Last spring I led a clergy conference for an Episcopal diocese on the topic of cultural change, Christianity, and postmodernism. During one session I explained the shift in American society from a single voice of authority to multiple voices and the impact of such a change on churches and denominations. For many people in the room, I presented a different framework for understanding contemporary congregational life. As I built a new model for them they jumped into the fray—asking questions and for clarifications, and testifying to the truthfulness of cultural change in their ministries.
One man, however, did not seem happy about the presentation. Others later told me he was the priest of a congregation that was threatening to leave the diocese over the issue of homosexuality. He sat off to the side, positioning himself as an outsider, and perhaps a victimized one. He put his hand up. I confess that I did not want to call on him. But I did.
“I don’t buy this,” he challenged. “This is relativism. Christians can’t be relativists.”
Although he did not exactly say it, he clearly implied that I, because I was talking about cultural change in a hopeful way, was a relativist. His colleagues recognized the potential assault. Everyone stared, wondering how I would respond.
“Did I say I was a relativist?” I asked.
“No, but . . .”
“Well, let me say it clearly: I am not a relativist. I believe that Christianity is good, beautiful, and truthful. But, in all postmodern modesty, I cannot claim that it is the Truth. I am not a relativist. You have to be a modernist to be a relativist and I am not one.”
The priest stopped and thought for a moment. I don’t think it had ever occurred to him that a person could be postmodern and not a relativist. I cannot say that he changed his mind about postmodern cultural analysis or me. However, he listened. And, for the rest of the conference, he asked respectful and thoughtful questions. He engaged ideas instead of attacking the messenger.
One does not need to understand the philosophical niceties of postmodernism to understand what happened in this exchange. The priest had been poised to attack me on the basis of his definitions of “postmodern” and “relativism.” Having a sense of his worldview, I knew that I did not fit these definitions. Instead of entering into a challenge on his terms, I changed the offered definitions to my understanding of the terms. In short, he had one story about Christianity and postmodernism and I had another. Instead of arguing with his story, I simply told my own. Changing the story transformed the encounter. Instead of a dead-end fight about relativism (a code-word for “faithless liberalism”), I decided I did not want to win—or frankly, to lose. As a teacher, I tried to open a different possibility and tell a story I suspected he had never heard before. We entered the mystery of the teaching moment. Everyone in the room learned something, including me.
The Frame as Worldview
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about denominations, conflict, and change. This may be due to the fact that I am an Episcopalian and my church is struggling right now over the issue of homosexuality. Recently, I lunched with a friend who is a priest. We talked about the pain of the last two years—the time since the Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson, a priest living in a faithful, same-sex partnership, to be its bishop. “You know, I think the church handled this all very poorly,” my friend said. “Right after the vote, everyone who disagreed with Robinson’s election was all over the media, protesting, holding press conferences. Those who agreed kept saying ‘no comment, no comment.’ The church, as a whole, had no story to tell. Interest groups and individuals had stories. Those who were mad at the church had a story. But the church had no story.”
I looked at her in amazement. She was right. We had become, in effect, a church with no story to tell. Or, worse still, we had a story, but we failed to tell it. We let others tell it for us. In the absence of story, conflict grew, divides deepened, and those who had stories to begin with set the larger framework for storytelling. The church—as a whole—has spent much of the last two years responding to someone else’s story, entering into the worldview created by someone else’s language and definitions, arguing within a framework that does not carry the spiritual realities of original events.
From individual encounters like the one at the clergy conference to institutional decisions, the stories we tell—or do not tell—have powerful consequences. That is because stories are the frames by which we understand the universe and events around us. Stories are, in essence, the building blocks of our worldviews. Indeed, as Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff argues, stories frame reality: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” Writing about frames in national politics, he says,
As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.1
When I first read Lakoff, the proverbial light bulb lit up! As he writes, “Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.”2 For several years, I had suspected that a crisis of storytelling lay deep within the malaise facing most religious institutions. After all, my denomination had great ideas—powerful, life-giving ideas of justice, hospitality, friendship, love, and risk—but, sadly, we lacked the language to talk about those ideas in ways that made sense to those listening. We had no story to tell. Lakoff made me wonder: If reframing is social change, might it be spiritual change as well? Could it be congregational and denominational change, too?
