The Woodcarver saw it on the beach. It was much larger than the normal pieces he would take to be turn into wooden utensils, statues, and a variety of tchotchkes for tourists. He liked pieces of wood that had character to them— gnarled branches, hollow logs, and even stumps with roots. But this big one caught his attention. Perhaps it is a bad choice. He could tell it would be a stubborn wood, difficult to work, dulling his tools. It also had knots in awkward places. But the Woodcarver saw something in it.
The Woodcarver saw a man. Maybe no one else did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The wood just needs to be dried, carved, and post-treated. The end result will be a man. He may not look like the original wood, but it is the same substance, with the unnecessary parts carefully cut away. It may take a while, but vision and patience are key qualities of the Woodcarver. He could see the man in the piece of wood trying to get out. It will be done one day, but never sold. The Woodcarver never sold His best work.
This short story is based on a real event. But the mystery remains unanswered.
Ed went to Oliver’s house shortly after lunch. Both of them were dairy farmers, and Oliver asked for some help in cutting and splitting some locustwood for new posts to repair fencing in his cow pasture. They often helped each other as most people in their community did.
Ed called out, “Hey Ollie. You there?” Ollie responded by walking out of his barn slowly. His hands and clothes were covered with mud and manure. Hardly surprising — one can’t dairy farm without getting dirty.
Oliver responded. “I was just going in to have a bitta lunch. You are welcome to come in and join me if ya want.” Ed had already had lunch, so he declined. Ed thought it best if he just got to work on the locust while Oliver had his lunch. Oliver shrugged and said he would be out soon to join him.
Ed got to work on the posts. It wasn’t long before Ollie was done and joined him. Ed stifled a bit of surprise. His friend came out of his house with two fingers and one thumb on his right hand perfectly clean while the rest of him was as filthy as ever.
There was no way Ed would consider asking his friend about this. They did not talk much while working. Their favorite talk was about weather and farming, not things that are particularly personal.
Still, as they worked Ed got thinking. Why would Ollie have three digits clean while the rest unchanged. He tried to imagine how this could be.
He pictured Ollie going into the house. He doesn’t clean up but immediately goes to the icebox to perhaps grab a sandwich put together by his wife before going off to a church function, and maybe an apple. As he ate, using his right hand, holding his food with his dirty thumb and two fingers, perhaps they became clean as he ate.
The thought made Ed sick.
But then Ed had a different thought. He pictured Ollie going into the house and walking over the kitchen sink and carefully washed his right hand so that only the thumb and two fingers were clean. At first that was a more comfortable thought. But then he reconsidered. In the first scenario, Ollie is way too comfortable with mud and manure getting into his mouth. But in the second scenario, it would be so strange to clean his right hand in such a way to make sure that most of his right hand, and all of his left hand remained unclean. It would actually take more effort to do it that way than to simply wash both hands.
Upon further reflection, Ed realized it would have bothered him less if Ollie came out of his house with fully dirty hands. At least then he could imagine that Ollie wore gloves while he ate, or maybe was especially skilled with using spoon and fork without defiling his food. Or maybe Ollie decided not to eat.
Ed could not figure out which story was correct, but he would never ask. It must remain a mystery.
I don’t know the answer, but the story does remind me of the passage in Matthew 23:23-25.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…”
There are differences, but it occurs to me that there are similarities to the story. The pharisees and scribes were described as people who clean the trivial and missed what was more important.
It sounds a bit like the first scenario…. swallowing a camel as they drank, like Ollie being defiled by his dirty hands. In this sense, their “piety” actually defiles themselves.
It also sounds a bit like the second scenario. Picture the hyperbole– carefully cleaning the outside of a cup while a camel is overflowing the inside of the cup. The behavior is then obeying the details of the law while ignoring the spirit (true substance) of the law, One could argue that it may actually be hard to pick and choose one’s piety to address trivial matters while ignoring issues of true love and justice.
One might imagine Jesus being more comfortable with a person who lives without a fastidious hypocrisy much like Ed preferring that Ollie had come out with dirty hands.
