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Teaching mindfully: learning and teaching through story-telling.

The well-known Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton called the Bhagavad-gita (also called the Gitopanisad) "the main literary support for the great religious civilization of India, the oldest surviving culture in the world." [1] According to Srila Prabhupada, author of more than sixty volumes of translations of and commentaries on the religious classics of India, the Gita "is the essence of Vedic knowledge and one of the most important Upanisads in Vedic literature." [2]

Yet while devotees of Krsna ("the highest pleasure") often study this work by itself as one of their great scriptures, it is also part of a larger story, the historical epic the Mahabharata. [3] For Krsna's followers, the Gita "directs the reader to Krsna," who is the speaker, "the ultimate goal" and the substance of the story. [4] The Gita is literature, but it is also a teaching tool. Like all scriptures, both the content of its stories and the method of story-telling itself are valued for spiritual teaching and learning. As Prabhupada explains, "'If we want to take a particular medicine, then we have to follow the directions written on the label. We cannot take the medicine according to our own whim or the direction of a friend. It must be taken according to the directions on the label or the directions given by a physician." [5] In the case of the Gita, the speaker directing the story is Krsna. The story is to be accepted "without interpretation, without deletion and without our own whimsical participation in the matter" if we are to have any hope of understanding it. [6]

Theologian Robert K. Johnston discusses five pedagogical methods of religious interpretation of film in his 2000 book Reel Spirituality. These approaches can just as easily be applied to pedagogical work with novels and other forms of storytelling. The first, a kind of ethical or theological imperialism, starts from a particular ethical or theological perspective and imposes its own morality on the novel, film, or story. This approach often results in avoidance or censorship rather than learning or enlightenment. A second option is to look for recognizable religious or ethical elements, which requires encountering the story from an already clearly defined religious or ethical stance with preconceived ideas of what to seek. A third strategy is dialogical. After viewing the film (or reading the story) on its own terms, explicitly religious, aesthetic, and ethical themes are explored in a way that allows for tension, paradox and mutual encounter. A fourth approach starts from the story's own perspective but proceeds to use films, novels, and epics as means to an end, appropriating any insights or sensibilities gained as opportunities to enhance personal growth. [7] Finally, the teaching/learning approach of religious aesthetics attempts to evaluate the aesthetic sensibility of a story, novel, or film entirely on its own terms. [8]

Whether told through novel, film, or sacred epic, story is a vivid and powerful means for human and divine encounter. Scholars in the emerging field of religion and film have observed that when teaching and learning with novels, films, or other stories, the method most fruitful for spiritual awareness is the aesthetic approach--starting from the perspective of the story itself rather than imposing meaning upon it. [9] To experience the story reverently, from its own perspective ("according to the directions on the label" as Prabhupada might say) is to leave open the possibility for experiencing the grace, epiphany, and self-transcendence of encountering a truth that is wholly other--perhaps even the sacred itself.


[1] Cited in A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, trans. Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1990, i. [2] Ibid., 868, 3. [3] Ibid., 20, xiii. [4-] Ibid., xv. [5] Ibid., 3. [6] Ibid., 15. [7] Ibid. [8] Robert K. Johnston. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000, 41-62. [9] Johnston; Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Ostwalt, Jr., ed. Screening the Sacred : Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film. Westview, 1995; Bruce David Forbes, "Finding Religion in Unexpected Places." Religion and Popular Culture in America. Berkeley: University of California, 2000, 1-20.

Heather Ann Ackley, Ph.D.

Azusa Pacific University, CA
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Author:Ackley, Heather Ann
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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