Beware the Power of “Story”

[The following is another post originally up in slightly different form at “Context with Lorna Dueck.”]

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Well, let’s see.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007), caution us that stories that are simple, memorable, emotionally provocative, a little bit surprising, but mostly reinforcing of our settled beliefs will be far more believable to us than those that lack those qualities.

You’ll notice that none of those qualities have anything to do with whether the story is actually true.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his bestselling survey of Thinking, Fast and Slow (FSG/Macmillan, 2011), likewise warns us that we tend to believe any story that corresponds to what we already think we know. It takes less effort to keep believing what we already believe, and the brain resists extra effort.

“That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

As we daily make our way within the Great Information Paradox—we have more information available than ever before, but fewer trusted authorities to help guide us than ever before—we love our story-tellers. For stories combine vividness, specificity, and order.  And these elements cut through the noisy complexity to set before us something interesting, something of a manageable scale that we can see and understand, and something that assures us that life will somehow turn out intelligibly.

Again, however, we find that those qualities describe fairy tales of what didn’t happen at least as well as they describe historical accounts that describe what did.

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Should Tax Money Go to Religious Groups?

[This is a lightly edited version of a post that first appeared on the “Context with Lorna Dueck” website.]

One hears murmurs, whisperings, and hints that the Trudeau government is considering scaling back, or even eliminating, tax support for religious organizations in Canada.

The code language here is “modernizing,” as in “modernizing the tax code.” The modernity that is implied here is a very particular kind of modernity, that of the French Revolution and, indeed, of the Quiet Revolution two centuries later. “Modern” in this parlance means “secularist,” which means “emptied of religion.”

There’s a fair question at stake: Why should Canadian governments—federal, provincial, or municipal—give financial support to religious organizations? Whether the support comes in tax breaks, zoning allowances, partnerships, or outright grants, does any of it make sense any longer in a post-Christian, pluralistic Canada?

Two things need to be said on behalf of continuing such support, and then at least one more.

First, religious groups provide many social services gratis to their communities.

Someone has a new baby? Religious groups provide meals, run errands, and help with childcare for frazzled new parents.

Someone’s getting married? Religious groups provide celebrations, yes, so that everyone feels honoured—not just those who can afford to fête themselves. But they also provide food, household items, and time-honoured wisdom to help give new unions a good start.

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Two Straws in the Wind: Evangelicals and the US Election

Factoid 1: Franklin Graham all-but-explicitly endorsed Donald Trump on the eve of the election.

Factoid 2: Wheaton College students, according to a poll taken by their student newspaper, overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton.

The Graham endorsement (let’s call it what it is) is no surprise, as he has been a prominent, one might say “vociferous,” proponent of the Religious Right. Originally identified, and praised, as the successor to founder Bob Pierce at Samaritan’s Purse, he increasingly has tried to combine that work with his father’s ministry of large-scale evangelistic rallies and also with outspoken politics, thus becoming much more like Jerry Falwell than Billy Graham.

Meanwhile, however, at Billy Graham’s alma mater, students were strongly inclined to vote for Hillary Clinton.

This was a school at which I was part of a tiny, conspicuous minority when I wore a “Mondale/Ferraro” pin in the mid-1980s. I was a Canadian citizen and thus unable to vote, but we had lived in the US as permanent residents for several years, were anticipating at least several more (we returned to Canada in 1990), and I thought it best for my students at Wheaton to see that at least some members of the Wheaton community were not Republican.

(For the record, back here in Canada, I have voted Liberal, Conservative, and New Democratic Party as each election posed a fresh context, and I am not a member of any party.)

This division among American evangelicals tracks with certain findings in exit polls, such as this one in the New York Times. The younger and the more educated a voter, the more likely to vote for Clinton. And if the voter is non-white, the numbers jump much higher, just as Wheaton itself, and the broader evangelical constituency it represents, has become significantly less Caucasian in the last generation.

So if one likes the result of this election, one must nonetheless bewail it as very likely the political swan song of less educated white males, and especially those claiming an evangelical identity. The demographic trends are against you—as, of course, you know very well, and demonstrated you did during this campaign.

The more one dislikes the result of this election, the more one can feel that time is on one’s side.