Brian McLaren devotes Chapter 9 of Everything Must Change to the framing story concept. You will recall from the previous post that at the center of Brian McLaren’s societal machine was a dark gear that represented the framing story, coordinating the other three societal systems.
To elaborate, McLaren uses the analogy of a human body. We are sixty trillion cells organized into ten organ systems. What happens with our massively complex integrated bodily system depends on the story we have about whom we are and our place in the world. Our “framing story” is what guides the use to which we put ourselves.
If our framing story is wise, strong, realistic, and constructive, it can send us on a hopeful trajectory. But if our framing story is dysfunctional, weak, false, unrealistic, or destructive, it can send us on a downward are, a dangerous, high-speed joyride toward un-peace, unhealthy, un-prosperity, even un-life. (67)
So what does our present story look like? I didn’t find a specific section that said “here is the operative framing story.” However, the following two paragraphs should give you some idea:
If our framing story tells us that we humans are godlike beings with godlike privileges – intelligent and virtuous creatures outside of a limited environment of time and space, without potentially fatal flaws – we will have no reason to acknowledge or live within limits, whether moral or ecological. Similarly, if it 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 mange our consumption. If our framing story tells us that we are in life-and-death competition with each other, that only the fittest will survive, that each species and group is in a violent struggle to outcompete and gain independence and safety from or dominance over all others, then we will have little reason to seek reconciliation and collaboration and nonviolent resolutions to our conflicts. If it tells us that we are simply masses of atoms in a complex ultimately meaningless fermentation and decay process, that there is no ultimate purpose to existence, no higher value to the story, then we will have little reason to seek transcendence.
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. (67)
We touched on the three societal systems in McLaren’s societal model in the previous post. In this chapter he explains the dysfunction that has been created by our framing story for each of the systems. I quote these in full:
Our story does not guide us to respect environmental limits, but instead inspires our pursuit of as much resource use and waste production (also known as economic growth) as possible, as far as possible. As a result, we burn through nonrenewable resources without concern for their eventual disappearance, draw down renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, and produce more waste products than our environment can absorb, manifesting a host of negative symptoms, some realized, others largely invisible to us as yet. Rapid and extravagant resource use (with corresponding waste production) is so profitable for some people that they can avoid or remain in denial about most of these negative symptoms for a very long time. In fact, their “success” makes it highly improbable that they will ever be willing to acknowledge the unsustainability of their way of life. This is the prosperity dysfunction.
Our framing story does not lead us to work for the common good. Instead, it legitimizes the growing gap between rich and poor in a variety of ways. For example, the story may imply that God has blessed and favored the rich and powerful, or that the poor and vulnerable are lazy and irresponsible and therefore are getting what they deserve. All the while the bellies of the poor ache from hunger and their children die of treatable diseases.
The poor respond in various ways. Some poor people decide to join the story of the rich by immigration – legal or illegal. Other poor people resent the rich for not helping them and may blame the rich for their own property. They graft their growing resentment into their unique versions of the framing story, justifying their strategies for crime, war, terrorism, and hatred. Meanwhile, the rich see how the rage of the poor grows as the gap between themselves and the poor grows. The rich express their growing fear through guard dogs, high walls, and razor wire, through expanding defense budgets, and through preemptive war doctrine. The more the poor infringe upon the comfort of the rich through immigration, crime, war, and terrorism, the more the rich protect themselves and shut the poor out, creating a vicious cycle of us/them alienation and polarization. Every social grouping – national religious, ethnic, tribal, political, social, or educational – is drawn into a vortex of rich/poor conflict. Each group becomes a competing us/them faction that seeks advantage for “us,” not a common good for all. This is the equity dysfunction.
Our framing story does not lead these competing factions to reconcile peacefully. Instead we find, nested in the larger framing story shared by both rich and poor, a huge bank of patriotic and religious stories that celebrate how “redemptive violence” has helped good people (“us”) to defeat evil people (“them”) throughout history. Thus when push comes to shove, good people and evil people alike trust violence as the way to peace, and our framing story squelches the creative, peaceful alternatives. When more and more nations (or religious or ethnic militia) arm themselves with more and more lethal weapons – not to mention when some groups acquire biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons – everyone feels less secure, and every regional conflict contains the seeds of terrifying escalation, resulting in an increasingly anxious global society. Gradually, the world becomes locked in a vicious cycle of tension between an anxious global empire of the rich and an angry global terrorist revolution of the poor. This is the security dysfunction.
Again, a look in the mirror can make this all very clear. Your sixty trillion cells and ten biological systems can be thrust into a life of service to humanity or a life of crimes against humanity depending on the framing story you live by. The various subplots of your life – we can call them episodes or narratives – all take shape within this larger framing story: the narrative of your marriage, your career, and hobbies, for example, live in dynamic relation with the framing story to which they contribute and by which they are to some degree driven. (68-70)
At the end of chapter 9, McLaren suggesting that framing stories tend to follow various themes:
Victim and revenge narratives keep old memories of past offenses alive; victimization becomes an excuse for current problems and a stimulus for future retaliation. The offense-revenge cycle can preoccupy a society for centuries even millennia … Some nations may upgrade their warrior narratives for domination or imperial narratives, which tell them that they deserve to be in control of other nations and that they aren’t actually secure unless they’re in control.
Withdrawal or Isolation Narratives
Other nations may tire of these overtly violent narratives and instead chose withdrawal or isolation narratives. They are similarly addictive, but instead of an offense-revenge cycle, they work with a fear-protection cycle. Leaders keep their people in a state of constant fear of outside attack or internal uprising, aided and abetted by the news media an sometimes by religious leaders as well. … The feeling of being in danger itself becomes addictive: without a real or imagined threat, the society loses its framing story and must find or create a new potential enemy.
Other societies work on what we will call theocapitalist narratives, which mythologize markets and their products with a divine power to bring happiness. The economy’s “invisible hand” moves mysteriously to solve all problems and meet all needs. These consumerist narratives must stir desire for material wealth beyond the level of need or even comfort by making the constant stimulation and satisfaction of desire and end in itself. This desire appears productive (especially in comparison to the previous framing stories) but easily becomes no less addictive than the other narratives – whether its addiction focuses on oil, amusement, sex, food, technology, work, leisure, or an abstraction such as growth. (71-72)
Beginning with Part 3 (of 8) in the book, McLaren explains what he sees as the framing story Jesus brought us and explains what impact living out that story would have for reorienting the functions of the societal machine. He makes some judgments about our present circumstances that are consequences of the present suicide machine narrative. He cites statistical and anecdotal evidence along the way he believes confirms the suicidal nature of the machine we live with. So before we go there, I’m going to take the next few posts to correct what I think is a decidedly parochial weakness in this book. It is a parochialism of the present.