So the mystery remains, but maybe the story is not as strange as it first seems.
The previous post was dedicated to the illustration of the story wheel. It is based on work by Sacks, as well as Crossan. But it seemed valuable to me to add ‘antimyth.’ The reason is that a myth ultimately establishes the underlying worldview of the culture. In fact all of the story types (the weakest connection is Action Stories) here are bound to their respective cultures. An Antimyth is a myth that challenges the myth that resides in theculture.
Myth and Antimyth
Remember, with this functionalist view of myth, it is not about being true or false… rather its function in a culture. Myths can as easily be true and historical as they can be fictional or legendary. The underlying myths of Christianity are considerably different from the underlying myths of Islam and Buddhism. As such, the myth in one faith would be an antimyth in another faith.
That is why one is left in a bit of an awkward situation when someone says something like… “Don’t Christians and Muslims (and perhaps other groups) worship the same God?” The argument behind that is that we both worship the one true God, creator of all things. If we both believe there is only one God who is god by His own nature and that that that same God is one and only creator of the universe, it seems silly to say that we worship two different Gods. But, in truth, “God” in Christian culture is not a propositional concept but the God of the story of Christianity, revealed mythically in the Bible. “God” of Islamic culture is also not a propositional concept, but of the Quran and the Hadith. The question is actually whether the myths of Christianity and Islam are compatible. If they are not compatible, then the gods of each are not the same since God of Christianity is the God of the Bible, of the incarnation and of the resurrection, while Allah of Islam is the one of the Quran and the hegira. I would argue that the Bible and Quran correct function as antimyths to each other… despite have some common threads at times. After all, it is hard to imagine any two great works that would disagree on everything.
An apologue supports or defends a culture. Fables and folktales typically do since they tell stories commonly with morals that are consistent with the belief structure of the culture. Most movies ultimately seek to support the worldview they are in. “A simple, ordinary guy, gets caught in a web of evil machinations. Although not a “born hero” he sees his need to stand up and be counted to help the innocent common people. Despite horrendous odds, the little guy is able to conquer with the help of a few unlikely supporters.” This story could be seen as an American “Action Story” since it doesn’t have a very strong lesson. On the other hand it can be seen as a rehearsing of the Classic American myth of an honest, hardworking, individualistic “David’ who through courage and good American know-how is able to fight off the evil “Goliath.” But perhaps it is best seen as an Apologue in that it defends the American David myth indirectly by perpetuating it through an “action story.”
An action story describes the culture without a lot of judgment. One could argue that most stories are action stories. On the other hand, one could argue that there are no true action stories since all stories are linked to the culture and support or challenge them in some manner. That is why Action story covers a region of the story circle both on the supporting and challenging side of stories. Action stories always speak to the culture but do not have such conversation as their main focus.
Satires poke fun a cultural traits. While some are sharp, they typically lack a strong positive message. They commonly point out something wrong or unworthy through humor or light attack. But they don’t directly point the way to something better.
Parables subvert culture. They take a myth and twist it to challenge the underlying cultural presuppositions. They don’t seek to replace the culture. Rather, to open the thinking of cultural members to something bigger than their previous views could accommodate. Parables are different from antimyths since they broaden thinking without necessarily replacing old views.
Which of these are the most valuable in Christian Literature? Probably all of them have a place at times. However, when the purpose of the writing is to change the mind of the reader, a countercultural (rather than anticultural) approach is probably best. Thus parables should have a prominent place in Christian writing.
Now I know some of you don’t believe kites can think and speak. To be honest, I don’t believe so either. However, let’s just assume that this one particular kite could, to avoid unnecessary arguments later. A family that loved to go to the park owned this particular kite. On a fine windy day, they would go to the park and launch their kite into the air. These were glorious occasions. As you might imagine, the life of a kite tended to be quite dull most of the time. As the wind caught the kite and sent it (seems strange to describe a kite as a he or a she) hurtling into the air, it really felt alive, and maybe in a sense it did become alive.
