Parables & Fairytales
Modern advertisers know that story is a powerful tool to get a message across. Entire commercials can be written as miniature narratives easily burned into the minds of potential customers. Stories grip us and stay with us when sometimes facts and statistics might not.
Jesus knew this too.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus teaches in parables – simple stories in language that was accessible to his audience, stories that communicated truths about the kingdom of God. He loves similes and metaphors. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, he says (Matthew 13:31). It’s a man planting a field (13:24). It’s yeast (13:33). It’s buried treasure (13:44). Jesus draws upon folk tales, familiar plots, and images of everyday life that he knows will resonate with his listeners. He can quote old adages and explain complex theological truths till the cows come home, but it’s the stories that stick with people.
As Christians, we’re often careful about the kind of things we read and watch – and we should be. Sometimes it can seem easier to just put a ban on fiction altogether, and stick to accounts of things that really happened. This principle doesn’t go very deep, however. After all, Keeping up with the Kardashians is (allegedly) real, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is entirely allegorical.
"Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said." - C.S. Lewis
Still, some argue, there are enough good true stories out there that we don’t need the fictional ones. But we need only look as far as the gospels to see that Jesus was willing to use non-historical stories to teach about his Kingdom. It does not seem to be a question of whether these stories are absolutely necessary, but rather a question of whether they are helpful.
Sure, we may say, Jesus told stories about everyday life. They might not have happened to real people in his neighborhood, but they were realistic. For the most part, that’s accurate – but not always. In Luke 16:19-31, you’ll find a very strange parable – one with elements that contradicts both Jewish and Adventist understandings of the afterlife. A rich man is cruel to a poor beggar, Lazarus, and when they both die, the rich man goes to hell and Lazarus goes to heaven. From hell, the rich man can see into heaven, and even call across to Abraham, who seems to serve as some sort of heavenly diplomat or moderator. It’s very strange. It contains a cosmology that directly contradicts our doctrines. And yet it works as a literary device, a way of imagining the consequences of our actions and dramatizing how our tangible realities reflect spiritual ones.
In short, Jesus understands the teaching power of the fairy tale. He understands that, in the words of Narnia author C. S. Lewis, “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.”
Paul later carries on this tradition in Acts 17, quoting from pagan (Greek) poetry and philosophy in order to dialogue with the debaters and intellectuals in Athens. Did Paul agree with and endorse every single assumption or conclusion of the literature he quoted? No. But that did not prevent him from being familiar enough with the tales of the cultures around him (Paul grew up in a predominantly Greek culture in Tarsus) to find helpful bits of truth that helped him relate his faith to the rest of the world.
Still, these general principles get complicated when we take them out into the contemporary world. What kind of stories should we be consuming? Does everything have to teach us a valuable lesson, or can we read and watch things just for fun? Is there a place for pagan and/or secular stories to teach us about the the real world, or even the Kingdom of God? Movies, books, and television primarily tell us stories, but what about other media? Music? Games? Can these be used to tell a Christian story? Are there any inherently Christian forms of media or arts that are not also secular? Where do you personally draw the line about what you will consume?
Read Matthew 13:10-17, where Jesus explains why he teaches people in parables. This passage can be confusing, and there are two major ways people have interpreted it. Some believe that Jesus is saying that he teaches in parables so that people will not understand what he is saying - as an act of condemning their unbelief. Others think that it means he is teaching in parables because the people would not be able to understand if he simply told them the direct truths about the Kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus has to use parables because sometimes that is the only way to communicate with unbelieving minds. Which do you think it is?
Look at Luke 16:19-31. What is going on here in this parable? What is the actual point of the story that Jesus is trying to tell here? Why does it conclude with this statement? “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” The parable in Luke 16:19-31 tells a story that includes details directly contrary to the Adventist understanding of heaven and hell. Can we learn from (and tell) stories that have details different – even directly contradictory to – our worldview?
