Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2003: Volume 7, Issue 2

Teaching Mindfully
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.”[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 

Please consider submitting your manuscript