Once upon a time, maybe even in a land far far away, we were all children who loved to read and be told stories. This love carries through into our adulthood where we see first hand that story has a prominent place in everyday life. We read stories in the newspaper, watch them play out on big and small screens and hear them passed across the dinner table. Whatever the situation, stories are essential in the formation of human identity because it is through story telling that we try to answer the "big" questions of existence: who we are, why we are here, and where are we going?
Dr. Jens Zimmermann, Trinity Western University's Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion and Culture and Professor of English suggests that it is through the powerful vehicle of the story that our worldviews are shaped. "Through identification, or drawing in, depending on what the story intends to do, your expectations may be challenged, they may be expanded, they may be confirmed, they may be denied. But it's always some sort of growth, either in the form of a confirmation or a challenge. There's always some sort of educational aspect in the telling of stories and it could even just be that you tell stories to reaffirm your identity," says Zimmermann.
In Canada, the freedom to tell and read stories is often taken for granted, but according to the Freedom to Read Week website, books and magazines are regularly banned at the border and removed from the shelves of libraries, schools, and bookstores. This February 22nd - 28th 2009, Canada hosts Freedom to Read Week, "an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
A contentious issue when it comes to the freedom to read is what types of stories children should be allowed access to. Zimmermann believes that it is often necessary for parents to provide guidance over the material that their children read at each phase of their development. "At certain ages, some children are more impressionable, some children are less impressionable. And how impressionable each child is depends on a lot of factors, such as how you bring them up, what their character is, and what their biology is like. Kids in general can be gullible, which is a bad word for saying they are very trusting, that you give them basically a version of reality in a book or on TV and if it isn't checked against another one they will often take that as gospel truth," says Zimmermann.
But there's also the question of differentiating between "good" and "bad" stories, and according to Zimmermann, this isn't as easy as it may seem. "I think you might be able to have some kind of vampire story that is encouraging and complicates things. It doesn't have to be Red Riding Hood and Disney Fairy Tales of the human spirit rising above its abilities and fulfilling its potential and nothing dark can ever come in - that would rule out the New Testament right from the start," he says. "Stories that encourage human flourishing should be brought forward, and stories that encourage stepping on others and are dehumanizing should be discouraged."
In whatever medium we encounter them, be it television, movies, comic books, poetry, novels or plays, stories have immediate appeal. "Story right away draws you in because, as opposed to simply giving information, it has ‘once upon a time' or ‘then it happened that' or ‘there was this man who will do this,'" explains Zimmermann. "This sucks you in right away because it's like your own life. There is immediate identification."
Zimmermann comments on how story-telling has been used throughout the ages to enable individuals to come to self-understanding. "If you think of the old teachers, rabbis, especially in other cultures, they will never answer your question directly, they'll tell you a story," he says. To avoid embarrassing the person asking the question with his or her lack of knowledge, a "much more polite way of doing it, a much more round about way, but also probably a way that will avoid injury, is by telling a story, so that at some point, when you're ready, you might get it."
Modern psychology has also noted the benefits of story-telling for individuals coping with trauma, employing the "talking cure" as a method of working out one's problems in a non-threatening manner. "One of the things that stories do is that they allow you to confront trauma in your own life in a way that facing it squarely on would destroy you," says Zimmermann. In fact, he notes that much great poetry and literature is produced by people coping with difficult life experiences "in story form, in altered form, in fiction that allows them to reflect on it and to release some of the pressure that they don't know what to do with." Not only is this aspect of story beneficial to the writer, but it also has the potential to enable the reader to identify with the writer, fostering empathy and compassion for the experiences of other human beings.
While Zimmermann believes that reading does broaden our perspectives and can makes us more tolerant in some ways, he warns that at the end of the day, stories don't make ethical decisions for us. "A good poem or a good text can carry you away, can actually change your perspective, but to what extent it can change your ethical framework and alter behavior, I'm not prepared to say. It can push you there, but you still have to make a decision."
Dr. Jens Zimmermann is a Professor of English Literature at Trinity Western University and holds the Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion and Culture. For more information on Zimmermann's research, visit http://www.twu.ca/academics/research/faculty-research/canada-research-chairs/jens-zimmermann.html.
For more information on Freedom to Read Week in Canada, visit www.freedomtoread.ca.
Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C., is an independent Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers 41undergraduate majors, ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music, to psychology, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 17 graduate degree programs include counseling psychology, business, theology, linguistics, and leadership, and interdisciplinary degrees in English, philosophy and history. TWU holds Canada Research Chairs in Dead Sea Scroll Studies, Developmental Genetics and Disease, and Interpretation, Religion & Culture.
Last Updated: 2009-02-26