Benjamin McNutt: Find the storytellers

Transitioning into new roles at new places calls for “misinterpretations” of the past.

I cracked into Louis Menand’s (author of “The Metaphysical Club,” among other notable titles) collection of essays, “American Studies” this morning to discover these remarkable opening lines:

“The only reliable lesson the past teaches us is how locked we are in the present…The critical massing of conditions that enables a particular way of life to come into being is almost impossible to detect while it is happening, and so is its deterioration. The world just rolls over, without anyone noticing exactly when, and a new set of circumstances is put in place. But the impulse to hold on to the past is very strong, and it is often hard to understand why things that worked once can’t continue to work. A lot of energy and imagination are consumed trying to fit old systems to new settings, though the pegs keep getting squarer and the holes keep getting rounder. In the end, the only way to make the past usable is to misinterpret it, which means, strictly speaking, to lose it.”

The massive shifts facing North American congregations whipped through my brain when I read that, a set of issues far too challenging for my 6 a.m., pre-caffeinated cranium. Ditching that line of thought, I soon recalled the many friends and (now former) colleagues transitioning into new roles at churches, schools and organizations -- all talented, energetic people but all a bit anxious, too.

And rightfully so. They’re headed to new places, places with their own histories, their own way of doing things, places where inevitably “the impulse to hold on to the past is very strong, and it is often hard to understand why things that worked once can’t continue to work.” None of my friends want to be cowboys who come in and change everything. At the same time, who wants to waste energy and imagination trying to sustain what will no longer work because a new set of conditions swirl on the horizon?

I imagine my friends will encounter at least two kinds of storytellers when they arrive at their new posts. The first are the stalwart guardians of history; they’ve probably been integral to the leadership in the past and will continue long after my friends have gone, at least that’s the subtext of the story they’re telling. The other storyteller will be the gadfly instigators, naively critical of a “dead” past and ready to shake things up.

These are the versions of the past which, in Menand’s words, my friends will need “to lose”; the versions of history they’ll need “to misinterpret.”

But perhaps they’ll stumble upon a third kind of storyteller; people who’ve been around a while, like the historical bastions, but lack their domineering recourse. These folks have that virtuous combination of commitment and memory; they’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t and they love the place enough to let it change, if need be. In churches they’re often the quiet saints masked as elderly deaconesses.

But if my friends can’t find this third storyteller, they’ll have to go about that messy theological business of misinterpretation that Menand describes.

Even the disciples struggled with this. They couldn’t grasp what Jesus meant when he said the “Son of Man” must die but in three days would rise again -- how those “conditions that enable a particular way of life” were impossible to detect in the present, that although the kingdom was at hand, it could only be seen after the Emmaus road, in the breaking of bread.

And yet we return each week, to break bread and drink wine, to sing and recite; a way of life as old as the cross, an inheritance we haven’t lost but one that has perhaps changed on us, because the conditions around it changed, too.

Jesus said something about losing your life to save it and made interpretations of the law and prophets which incited people to push him off the edge of a cliff. How do we lose our history, or as Menand suggests, misinterpret it (like Jesus), in order to receive it back?

Here’s to my friends as they begin new roles in new places. May they find those who will help them misinterpret the story.

And may they not be thrown off a cliff.

Benjamin McNutt is the editor of Call & Response. You can follow him on Twitter @benjaminmcnutt.