The characters who change us

The conversation usually starts out like this:

“What types of books do you like to read?”
“I only read nonfiction.
Fiction is a waste of time when there is so much to learn from nonfiction.”

or worse –

“What kind of books do you read?”
“…I don’t.”

Quite honestly, the latter seems to be the more common response. Both of these responses worry me, and no, it isn’t just about job security. Recent studies have done work to confirm what we fiction readers have been experiencing for decades – reading fiction changes you.

via Book HavenOne of the more recent studies that found a correlation between fiction and empathy was conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York. Using a variety of Theory of the Mind techniques, Kidd and Castano (2013) found that reading literary fiction, specifically, enhanced the reader’s ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. There is much debate about what constitutes “literary fiction” and the study authors are hesitant to pin down their own definition, but the study seems to suggest that readers learn empathy skills from novels that focus more on the psychology and emotions of the characters themselves. Whereas popular novels tend to be plot-driven with formulaic characters, literary fiction presents us with characters who challenge our stereotypes, interrupt our perceptions, and teach us how to understand those who are different than ourselves.

Reading fiction allows us to experience other worlds from a safe distance. When we are immersed in the lives of characters, we can listen in on their internal dialog. Where else are we invited to eavesdrop on the inner conversation that takes place in someone else’s mind?

The Bearing Rein – Nature vs. Art in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

Oddly enough, as an animal lover one of the first books I can remember reading that helped me “experience” the life of another was not that of a human, but that of a horse in Anne Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty. Told in the first person voice of a horse, I was around age ten when I read the story for the first time and I’ve never been able to forget Beauty’s description of the use of a bearing rein:

“York came round to our heads and shortened the rein himself — one hole, I think; every little makes a difference, be it for better or worse, and that day we had a steep hill to go up. Then I began to understand what I had heard of. Of course, I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do; but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs…Day by day, hole by hole, our bearing reins were shortened, and instead of looking forward with pleasure to having my harness put on, as I used to do, I began to dread it.”

Since then, my reading has branched out to considering the stories of humans. When I read Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, I was forced to grapple with the desperation of a German single-mother living in Nazi Germany. I felt the pangs of hunger coupled with the intense desire to exert control when I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s telling of a young girl’s excruciating battle with anorexia in Wintergirls. When my children’s lit professor wanted us to know what it felt like to be a student with ADHD we were asked to read Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Even now, as I’ve wandered the roads of East Texas in the past month I’ve entered the world of Noa P. Singleton, a women awaiting what she refers to as X-day as she sits on death row, as she tells me her story via audiobook in first time author Elizabeth Silva’s The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. In fact, I’ve noticed in recent years that especially when I listen to audiobooks, I get so involved in the character’s story that I often find myself making the same facial expressions that I imagine the characters would have while telling their story. Again, odd, but what can I say? These fictional characters somehow become a part of me as I read them.

books_23Another study conducted by Mar, Oatley, and Peterson (2009) also explored the connection between reading and empathy. When observing the relationship between narrative transportation (the ability to “lose” ourselves in a novel’s world) and empathy they stated the following: “It seems that a ready capacity to project oneself into a story may assist in projecting oneself into another’s mind in order to infer their mental states.” The authors point out that more research is needed, but for now, it seems that reading fiction has “important consequences.”

Honestly, the list of fictional characters that I’ve learned from or reference when I encounter a life experience different from my own could go on and on. These stories stay with me in a way that influences how I interact and empathize with the people around me. One of my all-time favorite literary characters taught his young daughter about empathy when he asked her to think about what her teacher must have felt like on her first day of school:

“You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

- Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

d8a2f6aba69c3cab4037e74dd53d6eb9Reading fiction allows us to try on the “skin” of a character and walk around in it. For every time that I rejoice in a student’s new-found appreciation of a scholarly journal article or climb on my soap box about the value of information, there is an equal part of me that gets excited to talk to people about the place that stories should have in our lives. The next time that you find yourself struggling to understand someone different than you, I encourage you to find a work of fiction with a similar character. The people in our world need us to read fiction so that we can feel with them.

I’ve just scratched the surface on the stories that have influenced me. What about you? What stories have you read that have helped you empathize with someone?

