seeks to specify what it is. According to Christianity, men are not God, but God came to men as a man, and man was made in the image of God, the only such among the creatures of the world. A Christian is humble, but he takes pride in his humility.

How to Understand Politics, by Harvey Mansfield, First Things (August/September 2007)

And notice how the following explanation from Skills4Study highlights the element of conflict between human beings as they pursue their desires:


Politics is the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live. As such, it is an essentially social activity, inextricably linked, on the one hand, to the existence of diversity and conflict, and on the other to a willingness to co-operate and act collectively. Politics is better seen as a search for conflict resolution than as its achievement, as not all conflicts are, or can be, resolved.

Skills4Study

And, what if one of the key reasons the story of America is unique is because it shines a spotlight on two simple, but essential questions?

Which story are we in?

Who are, here in the story?


We have also discovered there are those who talk about America in terms of an idea. Here’s a quote from a famous American poet in the century before last…


The late M. Guizot once asked me “how long I thought our republic would endure.” I replied: “So long as the ideas of the men who founded it continue dominant,” and he assented.

James Russell Lowell, The Independent in Politics, 1888

And look at these…


What’s different about the moment that we are at right now, is there is a convergence of two different things happening.

One of them is a crisis of confidence, and worse, an unawareness, an orphanhood, of the American idea.

We face a hangover of the 1960’s in ways that President Reagan saw fifteen years into that hangover, but we are now fifty years into that hangover.

Where in a republic, in a small ‘r’ republican tradition like ours, you are always only one generation away from the extinction of freedom.

Because America is an idea. And if we don’t teach that idea, if we don’t transmit that idea to the next generation, it evaporates. And the greatness of America drifts into something different.

We regress to something before the American founding and the American Constitution and that framework for ordered liberty.

Ben Sasse: What Reagan Got Right about the American Idea

[America] was founded on certain ideas about liberty, and small government and self-reliant citizens, and so if it is no longer a self-governing Republic of limited government by self-reliant citizens, that it’s actually – a majority of people are actually comfortable with European-sized welfare states, and dependency, and all the rest of it – if at that point America still has any more purpose than the Soviet Union did after it ceased being Communist. And I think that’s an interesting question. The Soviet Union broke up, and Yugoslavia broke up and… big countries are not the norm, and a big country that checks out of its founding principles… there’s no reason why it should expect to maintain the same real estate in perpetuity.

Mark Steyn, Interview With The Blaze, April 23, 2014

There is something there. Ideas do matter.

Our team can see the value of recognizing that if Americans abandon the ideas of America’s Founders, then America is done for.

It’s over.

But understanding what those ideas are isn’t an easy thing for the average American now.

So, what is America?

Is it simply some creed? Or idea?

Or does it go deeper?


American identity, character, and civic life are shaped by many things, but decisive among them are our national memories—of our long history, our triumphs and tragedies, our national aspirations and achievements. Crucial to the national memory are the words our forebears wrote, to show us who we are and what we might yet become. Robust citizenship is impossible without national attachment. National attachment is thin at best without national memory. And national memory depends on story, speech, and song.

Take Time to Remember, by Amy and Leon Kass, The Weekly Standard, May 29, 2011

The last of Samuel Huntington’s books — “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” published four years ago — may have been his most passionate work. It was like that with the celebrated Harvard political scientist, who died last week at 81. He was a man of diffidence and reserve, yet he was always caught up in the political storms of recent decades.

“This book is shaped by my own identities as a patriot and a scholar,” he wrote. “As a patriot I am deeply concerned about the unity and strength of my country as a society based on liberty, equality, law and individual rights.” Huntington lived the life of his choice, neither seeking controversies, nor ducking them. “Who Are We?” had the signature of this great scholar — the bold, sweeping assertions sustained by exacting details, and the engagement with the issues of the time.

He wrote in that book of the “American Creed,” and of its erosion among the elites. Its key elements — the English language, Christianity, religious commitment, English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals – he said are derived from the “distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

Critics who branded the book as a work of undisguised nativism missed an essential point. Huntington observed that his was an “argument for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not for the importance of Anglo-Protestant people.” The success of this great republic, he said, had hitherto depended on the willingness of generations of Americans to honor the creed of the founding settlers and to shed their old affinities. But that willingness was being battered by globalization and multiculturalism, and by new waves of immigrants with no deep attachments to America’s national identity. “The Stars and Stripes were at half-mast,” he wrote in “Who Are We?”, “and other flags flew higher on the flagpole of American identities.”

“Samuel Huntington’s Warning,” by Fouad Ajami, December 30, 2008

And look what else we found…


Against the Idea of America

What is America? That wasn’t a question I anticipated when Riro Maniscalco convened a discussion with David Brooks and me at New York Encounter, the annual three-day Communion and Liberation feast of theological, philosophical, and artistic substance. But it came up naturally. This year’s theme was about the solidity of what is real. Political upheavals are raising the question of what it means to be a nation. What is at the center of our public life that is substantial and enduring?

