A narrative of identity is a story that we tell ourselves repeatedly, which is so fundamental that it defines who we are. Nations, cultures, genders, peoples all have narratives of identity. I have given much thought to the narratives of identity that are used by the Baha’i community. They appear in the places where Baha’is tell themselves and others about who they are, because in order to tell someone about what you are, you have to tell them a story. This concept of narratives of identity came into stark relief for me when I began writing my book about the Faith for a general audience.
Ten years ago, when I began putting words on paper, I found myself beginning where everyone else began – usually in 1844. And exploring further, I found myself in the narrative about progressive revelation – Baha’u’llah is the lastest messenger from God in a series of messengers stretching back into antiquity. Then, there is another narrative, which is about persecution – the fact that the messengers have always been persecuted, the horrendous way the Babis were treated, the centuries-long persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. A very popular narrative of identity starts with the hierarchy story: first there was Baha’u’llah, then there was Abdu’l-Baha, then the Guardian, then the Universal House of Justice. This narrative segues into a dramatic one about internal opposition and covenant breaking. This is a very strong narrative of identity in the community. It’s coupled with the one about House of Justice infallibility.
Other narratives are based on the principles of the Faith extracted from the writings by Abdu’l-Baha for his talks in the West. From that, we have the popular narrative about how Baha’is don’t believe in prejudice, and the one about equality, which the community doesn’t push too far because it can’t explain why only men are House of Justice members. But what’s interesting about the principles is that they are Abdu’l-Baha’s narrative about the Faith. He was the interpreter of the teachings, so he had a global perspective on the revelation. From this big picture, he came up with the principles that he would focus on when he found himself face to face with Westerners. What Abdu’l-Baha has role modelled here is the importance of creating new narratives of identity. What he did shows that the ability and willingness to do this is crucial for capturing the interest of modern audiences.
I have watched a few of the recent videos about the Faith that have been produced. While the production quality of the videos is good, the story telling is woefully deficient. Mostly the storytelling is historical and anecdotal. It is going to put audiences to sleep, except for those who sing in the choir. Another issue that needs to be confronted is that narratives about persecution, the hierarchy and the like are largely Islamic narratives. They may be central to Baha’is, but they are complete strangers to Westerners. You may as well be talking another language. As for the principles, they are great but they have all entered to the realm of common sense to Westerners. You are not telling anyone anything if you say you believe in the equality of the sexes or that there should not be prejudice or a big difference between rich and poor, or that everyone needs an education.
What’s needed is courage, creativity and imagination. To be ahead of the game, the narratives must reflect what’s all the rage in the West and in Asia. You learn what these topics are by watching what is popular in books, the movies, in television, and everywhere else where people congregate. What is taking off? On Youtube, you find thinkers who are popularising ideas that are central to the revelation. Look at what Brene Brown managed to do with shame. She created a deeply heart-felt narrative about how people should shun shame, embrace who they are and get out there and follow their own light. But not only did she talk about shame, she embodied that narrative in her own life and thereby awakened millions of hearts to universal love.
The issue of trauma and its long-term effects is huge online. See for example, Gabor Mate, who is uncovering the deep suffering in the human heart that comes with people being unkind and cruel to each other, especially children. Again, this man has his own story about trauma to back up his words. Baha’u’llah has thousands to say about spiritual healing, and about the importance of never hurting another person’s heart. Another example: business mentors on YouTube are tranforming the concept of business and the meaning of leadership – for example, Seth Godin and Simon Sinek. They are taking the authoritarian aspect out of these areas and replacing them with consultation and compassion – the twin principles Baha’u’llah says go together. “The Great Being saith: The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion.” (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh)www.bahai.org/r/545364905
These developments in global thought are the field from which Baha’is can dream up new narratives about themselves and what they stand for that will capture the imagination of the masses.