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.
Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.
So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years. It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. MPs want the DfE to pioneer mindfulness training in three schools, before establishing a £1m fund to train teachers in its delivery in every classroom.
The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.
So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God. The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.
The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).
While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).
In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.