Telling the Right Story v. Telling the Story Right


Not only can those with a patriotism of affirmation and a patriotism of dissent take a few lessons here (especially the former as it has a tendency to question the fundamental patriotism of the latter), but would that those with a sunnier take on what it means to be the church in the world demonstrate the same sober restraint Richard Gamble suggests for telling the American history. Forgetting the biblical image of the church being a light to nations, some prefer to think of the church as the soul of the nation.  But substitute words like “church” for “republic,” “pastor” for “teacher” and “sheep” for “student” and one begins to get a feel for what it may mean to think in terms of being a smoldering wick casting a weak light instead of booming sun fueling the soul of America:

If we are going to tell a story that has integrity to it, then we have to look intently and honestly in the mirror the muse of history offers to us. That mirror will show us a republic and a nation, modesty and hubris, self-restraint and imperialism, aristocratic virtues and populist demagoguery…

Surely the good citizen does not make a god of his nation. Surely the good citizen does not confuse the voice of the people with the voice of God. Surely the good citizen fears the lust for dominion that he knows lurks in every human heart, beginning with his own…

And so with our American story. At first, we tell a story fit for children. But we ought not always and only to tell a story fit for children. Someday we have to grow up. Children need to stop being children. The selective story of the American past needs to give way gradually and prudently to the larger story of America, a story fit for grownups and a not a story destined to keep citizens of the republic in a condition of perpetual adolescence. This is one of the greatest challenges facing the college history teacher. After more than twenty years of teaching, I still struggle—I struggle now more than ever before—with how to tell the whole truth about America in a way that helps young people become adults while at the same time avoids the contagion of cynicism and disillusionment. My students will be the first to tell you that I do not always succeed. I have to tell the right story. But that is not enough. I have to tell it right.

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4 Responses to Telling the Right Story v. Telling the Story Right

  1. Chris Donato says:

    “…avoids the contagion of cynicism and disillusionment.”

    Good luck with that.

  2. Zrim says:

    It may be less a question of luck and more the work of distinguishing between skepticism and cynicism, realism and disillusionment.

    But like skeptic Mark Twain said, “The harder I work the luckier I get.”

  3. sean says:

    It reminds me of the need to teach both polemically and positively. I remembered Horton (I believe) commenting years ago about how most seminaries doing away with polemical theology, as symptomatic of our inability to handle conflict well.

    The inability to engage polemically is a tragic reality in our churches and leaves us more and more bereft in our understanding of our faith. I learn and understand more by knowing what something is not than knowing what it is. This is particularly true as it regards competing religious “truths”.

  4. sean says:

    Of course when you marry the kingdoms you become difficult to dialogue with because all the questions and points of tension are ultimate

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