Jesus the Storyteller: The Parables and God's Master Narrative
When I was a kid, one of my favorite activities was going to story hour at the local library. Actually, I spent a lot of my time there to begin with – the basement was totally devoted to the children’s section and included not only shelves and shelves of books, but also a yellow, plastic cubbyhole we called “the cheese house” and a reading corner with beanbag chairs and small tables that were always covered in books kids forgot to put back.
The back room of the basement, though, was where the magic really happened. On Saturday mornings, we gathered on the carpeted floor and waited for Mrs. B., the children’s librarian. Mrs. B. was an older lady with a passion for making kids love reading, and she always picked books that were funny, educational, and emotionally meaningful. There was also an activity that went along with the book she picked, where we played a game or made a craft that represented the story. On one occasion, we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and I remember making a felt caterpillar to take home.
Years later, as a college instructor who strives to be creative and engaging with my students, I can understand the care that Mrs. B. must have taken to choose just the right story and activities to share with our group. However, I also can’t help but think about Jesus and the way He ministered to people through language. One critical part of Jesus’ teaching was His ability to relate to His audience on a personal level, and frequently, He did this through storytelling.
The parables are one of the most memorable elements of the Gospels – brief, engaging stories that teach a heavenly truth using aspects of daily life. The people who heard Jesus teach would have felt a personal connection with the way He used Jewish customs, personal struggles, and moral dilemmas to illustrate His message. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus chose these stories because He wanted a way to speak directly to those who believed in Him: To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given […] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matthew 13:11-13)
For those who did and still do understand, though, the rewards are great. I teach a teen Sunday school class on the weekends, and last week, we talked about Jesus’ storytelling through the parables. When I asked them to name some of the parables, they enthusiastic fired off names that have great meaning not just to Christians, but non-Christians: the prodigal son, the woman who lost the coin, the ten virgins, the parable of the talents, the parable of the sower. There is a reason why these stories have endured and remained so important to culture at large – our ability to identify with them, as well as the timeless lessons they teach.
The parables, in a way, are like the original “flash fiction,” a modern subgenre of short stories that tells extremely concise stories with fully formed plots and characters, along with sudden flashes of insight and emotional connections. The parables, like these short stories, captivate our imaginations. Their characters are easy to relate to and we can clearly see ourselves in them. Most importantly, they teach us something critical about God and His relationship to us. They also, however, show us another important truth: that storytelling matters to God.
But it doesn’t stop with the parables. In the inaugural Creativity Matters entry, we talked about the importance of the first five words of the Bible: In the beginning, God created. God is ultimately the Author of the greatest narrative of all time: the creation of the world, its fall into sin, and God’s plan to redeem it through the death and resurrection of His Son. This narrative is interwoven into the fabric of who we are; in the words of Ecclesiastes, “He has set eternity in the hearts of man” (3:11). As a result, all artists cannot help but express this master narrative in their own work. This is what Christian scholar Jerram Barrs refers to as “echoes of Eden”: “The themes of all great art—whether produced by Christians or non-Christians—are the world and human life as they came from the hand of God; the world and human life as they now are subject to sorrow, sin and death; and the world and human life as we long for and look forward to their restoration.”
Ultimately, the implication of this statement is that there is really no such thing as “Christian literature” and “secular literature.” The genre of “Christian Fiction” is a man-made convention for the purpose of marketing books to a specific audience and reflects the false notion that some stories are “more Christian” than others. As Barrs argues, all fiction portrays in some manner the despair of our sin-ridden world and our longing for something greater. You might ask how the darkness that is often present in film, literature, and television can possibly benefit and edify people, especially non-Christians. It’s simple: God can use any created thing for good, especially stories that, consciously or unconsciously, teach readers and viewers about Himself.
I have a great example of how God used some pretty dark literature to help me recognize my need for Him…but you’ll have to wait until next week to find out how. Meanwhile, if anything I’ve said today interests you at all, I recommend checking out Barrs’s book Echoes of Eden, which provides not only some powerful reflections on the issue of art and faith, but also uses a variety of classic works as case studies to illustrate his point, including the works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkein, and yes, even Harry Potter. It’s a great read.