In the beginning of his book Coraline, Neil Gaiman writes that “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” What does you think this means? What are stories you’ve read or watched that have taught you that “dragons can be beaten”?
Look at Acts 17:16-34. Paul quotes from Pagan philosophers and even from pagan hymns (17:28). He quotes pagan literature in other parts of the Bible too (1 Corinthians 15:33, Titus 1:12, see this for more info). What do you think this means for us in our engagements with non-Christian literature and media?
Today, we have many examples of storytellers who have told versions or reinterpretations of the Christian story, from various experiences of faith. Rather than making broad, all-encompassing rules, it seems better to evaluate stories - or even elements of stories - on a case-by-case basis. Can you identify which parts of the Bible are being paralleled by the following story examples? Why might these stories be helpful or unhelpful for your faith?
J.R.R Tolkien, a staunch Roman Catholic, retold the story of the fall of Lucifer in The Silmarillion - essentially the pre-Lord Of The Rings Genesis story of Middle Earth - where Eru Ilúvatar (God) casts Melkor (a fallen angel, later Morgoth) out of heaven to Middle Earth. Illúvatar works to bring goodness out of Melkor’s evil. Much later, seemingly insignificant people like Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee must resist the power of temptation in order to defeat Sauron - a demon in service of Morgoth. Does this story hold any parallels to The Great Controversy? Does that make the story more acceptable, or no?
J.K Rowling - an Episcopalian Protestant - tells the story of Harry Potter, a boy who defeats the evil wizard Voldemort by allowing himself to be killed, and then returning from death to finally destroy him. During the final battle, Voldemort’s demise is preceded by the decapitation of Nagini, a giant serpent. Many have thought that the Harry Potter series promotes witchcraft, but Rowling seems to think that her story explores Christian themes. What do you think?
C.S. Lewis - a member of the Church of England - told perhaps the most famous Christian fictional story of the 20th century - The Chronicles of Narnia. In it, a Lion named Aslan - the Creator of Narnia and the embodiment of the Christian God in the Narnian world - sacrifices himself and rises again to redeem a sinful child and defeat the evil White Witch. During the series, Aslan tells the main characters that he also exists in the human world outside of Narnia under a different name (presumably, Jesus), and that he brought them to Narnia so that they could learn to know him better in their own world. Do you believe that this could be C.S. Lewis himself hinting at why he wrote the Narnia books? Do you find Aslan’s story to be reflective of Jesus?
George Lucas - raised in the Methodist church but later becoming interested in Buddhism - gave us Star Wars. In it, the virgin slave Shmi Skywalker gives birth to a son, Anakin Skywalker, who is said to be the Chosen One of an ancient Jedi prophecy. While it is said that he will destroy the evil order of the Sith and bring balance between the Dark and Light sides of The Force, Anakin is seduced by the dark side and becomes the evil Sith Lord Darth Vader. It is only after experiencing the underserved and unconditional love and compassion of his own son, Luke Skywalker, that Anakin is redeemed and sacrifices himself to destroy the Sith - himself included - and restore order and balance to the Force and the Galaxy, finally fulfilling the prophecy. Throughout the series, characters encourage each other with benedictions like “trust in the Force”, “the Force works in mysterious ways”, and “May the Force be with you.” This story is perhaps the furthest from a purely Biblical analogy on this list. Do you see any echoes of Christian themes in Star Wars? Anything contradictory to Christianity?
Read Romans 14 - the whole chapter. What principles does Paul give here for dealing with controversial practices in Christian community? What does it not mean? (i.e. Is 14:5 about the Sabbath?) What does it mean for us to not "cause a brother to stumble"? Could this apply to arts, media, music, stories?
- What does Paul mean in Romans 14:16 when he says "So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil"? Read this verse in context before you answer.
The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther famously stated "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." (On The Freedom Of A Christian, 1520)
- Read through Luther's treatise. How did the context of the Protestant Reformation shape his views on Christians being required to observe standards not based on the Bible? How might these concerns manifest themselves in our day?