When I was preparing to preach about the parables of Jesus, I came across John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Dark Interval: Toward a Theology of Story. The book was, for me, a paradigm shift. I had encountered books that use rhetorical criticism and form criticism in approaching the Biblical texts (See the end of the post for examples). I think what made this one especially helpful was the way in which Crossan lays out the five kinds of stories and how they interact. Though I still did all the usual homework in preparation for my series on parables, it was the interpretive lens provided by Crossan that profoundly shaped my sermons and how I applied the parables.
It is insightful to consider the different reasons for which we use stories and how certain types of stories might best fit the different situations going on in our churches.
- MYTHS establish the world.
Important to note that “myth” doesn’t mean “falsehood” as it is used here. This is about mythic stories. They tend to zoom out and take a wide-angle look at all that has happened and where it is going.
These types of stories are useful when the world seems upside down. In times of tragedy and hardship, it helps to remember where we come from and where we are going. Even though the teachings of Jesus and other New Testament writers speak often of what will happen at the end of human history, the rise of apocalyptic literature (often mythic in style) in the Old Testament did not occur until the Israelites were in captivity, presumably trying to make sense of their suffering and loss. Daniel 12 speaks of resurrection and judgment, leading to reward and punishment. This would be a comfort to those who suffer that God’s justice will be the final word. Similarly, consider Revelation 12. This is the story of the Gospel, reimagined as myth. The story contained here is not literal in a historical sense, but it’s absolutely true.
Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to help settle the world and provide meaning to our circumstances that otherwise seem senseless. Myths make good bedtime stories because they result in calming and understanding.
- APOLOGUES defend the world.
These are stories with a moral lesson. Apologues reassure us that things are the way we think they should be. Aesop’s moral fables would generally fit well within this genre. The world of these stories is a world where good choices lead to blessing, and bad choices lead to hardship. It’s helpful to be reminded that often, this really is how things work in the world. Many experience success and opportunities because they’ve made good choices whose consequences have been their betterment.
There is much room for these kinds of stories in our churches. We need to hear testimonies of God’s faithfulness. We need to be reminded that God’s will for us is that we experience joy, comfort, and rest in him. We are more likely to take positive action when we believe that our actions have the potential for creating good. These stories can lead to greater ownership of our paths which is most often healthy and productive.
- ACTION STORIES investigate the world.
These are important stories, especially when we are new to a church. What kind of a church is this? What matters to us? What makes us distinct? The best way to know a person’s beliefs and values is to observe what they do. Our actions have a way of revealing our priorities.
Much of how a child learns about the world is through explorative actions. What happens when I touch this? When I push or squeeze, how hard is too hard? How does that person respond to me when I yell or when I whisper?
Telling action stories about ourselves and our experiences with God help us to communicate who we are and what the world is like around us. Here’s what was happening. Here’s what we did. Here’s how God responded. Therefore, here’s what we believe about the world and our place in it.
- SATIRE attacks the world.
Satire always blooms among whichever political party is out of power. Though some satire can cross the line into unproductive negativity, there is value in being able to push back on abuses and eccentricities, especially of those in power. In fact, playfulness is a healthy trait in any organization. When humor is not allowed, dishonesty and abuse are likely nearby. It is valuable for us to be able to laugh at ourselves.
When we need to be reminded that we are not all-wise or all-powerful, satire can be a useful tool to help us deflate our egos back to size. A person who fears being set up to high on a pedestal does well to use self-deprecating humor. Satire, when done well, will sting. But for a world that is wearing a mask, pretending to be something that it isn’t, satire provides clarity and reality.
- PARABLES subvert the world.
Just when Myth has told us that all is well in our home, parable reminds us that we might have built on a shaky foundation. Parables are like normal stories, except that we discover that things are not as they seem. Good guys turn out to be villains. Those worthy of honor receive shame. Those worthy of shame are lifted up and honored.
In fact, not all parables are invented stories. Consider, for example, the juxtaposition of the story of the rich young ruler with the nearby story of Zacchaeus. The ruler was known as virtuous and admirable, even claiming openly to have followed the Law from his childhood. Yet Jesus’ invitation to give all his possessions to the poor was met with incredulity. The man went away ashamed, disobedient, and unhappy. Zacchaeus was considered a scoundrel and a traitor to his people, working to collect taxes for an oppressive government. But in his encounter with Jesus, he was not scorned, but was instead given the honor of having Jesus in his home. Zacchaeus, with no prompting from Jesus, proceeded to do voluntarily what the rich young ruler was unwilling to do. He readily gave of his possessions to the poor and offered to pay back four times any amount he had cheated a person, potentially bankrupting him. Jesus’ surprising actions toward the two men turn the whole situation into a parable. Each got what everyone assumed the other deserved.
Churches who have become too comfortable need to hear parables. The people for whom you cannot imagine a good attribute to praise, God may hold up as moral examples, like the Good Samaritan. Those who work much harder for much longer may receive the same reward as those who showed up at the last minute and did almost nothing. Parables remind us that God does not fit in our boxes, nor can we force him to do so. When a parable is told well, it subverts and disrupts, creating a space of uncertainty and confusion. In that fresh space of unknowing, God has room to provide us with a deeper understanding, reshaping our minds and hearts to be part of a greater way than we previously knew. Sometimes we must let go of one thing in order to take hold of something greater. Parables can be the midwives of this process.
If you are in any position of leadership in your church, whether in preaching, teaching, some other function, all leaders use stories. Paying attention to your context, you may discover that certain types of stories provide helpful correctives to keep your church balanced on your path.
- Has your church been shaken to its core by tragedy and loss? It is time to return to mythic stories that remind us God is in control. God holds the future and is the one who will work all things together for good, even those things for which we cannot presently see a redemptive purpose.
- Has your church become lethargic? Apologues may serve to remind them that the more they give themselves to God, the more God can accomplish through them. People experience significant growth in their faith because they’ve taken steps that require faith. We need to remember that morality matters and our choices chart the trajectory of our future.
- Is your church trying to understand its identity and discern a path forward? Tell stories about your church’s actions. Remind them of the real experiences they’ve had of God’s faithfulness. Show them that God has and still can work through them. Stories of action clarify who we are and where we stand with God.
- Have you experienced great success? Do your leaders come across as aloof or inaccessible? It may be useful to allow self-deprecating humor and satire to keep you and your congregation from viewing you with expectations beyond what you can attain.
- Has your church tried to fit God in a box? Have all the possible actions of God been predetermined and limited? Your people need to hear and experience parables, that many things are not what they seem. You cannot judge by appearances, family name, or credentials. God looks at the heart. We need spaces where we can learn to do the same.