Monday, December 26, 2016

Why did Jesus tell Parables?

Well actually he told stories, or if I must use the technical literary term for stories, his characteristic way of speaking was in narrative. Narratives (stories) have as a minimum a beginning, middle, and end, and consist of a series of related events that develop and continue through the narrative to the end. In other words it is a story, and not just a statement. Calling a story a "parable" is a reading strategy describing how one intends to read the story. In other words a parable is not a distinct literary form; it is simply a brief narrative read in a particular way.
            In the early Christian gospels parables are generally viewed as brief stories intended to make a comparison, draw an analogy, or illustrate a moral or religious principle. Some of the parables are regarded as example stories that provide an example of proper human conduct. Some scholars theorize that parables are stories making a single comparison between an unstated reality and the situation in the story. The single point where the unstated reality and the situation in the story come together is best rendered as a broad single moral point. The stories of Jesus have also been described as metaphors: a narrative description of one thing under the guise of another unlike thing. On this reading strategy parables are described as stories intended to bring the kingdom of God into expression in vivid memorable language—all the above theories take their place among other reading strategies for the parables of the early Christian gospels.
            Basic to all these strategies, however, is the story, i.e., the narrative. In my view the stories Jesus told are freely invented secular fictions, which are subjected to various reading strategies by the writers of the gospels and subsequently by modern critics. A parable works when readers put themselves into the story and identify with one of the characters; they are then positioned to make discoveries about themselves.
            Why would Jesus tell what are principally secular stories that have been so confusing to understand? The earliest recorded answer to that question is found in the Gospel of Mark around 70 CE—we have no idea what Jesus thought of his stories; all we have to go on are the stories themselves to investigate the earliest period of Christian origins. Some forty to fifty years after the death of Jesus Mark thought the stories were allegories, which is another reading strategy for the stories. A narrative read as an allegory assumes that it is comprised of a series of figures, or metaphors: See Mark 4:3-8, a story about farming in the first century and Mark's reading of it (Mark 4:14-20) as a series of individual figures, which understands it as an allegory about the results of early Christian preaching.*
            Why did Mark think Jesus told figurative stories? Mark said that parables are for those outside the circle of the inner group of associates of Jesus. Parables were designed to keep "those outside" in the dark so that they would not learn the "secret" of the kingdom of God and turn and be forgiven (Mark 4:11-12). Matthew, on the other hand, blames the crowds to whom Jesus addressed his parables for deliberately hardening their hearts (Matt 13:10-15)—but omits Mark's strange phrase "lest they turn again and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12). Luke says that the parables concealed the secrets of the kingdom, which were only meant for disciples. Luke left it open that the crowds might still understand other things Jesus spoke about in parables (Luke 8:9-10), and like Matthew he also omits Mark's offensive phrase "lest they (the crowds) turn again and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12).
            When I was teaching classes in the parables of Jesus at Missouri State, students delighted in telling me that Jesus used parables because it was a good teaching technique, and made things clearer to the audience—like good examples do. The difficulty is that not even the evangelists agree among themselves on what a parable is and what it was about.  For example, Matthew and Luke come to opposite interpretations of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and even disagree on what the parable says (Matt 18:10-14/Luke 15:3-7).
            I have never found anyone to agree with Mark that Jesus used parables in order to keep people from understanding "lest they turn again and be forgiven."
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*See the discussion of Mark's theory of parables in Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2004), 27-35.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Do Things happen for a Reason?*

If I said that someone survived a car crash with barely a scratch, but three others in the car were killed outright; many (most?) people, religious or not, would likely observe, "stuff happens for a reason!" Behind that observation is the popular religious belief that God controls the universe, and there is a divine reason behind things that happen to us. But if I were to ask, was there some reason for a bird dropping poop on my forehead rather than my shoulder this morning, many would think my question silly. Nevertheless, a serious issue lies behind both situations: Is anyone or anything completely in control of the universe?
            One answer is that God micromanages the universe. If so, then all things do happen for a reason. A micromanaging God would scarcely leave anything to chance! This line of reasoning, however, leads inevitably to the conclusion that even bad things are due to God's deliberate management. By popular definition, however, God, can do no wrong; therefore everything apparently bad must really be good—and that includes even the bird poop on my forehead. A micromanaging God might have had good reason for the bird poop—for under the theory of divine micromanagement, God makes everything happen for a reason.
            Perhaps God only casually manages the universe, however, and is not responsible for everything that happens. Under casual management some things are divinely manipulated but other things are just allowed to happen, as they will. Under this theory the universe has been set up to work in a well regulated way, and God only intrudes now and then for whatever reason strikes the divine fancy. For the most part, things do seem to work fairly well in our world. The world turns with general regularity—and only the occasional glitch. This theory, however, raises the question: how can we ever really be sure what is deliberately caused by God, what is part of the regular pulse of the universe, and what is a glitch in the system? The bird poop is well accommodated by this explanation, however. It is just one of those billions of little things that never registered on the divine radar scope, or simply are part of the regular pulse of the universe where many things happen for no particular reason—like a leaf falling off a tree, or bird droppings. I happened to look up this morning at the precise moment the bird pooped. Such occurrences are part of the regular design of things: leaves fall off trees, and birds poop all over the place. But under this theory one can never be sure of what God does or does not do.
            It is also possible that God has chosen to be an observer of events in a universe designed to run itself, more or less—or worse, God has gone missing. "How could that be possible? God created the world, so why abandon it?" Good question! But since we cannot even prove that God exists, how could we possibly know whether God is missing? A missing God, however, does make a sort of perverted sense out of our human situation, and could account for natural disasters and unconscionable human suffering—in short, for whatever reason no one is minding the store! Bird poop on the forehead would make excellent sense in a world like this, however; a God absent for the big things could scarcely be expected to show up for the little things.
            Perhaps we have simply misunderstood God's character. If God were a bit devious, it might explain the general regularity of the universe and its benefits when things work without the glitches, and also accommodate the glitches, such as natural disasters, the tragedies of disease, and fatal "accidents." In short, God may be prone to be a bit "impish," so to speak. Certain passages in the Bible seem to support such a theory—at least the early Israelites and Christians must have thought so by some of the ways they portrayed God. The book of Job is a case directly on point. Bird poop on the forehead is precisely the kind of thing one might expect from a mischievous God.
            Of course, it is always possible there never was a God. The only difference between this possibility and the last is that human tragedy and natural disaster could not be caused by a nonexistent God, but must be the result of randomness in a universe that never had a manager of any sort. We could be alone in a sort of well-regulated universe—except for the occasional glitch. Such a situation accommodates regularity, natural disasters, and bird poop on the forehead.
            These five possibilities for explaining bird poop and divine management of the universe boil down to this: should one choose to believe in an uptight micromanager, a lax casual manager, a God gone missing, a mischievous manager, or in no God at all? One could choose to ignore human experience (what is found in the Bible), and fashion a God of one's own choosing. I suspect that is what most of us do—as did the writers of the Bible!
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*C. W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 13-15 (slightly revised).