The kite looked around in wonder and thrilled at the twists and turns it could make while tethered to the ground. The kite was very happy. He was up a couple of hundred feet, yet it seemed like miles. But then he noticed them.
They were big fluffy white things going by above him. As you might guess, they were clouds. The kite thought to itself, “Soaring like this is great, but look at those things. They have nothing tethering them to the ground. They go wherever they like. They do whatever they want to do. I am stuck here as they see the world.”
As more line was let out, it got closer to some of the clouds. It could see that the gusts of wind that would send it twisting would pull off wisps of cloud and fling others together. It soon became clear that the clouds were not things of themselves, but a loose collection of unrelated things. The clouds would change in shape and would grow and shrink based on laws of turbulence and thermodynamics. I am not sure of the kite’s educational experience so I don’t know how much of this it understood.
“What a joy it would be,” thought the kite, “to be so uninhibited. Oh, I wish I were so unconstrained. But I have these sticks that force me to stay one shape, and I have this tail that forces me to stay pointing up.”
It watched further and saw one cloud come its way. It was lower than most of the rest. It soon became clear that the kite was going to be hit by this cloud. It did not know whether to be excited by the prospect or terrified. It had hit the ground a few times before, and did not like it. However, what did it feel like to be hit by one of these big white things?
Then it hit. Well, it did not really hit, more passed around the kite. It was amazed to find that it could hardly feel the clouds. It was a wet, yet feathery touch. The water drops just ignored the kite as they moved along however the wind drove them. It tried to talk to the water drops, but got no response. The kite did not know if they could not speak or simply had no interest in speaking
“Wow! What a rush!” said the ecstatic kite. “Wouldn’t it be great to be so unaffected by one’s surroundings. I have to worry about trees, power lines and the ground. I am also forced to fly only at the whim of the one who holds my line. But those water drops have no worries like that, they don’t answer to anybody or anything. Oh, I wish I could be like that.”
Wishes are funny things. Maybe they have no value or maybe they do. But sometimes wishes come true sooner than one would ever dream. In this case a gust came along and the knot that held the kite to the string gave out. In an instant it was free. However, before the kite could really begin to appreciate this new-found freedom, it sensed lack of stability in its flight. The wind began to toss and twist it violently and it soon found itself plummeting to earth. However, the kite never made it to earth. It hit the upper branches of a large oak tree. There it stuck with its crossbars broken, tail ripped off, and sail torn.
There it stayed for months as the elements broke its body down. Now, however, it rarely watched the clouds. Rather, it would love to dream as it watched kites dance in the sky.
This is a story I wrote a few years ago. I am preaching on Sunday and the topic is on the call of Jesus to deny oneself, and to take up one’s cross. To me, this includes sacrifice and willingness to suffer. But beyond that it also involves knowing one’s place or role in God’s kingdom. To deny oneself removes pride and covetousness (seeking what others have and one lacks). It also recognizes that constraints, limitations, unpleasant circumstances may actually exist for our own good. I decided not to use this story in my sermon… but it does remind me to appreciate God holding my string as I dance in the breeze.
This story was inspired by a poem by Howard McCord (“Ontology”) and by the expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Thomas lived in the desert lands as a child. There is much beauty in such barren places, but also many important things lacking. Thomas would ask his father, “When can I see a tree? I have heard of them, but I have never seen a tree.” His father would say, “I am sorry, Thomas. Here there are cacti. There are shrubs, but if you want to see a tree, you need to go to the great forest on the other side of those mountains you see to the East.
Thomas dreamed of a time when he could see a tree… no matter how little he knew about trees. He had some idea that they were alive, came up from the ground and had limbs or branches. Perhaps they were gigantic dwarfing the great rocks that were near his house. Perhaps they moved from place to place as they had the desire. His father’s explanations were not helpful. They were like a shrub but bigger. Some of the cacti were bigger, but apparently they were different from trees in some way.
