Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part III

While the David and Goliath story structure may provide a family of stories that resonate with different cultures with different message, there are others. Joseph Campbell noted the Heroes Journey in “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (1968) as one. Another is the one shown below:

A quick read and one may be tempted to already come up with the details of the story as follows:

While the story of the Prodigal Son from the Bible may be an obvious example of this structure, it is now alone, consider another possibility.

The origin story for Spiderman also fits this structure. It can also be thought of as a story that resonates with culture. We would probably call Spiderman a myth, since it provides a story that supports a regional value system. In this case, “Where there is great power, there is great responsibility.” In many cultures, this message would not be mythic, but parabolic, particularly in cultures where the use of power for personal gain or even aggrandizement is promoted.  But consider the Prodigal Son… what message would the story as shown above be? Probably it would be that something like “Father Knows Best” or “There’s No Place Like Home” (Wizard of Oz also has a mythic function built off of this story structure). But the lesson of the story above resonates rather than challenges the culture (at least most cultures) so it has a mythic function rather than a parabolic function.

So… should we call it “The Myth of the Prodigal Son” rather than the “The Parable of the Prodigal Son“? No… because Jesus did an amazing thing. He attached a parabolic ending to a mythic beginning. The elder brother promotes a mythic ending… acceptance back into the family but suffering shame and loss. However, the father provides a parabolic ending, magnanimously forgetting, forgiving, and celebrating. It violates our cultural sense of justice.

The example I have given in this post is quite useful in missions. After all, one could argue that the structure is the same as the Grand Narrative of the Bible. Man is living as a created child of God in harmony with both God and Nature. Man gets greedy and decides that God is holding back from him. He rejects God and goes his own way. But going his own way eventually means great suffering and loss. Man eventually realizes his own foolishness and (with the miraculous working of God as Savior) he is able to return, restored into the family of God in harmony. In some forms of Christianity, the concept of “purgatory” is added. Purgatory is the mythic ending. It satisfies our cultural demand for justice… the erring one must suffer. Yet the Bible appears to show that the Grand Narrative is not merely mythic, but parabolic. God welcomes back those who repent with no regard to justice. That is certainly an ending that should shock any of us.

In missions we need to use stories to support the good and surprise and shock the bad. To do this we need to know the culture we work in, know God’s message and tailor our stories to support, shock, and surprise people in understanding the truth.

Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part II

Tagalog: Rebulto ni Lapulapu.
Statue of Lapu-lapu.  Image via Wikipedia

If one takes the definitions for “mythic” and “parabolic” from the previous post, then,

Myth: A story that has power within a certain culture because it resonates with the culture’s deep-seated values.

Parable: A story that has power within a certain culture because it is dissonant and challenges the culture’s deep-seated values.

First, clearly, using these sort of definitions, the term myth or parable cannot be applied generally to a story, but only within the context of a resonant or dissonant culture. A story may be a myth in one culture, a parable in another culture, and simply an interesting (or uninteresting story) in a third culture.

A second, related, issue is that even if a story has mythic power in two cultures, it may have it for different reasons. In the previous post, this was noted with the story of David and Goliath where the mythic power of the story within ancient Israel is different from that of modern-day United States.

A third issue is that there are common themes in myths and parables that transcends culture even if their role in the culture varies.

Let’s take this third issue to the Philippines. The story of David and Goliath is built around a more universal construct… a seemingly weak protagonist overcoming a stronger antagonist. In the Philippines, a comparable story is the story of Magellan and Lapu-lapu. It fits the definition of a myth because it resonates with a deep Pilipino worldview. The story is well-grounded in history even if romanticized by some. It is, for example, unlikely that Magellan personally fought Lapu-lapu. In the event, Magellan was a Portuguese explorer serving Spain to explore the world for purposes of the spice trade. Magellan landed in the Philippine archipelago around 1521 and began trying to convert people and place them under the authority of the Spanish flag. Lapu-lapu, a leader in the region, refused obey Magellan. When Magellan tried to intimidate Lapu-lapu and his men (that behavior worked in Central and South America), a battle ensued in which Magellan was killed and his men routed. Only a few survived to make it back to Spain.

For its mythic quality, the characters needed to be redefined. At that time, there was no such thing as the Philippines (simply an archipelago of islands having many local tribes and leaders) but Lapu-lapu becomes the representative of the peace-loving Philippine people. Magellan was an explorer and spice trader who had the utter foolishness to forget his charter and dabble in local politics (a dangerous thing even today in the Philippines). However, Magellan comes to represent the powerful and violent outside imperialist (whether it be Spain, America, Japan, or another). So in its mythic form, the historical story of Magellan and Lapu-lapu becomes the rallying story of the Pilipinos quest for peaceful self-determinacy in the face of more powerful outside powers.

