Resetting the Narrative

For decades, I have heard—and seen embodied in memes on the internet—a quote attributed to Mark Twain:

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

The fact is, however, that Mark Twain—aka Samuel Clemens—never said or wrote those words. Though they may hold some measure of truth about his actually statement, the versions that most of us have seen are in themselves, exaggerated.

You can easily find the real story online. What’s most interesting to me about the telegram that the author actually sent, as a response to a direct question about his health, is his opening sentence:

“I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead.”

Sometimes a narrative can take on a life of its own, one that may contain a grain of truth, but is in many ways misleading. You may have heard recently about the work that historians in Texas have done to clarify the actual story of The Alamo, so that it more accurately reflects the truth, rather than the legend I was taught as a student growing up. The resistance to the resetting of that narrative has been harsh, because it doesn’t fit many Texans’ concept of their heritage.

It takes some real work to reset narratives like that, but it’s well worth doing. Recently, I came across some news that was surprising to me, because it reset a narrative I’ve been hearing and telling for decades.

The narrative has gone something like this: The Mainline church is, essentially, dead and its death has been greatly hastened by the rise of the Evangelical church. There is no doubt that there is some truth in this—it doesn’t take a scholar to see that.

As it turns out, however, that narrative isn’t quite as true as we may have thought. A 2020 study recently released by the Public Religion Research Institute, headed by Robert P. Jones, demonstrates that the trend we have come to assume would continue—that Evangelicals are on the rise and Mainline Protestants are in decline—has been reversed in the decade from 2010-2020. You can read an article about the study here or read the actual study here.

I am still digesting the news itself and trying to wrap my head around the reasons why this monumental shift has happened. I have my own ideas, but I’m trying not to allow my anecdotal experience and my intuition to reset the narrative. That seems to me to be part of the problem—that we often hear the “truth” we want to hear.

On the other hand, I think it’s time for us to reconsider our perspective. We are not, apparently, part of a dying breed. There is a great deal we have to offer to the world, a version of the Gospel that actually helps people see something they can believe in. As some much more intelligent friends have said on many occasions, the United Methodist Church, as one of the few Christian denominations that allows for divergent viewpoints on theology and practice, has something important to offer to a divided and divisive society.

We have to start believing in ourselves again. And it starts with acknowledging the truth: Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated, even if we have heard them (and believed them) ourselves.

Pastor John Fleming

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