A dozen years ago, Robert Reich, academic economist and secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, published a brief essay in The New Republic. In “Story time,” he identified four basic stories we Americans have been telling about ourselves since the nation’s beginning. Two of the stories are positive, two are negative, but all four are thoroughly American. Reich’s interest was political, and so he mused about the way Democrats and Republicans frame and articulate the four, what relative stress and nuance the parties attach to them. “Speak to these four stories,” he wrote, “and you resonate with the tales Americans have been telling each other since our founding. … If they’re to be understandable, policies and issues must fit into larger narratives about where we have been as a nation, what we are up against and where we could be going.”
Reich made it clear that all four stories are constantly in play; it is not a matter of choosing to tell some, but not others. How the stories are told is key.
The triumphant individual. This is the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor. It’s the story of the self-made man (or woman) who bucks the odds, spurns the naysayers and shows what can be done with enough gumption and guts. The moral: With enough effort and courage, everyone can make it in the United States.
The benevolent community. This is the story of neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good. The story is captured in the iconic New England town meeting, in frontier settlers erecting one another’s barns, in neighbors volunteering as firefighters and librarians and in small towns sending their high school achievers to college and their boys off to fight foreign wars.
The mob at the gates. In this story, the United States is a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces. Hence our endless efforts to contain the barbarism and tyranny beyond our borders. The underlying lesson: We must maintain vigilance, lest diabolical forces overwhelm us.
The rot at the top. This last story concerns the malevolence of the power elites. It’s a tale of corruption, decadence and irresponsibility in high places – of conspiracy against the common citizen.
In this springtime of our discontent it is interesting to think about the way President Donald Trump and Democrats in exile tell these stories, but my interest in them is more ecclesial than political. If these four are archetypal American stories, they are also told in American churches about American churches. Can we recognize the ways Presbyterians tell these stories, and so gain some insight into our current ecclesial situation? Do we tell the stories honestly? Are they told differently by evangelicals and progressives? How are they told differently in various social locations – congregations, mid councils, national denominational structures, seminaries? Do different narrations of the same stories solidify disparities or do they suggest commonalities? Does clarity about the way each of “us” tells the stories lead to self-satisfaction or reformation?
The triumphant individual
It might seem that this story cuts against the grain of Presbyterian rhetoric that criticizes “individualism” as inimical to the gospel’s call for interdependence and mutuality. Yet there is one Presbyterian group in which the story of the triumphant individual is assumed: pastors. Traditional Presbyterian ecclesiology has been characterized by a “unified plural ministry” in which the distinction between “clergy” and “laity” is abolished in the establishment of the ordered ministries of ruling elders and deacons. Together with Ministers of Word and Sacrament, elders and deacons are called and ordained to ministry, and the three ordered ministries together compose the unified ministry of the church.
The unified plural ministry has become our pleasant fiction, however. The disappearance of deacons and the diminishment of elders have proceeded apace, accompanied by resurgent clericalism. Congregational “boards” have become cajoled service on a management agency rather than a calling to ministries of discernment and self-giving. Pastors, on the other hand, have become CEOs whose work leads to institutional (and therefore to personal) success. Pastors are entrepreneurial managers who must succeed or be held accountable for failure in ecclesial competition for market share in a declining demographic.
The story of the triumphant individual is told by both evangelicals and progressives (as well as by the amorphous middle) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Fellowship Community and NEXT Church gatherings are laced with testimonies of successful pastors and their successful churches, with only de rigueur reference to the grace of God. It is the triumph of technique, and therefore the triumph of pastors and congregations with organizational and entrepreneurial acumen. There is an underside to the way the story is told, however. Presbyterian narration of “the triumphant individual (pastor and congregation)” is not only theologically suspect, it is also discouraging to “less successful” pastors and congregations, who are reminded regularly that they are not “triumphant.” Yet the story continues to be told throughout the councils, conferences and hallways of the church.
The benevolent community
This is the story we like to tell about ourselves. We tout our commitment to the common good and its ancillary practices of inclusion, collaboration and civility: “We are better together!” Yet we often sound this mantra not as a description of a benevolent community, but as an implied critique of those who do not share our understanding of fidelity or mission or morality or inclusion. We tell this story within enclaves of competing congregations, challenged presbyteries, conflicted assemblies, isolated agencies and opposing interest groups. “Better together” groups such as NEXT Church, the Fellowship Community and Covenant Network (as well as racial, cultural, gender and age cohorts) are internally benevolent communities, but separated from and suspicious of one another. Organizationally, the church’s councils compete with one another for diminishing resources. Congregations resist mutual responsibility and accountability. The PC(USA) is not the benevolent community, but a collection of distinct, separated benevolent communities.
