Living Stories

June 01, 2012

Living Stories

Trevor Cairney


I have no recollection of ever being read to as a child. There were few books in my home and my early years were not characterised by a mother or father curled up with me reading great literature. But in middle age I was to reflect on my early literary experiences and conclude that I had lived in a home rich in stories and that these had helped to shape me. While my parents seemed to do little to encourage a love of literature or writing, they had filled my world with their own stories and the texts and stories that had ‘spoken’ to them.


My father was a consummate oral storyteller, and my mother—an entertainer and singer—filled my life with opera, ballads and popular music. There is no doubt that my father’s stories of events that had shaped him, also served to shape me. He shared his life story through anecdotes and narratives, which reflected overarching metanarratives related to his view of the ‘good life’.1 Some of his stories were no doubt true, others ‘half’ true and some, perhaps, mere constructions. Many were influenced by his brand of Marxism and its critique of the nature of capitalism and its exploitation of the workers by the bourgeois. He drew on his experiences and those of his family in post-Victorian Glasgow, his life in decaying tenement housing, his work and advocacy in the coal mines of Australia as a union leader, and his experience of the Depression and World War II. And when he was drunk, he would share many of life’s deeper stories of tragedy and disappointment.


My father’s immigration from Scotland was a critical event in the family’s life. His father left for Australia to seek a better life just after WWI, and my grandmother was left to raise eleven children alone. It was to be two years before the rest of the family arrived in Newcastle to join my grandfather. However, my father’s view of what was important in life appeared to be shaped by more than just family experiences. His stories often reflected the importance he placed on a desire for financial security, a home of his own, freedom of expression and an egalitarian life in the ‘promised land’ of Australia. All of these desires were no doubt drawn, at least in part, from the things he’d read and the stories of others.


As a child, my father’s stories washed over me and engaged me. So too did the stories of my paternal grandfather with whom I stayed during most school holidays—a godly, creative and intelligent man. He was a brilliant inventor and businessman who constantly quoted the Scriptures (especially the Psalms and Proverbs) and recited Australian and Scottish poetry whenever we did things together. I saw no place for God in my life until I was 31, but I can see with hindsight that my own emerging view of the good life was based as much on my rejection of many of my father’s ideas as my embracing of the alternative narratives of my grandparents and a growing group of Christian friends who had different hopes and desires.2 This is the way narrative works in our lives. It touches us, teaches us and in time, shapes us.


The stories of my father, grandfather, mother and significant others, in one sense, were a product of their lives. By telling their stories they revealed some sense of their perceived ‘good life’ and the quest within each of us to find it. These stories also captured my imagination and influenced my own vision for the future; or as Charles Taylor describes it, my ‘social imaginary’3—a concept I will unpack below.


  1. The place of story for ‘love’, ‘desire’ and ‘community’

When I use the word ‘story’, I mean more than just ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment’.4 Rather, I am using it as a variant of ‘narrative’, that is, ‘a spoken or written account of connected events’.5 This broader definition includes realand imaginary, true and fictional, story, recount, even anecdote. While ‘narrative’ is the broader term, I deliberately use ‘story’ in the context of this essay for it carries with it the implication of something with an imagined, constructed,

purposeful and communicative nature. It includes ‘factual’ recounts and passionately held views expressed in narrative form by way of illustration, anecdote, poem, song and so on. Stories are deeply personal things, and have purposes that go well beyond entertainment or information. Our stories reflect our history, our values, our beliefs, our priorities and our intent when we share them.


Stories are also more than disconnected and isolated accounts. They typically have a relationship to other larger metanarratives. Christian Smith suggests that narratives ‘seek to convey the significance and meaning of events by situating their interaction with or influence on other events and actions in a single, interrelated account’.6 They include a set of characters or players, both subjects and objects of the action. They have a plot which gives shape to the action (a beginning, middle and end) and they seek to communicate significant points or messages. Smith suggests that in this age dominated by

the power of reason and evidence, and the rational over the creative, we are nonetheless still creatures who are ‘the makers, tellers, and believers of narrative construals of existence, history, and purpose’.7 We make stories and in turn are made by them.


This ‘making’ of us is shaped at least in part by the stories we absorb, give expression to and help create. James K.A. Smith suggests that this is no simple cognitive process. Rather, we are embodied creatures who absorb the stories of life and engage in rituals and cultural practices that shape our desires and our vision of the good life. This argument draws on Charles Taylor’s concept of the ‘social imaginary’ mentioned earlier. Taylor argues that societies are given direction by an imagined and hoped for view of the world. This is not expressed simply in theoretical terms, but is ‘carried in images, stories and legends’.8 Humans are not given their major focus and direction simply by reasoning, but by the imagination.


