Soul Advocacy

Sleep is an optional activity in Oxford. This is a fact I do my best to resist by actually sleeping. But sometimes, even I succumb to the vast and varied pace of this place and stay up until the wee sma’s when the stars blink down in bewilderment at my still-opened eyes. That’s when blog posts I was supposed to publish on Tuesday get published on Thursday. Like this one. Welcome to the belated Tuesday post!

While visiting a friend last year, I was captivated by her five-year-old sprite; a black-eyed lass with banshee curls and the smile of a vastly mischievous angel. I returned one night, just at her bedtime and she jumped into my lap, settled herself squarely and took my face firmly in two hands. “Sarah,” she squeaked, her eyebrows lifted importantly, “thank you for coming back to us.”

She is in my mind today, her jolly little face and buoyant words a theme in my head as I think over a book I was reading just before I left for England, that continues to inform my thoughts about Storyformed, and even informs the contemplations that grow from my studies here: Wes Stafford’s Too Small To Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most. Stafford was the head of Compassion International, the Christian child-sponsorship organization that works with children in the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. The gist of his book is that children in all societies, rich as well as poor, have become the second-class citizens of the world. Children, he says, are the most vulnerable members of humanity, but also the ones who bear the seeds of its future. They are the last in the global line to receive care, food, protection, nourishment, but it is the hope or despair begun in their littlest years that will shape future societies. The most basic of provisions of food, clothing, and education, can change whole generations. I love this.

But what especially caught my eye in what Dr. Stafford said was that children, even rich, Western children, can also be marginalized in spirit just as easily as body. Shunted aside in soul. We westerners, with our busy schedules and easy food and constant entertainment and ease have the whole nourishment, shelter, and education thing covered, but we often forget the soul. We forget what spiritual potential is in the young, impressionable heart of a child. We allow busyness and the voices of TV, hurry, peer pressure, and a materialistic view of the world to fill, and ultimately shape, the heart of a child. Ultimately this leads, not merely to a lack of creativity or wonder, but to a spiritually dormant heart. A child’s heart is a vast, devastatingly vulnerable space, a blank canvas, a fallow field. What is sown there in the earliest years will found the faith, morality, and purpose of a whole life. But do we busy moderns even know what is means any more to spark the eternal spirit of a child to life? Do we understand the need of the human soul for deep thought, for quiet, for strong relationships, for beauty? Do we understand how necessary these things are to a living, active faith in God?

Of course, this strikes right at the core of convictions behind the Storyformed project. Every bit of research I did for this website, for Read for the Heart, and Caught Up in a Story revealed the profound influence that childhood formation has on the whole of an adult life. I’ve come at this specifically through reading in the past years; as I researched the scientific side of what a “word-rich atmosphere” does to a child’s brain, I became convinced of the power of books to literally mold a child’s mind, to set the groundwork for an entire education. But I moved beyond the merely physical, the merely educational value of reading, and began to question how stories actually shape the spirit. That’s when Caught Up in a Story was born. I looked at research comparing the cultural activities of readers vs. non-readers. Did you know that a reader of fiction or poetry is almost twice as likely as a non-reader to see a play or concert or piece of art, get involved in politics, or volunteer with a charitable organization? I had to ask why. Why would a reading child have a heightened interest in music and art, in the forces of cultural ideas, in helping needy people?

Because stories wake the soul. Great stories with heroes and heroines teach us that we were meant to live in a meaningful way. Imagined beauty makes us want to create real-life art and music and song. Stories teach consequences to actions. Reading is not about merely fulfilling a quotient of words in order to make a child smart and I want to continually articulate that reality. Reading, I believe, is about the imprint of a great story on a child’s soul. Reading is about great words and vivid imagery sparking a child’s hunger for beauty, for good work, for friendship, for heroism. It’s about, in the far more philosophical words of Rowan Williams, in his book that I’m reading this week on Dostoevsky and faith:

The forming of a corporate imagination is something that continues to be the more or less daily business of religious believers….” 

