A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the Leeds Prayer Spaces in Schools conference. I chose to talk about the power of stories. Why? Because stories are fundamental to our understanding of the world and they are the way we find a meaningful place in it.
I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people around. I’ve not only spent much of my life teaching, I’ve also spent most of that time, as a teacher of English and music, immersed in stories. What could be better than introducing students to other people’s stories through literature and music, and then helping them to tell their own stories in words and sound? It really doesn’t get any better: I was storifying in a range of media long, long before the power of stories was realised.
So imagine my delight this week when I came across the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values’ report ‘Knightly Virtues: Enhancing Virtue Literacy Through Stories’. The Foreword begins:
‘Only human beings can tell stories. And only human beings can pass them along. To communicate what matters most, we share great narratives from literature, as well as stories from our own lives. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (1981: 216) argues that our lives are so deeply narrative that we can only answer the question: ‘What am I to do [with my life]?’ If we can answer the question: ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
Stories are fun. Stories motivate. Stories spark imagination. They help us to form knowledge; to make sense of our daily experiences and our memories. Stories are where we dream. But above all, stories are universal and it’s through their universality that we build relationships, understanding what it means to be human and learning how to live well with others.
As a Christian and a teacher, this has a particular resonance and it’s one that needs to be understood by all those who clamour for schools and colleges to be secular, neutral spaces. Apart from the fact that neutrality is impossible (everybody believes something), my faith is integral to my story. It informs my understanding of the world around me. It shapes who I am. I can no more leave my faith in the car park when I go into a school than I can leave my personality.
When Philip Pullman’s General Oblation Board separated children from their daemons, creativity, intelligence and will were reduced; sometimes even obliterated. And so it is with the content of people’s stories. You cannot separate people from any part of their unique story and still retain whole, vibrant, creative people.
An article in The Conversation this week examined the increasingly vehement debate about religion and secularism, while a group of parents, with the backing of the British Humanist Association, is going to court to get humanism included in the RE syllabus. What this actually says is that we have become unwilling to listen to each other’s stories and as a result, we no longer have the necessary vocabulary to discuss them. So how can we make sense of what is happening in our schools, our communities, our society and our world when belief plays such a significant role in its events?
I would suggest that we could do so through stories. We live in a pluralist society, so no one story should dictate social orthodoxy. We should learn to respect each other’s stories and the experiences and beliefs that have shaped them. Christians and other people of faith are often accused of indoctrination and proselytisation as a means of trying to separate them from their stories in the public square. Why?
It’s in the values that we all share that our stories overlap and offer hope of a better future. Maybe one reason why faith schools are so successful in nurturing rounded humans is because those values aren’t just discussed. They are worked out in practice, in the messy business of everyday living in community. And in doing so, those values become virtues.
So instead of trying to impose a singular, secular ideology, why not find common ground in the nurturing of those virtues that we all share, regardless of religious or non-religious belief. When that happens, nobody will need to silence those with whom they don’t agree. We won’t need an Equalities Act to enforce by statute what we are currently unable to do by individual will – respect each other regardless. Just because.
I am Christian. Please respect my story. It defines me. Trying to silence me is to limit my ability to flourish as a fellow human. In return, I will respect your story as fundamental to your identity as we work together to give hope for the future to the students we teach.