Monday, August 27, 2007

of stories and toys

For Thursday, we will be discussing “Knowledge: Problems and Varieties,” the second chapter in N. T. Wright’s, The New Testament and the People of God, (vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992), which I introduce here. In this chapter, Wright discusses stories and how they are carriers of worldviews. One of my hopes is to impress upon students that stories (be they fictional or non-fictional) are not flimsy little things but some of the most powerful things we encounter. I want to show how stories function and demonstrate that stories are serious business in part so that when I refer to, talk about, and characterize the biblical narrative as the Christian Story, I want my students to know that I am not in any sense reducing or relativizing its value and importance, quite to the contrary. This is a danger because story as a category has often been used in a dismissive sense to indicate something that is not truthful, or at least is not factual, as in such-and-such did not really happen; it is simply a story.

As I was thinking about the power of stories, I began to remember when Rebekah and I found out that Emma was going to be a girl, and how we were very concerned about how we were going to raise here, about the ways we were going to socialize her with respect to her gender. We wanted to raise Emma as a girl but with a different understanding and view of what it means to be a female and a girl than the one operative when we and our parents were children. In other words, we had no intentions of raising her as if gender were immaterial; we do believe that girls and boys are different. At the same time, we are also aware of how gender is constructed, of how one's understanding of what it is to be a girl and a boy, to be male and female, is informed and shaped by the values, symbols, and practices of the culture in which we live. Consequently, we were very selective and discerning about the things we exposed her to.

For example, when we purchased toys for her, we made sure to get a wide spectrum of toys, many of which are, in our culture, associated with boys. We did not get rid of dolls for we still wanted her to develop her nuturing and empathic skills (we have encouraged Thaddaeus' interest and love of dolls for the same reason), no we didn't get rid of dolls but we did introduce trains and Lincoln logs, and other such toys. And we were intentional about letting our family's know the sorts of toys we were looking for Emma.

We were also very selective and discerning about the sorts of stories we told and read to Emma. For example, we avoided the classic fairy tales like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all of which embody, support, and reinforce a particular set of gender stereotypes, a particular worldview of the respective roles of men and women including how women and men relate to one another, which went contrary to our own emerging views. Instead, we read stories in which women and girls were portrayed as adventurous, confident, competent, and intelligent; stories in which concerns about one's appearance especially with respect to the opposite sex did not play a part. So we read books like Pippi Longstocking and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (though even here I spent much time editing as I read. For example, I edited out the recurrent references Laura makes to hating her ugly brown hair and her "naughtiness" (read "curiosity and adventurousness") in contrast to Mary's beautiful blond hair and "goodness" (read "passiveness and submissiveness."

All of this was born out of the conviction that stories are extremely powerful; the stories we tell (ourselves and others), the stories we surround ourselves with have the power to shape our values, thoughts, perceptions, and actions. Stories do not only affect the way we think, but the way we feel; the way we perceive, and ultimately the way we act. Wright remarks “Tell someone to do something, and you change their life — for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life” (40). In short, Rebekah and I understood early on, thankfully, that if we wanted to communicate and instill certain values and perspectives in Emma then we needed to find the right stories. If we wanted Emma to develop certain sensibilities, certain values and perspectives, certain ways of viewing herself, the world, and her relation to the world and to others, then we had to be intentional and selective about the stories she encountered.

This has not been particularly easy especially in a society that markets such defective stories so well (e.g., Disney). Moreover, I expect that people look with incredulity and suspicion upon parents who “censor” what their children read, especially when it comes to classic fairy tales that so many people have grown up with and come to love. After all, as I have heard some people remark, "they are only children’s stories." But that is my point exactly. Stories are extremely powerful, and childrens stories are one of the most powerful forms of literature on the earth, with the ability to shape our children's values, perspectives, and actions. I guess one of my main concerns is not so much that we expose their children to Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, but that we do so unreflectedly. We assume that because it is childrens literature that it is somehow benign, never questioning the values and perspectives that these stories embody and so instill in our young readers and listeners, who have not yet acquired the ability to read in a critical and discerning manner. Stories are powerful, childrens stories (or better, the stories we read children) are extremely powerful; and so they should be chosen with discernment and read critically.

By the way, if you are still not convinced that stories are powerful stuff, then mention to people that you don't read Little Red Riding hood to your little girl, and see what sort of reactions this elicits. Or better yet, watch the look of horror on the face of your local librarian who, amid trying to foist book after book about Santa Clause upon your two-year-old, is stopped dead in her tracks when the said two-year-old looks up from the book she is reading and proclaims in a conciliatory tone, "Santa Clause isn't real." But this is a story for another day.

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