EDP

World Literature as General Revelation

As a follower of Christ and an academic I take for granted that the stuff I teach my students in class is fair game for religious discussion. But, I have the feeling that the majority of my students do not automatically use a faith-based approach to the reading of most of the texts we read in my world literature course.

The difficulty of the ancients like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eroticism of A Thousand and One Nights, or the wit and sarcasm of Don Quixote tend to distract us from the perspective that faith has to offer.

don quixoteNot to mention that students of literature must also pay careful attention to conventions of language, the intricacies of different cultures, the particulars of genre, and a variety of narrative forms. We have a responsibility to study the literature for its own merit as literature; in a sophomore survey course in literature we rarely sit around all day and talk about religious aspects of the literature in question.

I am convinced, though, that the World Lit. course is one of the most important courses any American college student can take today. I am also convinced that it is one of the courses most naturally open to an integration of faith and learning.

In order to integrate a faith perspective on world literature one of my basic goals is to communicate to my students the unique role that literature plays in the act of general revelation.

No doubt, there are a number of texts that are explicitly religious,—the Bhagavad-Gita, the Quran, and Augustine’s Confessions—but the majority of our texts fall into the canon of world literature simply for their merit as model examples of their time period, geographical origin, or genre.

So, I begin each semester with a look at Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster reminds us that every story ever written is a small part of one story.

“One Story. Everywhere. Always. Whenever anyone puts pen to paper or hands to keyboard or fingers to lute string or quill to      papyrus. Norse sagas, Samoan creation stories, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tale of Genji, Hamlet, last year’s graduation speech, last week’s Dave Barry column, On the Road and Road to Rio and “The Road Not Taken.” One Story (185).

If we are wondering what that one story is about, Foster explains that it is about us—humans—about what it means to be human, about this world and the next, about where we come from and where we are going.

The first thing I want my students to understand is that all of the stories we are about to read are linked together by their own humanity. The stories we read in this class are all stories about us.

The second thing we look at each semester is the Genesis creation story. We look at the story as an example of humans telling the story about where we come from, but also as an example of specific revelation—the Genesis account is unique because it literally claims to tell God’s story—“And God said . . . ..”

For most of the rest of the semester, we examine works of world literature from this perspective, that they are all part of the one story. My hope is that students understand that the words of literature represent the intent of Romans 2:15, “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (NLT).

800px-The_Plague_of_ThebesSo, we read about Gilgamesh’s unsuccessful attempt to find the secret of eternal life.

We read about the personal flaw (sin) of Oedipus that drives his story to its tragic end in a play that we learn was originally written as an act of worship.

When we read the Bhagavad-Gita we understand the link between poverty and the Hindu caste system, and we are reminded that religious belief and practice can have a powerful , practical implication upon the lives of the masses.

Even the meta-fictional and narrative-resistant nature of Post-modern fiction reminds us of how mixed up and lost humanity is.

Ultimately, I hope that my students walk away with a glimpse of how that one, human story communicates the truth of the Biblical worldview—that there is one true God who created us, loves us, and has a plan for us.

DS

Called to Teach: What Does That Mean?

6712120241_749fa986d8_oA call to teach.. what exactly does it mean? I feel as if I am not going to answer this question with justice. However, I will attempt to answer this question without spending too much time evaluating if my answer is “good enough”.

I believe you do not have to be super religious to understand that some people just “know” they are called to a certain profession. I have had wonderful non-religious/non-spiritual people in my life that were great teachers. I have also had wonderful religious/spiritual people that were also great teachers.

My call to teach is as much of a responsibility as it is a gift. I am not naturally gifted with teaching abilities, but I have to work on my teaching techniques on a daily basis. It is my responsibility to grow in knowledge and ability as I continue on my own journey as a teacher. Earning a PhD taught me that the more I know, the more I realize I still have much more to learn. Just like “ministering” is a never-ending job … “teaching” is a never-ending task as well. I find comfort and satisfaction when my students learn, and I feel discomfort when it doesn’t happen. I find joy in learning new ways to teach, and learning new knowledge to teach.

I have learned the most (as a teacher and a student) from being in an uncomfortable… sometimes even a challenging place. It wasn’t always fun… it wasn’t always pleasant… But I learned and I grew from the experience. Those experiences have shaped me into who I am today. One of the challenging parts of my job is making a safe environment for students to feel that challenge… that uncomfortable place that gives them the “nudge” to learn.

