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24 Jan 2001

So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ways of knowing and sharing knowledge. Specifically, the idea of story or narrative versus the merely propositional and strictly rational. When I got home today from class, a message from James Souttar was in my box, regarding graphic structure in documents. He writes:

I find it really interesting that many ‘public information’ messages are now fed into soap operas, as part of the plot. This follows in a great tradition of ‘fictionalizing’ issues to bring them to people’s awareness – part of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture alike. As a species, we seem to have an almost endless appetite for narrative forms. And I’m fascinated by the way in which ‘storytelling’ seems to have become a growing management fad – one list I subscribe to has been preoccupied with this theme for months now.

This got me thinking. Certainly, the most important things to know aren’t those that we can know by means of “enlightened” rationality— to me at least, those truths can quickly become banal. In a sense, God’s truths have to be deeply understood to be understood at all. They can’t be bullet-pointed. Alister McGrath writes that “to reduce revelation to principles or concepts is to suppress the element of mystery, holiness, and wonder to God’s self-disclosure.” Our modern ways of knowing fall (far) short of this mark. I dare say it’s impossible to grok anything truly important using a black and white truth table.

But in our increasingly information-saturated and obsessed environment, it’s quite natural for me to feel that knowledge can only really be trustworthily conveyed propositionally. It’s perhaps a direct effect of our interaction with digital devices, and it’s not a neutral effect. As a culture, the tendancy has gone even further, assigning value to information for its semantic structurability. I believe it was Neil Postman who observed “all documents now aspire to have the qualities of PowerPoint.” Even when this barrier is overcome, it’s still natural to feel that because higher truths- those told in story, narrative, etc.— can’t be effectively conveyed in a PowerPoint presentation, they’re necessarily recondite and abstruse.

(If you’re having similar difficulties, I welcome you to join me in re-reading The Chronicles of Narnia.)