On Truth and Parables

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In the front flap of Peter Rollins‘ new book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossibles Tales, he writes: “Religious writing is usually designed to make the truth of faith clear, concise, and palatable. Parables subvert this approach. In the parable, truth is not expressed via some dusty theological discourse that seeks to educate us, but rather it arises as a lyrical dis-course that would inspire and transform us. In light of this, the enclosed parables do not seek to change our minds but rather to chnge our hearts.”

In the ensuing thirty-three short parables – most averaging less than five hundred words – Pete creates a space for us to encounter Truth through story, to let it infect our own stories in such a way so that they are changed. In the introduction, Pete continues this thought: “A parable does not primarily provide information about our world. Rather, if we allow it to do its work within us, it will change our world – breaking it open to ever-new possibilities by refusing to be held by the categories that currently exist within that world. In this way the
parable transforms the way we hold reality, and thus changes reality itself.”

The Orthodox HereticAfter each parable, Pete offers a short commentary, but not, as he is quick to point out, to stand as the definitive ruling on what these parables mean. “…t is helpful to approach these commentaries in the same manner as one might approach the descriptions that are often found beside a painting in an art museum. These descriptions are not designed to explain the art, as if the art were somehow incomplete or incompetent, but rather act as a means of providing a place of entry for the uninitiated.”

I had the chance to hear Pete share several of these stories, in his easy-to-listen-to Irish brogue, when he was in Nashville for a day or two back in March, and hearing his voice when you read them makes the reading experience more enjoyable. Leading up to the release of the book, Pete taped himself reading several of the parables and uploaded them to YouTube, which you can watch here, here and here.

I’ve been reading a couple parables a day for the last week or so, letting them soak in. Here is one of my favorites

Finding Faith

There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful but unusual gift. He found that, from an early age, when he prayed for individuals, they would supernaturally lose all of their religious convictions. They would invariably lose all of their beliefs about the prophets, the sacred Scriptures, and even God. So he learned not to pray for people but instead limited himself to preaching inspiring sermons and doing good works.

However, one day while traveling across the country, the preacher found himself in conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction. This businessman was a very powerful and ruthless merchant banker, one who was honored by his colleagues and respected by his adversaries.

Their conversation began because the businessman, possessing a deep, abiding faith, had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. He introduced himself to the preacher and they began to talk. As they chatted together this powerful man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. He spoke of how his work did not really define who he was but was simply what he had to do.

“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work I find myself in situations that challenge my Christian convictions. But I try, as much as possible, to remain true to my faith. Indeed, I attend a local church every Sunday, participate in a prayer circle, engage in some youth work, and contribute to a weekly Bible study. These activities help to remind me of who I really am.”

After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher began to realize the purpose of his unseemly gift. So he turned to the businessman and said, “Would you allow me to pray a blessing into your life?”

The businessman readily agreed, unaware of what would happen. Sure enough, after the preacher had muttered a simple prayer, the man opened his eyes in astonishment.

“What a fool I have been for all these years!” he proclaimed. “It is clear to me now that there is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.”

As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned home. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs, he began to find it increasingly difficult to continue in his line of work. Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, rather than a man of God, he began to despise his activity. Within months he had a breakdown, and soon afterward gave up his line of work completely. Feeling better about himself, he then went on to give to the poor all the riches he had accumulated and began to use his considerable managerial expertise to challenge the very system he once participated in, and to help those who had been oppressed by it.

One day, many years later, he happened upon the preacher again while walking through town. He ran over, fell at the preacher’s feet, and began to weep with joy. Eventually he looked up at the preacher and smiled, “Thank you, my dear friend, for helping me discover my faith.”


29 Comments

  1. Jonathan Rogers

    OK, I was composing a response to SD’s outstanding post yesterday but never got around to posting it. Stephen’s post touches on exactly what I wanted to say about SD’s. The great value of fiction (and poetry) is that it gets us out of the habit of reading for ‘precept.’ It also gets us out of the habit of thinking we know what we’re going to get out of a text before we read it (something I’m exceedingly guilty of when I read the Bible). When you read a story or a poem, you enter into it expectantly, eager to see what it’s going to do to you. I do, anyway. That’s a good habit to be in when you read Scripture.

