Thursday, October 24, 2013

Parables as Poetic Fictions—Questions from a Reader

I received this set of questions about my view of parables as stated in my book Many Things in Parables from a doctoral candidate in Australia.  My comments in italics follow the questions.
[Q] This is not actually a question about one of your blog posts, but rather about one of your books. I have been reading "Many Things in Parables" and am not sure if I quite understand how you conceptualise parables as symbol/poetic fiction.
[A] "Parables as symbols" is a suggestion made by the late New Testament scholar Norman Perrin but the idea has never attracted any interest among scholars.  You are correct that I regard parables as poetic fictions.  They are invented stories, creations of Jesus' ingenuity and observations of life around him.  I do not regard parables as symbols; see pages 65-66 of Many Things in Parables.
[Q] I *think* that what you are saying is something like this: Parables are polyvalent partly because rather than expecting the reader/hearer to stand outside and analyse them, they invite her/him to enter their world and will therefore evoke different responses from different people, depending on what they bring to the parable.
[A] The nature of narrative is to engage readers and draw them into its narrative world—as the late Bob Funk put it "to take up roles in the narrative."  Polyvalence/polysemy (the potential for generating multiple meanings) thus is innate to narrative, as the history of parables scholarship clearly shows with its multiple contradictory explanations given to the same story.
[Q] Some parables also function as allegories? metaphors? because they are so constructed that they draw the reader/hearer out of the parable in a particular direction – ie, it is obvious to what or whom various elements of the parable refer. If this is the case, then the intention is that the parable has referential qualities. If not, it isn't appropriate to try to analyse it in this way.
 [A] Metaphor and allegory, deliberately created as such, use either heightened or unusual language to deliberately refer the mind "away-from-here" to some other specific thing.  Allegory and metaphor are also reading strategies.  In the case of allegory certain language in parables is regarded as heightened or unusual and is thought to serve as code or a cipher for something else.  In the case of metaphor the reading strategy is to regard the entire narrative as a figure describing one thing under the guise of something else—i. e., the narrative is not really about a woman making dough (Matt 13:33), but rather about the kingdom of God.  I argue, however, that those parables of Jesus, which have not been modified by early Christian interpretation (like Mark 12:1-8, par.; but compare the more realistic version in the Gospel of Thomas), on the other hand, are realistic narrative.  Their realism works against their being allegory or metaphor, and serves as a brake to fanciful interpretations.  Those who want to argue that parables are allegory or metaphor must validate their judgment by identifying the language in the parable that deliberately propels the mind outward in the target direction of the interpretation, and must show how such language is a deliberately designed "trigger" to lead the mind out of the story in a specific direction.
[Q] Another part of the polyvalence of parables comes from the fact that they are open ended – they have no conclusions that tell readers how they should react, nor do they make moral judgements on characters, so readers make sense of them out of what they bring to it.
[A] From my perspective you have stated the situation correctly.

[Q] While there is no one 'correct' interpretation, there is a range of plausible historical readings.

 [A] Yes, that is my view.  Readers of the parables who allow themselves to be guided by the realism of the parable will find a range of plausible readings for the parable that a fair person would likely admit: "yes, I can see how you came up with that reading.  Readers who disregard the realism of the parables will inevitably produce what I regard as implausible readings, such as Mark does with regard to The Sower (4:14-20).  Implausible readings leave one perplexed as to how the interpreter arrived at such a reading of the parable.

[Q] Some people may not respond at all to a particular parable (and that's not a problem), but if they do, the parable will suggest to them different ways of experiencing and living in the world.

[A] Narrative, which a parable is, can raise a reader's awareness of new ways of viewing and acting in the world, but it can also influence a reader to challenge former cherished beliefs and ideas—it is simply in the nature of narrative to do that.  Frank Kermode said that narratives "are ways of finding things out"—nothing mysterious about it.  So narratives that are read carefully can either change a person's life, or at the very least unsettle the old way of life.

[Q] The comparative frames and interpretations are later additions, rather than from Jesus, so we need to look at the parables without them to get the full range of possible meanings.

 [A] Yes!  Precisely so! When the fictional story-world of Jesus stops, readers enter the evangelist's story-world about Jesus.  Interpretations of the parables are from the evangelist's story-world about Jesus.  Only the story originates with Jesus; interpretations come either from the evangelists or early Christian interpretation.  I have argued in a separate essay that Mark is likely responsible for the introductory frame "the kingdom of God is like...." If that is correct, Jesus himself never used his parables as metaphors or symbols for the kingdom.

[Q] Would that be a reasonable summary? Have I misunderstood, or missed out something critical?
[A] See pages 83-88 of Many Things in Parables for my brief statement of my own view, its critique by Amos Wilder, and my response to Wilder.  Two essays published on parables since the appearance of Many Things in Parables may or may not add something further to the approach to parables as poetic fictions: "Flawed Heroes and Stories Jesus Told: The One about a Killer," pp. 4.3023-56 in Tom HolmĂ©n and Stanley Porter, Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011); and "Survivors of the Crucifixion. Searching for Profiles in the Parables," pp. 165-80 in Ruben Zimmerman and Gabi Kern, eds., Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu (2008).
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

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