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Why Broken Stories Matter

May 22, 2015
By Dane Bundy

Why Broken Stories Matter

 

     A few weeks ago, in rhetoric class, my students and I finished studying a number of short stories to look at persuasion’s role in fiction. Among the stories, “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne evoked the most rewarding discussion (maybe the year’s best). At first it didn’t look like this would be the case. A number of students found the lead character wretched: a man who is obsessed with creating human perfection. His obsession ultimately produces a dark narrative that concludes with little redemption in sight. It is a broken story.

 

     Daniel Taylor in his work, Tell me a Story, places stories into three helpful categories: whole, broken, and bent. He defines a broken story as one in which good is portrayed as good and evil as evil, however, in the end, good is not victorious, but evil is.

 

     When I think of a broken story I first think of the book of Judges. At this period in biblical history, the Israelites have worked themselves into a downward spiral of rebellion. Though we see glimpses of redemption from time to time (Ruth comes to mind), the story of Judges ends with the haunting lines, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (21:25). Gulp.

 

     Over the last couple of years, I’ve thought a lot about the purpose and value of broken stories. Shouldn’t Christians feed themselves on what Taylor calls whole stories? He defines whole stories as tales in which redemption takes place and good (not evil) is victorious.  The Bible itself is a whole story. We may also include Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

 

     At Cornerstone, we don’t limit ourselves to whole stories. Actually, we read plenty of broken tales, ranging from the Greek or Shakespearean tragedies to the dystopian novels of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.

 

     I admit, broken stories are dark and unnerving and difficult to navigate at times. Have you ever had a grand piano dropped on your chest? I have: the afternoon I finished 1984. I was hoping, and expecting, Orwell would use Winston to expose and topple Big Brother; instead our hero is consumed by it.  

 

     If you let them, broken stories will burden your soul.

 

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that broken stories may serve an important purpose: they affirm what it’s like to live in a fallen world. Often it is the righteous who suffer and the wicked who prosper, and some people never experience a happy ending.

 

    However, broken stories may stir significant questions.

 

  • Why did the villain win? What did the villain want? Is there hope the villain will ever find redemption?

Why is this character the villain?   

  • Why did the hero fail? What did the hero want? Is there hope the hero may conquer the villain?

Why is this character the hero?

 

     A couple of these questions led our rhetoric class to consider man’s pursuit of perfection. However, the bell rang and the students left with no answers, just a handful of questions, terribly applicable to their own lives.

 

     Why does man seek perfection? Will he ever attain perfection? Is anyone perfect?

 

     Good literature asks questions like these, questions that apply to my students, but also you and me, and, for that matter, all who are human. Storytellers have a high calling: to tell the truth. They turn their backs on their craft when they sugar-coat or misrepresent what takes place in the world. The author of Judges, and the author of every book in the Bible, fulfills this high calling. Because of this, when we read Scripture, we read about murder, rape, depression, persecution, and betrayal.

 

     The Bible does not sugar-coat, because God always tells the truth: our world is a broken one. If you are human, you are broken. If you are human, you will never attain perfection. Left alone, we will never muster a happy story. It’s true: evil will always win.

 

     My students must hear this. I must hear this.

 

     If I don’t listen, I will never understand what’s about to come next: God became man and carried our burden of brokenness. Indeed, it was so heavy, it broke the god-man in the most violent fashion. But, after three days, God delivered justice, destroying evil in blinding glory. God made it clear: the only way to wholeness is through the god-man. This is the good news.

 

     The broken stories of human existence matter because they can lead us to the whole story of the Gospel, and as a teacher at Cornerstone, I am called to help my students understand the road from broken story to whole story. What a privilege it is.

Part II: Ten Things I Love About Mock Trials

May 12, 2015
By Dr. Faith Acker

Ten Things I Love about Mock Trials: Part II

Faith Acker

 

In my last post, I discussed five traditional benefits of mock trials. They are a wonderful pedagogical tool, provide great practice for real-world situations, and help students learn to think and to express themselves more clearly. These are all good academic defenses of mock trials, but the mock trial structure also has some less traditional benefits.

6.  Objections! The trial process is filled with rules and structure, as well as opportunities to challenge others who do not follow this structure. Learning how to challenge or contradict other people respectfully is one of life’s most important lessons. If practiced in secondary school, it will help these students in college (especially if they enroll in secular colleges), their careers, and even their relationships. While I don’t advocate shouting “Objection!” at a classmate, employer, or spouse, I do encourage my students to raise questions—and talk through the answers—not only in the mock trial process, but in all our English classes.

 

7.  Pathos reigns supreme. Trial arguments require not only logos (clear logic) and ethos (appeals to standards), but pathos. The most persuasive opening statement in the world still must survive the emotional appeal of a bereaved witness pleading for the other side. Trials, of necessity, include all forms of rhetorical appeal, students must learn to identify (and respond appropriately to) whatever rhetoric the world offers them.

8.  We study opposing views. Learning to understand differing schools of thought is an important part of the classical education, and both mock trial and debate allow students to anticipate and analyze differing opinions. My ninth graders are currently working on a mock trial of Creon (from Antigone), and at least two of them are annoyed that I’ve put them on the “wrong” side. Defending both sides of a given position is at the heart of the classical (Socratic) methodology, and it will also help us—as Christians—practice respect and discernment.

9.  Trial preparations are frustrating. Life is full of unexpected complications, such as the closing statement that mysteriously deletes itself the night before a trial, the witness who does not remember key details, or the irksome lawyer who makes repeated objections. Learning to deal with frustrations with grace is an important part of life; it is an especially crucial part of Christianity. We are called upon to live our faith not only in the blessed times, but also during the trials, and the annoyances and panics that plague long and complicated projects (such as mock trials) offer safe opportunities to practice appropriate responses.

10.  Trial preparations enable grace. Life is full of unexpected complications, and these also allow others to show us grace. Many of my students are (like me) fiercely independent and self-motivated. As Christians, we are expected to live in community, and in addition to serving others, we also sometimes need to allow others to serve us. During our Lancelot trial, one of my most independent students (who has many great skills, but is not the most accomplished typist) was driven by necessity to ask for last-minute typing assistance from a classmate. For her (and for me), learning to accept help with grace and gratitude is an important spiritual lesson.

As a teacher, mock trials require extensive (and sometimes exhausting) preparations and planning, but their benefits are tremendous. They are challenging and exciting in the moment, and some of these benefits will (I pray!)  last these students for decades.

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