In February 2000, following the upset win, by 3 to 1, of the lowly Inverness Caledonian Thistles (known as “Caley”) over the world-renown team of Celtic Glasgow, the headline in a Scottish newspaper read as follows: “Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious”.
This, in seven short words, is a wonderful example of the function of parable.
A parable is often defined as a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson. Digging deeper we discover that the word derives through Latin from Greek, originally of two words: para meaning “beside” and bole meaning “a throw”. Together parabole means to place side by side, to make a comparison. Largely through the use of allegory, a parable puts a common, everyday concept beside a veiled idea and invites the listener to search for the meaning.
Like the headline from the football result, a good parable leaves the listener toying with the story, turning it over and over again in one’s mind seeking the broader connection. Those who get it will easily see the link between the unlikely result of the football match and the fanciful world of Mary Poppins. Those who don’t know Mary Poppins are stuck with the seven-worded headline at face value.
“And with many such parables (Jesus) spoke the word to them, just as they were able to hear.”
One of the remarkable things about the collection of teachings we have from Jesus in the Gospels is how seemingly random and incomplete the body of his work is in comparison with the recorded teachings of other great religious teachers. He never wrote anything down himself and his followers didn’t seem to think a written record was all that important either until their first generation began dwindling out.
Within the Bible itself we can see that Jesus’ teaching is nowhere near as structured and comprehensive as what is said to have come from Moses. If you have never read the so-called Law of Moses, I invite you to take up the Deuteronomical books, the first five books of our scriptures, and read them. There are lots of rules and regulations. It will be tough going at times.
The Church though, has come to Jesus’ rescue. Starting with St. Paul and continuing through today, many have attempted to complete and categorize what they believed to be the essence of the Christian message. The result is a vast array of historical creeds, catechisms, canons, articles and systematic theologies.
We came to believe that our faith is at its best when it is a complete, solid construct; a large, imposing stone building with every detail planned out and every block in its place. Our job as followers is to learn how and why the blocks fit together the way they do:
1.Q. Who made you?
A. God made me (Gn 1:26, 27; 2:7; Ec 12:1; Acts 17:24-29).
2.Q. What else did God make?
A. God made all things (Gn 1, esp. verses 1, 31; Acts 14:15; Rm 11:36; Col 1:16).
Etc. etc. etc.
These catechisms made it easy to test the knowledge of the would-be believer, to tell who was “in” and who was “out” of our particular group, and to pass on the tenets of the faith as we received them.
But times have changed.
Stephen Toulmin, in Cosmopolis, The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, has insightfully pointed out that whereas modernism sees real knowledge as being established by that which is written, universal, general and timeless, in our post-modern societies we have shifted toward an emphasis on that which is oral, particular, local and timely.
To put it a bit more visually:
Truth is established by what is….
Written (books!) Oral (and increasingly visual)
Universal (applies to everyone) Particular (applies to me)
General (applies everywhere) Local (applies to where I am)
Timeless (applies in all times) Timely (applies in this moment)
Toulmin proposes that we accept as true and valid what is oral, particular, local, and timely.
It is not that we no longer believe in truth; it is that we are requiring truth in increasingly smaller packages. Instead of pre-fab, we want building blocks. We’re into Lego, and we’re likely to mix-n-match sets as well.
What does all of this have to do with parable? Parable, it seems, is a medium that would lend itself quite well to the post-modern experience; the stories speak to us of particular truth in our individual context. This, I believe, is in the vein of Jesus’ use of parable. Jesus saw that our need was not for a set of doctrines but for relationships, for an invitation to connect our stories with others’ and with the reality of the divine. When our hearts are rightly directed, toward God and neighbour, and our stories are shared and connected with others, we discover we have plenty to build with to make a spiritual home that suits our circumstance.
It may not be the structure authorized by our church tradition or contained wholly in creed or catechism, but then, one size never did fit all, did it?