Propositions Versus Stories


Some Christian seminaries really love propositional statements. A propositional statement is a statement that can be judged to be TRUE or FALSE. It can be objective or subjective. “The sky is blue” is often thought of as an objective proposition since it is a statement that can be determined (objective) whether it is fact or fiction. Of course, two people could argue all day and beyond what it means to say that the sky IS blue. Subjective (axiological) propositions cannot be determined objectively since it is tied to value judgments. A subjective proposition might be “The sky is beautiful.” That is a statement of aesthetic judgment. Another subjective proposition could be “Stealing is wrong.” That is a statement of ethical judgment.

Personally, I prefer stories. Some seminaries don’t really see it that way. I remember going to a Christian college and being told that parables have one (and only one) point. In theory, the story is then only a vehicle to carry that one point. To me, stories are rich and complex and overflow any container such as can be boiled down into a propositional statement.

Consider the ethical (subjective propositional) statement, “Everyone should get an equal share.” This is a perfectly fine statement, but it doesn’t really embed itself in our thoughts, feelings, or (in all likelihood) actions. It needs a story (with characters) to do this. So let’s try a story from Cordilleras in Northern Philippines (I am definitely not trying to tell it accurately).

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Paulo and Tomas were brothers living in a community in Benguet. Their father had died a year before, and their mother struggled to care and feed them. Where they lived, they would have periodic watwats (community meals). Paulo and Tomas would be sent by their mother to the watwat to get food to help them make it through the week. Arriving at the gathering, they got into line to get meat to take home with them. The women distributing the food looked at the two boys, appraising them. “Okay orphans,” said one of the women, “Come up and get your share.” Where they lived, they were considered orphans even though their mother was alive. They were given no meat or organs. They got chicken feet, goat hooves, and skin. Paulo and Tomas expressed thanks and returned home.

During the week, the elders of the village came to the tiny home of Paulo and Tomas. One of the duties of the elders was to go from family to family to bless homes. They brought a chicken with them. After saying some prayers, they sacrificed the chicken to ensure the house was protected for the coming months. Then, as tradition dictated, the mother of the boys took the chicken and made it into a soup and then provided other foods to produce a good meal for the elders.

When it came time to eat, the elders were shocked and disturbed. The chicken was well prepared, as was the rice and fruits. But as for the rest of the dishes, it was all hooves, feet, and skin. The elders chastised the mother for how disrespectful this was after all they did for the benefit of the home. The mother apologized with tears. She explained that as a widow, she had so little to offer, but gave the best she had. As far as the meats, all she could give was what she received from the watwat— chicken feet, goat hooves, and skin.

The elders were silent for a moment and then talked quietly among themselves for a moment. Then the head elder spoke to the woman. “It is we who should apologize. We have allowed a great injustice to continue in our village. I am sure our ancestors must be angry that we have allowed— where those that need the most help, get the least. From now on, we will ensure that everyone gets an equal share.”

Paulo and Tomas grew up healthy and wise, and eventually because great elders in their community, ensuring that all in need are cared for.

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The story expresses the concept of giving equal shares more effectively than the single statement, or “lesson or moral.” Why? Because we connect with the characters. Equal shares is no longer a concept, but a visceral experience. We connect with the two boys who are looked at as less deserving because of a status they have no control over. We connect with the mother who is humiliated because she has so little to give. We also connect with the shame the elders have for blaming a widow for something that was, to some extent at least, their fault.

Of course, other stories can explore other aspects of “Everyone should get an equal share.” The classic movie, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ humorously explores how difficult equal shares can be in a complex world. The more recent movie ‘Worth’ (starring Michael Keaton) not only explores the difficulty of equal shares, but even explores the challenging question, “Is giving equal shares always the moral answer?” Ultimately, more than the plot itself, it is the characters that we connect with that make the concepts connect on a visceral, even spiritual, level.

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