When I was in seminary, I became moderately obsessed with re-runs of the 80s tv show St. Elsewhere, a medical drama set in a run-down Boston hospital. My devotion made sense. It was fun to see current celebrities in their earlier iterations. I was fascinated by the ways medical and social issues, such as the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, were handled by the writers. And since an episode aired every day, the show was my nightly reward for plowing through my class assignments.
The series finale of St. Elsewhere is still – 28 years later! – one of the most polarizing in tv history. In it viewers find out that the entire run of the show has taken place in the head of one of the characters, a boy with autism. (For the record, I’m in the camp that thinks this is a genius wrap-up.) This is what folks in the comic book world call retroactive continuity, or retconning for short. It’s re-visioning the whole arc of the story in light of previously unknown facts. Via retconning writers can:
- add details, filling in important tidbits that explain how the characters got where they are,
- alter details, often through a narrative device (as in St. Elsewhere’s finale),
- or subtract details, basically ignoring elements that no longer work with the current direction of the story.
Does this kind of literary math strike you as familiar? While I’ve never heard the term “reconning” used in the church world, we do it all the time. Congregations are masters of revisionist history. Retconning can be a means of improving collective health. Dragging long-buried secrets into the light of day can allow churches to trace reactive patterns and to have honest dialogue about what’s keeping them from living toward God’s call. Re-interpreting tightly-held narratives can open up possibilities for growth where progress had previously been stunted. Retconning can also be a means of denial and disease. Ignoring unpleasant truths causes them to simmer, making them highly combustible.
As you consider the arc of your congregation’s story, where might a bit of retcon work move your people toward more authentic community and deeper discipleship? What retcons are holding your church back and need to be named and revised?