Jesus Understood the Power of a Good Metaphor. That’s Why He Told Parables. 


I was raised on stories. It started with the Bible and continued at the old brick library by the river, where I eventually gravitated towards the shelves of fiction. During college I read and studied everything from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky to contemporary short story writer and novelist Joyce Carol Oates, which brings me to the full-circle moment I had not long ago. In a recent social post, Oates referenced the Bible — best-selling book of all time, sacred religious text to billions — as “an anthology of fictions.” You might gasp, groan, shrug or otherwise, but it’s certainly not the first time someone has said it.

However, if only in the one way she didn’t intend, Joyce is absolutely right. 

Fiction comes in many forms. Novels, screenplays, prose poems. Some of my favorite fictions are very short. Ernest Hemingway is credited with writing a six-word story that manages to be quite moving. The ancients wrote myths, Aesop wrote fables, and whenever well-groomed religious types in the New Testament made a public display of plying Jesus with pointed questions of moral clarity, Jesus answered with short fiction. The fiction anthology started with Jesus. We call them the parables.

Why would Jesus answer real-life questions with fiction — short fabricated tales about homebuilders wrestling over foundation choices, wedding feasts gone awry, money entanglements, lost sheep, found treasures and murder? Matthew tells us Jesus flat out didn’t speak to the multitudes without a parable at the ready.

“The Lost Sheep,” Henry Ossawa Tanner, public domain

Jesus seemed plenty capable of speaking plainly and directly when the moment called for it.

Sermons, directives, pronouncements. He didn’t seem to hedge at calling Peter on the carpet. If Jesus answered a question with a story, perhaps the moment called for it.

The parable of the Good Samaritan was only forged after a lawyer confronted Christ with a loaded follow-up question. To the idea that loving one’s neighbor was good, the lawyer responded, “And who is my neighbor?” We are told it was an attempt “to justify himself.” The lawyer was already nine-tenths of the way to missing the point of what loving one’s neighbor is all about, because love is never about checking a box, leveling up or patting oneself on the back.

We tend to think of the parables as having a prize at the bottom of the box, a point to ponder, a moral to mull, a fortune to read aloud after the cookie has been broken open. But it always tends to get a little cloudy. Listeners in real time got confused or walked away. The disciples couldn’t come to agreement. Two thousand years later we still are prone to wrestle with context and meaning as to the various story elements and the movement of stories themselves — conflicted characters stumbling forward in relation to desires, hurdles and jealous family members.

In meeting the moment, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He recognized the power of fiction, where a straight answer just wouldn’t have gotten the job done.

Not too long ago, researchers at the University of Toronto conducted a study in which they evaluated the way people process information after reading fiction, versus the way minds process information after reading nonfiction essays. What the researchers found is that, while the nonfiction allowed for learning among participants, it didn’t always promote critical thinking. Readers of nonfiction demonstrated a higher need for “cognitive closure,” meaning that they were inclined to seek out and seize upon quick conclusions, they demonstrated rigidity in their thinking, and they showed an aversion to any ambiguity. All of this led to a decrease in creativity and rationality.

Conversely, the researchers found that reading fiction invited participants to think from different perspectives and consider multiple points of views. Because readers were released from the urgency for immediate answers, it encouraged creative thinking and greater rationality. Paradoxically, fiction was more inclined to open minds to truth.

If you don’t believe me, maybe that just means I should have written it into a short story about a family of talking turtles.

Reading literature forces us to slow down, consider alternative mindsets and open ourselves to contemplation and change. Answers don’t always come easy in literature, but that is the mark of a mind at work, searching the universe for meaning. With fiction, answers are not so rigid as they are relational.

The lawyer asked Jesus for the quick and easy answer. Jesus knew better than to give him one. Instead, he gave him much more to think about. His story presented the kind of love that rises above questions of law and breaks down barriers between people. In fiction, the lawyer was forced to consider what it might be like for a law-abiding Jew lying injured in the road on the Sabbath, with pious religious leaders stepping over him one after another. He was forced to engage the paradox of an archenemy who ultimately comes to his rescue and extends mercy.

“Jesus Teaching,” James Tissot, public domain

Perhaps some good old fashioned pre-Ignatian contemplation might have led him to a broader and more dynamic understanding of the power of love, above and beyond class, race, law and social expectations. Could it be that, in being moved by the life-and-death vulnerabilities on display in the interaction between “made-up” characters, the lawyer might have seen himself as in a mirror and begun to open himself to giving and receiving love more unconditionally? If, on the walk back home, he were to see a wounded Samaritan in the road, what might have happened?

In his book “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus,” Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon said, “The device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.”

That’s the power of fiction. Nonfiction tells a measurable, quantifiable experience of the world, but fiction dares to shape it. Metaphor opens us to a bigger universe. As Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr said, “Metaphor is the only language available to religion, because it alone is honest about mystery.”

When I was a child, my father read C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” aloud to us before bedtime. I relate to those who I have heard say that they may very well have grown up loving Aslan better than they loved Jesus. I tend to believe God is just fine with that sort of response to a fictional character, because he understands the power and direction of a good metaphor. He’s been authoring a lot longer than we have.

In her book, “The Mind of the Maker,” English writer Dorothy Sayers suggests that when we consider the way we resemble a God who made us “in his image,” we should take into account that the first thing we know about God is that he created. Above all, we share with our creator the desire and the ability to make things.

Perhaps when we fiction writers sit down to make stories, we aren’t merely expressing ourselves or making new universes to disappear into or entertain readers with, so much as we are looking to find the face of God — and in his face a little of our own reflection.

Top artwork: Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jan Wijnants, public domain

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