Westmont Magazine Having Faith in Stories
As an English professor and a Christian, Dan Taylor ’70 believes in the power of stories. “The primary way people come to understand themselves and their place in the world is through story,” he explains. “It is much more helpful to think of ourselves as characters in a story rooted in time and in history, than it is to think of faith as a set of propositions to which we give assent.”
He defines “story” as the telling of the significant action of characters over time. By using this language, he doesn’t intend to dilute the notion of truth or negate the importance of propositions. Instead, he believes that propositions are rooted in stories and depend on them for meaning.
“Stories encourage us to see ourselves as people who do things, not just believe things,” he states. “I believe the Bible presents faith as a story to be lived.”
Dan discussed his concept of story in a lecture at Westmont in November, “Singing in Babylon: Telling the Christian Story in the Midst of the Culture Wars.” On sabbatical from Bethel College in Minnesota, he is visiting Westmont as scholar in residence.
According to Dan, the culture wars exist because both sides are unfaithful to their professed values. “Liberals often aren’t tolerant and don’t practice pluralism and reasoned dialogue — and Christians often aren’t loving,” he notes. He advises Christians to be true to their first principles: love, mercy, compassion, justice, and truth — and to listen to and tell stories.
Stories are a focus of three of Dan’s books. “The Healing Power of Stories,” published by Doubleday, is written for a secular audience. He is currently working on a volume that explores the relationship between story and faith. In “Before Their Time,” to be published next June, he tells the stories of premature infants in five families. His other books include “The Myth of Certainty” and “Letters to My Children.”
In the classroom, he shares his passion for literature with his students, knowing that passion is contagious. He wants to inspire students because he finds too many of them read dutifully, but not joyfully. In his opinion, the goal of a teacher of literature is illuminating the text. “Joy and understanding go hand in hand,” he notes. “When students understand the meaning and how the meaning was created — which is the craft — they get greater joy in reading.”
Dan specializes in 20th-century writers and the literature of the oppressed, for which he has edited a journal. Writings by Holocaust survivors, Native Americans, African-Americans, and other individuals from oppressed groups form the body of this literature. Discouraged by the cynicism and “flagging of the spirit”of so much contemporary writing, he began looking for authors with moral vision who knew the difference between good and evil. He found them among the oppressed: Elie Wiesel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, for example. These writers show both the best and worst of human nature without being either cynical or pollyanna. Their suffering gives them an honest voice. Every year he teaches a popular course at Bethel on this literature.
Dan says he went to graduate school because his English professors at Westmont “grabbed me by the throat and told me I should go. They gave me a vision of myself I didn’t come to Westmont with.” After earning a Ph.D. at Emory University in Georgia, he taught briefly at Westmont before joining the faculty at Bethel, where he has been for 22 years. His wife, Jayne Smith Taylor ’71, earned an M.Ed. in education at Georgia State and taught school. After running a group home for developmentally disabled adults and working with unwed mothers, she is now a realtor. The Taylors have four children, ages 11 to 25.