Poetic Knowledge Entry: Being in Story – Simply Convivial

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My entry for the Poetic Knowledge book club:

I’m working slowly (more because of lack of time spent reading than anything else) through The Bible and the Task of Teaching, and yesterday at breakfast I couldn’t decide if I should reskim the section of Poetic Knowledge or pick up Task of Teaching or start one of the three fiction books I have waiting. It was not a good morning for story-grip, so I picked up the book that would be the easiest to put down when needed: Task of Teaching.

And what do you know?! The three pages I read tossed around Descartes and this idea of doing v. being! Huh!

The chapters in the middle of the book, where I currently am, are dealing with the concept of story, of narrative. How the Bible and Jesus teaches in this form, and how story is effective because it bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart and soul. He’s used examples of how the stories implicit in science or history texts teach a false narrative about the world. This is bigger than a worldview, because it is not so much propositions that are coloring how you see things, but how you interpret the past (how or if the past affects you), the present (yourself and your community), and the future (what is the point and where is this all going?). A lot of this isn’t new to me, because the Moscow-types have been emphasizing these concepts for years (most recently and most strongly in Nate’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl) and I avoided most of the false story-lines because I was homeschooled, kept home from most of the youth activities (Pentecostal/Dispensational) when I was younger, and then immersed in Reformed theology and Moscow history conferences at the critical, identity-forming age of 12-14. So, here I was trying not to get bored, nodding and underlining my way through the page explaining what makes narratives so important. Then, it started connecting (italics are original, bolding is my own):

It offers us models to follow, characters who embody possibilities, positive or negative, who inspire us to better things or warn us about worse. It offers us a world in which to explore courses of action best not tried out in practice.[…] It can be far more accessible to a wider variety of learners than an analysis and comparison of abstracted principles and truths. In short, the seductions of narrative come from its power to sway and inspire us, and are therefore potentially a force for good as well as for evil.

Story — whether it be a literal story like a fairy tale, myth, or picture book or a true story like history or biography or Scripture — communicates directly, often bypassing our critical thinking or rational analysis. This is why trying to impose rational analysis on literature often ends up killing it — it’s not meant to communicate in that way.

In the footnotes, the authors quote another author: “The biblical writings cannot be reduced to a Cartesian textbook of information that permits the response of only wooden replication of ideas or idiosyncratic novelty outside the clear boundaries of the text. Moreover, the biblical writings perform acts of declaration, proclamation, promise, verdict, pardon, liberation, commission, appointment, praise, confession, acclamation, and celebration that burst beyond the uniform model of flat ‘information.'”

These are different modes of communicating than propositions and facts and rational argument. They are more human ways. They are the ways God has primarily communicated in His Word, how He communicates with His children. How should that influence how we communicate with our children?

Story can also shift the emphasis from rules and precepts to virtues, as it focuses on the kind of persons we are called to become (or not to become). Rather than the rational weighing of abstract principles at the centre of the moral life, story allows us to engage with real people in their stories and particularly with the human being Who alone lived a perfect life. His story calls us to follow, to be and to become rather than just to do and decide.

Stories, particularly those that focus on individuals, are a way to engage the soul and the heart. Who will you be like? Will you be Lucy or Edmund or Eustace? Will you follow? Following requires change and action and living a certain way, not simply intellectual assent. So with stories we can more effectively reach that level of personal application in ways propositions simply cannot. What we are after is virtue, not intellectual assent. How we teach will determine which we emphasize.

In other words, a story is more than a collection of timeless pieces of information because it moves from past to future, from memory to vision. It can therefore offer us not just individual items to consider, but a sense of direction, an orientation within time and history, an image of where we have come from and where we might be headed.

“Follow,” again implies a shift from the past, but more so a path forward for the future. Seeing ourselves as part of God’s grand story of redemption helps give us that perspective we need to see that it’s not about our petty desires, but about God’s glory and His purpose for the world.

Being or doing? True virtue is part of your being, not something you do. You will do things differently, but the fundamental shift is in your heart and soul and identity, not in your outward actions.

Of course, as we are all in process toward virtue (as a part of sanctification), I like to keep in mind C.S. Lewis’ quote: “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.” or “Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.”