    One of the great delights of some of those more obscure passages in, say, Kings or Chronicles is that you don’t already have well-formed opinions about what you’re supposed to “get out of” the story. You just wade in and see what happens–in the story and in the reader.

    There’s a yawning chasm between our experience of the parables and the experience of the original hearers. We’ve had centuries of people teasing out the precepts we’re supposed to get from the parables. We tend to go straight to the precepts…”See, the workers who showed up at the field early represent X, the workers who showed up later represent Y, and the farmer represents Z.” We don’t give ourselves the luxury of sitting there scratching our heads like Jesus’ original hearers surely did…”But it’s not fair! Why should the workers who showed up at the end of the day get the same pay as the people who worked all day?”

    We’ve got it all figured out–or think we do–before we ever enter the story. And therefore we never do enter the story. A story (or a poem) manipulates the reader’s heart. It makes you feel something, and then it says, “There–see that feeling right there? That’s what I’m talking about…” You’re busted, or you’re comforted, or you’re discomfited, or you find yourself longing even more than you did before. Precept doesn’t do that–or not so well.

  2. E

    One of the best classes I ever took was a class on parables. Fascinating time of reading, exploring and even writing parables as part of the class exercise. The point of the class was to ask the question, “why did the Best Teacher ever use parables as a primary means of teaching?” And by extension, shouldn’t we use parables in our own communication and teaching as well?

    Some folks will talk about parables as “indirect discourse” meaning the nature of the story is almost “overheard” in a sense… or you’re sharing a story to be encountered WITH someone instead of talking AT them.

    Peter Rollins could just say, “E, the true gospel isn’t about being religious.” But the parable dramatically changes the way I encounter that idea.

    In the same way, Jesus could just say, “The Samaritan is your neighbor.” And then wade through the ensuing debate about why they don’t do it right, etc… but the way the message is framed and delivered we encounter the thought ourselves and make the decision on our own and the door closes behind us.

    May go without saying for this group, but I would also recommend Kierkegaard for folks interested in this topic. Thanks for sharing Stephen.

    Don’t just read these. Start writing your own!

  3. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Exactly, E. In fact, Pete, along with his publisher Paraclete Press, is running a parable writing competition in conjunction with the release of this book. The contest is open for submissions for another couple weeks, until the end of the month. Details at Pete’s blog.

    Also, in the acknowledgments, Pete thanks Kierkegaard, “for renewing my love of parables and inspiring me to try my hand at writing them.” Is there a specific book of Kiergegaard’s you would recommend in this regard?

  4. E

    K would mostly spring parables out of a larger (and dare I say denser) context… but from the direction of looking at parables specifically, there are a couple of “greatest hits” options that would be a good place to start.

    http://www.amazon.com/Parables-Kierkegaard-Kierkegaards-Writings-Soren/dp/0691020531

    Not that it is important, but while I loved language, music and parables for years… I’m a new kid to the Rabbit Room.

    I just have to say how much I’ve appreciated the warmth, thoughtfulness and community of the posters and folks leaving comments. I don’t think I’ve hit something yet that didn’t make me laugh, make me think, warm my heart or make me say, “wow, me too!” Those are good things.

    So to Stephen (and all), a heartfelt thank you. The words and heart you express have a bigger impact than you know.

  5. Tony Heringer

    Stephen,

    Thanks for the post and the links to the videos — they are great! I read something this morning that touched on one of the themes here. Its from Paul David Tripp’s book Instruments In The Redeemer’s Hands: People In Need Of Change Helping People In Need Of Change. He is contrasting the Bible to an encyclopedia – the point being that is how we often treat it – in a topical way.

