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Can I Tell You a Story About Stories?

For many years I attended a church in Seattle whose senior pastor was a legendary preacher and Biblical scholar. The church doubled from 1,500 pew sitters to a peak of over 3,000 under his preaching. Invariably, the high point of a sermon came when he would rest his elbow on the side of the massive pulpit, lean forward, and ask in a confidential sounding tone, “Can I tell you a story?”  Everyone – and I mean every one – of the 1,000 people in the pews would lean forward in response.  Such is the power of a master storyteller.

Now that I’ve finished reading the fascinating and informative 2012 book by Jonathan Gottschall, The Story Telling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, I understand better why we lean into a well-told story. It is not just that stories are entertaining; many scientists researching “story” believe we are hard-wired neurologically and by evolution to see and understand the world through stories.


The Centrality of Story

Stories are how we make sense out of all the data inputs of our senses, self-awareness, language, emotions, and cognitive reasoning. Through the wonder of FMRI and other recent brain imaging technologies, we can to a degree never before possible follow neural pathways as various parts of the brain collect sensory perceptions, sort them with existing neural firings, and translate the results into “reasoning” and memories.  Certainly, beyond such mapping, scientists do not yet understand the “how” by which brain synapses do this sorting and translating to form conscious or unconscious thought. But massive research efforts continue underway to better understand the component outcomes:  cognition, emotion, and behavior. A great deal of this is in the service of developing similar functionalities in machines the technology industry hopes will move humankind beyond its limited human capacity. Along the way, this research can also help us better assess the stories we tell ourselves as well as the stories that society (and for purposes of AI and Faith, particularly Big Tech) tells us.


The Stories I Tell Myself

Recent skillfully and accessibly written books about this research are coming out monthly that help us at both personal and societal levels. Here are several I found especially helpful over the past several months as I sought to answer this basic question about the fundamental story I tell myself about myself:  Am I a feeling person who thinks or a thinking person who feels, and what are the implications for my desire to better live out my faith?

One insight concerns the sheer volume of involuntary brain activity running in the background of our heads. Ethan Kross’ recent book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (2021) offers the astonishing fact that the always-on, background voice in our heads speaks on average about 4,000 words per minute, or the equivalent of about ¾ of a State of Union speech every minute. And it doesn’t stop when you go to sleep! When you combine that with the 2,000 daydreams each day Gottschall in The Story Telling Animal says we have, we’ve all got a whole lot of unguided, free flowing brain activity to cope with.

For better outcomes, it seems essential to get this background noise under control, and to seek to better curate the stories I’m telling myself. From a strictly secular point of view, author Kross states: “The human mind is one of evolution’s greatest creations; . . . endowed us with a voice in our head capable of not only celebrating the best times, but also making meaning out of the worst times. It’s this voice, not the din of chatter, that we should all listen to.

Another recent book I found informative and influential is Emotional: How Feelings Shape our Thinking, by theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow (reviewed in our March Newsletter).  Mlodinow’s basic message is that emotions are a great gift whose particular makeup in any given person, properly understood, will promote happiness and fruitful relationships. The desire to build computers that feel (affective computing) drives much of this new research. Yet the research suggests that a key factor in each human’s personal emotional profile is the uniquely human combination of nature (genetic makeup) and nurture (experience that causes certain genes to switch off and on = epigenetics) – none of which is available to computers.

Both evolutionary biology that led to our essential brain formation and particular life experience that determines our behavioral epigenetic functioning, leave me more aware than ever of the biological challenges of managing my emotions. But other research on key emotions (shame, guilt, anger, aggression, joy/happiness, and romantic love), has produced questionnaires that Mlodinow includes to help understand our dominant emotions, together with strategies to build in air gaps and buy space for better control.

Can improved thinking processes overcome emotion and instinct and lead to better decisions and behaviors? Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs’ gem of a little book How to Think contrasts conscious and instinctual decision-making models of behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Following 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, Jacobs says you must be the kind of person who “has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and reassemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action.” In other words, analysis alone will not give us sufficient energy and resources to effect meaningful change in our own behavior or that of the world.

Finally, we must not forget the influence of relationships on our stories. Dismissing the fallacy that we can “think for ourselves,” Jacobs contends that “everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.”  And psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, the pioneering researcher on mindfulness and “interpersonal neural psychology,” notes the plasticity of our neural circuits which wire in the direction of our most important relationships. As the saying goes, neurons that “fire together, wire together” and that wiring most often happens as the result of human interactions in life experience.


