Rod Treher argues that conservatives need to do better at presenting their views through stories.
Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling—is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind whose own longtime residence in his Michigan hometown earned him the epithet “Sage of Mecosta,” considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”
Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities.
Stories, as carriers of ideas, have consequences. Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, supposedly remarked, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?”
Dreher argues that ordinary people understand policies through stories. This is not a new idea. James Davison Hunter critiques it in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. He points out that Evangelicals “have been distinguished by their massive cultural output in books and book publishing, magazines, radio, music, bible studies, theology, Christian education at all levels, and so on” (29). This cultural production has not ended their cultural marginalization, and Hunter offers eleven propositions that might explain why creating conservative stories probably won’t lead to a conservative renaissance in the larger culture.
One of these is that “cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.” Though sometimes economic revolutions and social movements appear to result from mobilizing ordinary people, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and managment within spheres of social life. Even where impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” (41).
Dreher notes correctly that “Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change.” It probably is a precursor. But the distance that will remain to be traveled even if conservatives develop powerful stories is daunting. Dreher stops short of arguing that stories are sufficient to cause widespread changes in the culture, and if Hunter is correct, such change usually requires the participation of elites and their institutions:
…cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change—period. They are certainly resistant to the mere exertion of will by ordinary individuals or by a well-organized movement of individuals. The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that “in one generation, you change the whole culture”13 is nothing short of ludicrous. Change in political systems and economic conditions can occur relatively quickly but the most profound changes in culture typically take place over the course of multiple generations. The most profound changes in culture can be seen first as they penetrate into the linguistic and mythic fabric of a social order. In doing so, it then penetrates the hierarchy of rewards and privileges and deprivations and punishments that organize social life. It also reorganizes the structures of consciousness and character, reordering the organization of impulse and inhibition. One cannot see change taking place in these ways. It is not perceptible as an event or set of events currently unfolding. Rather, cultural change of this depth can only be seen and described in retrospect, after the transformation has been incorporated into a new configuration of moral controls.
In this light, we can see that evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts—if effective—all bring about good ends: changed hearts and minds, changed laws, changed social behaviors. But they don’t directly influence the moral fabric that makes these changes sustainable over the long term, sustainable precisely because they are implicit and as implicit, they form the presuppositional base of social life. Only indirectly do evangelism, politics, and social reform effect language, symbol, narrative, myth, and the institutions of formation that change the DNA of a civilization.
Imagine, in this regard, a genuine “third great awakening” occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society—the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church—revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.
Dreher holds out the hope that “if conservatives become better storytellers, they might save the culture.” They might, but I suspect a more useful goal might be to strengthen families and churches, to withstand onslaughts from a dominant culture than knows how to care for neither.