It’s uncomfortable reading about (and watching) the riots in England from a distance. It feels wrong to be away when such violation is going on – especially when the violence of a relative few is damaging the lives of the many for a generation.
It’s also unsurprising to hear the riots being used to justify contradictory ways of ‘reading’ the world: blame Coalition cuts, the bankers, liberal spinelessness, right-wing ‘oppression’ of the poor, feminism, social inequalities, unemployment, poor education, wrong education, socialism, the Smurfs… There seems to be a justification for every ‘ism’.
Whenever we read a text we do so through the lens of our contemporary experience. On holiday (having already disposed of one novel) I have just started reading a section each day from a book I picked up at the Kirchentag in Dresden in May this year: Schöne Aussichten- Einlassungen auf biblische Texte, by Dr Fulbert Steffensky.
In his introduction Steffensky describes two ‘imprisonments’ from which people need to be released: (a) the tyranny of the text that authoritatively and self-evidently controls our understanding and experience of the world, regardless of the reality of our experience; and (b) the tyranny of ‘one’s own heart’, the textless individualism that rejects the need for a narrative, a group, a language that opens us up to the world. Both are dehumanising and both wreak havoc with people’s lives.
Steffensky goes on to suggest that ‘texts’ or ‘narratives’ are vital for individuals and groups. That is to say, we all need something beyond our own individual experience and emotion that opens us up to (or confronts us with) a wider, bigger, stranger world that goes beyond our immediate subjectivism. The lack of such a narrative creates people who are rootless and meaningless, casting around to create meaning out of self-interest.
Christians are incorporated into a narrative that is both God’s and ours: “This is his story, this is our song” as the Eucharistic prayer has it. We live in and into the story of God’s generosity we read about in the biblical text – the point being that God’s people should increasingly reflect the nature of the God who gives himself for the world. Hence the injunction by Paul to ‘imitate Christ’.
Other groups and societies have taken other narratives and tried to live within and from them: for example, Communists, existentialists, anarchists, secularists, etc. The point is that we all need some narrative or other which gives a language for and a meaningful shape to our individual and collective lives.
Which brings me to the question through which I am reading Steffensky’s book: which narrative(s) are driving the people now rioting in England? To what stories or accounts of the world do they consciously or unconsciously appeal when burning cars or looting shops? Or do they not have one that transcends the purely functional one of power, narcissism or ‘respect’ – the questioning of which may justify any form of bad behaviour?
We can blame the churches for failing to establish the Christian narrative in our younger people, if we wish, but that won’t offer a solution. Churches cannot compel people to ‘come in’ or ‘own’ a story that is regularly dismissed in public as either irrelevant or embarrassing (usually by people who have never really encountered it). We can blame schools or the media or the shameless individualism of Margaret Thatcher, but none of that will help us repair the damage. Whatever we decide to throw at other people, the urgent need is to discover which narratives dominate and motivate our young people… and then learn to find a language with which to offer a better alternative.
It is no good to condemn what has gone wrong unless we can offer a realistic alternative that makes sense of the world, of our own experience, and links us to a greater community of human lives. Whichever narrative this might be, it will require (in Steffensky’s terms) a text that takes us beyond ourselves. In short, I believe (along with Steffensky) that we need to recover the Bible – not as an incontrovertible text of rules for keeping God happy and us in our place, but as a text to be taken seriously for intellectual curiosity, engagement, argument, imagination, poetic resonance, prophetic power: to offer a narrative in an against which the world might best be understood and lived.
And it needs to have big room for failure.
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