Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter N - NARRATIVE

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

We can see the interplay of both types of discourse in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. But the passages of authoritative discourse, the laws and commandments, the insights into spiritual principles, are set in the context of story. The teachings are authoritative to us in large part because of the witness of the lives of the people who proclaim them, what we know of their life stories. The narratives that accompany the teachings ground them to our understanding. As Roy Heller asks, "Do I not kill because the law says 'Do not kill' or because when I hear stories about killing I understand, 'This is what it means to kill'?" Storytelling has been called indirect teaching. There will always be a place for direct teaching to support spiritual development, but it is narrative that has the power to engage the heart, to capture the imagination, to transform understanding, to invite the "yes": yes, that is true; yes, that is who I am; yes, that is what I want to become.


In the past children's literature was often characterized by a heavily didactic tone-authoritative discourse disguising itself as fiction. Over time, however, the tone and content of children's literature have changed. Today, children's literature that focuses on spiritual matters is more apt to raise important questions that children themselves may be considering rather than to provide answers to them. This development is consonant with what research is showing us about children's cognitive and spiritual development; children are not born "blank slates" upon which knowledge is to be inscribed; they are constantly constructing meaning from the environment about them.

Recent research (Robert Coles, 1990; Tobin Hart, 2003; David Hay with Rebecca Nye, 1998; Daniel Scott, 2004) indicates that children have an innate spiritual capacity which their environment may either nourish or inhibit. Reading and discussing stories that raise spiritual questions is a natural, time-proven way to nurture children's spiritual development.

In the late 20th century literary theorists began to question the idea that works of literature hold one static meaning that the reader ideally is to "get." According to Louise Rosenblatt, the meaning of a literary work resides not in the pages of a text but in the transaction that occurs between reader and text. The literary experience is a synthesis of what the reader already thinks or knows or feels and what the text offers. What the reader brings to the literary encounter-one's life experiences, present preoccupations, inner needs, purpose for reading, even the setting in which the reading event occurs-affect the meaning the reader will make of the text. The text both guides the reader's interpretation and constrains it, but multiple interpretations are to be expected; each literary encounter is unique to the reader, the text, the time, and the place. Wolfgang Iser points out that writers of literary works leave gaps, or blanks, in the text when information is not made explicit. The reader is drawn into the text by filling in the gaps, by supplying what is meant by what is not said. The text continues to guide, to confirm, or correct the reader's inferences, as the reader continually casts forward toward a future horizon of possibilities, while retaining the "past horizon that is already filled" (Iser, 1978, p. 111). An asymmetry between the reader and the text is occasioned by the gaps. Because this imbalance is undefined, a variety of communications is possible.

These insights suggest that the most fruitful way to share books with children is to discuss them in an openended way, not expecting children to arrive at a particular interpretation. There are many outstanding children's books that lend themselves to such discussion, including picture books, realistic fiction, fantasy, biography, historical fiction, traditional literature, and poetry.

Whether in book or oral form, storytelling remains an indispensable support for spiritual development. This applies to children as well as to adults.