Narratives are powerful. Narratives help frame issues and events, making them accessible and more easily understood. Within a world full of confusion and “information overload,” narratives can provide meaning and clarity on complicated issues and controversies. But it is also true that narratives can be dangerous. Narratives almost always reflect the perspectives and biases of those who construct them. Many narratives are built on false or inaccurate assumptions; some narratives are devised to intentionally deceive. Today especially, thanks to the rise of social media, dangerous and false narratives increase the risk of uprooting authentic Christian culture.
Part of what makes narratives so powerful is their accessibility. The newscasters of the past could boil down a complicated story into a broadcast that was easily understandable, interesting, and informative. Their segments would become the topic of discussion for millions of Americans and unite them in a shared discourse. TV and newspapers today still serve essentially the same function, though their influence is rapidly diminishing.
As many rightly point out, journalists today frequently create biased “narratives”–intentionally or not–by crafting stories around the limited set of facts that they choose to present. We have become acutely aware of the problems this poses to social cohesion. People today have learned to distrust the information they receive from once “reliable” sources.
Even more problematic, however, are narratives whose “facts” are entirely unverifiable, are built on rumor or hearsay, or rely on interpretations of events that stretch the imagination. These narratives emerge from a certain perspective or set of values, around which a compelling story is then crafted. This is the siren call of “fake news,” which offers narratives that explain what we already feel is true, yet includes information we cannot verify. It is–to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert–“truthiness” presented as truth.
This is an especially serious problem on social media, where narratives are crafted in real-time, in which anyone can participate in and shape the story. Social media even allows us to become protagonists in the narratives that we help to create, which can give us a greater sense of belonging and of power. And in the wrong hands, these narratives often become sinister ways to impart values and perspectives that advance the selfish interests of a privileged few. When we uncritically accept the narratives presented to us, they become pathways to colonize our hearts with evil ideas, ideologies, and lies.
Sadly, so-called Catholic media is overrun with such narratives. The idea that Pope Francis is a progressive liberal seeking to undermine the Church’s traditions is a popular narrative. For many, this narrative explains many of the problems they perceive in the Church and issues that confuse them. Unfortunately, these narratives ignore and distort many facts, and offer a false and oversimplified portrayal of the Holy Father. Narratives surrounding the Amazon Synod’s discussion of viri probati were rampant but ultimately had to be revised in light of Pope Francis’ unexpected decision not to weigh in directly on the issue exhortation.
After the publication of Querida Amazonia, many Catholics from a variety of ideological perspectives are presenting another narrative: that conservatives won over the pope. Other Catholics have offered a competing narrative: that Querida Amazonia was just a ploy and that the liberalizing changes are still being advanced behind the scenes. The determining factor to determine which narrative someone will adopt is simply whichever they feel is more convincing, however distant from reality it may be.
Narratives can “uproot” us. They carry us into a parallel universe filled with intrigue and politicking. They remove us from our local environs, where we live and interact with others in our daily lives and tend to our essential physical and spiritual needs. It is hard to imagine Matthew 25 applied in the context of a Twitter or Facebook thread. We can share narratives with people all around the globe, yet the more we adopt and repeat the ideas and ideological messages of these narratives, the more we give up what makes each of us unique in the process. Pope Francis writes in Christus Vivit (a passage he quotes from in paragraph 33 of Querida Amazonia),
Today, in fact, we see a tendency to “homogenize” young people, blurring what is distinctive about their origins and backgrounds, and turning them into a new line of malleable goods. This produces a cultural devastation that is just as serious as the disappearance of species of animals and plants. (CV 186)
We in the West are experiencing this “cultural devastation” first-hand. We are connected but we are not cooperators; we know about each other but we don’t know each other deeply. Our local communities–once tightly bound together in their uniqueness and their own special character, through complex systems of mutual support–have been colonized by a liberal-consumerist narrative. Pope Francis warns, “We should recognize how in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambitions” (Evangelii Gaudium 61).
But all is not lost. As Pope Francis says in Querida Amazonia, “We are reminded that it is possible to overcome the various colonizing mentalities and to build networks of solidarity and development” (QA 17).
The antidote to “narrative” is culture. While narrative exists to impart values through a well-crafted story, culture is the story of a people. It is something that is much broader and much richer than what can be expressed in an article or tweet. Culture reflects the values shared by a people and those that they are working to build up. A narrative is the work of only a few; culture is the shared project of an entire people. “Culture embraces the totality of a people’s life,” writes Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (115). He writes later in the document:
Each people is the creator of their own culture and the protagonist of their own history. Culture is a dynamic reality which a people constantly recreates; each generation passes on a whole series of ways of approaching different existential situations to the next generation, which must in turn reformulate it as it confronts its own challenges. Being human means “being at the same time son and father of the culture to which one belongs” (EG 122).
Culture is in constant need of protection. The importance of culture in the life of the Christian cannot be overstated. As Pope Francis says:
Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it. (EG 115)
Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, protecting one’s culture does not mean creating insulation from other cultures or outside influences. As Pope Francis quotes St. John Paul II in Querida Amazonia, “A culture can grow barren when it ‘becomes inward-looking, and tries to perpetuate obsolete ways of living by rejecting any exchange or debate with regard to the truth about man’” (37) In his encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul suggested that this is the path to “decadence” (CA 50).
As Pope Francis teaches us, “Our own cultural identity is strengthened and enriched as a result of dialogue with those unlike ourselves” (QA 37). Pope Francis is specifically addressing the people of the Amazon and those who relate to them here, but this principle is universally true. Entering fully into the Christian life and deepening our bonds with others requires us to commit to encountering those who are different than us. Embracing dialogue with others can enrich our own cultures by inviting us to consider what is beyond our limited experience and even our imagination. This leads to a greater discernment between what is authentically Christian and life-giving, and what is merely an aspect of our cultural heritage that is holding us back.
For example, Pope Francis presents the people of the Amazon, with their connection to nature and the environment, as a particularly salient example for our western, consumerist cultures. But this principle of dialogue is also applicable to our often-competing sub-cultures in the West and in our Church. Without “colonizing” the other, we can share in a dialogue of mutual enrichment and discernment. We have much to learn from those who are different.
Finally, and most importantly, our cultures are in need of purification by the Spirit who brings forth harmony from diversity. Because of the Holy Spirit, we have no reason to fear people who are different. As Pope Francis says in Querida Amazonia, the Spirit “is always able to create something new with the inexhaustible riches of Jesus Christ” (69). This echoes what Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium:
Whenever a community receives the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit enriches its culture with the transforming power of the Gospel. The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression, but rather, “remaining completely true to itself, with unswerving fidelity to the proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, it will also reflect the different faces of the cultures and peoples in which it is received and takes root” (116).
Part of the process of purification is for the members of the culture to more fully embrace God’s radical gift of mercy, which is at the source of Christian life. When we respond to to God’s gift in an encounter with Christ, we “inculturate” God’s love and that love spreads throughout our families and communities. According to Pope Francis in Querida Amazonia 65, this is the path to authentic growth.
Truly, there is only one narrative, the story of God, in which we are protagonists. Thanks to God’s abundant generosity, we belong to his story and cooperate with God in shaping it. By “inculturating” the narrative of God, and rejecting other narratives that lead us away from the Gospel, we follow the path of fraternal charity, which is the basis of all authentic human culture. God commissions us to be the storytellers of his grand narrative; he calls us to share the Gospel and proclaim it to all the world. When we do this, we help to root people to what is truly life giving and dispel the false narratives that colonize hearts and communities.
This article appears in our coverage of the Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia. Click here to view the full series.