Parables & Propositions

Scholars of religion well into middle age, as I am, remember the excitement of the so-called narrative school of theology breaking over the landscape a few decades ago. Yale historian Hans Frei wrote about The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative as a bad thing, his colleague the patristics scholar George Lindbeck published The Nature of Doctrine to describe theology as a set of norms expressed in cultural stories, and Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas was perhaps the best known of the new group emphasizing narrative theology.

Meanwhile, homiletics professors, such as Emory’s Fred Craddock, were telling their elite preaching students to tell stories, not teach doctrine. Elsewhere, pundits such as Len Sweet promoted semiotics—the study of the interpretation of symbols, whose most famous proponent was the Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco—and storytelling as far superior in communicative power to mere propositions. Seminars popped up to warn young pastors that their charges were now under the baleful influence of postmodernism and would no longer abide doctrinal discourses, but wanted stories instead.

In Biblical studies, parables had long since been rescued from those who would flatten them out in prosaic interpretation. “We murder to dissect” could have been the watch-cry of those who wanted stories to simply be told, not explained. Like jokes, narratives had their own life-force that would quickly ebb when subjected to analysis. Jesus’ example of story-telling was championed as life-givingly alternative to the dessicating ways of the systematic theologians.

And then one reads again Mark 4:1-20, in which Jesus tells his first parable, according to GMark. It is the well-known, and relatively extended, story of the sower, the seed, and the four differently receptive soils. Let’s note just two things relevant to all this excitement, now simply accepted wisdom, about tale-telling as superior to proposition-pushing.

First, Jesus’ followers crowd around him afterward and ask for an explanation. And what Jesus doesn’t say is, “No, you’re failing to feel the impact of the story as story. Just let it work on you!” He doesn’t say, “You’re trying to reduce the hermeneutical polyvalences of narrative to the dull, straight lines of interpretation.” He doesn’t say, “A story doesn’t mean. It just tells.” And so on.

What Jesus does say is, “Here’s what each of the major elements of the story are, and here’s the meaning of the story.” Moreover, Jesus gently rebukes them for asking him to do what he thought they ought to have been doing themselves: interpreting the parable.

Please note: Jesus does exactly to his first parable what we are told not to do: analyze it. Interpret it. Render it into principles.

Second, Jesus then says something stranger. He quotes such ominous Old Testament passages as Isaiah 6 to declare that those who do not seek such interpretations, who are content to just listen to stories, are judged by God thereby. They see, but they do not truly perceive. They listen, but they do not really hear. Thus, they do not understand—and do not repent, and return, and be healed.

Parables are told to them, Jesus says, not because parables make the points more strikingly than prose, but precisely because, without the audience’s pressing into the parables for meaning, the stories remain opaque, merely charming, and thus a damning testimony against the hermeneutical obtuseness—stemming from the spiritual indifference—of the audience. These stories are told to obscure.

I reach for Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary for help here. McGilchrist’s huge book is rich and complex, but one of his main ideas is that our two brain halves, left and right, function like two brains, joined in dialogue by the corpus callosum. The right brain is intuitive and wholistic, while the left is verbal and analytic. When an interpretative situation goes well, the right brain initially sizes up the situation, refers difficult-to-understand bits to the left brain, and then receives the results of that study to improve the overall impression of the whole, reintegrating analysis into a better synthesis.

So, then, with parables in particular and Christian storytelling in general. If the story works fine as it is, then great. Just tell it, and we will all groan, or laugh, or muse appropriately.

If it requires unpacking, however, then there’s nothing wrong with unpacking it. In fact, unpacking is simply required for understanding.

Don’t, however, leave it in its bits, spread out all over the laboratory table. Put it back together so that everything resonates once more with everything else in the unity of the narrative.

Thus McGilchrist commends what might be called a “Right-Left-Right” move in serious reflection.

To be sure, GMark doesn’t show Jesus performing this last step. But GMark itself gives us both the parable and the interpretation, and surely, having received the latter, we ought to return to the former, and listen once more, and better, to the tale.

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