Narratives

July 5, 2014

A while back in the comments on a blog I read someone described the church as “rigid and Pharisaical” and my first response was “are we talking about the same church?” After further reflection I think I have an idea where this description might have come from.

As human beings, we try to find meaning in everything that happens, and our main tool for doing this is to construct stories to organize our experiences. Since we’re also social animals (most of us, anyway) we share our stories, and some often repeated plots or themes become societal narratives that people use to construct their own stories: instead of piecing our own experiences into unique stories, we find a narrative that’s similar in some way to what happened to us and then tailor our story to conform to that general plot. One example where this seems to have happened is in early Roman legends. Georges Dumézil showed that many incidents in early Roman “history”, such as the founding of Rome or the expulsion of the Tarquins or the career of Marcus Furius Camillus closely parallel myths found in other Indo-European societies. These were probably actual historical events, but as the stories were told and retold people subconsciously altered them to fit the pattern of other similar stories they knew.

Many years ago I noticed that when religious leaders are portrayed in movies or TV shows, they always fall into two stereotypes: liberal, “tolerant”, anything-goes, God-is-love types, and strict, hypocritical, self-righteous types. My personal experience with LDS church leaders doesn’t match either stereotype. Instead, they tend to be strict but humble and loving. After all, if you really love someone and understand that true happiness comes from obedience to God’s laws, you’re not going to say “oh, that’s OK” when they start committing sins.

However, by nature we have a strong tendency to make our experiences conform to the narratives in our society, so many people who see the church’s strictness interpret it as rigidity and enforced conformity. This is unfortunate, because then they are less likely to listen to prophetic counsel and make choices that lead to happiness and exaltation.

Societal narratives arise from human nature and are important tools for helping us make sense of our lives, but when followed too closely and uncritically they can lead us to misinterpret our true experiences.

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