Taylor’s use of the term ‘social imaginary’ is quite deliberate. Much broader than an intellectual understanding of reality, his focus is on how people ‘imagine their social surroundings’.9 While his category is a little slippery and doesn’t address all that we know about memory, thinking and knowledge,10 the point is worth making. Our imaginations are primed by the narratives we experience in daily life, and thus primed, we develop desires and views of the ‘good life’, accept shared group understandings and make sense of our experiences. The use of the term ‘social imaginary’ emphasises the rich social context in which we make sense of the world, a context influenced as much (or more) by story as by deliberate reasoning. This is not to suggest that our stories are not subjected at times to analysis and critique, but they are often born in life moments where our imaginations are captured, even if only momentarily, by narrative—whether heard, read, seen or experienced.


The stories that are part of our experience thus shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction to our lives. As well, they contribute to building community, which Oliver O’Donovan reminds us, is ‘a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love’.11 In essence, people come to see a common ‘view of the good’ and are hence capable of common action, cultural practices and identity.12


James Smith agrees with Taylor that our hopes, goals, desires and views are influenced by our imaginative experience of the world, including its stories.13 Echoing Augustine, he argues that we inhabit the world, not primarily as thinkers or believers, but as ‘more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it’.14 We are above all things ‘agents of love, which takes the structure of desire or longing’.15


Our desires are aimed at our hoped for ends (or goals) and set the trajectory for our lives: …a vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations…by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well. This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays, novels, and films rather thandissertations, messages and monographs.16


To be human is to experience a Godgiven desire to understand our purpose and seek fulfilment in the ‘hoped for’, the ultimate quest of each life. There is an intertextual cacophony of stories that shape us and influence the things we desire,17 and from these stories we ‘read’ various representations of the future, and alternative visions of human flourishing. In a sense, we are taught, perhaps even lured by these ‘pictures’, these visions of the future. This connection between hope and story is a key theme of Bruce Smith’s insightful piece Hope and Tragedy in Life and Literature (this issue, p 9).


Given that story is an important influence on what we come to love and desire, it follows that it is formative for our attitude to the ultimate object of love, the God of the universe who has made us for a future kingdom, and an everlasting hope and glory. The question I want to explore in the final sections of this essay is what this means for the stories we privilege in our homes and schools and the way we discuss them, critique them and use them to nurture and form our children.



  1. The role of story in Christian formation

There are many possible discussions surrounding the place of story in Christian formation, but I want to discuss just two issues that might be helpful in considering the place of story in children’s lives.


  1. Story is helpful in enabling children to negotiate a path between this life and the next


I have been exploring the role of pedagogy in Christian formation in the school and family, and have concluded that all that is done to nurture and grow the citizen on this earth should be oriented to the next. All we hope children to become in the now should be directed to what they are destined to become in the Kingdom of God. The focus of a Christian paideia18—formation of the child—is not the building of better citizens to successfully take their place in civil society, but rather, the maturing of children in Christ. As Paul tells the Philippian Church, ‘our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself’ (Phil 3:20-21).


Parents and Christian teachers will of course go first to the Bible as the foundation of their quest to influence the maturing of children in Christ. But story, more generally, has an essential place in negotiating a path between the culture experienced daily by citizens of earth and a longing for the citizenship of heaven to be fully realised. This is critical in developing a distinctive pedagogy. Children experience stories in their lives which can shape their emerging and imagined view of the good life and their hoped for future. These stories are experienced in books, from television, video games and from the mouths of others. So prolific are stories in the life of the child that we need to ask how

Christian parents and teachers are to intervene in the cacophony of stories that fill the child’s world.


One response is to embark on an almost futile interrogative and critical stance, monitoring and listening to the stories children hear and identifying points of departure from Christian belief, or alternatively, teaching only from the Bible and trying to shield children from the world’s stories. But this limited critical reading of the world and its texts will do little more than create Christian enclaves within the home, school and family set against the world. Kevin Vanhoozer argues, to the contrary, that the task of parents and teachers is to help students read culture, and so it is unwise simply to sift, sort and reject it.19 We must understand culture before we can exclude or embrace it. Christian pedagogy must not reflect either of the extreme responses to the world—that is, uncritical acceptance, or rejection in response to the sinful rebellion of the world. Chris Swann discusses this in detail in his paper in this issue, rejecting these extremes on the basis that both Christian and non-christian alike inhabit God’s good though distorted creation (p15). Simple blackand- white responses are not adequate; robust interaction with culture requires effort and wisdom. Paideia must therefore help students to evaluate the stories that are part of the culture in which they are immersed.


The role of the parent or teacher in helping children to negotiate their way through a world of story requires a degree of courage, risk taking and, most significantly, trust that they are ultimately in God’s hands, not our own. It is very tempting for parents and teachers to exclude stories and texts from a child’s world simply because they are written by non-Christians or contain ideas which do not conform to our own metanarratives of the world, particularly if these clash with our biblical understanding. But our children need to navigate their way through the mire of alternative views of the ‘good life’. What’s more, within the secular texts of their world they will encounter not only echoes20 of the wisdom of God, but knowledge that is helpful for their formation. The competing metanarratives of life are not mutually exclusive, nor is truth only in the hands of the Christian author or the day-to-day stories and reflections of the Christian teacher. This idea is also explored in a paper by William Tate (this issue, p22) where he discusses the intriguing notion of ‘secular parables’ in the work of Karl Barth (who in turn developed it from the thought of John Calvin).21 We need to prepare our children to navigate the tricky waters of the stories they will encounter in life.


  1. b) Story is an example of the outworking of God-given creativity and imagination


When I became a Christian it was in response to a sermon preached on Matthew 11:28-30: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.


It was my first visit to church other than for a few weddings and one or two funerals. These words pierced my heart. I was convicted of my own sinfulness, I had a great sense of shame and a sudden desire to know who Jesus was. I went home, hid in the bathroom and my response was simply to call out to God and plead for him to make himself known to me and to help me understand and believe. I stood there in tears, not due to having reached the end of ten years of reasoning and attempts to

comprehend the Scriptures, but as someone deeply convicted of my sinfulness before God who had caught a glimpse of God’s Kingdom and his Son. God had brought me to a point where I was able to imagine Jesus as not merely man, but the risen Son of God. I was able to see that in a world marked by ugliness as well as beauty there was a deeper meaning and purpose.


The gospel of Christ met me at a point where my vision of the future and the good life could not be satisfied in all that I had been able to draw on in life to that point. God was able to use my imagination as well as my powers of reasoning and comprehension to move me from rebellion to new life. My deepest burdens and my weariness from trying to solve my doubts and frustrations in life, could be taken from me if I would but yoke myself to Jesus, rather than selfish ambition, the quest for comforts and material security, and proud reliance on intellect and worldly success. I was able to imagine how God had sent his Son as man and God to die a death I did not witness, in a place and a time beyond my experience, for a person I suddenly knew for the first time.


N.T. Wright argues that we need ‘imagination to cope with’22 making sense of a world that is both beautiful and ugly. I needed to make an imaginative leap from my view of the world shaped by the story of my life and the various influences on it, to a view that said the world could only have a future—and indeed I could only have a future— because of a Jewish man crucified 2,000 years ago: Jesus. Michael Ward’s paper in this issue (p20) also tells of a conversion —that of CS Lewis—and the necessity of imagination as a precursor to a full grasp of the gospel story and its meaning.


Imagination is good. God has given it to us as part of our human nature, made in his image. Imagination isn’t something to be repressed or controlled by reason or logic, but is part of who we are, and is to be enjoyed, celebrated and cultivated. Story is part of the way we recall the past, make sense of our world, and imagine the future God has planned for us. What’s more, the reading of Scripture and our ability to make sense of it requires our ability to imagine that which the words signify. As I read the Scriptures I am constantly moved by the words and what I am able to imagine and grasp through them. I cannot read the Psalms without constantly calling upon my imagination. How else could I make sense of the imagery of the Psalmist’s words, ‘I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings’ (Ps 61:4)? How else can I read Revelation 21 and gain some sense of the magnitude and glory of the New Jerusalem? My imagination helps me to read the words of Scripture and grasp something of the wonder that these words signify and seek to communicate to me.


