We are story-people. We live by various narratives and interpretive themes that give a coherence to our daily living. Our culture presents us with a plausibility structure which governs the beliefs we accept, the practice we engage in, and the vision of the good life that we adopt. For Christians, the Bible serves as a counter-narrative. The Scriptures are the authoritative framework for shaping the story of our lives. Christian theology, then, enables us to both critique our cultural stories and to reshape them in significant ways.
The reality of the church today is that many of us are unaware of just how influenced we are by the cultural waters in which we swim. We are being shaped constantly by the dominant metaphors and narratives that thrive all around us. The dominant narratives of American culture focus on autonomy and self-actualization, materialism and the world as machine. These stories encourage habits of greed, consumerism, indulgence, and personal achievement. We are constantly sold a narrative of salvation through stuff, and heaven on earth. Add to this, a story that has removed God from the narrative. This culture influences us significantly and subtlety. James K.A. Smith has observed that even while we may read the Bible, attend church, and believe the right things, our regular participation in these stories impacts us far more than our Christian beliefs (see Imagining the Kingdom). Kevin Vanhoozer notes:
People become secular not by taking classes in Secularity 101 but simply by participating in a society that no longer refers to God the way it used to. “God” makes only rare appearances in contemporary literature, art, and television. (Hearers and Doers, 9)
Our regular participation in the culture has led many Christians to assume the story of our context is true. We adopt the dominant metaphors and lenses that our culture gives us and, as a result, we live in light of these false narratives instead of the gospel narrative.
Charles Taylor called it the social imagination. The social imagination is, Vanhoozer says:
the nest of background assumptions, often implicit, that lead people to feel things as right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is another name for the root metaphor (or root narrative) that shapes a person’s perception of the world, undergirds one’s worldview, and funds one’s plausibility structure.
As an example, consider the stories that Christian parents believe which directs them to enroll their kids in sports that require them to miss Sunday worship services. Or consider the theme of FOMO (fear of missing out) which drives many of us to so fill our days that we leave no time for actual community and meaningful relationship. Christians live so much in these cultural narratives that we have, often unknowingly, adopted perceptions of our lives that are inconsistent with Scriptural teaching. Christian theology offers us a hopeful response.
“One of the key prophetic tasks of theology,” writes Vanhoozer, “is to free the church, a holy nation, from idols” (8). Theology offers us an opportunity to critique the narratives of our world, to push back against them and to expose the false beliefs, ideologies, and metaphors that lay behind them. Theology, built off of the narrative of Scripture, provides us a different vision of the good life and a different framework for viewing ourselves, our world, and our God.
Theology is more than a restatement of the Bible, or a summary of its teaching – as if Scripture needed to be restated or summarized. Rather, Theology is an application of the Word of God to our world. In this sense, theology is very much concerned with the cultural context of the theologian. We read Scripture with an eye on our context, considering the ways in which Scripture corrects and rebukes our world, and the ways in which it reshapes the narratives we believe. So, the doctrine of God, for example, gives us a different explanation of our existence and purpose than our culture does. The doctrine of the church gives us a more robust view of the gathering of the saints than our culture does. The doctrine of sin gives us a greater suspicion of our own thoughts and desires than our culture does. Theology, done well, has the potential to reshape the story we are living in, to refashion our social imaginary.
Repeatedly, the Scriptures reveal ways in which God is reshaping our social imagination. Various narratives point to the counter-story that God is telling in the midst of our world. So, consider Israel’s desire for a king. In 1 Samuel 8, Israel desired to be “like the other nations with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” The desire for a king was not necessarily wrong, God had already promised a king. It was the desire to be like other nations, to have a king who would do for them what God has already promised to do for them himself. God gives them a terrible king in Saul and challenges their narrative. Or consider the disciples, who had a limited view of the Kingdom of God which involved the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Even after the resurrection they are still asking when Jesus will “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Jesus has a different view of the Kingdom of God and gives them a series of metaphors to illustrate what God’s kingdom is like. The prophets, in particular, are regularly trying to provide a counter-story to guide various kings of Israel. The gospel is, of course, the climactic narratival correction.
Theology offers us an opportunity to rethink the stories we live by. Christians must regularly read the Scriptures and engage in theological study! We are too frequently immersed in the cultural stories such that we often cannot see the social imaginaries we have adopted. Theology has the potential to help us if we will regularly make use of good theological tools. Analyze your context, your habits, and the stories you tell yourself about life. Does your theology fit within such narratives or does it correct them? Let your theology reshape the story you live in, and find that God has a much better story for you!