The Stories the World Tells Us

When we can get past the “storm in our heads,” we must come to grips with the storms in society. If a brief glance at today’s headlines were not enough to tell us how influential such stories can be (for example, in Russia Where Putin’s  Disinformation Campaign is Working or the various spins on who released the draft Supreme Court decision on Roe), there is Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down (2021).  It provides ample illustrations of ancient and extremely current techniques and technologies for enhancing tribal division and societal breakdown. Gottschall is no fan of religion but nevertheless acknowledges how religious stories have been among the most effective shapers of society.

Many experts point to social media as the foremost of dangerous story-telling technologies. In this month’s The Atlantic Jonathan Haidt argues under the title How Social Media Made America Stupid that social media has not just pushed people into their particular corners in a form of enhanced tribalism. Rather, “it’s a story of the fragmentation of everything” in which handing everyone access to a global microphone for their individual opinions and stories of what’s wrong with the world (what’s right doesn’t get “likes”) has structuralized stupidity in America for many years to come.  The resulting stories  have destroyed trust in vital institutions — not to mention relationships — at every level:  family, workplace, faith congregations, academic research and teaching, public health and medicine, government leadership.


The Epic Stories of Technology and Faith

Faith and Technology both specialize in epic stories, though of vastly different duration.

Take Judaism and Christianity, for example, the faith traditions I am most familiar with and (as to the latter) adhere to. For both Jews and Christians, the epic story of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) starts with Abraham as the father of the Jewish people moving from Ur in Mesopotamia in about 2,000 BC to the land promised to his ancestors. His ancestors eventually occupy it – wholly and partially, with interruptions — for two millennia until dispersed by the Romans in the first century AD. Living dispersed and often under intense persecution for 1,900 years, they regather as a new nation in 1948. Meanwhile, the Christian New Testament tells a new message for about 70 years in the first century AD, providing a base for two further millennia of tradition, practice, and confessions. Both Jewish and Christian traditions feature as their twin pillars the duties to love God and your neighbor as yourself. These duties are the basis of the dominant moral codes of post-ancient western civilization right up to the mid-to-late 20th century when creeping secularization undercuts the notion of “Christendom” across Europe and causes considerable anxiety on the part of Christian nationalists and others in America.

Meanwhile, at the very late stages of the Christian and Jewish epics, as told magisterially in University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara 2019 book The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, there arose a new form of business community – an ecosystem, really.  In California but also Washington, this system was impatient from the get-go with tried and true, stolid business manufacturing processes. It moved from transistors in the 1950’s to integrated circuitry in the 1960’s and began to traverse the arc of Moore’s Law of computing power. With the advent of personal computers and related software in the 1980s; the Internet and renewed stirring of artificial intelligence research in the 1990’s; digital consumer devices in the ‘00’; and strong AI and cloud computing in the early 20-teens; this new ecosystem ended up “moving fast and breaking things” entirely by the mid-20-teens.

Along the way stories arose of giants in the land – Jobs, Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Doerr and other forefathers (gender reference intentional). The ecosystem forgot the stories of DARPA and government funded research. Instead, it told itself stories about pure materialism, hard science, personal striving, heroic insight, free markets, personal liberty, and prospects for gains in knowledge, life span, lifestyle, and personal understanding. These stories were fueled not just by exciting products, but truly epic fortunes made by a few and pursued by many.

Then, as long-deferred regulatory prospects grew, a different epic story arose – a retranslation of human history by historians like Israeli Yuval Harari that features the importance of language and story itself, things integral to markets for AI products. Competing stories about data colonialism and attention corrosion were told by insiders like the Valley’s first formal corporate ethicist, Tristan Harris. In response, tech corporations formed more ethics offices, whose stories are only just being formulated.

We recently reviewed AI and Faith Advisor Andy Crouch’s new book, The Life We’re Looking For  in our April Newsletter. It contrasts the Big Story of the Bible with the story up to now of Big Tech, using one of Jesus’ most famous stories – the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon (money).

Whether that contrast is fair as an epic story and whether it continues inevitably as a future dichotomy, is key to the Christian part of AI and Faith’s expert community and to some degree our other faith traditions as well. A related, more personalized question is whether, through the participation of people of faith in the creation and uptake of AI-powered technology, we can all cast a different outcome. These questions pose worthy work for organizations with faith perspectives on AI like us. We think two big determinants for success will grow out of the stories that faith-oriented tech creators tell themselves and that faith leaders tell their congregations. We’re here to help develop such stories accurately, creatively, and effectively.

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