Power of Parables


A Horse Drawn Carriage in St. Augustine, FL

Image by Samantha Decker via Flickr

One of the problems of not getting a real liberal arts education (most of my education is in Mechanical Engineering and military leadership), is limitations in communication and the arts.

One of these is in the role of parables. When I was young going to church, parables were defined as “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”. This is a nice and (obviously) memorable definition. However, what really defines a heavenly meaning? Is an ethical story a parable?

Later, I learned a parable as being “an extended simile”. This is a way of contrasting it with an allegory, which is an “extended metaphor”. The obvious problem with that meaning is that it is disconnected from its purpose.

More recently, I learned a meaning for “parable” that I find more satisfying. A parable is a story that challenges our own beliefs or world view. This definition contrasts with the term “myth” which involves stories that reinforce our own beliefs (etiological purpose). Of course, both a parable and a myth, with these definitions, can be fictional or non-fiction. Therefore…

1.  The first power of the parable is that it engenders change. It is suppose to challenge our preconceptions and beliefs, and point us in a new direction… a new orientation.

2.  The second power of the parable is that it is memorable. Years ago I worked for Northrop-Grumman. I remember that during the first week we were in orientation class, the VP of Engineering told us a parable. It is pretty much the only thing I remember from orientation. This is the story.

Back in the 1800s were two small companies that made buggy whips… Smith Brothers and Jones Brothers. The vision statement of Smiths Brothers was “We seek to make the best buggy whips in the world.” Jones Brothers had a vision statement “We provide navigational control solutions to the world.” The first vision statement makes a lot of sense, but the second one is rather strange… correct?

However, back in the 1890s the horseless carriage (automobile) was perfected and that began the demise of the horse-drawn buggy. What happened? The Smith Brothers company kept growing, for awhile, gaining market share in the buggy whip market. The Jones Brothers market share of the buggy whip market kept shrinking. BUT… this was because Jones Brothers began developing steering and control devices for automobiles. So over time Smith’s Brothers became the dominant company in a dying market, while Jones’ Brothers moved into strong niches in automobile, boat, and eventually airline navigation and controls.

The lesson is that our vision limits our behavior. To grow in a changing world requires flexibility, and flexibility requires broad vision.

While this may not be a “heavenly” parable, I have found it useful in both business and Christian missions.

3.  The third power of parables is that it attracts interest. Having attended seminary in Asia, I have been told many times that the Eastern mindset is built around stories. This is supposed to be in contrast to the Western mindset that is propositional. However, I have some doubts in this. While it is true that Western preachers and theologians tend to be propositional, and have a fascination for the Pauline Epistles over much of the rest of the Bible, I don’t think this is true on a broader level in Western Society. People will pay good money to watch a movie or buy a comic book, but can hardly be talked into attending a public lecture or debate.

Consider the origin story of Spiderman. It begins with a young somewhat self-serving college nerd, and ends with a man of power and responsibility. In fact, the story is really a parable that teaches the lesson “Where there is great power, there is great responsibility.” This lesson contrasts the normal human response that says great power means the ability to accomplish self-gratification. This story is hugely valuable as a comic book and developed into a hugely popular movie. The story is now part of the shared cultural experience in much of the world.

It is not surprising that Jesus used parables. They engender change, they  are memorable, and they attract interest. In missions, they should be developed and used.

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