In missions, it is good to recognize that stories that are important to us may be unimportant in one culture. It may even have the opposite effect (as Don Richardson noted in Peace Child, that the tribe he was working with found Judas to be the protagonist of a myth demonstrating the power of clever deception). It requires a deep understanding of the beliefs of a people to successfully identify the effect. On the other hand, though, there are common story structures that transcend culture that provide a pattern to build stories on. We will look at this in the next post.

<Part of my Book, Theostorying: Reflections, on God, Narrative, and Culture>

Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part I

David and Goliath, a colour lithograph by Osma...
Image via Wikipedia

As many know, within the religious context the term “myth” does not necessarily mean fiction (as in “not true”). However, I have noticed that even within religious circles there is a tendency to link the term myth with fiction. Take, for example, the story of David and Goliath. I believe that the story of David and Goliath is based on history, but if I call it a myth, people tend assume that I am saying it did not actually happen. Therefore, I tend to like to say that a story has a mythic function, rather than saying it is a myth.

The same can happen with the term “parable.” There is nothing in the term that says whether the story is based on fact or fiction. Thus the parable of Jesus about the Unjust Judge may or may not be based on a real woman in need of justice and a judge in need of a conscience. However, people tend to believe that a parable is fiction. Therefore, I would rather talk about a story having a parabolic function.

A story functions as a myth or a parable based on the culture it is expressed in. So what defines a mythic or parabolic function of a story? Let me suggest the following (no, I am not being original here):

MYTHIC: having the quality of supporting, justifying, or explaining a cultural value.

PARABOIC: having the quality of challenging or contradicting a cultural value.

Consider the story of David and Goliath. I believe it is a historical event, but it was told and retold because it had a mythic function. Ancient Israel saw itself as small compared to big and powerful nations around it. Yet it saw itself as having a special relationship with God, such that if it was faithful to God and courageous, Israel would be victorious. The story of David and Goliath explained and supported this self-perception with David being the faithful and courageous Israel, and Goliath the big, strong and Godless nations surrounding Israel.

In some other cultures David and Goliath also has a mythic function even if the symbols change. In the United States, for example, the high value placed on the individual and individualism gives a different interpretation to the story. Goliath is the powerful unfeeling corporation or government bureaucracy. David is the seemingly powerless individual. However, when he stands on the side of what is right and refuses to give up, David (and individualism) can again be victorious.

However, one could imagine a culture where David and Goliath has a parabolic function. A highly disciplined and militarized culture may find itself cheering for Goliath. David and Goliath may be a cautionary tale in this culture where strength, discipline and maturity can sadly be overcome. The hearer must be taught the sad truth that all matter of training and weaponry can be overcome by “a lucky hit.”

Since missions involves expressing divine truth in a way that is accessible to a specific culture, the proper use of stories with mythic or parabolic functions within the culture is valuable. Few people are impressed by propositional truth. Most find narrative as being more compelling… as long as it hits home with the culture it is shared in.

Thus, understanding the culture and utilizing (or creating) stories that resonate mythically or parabolically is vitally important for being both an agent of change as well as an agent of preservation.  

Words for the Timid Soul

Parable of the Talents
Image via Wikipedia

J. B. Phillips, the Anglican rector who gave us such a special translation of the New Testament, disagreed sharply with the line from a familiar hymn: “O to be nothing, nothing…” Dr. Phillips said he searched the New Testament in vain to find an endorsement for that point of view. If ever a book taught people to be “something, something,” he said, and to stand and do battle– “to be far more full of joy and daring and life than they ever were without God– that book is the New Testament.”

How can we claim to believe in heaven if we have so little regard for the potential of life in the here and now? Perhaps there is no better way to prove that we cherish the prospect of eternity than to take hold of life on this earth with a passion and a gladness. Those who wrap their gold in a napkin and bury it, while they think of the world to come, show that they don’t have much regard for eternity, because they have so little regard for time.

So the timid soul for whom I feel so sorry is, in truth, a villain. And the villain I see in him too often shows himself in me. On dark days of self-doubt (which are likely to be those days when I doubt the goodness of God), in times when weariness shuts out the sunlight of vigor and hope, or at times when I’ve simply lost heart, I bury the gold. Usually it’s only for a brief time. But if life is such a precious thing, then why do I bury it for even a brief time? Sadly, some people bury the gold for all of their days– not because they’re bad or because they hate God, but simply because they, like the timid soul in Jesus’ story, are afraid.

