A New Framing Story

January 11th, 2021 by JDVaughn Leave a reply »
Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions popularized the term “paradigm shift.” [1] A paradigm is a set of beliefs, images, concepts, and structures that govern the way we think about something. Kuhn (1922–1996) said that paradigm change becomes necessary when the previous paradigm becomes so full of holes and patchwork “fixes” that a complete overhaul is necessary. The shift in thinking which might have felt threatening at one time now appears as the only way forward and as a real lifeline. I hope we are at one of these critical junctures again. Might we be willing to adopt a new set of beliefs, values, and systems that could change (and maybe even save) humanity and our world? My colleague Brian McLaren is a former English teacher and has much to teach us about the power of stories. He uses the language of a “framing story” to describe the same phenomenon Kuhn observed. Brian says a framing story “gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, what’s going on, where things are going, and what they should do.” [2] While we all have stories that answer those questions on a personal level, a “framing story” dictates the general beliefs of a culture, nation, religion, and even humanity as a whole. Brian writes convincingly that “our growing list of global crises [Richard: even before the COVID-19 pandemic], together with our inability to address them effectively, gives us strong evidence that our world’s dominant framing story is failing.” [3] He reflects: If it [our framing story] tells us that the purpose of life is for individuals or nations to accumulate an abundance of possessions and to experience the maximum amount of pleasure during the maximum number of minutes of our short lives, then we will have little reason to manage our consumption. If our framing story tells us that we are in life-and-death competition with each other . . . then we will have little reason to seek reconciliation and collaboration and nonviolent resolutions to our conflicts. . . . But if our framing story tells us that we are free and responsible creatures in a creation made by a good, wise, and loving God, and that our Creator wants us to pursue virtue, collaboration, peace, and mutual care for one another and all living creatures, and that our lives can have profound meaning if we align ourselves with God’s wisdom, character, and dreams for us . . . then our society will take a radically different direction, and our world will become a very different place. [4] As Christians, we have the opportunity to live the story that was given to us at the very beginning (Genesis 1), that creation is “good,” even “very good,” and that it is our vocation to nurture and grow such goodness wherever we can. Stories Are Essential It doesn’t matter how old we are; we all need stories to believe in. If there’s no storyline, no integrating images that define who we are or that give our lives meaning or direction, we just won’t be happy. It was probably Carl Jung (1875‒1961) and Joseph Campbell (1904‒1987) who most developed this idea for my generation of Western rationalists. Many of us had thought that myth meant “not true,” when in fact the older meaning of myth is precisely “always true”! Jungian analyst and story-teller Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes: Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives . . . [1]. I can’t imagine I’m alone in longing for us collectively to embrace a better story, one that has the power to change our hearts and minds and enliven our imaginations. Jung goes so far as to say that transformation only happens in the presence of story, myth, and image, not primarily through rational arguments. What fits (or does not fit) into your preexisting storyline?  For Christians, the map of Jesus’ life is the map of humanity: birth, everyday life, betrayal, abandonment, death, resurrection, and new life. In the end, it all comes full circle; we return where we started, though now transformed. Jung saw this basic pattern repeated in every human life, and he called it the Christ Archetype, an image “as good as perfect” that maps the whole journey of human transformation. [2] Jung’s notion of an Archetype or Ruling Image helps us understand the “Universal Stand-In” that Jesus was meant to be. Sadly, for most Christians Jesus ended up being an exclusive Savior for us to worship instead of an inclusive Savior with whom we are already joined at the hip. If we live in Europe or North or South America, there’s a good chance we’ve picked up this archetypal storyline, at least on some minimal level. We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it.

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