The Danger of a Single Story

My thanks to EPM’s Karen Coleman with her help and research for this post.

In Jesus’ day, the Scribes and the Pharisees were “one-story” kind of guys. When they brought the woman caught in adultery before Jesus in John 8, they didn’t seem to be considering any other aspects of her story—like what about the man she was caught with? Or, what circumstances might have forced her into such a lifestyle? Or, weren’t their own sins really just as worthy of punishment as hers? And they had already written the final chapter of the story—her death by stoning.

In her TED talk, a young Nigerian storyteller named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes her case against this idea of a “single story,” even calling it a danger. She explains that when we’re unable or unwilling to see the rich and fully-faceted aspects of other people and their stories, we limit the possibility of connecting with them. We become aloof and are prone to a simplistic pity, seeing others merely as flattened stereotypes.  And the problem with stereotypes? Adichie says it’s “not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

As an author, I love to develop the characters in my novels. I try to get into their minds to give them personality and idiosyncrasies and pet peeves. I don’t want them to be flat. I want my readers to think, “Yeah, I know a guy like that!” Or sometimes better yet, “I’m kind of like that guy!” How much more should we as Christians want to truly know and understand real people.

Believers today, and particularly American believers, can still fall into that same single-story trap all too easily, and it can affect our entire worldview. Instead of a paternalistic single-story, “those-poor-ignorant-people” point of view, Christians, of all people, should view others as true equals whose lives are as complex as our own and who do not have a single story but many stories that characterize themselves, their families and their culture. As Adichie states it, the single story “robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” But when we’re open to understanding more completely, stories can be used “to empower and to humanize” and “repair that broken dignity.”

Those dangerous and condescending attitudes about others can even cause us to minimize the clear truth of Revelation 5:9, that Jesus ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, not just a chosen few. In the recent past, Christianity has enjoyed rapid growth in Latin America, Africa and Asia, an area that has come to be known as the “Global South.”  One hundred years ago, the “Global North” (normally defined as North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe) contained more than four times as many Christians as the Global South. Today, researchers say Christians in the Global South number more than 1.3 billion, compared with about 860 million in the Global North. [1]

Have we inadvertently fallen into a nationalistic one-story deception? Do we focus so much on the needs of our own country—which are undeniably numerous—that we forget there are countries where there is not a church on every corner or a Bible translation in the first language of the majority of the people? We risk arrogance if we think we have a monopoly on the Gospel, that it’s a story somehow belonging singularly to us and those who look like us. Among Buddhists and Hindus, there are approximately 175,000 people per missionary. Among Muslims, that number jumps to an astounding 300,000 people per missionary! Do we overlook the tragic fact that 86% of the world's Hindu, Muslims, and Buddhists don’t personally know even one Christian? [2]

Any group that lacks enough followers of Christ and the resources to evangelize their own people is considered an “unreached people group.” Unreached people in the world today still number more than 3 billion. [3] That’s nearly ten times more than the entire population of the United States. And that’s 3 billion stories, each story with a face and a name, with struggles and joys. These are real people, just like us, who need to know Jesus loves and died for them.

Could you use some help putting human faces with that incomprehensible number? The Joshua Project will send you an “unreached of the day” people group as an email or mobile app. It’s a short little message with a map and a few facts and a prayer focus. And a face—a human connection to someone on the other side of the globe who needs to hear the old, old Story.

photo by Anna Dziubinska via Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries