The Unfolding Stories of ‘Life’

January 31, 2024

The Unfolding Stories of ‘Life’

I started writing a book in the 1980s titled Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature.[1] I didn’t complete it until 1990, after spending almost ten years seeking a clearer and deeper understanding of literature’s relationship to our lives. In the 1970s as a young teacher in my 20s, I was appointed to a school in a disadvantaged community in Western Sydney. In a class of 36 reluctant readers, I discovered that literature could ‘take’ my students on ‘journeys’ to places, times and experiences that challenged and expanded their world. I observed my classes over several years as they moved from being poor readers largely disinterested in books, to engaged readers. 

In my desire to understand what I was doing right, I began to explore the work of many other scholars across varied disciplines. I concluded that in essence my students’ worlds had expanded. Literature had captured their imaginations and broadened their life focus. As they grew in reading ability, my observations confirmed a transformation as stories became a critical ‘intellectual activity of the mind connecting prior and new knowledge and experiences with our grasping after the unknown’.[2]

As I began further university studies, I encountered the early work of Anthony Esolen, who wrote ‘imagination, memory and knowledge are not incompatible but related’.[3] For my students, books had become a key catalyst for the expansion and union of these key activities of mind. Years later, as an academic, this shifted my focus in ongoing research. These personal breakthroughs helped me to understand more clearly the power of story and literature to grow our knowledge, widen our worlds, and make sense of life and culture.

A decade later, Charles Taylor was one of many scholars who helped me gain a deeper understanding of how and why my students were affected by literature. His work introduced me to the concept of ‘social imaginaries’.[4] He suggested that as people imagine and reflect on their lived experiences, literature can have the power to help explain them. Imagination can create a framework helping us to engage with, understand and imagine our world through the stories, myths and dreams we encounter. This helps us to embrace and create contexts that can shape our lives, hopes, goals and actions.

More recently, I have been reading Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory,[5] and find echoes and connections with my work in the last 20 years. My research, of course, has addressed the more restricted spheres of story and the construction of meaning. Watkin reminds us that the Bible ‘sheds light on the whole of life, how we can read and understand our society, our culture, and ourselves through the lens of the Bible’s storyline. It does not try to explain and defend the Bible to culture; it seeks to analyse and critique the culture through the Bible.’[6] The work covers a lot of ground and resonates with much of my lived experience as a Christian educator and researcher.

Watkin’s work invites Christians to consider the biblical framework as a critical theory through which we can evaluate the modern world. As well as critiquing the secular world—and perhaps even more so—this lens should also be trained on all forms of Christian practice, to ensure it maintains a faithful biblical focus. Christian education is one such area, whether an individual Christian teaching in a secular context, or a whole Christian school.

As Watkin points out in his introduction, it is often beneficial—if sometimes uncomfortable—to ask the question ‘So what?’. You are a Christian teacher. How does being Christian make a difference to your teaching? Your school offers a Christian education. So what? How is it different to what is offered by a public, Steiner, or Islamic school?

Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation was my first serious attempt to push back on the narrowly defined approach to Christian education I saw being enacted and taught in some Christian schools. I sought to challenge teachers and schools to consider how educational pedagogy founded on Christian belief and hope might be reflected not only in the content taught, but also in school pedagogy and practices.

There are two questions in particular I believe we need to ask, as we look afresh at Christian education.

First, as Watkin maintains, the Bible ‘sheds light on the whole of life’. How, then, can Christian teachers help students read and understand society and culture, and their place within them using a biblical lens? School administrators, teachers and students need to be challenged to consider what they privilege and value most, and why. A quick audit of the prizes awarded each year to students, and the practices that led to their success, will shine a light on this.

Second, as we review Christian teaching and schools, we need to ask how the Bible, and the hope it gives, shapes priorities. How can we underpin the education we offer with eternal hope, and not just short-term success in this life?

Gestalt psychology has taught us that when we observe something, we tend to focus on some things and ignore others. In short, we prioritise some things, like school and life ‘success’, while allowing others to sit in the background largely ignored. A school system dominated by success measured in marks, awards, university entrants, or even resources, can lead to the things of God drifting to the fringes. The great challenge for Christian education is how to maintain focus—whether of the students, teachers, or administration—on things that truly matter. As we do this, we should ask what doctrinal and cultural reforms are necessary in our Christian schools to demonstrate that first amongst our concerns should be our God and his purposes for us?

Watkin’s work helpfully issues a challenge to all Christian scholars: instead of trying to explain and defend the Bible to the world and its priorities, we need to place greater importance on analysing and critiquing culture through the Bible. If what Christian schools and teachers provide is different in a way genuinely shaped by a biblical framework, we will not only be fulfilling the promise of Christian education, but also the apologetic goal advocated by G. K. Chesterton, ‘to present Christianity so that people can see it with new eyes’.[7] Some people will not like this vision with its challenge to the world’s values, but the allegiance of Christian educators is not—must not be—to them.

In my work, I have sought to unpack the pedagogies of Christian schools and teachers, and challenge each to identify how they demonstrate biblical truth in their leadership, practices, priorities and teaching.  Our God offers us an eternal future hope, not just short term success in life. This should be a challenge we repeat often to one another, whether as teachers, school leaders or school administrators.


Trevor Cairney OAM is former Master of New College. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Education at The University of Sydney, as well as Honorary Life Fellow of UNSW. 


[1] Trevor Cairney, Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature (Heinemann, 1990).

[2] Trevor Cairney, Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning and Formation (Cascade, 2017), p122.

[3] Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Isi Books, 2013).

[4] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2004).

[5] Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan Academic, 2022).

[6] Ibid., 2022, p2.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Vol.2 (Ignatius, 1986), p148.

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