As a totally biased reader of non-fiction, my own interest is not in imagined stories but in those that are lived. No need for the extraordinary or impressive, just for reality, honesty and self-awareness. I’ve always felt that our own stories, now matter how ordinary, are rich repositories of theology—real theology—but rarely are we given the invitation or the tools to mine them for the treasure they hold.
The Child is Wise: Stories of Childhood, edited by Janet Blagg, is a collection of stories, each one a recollection of childhood by an Australian writer. This is not a gathering point for ‘prominent Australians’; no big names or national treasures here. Yet so many of these recollections are rich insights into the formative power of our past. We are our stories; our stories are us. Personally and collectively.
As Veronica Brady writes in the foreword, stories like these remind us that it is not necessary ‘to be on the frontlines of history to live heroic lives.’ Indeed, these are not stories of the movers and shakers. Yet each one speaks of extraordinary courage and the incredible perceptiveness of a child’s eye. Brady continues, ‘the heroism recorded here is more quiet and unsensational, battling … with poverty, mistakes, prejudice or misunderstanding to achieve lives lived with dignity, humour and love.’
For some twenty years I have been a teacher of spirituality and theology. In one of my units, students are required to give substantial time to telling their own stories of faith—recounting their spiritual biographies—both verbally and in written form. Inevitably, there will be students who respond to this news with raised eyebrows, judging such a requirement as theological ‘fluff’ or an easy ride. Routinely, such students do poorly and subsequently feel affronted.
The truth is, engaging intelligently—theologically—with our own stories is not easy. It’s downright challenging and requires considerable exegetical skill. This is not testimony time when we recall a few facts and throw in a pious phrase here and there. Treating our own stories so lightly, even dismissively, is to render impotent one of the greatest resources we have as people of faith. For my money, investing people with the tools and intuitions to listen sensitively, discerningly and critically to their own stories is an essential part of transformative theological education.