I had a seminary professor who was fond of saying things like this: “Everyone has a story that controls their life.” What he meant by that is everyone has a narrative that significantly shapes their worldview by giving meaning to their life. Our lives are understood through the lens of this controlling story.
Growing up in Nashville, one of the controlling stories for me and the people I grew up with was country music. Sounds goofy, I know, but it’s true. In the last 20 years or so, country music has significantly contributed to the creation of a paradoxical sacred / secular subculture for at least a particular subset of the United States population. (For more of my thoughts on how this sacred / secular divide works in our lives, click here.)
This can be illustrated in a variety of ways; the songs of Kenny Chesney are just one example. Chesney is one of the country music industry’s hottest stars, with boatloads of industry accolades and record-setting tours that would make artists of any musical genre proud. Chesney’s song I Go Back actually acknowledges the presence of controlling story, albeit in the form of another song in the narrator’s life:
Jack and Diane painted a picture of my life and my dreams Suddenly this crazy world made more sense to me.
The controlling story for the song’s narrator is Jack and Diane, John Mellancamp’s nostalgia-drenched 1982 smash hit. Chesney hints that the song functions in his own life as a repository of truth, articulating something meaningful about his own experience.
Chesney’s songs also demonstrate a “country” culture wherein beer drinkin’, church goin’, and girl chasin’ are held in concert with seemingly little tension whatsoever. From his song Back Where I Come From:
We learned in Sunday school who made the sun shine through I know who made the moon shine too, back where I come from
The point is made even more explicitly in Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven:
Preacher told me last Sunday morning, “Son, you better start livin’ right, You need to quit the women and whiskey and carrying on all night. Don’t you wanna hear him call your name when you’re standin’ at the pearly gates?” I told the preacher, “Yes I do, but I hope they don’t call today.”
I’m not just trying to pick on Kenny Chesney; I actually like some of his music. It’s just that Chesney’s songs illustrate so well the prevailing subtext of “country music culture” wherein the worshipful activity of the gathered church has zero bearing in the “real life” of Monday through (especially) Saturday world of work, drink, sex, and friendship. I’m also not trying to pick on country music; it’s just that this is the type of subculture in which I was raised.
I’m interested in setting all of this alongside what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God. He teaches that the Kingdom of God is like buried treasure (Matthew 13.44); you’d give all you have just to acquire it. Similarly, it is a rare jewel that is of inestimable value (Matthew 13.45). Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of God should be our highest ideal, our ultimate pursuit. To use the language I’ve already set forth here, it becomes our controlling story. As such, we adopt the principles of the Kingdom in our own life: love for God — love that comes from every fiber of our being; heart and soul and mind — and love for neighbor (Matthew 22.37-40). Disciples of Christ adopt a mission perspective with regard to their engagement with the world (Matthew 28.18-20), seeking to participate in God’s transformative act of reconciling the world (Ephesians 1.10; 2 Corinthians 5.19) rather than acquiescing to the whimsical values of the prevailing culture of the moment.Perhaps most chillingly, Jesus warns his disciples that following Him will put them at odds with the world, even to the point of persecution (Matthew 5.10-12; John 15.18-21). This is certainly different than the cultural amalgam Jesus seems to have a pretty realistic (some would say depressing) expectation of the outcome regarding our engagement with the prevailing culture.
All of this is to ask: what is your controlling story? What narrative shapes your perspective, your worldview, and your life? It’s a hard question, but I believe it is the only question truly worth asking.