When mass shootings became part of our culture a few years ago (remember, for those of you a bit older, the shock of Columbine?) it was typically a few days or a week until the battles about gun control started—now it is at best few hours until everyone starts pulling out their statistics and anecdotes and saying “hooray for our side” and “we are more righteous than you”.
Surveying all of this in the news, on Facebook and Twitter I was struck by something that philosopher Charles Taylor talks about. He talks about something called “Social Imaginaries”. A social imaginary is the lens or story that a person sees the world through. That lens or story shapes everything. For instance, think about marriage. Just think about it. As soon as you think about it you reveal the story or social imaginary through which you see the world. For most people in our culture marriage is about love, it is filled with romance, and it is about the two people who are in the marriage and perhaps the children when they come along. When we read the Bible we are tempted to put that picture of marriage into the Bible. But that is not the story that people in Ancient Near East would recognize. For them marriage was about strengthening two families, building ties or even settling a dispute through binding two clans together. Love and romance might show up, but that’s not the first thing marriage would be for them.
All of us have our social imaginaries, the story or lens we look at the world through. That story is so imbedded in our soul that we can’t get out of the story to see through the eyes of another story or perhaps more to the point we think other stories are hopelessly naive or uncaring or stupid or… If our story is one of the free market we denigrate those who cry out for government solutions. If we are someone who doesn’t trust big business the present sense that the solution for all of the worlds problems from troubles in schools to churches to non profits is to run them like a business seems absurd, but those living the story of trusting business think this is the greatest thing ever. And when it comes to guns those who live out of the story of “the right to bear arms” and the picture of a “good man with a gun” who stops the bad man with a gun is the right story. On the other hand, those who want gun control argue that “the right to bear arms” was never supposed to lead to where we are and that those who want to bear arms are more concerned about their guns than they are about lives lost.
The trouble with social imaginaries is when they get in us we can’t seem to hear the voices of others. The other trouble with social imaginaries is we often don’t even recognize that we are operating within them. Charles Taylor calls this reality “unthoughts”. An unthought is something we assume to be true, it is a belief that we hold to as a culture. We hear these unthoughts in saying or slogans like, “Question Authority”, “the government can’t be trusted”, “human beings are good”, “choice is a good thing”, or “everyone should be free”. An author commenting on Taylor writes,
"These ideas do indeed have deep resonance in our culture, but Taylor shows why, if any of them are given sustained reflection, we must conclude that “it is absurd to adopt any of these . . . propositions as universal truths. . . . To have any kind of livable society some choices have to be restricted, some authorities have to be respected, and some individual responsibility has to be assumed.”
What are the unthoughts, things we just assume are true because the slogans and saying have gotten deep enough into our lives? One way of discerning unthoughts by the way is to ask if another culture would see these things as true as well (back to thinking about marriage again) or if we look back in history would people assume these ideas are true.
Our unthoughts that flow from our social imaginaries are just the way we think, just the way we see the world (think about marriage again), and because of that there is little room for putting aside our story, our imaginary to come together with others to find solutions to whatever ails our society and world.
Into this struggle and into our sometimes unwillingness to uncover or challenge our social imaginaries comes another way of seeing the world that both gives a lens through which to see in a new way and opens the door to working with others to heal what ails our society and world. We can call this the social imaginary of the Bible.
One of the most important parts of this social imaginary that people actually love to hate is something that the 16th century reformers called, Total Depravity. Total Depravity tells the story that everything and everyone has been touched by and twisted by sin. It doesn’t say that every person or everything is as bad as she/he/it could be, rather it says everything has gotten crooked and twisted by sin. This is a critical reality that impacts whatever social imaginary we are living out (think red state, blue state imaginaries or free market, socialism imaginaries) because it tells us that while there are good things in our imaginary something in our imaginary is crooked and twisted as well. Recognizing that things are crooked and twisted in my imaginary allows me to be open to speaking with others who come from a different point of view, who imagine healing the world has to be done in a different way.
By the way one helpful process for uncovering both the goodness and the crookedness of your social imaginary goes like this
1. What does the story (the social imaginary) I live by teach about what it means to be a person who lives the good life? How does that compare with what God teaches in the scriptures?
2. What can I agree with in this story that helps me live as a passionate follower of Jesus?
3. What do I have to resist in this story because it takes me away from being a part of a vibrant community of passionate followers of Jesus?
4. What are the “unthoughts” in this story I live by?
Another huge part of the social imaginary of the Bible is knowing that God is on a mission to restore and redeem his world and people in it. As we mentioned yesterday this is the vision of Shalom.
Shalom: where God is our God and we are his people and he dwells with us, where God is King and his son is Lord, a world where the Lamb is our light, where swords are beaten into plowshares, where abundance is enjoyed by all, where our hurts are healed and the crooked is made straight, where people from every tribe and tongue and nation sing the same songs of praise, where justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.
When we look at the world we see that God is on a mission to restore and redeem and that his people are called to join in the mission of God. The Christian Reformed Church’s “Our World Belongs to God” speaks of the mission this way,
41. Joining the mission of God, the church is sent
with the gospel of the kingdom
to call everyone to know and follow Christ and to proclaim to all
the assurance that in the name of Jesus there is forgiveness of sin
and new life for all who repent and believe. The Spirit calls all members
to embrace God’s mission
in their neighborhoods
and in the world:
to feed the hungry,
bring water to the thirsty,
welcome the stranger,
clothe the naked,
care for the sick,
and free the prisoner.
We repent of leaving this work to a few,
for this mission is central to our being.
Joining in this mission his people know that while God’s mission is never crooked, they are, and so they carry out that mission with humility and in the way of the cross, namely, as those who practice self-giving love as the way to overcome evil.
As followers of Jesus we want to do our best to use the imaginary of the Bible in dealing with the world and with those we disagree with. We want to recognize the total depravity that impacts us, we want to see that we are called by God to be on his mission to restore and redeem all things, and we want to know that even on this mission we need to live as people of humility—who live the way of the cross by carrying out God’s mission in self-giving love.
But we also own that this this is our first and foremost social imaginary. All other ways we see the world are judged by and filtered by this Biblical imaginary. The mission of God, the reign of Christ over all, and the way of the cross outshines and overrules all else: national imaginaries, social imaginaries, local imaginaries, family, right wing, left wing…
Which today brings us back to guns and gun control. As the Twitter wars continue, as Facebook calls out, “read my post, because my side is right” how do we, who live out the social imaginary of the Bible, begin to be the prophetic voice in our culture that calls out both the goodness and the crookedness of different perspectives? How do we become the voice of self-giving love? How do we become the voice that sets aside our own social imaginaries for the imaginary of the Bible and so opens a door to solutions?