People of the White Horse

February 29, 2012 — 2 Comments


In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks explores the formative effects of our unconscious world on our conscious world. His approach is not so much Freudian psychology as it is pop sociology, a la Malcolm Gladwell. At its core, the book reveals that we are products of our habits and routines more than we are products of our reasoned, structured decisions.

In the book, Brooks invents some fictional protagonists and, following Rousseau’s Emile, uses them to live out his propositions. Overall, the convention works, though it is strained at times by Brooks’ somewhat clumsy attempts to weave technical literature and references into the flow of the narrative. I found Brooks to be at his strongest early in the book, weakening as the story played out. 

Of particular poignancy for me was a short passage in chapter 4 illustrating the differences between “paradigmatic thinking” and “narrative mode.” Paradigmatic thinking is likened to a legal brief or academic essay, which “consists of stepping back from a situation to organize facts, to deduce general principles, and to ask questions” (Kindle location 1080). In contrast, narrative mode resembles myth in that it “contains another dimension, not usually contained in paradigmatic thinking–the dimension of good and evil, sacred and profane” (loc. 1086).

Brooks describes the outworking of the narrative mode in young Harold’s play with his friends. Their play was often structured on a narrative arc which had all the classic story elements: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. In Brooks’ example, Harold and his friends pretended to be cowboys riding horses and mending fences until, that is, “the Invaders” appeared.

The boys reacted to the Invaders with alarm and dread. They scrambled about on the carpet, and lined up their plastic horses against the Invaders, but they screamed at one another, “There are too many of them!” All seemed lost. Then Harold produced a giant white horse, ten times larger than the other toys they were playing with. “Who’s this?” he cried, and answered his own question: “It’s the White Horse!” And he charged off into the Invaders. Two of the other boys switched teams and began hurling Invaders at the White Horse. An apocalyptic battle raged. The Horse crushed the Invaders. The Invaders bloodied the Horse. Before long the Invaders were dead, but the White Horse was dying, too. They put a cloth on his body and had a mournful funeral, and the Horse’s soul went up to heaven. (loc. 1088)


Brooks goes on to write about how Harold’s father, Rob, watched with interest but detachment. His mind, given over to typical adult paradigmatic thinking, just couldn’t track with the boys’ play. The chapter closes with Rob holding onto the hope that his son will one day “grow out of it” and “start joining the human race” (loc. 1107). 

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in recovering the place of narrative and story within the Western church. Modernity failed to deliver on the promises of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, both Christian responses–fundamentalism and liberalism–have likewise failed, with the former devolving into an insular circling of the wagons and political grandstanding, while the latter capitulated to a rapidly growing secularism and ended up an anemic shadow of its former self. Both have “grown up,” to use Brooks’ language, into their paradigmatic fullness.


It is no surprise, then, that disaffected evangelicals and mainliners are finding one another in their attempts to recover the narrative of the Great Tradition. Invoking different words to describe what it is that they’re doing (emerging, emergent, missional, to name a few), they hold in common a desire to re-situate their faith and their communities into a longer and broader stream of Christian history and praxis. Over and against dogma and structure, these communities prize narrative.

In particular, it is the power of narrative to shape faith communities in ways that are different–and arguably more effective–than the faith and discipleship taxonomies that dominated the late 20th century. Only time will tell whether the present resurgence of narrative for faith and community formation is a fad or lasting corrective. I hope it turns out to be the latter. Aren’t we, after all, People of the White Horse?





Anderson Campbell


  • geoff holsclaw

    Great Post. I saw that book a bit ago, but haven’t read it. Your opening lines sounded just like Augustine: “we are products of our habits and routines more than we are products of our reasoned, structured decisions.”

  • Anderson Campbell

    Thanks Geoff. Yes, that first line is Augustinian, isn’t it? All in all, I enjoyed the book. At times Brooks’ prose is trying. I appreciate the convention of using a fictional narrative to frame his subject matter, but at times the execution was flat. More broadly, the book could launch some great conversations about the role of liturgy as formative habits and routines. Jason Clark, in “Church in the Present Tense” argues for just that. He offers that the employment of liturgy by faith communities that have generally been non-liturgical (in the formal sense) might offer a necessary counter-rhythm to patterns of consumption so prevalent in Western cultures. Thoughts? How do you see this play out at Life on the Vine?