I want to do something for that timid soul, partly because I have a picture in my memory of good but inadequate people who are somewhat beaten by life, who can’t imagine themselves as winners. They’ve lost so often for so many years that they can’t conceive of winning. I want to help those persons who are so timid about life and so doubtful of God and of themselves. I want to see them break free from their sense fo worthlessness or helplessness, so they might fulfill the confidence shown in them by the One who entrusted them with their gold. 

God’s vision for us as workers ought to deliver every timid soul, for now and for eternity.   <Parables from the Back Side: Bible Stories with a Twist, by J. Ellsworth Kalas. p. 31>

I really enjoy this book  It looks at some parables in the Bible but focuses on a different aspect of the story than is commonly dealt with. It has been argued (such as by Julicher) that parables are a story built about one basic meaning or point. Clearly, the structure of some parables point to more than one understanding. For example, in the Prodigal Son, if the single point was about the relationship between the younger son and the father, the older son element would be unnecessary, even confusing. If the single point was only about the relationship between the older son and the father, the younger son would still be necessary, but should have been dealt with much more briefly. The elements to the story guide the range of perspectives.

Kalas’ book attempts to look at some parables from a perspective that is Biblically sound, yet is different than the most common perspective. The above quote is a part of the discussion on the Parable of the Talents. Kalas looked at this parable from the perspective of the relationship between the rich man and the 1 talent servant. Clearly, being humble (a virtue in the Bible) is far from being self-deprecating, or being timid.

Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures

Selective parts from David Augsberger’s book on Cross-culture Counseling.

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_10666002″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Counseling in cross cultural environment” target=”_blank”>Counseling in cross cultural environment</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>presentations</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>

As a Little Child

One of the more poignant stories to me in the Bible is where children were being brought to Jesus and the disciples were trying to fend them and their parents off. Jesus steps in and not welcomes them but notes that all of us, in some sense, must come to Him as a little child.

English: Jesus Christ with children
Image via Wikipedia

Clearly, this little vignette has great relevance within the context of salvation and discipleship. But I find it can be paralleled across to missions as well.

Recent story:  Within the last 6 weeks, I have been ordained and received my doctor of theology. The first is a recognition of ministerial calling, while the other is a recognition of academic achievement. Don’t get me wrong… I am happy with both, and perhaps even more happy that both happened in the mission field.

BUT… also within the last 6 weeks, I have been challenged by ministry that should be super easy (it seems to me) but is not. One was speaking at a somewhat political event (I enjoy being disconnected from politics even though I believe churches should be integrated with their communities, including partnership/interaction with political entities).

The other involves my work in hospital chaplaincy. I am taking CPE (since I am administrator of a training center for CPE, I felt that I need to understand what the trainees and supervisors are going through more directly). It has been a challenge to me for a few reasons:

1.  While my English serves me well in Baguio, the hospital I serve at is outside of Baguio and most of the patients and their families are very uncomfortable with English, and some are even uncomfortable with Tagalog. This makes me feel kind of stupid and out of place.

2.  Visiting patients involves going up to strangers and trying to make a conversation (not even knowing if they want to see me and if they can even speak my language). This goes against my temperament.

3.  As a chaplain, I focus on feelings (the affective region of the human condition) while I like to deal with facts, fixing, and instructing. This makes me doubt that I am doing anything useful.

4.  A chaplain has an ambiguous role in most hospitals. Some staff doubt their value… a peddlar of superstition. Others, think chaplains are there to “cheer people up.” Yet others here see the role as power praying… a faith healer. This makes me doubt my acceptance.

What is the result? I feel like a child in a crowd of strange adults. Such children doubts that they are supposed to be there, doubts that they are valued, and doubts that they can do anything of value.

YET… there is value in this. I have seen many people, including missionaries, who become masters of their own realm or ministry. They do what they do, but feel that they can’t do other things, so they don’t try. I like to do what I feel competent in doing and things that are consistent with my temperament. I hate to feel lost and confused. I hate to look silly or simple in front of others.

But missionaries are to be willing an

d flexible in ministry. We must risk coming before other people, not as experts and not a bosses… but as little children. Jesus accepts little children, but little children have to risk coming to Jesus and running the gauntlet of disapproving strangers.