The mob at the gates
During the decades of Presbyterian contention over sexuality issues, both progressives and evangelicals saw themselves as champions of the “true and faithful church” that had to resist the onslaught of dangerously erroneous theology and morality. The goal was triumph over oppositional forces. In the Presbyterian system of binary forced choice, one side or the other was destined to win. When evangelicals had tenuous control of the fortress, the progressives laid siege. When they finally breached the gates, many of the evangelicals abandoned the fortress, withdrawing from the battle to build a secure stronghold elsewhere.
Schism in the church is never a happy outcome, and it is easy to villainize those who depart. But, as it’s been said, it takes two to schism. Many, but not all, evangelical churches and their pastors “disaffiliated” from the PC(USA), forming a new denomination or becoming part of a previously departed church. Many, but not all, progressives in the PC(USA) were happy to see them go. But the enmity between the two produced clashes over property, complete with haggling about money and lawsuits in civil courts. Both the departing and the remaining sought a to establish newly purified churches, with secure gates and measures to ensure that “the mob” would never again threaten.
The rot at the top
Both evangelicals and progressives are united in one of the four American stories: suspicion of and disdain for bureaucratic church structures. “Louisville” is voiced with a sneer, synods are dismissed as a bad joke and presbyteries are tolerated at best and more often dismissed as annoying burdens. The rot at the top is not corruption, but corrosive irrelevance, ineptitude and self-service. Energy and commitment flow away from official structures to more nimble, openhanded associations such as NEXT, the Fellowship and scores of independent missions and ministries. Evangelicals and progressives may support different alternatives to denominational structures, but they are united in their judgment that there is something very wrong with existing ecclesial hierarchies.
The result of telling the story of rot at the top does not result in health at the base, however. Both progressives and evangelicals are content with localized cohesion and the continuation of mutual isolation. The problem for the many congregations and pastors who are neither is the absence of significant ecclesial relationships beyond themselves. Critique of rot at the top does not result in commitment to work for the good of the whole. And so the story circles around again to the survival of triumphant individual churches and the diminishment of the benevolent community.
We are the PC(USA), which is to say that we are steeped in our culture and cannot pretend that we float above it. So, the American stories are our stories as well. But they are not the only stories we have. The Reformed narration of Christian faith and life can be characterized by our distinctive take on the “apostolic benediction”: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
“The love of God” is our way of talking about God’s providence. Far from sentimental assurance that we are lovable, God’s love is that of Creator for creatures, Sovereign for servants, Parent for children. This means that the stories we tell about ourselves are fictions unless they are subplots in God’s story. God’s story is not to be sought in facile allusions to “what God is up to,” but in the story that transcends our little time and place. The impossibly long sentence in Ephesians 1:3-14 is a far better indicator of God’s providential love.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is our way of talking about the totality of God’s condescension in incarnation-crucifixion-resurrection-ascension-promised coming. All of this is “for us and our salvation,” that is, for the redemption of humankind from the power of sin and death. Grace is not a little word to describe my reception of God’s favor, but a cosmic word that calls the people of God, forms the body of Christ and shapes the communion of the Holy Spirit.
It is “the communion of the Holy Spirit” that is our distinctive way of talking about the life of the church. “Communion” translates koinōnia, of course, but it is not the only way that koinōnia is rendered in English. The NRSV translates it variously as communion, fellowship, participation, partnership, sharing, contribution and taking part. The variety of translations suggests the richness of the word, but readers of English versions are unaware that one Greek word underlies disparate English vocabulary. In turn, this obscures the relationships among such seemingly dissimilar matters as Trinity, sharing money, reconciliation, Christ’s body and blood, community and truth. (With apologies to the Fellowship Community, “fellowship” is too weak a word to convey the power of koinōnia.) The church is called to the new life of communion, characterized by deep, intimate relationship with the One God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and so to deep, intimate human relationships of mutual responsibility.
The story of God’s love, Christ’s grace and the Spirit’s communion transforms the ways the church is called to tell the American stories of personhood, community, distinctiveness and reformation. Soli Deo gloria.
Joseph Small served as director of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship from 1989-2011. In retirement he serves (very) part-time as church relations consultant to the Presbyterian Foundation. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.