Jacob (An Allegory)

In the middle of a mighty ocean was an island, with strong tall cliffs that have long held firm against the relentless waves crashing against its shore. Other islands nearby had long succumbed to the  waters surrounding them, slowly pulled under the surface, to be seen no more. This one island remained in defiance to her beauty and power.

You might imagine that this great sea could destroy the island at any time. If she drew together all of her might— all of her great ocean currents, all of her storms— she could conquer this lone opponent as a sandcastle in a typhoon.

The ocean, for whatever reason however, contents herself to challenge the island one wave and one tidal cycle at a time. You further might imagine this to involve a stalemate with neither making headway, but you would be mistaken. Occasionally a bit of the cliff would collapse into the ocean. The pile of rubble might even increase the area of the island momentarily and lengthen its shoreline. It seems, briefly, that the island is winning. But the ocean patiently picks up each bit within her reach and slowly draws each into her depths. Time will come when the last bit of stone peaking above the surface will be worn down, invisible to any nearby onlooker.

The slow battle rages on and on. Day after day, Year after year. Century after century. If you were able to observe this contest for millennia, you might assume that the ocean hates that island… that this battle is driven by anger.  But, again, you would be gravely mistaken..

The ocean cares for that island like no other. Her patience, her perseverance, with this defiant pebble in the midst of her infinite domain is her testimony to patient love.

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”  -Albert Camus

Fallacies and Questions Surrounding Redemptive Analogy

The following are some thoughts that I have with regards to Redemptive Analogies. Redemptive Analogies have been popularized by Don Richardson through “Peace Child,” “Eternity in Their Hearts” and more. However, Redemptive Analogies have always been with us. In fact, the Bible is full of them. A few would include:

Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for hi...
Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for his disciples (Quran 5:111-115) John, ch. 6) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Redeemed (slave auction)
  • Ransomed (kidnapping)
  • Adopted (Roman adoption)
  • Justified (courtroom)

Don Richardson brought back the idea that analogies need to be updated and contextualized to be effective. Below are a few thoughts on what I consider to be errors or issues with the idea of Redemptive Analogies.

  1. Redemptive Analogies are created by God. I won’t call this a fallacy, but it is certainly a question. It has been suggested by Don Richardson and others that God creates redemptive analogies and we must discover them. Is that true? Possibly, but it is hard to tell. In some cases, such as the story of the Incan Emperor Pachacuti and the god Viracocha, or the Karen people and the great book, it sounds as if God had stepped into the culture to crack the door open to Christian witness. We do need to be reminded at times that God is at work in all times and all places, and not only in and through Christians and the Church. But to assume that this happens in every culture seems doubtful (to me at least). In general, redemptive analogies are created not disovered, I believe.
  2. Some Cultures do not have redemptive analogies. This is a bit opposite of the first point. For example, Don Richardson, being interviewed by Dick Staub for Christianity Today (February 2003), claims that he has “fully studied the Quran” and found that there are no redemptive analogies in Islam. The reason is that every concept with a Christian connection (heaven, salvation, Jesus) has been distorted. I believe this is a flawed view. The first and obvious problem is that to have studied the Quran (the primary of the two uniquely Islamic holy books) is in no way saying you have studied various Islamic and Islam-influenced cultures. Redemptive analogies are culture-related more than book-related. However, I believe the main problem is a basic misunderstanding of what a redemptive analogy is. A redemptive analogy is a symbol. In semiotics (study of symbols) there are three components, the sign vehicle, the sense, and the referent. Rather than dealing directly with that, let’s simplify that to the idea of a redemptive analogy:

To say that there is no redemptive analogy is to say that there is no story or symbol that exists or can be imagined that could help a person in Culture A to grasp the divine truth of redemption. Our commonality as humans (hope for the future, a desire for the truth and the divine, a need for relationship and love, recognition of our failure for perfection, and our own frailty) pretty much guarantees that there are things in our individual and societal experiences that are resonant with divine truth.

  1. Redemptive Analogies have to be perfect to be beneficial. This is not normally said, but does appear to be commonly felt. So it must be emphasized that ALL ANALOGIES BREAK DOWN AT SOME LEVEL. Analogies help us to bridge the concrete and the abstract, the human and the divine. Take the most well-known extrabilical redemptive analogy… the Peace Child. The peace child was human, not divine. The peace child was not permanent but was limited to the lifespan of the peace child. While Jesus was killed by the people He was given to (and thus made the sacrifice complete), the peace child must not be killed by the recipient to complete the peace. Clearly, this redemptive analogy has limitations. One of the most well-known redemptive analogies in the Bible is Jesus as the ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45). Yet the idea of a ransom implies a literal kidnapper. But who would that kidnapper be? Is it God, is it Satan, is it someone else? Or are we trying to take an analogy too far? Those who feel that certain cultures do not have redemptive analogies believe (in my opinion) that they must find a perfect analogy. Perfect analogies simply do not exist… in any culture.

4. Redemptive Analogies leads to syncretism or relativism. This assumes that redemptive analogies must involve a moral judgment about the culture. For example, Hinduism has the concept of Moksha. Moksha refers to the release from the suffering involved in living in this world. To use the concept of Moksha to help Hindus understand the Christian concept of redemption does not mean that we are accepting the full understanding of Moksha (as it is tied to reincarnation, for example). Likewise, Taoism seeks harmony between the divine, humanity, and nature. Linking that to grand narrative of the Bible (with harmony between God, Man, and Creation in Genesis 1 and a restoration of that harmony, through Christ, in Revelation 21) in no way necessitates a pluralistic relativism of belief. Clearly, poorly explained analogies can lead to confusion. For example linking Jesus in some way to the concept of the “avatar” can be enlightening or misleading depending on how it is used. But let’s face it, propositional doctrine is just about as prone  to distortion and confusion if there is inadequate commentary/explanation. I believe Christian missions is enhanced by the use of redemptive analogies, storying, and parables. However, a misunderstanding of their characters and limitations can take something useful and destroy it or discount it. <Note: This is part of my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture“.>

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.