The Coronavirus & the Collapse of a Cohesive Narrative

Medical masks are a hot commodity right now, and understandably so. The world is watching live news feeds watching the death toll rise on a virus that jumped from animals to humans before our eyes. I have found myself having to put a limit on how often I can read about the latest news, as keeping my pulse on the changing stories causes my pulse rate to rise to unhealthy levels.

At a women’s bible study this week about fasting, the coronavirus came up in discussion. Women have an incredible ability to web in conversation. Just ask a linear-thinking male who is trying to follow the intricate web of conversations at a table full of women.

We were speaking of fasting as a means to connect to the deeper hunger we have for our true home with God. We were speaking of the deep homesickness we should feel for our Heavenly Husband’s presence and how that is intended to inform our lives in this earthly pilgrimage.  We were confessing how often even believers are hesitant about Heaven,  wanting to linger here on earth a little longer. Thus, conversation naturally turned to the coronavirus and the utter panic that grips us when we think about death. Totally logical connection, right?

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In his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff speaks extensively about the societal effects of the collapse of a cohesive narrative. He builds a case for the power of story in providing purpose and security which beautifully  lines up with the Christian truth that we were made in the image of the Storyteller and desperately need the meta-narrative of the gospel story. Then he mentions that at the turn of the century, narratives began to collapse, leaving us in a narrative crisis. With no story line to integrate our disparate lives, people are left having to create their own individual narratives (which often compete with each other, as seen on the social media political and ideological battlefields). Rushkoff continues, explaining the following:

 “Likewise, without long-term goals expressed for us as readily accessible stories, people  lose the ability  to respond  to anything but terror. If we have no destination toward which  we are progressing,  then the only things that motivates our movement is  to get away  from something threatening.  We move from problem to problem,  avoiding  calamity  as best  we  can,  our worldview increasingly characterized by a sense of panic. Our news networks and Internet feeds compound the sense of crisis by amplifying only the most sensational  and negative events…” 

The story of whistle-blowing doctor Dr. Li Wenliang provides a powerful juxtaposition to this story-less panic. Dr. Wenliang, a believer in Christ, had an eternal storyline on which  to hang the parts and pieces of his life, even the painful, scary ones.  The Apostle John wrote a telling phrase about Jesus’ motivation to wash His disciples’ feet on the eve of the horrifying death: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands,  and  that he had come from God and was going back to God” (John 13:3). In much the same way, Dr. Wenliang knew the bigger storyline: he knew from whence he came from and to where he was bound. Thus, he was freed to treat those who were infected with the disease and risk the censure of his government to warn the world.

I am not saying we should want to be infected with the coronavirus; however, our panic to avoid catching it betrays a deeper societal sickness: we have no long hope, no compelling passion and purpose that infuses our lives with meaning and the courage to risk in light of something better.

As believers in Christ, we are invited to live into the gospel story of a long hope and a deep and eternal purpose. We don’t have to give way to the panic that drives our society; rather, we are invited to speak truth into the panic by inviting others into the glorious news of the gospel storyline. In the face of diseases and political power struggles, we need not give in to the crippling fear that paralyzes the story-less. Rather, we ought to live with such a resilient hope that people even ask us about the reason for such a strange response.

Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared  to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet, do it with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15.

May we step into a panicked world with the peace that comes from knowing THE story that makes sense of life on this broken globe. May we live with a long hope that happily invites others in. May we move with purpose to the day when the coronavirus will be banished by the presence of the Wounded Healer.

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