Every Thursday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

It only hits me when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes I feel like killing myself. I wouldn’t tell anybody that. But I get this sick feeling, like there’s no point to any of it. I need something more to get me up in the morning. —Anonymous friend a long time ago, paraphrased.

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There is a natural momentum to life that keeps us moving to the Next Thing. Rarely are we inclined to resist the momentum and pause to hear the hum of being and notice where we are going and question why. Our schedules, obligations, jobs, school, family, hobbies, chores, errands, and physical needs lift us onward, always onward toward the next task, the next duty.

Night comes and we hardly have a chance to reflect on the day before we are asleep. Then it’s morning and it begins again. If we are lucky, we’re forced to stop for a moment and reflect–but probably not.

This momentum comes with a narrative. We tell stories to ourselves and others about the significance of our actions, their weightiness, their value, how these actions measure us in relation to the Good Life. We conceive of these stories based on the stories we’ve heard elsewhere: from our communities, the media, advertisements.

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We come to feel (but perhaps not consciously believe) that a clean house or a job promotion or a sexual exploit which mirrors one seen or heard or watched or read about or picked up from our community will justify our existence, or at least fill us with a sense of meaningfulness. And, thanks to the momentum of life, we rarely will find ourselves questioning the basis of this feeling of justification. We are too soon on to the next thing.

This has always been the human condition. We are born into a world that moves without us and before us and after us, and we quickly learn how to swim with the current.

But for the 21st century person in an affluent country, the momentum of life which so often discourages us from reckoning and taking our bearing is magnified dramatically by the constant hum of portable electric entertainment, personalized for our interests and desires and delivered over high speed wireless internet.

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It’s not just that this technology allows us to stay “plugged in” all the time, it’s that it gives us the sense that we are tapped into something greater. The narratives of meaning that have always filled our lives with justification and wonder are multiplied endlessly and immediately for us in song, TV show, online communities, games, and the news.

What this means is that it has never been easier to live cradle to grave in a perpetual state of frenetic ignorance to the basic value and belief orientations which define us as humans, distracted by the hum and glow of a billion little inconsistant but powerful narratives that seem to validate our existence and drive our momentum.

I’d like to suggest that if Christians in our culture fail to understand the basic postmodern condition, which is what I have rather pretentiously attempted to describe above, they will fail to effectively reach their neighbors. I can hardly begin to expand on what I mean by this here, but I’d like to try. If it matters and if people care, maybe I’ll make it a series. If they think it’s pretentious ramblings, I can hardly blame them–it’s been a long day.

First, this means that the apologetic line of thinking from popular thinkers like Francis Schaeffer (presuppositionalists) and Josh McDowell (evidentialists) which has advocated direct intellectual dialogue and debate in defense of the Faith and as evangelism is, in some ways, outdated. It reflects a society in which people actively and earnestly sought answers to life’s difficult questions–a time when at least some people acknowledged the absurdity of life and desired some way to reconcile it with life’s wonder and beauty.

My sense is that by-in-large the self-reflection required to recognize and engage these questions has been edged out by the lure of constant entertainment and trivial social engagement.

Second, if we fail to acknowledge the way we tend to promiscuously use a multitude of narratives to define our self-worth, then we risk making Christianity just one more narrative. The evidence of this is all around us.

Third, this means that perhaps the primary task of Christians who desire to share the Gospel is to unsettle our neighbors–to practice and promote ways of living that disconnect us from our cultural narratives, which call into question those narratives in deep and provocative ways, that peel back the constructed ideologies and values of our time, that reveal the absurdity and wonder of being, and that encourage contemplation.

If we can become a people who cultivate spaces of silence to foster reflection and honesty, moments much like the early morning hours for my friend who struggled with a fleeting sense of dread, we must do so founded upon the radical grace of God, not a search for “sincerity” or our “real” self. Evangelism in the 21st century America involves penetrating the electronic buzz of narrative idolatry to reveal the stark giveness of creation, our profound need for redemption, and the beauty of grace. It means not grounding our identity upon a purified or “real” self, but a recognition of our great need and the greater wonder of the Grace of God.


