Becoming Story Collectors

As a child, I was an avid comic book collector. Every other Saturday, after I completed my chores and received my allowance, my neighborhood friends and I would walk to the nearby comic store, which would have just received its newest shipment of X-Men and Wolverine comics. I was a partisan Marvel fanboy—a true believer whose loyalty was marked by my disdain for DC Comics. Story after story, compelling characters enthralled my imagination as each illustrated panel staged epic dramas and battles between the forces of good and evil. These stories entertained me, of course. But they also instilled within me a deep concern for justice, the virtue of self-sacrifice for a common good, and an optimism about the possibility of bringing disparate misfits together to accomplish more than any one of them could achieve alone. As a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be a hero in my own story.

Now, even as a “grown up,” I still collect stories and imagine myself to be a hero. However, considering the results of this recent election, I’m worried about whether these stories sufficiently capture the complexity of our world and prepare me to navigate it with grace, justice, and truth. Furthermore, after spending my commutes into Los Angeles listening to books by psychologists that detail all the cognitive biases and habituated intuitions that inform our “rational” decisions, I’ve even began to question whether I can trust myself to determine what a good and true story is these days. Is it possible that I am blind to stories and truths that are so clear to others?

Whether or not you’ve ever shared my childhood obsession with comics, we all collect and tell stories about our lives. These stories unfold within a pluralistic world where multiple, and often conflicting, narratives compete for our attention. Certainly, different news agencies and outlets—including CNN, Fox News, the Huffington Post, and Breitbart—collect and proffer their particular spin on stories to attract our attention and maintain our loyalty. Often the most gripping stories are those that elicit outrage over some injustice or corruption. A rogue cast of villains and fiendish story lines pull us in. The New Yorker reports on the Koch brothers’ efforts to protect their corporate interests from being disrupted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, the National Review details how government programs, including the National Science Foundation, have wasted tax-payers’ money on a number of “ridiculous” programs and research grants.

Is it possible that I am blind to stories and truths that are so clear to others?

Whatever side of the political aisle we fall upon, we may read “our” news and wonder, “How can anyone who claims the title of ‘Christian’ support that other political party, when the evidence of its evilness is so clear?” Certainly, I’ve found myself asking that question, as I struggle to balance numerous conflicting intellectual and tribal commitments. While I am officially a member of a liberal progressive branch of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I’ve recently returned to my hometown evangelical Southern Baptist-rooted church, where my mom serves on a women’s leadership board and a close friend of mine pastors. I’ve long known that the people of this church are earnest in their desire to conform their lives around the Gospel message. But I’ve been troubled all year by the fact that so many of “my people” see the gospel of Jesus reflected in the modern manifestation of the Republican party and the 45th president. Personally, I just can’t see how the Republican political platform represents good news for the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). To me, it seems oriented toward serving those with privilege and power. How, I wonder, can so many of the Christians I know and love be apathetic toward, ignorant of, or opposed to many of the values and concerns that I believe are rooted in Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God? How can they be so blind, and their hearts so hardened?

As troubled as I am by these questions, I recognize how easily they unfold into a story that I and many other people tell ourselves about the naïve masses who vote against their self-interest and the greedy corporations who care more about profit margins than people and the environment. This story is only reaffirmed in the articles I read, the posts I see on my Facebook newsfeed, and the conversations I have with my university colleagues. In our mutual, self-perpetuating narrative, my friends and I are the heroes, of course. We can’t possibly be the villains. No one wants to be the villain.

But whenever I am tempted to put myself up on a heroic pedestal, the Gospel of Mark brings me back to earth. It warns me of the strong possibility that I may be misreading my own role in the story—and that I may not even know that I am not in the role that I desire to play.

Early Christians, including the author of the Gospel according to Mark, struggled to understand how anyone could reject a revelation that was so obvious to them: namely, that Jesus was the Messiah. How could so many pious Jews be so well-versed with Scripture and yet not offer their allegiance to Jesus? Perhaps in an effort to explain his peers’ widespread disbelief, the author of Mark portrays a Jesus who speaks to crowds through parables and teaches only his closest disciples how to interpret his mysterious stories. Thus, in the Gospel of Mark, the common people “may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand, so that they may not turn again and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). To confuse things even further, even those who do receive the interpretive keys to Jesus’s parables have a difficult time comprehending the stories, due to human desires and fears (Mark 4:18-19). Suffice it to say that the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus doesn’t make it easy for people to learn about him or his good works. In fact, he often commands those who witness his miracles to remain silent about his identity and deeds.

Several decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the author of the Gospel of Mark may have emphasized the secrecy of Jesus’s messiahship in order to help explain to his Gentile listeners why so few Jews had been persuaded by what seemed so clear to them. And the author of the Gospel of Mark wasn’t alone in promoting the theme of secrecy. Other New Testament writings implied that many of Jesus’s followers could not recognize him without some manner of divine intervention (for example, see Matthew 16:15–17; John 6:44, 65; Acts 9:3–5; Galatians 1:11–17).