    “When I use an encyclopedia, I do not need to read other articles to understand the one I am reading at the moment. One article has no connection with the another; there are no overarching themes. In the Bible, however, every passage is dependent on the whole, and the whole Bible is held together by interdependent themes that run through every passage like rebar, the steel that reinforces concrete. If I handle Scripture topically, I will miss the overarching themes at the heart of everything else God wants to say to me. These themes give me a sense of identity, purpose, and direction that will fundamentally alter the way I think, desire, speak, and act. They will go to the root of my problem, producing change that lasts.”

  6. Nathanael

    I just had the privilege of seeing Peter, along with Rob Bell and Shane Hipps at the “Poets, Prophets and Preachers” conference. (I think I saw Matt Conner there.)

    Peter was great. His telling of the parables does open them up in a way that I don’t get when I read them. Maybe it’s his Irish dialect. He is a live wire in person.

    I’ve already submitted two parables of my own to the competition. I am grateful for his encouraging us to participate in this way. It has really opened up my own writing.

  7. Matt Conner

    Yeah I was just at the conference. Wish I could have met you. I was there with a few guys from our church and it was a powerful time. Pete Rollins was fantastic and was the highlight of the days there, for our group at least. He’s cursing and offending every religious sense in the place and still gets a standing ovation. I came home and ordered every book 🙂

  8. Nathanael

    I’m a little disappointed in you, Matt, that Father Tim was not the highlight of your time.
    You’ve tipped your hand, my man.

    😉

    Yeah, Peter was great.
    That standing o was well-deserved.

  9. Matt Conner

    haha… i actually thought the father tim thing was lame and a waste of time. But no matter. I guess they thought it was comic relief time or something.

  10. c.Lates

    “What a fool I have been for all these years!” he proclaimed. “It is clear to me now that there is no God above, who is looking out for me, and that there are no sacred texts to guide me, and there is no Spirit to inspire and protect me.”

    so the guy became an atheist, but because he gave away all of his money to the poor he is someone that we are supposed to emulate? doing religious ‘stuff’ can be a bad thing, but denying God is infinitely worse.

  11. Tony Heringer

    c.

    Whoa! I think you are pressing too much meaning into the parable. Typically parables drive to a single point. For example, if you dissect the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16) you might come to the conclusion that Jesus is promoting unfair business practice when the point is that the world is often more clever than we are in dealing with each other or the proper handling of temporal treasure for Kingdom purpose.

    In this case the man thought his faith was solely in his religion or religious work. He had separated that from his business life. When he jettisoned that false gospel, he was convicted by the real gospel of grace. The parable ends with the man falling at the feet of the preacher (which reminded me of Christ and Nicodemus).

    His atheism was there long before his confession of it. He was living the life of what many theologians call “practical atheism” – i.e. profession of Christ as Lord but living as if it made no difference whatsoever. End the end, I believe he gives a good confession but then again, it is a parable.

  12. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Exactly, Tony. Thanks.

    c.Lates, as I read the parable, the man wasn’t denying God as much as denying the conception he held of God that didn’t have any affect on how he actually lived, that allowed him to think he was following Christ while being a corrupt businessman. One topic that Peter Rollins returns to again and again in his work is how easy it is for us to be “practical unbelievers and theoretical believers.” This parable is a further exploration of that theme.

  13. brent g

    I went and bought this book, b/c the parable was compelling, and thought provoking. However the commentary after each story was less then impressive. Some of it I would go so far as saying it was heretical. I hate to be Mr. Negative, and I am a faceless name to all of you, but he promotes things that are not true or right.
    I think that one problem that seems to be occuring is often is the “throwing the baby out with the bath water” affect. We don’t like the way the church has been or is. We want to be a people who love, and a people who care about social issues. Yet it seems many people including Rollins are willing to forsake the truth of God to promote the goals of God. There must be a way that we can embrace truth and active loving faith.
    I don’t mean to be offensive, but as I read I was saddened and worried.
    By God’s grace

  14. Tony Heringer

    Brent G.

    No worries man. This place is for honest and open exchange. Can you give us an example of the commentary in question?