Similar to how eagles teach their young to fly, I view learning as a passaging in life for students to be successful in life and “take flight”. For example, at a certain point the mother eagle will “nudge” its baby out of the nest. Before the baby eagle hits the ground, the mother eagle will fly down and catch them.  They continue to do this until the baby eagle learns to spread its wings and fly. The point is that if we don’t nudge them … they will never be able to become who they were meant to be… or be able to do what they were meant to do.

It is my responsibility … my calling to help students spread their wings. Their future depends on me fulfilling my call to teach. Sometimes, I wish that I got an email, text message, or music playing in my ear every time one of my students catches wind under their wings….. it would make me feel better about pushing them out of the nest so often.

(read more about eagles learning to fly here: http://www.prophetic.net/eagles.htm )

The Miracle of My Life

I never intended to be a teacher.  A doctor maybe.  Or an archeologist.  But never a teacher.

A funny thing happened though in third grade.  I met Mrs. Martinez.  She loved her students.   We loved her back.  And my favorite memory?  On rainy days when we had to stay inside during recess, she’d open her Edgar Allen Poe anthology and read aloud to us.  “The Raven.”  “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Sometimes thunder would rumble at just the right moment, and we’d jump in our seats.  I was enthralled.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Mrs. Martinez was teaching me the magic of story—the power of words.  And she was teaching me how to read—to an audience, to a classroom of students.

Still—in high school, I hung onto my other life plans—practicing medicine in a foreign country or discovering Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat.

But in college, at a place much like etbu, I met professors who would change the direction of my life.  As I sat in their classrooms, I observed men and women who loved God, loved their students, and who lived out their faith in a powerful and meaningful way.  Teaching, for them, was an act of love—an act of worship.  Once again, I was enthralled.  Memories of Mrs. Martinez floated back from the past.

So—plans changed.  I graduated.  I married.  I enrolled in seminary.  I would be a youth minister. I would teach the Bible.  I would change lives.  But in the midst of all this rock-solid certainty, the unexpected crept in.  The marriage began to crumble.  And my dreams slipped through my fingers like sand.  Ashamed, embarrassed and bitter, I dropped out—out of seminary and out of church.   And I stopped believing—in God, in dreams, in love.

But here is a strange thing.

Even though I ran so far from God and lived a life soaked in rebellion— all this time, I was haunted by the memories of the teachers I had in college . . . teachers I admired—teachers who were scholars and brilliant thinkers—teachers who loved Jesus and who exhibited an abundant life that I certainly didn’t have.

And I kept thinking, “You know—Maybe I’m missing something here.  Maybe I should give my faith a second look.  Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.”

Make no mistake about this.  God used the memory of my teachers to bring me back to Him.  I doubt they remember me, but I still remember them:  Curtis Mitchell – Robert Morosco – Johnny Sailhamer – Clyde Cook – Ed Curtis – Nancy Bundy – Dave Black.

I recall one of my teachers telling us on the first day of class—“You’ll forget most of what I say in this classroom.  But there’s one thing you won’t forget—and that’s my attitude.  My attitude about my discipline—my attitude about you—and my attitude about God.”

And he was right. I still remember Dr. Hunter’s concern for students, his passion for the Bible, and his deep love for the Lord.

I have never forgotten that.

This is the miracle of my life—Even though I gave up on God, God never gave up on me.  And as I grew close to God again—over time—I realized the impact that Christian higher education had on my life.  College didn’t just give me a diploma—it introduced me to a new way of thinking about faith and hope and love through men and women who loved Jesus deeply.

I wanted to be part of that.  So, in 1987, I went back to school.  And I became a teacher.

This is what I tell my students—You never know what God may call you to do—or how He’ll call you to do it.  You have dreams and that’s good.  But be prepared for God to surprise you.  This is what happened to me, I tell them.  I’m not practicing medicine in an exotic land, but, in a way, I’m a physician, of sorts—touching hearts and minds and changing lives. I’m not an archaeologist, but each day I uncover something new and make discoveries that I hope will make the lives of my students richer.

I guarantee you—when I was sitting in Mrs. Martinez’s third grade class—I never thought I’d be standing in front of a classroom one day.  But today, I teach English.  And each class, for me, is recess time on a rainy day. I open a book, and I read to my students.  And I hope that they will experience the magic of story and the power of words.