Welcome to the fourth post in a series I am doing about mythology and the bible. You can find the earlier posts here.
I feel it necessary to mention, again, that I am not attempting to read the stories of the bible in their theological, historical, scientific, or literary contexts. I am interested in the way they function for a particular audience (modern American Christian children), making this a rhetorical project.
So, for example, saying that the story of Samson functions like a fairy tale does not mean that it did not happen (although, let’s be real, there is all sorts of incisive, important, smart, and quality scholarship done on the historicity of the OT—scholarship that needs to be taken seriously), just that my concern is not with whether it happened or or how the story should be told. I am interested in how it functions.
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I think I need to stop promising a week in advance what I will write about. Last week I said that I would address the story of Jonah from a psychoanalytic perspective. I’ve changed my mind. I may address Jonah at some point in the future, but instead I want to spend this week talking about parables.
I grew up learning that parables were “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” That is, parables weren’t literally true, but they taught morals. In this way, they were treated like fables. Of course, part of the assumption made by those who taught me to read the bible was that, though the stories did not historically happen, the worlds they took place in were and the society they described were true.
Thus, to use an obvious example, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man was taken to speak truthfully about the nature of heaven and hell even if there was not a literal Lazarus or rich man. In this way, then, the parables were viewed as truer than fables (which frequently has fantastical elements like talking animals) but not as true as the gospels themselves.
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As a child, I loved the Old Testament way more than the New Testament. Aside from St. John’s Apocalypse and some of the stories in Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament was all kinds of boring. The Old Testament was where the awesome stories of plagues, prophets, and calamities happened. And yet, the the parables of Jesus held a certain allure.
The one I remember best is the one about the four kinds of soil and thus the four kinds of plants that emerge from the soil. I think I remember watching an animated version of this story—it was pretty cool.
Something interesting about growing up in the Churches of Christ rather than in an evangelical church is the way the study of Scripture was prized (ever heard of Bible Bowl?). I was asked, growing up, how many types of soil were there, what their characteristics were, at what point in the Gospel did the parable come, and what was the message of the parable. Aside from this form of study (modernist/scientific), it is qualitatively different from what I have observed in other traditions (though, working with children in a variety of CoC settings since attaining my majority, I have seen a shift towards a more evangelical approach).
Some kids would have been immediately asked to draw parallels from the parable to the modern day. They would have been asked what type of soil they were, what type of soil the kids at school were, and how they could become the soil Jesus wants them to be. In this way, the theological (and moral) meaning of the text was prized.
Thus the parables, taken by themselves, function as fables: moral truths that wander around disguised as stories so that they can more easily be digested. The parables-as-fables were teaching tools, which is similar to the way they function in scripture. The difference between a parable and a fable, however, is that a fable usually involves the fantastic while a parable does not. For Jesus, then, the parables were not fables since they took place in a world easily recognizable to his hearers.
For modern children, however, the parables of Jesus are more like fables since they take place in the magical land of Israel. To quote from last week:
Moreover, to the child, the land in which this takes place is the magical land of Israel (or as I grew up calling it, the bible land), the same place that other magical stories take place (Jonah, Noah, and Elijah, to name just a few). Moreover, the “once upon a time”-ness gives it the feeling of fantasy (I grew up calling this the bible times). Thus, the story of Samson takes place in “bible times” in the “bible land”—clearly fantasy.
The modern American Christian child who hears the stories of the bible places them in what, to her, is the magical land of Israel where anything can happen. Thus, when the parables are ripped from a specific context (ancient Jewish culture) and passed through a theological/moral grid, they come out as fables.
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I predict that the series will continue for four or five more weeks. Looking ahead, I intend to discuss myth in the bible (probably the creation myth(s) and St. John’s Apocalypse) and contemporary legends about Jesus. I will conclude with one or two posts about the implications of reading the bible as mythology.