Asleep Near the Raging Waters

My wife is a Disaster Response Crisis Intervention Counselor, and she went with a team from our group, Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center ( down to Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City in Northern Mindanao, Philippines to provide defusing/debriefing  (and training for others) in the tragedy of the flooding from Typhoon Sendong a couple of weeks ago. Over 1000 have died and many are missing… many struck by flooding and by floating trees and debris while they slept. Tens of thousands are displaced and have suffered great material loss. Many were literally washed out to sea. Many disappeared. Others washing ashore on another island… but too far away to be saved.

Their situation reminded me of a learning moment I had many years ago.

Years ago we lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia. My sister and her family would visit us at times to enjoy the warm ocean and beach, getting away from the cold of upstate New York.  We went to Sandbridge in Va Beach. It was a bright sunny day, but it was windy and the waves were big. We don’t surf, but my brother-in-law and I went out into the water. Out far from the beach the water was too deep, and close to shore the water was too rough, but in between is an area of relative tranquility. We stayed there but occasionally we would dive into shore. The water was so rough it felt like we were going through a washing machine. But it was fun and we were strong swimmers so we did not feel like we were in any real danger.

After doing this for awhile we joined our wives to relax on the beach. I laid down and tried to sleep. Then I heard someone come up towards us and said, “Excuse me. Uhhh… excuse me.” I didn’t want to be bothered. Trying to sell me something, perhaps? Try to draw me into a conversation I wasn’t interested in? I pretended to sleep. The other members of our group were either pretending to sleep or maybe were really asleep. After a few moments, the person went away. I was at peace… for a bit. But then I began to wonder what was going on as I heard other sounds I could not so easily identify.

Taking a peek, I saw a group of people at the water’s edge. There was a man in the water in the region between the deep water and the rough water. He was trapped. The others were forming a line to bring him safely to shore. By the time I could respond, he was safe.

I felt bad, as you might suspect, because I could have helped. I had had water safety training in the past, and I was comfortable in rough water. Because I didn’t respond, I hurt someone.

I didn’t hurt the man trapped in the water. He was rescued.

I didn’t hurt the others. They did fine without me.

I didn’t hurt God. He had things under control.

I hurt myself. I had the opportunity to rescue someone from great danger. I had the opportunity to look back and a great moment in my life where I stood up and was counted on the side of those who serve God in helping those in danger and distress.

Instead I pretended to be asleep near the raging waters while someone needed rescue.

The church (universally and locally) often pretend to be asleep as well. They focus on internal strife, politics, denominational or interdenominational wrangling, church growth, or fund-raising… all sorts of things, while nearby the waters rage.

I am very happy that so many Christians and churches have stepped up in the Typhoon Sendong disaster. Many of these churches formed “Kagay-an Evangelical Disaster Response Network.” They have organized, and trained to help in their communities. Many have been sacrificial… burning themselves out, in fact… in trying to help both parishioners and total strangers in this time of crisis. We are thrilled that we at Bukal Life have been able to provide training and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in some small way with these committed Christians.

It is good that some commit to be awake and vigilant was the waters and storms of life rage.

Grenz and Olson on “What is Theology?”

I will be teaching a class in seminary called “Theology and Culture” in a little over a week. I look forward to the opportunity. Most of the classes I teach are topics of classic evangelical missiology. These topics are generally so focused on the practice of missions, the theological foundation is sometimes rather murky. But with the Theology and Culture class, one is required to analyze and bridge the gap between unchanging God and changing man, between the past and the present, between the church and the world.

I like to think that a good foundation is fundamental to a good structure (though a good foundation does not guarantee a good structure). Therefore, it feels good to not only try to help students gain this foundation, but to help myself as well.

With this in mind, a good quote may be a good start:

“In its broad sense, theology may be defined as the intellectual reflection on the act, content and implications of Christian faith. Theology describes faith within a specific historical and cultural context, and therefore it is unashamedly a contextual discipline. Because of its contextual nature, theology poses an ongoing task. The fundamental Christian faith—commitment to Jesus as Lord and to the Triune God revealed in Christ is unchanging, of course. Yet the world into which this confession is to be brought is in transition. Theology serves the church in each generation and in each cultural setting by assisting the people of God in reflecting on and applying the one faith of the church to the world in which contemporary disciples live and engage in ministry in Christ’s name.

Consequently, theology must move among three poles– the biblical gospel, the heritage of the church and the thought forms of the contemporary world. It employs these three in seeking to articulate the unchanging confession of Jesus in a changing context and thereby to speak to the issues of succeeding generations.”

20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age,   By Stanley J. Grenz, Roger E. Olson (Preface)

Christian Community Development

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