Christians (Still) Suck at Making Parables

Christians (Still) Suck at Making Parables April 9, 2019

Hi and welcome back! I just realized that the blog’s heading straight toward its sixth anniversary!!! WOW! Where does the time fly? I wanted to take a quick detour to show you one of the two incidents that inspired me to begin blogging. This first incident involves a terrible Christian who trotted out a miserable little fantasy he called a parable. Today, I’ll show you a rundown of what parables are, why Christians’ parables generally suck, and how one of those Christians helped inspire me to begin blogging.

(Vassil, CC.)

Parables: A Primer.

parable is a metaphorical story told to illustrate a point. Parables bear some similarity to fables, which feature animals and inanimate characters, but they only center around humans. The three synoptic gospels contain varying numbers of them, but there are a dozen or so unique ones in total.1 In those three gospels, Jesus tells each parable to his followers.

Parables often relate some little story about everyday human life, offering at the end some pithy religious message about that story. If you think of them as being a bit like 17th-century political cartoons, you won’t be far off. They’re over-simplistic, with crude caricatures drawn to shoehorn their ideas into existence.

Christians almost always believe that Jesus tells parables in the gospels to illustrate some amazingly deep truth about the Jewish subcult he was trying to start.

But they’re wrong. I’m not sure how it’s even possible to be more wrong than they are here.

That’s not what parables are at all, the way I see it.

Why Jesus Used Parables.

Often, in my direct experience, these Christians think that parables provide illumination that plain instruction could not.

They think that because they haven’t actually used their reading-for-comprehension skills during their Bible studies. Jesus himself tells his followers exactly why he uses parables. He doesn’t do it to teach people. Nor does he do it to bring lofty, exalted topics down to earth so regular folks can understand them.

He uses parables to confuse the people he doesn’t want joining his mystery cult.

And he flat-out tells them so in Mark 4:33-34:

As soon as Jesus was alone with the Twelve and those around Him, they asked Him about the parable. He replied, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables, so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.’”

Whoever wrote these stories didn’t care about teaching the huddled masses of the world. They didn’t care if anything in these stories made people “think,” as I saw one Christian claim. These aren’t koans, FFS. Jesus constantly gets weirdly peevish when his followers don’t understand his stories, in fact. (That confused me when I was Christian, but it sure doesn’t anymore. Of course he got upset!)

Parable creators wanted to weed out the undesirable riff-raff that they didn’t want to see reaching Heaven. Had Jesus spoken plainly, then everyone would have understood, and that defeated the whole point for him.

“Ears to Hear.”

Christianity itself possesses no really new or earth-shattering ideas. Instead, its creators picked and gathered ideas that were floating around that part of the world at that time. They based their new sect on Judaism, then borrowed some distinctly Hellenistic ideas gaining popularity like the notion of people’s souls existing eternally after their bodies have died (which is on our dance card). Then, those creators whizzed the two contradictory worldviews together with a jigger of ideas from the mystery religions that had been popular for a while already.

A mystery religion, at its heart, brings together a select group of people around a central mystery. In this context, a mystery is esoteric, deep supernatural wisdom. Sects constructed around mysteries existed all through the Classical period and through those first few centuries CE. One popular one involved the Eleusinian Mysteries, which practiced rites centered around the goddess Demeter’s search for her kidnapped daughter Persephone. Another wildly popular mystery religion centered around the god Mithras.

But mystery religions didn’t accept just anybody as a new member. Instead, they sought out and initiated only certain people. If you got into a mystery religion, you were special. The god of that group had hand-chosen you somehow. You were headed for the cool afterlife.

That’s why Jesus couldn’t just say what he meant in his parables, and why he so often ended them with stuff like “Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.”2

Gathering the Faithful.

Thus, when a Christian dribbles out a parable and nobody understands it or agrees with it, that Christian can sniff and huff that this audience didn’t “have ears to hear.”

But they remain absolutely certain that these stories function as excellent teaching tools–and even aid in evangelism. Many Christians believe that these stories draw in people who take an interest in looking super-duperdeep, dude.

In reality, parables remain a confusing mess. They often illustrate regressive, backward ideas common at their time–when they’re not outright horrifying listeners by showing them things about Christianity that nobody compassionate or rational could ever accept as the behavior and thinking of an omnimax good and loving god.

For example, many of today’s fundagelical Christians express admiration for the Parable of the Talents. This story confirms everything these ultra-authoritarians love about runaway, unfettered capitalism, systemic inequality, and brutal punishment of people who don’t use their resources the way fundagelicals think they should. However, I’ve also seen more progressive Christians claim that this understanding is all wrong, and it really teaches that inequality is baaaaad.

Gosh, y’all, if only there were a way for their omniscient, omnipotent god to communicate clearly! If there only were, then we could put those communications into a book and make sure every follower of this god got a copy of it. Then nobody would be confused! Oh well. It was a good idea, wasn’t it? I thought it was.

