Last month, Princeton University professor of economics and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller published a book on narrative economics, which looks at how stories affect individual and collective economic behavior and drive major economic events like financial crises, recessions and depressions.
For example, a narrative about artificial intelligence replacing human workers could cause people to spend less because they are afraid of losing their jobs. That kind of collective behavior contributes to a recession.
I am struck by how Shiller’s theory acknowledges the power of stories to shape how we see the world and drive decisions.
In The Skeptical Believer, Daniel Taylor says story is more effective than reason because narratives engage not only our minds but us as whole people: “Stories light up our minds, play across our emotions and call us to action with our bodies.”
The Bible is full of propositions, assertions and commands, but most of them, Taylor points out, are embedded in stories. Separate them from the stories, and they “dry up and lose their vitality. They become something to discuss rather than something to live.”
Both Shiller and Taylor point out that there are multiple stories vying for our attention. In fact, as Taylor puts it, “We now live in the age of story wars.”
Take, for example, the narratives that influence how we spend our money and treat our stuff.
In God’s story, all our stuff is God’s stuff, and we are simply loving stewards of it. “God’s resources are to be widely shared,” says Donald Kraybill in The Upside Down Kingdom. “Good stewards of God’s resources generously share and distribute them. . . . [They are] frugal when calculating their own needs and generous when responding to others.”
We can live this way because, in God’s story, we discover how deeply and profoundly loved we are — and that impacts how we see the world and how we behave in it. When we believe God’s story, it not only makes sense, but we are also motivated to be generous with others because God is with us.
Our culture pushes consumption and consumerism, fueled by everything from entitlement to keeping up with the Joneses to the belief that wealth brings security. Those narratives promise that more money and more stuff will make us happier and more secure.
But the consumption narrative always leaves us wanting more. It also leaves us fearing the loss of security, which is only one job loss, recession or illness away. This narrative not only tempts us to keep our stuff close but to snatch what we can from limited resources around us.
I’d like to say my behavior around money and my stuff illustrates I live by God’s story and not the culture’s narrative, but I must confess, my behavior shows that I fluctuate.
I’m not alone. In God’s story, we see this happen over and over — especially when people stop spending time immersing themselves in God’s story and start buying into the narratives of the cultures around them.
As Taylor puts it, God’s story accounts for us messing up. He says, “It is a story for people who mess up.” God takes all that mess and works it for good. And when God’s people repent and immerse themselves in God’s story, God’s kingdom explodes outward, renewing and restoring a broken world.
Shiller’s work reminds us that stories shape how we behave, and our individual and collective behavior can have a powerful impact on the world. The question is, which story do we believe? Our behavior and collective impact (or lack of it) gives a pretty big clue.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.