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 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.