Teaching Virtue with Stories

It was the eleventh time Jeffrey Bob Nelson had appeared before the bench in Angelina County, Texas. And Judge Joe Martin decided to throw the book at him. Several books, in fact. The 29-year-old used-car salesman was convicted of driving without a license—a misdemeanor offense. As part of his punishment, Judge Martin ordered Nelson to spend six months reading classics like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. "I've tried everything [else]," Judge Martin explained: "The idea . . . is to expose him to . . . things that can teach him the virtue of morality." Well, the judge has stumbled onto the right idea. Reading the great classics of literature can be a good way to learn virtue. In a new book titled Books that Build Character, authors William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe describe how great stories help build great character. "Through the power of imagination, we become vicarious participants in the story, sharing the hero's choices and challenges," the authors write. We "identify ourselves with our favorite characters, and thus their actions become our actions." In this way, the stories can become a dress rehearsal for our own life choices. Even adults respond better to stories than to preachy moralizing. Think about the most memorable sermons you've ever heard. Were they abstract moral discourses—or were they fascinating stories about characters you could identify with? By giving us good characters to admire, stories help educate the moral imagination. Virtue isn't just about knowing how to be good. To change behavior, we need to love the good. As Kilpatrick and the Wolfes explain, "stories can create an emotional attachment to goodness, a desire to do the right thing." Finally, stories provide a wealth of good examples—the kind often missing from our environment. They "familiarize children with the codes of conduct they need to know," and they flesh out what these codes mean in life-like situations. There's a reason that Jesus Himself delivered His most profound teachings in the form of stories—parables about farmers planting seeds, women finding coins, sons who go bad and then repent. These were characters His listeners could identify with. Legal strictures prevented Judge Martin from requiring Jeffrey Bob Nelson to read the parables of Jesus. But he's made an excellent alternative choice by assigning classic literature. By reading Paradise Lost, Nelson will learn about sin and the Fall. And in Pilgrim's Progress, he'll discover how John Bunyan personalized virtues like Prudence and Forbearance through the colorful use of allegory. These are stories we should be reading to our own children. As Kilpatrick and the Wolfes write, in times of real-life pressure or temptation, "the half-forgotten memory of a story can rise to our aid." Clearly that's what Judge Martin had in mind when he sentenced 11-time loser Jeffrey Bob Nelson to spend six months in the library, reading classics. If it works, the phrase "book him" just might take on a whole new meaning.


Chuck Colson


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