May the Best Story Win
NPR just started what they promise will be a series of stories on “losing faith,” stories about people who were religious believers but no longer believe. The series began with a woman who was a Methodist minister until she “came out” as an atheist at an American Atheists convention.
There are so many things to comment on with such a story that it’s hard to know where to start.
For starters, it’s important to listen carefully to what this woman says about the God she used to believe in, the God she was taught to worship and serve. Raised a Southern Baptist, “she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.” That’s sad, and you can’t just blame the Baptists. My guess is that there are a lot of people sitting in all kinds of churches on Sundays who think about God the same way. This isn’t only a question of what preachers are telling them–it’s about what the people are hearing. And what they are hearing isn’t Good News. She had questions, and she wasn’t getting satisfactory answers to her questions. But unanswered questions don’t accumulate into atheism; in the end, her loss of faith sounds more like a conversion: “New member, just been born — that’s what it feels like.”
Of course, the story is intensely personal and focused on the individual, and is uncritically accepting of her experience and her decisions. There’s no room in this “report” for any serious consideration of this woman’s impact on other people. Members of her church don’t merit much attention, except that they weren’t supportive of her in her time of crisis. By implication, they seem to get lumped together with the “haters” (her word), which apparently includes pretty much all Christians. We are led to feel sorry that this woman has now lost her job; we are not encouraged to consider that she has also broken serious promises and betrayed the trust of a whole community.
As a regular NPR listener, I’ve learned to expect this kind of thing. But a whole series about people who turn away from faith? Seriously? I try to imagine the next series, one on former atheists or agnostics who are now joyful and grateful believers, and somehow I don’t think that one will be on All Things Considered any time soon.
There is a popular cultural bias at work here. It may not be as simple as a bias against religious faith (and against evangelical Christianity in particular). That kind of bias exists, of course, but it’s not as strident or as popular in America as some would like us to believe. I’m convinced that a certain kind of Christian secretly longs for the drama of real persecution, since that casts them in the heroic role of courageous confessors and martyrs. But the fact of the matter is that most Americans think it’s just fine for you to go to church and practice your faith if you want to.
No, the real popular cultural bias is more subtle than outright opposition to faith. What the NPR stories tap into (and at the same time foster) is the idea that stories of losing faith are the most plausible stories, the most honest stories. Of course, lots of people are raised in church, taught to believe, and many even experience religious life for themselves. But real life, and experience, and intelligence, all eat away at those foundations and eventually a person comes to see life differently. That kind of story subtly portrays religious faith not as something bad, but as something belonging to childhood and inexperience. In that kind of story, the loss of faith is part of becoming a real adult, part of coming to grips with the real world as it is.
By contrast, stories that work the other way have become less plausible, less realistic, less “honest” in many people’s minds. When was the last time you saw a movie about a person who grew up happy and clueless, devoted to pleasure or money or sex or whatever, and who then gradually became convinced that there was a deeper meaning to life, a meaning wrapped up in the ancient story of the Creator who is reclaiming and renewing his creation? After all, isn’t it realistic that the naive, commonsense materialism of our childhood should be outgrown and transcended and replaced by the richness and depth and color of God?
In the movie Amistad, John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins) tells the abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), “In the courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins.” That is the world we are living in. NPR (and lots and lots of others) are busy telling their stories as well as they can. Today at Concordia Seminary another class of men are being called to tell other stories, better stories, the stories of God. May the Best Story win.
(And who knew that atheists had conventions?!)