  15. Sarah K.

    I haven’t read the book– I’ve just read through some of the excerpts on Amazon. so I’ll admit I don’t have a fully contextualized view of Peter Rollins by any means. but brent’s comments very much represent the reaction I had to what I read of his book.
    One example follows his parable “The Book of Love.” after which he comments that the church often loses sight of the fact that the gospel is fundamentally about love and that “the law was made for people, and not people for the sabbath.” True.
    He also says, “Yet we must not forget that while faith is expressed in love, it is from a genuine desire to understand what this word concretely means at any given time that people develop various theories, laws, and creeds. The problem arises only when these provisional structures become unyielding.”

    I think that I prefer my creeds unyielding. my laws, too.

  16. Sarah K.

    p.s. I guess I’d take it back somewhat about the laws. I like constitutional amendments. I can vote because of our yielding laws.
    I’m not budging on the creed though.

  17. Tony Heringer

    Sarah,
    Interesting, I’d like to read the whole thing (parable and commentary). I can’t find the excerpt in question on Amazon. Can you post the link here?

    Stephen,

    Since you started this post, any thoughts lad? Rollins is somehow linked to the emerging church movement. Since there is also an emergent church movement I can’t keep up what each represents. Both have ruffled some feathers. Perhaps this is part of that, I’d still like to see the context.

  18. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    But Sarah, that requires an assumption that the creeds are inerrant, a pretty incredible leap, in my opinion, and not one that I share. And you’ve already made the point I would have made about laws.

    This take on the creeds, on the concept that in our finiteness we can fully understand God, is bafflingly expressed in some circles as saying that man is totally depraved, in all of his actions and thoughts, but that the depravity does not extend to our thoughts about God, our vain attempts to define what He can and cannot do.

    And just for reference, here’s what Pete writes immediately before the excerpt Sarah quoted:

    This tale attempts to express the central message of Christ, namely love. All of the complex ideas, theories, laws, and creeds that are generated in the attempt to come to terms with one’s faith can be boiled down to this one word and arise from it. It is this that we see being witnessed to when Jesus is asked about the most important law. In response, he replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

  19. Nathanael

    Creeds are helpful, but we are finite creatures trying to capture in words the aspects of an infinite God.
    To say that our creeds are inadequate might be the understatement of the week.

  20. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Tony, I’m aware that there are some circles that find some of Rollins’ ideas heretical, though I am not in that group. Do I agree with everything he says? No. But I don’t know of anyone with whom I agree with everything they say.

    Some of Rollins’ ideas are associated with the emergent/emerging church, but, contrary to popular opinion, the emergent/emerging church is not some evil monolithic entity. It is groups of people seeking to know God, doing the work of theology and what it means to love Christ and love your neighbor in a contemporary context. Some of what comes out of it is good, and some of it is bad. Rollins’ actually does some of better work coming out of it, more informed historically and philosophically than a lot of the rest of the stuff.

  21. Tony Heringer

    Stephen,

    Thanks for the follow up. I’m with you bro. We all have unique theological brands, so we’re never going to be in 100% accord. We need to take everything back to the Word. That’s our compass, lens, filter, etc.

    I have heard folks talk to this issue. For example, I listened to this a while back: http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/why-theyre-not-emergent-kevin-and-ted-on-sbe/ Can’t recall much about it.

    But, its just not been on the radar for me. I know it tweaked one of my buddies but other than his angst over it I didn’t get much detail. I think I’ll go back and listen to this Steve Brown broadcast. He usually does a good job of airing out this sort of thing.

  22. Sarah K.

    Tony, when I try to post a link, it just goes to the original “look inside this book” page. So I’d suggest searching for “The Book of Love” in “Search Inside this Book.” Full disclosure: I think to read the last few pages of the parable, I would end up searching a phrase on the last page I could reach, and continuing on from there. I realize that now that I’ve disclosed my sinful Amazon browsing habits, I’ve completely forfeited any credibility I could potentially have had.