  1. Alan,
    This is definitely one of my favorite pieces of yours. You hit at something one of my philosophy buddies and I have been talking about–the need for a different kind of apologetic–that existential streak in the apologetic of Pascal and Kierkegaard. Basically, in order to get people to hear the gospel, you have to slow them down and shock them out of apathy long enough for it to happen. It’s not just straight evangelism and it’s not just straight “apologetics”, it’s a conversation about life, an indirect/direct approach that makes the interlocuter uncomfortable with the narratives they’ve embraced, question, wonder, stop–at least for a few minutes.

    There’s more to say–this article is rich. Thanks!

  2. Alan,

    When you use the word “narrative” to describe the temporary sense of meaning that people derive from TV shows, songs, and other stimuli, you are using the word in exactly the way that I am interested in. Nonetheless, when I have tried digging into the academic literature on the subject I find very little that reflects this understanding of the word. Do you have any book recommendations so I can pursue the concept of narrative in the way you have been describing?

  3. Jim,

    I don’t know that I can recall anyone using it in exactly this sense, but several people have described the same phenomenon in different language. Luc Ferry’s Man Made God is a good start. As is Ernest Becker’s the Denial of Death. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age might also be helpful, but it is a beast of a book.

  4. Jim,

    You might try Christian Smith’s “Moral, Believing Animals” which is actually pretty short and deals with narrative-identity in a very helpful way. I also think Charles Taylor has a shorter book, “Modern Social Imaginaries” that deals with the stuffy he talks about in “A Secular Age.”

  5. Really enjoyed this.

    You say that we need to live in such a way that calls into question our culture’s narratives and reveal their absurdity. Are you, then, agreeing or disagreeing with Tim Keller when says that we should connect the gospel to our baseline cultural narratives, to present the gospel as “the answer” to our culture’s yearnings? (Or am I just getting tripped up over the similar language?)

  6. Hal,

    I’m right there with Keller. Both of us are drawing on this VanTillian idea that every non-Christian worldview is in tension with created reality (and, in so far as non of us as a truly godly vision of the world [worldview], I’d say that Christians must necessarily feel this tension as well).

    So, when I say we ought to reveal their absurdity, it’s very similar to when Keller says we should present the Gospel as the better narrative, or as an answer. In both cases, we identify the failure of the secular narrative and point out that the Gospel fulfills where the secular narrative failed.

  7. Alan,

    I hope that you make this a series, because I think your observations are astute and quite correct, and so I would like to see them fleshed out into more concrete form. What are some ways in which we as Christians might help penetrate this buzz or might manifest our narrative of true grace?

    One way that my wife and I attempt to do what (I think) you are saying is by cultivating a lifestyle for our family that is centered around peace (in the biblical sense of shalom or wholeness). We have cultivated this lifestyle as a contrast to what we see in some acquaintances whose lives appear filled with unnecessary drama, with the “buzz” of much activity and stress, at least some of which seems self-inflicted.

    But that could be just one manifestation of what you are discussing. Indeed, I think there are many, many ways that the principles of your post could be fleshed out–literally incarnated–in our lives and interactions. And I would love to hear from you (and other faithful CaPC readers or writers) about ways that our lives can “practice and promote ways of living that disconnect us from our cultural narratives.” Because while there will probably always be a place for the old form of apologetics, I believe you are right that the number of people they appeal to is dwindling and that the Gospel must be presented in new ways…such as what you have discussed. So…thoughts, anyone?

    Geoffrey R.

  8. Alan and Derek,

    Okay, I’ve checked out those books and I’ve got them in my Amazon shopping cart. Christian Smith’s book looks especially promising. And if you think of anything else let me know. I am especially interested in any academic literature dealing with the way that TV, movies, songs, novels and other forms of media impact our own personal narratives. I’ve often thought the concept of “modeling” would be very fruitful to follow in this regard. After all, when we find ourselves compelled to start thinking of our lives (and how significant they are) in terms of how closely they parallel our “heroes” on TV (or elsewhere) we are actually (but maybe not consciously) treating them as models. The same thing goes for the instinct many postmoderns have to try to translate a pop song to reflect their own current life circumstances. It makes their life feel more significant and meaningful when it can be interpreted with aesthetic pleasure. But every time this happens (in my opinion) their own grand narrative gets “nudged” a little in the direction of seeing the great good of life as being similar to that great good of that particular song. The sense of what makes life feel meaningful is so incredibly fluid for us. It has virtually no stability at all. Alas, I’m starting to preach . . . You get the point.

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