Learning from Stories

I’m almost afraid to write about how one can learn and teach from stories, because I think a piece of literature requires only one justification–that somebody wants to read it. Come to think of it, it may need only that someone enjoys writing it.

I’m an extreme anti-snob in literature. I enjoy some very light reading and some very heavy reading. I get a kick out of people’s reaction to my reading. One day friends will be turning up their noses at what I’m carrying because they think it’s too intellectual and boring, and the next they’ll be wondering how I can read something so light.

But literature, particularly stories, can be a very powerful teaching tool. Finding stories that are entertaining is great. Finding stories that are challenging is even better. Both challenging and entertaining–that’s truly special.

But how can one use stories in learning? I start, not surprisingly, from Bible stories. The first barrier to be broken in really starting to get full value out of Bible stories is the respect and reverence barrier. In its most extreme form this results in people trying to justify every action taken by Biblical characters not clearly identified as bad guys “because it’s in the Bible.”

Most people have taken a step beyond that. They look for the people who are identified as heroes and then look for the lesson in the story. The hero’s actions are to be emulated; those of the bad guys are to be avoided. Now there is some small value in this process, though it is still pretty limited.

When you really start getting traction out of a story is when you can use it as a way of seeding thinking. What may grow out of that thinking may move far away from the original story, and that is very valuable. Any story, even the most imaginative, is anchored in some limited set of circumstances. You’re not likely to duplicate those circumstances.

This is directly parallel, I think, to the question of whether parents, teachers, and church leaders teach children and young people how to think and make decisions, or teach them what decisions to make. For a limited period of time, teaching the desired result may keep things under control more effectively. But over time, students are bound to exceed the chart of answers that you have provided.

You may have experienced something much like this in computer customer support. You get on the phone with a support technician, and the answer sounds coherent, but has very little relation to the question you asked. Why? The support technician is working from a script, and you’re not on the script. On the other hand when you get a really good technician, you may get some answers from the script when they fit, but then they can adapt to your more specific problem. Which do you want students to turn out to be?

In pursuit of this goal I suggest retelling Bible stories from different viewpoints. In my essay Interpreting Stories, I use the story of Elijah and Ahab and provide an example of telling the story from Ahab’s point of view. What’s the point of this? In this story we have very clear heroes and villains from the writer’s point of view. Elijah is a good guy, Jezebel is really, really evil, and Ahab is vacillating and mostly evil, though not quite irredeemable. So taking Ahab’s point of view leads us away from this simple “who had it right” view and gets us to relax and start looking at what other characters may have been thinking.

You see, Ahab could have presented substantial justification politically for his actions. It’s easy when you have a story with the good guys and bad guys clearly labeled. But if you’re in the story, it’s a little harder.

Let me touch on another story here, Jeremiah in the city of Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonians. Jeremiah is preaching that the people should surrender to the Babylonians. Other people are preaching that they should hold on, because God will not allow his temple to be destroyed. Now in class after class I’ve heard modern Bible students talk about how obvious this whole thing was and exclaim at how stupid Zedekiah was for wanting to lock him up.

But if you instead put yourself into the situation–a city under siege, the enemy surrounding the city, and someone preaching “Surrender!” at the top of his lungs, what would you do? The critical step here is to break out of a simple dichotomy of good guys right, bad guys wrong, and start to think about the situation reflected in the story.

Telling the story from a different viewpoint than the one reflected by the Bible writer doesn’t mean you have to agree with that viewpoint. It simply means that you have to make a serious effort to understand that viewpoint. In addition, you can often learn as much or more from a story in which you disagree with the viewpoint of the writer or of the lead character.

What about stories that aren’t from the Bible? I think it should be obvious that any story that raises any of the desired issues, such as ethics, philosophy, theology, or social policy, for example, can provide a good basis for discussion.

Why use a story? Why not just stick with the facts? For my Bible students I would point out that much of the Bible itself is story. But on a more general note, we need imagination to see the possible results of our “fact based” decisions. Stories can carry things to their logical conclusions, point out situations under which our simple answers might not work. Often a well-written or well-told story will allow people to seriously consider things they might otherwise dismiss. It’s a sort of half-way point between having a concrete example, and having a mere hypothetical example.

As an example, suppose one starts with the conclusion that abortion is wrong under all circumstances. The discussion can start by proposing hypothetical situations. Supposing a woman has been raped? Now there is no issue of her making a bad choice. She is being forced into this pregnancy. Most people who take an absolute view don’t respond to that point. But consider instead starting the discussion by reading a story that effectively presents the horror of the situation of a woman who is pregnant as the result of rape. While this is not the same as confronting the same situation in one’s own life (a loved one, for example), it puts flesh on the dry bones of the hypothetical.

Now there have been two general approaches to using fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction in religious study, at least amongst those who don’t reject it as dangerous. The first is to hunt down specifically Christian themes in the literature. This results in things like discussions of Christian themes in Lord of the Rings. Though this approach doesn’t excite me personally, it is not entirely fruitless.

The second is to use stories as a challenging source of material for discussion, which has been the theme of this little essay. Let me just suggest a couple of stories I’ve read recently that fit closely with serious themes. Since recently I’ve been reading Mike Resnick’s short stories, I’m going to point to a couple of them for specific themes.

The first is Hothouse Flowers [Amazon Kindle edition] which provides an excellent platform for discussing quality of life and end of life issues. This is one of those topics on which people tend to have pat answers. If you are going to be discussing this in a Sunday School class or a seminar in church, which is usually where I would discuss it, you might need something to stretch people’s thinking.

One standard Christian answer is that God decides how long you’re going to live, and we shouldn’t interfere with it. The interesting thing is that people can say this in reference to someone who has tubes all over and is in a coma. Who is interfering with the natural course of life? Is it the person who put the tubes in, or one who takes them out?

Resnick’s story presents us with a situation that has been carried to an extreme, and will set up a discussion of these more subtle issues. It’s an engaging (and disturbing) story as well, which is just that much better. [Apologies to those who would like a summary of short stories. I really don’t like to read reviews that tell me portions of the story so I try to avoid giving away any key points. You’ll just have to read it!]

The second story is Down Memory Lane (at Asimov’s Science Fiction), which deals with sacrifice. It’s an extremely touching story, and yet it raises questions about self-sacrifice, and who we are doing that sacrifice for. I think it will produce less acrimonious discussions than the previous one is likely to, but they can nonetheless be productive.

Finally, let me point out the novel Kirinyaga (also title of a short story [Kindle]), which examines questions of how we adapt to change, and also how we deal with real diversity. (There’s a good review of Kirinyaga here but I must point out that it tells a bit more about the course of the story than I like before I’ve actually read the book.) One thinks of the Amish, for example, who reject modern society. At the same time many believe that they should be required to give their children a modern education so they can live in the modern world. How far would you take non-interference? How easy would it be to interfere? Besides the issue of change, questions on the limits of tolerance and cultural diversity arise. How do you rank the values? Would valuing cultural diversity lead you to permit infanticide?

I doubt you’ll find any takers on infanticide in your Sunday School classes, but if you back off from that position slowly, you can discover just how far you would go.

Those are just three examples from my current reading. There are many more out there.

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