If I ever did a “Stuff Christians Like” entry, it would be about parables.
Not the ones in the New Testament, though yeah, they say they like those too. No, a lot of Christians love making parables to “teach” and “reach” non-believers. They think parables show their own timeless wisdom and gentle hearts, and they love acting like Jesus, who is depicted as using them all the time.
Too bad they’re all so uniformly awful at making them up! And too bad Jesus wasn’t doing what his followers think he was doing in issuing his famous parables!
When I was a Christian, I saw any number of my peers try their hand at making parables. Biff loved them and thought he was stupendous at making them when he really was not, not at all, not even a tiny bit; I was always too embarrassed on his behalf to tell him so. Even today I run across Christians making up ludicrous parables to illustrate this or that spiritual point. One recent memorable example I saw involved a Christian’s earnest tale of a pair of Christian missionaries who ran across a primitive African tribe that practiced pedophilic incestuous marriage; one missionary “just tried to love them” while the other upbraided them and forced them to stop this depraved practice–and at the end, the “loving” missionary helped the tribe destroy itself completely, while the mean one helped the tribe prosper. The Christian storyteller’s point was that gay sex is ickie. Of course. Couldn’t you tell? He told the story in very loving detail; I could tell he’d polished and honed his prose to a razor’s edge over time and retellings, and also that he’d trotted this “parable” out in front of church friends often enough that when the non-believers in the audience pointed out its many flaws, he got genuinely upset and butthurt. But he’s hardly the only Christian making up parables to reach the lost. Hang around any board where Christians mingle with non-Christians, and you’re almost certainly going to see one of these modern parables being handed out like loaves and fishes to the masses by some benevolent, indulgent Christian.
Whether it’s about how a consummate gentleman never wants to intrude on others so that’s why God just stands by while school shootings happen, or about how parents are always telling their kids “because I said so” to make them do things they might not understand so it’s okay if the Bible’s god acts in completely inscrutable ways, parables abound. The effect is that of rubbing a puppy’s nose in its own mess–unpleasantly paternalistic and superior. “I’m so much more above you that you wouldn’t even understand if I just told you what was going on, so I’m going to tell you an ultra-simplified and overly simplistic little story instead and hopefully you’ll get the idea from that because otherwise, dang, you’re too dense for the straight scoop.” The parable-teller is also desperately hoping that nobody’s going to dissect the parable too much, because they rarely stand up to even casual scrutiny.
It makes me wonder, as an ex-Christian, why these Christians–and by extension Jesus–don’t just say what they damned well mean and forget the prancing and mincing around the truth. It makes me wonder if these Christians realize that by using parables instead of speaking plainly, they are following Jesus’ example of trying to deliberately confuse outsiders. After all, in Mark 4:10-12, we see Jesus saying this:
And when (Jesus) was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and sins should be forgiven them.
How much more clear does this NT author need to be in explaining that not everybody is meant to understand all of Jesus’ words, and that his version of Jesus didn’t even want everybody to understand them all? (PS: Very loving, isn’t it?) How much more obvious does it need to be that parables were not a gentle teaching aid for the vague and befuddled unwashed masses but rather an in-group demarcation line? You know those verses about “if any man have ears to hear, let him hear”? That’s cluing people in that right there he’s giving a Cool Kids’ Club Members Only reference. Only those who are “in” will understand the story. Parables are like my constant Rock & Rule references: meant to separate the cool from the uncool (and people, I’m just warning you right now that I will continue to use them until you all realize just how wonderful that movie is, so you might as well get on the stick here and figure that out so we can move on).
There’s a fine reason why parables have this function, and that is that Christianity has some unsettling similarities to ancient mystery religions. Remember those? They were members-only religions devoted to “mysteries,” or revelations that only the members were supposed to have. Getting into one wasn’t usually easy. They had secret meetings, often underground, and shared their knowledge verbally and only as members worked their way up through the ranks. So basically, yes, like Scientologists and Freemasons. But it gets worse/better. According to one scholarly paper, they shared these similarities: Their members shared the symbolic experiences of their gods, they had secret rites for their initiates, offered cleansing from sin, and promised a happy afterlife. Sound familiar at all? One of the most damning things about Christianity is just how similar it is to these other contemporaneous pagan mystery religions.
Learning about these distressingly similar religions gave me a huge headache when I was a Christian. Christianity was supposed to be special–it was supposed to be this unique religion that’d taken that part of the world by storm from the get-go. It was a big issue for me to learn that no, actually, it was really just one of a bunch of similar religions featuring similar concepts, similar god-figures, similar miracles, and similar demands and promises. Learning that parables existed in other religions was an equally big issue–because they certainly do. Look up Islamic, Buddhist, even pagan parables. Parables just aren’t unique to Christianity.
I’d thought they were Jesus trying to be as plain as possible for his followers, but that does demand that we ask the question: why did he have to? Why couldn’t he have just told us “Look, guys, you need to do this, this, and this to get to heaven” or “God will be happiest if you live this way”? Why was that so hard for people to understand? Why did Jesus think it was better to use a confusing story whose meaning people would spend thousands of years arguing rather than just say plainly what he wanted? Considering that eternal souls are at stake here, one would think he’d know that his coy act, this mystery-religion tactic of his, would backfire for more people than it’d work on. It’s almost as if Jesus didn’t actually want everybody possible to get salvation. Can you say “whoopsie”?
Parables are meant to weed out believers from non-believers, cool kids from social rejects. They were meant to reinforce the idea that Christianity had the elements of “mystery religions” that its early followers craved and expected. Even Jesus knew that non-believers wouldn’t get his parables. He flat-out designed them so non-believers wouldn’t even be able to understand them. So I’m not sure why Christians keep using them around non-believers like witnessing aids, like they were verbal Chick tracts or something.
If I could suggest anything to Christians regarding their use of parables, it’d be this. Stop it with the parables already. You are almost certainly horrible at making them, and whoever you’re telling them to is probably going to get more out of your words if you just spoke plainly. Just say what you mean. Back up any claims you make with evidence. Don’t try to be coy and then pull the “oh-so-much-more-evolved-than-thou” card when your audience fails to be blown away by your amazing Christlike wisdom. You’re just a person, like me, like that barista in the Starbuck’s, like anybody at the grocery store. Come to our level. Be with us. Talk to us as if we were your brothers and sisters (because that is what we are) instead of unruly and foolish children to your wise and benevolent father figure. I don’t want your pearls of (non-)wisdom. I want your brother- and sisterhood. Leave the parables to Jesus. It’s bad enough that he used them, but when you try to do so, the attempt is all but guaranteed to backfire.