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Interview with Dr. Vigen Guroian

Dr. Vigen Guroian will be a featured speaker at the 2012 Orthodox Institute, to be held November 1-4 at Antiochian Village. Velerie Zahirsky recently caught up with Dr. Guroian for the following interview:

Did you grow up in the Orthodox Church?

I was raised in the Armenian Church, but because my family moved around I was not always able to attend an Armenian Church, and so I went to other churches. I’m now a “recovered” Orthodox, and that turnaround was in graduate school. Ironically, it began with someone who was not Orthodox but who analyzed the phenomenon of people of the third generation returning to their roots--Will Herberg (who wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew and other books about religion in America). He strongly suggested, while he was my professor in graduate school, that I go to an Armenian Church. So during that time I became more involved in the Armenian Church—the youth group, and so on.

The topic of your talk at the Institute is “Teaching Children Morality with Stories.” Were stories an important part of your growing up?

Oh yes. I write about that in my book Tending the Heart of Virtue. My maternal grandmother was a great storyteller, and told me humorous stories as well as the well-known fairy tales. She also told me other stories that I thought were fairy tales but which were actually stories about her own life as a young woman during the First World War and the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. My mother was a great reader and she, too, told me stories and fairy tales. So I was attracted to stories early on.

You have been a college professor for a good while, first at Loyola and now at your alma mater, the University of Virginia. Do you use stories in your teaching with young people of college age?

Absolutely, I always have, because narrative is always an effective way to draw people into a subject matter. I have used poetry, short stories and novels. We read Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, among others. I was able to use these stories in my Ethics classes as well as my Theology and Intro to Literature classes, especially at Loyola where many students came with some theological vocabulary, and I have continued to use them ever since.

You have quoted these words of Flannery O’Connor: “Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of life or if we have trembled with Abraham as he held a knife over Isaac.” How might your understanding of the importance of story be reflected in this quotation?

First of all, it is a story. It contains a striking image that is held in the memory and imagination and will be drawn up, deliberately or not, at moments of crisis or decision in one’s own life or when one looks upon scenes of suffering, dislocation, or decision. It’s something you can carry around within yourself, far better than an abstract concept or principle or rule.

Of course it is also typologically significant and resonates so strongly with the Christian faith—the coming of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. I suppose that’s why O’Connor picked it.

As a kind of “appetizer”, can you mention some of the stories you will be talking about in your presentation at the Institute?

We’ll look at Pinocchio, and C.S. Lewis stories, as well as The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. I will reference several stories as I talk about the moral imagination—what it is and how it’s formed.

We’ll do a study of the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, which profoundly resonates with Biblical motifs and reflects the Grimms’ piety.