When I enter the narrative of Mark, I am reminded that the leading intellectuals of Jesus’s day were not the only ones who did not understand his Good News; his own disciples barely got it themselves. Moreover, I am humbled by the conviction that my own recognition of Jesus’s identity is due to God’s grace more than any exceptional understanding or piety on my part. Perhaps this humility in the face of divine mystery could be extended in other areas of my life.

Whenever I am tempted to put myself up on a heroic pedestal, the Gospel of Mark brings me back to earth. It warns me of the strong possibility that I may be misreading my own role in the story—and that I may not even know that I am not in the role that I desire to play.

Given scriptural lessons about Jesus being incomprehensible apart from divine presence and grace, I am beginning to doubt my own facile characterizations of the many church-attending, Gospel-centered Christians who disagree with me over politics. I am growing to understand that our differences may not stem from the fact that they simply lack enough education or true piety—which would, of course, allow the hero in me to change them by offering them the “right” information and practices. Indeed, after reading the works of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, I’m becoming ever more convinced that we make decisions and judgments based not upon careful, slow reasoning, but instead upon intuition, cognitive biases, and feelings of disgust and pleasure. It seems that our rational minds are conditioned by all kinds of cognitive biases that tend to justify our intuitions and habituated actions, rather than direct them.

Whatever naïve hope I’ve maintained that an articulate, considerate, and informed Facebook post can persuade a conservative family member or acquaintance has been irreparably shattered by this election cycle. Arguments and facts often fail to persuade. But we can’t respond to that dilemma by completely giving up on discussion. There is too much at stake. That said, what does a politically engaged Christian witness look like, when one is not only operating in a world that can’t escape the “spin zone,” but also has reason to doubt humans’ capacity to recognize the truth?

About three years ago, my childhood best friend suggested that we send one another comics as birthday and Christmas presents to stay in touch and catch up on some of the greatest stories we missed out on as kids. I agreed. He suggested we start with Batman comics. Despite my prejudices against DC Comics, I took a chance. Mostly because I trust my friend (who, by the way, also identifies with a libertarian ideology I distrust). As a result, I now have a solid collection of Batman stories, which I have greatly enjoyed. Because of my relationships with people like my friend, I’ve become more of a centrist in my partisan Marvel identity—as well as in other identities and positions.

So now, in addition to building my Batman collection, I’m making it a practice to collect stories from my more conservative friends and to share with them my own. These narratives mutually humanize our concerns, fears, and social-political priorities. Today, when I question my loved ones about how they interpret the news, I do so not to entrap them or prove them wrong, but instead to learn how their stories and experiences have shaped their worldviews. Similarly, they ask me about my stories—and certainly, I have stories to share that are just as critical for them to hear.  I’ve found that the act of relaying my ideas and narratives in person, rather than via social media links, has even encouraged me to moderate some of my own positions.

The point is not just that Christian liberals and conservatives need to be more empathetic and less judgmental of others. Indeed, one can be empathetic to the experiences of others, while still critiquing their ideas and political positions as harmful, unjust, and misguided by fear, hate, or ignorance. Rather, I am suggesting that the very practice of sharing stories in the context of relationships beyond our partisan preferences is an important strategy for addressing our cognitive biases and perhaps moderating not only our positions, but also those of others.

Since I’ve become a story collector of opinion pieces and tales that go beyond my own confirmation bias and tribal sources of information, the characters in the stories I tell about myself, others, and the world have become more nuanced, more complex, and more real. Scarecrows make great political punching bags, demons make great bogeymen, and villains make us feel heroic. Real humans are much more complicated actors than comical caricatures convey. When I allow Jesus to play the hero in my story, I absolve my need to be center of it. I can pay attention to the surprising things he is doing among a cast of complicated, real humans made in the image of God, rather than in the image of my own partisan imagination. Perhaps the act of sharing stories can allow more precise visions of justice to emerge, more inclusive visions of the common good to arise, and surprising alliances of misfits to form. When I take more stories as my own, my tribe becomes a little bigger.

T. Christopher Hoklotubbe

T. Christopher Hoklotubbe, Th.D. Harvard Divinity School, is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa. He is the author of the forthcoming Civilized Piety: The Rhetoric of Pietas in the Pastoral Epistles and the Roman Empire. He is a former Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow and a Postdoctoral Faculty Fellow in Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA as well as Visiting Assistant Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School.

Image credits:

Cover – Marcelo Silk Screen, “marvel-e-dc-2,” October 9, 2016. Via Flickr. Licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Inside – Bill Selak, “The bat signal. #wbtour,” December 28, 2014. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)