Reframing as a Healing Act
I get a little nervous, however, appealing to George Lakoff in an audience that I cannot see. Surely someone will point out that Lakoff is a political liberal who is self-consciously trying to defeat conservatives. Is that the point of religion? Liberals defeating conservatives? Or vice versa? What does all this matter for telling faithful stories?
Although Lakoff applies his theory to contemporary political life, it easily translates into contemporary religious life as well. As a matter of fact, the whole language of “liberal” and “conservative” is a good example of successful framing. The current denominational tensions over homosexuality serve as a useful case study. Long before anyone used the word “homosexual” in polite company, the issue was framed. Our great-grandparents framed it in the late 19th and early 20th century when they told their story: American Protestantism was caught in a life-and-death struggle between fundamentalists and modernists, between conservatives and liberals. The war for America’s soul was on: People lined up and took sides. Conservatives depicted themselves as champions of orthodoxy, and they depicted liberals as purveyors of “another religion.” Liberals depicted themselves as “fearless modernists,” as Christians who were willing to embrace the intellectual consequences of science and history, and they depicted conservatives as half-witted, backwoods snakehandlers. There were, of course, plenty of folks who saw all this as extreme and refused to take sides, but the story of the middle way (or ways) was effectively silenced amidst the framework of “liberal versus conservative” and the discreet frames each side develop
In our great-grandparents’ frame, the liberals eventually “won” mainline denominations, leaving fundamentalists to fend for themselves in exile. The framing of the story destroyed lives and institutions, setting the template for Protestant tensions for generations to come. For more than a century, church historians taught this frame to future clergy. “Liberal versus conservative” exemplifies the power of framing a religious story—and how long a frame can last.
Some Protestants today still act as if that frame applies. Essentially, the story of most contemporary religion is told in our great-grandparents’ framework. Certainly, the “liberal versus conservative” analysis dominates the issue of homosexuality. But what if the framework does not fit the ideas? What if the frame was never true in the first place? What if that frame has always been violent and exclusionary? What if it is based on a premise of winning? What does that say of the Christian message? It is time to jettison our great-grandparents’ frame and start telling our own stories. Might new stories open new possibilities of dealing with church conflict? Can we actually reframe the story and create a new way of being faithful together in God?
Seeing “with the mind of Christ,” as the New Testament demands, pushes church leaders to ask tough questions about frames. How and why do we tell certain stories? What are our motivations? Are we trying to win? Or are we trying to teach? Are we trying to attack, to close conversation? Or to open unseen possibilities? What language carries our most cherished ideas of God, the good life, of beauty, of truthfulness?
Thinking about frames—and the act of framing our stories well—goes beyond politics, far beyond the old world of “liberal versus conservative” constructed by our ancestors. Indeed, if framing has political consequences it also has spiritual ones. Reframing is a healing act as well as a social one.
Some health professionals actually use a process called “narrative therapy” to help clients who are stuck in destructive patterns escape and find new, healthier ways of being. Counselor Gerald Monk refers to this as an “archaeology of hope,” in which the therapist assists the client in reframing life experience. By reframing the traumatic past into a different kind of story, patients can “rediscover the remnants” of good things in their lives, “bypass the problems that have stalled them,” and “reconstruct their lives.” The new stories “change the teller in the telling.”3 Reframing happens by deconstructing old stories and searching out alternative stories, redefining characters, establishing new trajectories of plot, and finding a new audience. The process gives the patient an entirely new way of being, a sense of meaning and hope, not simply a technique to fix a problem. In short, reframing is spiritual change, a process that can transform hopelessness into wholeness. It is an archaeology of hope.
In an era riddled with division, fear, anger, and invective—when people are wandering like spiritual nomads across the land—religious leaders must tell new stories. And, before we start telling our stories, we must discover some new frames. We need to learn how to be archaeologists of hope—how to carefully and patiently recover what lies under the debris, how to sift through the tell of faith and reconstruct our story. After all, if we have no story, or let someone else tell our story for us, why even bother with church?
Questions for Reflection
1. George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004), xv.
2. Lakoff, Elephant, 4.
3. Gerald Monk, et al., eds., Narrative Therapy in Practice: The Archaeology of Hope (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 3-4.