Stories are not just for adventure, escape, and enchantment—they are also the primary way we make sense of life. My story, the story I tell about myself, captures who I think I am, where I came from, what I think is important, what my values are, and what I hope to become. Our sense of history and significance get woven into a narrative that defines our purpose in a cosmos in which meaning often seems in short supply. And it’s not just individuals that tell stories about themselves. Nations do as well.
“Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be,” George Packer says in “How America Fractured into Four Parts.” “There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires.” (The Atlantic, July/August 2021: p. 2.)
Packer’s article is adapted from his new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 2021). I haven’t read the book, but the article is fascinating, well written, compelling, consistent with my personal sense of how we Americans understand America, and truly significant for the followers of Jesus to consider with care. The stories we tell—about ourselves and about America—expose our values and convictions, dreams and fears, priorities, and perspectives. Our Lord has a stake in the truth and expects us to be like him.
Packer proposes that at present there are four competing stories: Free America, Real America, Smart America, and Just America. He relates each narrative carefully, so carefully I could hear the voices of friends, neighbors, and relatives as I read. Each of the four story reflects aspects of truth, but each is both incomplete and incapable of embracing the experience of all Americans. Each competes for advantage, wanting to be dominant, meaning that the culture war that is driving us apart seems destined to continue unabated. As Packer notes:
They all respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have. Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid. They rise from a single society, and even in one as polarized as ours they continually shape, absorb, and morph into one another. But their tendency is also to divide us, pitting tribe against tribe. These divisions impoverish each narrative into a cramped and ever more extreme version of itself.
All four narratives are also driven by a competition for status that generates fierce anxiety and resentment. They all anoint winners and losers. In Free America, the winners are the makers, and the losers are the takers who want to drag the rest down in perpetual dependency on a smothering government. In Smart America, the winners are the credentialed meritocrats, and the losers are the poorly educated who want to resist inevitable progress. In Real America, the winners are the hardworking folk of the white Christian heartland, and the losers are treacherous elites and contaminating others who want to destroy the country. In Just America, the winners are the marginalized groups, and the losers are the dominant groups that want to go on dominating.
I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them. [ p. 42]
The troubling question is whether a free democracy can be sustained in this deeply divided social reality. And what we can do about it as individual citizens.
Which brings me to an an email (June 18, 2021) sent by The Atlantic to subscribers. It included a dialogue with Packer that caught my attention—as it was doubtlessly designed to do. Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s editor, interviewed Packer about how he sees the political divide in America.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve written entire books on this general subject, but try to answer this question in a couple of lines: What causes you to worry the most about America’s future as a unified, coherent country?
George Packer: We Americans don’t just disagree with one another. We don’t just have different values, narratives, and perceptions of truth. We actually see one another as moral threats, incompatible with all that we consider good, and we fantasize about a country in which the threats are no longer around. Not to be melodramatic, but you can recognize this kind of thinking in countries that fall into civil war.
JG: You think we’re actually heading to civil war?
GP: Not likely, not with violence on a large scale. More like a cold civil war that continues to erode democracy, make every election seem existential, and prevent us from solving our major problems, with long-term decline.
All of this simply begs for unhurried reflection and discussion by discerning followers of Jesus. For one thing, I suspect our reaction to both Packer’s essay and the interview will depend on which of the four narratives is closest to our own perspective. I encourage you to read it and discuss it with friends.
What story do you tell to make sense of America?
To what extent does Packer’s analysis of four stories coincide with your sense of where we are as a nation?
What are the strengths of each story? What are its weaknesses?
Packer says, “We don’t just have different values, narratives, and perceptions of truth. We actually see one another as moral threats, incompatible with all that we consider good, and we fantasize about a country in which the threats are no longer around.” Where have you seen this in practice? What does the Christian calling to faithfulness and virtue suggest about our role in such a divided society?
How should our Christian story—Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation—intersect with, inform, and bring grace to each of the four American stories?
In the interview, Goldberg asked Packer, “Are there, in your mind, credible, discernible off-ramps?” Packer responded:
I see three ways this could change. One is separation (not actual secession, but red and blue areas having more and more political autonomy). Another is conquest (one side wins a decisive majority). Neither of these seems very tenable. The third off-ramp is more complex but more feasible: government-led improvements in people’s lives, a reversal of the inequality that’s at the root of much of our disunion, along with socially binding ideas like universal national service and better K–12 education (civics!).
What is your response to Packer’s proposals? Where do you agree, and why? Where do you disagree, and why? What, if anything, would you add, and why?
What can the Church offer to help heal this deep division in American society? What resources does Christian faith provide for this effort?
Christians who take Scripture seriously should know the significance of story, and the significance of getting our story right. In Jeremiah’s day, two narratives circulated among the people living in Judah. One claimed that the land was secure, that although armies threatened, the people living in the land would be protected by the power of God and would be in the center of God’s mercy. The other story claimed that judgment was on the horizon, that foreign enemies would soon conquer, and that the exiles living far from the land were the remnant that would experience the presence and grace of God. Both stories claimed historical precedence, both generated political policies, and both insisted they were true.
Getting our story right actually matters.
Source: The entire interview of George Packer by Jeffrey Goldberg can be read online here.