Thursday, December 16

The Stories We Tell

We recognize that there is a divide running through our culture now. It made for an exiting election a few weeks ago. It drove a long contentious campaign. Few people understand those on the other side of the fence from themselves in any meaningful way. To little avail, reasonable (and not) denigrate, castigate, and otherwise attempt to persuade the other side the rightness of their viewpoint.

I made a surprising discovery last night. I've started reading N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God. I've gotten about a third of the way through the book so far, while on my plane flight, waiting in the airport, and last night I had an hour or two because the internet at my hotel was down and I couldn't blog. At any rate, this was my surprising discovery, to my surprise, historians (post-modern influences notwithstanding) have made advances in their techniques in the last century. This in retrospect shouldn't be a surprise, but it was (and a pleasant one). After all, I was part of a physics community which had been reeling from its surprise that the mathematics community had made great advances in the 60 years or so after having been largely out of touch with them (between the quantum mechanics and relativity revolutions of the early 20th century until the middle 1980's when String Theory took off. Modern Physics is "back in communion" with modern Mathematical study).

Post-modernist "critical" techniques get a lot of press, and I for one am dubious of its claims and methods. I had thought, mistakenly, that was the extent of how historians work these days. I am glad to say I am wrong. Just as Socrates pointed out, our wisdom and expertise only extends to the fields of study that we actually gain expertise in, but that there is a strong (human) inclination to mistakenly generalize our expertise to fields in which we are little or no real knowledge. I, even while knowing this, have fallen into the trap.

The NT and the PoG is the start of a ambitious project to re-align and re-address the New Testament using modern historical methods. He rejects the Enlightenment a priori assumption that there is a sharp distinction to be made between the rational and the supernatural. That is to say, he does not reject it out of hand, but recognizes it as a hypothesis that must be examined and rejected on the basis of evidence just like any other theory. It is on the table as well.

At the start of this book, he begins by describing the methods he will be using. His literary and historical methods of analysis go by the name of critical realism. In these methods, one recognizes that worldview is an driving force behind how people order their action. Worldview is built from story. The stories we tell ourselves to explain the world and what goes on in it comprise our worldview. By understanding story, we can begin to understand what really is going on in a historical setting. The critical realists have build methodologies and techniques for finding and dissecting story to mine it for worldview datum.

This can equally be done our modern red/blue divide. In trying to understand the current electoral and philosophical divide that separates the pro-abortion, anti-Iraq War, socialist left from the anti-abortion, pro-Iraq democracy, capitalist right we must begin by examining the stories that are told to explain what is happening. Only then will come to an understanding of how those on the other side of the divide are coming to their conclusions. And behold, Mr Wright and other historians have developed methodologies for identifying and dissecting story to extract an understanding of worldview.

Now it is almost certainly true that this is not an idea which I am the first to alight. Just as in any other endeavor, it would behoove me before trying to examine the stories told by the left and the right, I should examine what others have already thought and said. I will look. But, gentle readers, if any of you have seen or read any studies using critical realism to analyze the current political situation in the US, leave a comment or drop an e-mail.