Saturday, January 10, 2009

5.3 Meaning Drives the Cycle of the Old & New Story

Addressing the level of culture and history, anthropologist Edward Bruner depicts story as a lens through which we make sense of historical people and events for our own time. He writes, “Narratives are not only structures of meaning, but structures of power as well.” (Bruner, 1986, p. 144) The dominant story conveys and supports the dominant point of view, interpretations, and behavior. Other meanings are rendered with less significance, if they are recognized at all. In some cases, they are assigned explicitly negatives meaning, such as insanity or sacrilege. But his research into the changing portrayals of past events indicates the potential of new stories to fill the gaps and exclusions of the old story.

As the old story loses its “explanatory power and credibility” a new story emerges one of two ways. It may be born of a structural shift such that the old story does not apply to the new conditions. In that case, the new world is so revolutionary, so unlike the old, that it requires a new story to make sense of it and guide human behavior. In systems thinking this is called second-order change and is described as “a change to an altogether different state.” (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974, p. 10) It is an overhaul of the system that originates with changing its intention. If I were proposing that the evangelical Christian church become a goddess-cult that only recognized the contributions of females and reduced males to silent observers, that would be a second-order change.

Bruner describes another mode as contiguous, incremental change that alters the dominant story over time. This is what I am advocating for the evangelical Christian story. In this approach, referred to as first-order change, the system retains its identity and values. Adjustments are made within the system, for example tending to the flow of information among parts. The new story holds continuity with the old story and ultimately is recognized as the same story. This is what I am intending for the development and inclusion of women’s point of view in the evangelical Christian church.

In either case, a new story is not the end of the old story; rather it initiates a cycle of rediscovery and reemergence.
Only after the new narrative becomes dominant is there a reexamination of the past, a rediscovery of old texts, and a recreation of the new heroes of liberation and resistance. The new-story articulates what had been only dimly perceived, authenticates previous feelings, legitimizes new actions, and aligns individual consciousness with a larger social movement. (Bruner, 1986, p. 143)

This suggests that a new evangelical Christian story, for example, one that includes women’s point of view, will not erase the current story. They will continue in a relationship where each informs the significance of the other.

A new narrative frame may answer the oversights and silences of an old story, but the change to accepting that new story is embodied in the understanding and behavior of humans, as individuals and groups. Annette Simmons is a corporate consultant who uses storytelling to help organizations navigate changes. She offers a warning, “Whenever you tell a story that contradicts someone’s core story they will usually get angry. This is a natural defense. Understanding anger is an important part of telling influential stories. People ‘fight for their limitations’ because it is what they know.” (Simmons, 2001, p. 53) I would say that people fight for their boundaries because that is the reality they really see, the truth that a new story challenges. Granting a new story a chance, however incremental, shakes one’s concept of what is significant, what is good or bad, and how to respond to that. It is nearly impossible to perceive the new story as change rather than elimination. Simmons notes an unexpected value to the dissent for the storyteller, “And continue to listen to those who remain unconvinced. You need them to stay in touch with the things you don’t yet know or understand.” (Simmons, 2001, p. 205)

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