One day as a young teenager he decided the wait was over. The mountains weren’t that far away. They looked like a short walk would get him there. Thomas could certainly go to the great forest and be back before dark if he hurried. Or so he thought. The mountains were much farther away than he suspected. As he walked towards them, it seemed as if they were drawing away from him as fast as he was walking. But as he arrived at a road in the desert, a truck came up. He had seen trucks before but never had been able to touch one, to say nothing of ride in one. But they stopped to see why this boy was walking so far away from everything. Thomas explained that he was seeking to go to the great forest on the other side of the mountains to the East. The two in the truck said they were driving that way and could give him a lift if he wanted.
What excitement! It was almost like flying. They were moving so fast it was hard to believe. Why didn’t his father have a truck. It is such an amazing thing. Even though the land was moving past them so fast, the mountains were moving much slower. It almost seemed like they were still trying to get away from them like when he was walking, but that they could not move as fast as the truck. Slowly, the mountains got nearer and they started to go up the mountains. The mountains were much bigger than they seemed back at home. It would have been no fun to walk, but it was amazing at how the truck could go up as easily as it went down. One day, Thomas reasoned, he must have a truck.
As they crested the highest point on the road, the driver pointed to a large area of green that seemed to go on as far as one could see. “There is the great forest you were talking about, I reckon. Where do you want to be left off.”
“I don’t know,” said Thomas. “Anywhere I guess. I wanted to see a tree, and my father said I could find one in the great forest.”
The other two laughed. “Yes. Yes,” said the other passenger. “If you go into the great forest and look around, I am quite confident you will see a tree.”
As the great green mass that was the great forest got closer, Thomas was amazed as the road went right into it and seemed to be swallowed up by it. “If this is a good place to see a tree, you can let me out here,” said Thomas.
Thomas left the road and went deeper into the great forest. It was hard for him to rap his mind and senses around it. It surrounded him and covered him. Even though it was noontime, the forest was shadowed. It was cool but also uncomfortable. It was still and yet constantly in movement. It looked the same in every direction and yet each individual part of the forest was unique. It was so very alive and yet was full of decay. The forest seemed so quiet at first, but when one took the time, it was full of strange rustlings from sources unknown.
Thomas stood and stared and listened, smelled and felt the forest. It was too big, too astounding to take in. It took him awhile to even remember why he came. But then it came to him. He was there to find a tree. He looked around and around. All he could see was forest. He could not even see the sun or clouds except if he stood in just the right places and looked up. He could not see the rocks except an occasional one covered with the cool moist green of the forest.
“There is nothing here but the forest,” lamented Thomas. “My father assured me that if I went to the great forest, I would see a tree. The guys in the truck also assured me of the same. They even seemed to think it funny that I thought it possible to be in the forest without seeing a tree. But the only thing here that is not the forest is… me.”
Thomas gasped as he remembered that a tree was bigger than a shrub, coming up from the ground like a cactus with branches. How foolish am I, thought Thomas, and how cruel of the others to play such a joke on me.
I am a tree.
Pilgrimages are part of Christianity. They are often done so as to “find God.” And Christianity is not alone in this. In fact, many religions take pilgrimage much more seriously than Christianity. With Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, for example, there is the implication, a least, that a pilgrimage can draw one to the divine. Christianity, unlike these two religions, is homeless. It has no set place that is sacrosanct. I have been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and to the Wailing Wall, and Gethsemene. These are nice, but God is no more there than in any other place. Some Protestants prefer to go to “The Garden Tomb,” not because of its historical connection to Christ’ burial and resurrection, but because it fits their own style of the Holy.
Christians have chosen other places to have pilgrimages as well. Whether it be Rome, Constantianople, Avignon, or others, pilgrimages seek an experience with the divine. Yet, God is not in those places more than in other places. As the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, asked after being challenged that he was sleeping with his feet pointed towards Mecca (a faux pas in traditional Arab culture), “In which direction is God not?” In Korean Christianity, there are Prayer Mountains in some parts of Asia, including the Philippines. I have never been to one, and struggle to see the appeal, but I did have a friend that went and stayed at one of these places for several weeks. It was never really clear to me whether she got what she was seeking. She is dead now, so she is on her last pilgrimage.
