Taming the Parables image

Taming the Parables

I've just started reading Amy-Jill Levine's Short Stories by Jesus, which is a provocative and very Jewish rereading of the parables (and when I say provocative, I mean that it's endorsed by John Shelby Spong rather than by J. I. Packer). In her mostly excellent opening chapter, she makes the case that Jesus's parables are frequently domesticated and robbed of their subversion, sometimes despite the best intentions of preachers, academics and students, a phenomenon she calles "auditory atrophy." She then gives six reasons why this is true:

1. In a number of churches, the parables function as children’s stories, opportunities for a show-and-tell (mustard seeds) or a song (“Don’t wanna be a Pharisee ...”)

2. Many clergy do not take the time to develop the challenge of the parable, whether it be on social policy, family dysfunction, or how to love our enemies. “It’s much safer, in many congregations, to assure the faithful how our souls are saved through divine grace rather than to suggest that our societies are saved through personal and corporate aid to the poor.” [The reverse is probably true as well, but in my context, the point stands.]

3. The expectation of congregations, who anticipate a monologue to entertain rather than a motivation towards reconciliation, restoration and renewal.

4. The clergy actually do think that they are presenting a challenging message when in fact they are, unintentionally, repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes. She gives all sorts of examples - the Jews thought God only loved righteous people / the rich were better than the poor / women were bad / nobody should eat mustard - and I’m guessing the rest of the book will give more.

5. “The study of homiletics, the art of giving sermons, is moving increasingly away from a historical-critical focus on the biblical text and more toward communication theory, toward what is known as “practical theology”, or toward readings from one’s own subject position or social location.” [Or, we might add, keeping an audience’s attention for forty minutes.]

6. “For some on the more liberal side of the theological scale, students of the Bible are also pulled away from history by the allure of newer approaches - including pretty much anything beginning with “post”, as in “postmodern,” “postcolonial,” “postcritical” and so on.”

Food for thought.

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