Academic Exchange Quarterly
Summer 2003: Volume 7, Issue 2
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.
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.” 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
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.  For Krsna’s followers, the
Gita “directs the reader to Krsna,” who is the speaker, “the ultimate goal” and
the substance of the story.  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.” 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. 
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.  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. 
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.  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
 Cited in A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, trans. Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1990, i.
 Ibid., 868, 3.
 Ibid., 20, xiii.
 Ibid., xv.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 15.
 Robert K. Johnston. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue.
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000, 41- 62.
 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
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