In the course of the conversation, I rejected the notion that America is a propositional nation, or what David Brooks called a “creedal nation.” I know what he’s trying to say. Our country is not timeless, like China, nor are we simply the people of a certain place, as the Irish are the people of the Emerald Isle. There’s something intentional and purposeful about being an American. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a religious venture; the colony of Virginia was a business enterprise. 1776 launched a revolution, followed by a “founding.” Our watchword is freedom, and we live under the sign of choice.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve become increasingly hostile to the notion that what makes an American an American is a set of political ideas. It strikes me as too abstract, too deracinated—and, quite frankly, an American self-deception. I venerate the Constitution and admire the wisdom of its authors. But I’m loyal to something more organic than a political philosophy or system of government. America is a community of memory and habit of mind. Perhaps that living reality can be thrown into shorthand, creedal form for the sake of catechizing the young and the newcomer. The Nicene Creed is not the object of Christian faith; rather, it adumbrates and evokes the sacred mystery. The same holds for our nation, which, though by no means divine, is a reality more mysterious than any formula or creed. We seek to bring our way of life into accord with specific principles. Our society has foundational documents. But we are not a “propositional” people. We are shaped by myths, stories, images, and rituals.

BENEDICT OPTION, by R. R. Reno, First Things, May 2017

There are certainly ideas within stories. You can’t push them away. They are so often a treasure. But seeing America as a story is more powerful than simply seeing it as an idea.

So, what if there is real value for you in seeing America as a story?

Because now our team is beginning to think it may be possible for you to try and reopen the conversation in America by orienting yourselves to see through the lens of story.

Look at some of what Paula showed us, which began to make us ponder…


The story of America is not ours to own, but ours to retell. And the importance of retelling that story should not be underestimated. As Patrick Deneen suggests, whether the public square “can be filled again with newly rendered stories of old telling us of a common origin and destination, or whether it must simply be dominated by whoever proves the strongest, is the test of our age.” 

Conservatism in the Age of Millennials, By Michael Hendrix, Real Clear Policy, July 24, 2018

Obama’s vision of America as dedicated to “e pluribus unum” is one such story, Trump’s vision of “America First” is another. But while the first promises inclusion, it is vague about the goals that might inspire senses of unity. The second makes its goal of American greatness clear, but it does so in ways that make many Americans feel left out. There are better unifying stories in America’s rich heritage that, if added to these, might help many more Americans gain or regain senses of shared purposes with each other.

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Sharing Stories of American Civic Purposes, by ROGERS SMITH, Law & Liberty, APRIL 3, 2018

We need a new political poet who can weave a story that vibrates energetically with the experiences of most Americans, that explains our current problems, and that is relentlessly sunny.  Americans usually require that their myths express a basic optimism.  If our newest version of the American myth is more angry than hopeful then we risk the worst dangers of democracy — populism and demagoguery.

A New American Myth, by TED MCALLISTER, Law and Liberty, NOVEMBER 8, 2012

But though building and sustaining a sense of unity in any political society is always challenging, Americans have resources that can enable them to discover common ground and recover a sense of shared civic purposes. I have long argued that political communities are held together in part by “stories of peoplehood.” These are narratives that elaborate not only the economic and political benefits of community membership but also its moral worth. No complex society, to be sure, has one single story of its political identity and moral meaning. Long-lasting societies instead display multiple stories that express the distinct experiences and aspirations of different community members — but that also overlap sufficiently so that they can inspire widespread loyalty, sufficient to persuade people to work through their differences to achieve the goals and values they have in common.

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Sharing Stories of American Civic Purposes, by ROGERS SMITH, APRIL 3, 2018

The key language of political myth-making is “return”—return to who we really are and a rejection of those who have taken us away from our cherished values.  No political poet can win power by rejecting the creation story.  In the beginning….we discover our national soul, national ideals, and national purpose.  Intellectual fights over our political origins are essentially battles over the present American self because by articulating a persuasive account of the founding one acquires the means of defending public policies as consonant with a long heritage of national purpose and high ideals.

A New American Myth, by TED MCALLISTER, Law and Liberty, NOVEMBER 8, 2012

The creed is relevant not just because it produces America’s divisions and aspirations, but because it provides a spare, elegant definition of what it means to be American. It is not about ethnic identity or religious faith, Huntington writes, but about political belief. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and Huntington uses the line to define us. “Who holds these truths? Americans hold these truths. Who are Americans? People who adhere to these truths. National identity and political principle were inseparable.”

Samuel Huntington, a prophet for the Trump era, By Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, July 18, 2017

In politics, our myths are more important than our history.  The stories that tell us who we are as a nation are the most powerful political tools in times of economic, military or cultural stress.  Good or useful myths marshal populist anxieties, giving to people who are fearful of dispossession or political dislocation a story that simultaneously affirms their central role in this nation and explains the causes of their present turmoil.

A New American Myth, by TED MCALLISTER, Law and Liberty, NOVEMBER 8, 2012

Americanism, properly understood, means a return to the principles of the American Founding and their continuation by the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. In our age of high-octane identity politics, we need to rediscover a meta-identity that can serve, once again, as the ground of a common citizenship. Such a ground should be a national identity that starts with the equal protection of equal natural rights — in other words, a spiritual attachment to the Declaration of Independence and a political attachment to the constitutional architecture that has gradually brought that spirit into political reality. 

Do We Really Need a New Conservatism?, By Ryan P. Williams, Real Clear Policy, July 20, 2018

For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian. If this realignment continues, left out of this opposition will be a significant number of whites who are both wary of white Christian nationalism and weary of feeling discounted in the context of identity politics.

This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

The Collapse of American Identity, By ROBERT P. JONES, New York Times, MAY 2, 2017

If you did begin to see America as a story, you would have an opportunity to deescalate the tension and put on the table those two simple story questions…


Which story are we in?

Who are we, here in the story?


But again, we don’t believe you will do what you could.