Dealing with Discrepancies

By Scott Hughes

Courageous Conversations

"Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but the stories that you tell,” declares marketing guru Seth Godin. I’m sure this is sound marketing advice. Stories meet us at the level of our experiences, capture our imaginations, and become the lenses through which we interpret the world. As Christians, we are especially fond of stories: Moses, an ex-murder becomes the leader and deliverer of a nation; Jonah encounters the big fish; Jesus walks on water; Jesus rises from the tomb; and so many more.

However, the interpretations and meaning we construct from stories can be faulty. We can blindly look past the holes in our stories and just as easily overlook evidence to the contrary. From these less-than-secure foundations, our brains construct larger narratives. Then, when we encounter new information or have new experiences, our brains attempt to fit the new information into our previously held beliefs. This might lead to neat and tidy stories that cohere, but they are not necessarily true.

President Obama is a Muslim. President Obama is a committed Christian. Which of these stories do you believe? That is likely determined by which one aligns with your previously held beliefs.

Remember the story when the Israelites receive the report from the spies regarding the Promised Land? The spies present them with contradictory claims. The story isn’t neat and tidy. The land is prosperous. It is flowing with milk and honey. But the people who inhabit the land are strong and the cities are large. Both were true statements. The people had been told which of these two truths mattered more. Beyond that, they had been assured that God would fight for them against the inhabitants of the land. Yet the people and the leaders couldn’t handle the ambiguity and rebelled.

We don't deal well when stories misalign. Our brains will attempt to make the stories neat and tidy (nomads can’t defeat strong, numerous people), even when there are competing truths (God will fight for them).

Technically, what we’re dealing with is the narrative fallacy: Our brain’s tendency to choose the compelling, the simple, the concrete, the particulars when, in fact, the truth is with the divergent, the complex, the larger realities. (Adapted from Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 199-200)

This fallacy and many others that we make, keeps us from learning, growing, and being the disciples we are called to be. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect,” Paul declares in Romans 12:2 (NRSV).

We need to ask deeper, harder questions: “Is this really true, or do I just want it to be true because it fits with other ideas I have? What are the actual facts?” Perhaps the best step we can take is to slow down our thinking. We need to notice when we are making things fit our stories and when new ideas are present that might not cohere to our stories. One helpful tool is the “Ladder of Inference."

Also helpful is to be aware of the biases that keep us from exploring divergent beliefs. Gavin Richardson recently tweeted a helpful chart on cognitive biases that affect decisions.

To learn, grow, and be the disciples Jesus would have us to be will also require another step that is uncomfortable for adults. Like the Israelites who heard the spies’ report, we will need to engage our imaginations. We need an imagination to envision the possibilities that come when the risen Christ is truly present.

Reflective Questions for Leaders

  • What environments exist in your church for participants to question their stories?
  • What steps can you take to engage adults’ imaginations in worship and/or in their small groups?

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