Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part II

Tagalog: Rebulto ni Lapulapu.
Statue of Lapu-lapu.  Image via Wikipedia

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.

<Part of my Book, Theostorying: Reflections, on God, Narrative, and Culture>

Demonstration Versus Proclamation

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.

Shop with lighting, Framlingham
Image via Wikipedia

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.

Look at this page set up by on Biblical Passages regarding Care and Service. This is by Howard Culbertson. Below is also a poem from that page.

Passing The Buck

by Peter Maurin

1. In the first centuries of Christianity
the poor were fed, clothed, and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice
and the Pagans
said about the Christians:
“See how they love each other.”

2. Today the poor are fed, clothed, and sheltered
by the politicians
at the expense
of the taxpayers.

3. And because the poor
are no longer
fed, clothed, and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice
but at the expense
of taxpayers
Pagans say about Christians:
“See how they pass the buck.”

Counter-Cultural Contextualization

<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.

Modern Parables

Cover of "Stone Soup"
Cover of Stone Soup

We rely on the parables of Jesus… and in many ways, rightly so. As God’s Word, and the words of our Savior and example, the 50 some parables of Christ should provide a foundation from which much of our Christian thought and practice is built off of . But that does not mean that the parables of Jesus set the limits on our use of analogy, simile, metaphor in expresses ethical and spiritual thought.

As we reach out to a secularized (and sometimes hostile) world, we need to learn to express great truths that challenge the norm, in the form of stories that appear (at first to be) harmless.

Often the best stories to do this are children’s stories. Children’s stories seem harmless, so they are often accepted with less skepticism. Additionally, a good children’s story can teach many different ages. They may be effective with a simple moral for children, but have deeper relevance as one gets older.

Often the best stories are “secular” stories. We expect Christian stories to preach to us. People are less likely to presume that a story without a Christian tagline may hit us where it hurts.

Here are a couple of my favorite secular children’s parables.

1.  The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, Harper and Row. This is familiar to many people.  It was first published in 1964, and is still around. For a child, it expresses selfless love. This same message applies to adults. However, the message may even be stronger for adults who have greater experience with selfishness and love with conditions. Adults can compare the actions of “the boy” with that of the tree, and with their own actions and relationships. The story can be taken further to consider sacrificial love in terms of Jesus.

2.  Stone Soup. This is an old folktale, that was the basis of a book by Marcia Brown in 1945. It is one of my favorites. For children, it can simply be a funny story about the values of generosity and teamwork. For adults it can go further.

-I have used this in missions fund-raising to demonstrate that God can do great things with what is little and seemingly useless. Once again, the idea of generosity and teamwork is included.

-The challenging concept of “catalyst” can be shown in two ways. First in terms of the traveler, and second in terms of the stones placed in the soup.

If you have other examples… why don’t you add them here????


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.

Gospel Blimp Thoughts

“Outback” blimp at Peter O. Knight Airport in ...
Image via Wikipedia

“The Gospel Blimp” by Joseph Bayly is a great short story (or perhaps novella). It is a parable in the sense that it attacks commonly held “truth”.

The story revolves around an evangelical church in Middle America that wants to “reach their community for Christ”. This was motivated by the neighbor of one church member who was uninterested in being involved in religion.

Eventually, they get a blimp (dirigible, or whatever term you prefer). They used loudspeakers, streamers, and dropped fliers to get their message across. After a time, along came a businessman’s group and advertising agency. They combined the potential advertising power of the blimp with pro-business and pro-American slogans. Eventually, some people started seeing some flaws with the strategy.

1.  The message was passed at a distance. Rather than simply going to friends and neighbors and demonstrating human concern and divine love, messages (often annoying) were sent impersonally at arms length.

2.  The message was mixed with business slogans and patriotic banter creating a syncretism sometimes called “Americanism”. By mixing God’s message with human messages, God’s word is adulterated.

3.  The message was driven by finances. One cannot serve both God and Money. If we serve God, money can serve us. But if we serve Money, we don’t have God. When the message controlled by greed, the results are destructive.

This story is very relevant to me. We are involved in two ministries (Bukal Life Care and Counseling Center… and a local faith-based cooperative. Both of these have a ministerial side, as well as a business side. History has shown the challenges of organizations that try to maintain the delicate balance of ministry and business. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But constant reflection is needed. Some areas of reflection are:

1.  What is our motives for what we do?

2.  What are our priorities? What is our most important work? What is secondary or tertiary?

3.  Who or what do we truly serve?