In the parable above, the boy went from a place where trees were not, to a place where he was engulfed by trees. The boy did not recognize this, because he did not really know what a tree was. His logic was a bit silly, yet understandable.
And I suppose that is the problem. If one doesn’t know what one is looking for, one doesn’t know where to find it. And if one knows where to find it, but doesn’t know how to recognize it, one simply will not find it. While we often like to quote the Bible that says that none seek after God, a large portion of humanity does seek connection with the divine. Yet, without help, they can easily create their own image of God– whether concrete or abstract– that ultimately falls short of their quest.
<Another nice “forest” parable in the Related Articles 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.
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.
Consider two different imaginary retail companies for a moment. The first company is Baguio Lighting Solutions (BLS). The other is Dagupan Lighting and Glass (DLG). Both companies want to sell lights of one form or another. But they have different methods to do so.
BLS is in a big building without windows. Sales people walk around downtown Baguio City and aggressively approach passers-by giving them flyers and telling them why they need to have proper lighting in their houses and lives. If people show interest, they are brought into the store and the lights are turned on to show their products.
DLG, on the other hand, is in a building with lots of windows. The lights are prominently displayed and, particularly at night, the beautiful lighting displays attract a great deal of interest. Salesmen apply less of a high-pressure approach but are always ready and able to talk about and show features of different lights to those who express interest.
Which method is better? Well, that is really hard to say. As far as selling lights, it could go either way. The hard-sell approach definitely works at times. Consider this the Proclamation approach. A lot of talk without much demonstration. On the other hand, the soft-sell approach also works at times… especially if the store is located in a good place. Consider this the Demonstration approach. A lot of demonstration with a little talk.
In Christianity, I believe that the Demonstration approach is the better approach. That is not to say that there is no Proclamation. Some have gone to extremes where a good Christian life is demonstrated with NO proclamation of God’s truth. This is not good. We need always to be able to answer questions regarding what we believe and who we trust (I Peter 3:15). But far too many go the other way. They go into the world sharing God’s truth while keeping the light of God’s love and care hidden “under a bushel”.
Let’s get back to the parable a bit. If both BLS and DLG can be successful with their individual methods, why should one choose one method over the other? I believe the answer is (in part) the number of people who are turned off by a method of proclamation without demonstration. In Christianity, expressing the Word of God without demonstrating the love of Christ looks AKE, CONTRIVED, SELF-SERVING.
It was interesting. I was planning to write this post and then saw a news item about Kurt Warner and Tim Tebow. Both are (although Kurt is retired) successful quarterbacks in American Football and both are committed and outspoken Christians. Tim often is clearly evangelical and evangelistic in his speech. That is great, but Kurt offered some advice. See “Super Bowl Hero Kurt Warner Gives a Little Spiritual Advice to Tim Tebow.” From this article, regarding Kurt,
I’d tell him (Tebow), ‘Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you’re living,” Warner told the Arizona Republic. “Let your teammates do the talking for you. Let them cheer on your testimony.”“I know what he’s going through,” Warner told the Republic, “and I know what he wants to accomplish, but I don’t want anybody to become calloused toward Tim because they don’t understand him, or are not fully aware of who he is. And you’re starting to see that a little bit.”
Proclamation is important but should (usually) follow a positive response to demonstration. Christian love should be demonstrated. It should be demonstrated in public, in private, in one’s head, heart, hands, and voice. Caring and serving others (as an expression of love for God and our fellow man) should be foundational to our proclamation… not an add-on.
Some consider social ministry as secondary or even counter-productive. But it is foundational to proclamation.