By which, I believe Williams to mean that in loving God, and I would add, in raising children to love him, we are called not merely to teach right propositional statements, but to cultivate imaginations capable of insight into and communication of the beauty, goodness, and truth of God in the world around us, in Scripture, and in the other fragile, precious human beings we meet. We are called to perceive the storied nature of life, to discern value and meaning where the secular imagination does not. And we are called to cultivate that imagination in children.

In our modern, affluent culture, we have physical ease, we have food, we have huge systems of education, but none of these are enough to spark and nurture a new spirit to life. To do that, there must be a loving family and community instead of isolated hours with electronics. There must be great stories to widen the soul, and discussion round the dinner table instead of another hour of screen time and loneliness. There must be immersion in nature, the world of God, there must be beauty, laughter, daily rhythms of work, rich homes, strong images of what is right and good instead of morally ambiguous entertainment and constant, frenzied activity.

Dr. Stafford advocates for children poor in material goods and that is something I want to join him in doing. But he also advocates for children poor in spiritual and imaginative resources, and that is an advocacy I very much hope that Storyformed can aid. It breaks my heart to see children robbed of curiosity by hours of screen time, bereft of innocence because they’ve already been exposed to images and messages they should never see. I hate seeing lonely children because we are an isolationist culture who spends more time on facebook than on actual friends. I hate seeing busyness, the constant push to buy, see, and do shoving out the rich hours of quiet, of conversations with parents and mentors, of space for creativity, because we as a culture have lost sight of what it means to nurture not just the body, but the soul. The absence of affection, of rich words, of beauty, of deep relationships, of quiet and nature and creativity, can produce just as devastating a future for our world as material poverty.

I think back to my black-eyed little friend, her “thank you for coming back to us,” and I find an invitation, a challenge, hidden in her simple words. We must, as a culture, come back to the souls of little children. We must advocate for their spirits against rush and distraction. We must advocate by new creation, making homes, learning environments, and relationships rich in spiritual resources, rich in the imagination that will allow the children of today to imagine, and create, great goodness and beauty tomorrow.

Learning Fidelity through Fiction

Today, an excerpt from Caught Up in a Story as I have been reading back through Berry here in between papers and thinking about the way that literature teaches us what it looks like to be faithful. Literature and theology, actually, can create quite an excellent conversation between them, something I have noticed often as I study church doctrine on the one hand, and continue with my old beloved novels on the other.

What books, my readers, have taught you or your children the value of fidelity?

“How about this one, Gwen?”

I pulled a slender yellow book off the shelf and held it up to her inspection. I was on my yearly autumn visit to “Tante” Gwen, my mother’s best friend from her years as a missionary, a woman who had known and loved me since the day of my birth. Gwen and I share a love for good literature and having forgotten my own current read, I was scouring her shelves for a novel during my stay. Gwen’s reaction surprised me.

“Well, that’s a special one. You shouldn’t read it when you’re busy, your heart has to be quiet.”

Startled by her words, I set the book back on the shelf and picked a mystery novel instead. I understood Gwen’s caution; some stories are sacred and must be met with a ready soul. But Hannah Coulter was the story of a Kentucky housewife, the simple narration of her life from childhood to old age, and I was slow to believe that her story would grip me with unusual power. I forgot about the book until my next visit, when I opened Gwen’s birthday gift to me. Hannah Coulter stared calmly up from my hands, the pastoral scene on its cover like an echo of the half smile I caught when I glanced at Gwen and knew I was deemed ready.

One hour of reading in and I understood. Never have I encountered a work of writing that wrought such quiet in my mind and heart, where I was made freshly aware of the beauty of the earth and the way it tethers us to humility, to the love that is possible between people who choose to bear and forbear again and again. Simple stories of an age of farming now passed they may be, but they presented a picture of home, faithfulness, and love that has become one of the most shaping influences in my adult life. After that first afternoon of reading when Gwen asked me what I thought so far, I instantly answered, “his writing is so hushed.” She nodded, laughed, and entirely agreed.