    Stephen, I think that the word “inerrant” carries heavy connotations. I obviously don’t think that just because you call something a creed or because it’s been handed down, it’s inherently reliable. But I do believe that scripture is inerrant, and that in as far as a creed reflects something clearly taught in scripture, it shares its trustworthiness. When Timothy made the good confession, (1 Timothy 6:12), I imagine he was doing more than describing his own mental state at the time. It seems to me that to make a confession, as Timothy made it, or as a creed ought to be said, (out of conviction, not as a ritual), is to take a stand, to say these things I hold to be true in the face of the world, the flesh, and the devil, even when my own head and my own heart give it the lie. And so I don’t think that the most basic creedal elements of our faith can or should be yielded without giving up the whole enterprise of the Christian faith. Historically, I think the creeds came out of conflict, as the church found a need to state what should not be compromised, and discarded gnosticism, arianism, etc as heresies. I’m grateful that they weren’t flexible on those points.

    You and Nathanael both pointed out that creeds are inadequate to describe God. Fair enough. But he has revealed certain truths about his nature in the scriptures, and when a creed states one of these, it tells us something that is both meaningful and reliable. The fact that it doesn’t say everything doesn’t mean that it doesn’t say something, and something worth holding on to. Words are weak containers, yes, as are humans. God nonetheless speaks through both.

    p.s. I really don’t think Peter Rollins or emergent church people are heretics. since it came up. And I thought that his parable “Transfigurations” was beautifully phrased and strikingly true.

  23. brent g

    Tony H
    I realize that this is a little late in the conversation. So I will just give you the one thought that bothered me the most. It comes from the story “Being the Resurrection” an interesting story. Again it isn’t the story so much as the commentary that scared me. Here is the quote:
    “Not only does this cause us to rethink the necessity of believing in the Resurrection, it can actually cause us to wonder whether this belief could sometimes act as a barrier to really affirming its reality.”
    I realize what Rollins is trying to imply which is understood better in his close of this commentary:
    “This story explores the controversial possibility that Christians are not called to believe in the Resurrection but rather are called to be the site where Resurrection takes place.”
    Both of these statements seem to be full of contradiction. How can I live what I don’t believe. But more importantly as a Christ follower the Resurrection is everything. Paul said if it is not true “we are of all men most to be pittied.” I must believe for it to take root in my life. Denying or cheapening the Resurrection is denying or cheapening Christ.
    There are several other less abrassive short comings in this book. Where to make a point he is willing to sacrafice truth, but I only read half of it and couldn’t handle anymore so maybe it all changes later.
    By God’s grace

  24. Tony Heringer

    Sarah/Brent,

    If you have a chance, give the Steve Brown ETC. broadcast a listen. I listen to it again last night and I think they deal with the points you are raising and maybe raise some other questions or thoughts to ponder. I also love the way these guys will tackle an issue in a winsome way. They are not shy about stating their position, but they also aren’t just busting on the folks they disagree with. I consider Steve Brown ETC. the Rabbit Room if it were an hour radio broadcast. Some day I’ll goad somebody here to post on it.

    As for the book, I think at times, folks write these kinds of books to stir the pot. That is not bad if the intent is to get others to think. I’ve come to some of my greatest understanding in wrestling with authors whose worldview ran contrary to my own.

    I hope to get a chance to read the excerpt Sarah, but I’m thinking that by now we’ve run this post to its conclusion. Thanks for sharing guys. That’s what makes this place great.

  25. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Tony, here’s my two cents: I listened to the podcast and wasn’t a fan of it, mainly because I didn’t think they really had anything to say. I’m not interested in reading that book, either, due to the misleading title. As Andrew Jones and Scot McKnight (two guys worth listening to) discuss in this blog post, that book isn’t a critique of the emergent church but rather of liberalism, and the authors are dishonest in their labeling.

  26. Tony Heringer

    Stephen,

    Much like the subject of this post, you need a provactive title to hook folks. I think that they got to the crux of the issue in the interview. The thing that folks are getting up in arms about appears to be re-packaged liberalism. The ideas I think are just things that the church has always been about — which the woman in the interview (can’t recall her name) got into at the end. As Solmon said, “There is nothing new under the sun…” 🙂

    Selah

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