The World is Flat: the Commodification of "Story"

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My dad, like many other dads, read to me when I was a kid. By the time I was five, I was grabbing the book out of his hands to read out loud to myself. I distinctly remember joyfully saying “poopyhead” as the Calvin and Hobbes comic contained the world. I reveled in the stories. Story has long been a part of my life, and as much as anyone, I know how powerful it can be.

But I worry that our emphasis on story in the Christian realm has become a commercial enterprise over and above a method of honoring humanity. Under the guise of creative connection, conversion, redemption, grace, and humanity have all become troublingly succinct tropes in service of the overall story.

I touched on this in my post about Hugo Schwyzer and redemption narratives back in August, but here I’d like to address a different angle of the same issue: in branding redemption, our stories have lost their human value.

I’m a firm believer in the ideas: the personal is political and the personal is theological. Because our personal lives are inextricably tied to the theological and political realms, we fundamentally cannot ignore story as that is the human element. Stories are lives are stories. This is undisputed.

And the institutional power structure has noticed the centrality of story. It saw the power of story to change minds, to affect great change, and it decided it needed a piece of that pie. Metaphorically, I’m treating this like it was a conscious effort and conscious decision, but that is far from the reality – institutional power structures don’t have a brain or agency to decide such things.

But, the inexorable pull of the capitalist systems and societal malaise create a world in which consumerist co-opting is nearly inevitable. Each new trend is bent in service of the beast. It happens. Hippie flower power is now a brand and style. Girl Power Feminism of the 90s became commercialized with the Spice Girls. Story is turned into a flat, narrow narrative of the human experience in service to the church’s Greatest Story Ever Told.

This last is the most dangerous of all the consumptions, precisely because the personal is political and theological. When a person’s story is consumed by the capitalist enterprise, the person themselves loses a bit of their humanity. Because humanity is messy and modern consumption demands neat, clean lines and easily digestible chunks.

In 2012, I had the pleasure of attending the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. While there, I went to a session with Daniel Taylor, who spoke about memoir. Taylor talked about his life story and how his father’s issues had created an abusive and hostile environment at his home. And then Taylor said something remarkable about how to write about those negative experiences. He said: “Don’t write to make your readers hate the person. You must allow them to be human.”

You mustn’t allow your fellow humans to become caricatures of human beings.

Take the story that makes the rounds in evangelical circles of Gianna Jessen, who markets herself as a survivor of a botched saline abortion in 1977. In telling her story, she says that she has forgiven her mother, that she doesn’t hold anger. And that may very well be the case, but when you hear her testimony (as in this video that circles around facebook every so often), the effects of the commercialization of her story are clear. Her mother is a villain in the piece – the doctors even more so. A seventeen year old single woman, in 1977, who went in to get an abortion at 7 and ½ months pregnant, is given no humanity, no explanation. Both she and the doctor are demonized, while the nurse who “saved” Jessen is anglicized. The narrative she creates makes villains out of real people, and commits the error Daniel Taylor warned against.

Capitalism, I would contend – the ability to make careers out of simply telling one’s story* - creates a world in which the flattening of the narrative is natural and even encouraged. It demands a villain, and builds in blind spots to keep us from remembering the humanity of others.

The call of money is strong and the desire to have an identifiable enemy is even stronger. But, as Paul said in Ephesians 6:12: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, and against the power of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

I need this lesson as much as anyone. When we write, we must care for the humanity of our opponents above all else. Anything less perpetuates oppression.

*I include myself in this.