Friday, October 9, 2009


There are plenty of great ideas in our American narrative as we now know it. But there are also some ideas in serious need of improvement. So, some colleagues of mine as well as other concerned citizens have begun working on a new American narrative.

My colleague John Preston has put forward both a significant critique of the narrative as it stands now and some bold ideas for a significant revision. Here is his preface for THE NEW AMERICAN NARRATIVE PROJECT:

A people’s narrative powerfully informs all institutions of its society including technology, economics, politics, and religion. The American narrative has sometimes been called the “American Dream.” This dream and the political/economic ideology that is embedded in it have been more and more emulated by many other nations through the dynamic of economic globalization. This project addresses a need for a new American narrative suited for a time in which the social and environmental costs of fundamentalist capitalism are leading the world to ecological crisis and social breakdown. This crisis is an opportunity for transformation and breakthrough. Yet such a breakthrough to an ecologically sustainable new order is not possible without a new narrative. The New American Narrative Project proposes to advance a foundation for a new Dream that can be emulated by our global partners.

I agree! And that’s why I have signed on to contribute as much as I can to this project.

The present narrative, John asserts, will lead us to breakdown. So, it is urgent that we get the narrative revised, transformed, made new. The American people are on board. The people are way ahead of the politicians, preachers and pundits who so dominate the communicating of the narrative as it now stands. We need to listen to the people who really do know best. Poll after poll after poll shows that Americans want change, demand change, know that we need change, and now have elected a President who ran on a campaign slogan of “change we can believe in.” But I am not saying this to promote our President or his party. It’s the people who know best. The people already have reason to be disappointed in the President and his party. But the people will continue to demand the kind of change which is absolutely required because the people know that a breakdown will happen if we don’t change radically and soon.

I will get back to John’s ideas in a moment. But let me offer some of my ideas which I would like to see find their way into the new American narrative:

· First, we need to tell our story, our history, in a new way. Howard Zinn’s A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES is an important contribution to this effort. Zinn believes that the privileged plutocrats have found ways to thwart the will of the people over and over again throughout our history. Nevertheless, significant advances have been made. Many more are needed. We will not make these advances, however, unless and until we deal far more faithfully and honestly with our history. We must learn from our mistakes, our failures, our missed opportunities.

· Second, we need to embrace a new American spirituality which is inclusive of our Christian heritage but not limited to it. Many Americans are appreciating other wisdom traditions like never before. More and more Americans are incorporating the myths and rituals and practices of these other wisdom traditions.

· Third, while we do need to embrace other wisdom traditions, we also need to reclaim our Christian roots, deeply cherishing our powerful personal, family and community stories of healing and meaning which have sustained us for generations. While far from perfect, our Christian story has contributed immensely to the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” and can continue to do so. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is good to be faithful followers of Christ.

· Fourth, we need to do a “new thing” when it comes to religion. I am envisioning something I like to call ”The New Church for the New Age.” Maybe a new word needs to emerge to replace the word “church” because of the baggage attached to that word. But, for now, I will stick with “church.” The New Church for the New Age is non-hierarchical, free, open, loving, caring, compassionate, healing, energizing, inclusive, humble, non-judgmental, fun, creative, yours, mine. Christ never meant for the church to be a closed, hierarchical, authoritarian, nationalistic and denomination-alistic institution. I think of this as a movement which has been with us since the Big Bang. It’s what God intends us to be. It is a movement which promotes what I like to call the Heavenly attributes: ABUNDANCE; JOY; WISDOM; BEAUTY; LOVE; TRUTH; PEACE; JUSTICE; FREEDOM

Now, back to John’s ideas:

John offers a circus metaphor (this will be described and discussed in future posts) to explain our current American narrative. He offers this story to explain the current American narrative:
Once upon a time there was a magic land called America. Nature had blessed us with both beauty and great resources to be harvested. We who came were people whose hard work allowed us to sustain ourselves. Over time, some of us prospered more than others. Yet, even those who prospered the least shared in the good life of their community. We developed a whole new form of how government worked. We called it a representative democracy.

We also developed an economic system that was the envy of the whole world. It made use of markets to bring capital to bear in increasing both the wealth and the standard of living of our people. Some people became wealthy. These were people of special heroic character who through hard work, entrepreneurial vision, and the wise use of capital were able to contribute to the great economic engine of progress.

The best thing about this system was that it operated free from any group of politically elite planning how resources of the society would be distributed. The economic market took care of that on its own. It was as though a benevolent “invisible hand” magically directed all of this, to the great good of all. Yes, there was some inequality of wealth and income, but this was to be expected. By nature some people are lazy, some ambitious.
Some like to work moderately hard and take time to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Others are those who enjoy the drive to success and greater wealth. All in all, our American economic system was the most efficient way to distribute the goods of a society because there was no costly bureaucracy to allocate resources and manipulate prices through governmental planning. And, it was the most fair, because those who committed themselves to productivity were the ones among us who prospered.

The citizens of this land were encouraged by their parenting, their schools, and the free Market to be both industrious and loyal. Loyalty begins with an appreciation and gratitude for the social order of democracy and the free market. Loyalty does not criticize our American Way, but works with it to make it even better.

As Americans, we are true individuals. Although we value social bonds with one another, we have an inbred character that values a gritty independence and is the foundation of American freedom. In the American Dream, a new kind of hero has been formed. A hero in the traditional sense is willing to sacrifice his individuality and even his life for a cause or a community or a nation. The hero is a risk taker, willing to gamble the high stakes of his very life in order to gain something of great value. We have sacrificed for the national community in times of war and crisis. This is an example of our traditional heroism. The American soldier who goes to war and the fireman who enters a burning building are certainly heroes in the traditional sense.

What is different about us as Americans is that even in non-crisis situations there exists a heroic attitude just below the surface. What is new about American heroism is that it includes not only the sacrifice but the possibility of great individual…in addition to great social…reward. This is possible because our system of freedom includes a market of economic transactions. The individual who finds a way to be part of this market interaction, whether by being an entrepreneur, an investor, or an employee with a good work ethic, witnesses a heroism that commits us through our time and energy to that larger system of freedom. We therefore acknowledge how appropriate is it to “decorate” the American hero in a new way.

Just as it is fitting that we decorate the soldier for courage in a time of national crisis, it is also fitting to decorate civilian heroes whose commitment to the their loyalty and work ethic makes this nation, and world, a more prosperous place. Such heroes are not decorated in a ceremony, but by the lifestyle that their labors have produced. In this new American version of the heroic, individual sacrifices are made not only to the nation as a civil society, but for the economic markets that have made America great.

The happy combination of this sort of individualism and a free market is no coincidence. The free market in combination with a free democratic polity helps to form the new heroic individual, just as the character of the individual sustains and perpetuates a system which brings the social good of prosperity to all people. We have been uniquely blessed as a People in having an interplay between our character of individualism and free choice, and a democratic polity combined with our free enterprise system.

And so we have been blessed by God. God bless America, home of the free and the brave!

I think John has offered us an insightful way to understand the current American narrative, the one our pundits, politicians and preachers keep re-enforcing. This is, of course, the narrative which is leading us to national and global breakdown. The people know it and the people are alarmed, anxious, desperate, bewildered and determined. With God’s help, we are going to create a new narrative and a new society.


John Shuck said...

John and John!

I think this is great. We do need a new narrative and I look forward to your posts!

Another John. : )

irreverance said...

This is a good post. I'm very interested in cultural narratives. I've found Chris Hedges' book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning to be insightful.

I'm also interested in what you come up with regarding a new word for "church." I've been wrestling with that myself.