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.

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