Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Life Doesn't Obey Our Narrative

Recently there was a Christians United For Israel conference – I may have the name slightly wrong. I had never heard of the organization until a friend at work mentioned that she and her husband would be attending it. Nice name, I thought. But I don’t go to conferences. The next I heard of it was a link to a Huffington Post writer excoriating the group. The essay was put up at Pajamas Media if you want to find it. I’m not going to bother.

The writer indicates that he has covered a lot of events and interviewed a lot of people on the religious right, but this group was the most creepy and extremist he had encountered. His argument was an old one: Christians who believe that the last days are imminent and many Jews will be converted in the final hour don’t “really” support Israel. Their desire and expectation that Jews will be converted invalidates their support of Israel somehow. Not supporting Israel or Jews for what they are but for what they hope them to be is seen as particularly deceitful and double-minded, a using of others as mere characters in one’s own drama.

It is a commonplace to criticize a certain brand of Christian for having a forced narrative of the end times, sniffing with condescension at their oversimplified, escapist view of life. It is worth noting that the people who do the most sniffing seem to have two things in common: they find that particular narrative appalling, and they have one of their own but don’t acknowledge it. They have a counter-narrative which outsiders can see quite clearly, but is opaque to them. The De-eschatologists subscribe to oversimplifications of their own, and even a quick analysis of the quite religious ideas underneath them is also pretty creepy. To conclude that people have no further motive beyond inserting Jews into their skits at Christians United For Israel is not just an oversimplification of its own. It also reveals a contempt for the humanness of those that one disagrees with. Real people don’t have just one motive. Believing that the Jews are destined to be converted does not in any way preclude believing them to be beleaguered victims of injustice now. It does not undermine the actual affection an individual might have for a Jewish friend, or a general gratitude for Jewish foundations to Christianity.

Jews might find it irritating to be supported for a reason not of their choosing, and even antithetical to their own goals, but that is something else again.

Those quickest to condemn an overarching narrative have one of their own. (Because I am now writing in condemnation of their narratives, perhaps there is some derivative of Russell’s Paradox that demands I should include myself in this criticism). Human beings tend strongly to make narratives to explain the world around them. This drive does not make the narrative true or untrue – it simply is. We file our life lessons into anecdotes, where they are easier to remember. As an efficient way of remembering general truths, anecdote is an effective device. The parables of Jesus are teachings delivered in this way. Every novelist or playwright hopes to capture truths about life in his invented story. We like them. We want them. We ignore any amount of contrary data to preserve them.

Yet because they are powerful, narratives can also powerfully deceive. The common complaint that it is possible to lie with statistics overlooks that it is far easier to lie with anecdote. I mistrust anecdote in news reporting because of its unnoticed power – which is why I dislike NPR so much. Even Marketplace, which uses statistics with reasonable honesty, relies on anecdotes to get its point across.

The apt example is powerful, and is an entirely legitimate teaching tool. But as a persuasive tool it is suspect. The Good Samaritan teaches us how to be good. Secondarily, it teaches us that goodness does not always come from the people we define as good. But there is not a persuasive lesson that Samaritans are really much nicer than priests intended. That would be a false use of anecdote.

Yes, this thought is incomplete and there is much more that could be said. This whole question of narrative, oversimplification, complexity, and the unexpected has been on my mind, and I expect I’ll keep at this. So much of our national discussion on terrorism, the economy, the environment, and likely everything else has been little more than the shouting of competing narratives.


ScurvyOaks said...

I'm on the same page with you about statistics and anecdote. You probably didn't notice my recent (and tardy-by-years) comment on your Renaming the A&H Tribe post, so I'll take the liberty of repeating it:

"Speaking as a member of the Business Tribe, I look at A&H and think: the Functionally Innumerate Tribe. Ever noticed that NPR is all about anecdotes -- "the power of a narrative" -- not data?"

One of the great things about data is that people who disagree about the quality and/or meaning of particular data have concepts and language with which they can actually engage each other. (This is so much preferable to carrying on, as you aptly say, "the shouting of competing narratives.") It's possible to drill down into methodologies and subsets of data in ways that can actually cause fair-minded people to shift their conclusions, at least somewhat.

Too many of the A&H Tribe -- and this includes some bloggers I really like -- shy away from quantitative analysis to an unfortunate extent. Often, you really need both quant and qual in your quiver to mount a convincing argument

David said...

I don't know anything about this particular group, but I think the Left's general argument..that Christian support of Israel is meaningless because it is based on theological considerations...is flawed.

In the U.S., anti-Israel attitudes are driven very largely by academia. Americans who are not particularly influenced by academia will not be subject to this propaganda, and hence are likely to be sympathetic to a fellow democracy which has accomplished great things in the face of great dangers.

Christian evangelicals come largely from segments of society which are outside the force field that centers on universities, PBS, the NYT, etc. Independence from these influences has at least as much to do with their pro-Israel attitudes as do any theological considerations--probably more.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

david - I also think that explains much of the evangelical support for Israel: simple admiration for freedom and fair play.