By In Politics

Reading Stories within a Story: The Value of Worldview Thinking

“The way we understand human life depends on what conception we have of the human story. What is the real story of which my life story is a part?” –Leslie Newbigin

Do students really need a worldview education? That’s the question being debated by Rod Dreher/Joshua GibbsGregory Shane MorrisDoug Wilson, and myself. In his newest piece on the subject, Gibbs says his beef isn’t so much with “worldview education” per se as with “worldview analysis;” claiming the latter is too concerned with (1) “ideals” and (2) “processing,” among other things. The piece is commendable and worth your time, but even if you haven’t read it (or followed the debate), hopefully my response below will still be intelligible and helpful.

Are Ideals So Bad?

Gibbs problem with worldview begins with the fact that it’s too ethereal, unlike dogma:

“…the genuine problem I have with taking worldviews so seriously is that they are built on presuppositions, not dogma. Presuppositions exist in the world of ideals, the world of forms, however, dogma is composed and enforced by human beings.”

He illustrates the point thusly, “Men do not love ideas, but they will die for their wives. When I say I am conservative, I really mean that I believe everything Remi Brague and Edmund Burke say about history.”

So, worldview is concerned with “ideals,” while dogma is in the human realm, “composed and enforced by human beings.” Practically, this means, “A man may not claim to be Lutheran if he has not submitted himself to Lutheran authorities who have received his vow of loyalty to Lutheran dogma.” To the Lutheran, Gibbs says, “be more Lutheran!”

While many Lutherans would laud Gibbs’ advice to order the ecclesial over the ethereal, Martin Luther most certainly would not. For Luther, justification by faith alone in Christ alone is an ideal for which he’d die. Dogma merely composed and enforced by human beings be damned, Luther is hungry for more than ecclesial identification—he craves truth. To be sure, Luther is happy to submit to human authority so long as it aligns with God’s authority (found in Scripture), but not a minute longer. To go against conscience is neither safe nor right, after all. Even if, for the sake of argument, worldviews were as abstract as Gibbs claims, if the classroom isn’t the place to discuss such ideas, where is?

More than Processing

Gibbs chief problem with worldview analysis is that it smacks of an “enlightened” (i.e. modern) sensibility. It applies an inappropriate rubric to the medium, “That which is created in a state of wonder cannot be properly received in a spirit of efficiency and reason.” I certainly agree that one needs the right spirit with which to receive a given piece of art. However, I don’t see how the Christian worldview is inherently antithetical to such a spirit of reception. If Gibbs does not want his students interpreting art Christianly, how does he want them interpreting?

Perhaps he’ll say, “one need not analyze at all. Wonder at the art, don’t interpret.” To ask of the students this is to ask of them the impossible. Indeed, only a few paragraphs later, Gibbs says that Rhiana’s music is “about the unconditional pursuit of personal pleasure.” If Gibbs, who is consciously trying to avoid “enlightened” sensibility, can’t listen to a Rhiana song without doing a worldview analysis, how can he expect his students to read a whole book without being sullied by interpretation?

I say sullied ironically, of course. When sensitive to the worldviews at play, our reading and appreciation of art is only enhanced. Culture is religion externalized; to crack open, say, the ever-enchanting Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor without considering Islamic thought is to “kiss your bride through a veil,” as it were. This is as true of non-fiction as of fiction, biography as autobiography, painting as sculpture, dance as theater.

A Move to Story

Many of the issues I have with Gibbs complaints come down to category differences. I don’t think it’s all that helpful to categorize “worldview” as presupposition and “dogma” as supposition. One could implicitly presuppose a dogma, as the church did with the Trinity pre-Nicaea; and a worldview entails explicitly defined doctrines, like creation ex nihilo. Better, in my mind, is thinking of worldview as a narrative through which one makes sense of the world.

Once one thinks of a worldview as a story one comes to see “worldview analysis” as synonymous with “interpretation”—a necessity of our narratival nature. Indeed, there is no event, sentence, or fact too large or too small to escape the need for interpretation. NT Wright gives a wonderful example of how this works:

“What is the meaning of the following comment? ‘It is going to rain.’ On the surface, the statement seems to be quite clear. Yet the meaning and significance of this remark can only be understood when we see the part it plays in a broader narrative. If we are about to go for a picnic that has been planned for some time, then these words would be bad news, with the further implication that perhaps we had better change our plans. If we live in East Africa plagued by drought, where another lengthy dry spell and consequent crop failure appears imminent, the statement would be good news indeed. If I had predicted three days ago that it would rain and you had not believed me, the statement would vindicate my predictive ability as a meteorologist. If we are part of the community of Israel on Mount Carmel listening to the words of Elijah, the statement substantiates the message of Elijah that Yahweh is the true God and that Elijah is his prophet. In each case, the single statement demands to be ‘heard’ within the context of a full implicit plot, a complete implicit narrative.”

If “it is going to rain” can have such varied interpretations, how much more so birth, death, sex, art, love, and pain? I agree with Gibbs, an enlightened theory of man won’t do. But I see such a theory as offering exactly what he offers: a set of dogmas, religious facts, no more—as if the student is a piece of hardware simply waiting on the teacher to download in him the correct software.

Conversely, a worldview education offers more than edicts, it offers what Scripture offers, an epoch. If Scripture is a myth grand enough to make sense of our enchanted cosmos, surely it’s grand enough to make sense of Macbeth. As Gibbs showed, it can certainly make sense of Rhiana.

If I’m right in claiming that (1) everyone interprets narratively and (2) Scripture offers a grand story, then why insist that students not use the Scriptural story (i.e. Christian worldview) to interpret a given object? Further, how does better understanding the story in which an author lives (i.e. his worldview) hamper wonder in the reader? Insisting that a reading of a book without respect to the author’s worldview produces more wonder is like insisting that puns are most amusing when the innuendo isn’t caught. Worldview education isn’t an obstacle to wonder, it’s a vehicle to wonder.


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