Sleep is an optional activity in Oxford. This is a fact I do my best to resist by actually sleeping. But sometimes, even I succumb to the vast and varied pace of this place and stay up until the wee sma's when the stars blink down in bewilderment at my still-opened eyes. That's when blog posts I was supposed to publish on Tuesday get published on Thursday. Like this one. Welcome to the belated Tuesday post! While visiting a friend last year, I was captivated by her five-year-old sprite; a black-eyed lass with banshee curls and the smile of a vastly mischievous angel. I returned one night, just at her bedtime and she jumped into my lap, settled herself squarely and took my face firmly in two hands. “Sarah,” she squeaked, her eyebrows lifted importantly, “thank you for coming back to us.”
She is in my mind today, her jolly little face and buoyant words a theme in my head as I think over a book I was reading just before I left for England, that continues to inform my thoughts about Storyformed, and even informs the contemplations that grow from my studies here: Wes Stafford’s Too Small To Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most. Stafford was the head of Compassion International, the Christian child-sponsorship organization that works with children in the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. The gist of his book is that children in all societies, rich as well as poor, have become the second-class citizens of the world. Children, he says, are the most vulnerable members of humanity, but also the ones who bear the seeds of its future. They are the last in the global line to receive care, food, protection, nourishment, but it is the hope or despair begun in their littlest years that will shape future societies. The most basic of provisions of food, clothing, and education, can change whole generations. I love this.
But what especially caught my eye in what Dr. Stafford said was that children, even rich, Western children, can also be marginalized in spirit just as easily as body. Shunted aside in soul. We westerners, with our busy schedules and easy food and constant entertainment and ease have the whole nourishment, shelter, and education thing covered, but we often forget the soul. We forget what spiritual potential is in the young, impressionable heart of a child. We allow busyness and the voices of TV, hurry, peer pressure, and a materialistic view of the world to fill, and ultimately shape, the heart of a child. Ultimately this leads, not merely to a lack of creativity or wonder, but to a spiritually dormant heart. A child’s heart is a vast, devastatingly vulnerable space, a blank canvas, a fallow field. What is sown there in the earliest years will found the faith, morality, and purpose of a whole life. But do we busy moderns even know what is means any more to spark the eternal spirit of a child to life? Do we understand the need of the human soul for deep thought, for quiet, for strong relationships, for beauty? Do we understand how necessary these things are to a living, active faith in God?
Of course, this strikes right at the core of convictions behind the Storyformed project. Every bit of research I did for this website, for Read for the Heart, and Caught Up in a Story revealed the profound influence that childhood formation has on the whole of an adult life. I've come at this specifically through reading in the past years; as I researched the scientific side of what a “word-rich atmosphere” does to a child’s brain, I became convinced of the power of books to literally mold a child’s mind, to set the groundwork for an entire education. But I moved beyond the merely physical, the merely educational value of reading, and began to question how stories actually shape the spirit. That's when Caught Up in a Story was born. I looked at research comparing the cultural activities of readers vs. non-readers. Did you know that a reader of fiction or poetry is almost twice as likely as a non-reader to see a play or concert or piece of art, get involved in politics, or volunteer with a charitable organization? I had to ask why. Why would a reading child have a heightened interest in music and art, in the forces of cultural ideas, in helping needy people?
Because stories wake the soul. Great stories with heroes and heroines teach us that we were meant to live in a meaningful way. Imagined beauty makes us want to create real-life art and music and song. Stories teach consequences to actions. Reading is not about merely fulfilling a quotient of words in order to make a child smart and I want to continually articulate that reality. Reading, I believe, is about the imprint of a great story on a child’s soul. Reading is about great words and vivid imagery sparking a child’s hunger for beauty, for good work, for friendship, for heroism. It's about, in the far more philosophical words of Rowan Williams, in his book that I'm reading this week on Dostoevsky and faith:
"The forming of a corporate imagination is something that continues to be the more or less daily business of religious believers...."
By which, I believe Williams to mean that in loving God, and I would add, in raising children to love him, we are called not merely to teach right propositional statements, but to cultivate imaginations capable of insight into and communication of the beauty, goodness, and truth of God in the world around us, in Scripture, and in the other fragile, precious human beings we meet. We are called to perceive the storied nature of life, to discern value and meaning where the secular imagination does not. And we are called to cultivate that imagination in children.
In our modern, affluent culture, we have physical ease, we have food, we have huge systems of education, but none of these are enough to spark and nurture a new spirit to life. To do that, there must be a loving family and community instead of isolated hours with electronics. There must be great stories to widen the soul, and discussion round the dinner table instead of another hour of screen time and loneliness. There must be immersion in nature, the world of God, there must be beauty, laughter, daily rhythms of work, rich homes, strong images of what is right and good instead of morally ambiguous entertainment and constant, frenzied activity.
Dr. Stafford advocates for children poor in material goods and that is something I want to join him in doing. But he also advocates for children poor in spiritual and imaginative resources, and that is an advocacy I very much hope that Storyformed can aid. It breaks my heart to see children robbed of curiosity by hours of screen time, bereft of innocence because they’ve already been exposed to images and messages they should never see. I hate seeing lonely children because we are an isolationist culture who spends more time on facebook than on actual friends. I hate seeing busyness, the constant push to buy, see, and do shoving out the rich hours of quiet, of conversations with parents and mentors, of space for creativity, because we as a culture have lost sight of what it means to nurture not just the body, but the soul. The absence of affection, of rich words, of beauty, of deep relationships, of quiet and nature and creativity, can produce just as devastating a future for our world as material poverty.
I think back to my black-eyed little friend, her “thank you for coming back to us,” and I find an invitation, a challenge, hidden in her simple words. We must, as a culture, come back to the souls of little children. We must advocate for their spirits against rush and distraction. We must advocate by new creation, making homes, learning environments, and relationships rich in spiritual resources, rich in the imagination that will allow the children of today to imagine, and create, great goodness and beauty tomorrow.