Written by Derek Cooper
Friday, 31 January 2014 00:00
The American essayist Wendell Berry writes in “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” that “The significance—and ultimately the quality—of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.”
One of the ramifications of living in the twenty-first century is that we are entangled in a myriad of unrelated and, oftentimes, unwelcome “stories.” In addition to the honorable vocational stories in which I have elected to participate—as a Christian, a husband, a father, a friend, and a teacher—I am simultaneously entangled in countless unwanted stories relating to consumerism and materialism, evolutionism, sexism and racism, and many other narratives that endorse greed, waste, and an unbridled “pursuit of happiness.”
What I have learned about God through teaching is that not all narratives are created equal.
Some narratives, such as the Christian story of a humble man who chose to die painfully and shamefully at the hands of merciless soldiers to save the world, promote human dignity and self-sacrifice. These types of narratives self-evidently surpass others, such as the story of the “American Dream,” which, although seemingly harmless and even honorable, nevertheless gives license to self-indulgence and an undue emphasis on achievement.
As a teacher, I am part of a noble history of questioning the status quo and calling things what they actually are rather than what they appear to be. And it is my vocation as a teacher to help my students recognize that their participation in the human story of cosmic restoration—which encompasses not only the entire world but each individual—takes precedence over rival stories which compete with the Christian narrative.
Just this fall, for instance, when I was serving as a guest lecturer in South Korea, one of my students shared with the class her fear of never getting married because she feels that she is not as thin as other young Korean women. As a teacher, I got to share with this young woman, and the class as a whole, that the “story” about which she refers—where a false image of humanity is worshiped—stands in pale comparison to the Christian story, where each individual person has an immeasurable amount of worth due to his or her prior status as a one made in God’s image.
As a teacher, I am “successful” inasmuch as I help students recognize the countless and conflicting stories vying for their allegiance, and then discern with them which stories are true to the human condition and which ones are not.
Again, to repeat what I have learned about God through teaching, it is that all narratives are not created equal. And, as Berry noted, the significance and the quality of our lives are ultimately based on recognizing the story in which we are taking part.
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