Perspective

The false story of Western civilization and finding a better one

Stories are powerful. The stories we believe – whether true or false – shape our entire lives, telling us who we are, who we were, and who we are becoming. But what are we becoming?

By Bryan Fikkert

How we try to answer these questions reveals our “story of change” – what we think the goal of life is and how we can achieve it. This is a similar idea to what the social services sector refers to as a “theory of change.”

Unfortunately, several common but misguided stories of change are shaping our lives, including our approaches to poverty alleviation. Our poverty alleviation efforts often do harm, because we unknowingly and unconsciously – yet deeply and destructively – have absorbed misguided stories of change from our culture.


Disturbing trends

Over the last 10 years, American researchers report a steady decline in happiness among Americans, despite a 5.5 percent average increase in per capita earnings. We are getting richer and becoming less happy. From the 1930s until today (a period of sustained economic growth) depression, anxiety, and other physical and mental health issues among America’s youth are on the rise.

Rates of reported loneliness in the U.S. and other western countries have doubled since the 1980s, and those in the upcoming Generation Z (born 1997 or later) and Millennials (born between 1992 and 1996) are lonelier and in worse health than the older generations.

The fact that we have achieved unprecedented economic prosperity without corresponding increases in our well–being is completely counter to the basic assumptions of Western civilization. How could it be that we have attained such wealth without increasing human flourishing?

We believe these disturbing trends reveal a tragic irony. On one hand, many of us can sense that there is something wrong with both Western civilization and the Western church. We can tell they aren’t working, and we don’t like who we’ve become. On the other hand, the unstated assumption behind most of our poverty alleviation efforts is that the goal is to make poor people just like us. We implicitly believe that we have exactly what the poor need, so we try to turn Uganda into the United States and America’s inner cities into its affluent suburbs. Thus, we design our poverty alleviation initiatives – our interventions, operation, staffing, funding, marketing, metrics, messages, ad goals – to help poor people pursue the American Dream.

But why would we want to do that? We are not okay. You can feel it, and we can feel it. And, as poor people become like us, they can feel it too.

The American Dream is the wrong story for both poor people and ourselves. We all need a different story, a better story, for the stories we believe profoundly shape us, impacting every aspect of our lives, including (research has proven) even the innermost aspects of our bodies and souls. If we are trying to live out the wrong story, one that doesn’t fit who we really are as creatures, we simply cannot flourish. It’s like being miscast for a role in a movie. No matter how hard you try to play the role, it just doesn’t work.

The American Dream is the wrong story for both poor people and ourselves. We all need a better story.


A metaphor for our situation

Imagine you’re asked to play the role of the jockey who rides Secretariat, the greatest race horse of all time, in an upcoming film. And imagine you’re 6’10” like me. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t play the part. The horse’s back strains under your weight, and when your feet fall out of the stirrups, they drag on the ground. The horse can barely move with you on his back, much less run at breakneck speed. No matter how hard you try to crunch up and be small, you simply can’t do it. You are who you are.

As the filming drags on, things only get worse. Your neck, shoulders, and legs ache. The horse runs away every time you approach him, fearing that you’re going to break his back. The director gets frustrated and the entire crew is discouraged, as they know the movie will flop. And your own self–image plummets, because you feel like a failure as an actor.

Now imagine that the filming lasts for decades. Things never get better. But for some reason, everybody keeps trying to make it work.


Our real-life broken story

This is the life we are living. We keep trying to live out the story of Western civilization, even though it doesn’t fit who we are as human beings. And we keep asking poor people to join us in the story, giving them roles to play that don’t fit them either. But we haven’t just been trying to live this story for decades; we’ve been trying for centuries. We need a better story, one that fits who we really are as human beings.

The story of poverty alleviation shouldn’t be to turn Uganda into the U.S. or the inner cities into the suburbs. All of these places are fundamentally broken. Rather, the right story calls for all these places to become more like the New Jerusalem. That’s God’s story. It’s the only story that is actually true, the only story in which we can actually play the roles for which we’ve been created. And it’s the only story that actually works.

We have been immersed in the false story of Western civilization our entire lives, so we don’t fully know what it looks like to live out God’s alternative story. But we do know this: God’s people can’t continue defaulting to a broken story. The script we’ve been handed for American civilization isn’t working, and it never will.

In order to get our story of change corrected, we need to embrace God’s “story of change,” which is more marvelous and more mysterious than anything we could ever imagine or describe. Only when we align who we are, who we were, and who we are becoming with the One who was and is and is to come will we live in a story that is perfectly tailored for who we were always meant to be.

Adapted from Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream, pp. 32-36. Used by permission of Moody Publishers and the Chalmers Center. A version of this adaptation originally appeared at www.chalmers.org/blog.

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