<Another work in progress. The topic of contextualization is fraught with challenges. I doubt I will ever get to a point of confidence on how best to contextualize either the Gospel message or theology. I speak of this more in my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture“>
Stephen Bevans in “Models of Contextual Theology” classifies the different forms of contextualization into six (I believe it was six) broad categories. It seems to me that the one that is the closest to the truth is the category he describes as “Counter-cultural contextualization.” He notes that some describe this form as “encounter contextualization” or “prophetic contextualization.” I don’t care for those terms since they appear to over-spiritualize a process that may or may not do justice to the term.
Counter-culture is not Anti-culture. A counter-culture rejects failings in a culture while living with and even affirming other aspects of that culture. This suggests that a counter-cultural contextualization requires:
1. Understand the symbols of the culture. If the basic characteristic of culture is its formation and utilization of symbols to provide the interface between individuals in society with the natural world, one cannot understand a culture without understanding its symbols…. its values, stories, myths, priorities.
2. Analyze the culture through the eyes of Scripture. This process requires solid exegesis to avoid the extremes of cultural imperialism on one side and excessive accommodation on the other. In some cases, the analysis may lead to modest rejection of surface behaviors. In other cases, important aspects of the worldview must be challenged. However, the good should always be affirmed.
3. Utilize the symbols of the culture to challenge it. This should be done sympathetically, affirming of the good within the culture.
This is what Jesus did in the form of parables. Jesus used relevant symbols within the 1st century Jewish culture to challenge aspects of that culture. Wine, vines, shepherds, sheep, marriage feasts, light, salt, slavery, and other items ingrained in Jewish culture were used to challenge common perceptions and values in that culture.
Parables are stories rooted firmly in the symbolic structure of a culture and attacks certain beliefs within that culture. Therefore, parables are an important part in counter-cultural contextualization.
Counter-cultural contextualization is grounded in solid hermeneutics. However, its application is definitely dependent on the creative and artistic.
How can this be done? It is difficult to train to be artistic. But a few things come to mind.
A. Learn the stories that people in a culture enjoy to discover cultural themes. In the US, a dominant cultural trait is achievement (the Horatio Alger, “rags to riches” motif). Another is the American Dream (economic ascendancy of a family over succeeding generations). Another could be the underdog as victor (David over Goliath). In the Philippines luck (suarte) and fatalism (bahala na) appears to be a major concern. Another could be the Philippine dream (Educating children so they can get good jobs overseas and send money back home). An additional one could be the appreciation of getting along with one another despite substantive disagreement (pakikisama). Another one (although starting to reduce) is the sense of inferiority to foreigners. These traits provide the language of stories, but also the areas to challenge. B. Read and watch stories that practice the form of the parable. This can be uncomfortable. A story that challenges an important part of American culture is likely to be considered Un-American. Such writers may be thought of as being Un-American, or troublemakers. The same is true of writers who act in the counter-culture of other cultures and nations. A story such as “Citizen Kane” or “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” can challenge materialism, for example. C. Master the short-story. I enjoy reading O Henry stories although they are decades old. They are often humorous, short, and have a twist at the end. Even today, “The Gift of the Magi” (O Henry) and “A Christmas Carol” (Dickens) are remembered and provide a challenge. A good parable can be harsh or dramatic, such as “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” but can also be given in humous form (a similar message is provided in the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” for example). Seek competence in the narrative form over the didactic, or polemic forms. D. Practice. One can look at existing stories and parables and see which ones can be used or modified for a new culture. For example, I have seen the story of the Prodigal Son reinterpreted very successfully for the Highlands of Luzon. The tribal groups here have seen far too many of their children leave the rice terraces, lured into the Lowlands and the big cities (such as Manila) and the corresponding vices there. The parable of the Prodigal Son only needs modest changes to be very relevant in showing the father who overlooks the shamelessness (walang hiya) of the son and risks personal status to forgive and restore him into the tightly knit family and village. E. Live it. Jesus created stories by living them. Jesus challenged legalistic cultural rules of His time by violating them. These violations (grabbing wheat berries on Saturday, or not ritually washing) may not be understood in a different culture, but they were easy to recognize in that culture. Stories are not simply told… they are lived out.