The writing of Wendell Berry is hushed in the way that my own life, lived in the circle of my own days is hushed. The story is quiet because it reflects, with expert artistry, the mundane rounds of real people in normal life. When I enter the world of a Berry novel, I am not whisked away to an exotic land or a romantically unrealistic setting. To read Berry is rather to settle down, to be immersed in the workaday thoughts of people who labor and eat and love with the same joy or doubt that I bear. Slowly, as our own real days are slow, Berry’s stories build gradually, told often through the inner contemplation of his characters, and through them I became aware of the cadence present in ordinary life when love is practiced and faith is kept, and the music that comes from the keeping.

For the past ten years, that cadence has enhanced and shored up the rhythm of my own heart, the work and love of my own life. But the rhythm is bought at the high price of fidelity and assent, two concepts that underlie all of Berry’s writing. He believes that our increasing lack of these two qualities in modern life (and our negligence in passing them onto our youth) has caused a tear in the fabric of our society that is slowly unraveling marriage, family, community, and culture. To read a Berry novel is a challenge to learn what it means to be faithful to the flawed (but precious) people we are bound to in love, to cultivate loyalty to one community, and to steward our one place on earth as a gift entrusted to us by God.

This is his concept of fidelity, a word defined as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” In our frantic, feverish modern rush to experience, own, and try every thing (and try it immediately), to escape pain and discomfort, and discover the clearest path happiness, we have made self-fulfillment the driving goal of modern life. To young adults and those just beginning the mature story of their life, even those who have a strong faith, the messages of self-fulfillment come with siren intensity. Their hearts are stirred with hunger for life, for love, for experience because God created us in his own image with minds capable of great thought, imaginations primed to create, hearts hungry to love and souls driven to, yes, fulfillment.

But what culture will not tell young people today is that fulfillment will never be found in casting aside the bonds of love, the requirements of good work, the integrity required by virtue. Self-expression cannot be achieved in isolation or autonomy because we are inescapably communal creatures, tied first to God and then to each other in holy and eternal bonds. We were made to cultivate the earth, to work, to love. Fulfillment is found, not in casting aside the “ties that bind” but in fidelity to them, in walking the long journey required to bring about fulfillment, a journey that includes faith in love, devotion in work, and integrity in the discipline of our desires.

In the midst of my own tumultuous teenage years, the stories of Wendell Berry presented a picture of fulfillment that was much truer than the one offered by culture. The rooted, longsuffering love he portrayed, the homes built over decades of nurture and care, the pride his farmers took in the work of their hands offered me a picture of what my own faithful actions could attain. In Berry’s idea of fidelity, I also found hope that even in a broken world, beauty is still possible and love can remain. I know that many in my own generation, hungry for meaning just as I have been, find Berry’s words a deep comfort. We need images of something different than what concrete framed, technology driven, self-seeking modernity has offered.

That is why story is so vastly important in this period of falling action, this stage in which a young hero or heroine must decide which goal they want, which battles they will fight, which reward they give their life to attain. My siblings and I encountered this stage mostly as teenagers, and teenagers are notoriously restless as they begin that search for identity and love. But we also encountered specific stories that stabilized us in those tumultuous times.

My brother Joel greatly loved Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, the story of a father’s long, faithful, sorrowing love for his son. Nate loved Peace Like a River. We read it out loud together, learning much from a dark and bright story of a rebel son, his janitor father who loves with a faith and hope that verge on the miraculous, and the asthmatic son Reuben who believes he was saved from death just to witness their tale. Joy shared my love for Elizabeth Goudge and her story of an orphan girl brought to a cathedral town and the many quietly faithful people who upheld its beauty.

For each of us, stories were an education in what it means to “be faithful to a person, cause, or belief,” to show continuing “loyalty and support,” even when that cost us much. But we were willing to bear the cost because in the stories we loved we had glimpsed a fulfillment of love, a richness of friendship, and a satisfaction after work that gave us a goal toward which, in our long days of falling action, we could journey with great hope.