It is important to stress that I am not suggesting imagination has a primary role in God’s illumination of his truth and purposes. As J.R.R.Tolkien suggested, art and the imagination simply assist us in the understanding of our world.23 Art, music and literature give us a fuller insight into God’s world and his plans for it. Trevor Hart, too, argued powerfully in the 2008 New College Lectures that ‘artistic vision is no matter of gainsaying or superseding our world, but precisely of glimpsing the richness and the possibilities latent within the creative vision of God himself’.24


God has given us a world pregnant with potential and with undisclosed possibilities and meanings. God allows, indeed invites us, to use our imaginations and plumb the richness of meaning that our world offers.25


  1. How do we approach the role of stories in children’s lives?

So what are we to do with stories as parents and teachers? First, I believe that we need to understand the significant role they play in children’s formation. This has been the major task of this essay. We need to understand the power and impact that stories will have on children’s hopes for future. Second, we need to engage as story tellers and interpreters of stories in children’s lives, nurturing their growing faith, answering their unending questions in the light of God’s Word, encouraging their emerging assumptions and view of the hope for the ‘good life’.


How we position ourselves within, alongside and as part of the stories they experience and tell is critical. In one sense, almost any story heard, read or experienced can be used for their good if read and understood in the light of God’s eternal story of forgiveness, redemption, grace and hope in Christ. This learning takes time and requires close involvement in children’s lives: listening to them, answering their questions and seeking to understand what they are grappling with day by day. We need to hear their stories, tell them our own and share the stories of others, always on the foundation of a growing knowledge of God’s promises revealed in Christ by his word.


The role of story and imagination in children’s formation begins in the first weeks of life as they experience the rhymes, songs, sounds and words that we share with them. It continues as they are immersed in the stories of daily life and an emerging array of multimodal textual experiences. It is strengthened or weakened as the child begins to read these stories in the light of the Bible’s rich salvation history and wisdom. It is challenged in late childhood as the stories of popular culture clash with those that once seemed unquestionable and unassailable. Finally, it is tested in the cut and thrust of teenage and adult life as all previous assumptions are contested by alternative understandings of what it means to be human, what our purpose is and why we are here. ©



1 Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human personhood and Culture (NY: OUP, 2003), pp 63-94 discusses at length the varied forms that metanarratives can take.

2 On this idea, see Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love (Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), p22.

3 Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

4 Oxford Dictionaries online. Downloaded 25th February 2012. definition/story

5 Ibid., narrative

6 Smith, op. cit., pp65-66.

7 Ibid., p64.

8 Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), pp23-30. Cited in Smith, op.cit., p65.

9 Ibid., p22.

10 My research on text comprehension and later research on intertextuality suggests that thinking is never detached from the social and textual context within which we learn, remember, set goals and soon. Taylor’s examples concerning the common understandings necessary to carry out collective practices parallels work in cognitive psychology and discourse theory referred to there, for example, as ‘scripts’ or ‘schemata’. My book Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work (London: Open University Press, 1990) discusses some of this theoretical work and its application.

11 O’Donovan, op. cit., pp20-24.

12 Stanley Hauerwas also talks about this process of community being ‘story-formed’. See ‘A story-formed community: Reflections on Watership Down’. J. Berkman & M. Cartwright (eds), The Hauerwas Reader (London: Duke University Press, 2001), pp171-199.

13 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009), p54.

14 Ibid., p50.

15 Ibid., p53.

16 T. H. Cairney, ‘Intertextuality: Infectious Echoes from the Past’. The Reading Teacher Vol 43, No 7, 1990, pp478-484.

17 In a recent publication (Trevor Cairney, Bryan Cowling & Michael Jensen, New Perspectives on Anglican Education: Reconsidering Purpose and Plotting a Future Direction (Sydney: Anglican Education Commission, 2011) I discuss the biblical

roots of the word paideia—which for first century Greeks meant a process of becoming fully human, or of young men becoming citizens—to make the point that pedagogy is central to biblical education whether within the family, church or school.

18 Kevin Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007).

19 J.R.R. Tolkien argued and demonstrated in his fantasy writing that there is a sense in which our stories and attempts to describe our experiences, hopes and aspirations must all be read against this central biblical narrative, ‘the greatest story of them all’.

20 For a good discussion of Calvin’s notion of the ‘sensus divinitatis’ or sense of the divine in human nature and its implications for education, see Michael Jensen, ‘The Creature Who Learns: A Theological Anthropology for Christian Education’. T.Cairney, B.Cowling & M. Jensen, op. cit.

21 N.T. Wright, ‘The Bible and Christian Imagination’. Response, Vol 28, No 5, 2005 depts/uc/response/summer2k5/features/


22 J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, Including the poem Mythopoeia, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (London: Harper Collins, 2001), p56.

23 Trevor Hart, Givenness, grace and gratitude: creation, artistry and eucharist, 3rd New College Lecture, 4th September 2008.

24 Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2005).

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