I think of him first as a storyteller, this Jesus of mine. That might sound sacrilegious to some. He is after all Savior and Redeemer. Lion and Lamb. But to me, I would not know him as any of those had he not spoken to me first in the gentle whisper of story. Given half a chance, I would sit at his feet and listen even now. I’d follow him through those dusty streets. Stop and ponder in that crowded marketplace. Or lounge on a grass-filled hillside. Prodigal sons and lost coins, rich fools and fig trees, talents and tares – I would cross my legs and sink to the floor, chin on hands, to hear his stories. So kind of him to write them down so I can read them at my leisure.
This has been a long year for me. And I find myself grappling with Story. I am a student, learning and listening. Over and over again I return to the parables. And I wonder what they mean to me as a writer.
Spend any time in Christian circles and you’ll eventually hear this: “Jesus knew how important stories are. That’s why he spoke in parables.” Those thirty short anecdotes sprinkled through the first four books of the New Testament are the subject of countless sermons. Yet I’ve never seen them used to teach the craft of storytelling.
Several weeks ago this realization led me to a friend, a former NFL player and PHD in Biblical Studies. The book he handed me weighs more than my two-year-old.
“Do I need a doctorate to read this?”
He gave me a cheeky smile and a bone-rattling pat on the back. “If you want to understand the God of story, this is the book.”
Turns out, the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery is a fascinating read – if you have time to absorb all 1058 pages. Sorry to say I skimmed. My interest then, and now, lies in a mere two pages beneath the heading of “Parable,” a portion of which reads:
“The narrative qualities of the parables are a virtual case study in the “rules” of popular storytelling as we find them in folk narrative, including a reliance on archetypes…Only one of the characters (Lazarus) is named, yet as we encounter the characters of the parables we sense that we have known them already. They are universal types, possessing the traits that we and our acquaintances possess. Never has such immortality been thrust upon anonymity. We do not need to know the name of the woman who first loses and then finds her lost coin: she is every person. The family dynamics of the parables of the prodigal son and the two brothers whose father asks them to work in the vineyards could be observed at any family’s breakfast table… We come to realize that it is in the everyday world of sowing and eating and dealing with family members that people make the great spiritual decisions and that God’s grace works.”
And that’s the power of story, isn’t it? To see ourselves in the narrative. To squirm and wrestle. To celebrate. I find it interesting that overt religious references in the parables are rare. Jesus never inflects his images, never says, “Oh, by the way, that bit about the Prodigal Son is really about you and God. Wanted to make sure you caught that.” Instead, he lets me see my reflection in the story. He leaves me to wonder which part I play.
And I learn from this, tapping my thoughts onto a hard drive while my babies sleep. That’s what it means to show instead of tell. He doesn’t have to elaborate. I am shown the holy in the routine: planting and harvesting, a wedding invitation, baking bread, lighting a lamp, traveling to a distant town. The parables teach me to trust that readers understand the unspoken language of story.
“A final folktale feature of the simple stories Jesus told is their reliance on archetypes – master images that recur throughout literature and life. We think at once of such motifs as lost and found, robbed and rescued, sowing and reaping, sibling rivalry. Often these archetypes tap deep wellsprings of human psychology.”
Master images. Master storytelling. Simple and profound and, honestly, beyond the reach of my current abilities. I wish I could say that I fully understand how to apply the literary tools found in the parables to my own writing. But the truth is that I’ve only scratched the surface. Yet even as I struggle to learn this craft, he says, “Come, let me tell you a story.”