The New Parables For Today.

By far the most poorly-advised of all parables are the ones self-important Christians invent, however.

Whenever you run across a Christian saying that anything in the Bible is easy to understand and simple in nature, watch out. Chances are good that person’s going to pop out some real whoppers and humdingers given some time and enough metaphorical rope. Indeed, the chances of hearing a homemade parable get closer to 100% the longer we let them talk.

Oh, sure, the characters in this homebrew parable will be crudely-drawn and behave in bizarre ways. And sure, the central premise of the story usually gets wanders off and gets completely lost in the weeds. Very often, the conclusion the story’s creator draws won’t even halfway relate to the story itself.

But me-oh-my! These creators are just so proud of their homely little babies! They preen and parade around as if they think they’re Jesus himself.

For Mini-Jesuses.

And in a very real way, that’s exactly what’s going on.

The Christians who love telling their own parables literally think that they’re being just like Jesus. And they love that idea. They think he created and told quaint, simple little folktale-like stories to illustrate great and vast supernatural truths for the poor widdle normies aching for his wisdom.

So that’s what they think they do.

If anybody rejects them and their stories, well hey, the riffraff weren’t meant to understand anyway–because if there’s one thing that toxic Christians know, it’s exactly what the god in their heads thinks at all times.

And that’s where we find ourselves touching the ground again.

We’ve set the Wayback Machine for about six years ago.

A Parable for the Ages.

This comment thread no longer exists on the original news story (about a Jesus-posturing sportsball player), but I recently tracked some of it down. Here’s the paraphrased gist of it:

Two missionaries visited an indigenous tribe of, I kid you not, 100,000 people. This tribe practiced incest and child-rape. And alas, their “sins” caused future generations to be born with all kinds of terrible disabilities and disfigurements. As a result, they died out more quickly with each new generation.3

And somehow, this huge tribe had never once even heard of Christianity.

Eventually, two Christian missionaries visited them. One missionary, who was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, taught this tribe about his god–a vengeful, bloodlusting god of authoritarianism and “cuz I said so” rules. He told them to stop that incestin’ stuff immediately. But the second, who was progressive and liberal, taught them about a sweet god of love, mercy, grace, and redemption. This second missionary never told them anything was wrong with what they were doing. In fact, his god was A-OK with it.

The tribespeople were mean to the first missionary and called him bigoted and incest-phobic. BOO HISS! Instead, they listened to the second missionary. They thought he was loving and kind, while the other was hateful and mean.

Just a few generations after the arrival of these missionaries, the tribe had completely died out. They should have listened to that first missionary!

The moral of this Christian’s story: same-sex couples should not be allowed to access their legal right to marry. Also, Hell terrifies this Christian and therefore should terrify everyone else.

Really. That last bit really was the endgame for this TRUE CHRISTIAN.™

So, SO Much “Christian Love.”

When people called this nutbag-for-Jesus out for his “parable,” he doubled down–and then tripled down. Nothing could dissuade him from admiring his own creativity and ingenuity in making this story. NOTHING. Not even knowing for 100% sure that his conclusion didn’t even halfway follow the story itself, as bad as it was in the first place, could make him doubt himself.

Worse, though, he had no idea that he’d just revealed some very telling details about himself and his belief system. He didn’t realize the level of racism, colonialism, bigotry, and more that his story showed everyone who saw it “with ears to hear.”

For example:

  • We know exactly why incest is bad. We don’t need to issue religious rules to forbid it. Science works.
  • No tribes that huge lack a basic understanding of Christianity.
  • This story smacks of white bigot-for-Jesus dread of People of Color (POC).
  • If a tribe really was super-close to extinction, changing their mating strategies wouldn’t have helped.
  • Liberals do way more than conservatives do to end child abuse of all kinds. Two words: child cages.
  • When we hear about child abuse, it sure seems like there’s almost always some toxic Christians involved somewhere there.
  • Gay people are not ignorant, child-raping, incestuous monsters! ARRGH, WTF?!?

The Vortex.

I went back-and-forth with Missionary-Parable Lad for a short while. He finally took a vow of silence after I finally demanded evidence for his assertions that gay people represented serious harm to children or that any kind of afterlife existed. As you might expect, he’s still out there merrily spewing fundagelical talking points like they’re the aftereffects of a bad meal.

I wasn’t surprised to see him vanish when pressed like that. But I felt weirded out by his sheer pride in this ugly poop-sculpture he’d created. It felt like this wasn’t the first time he’d displayed it, if that makes sense. He acted like he’d shown all his Christian friends the sculpture and they’d all loved it. As a result, he seemed downright pouty at the poor reception he got with us over it.

This Christian represented a swirling galactic vortex of entitlement, narcissism, and willful ignorance. His display fascinated me as much as it disgusted me. I wanted to know what had brought him and his pals to that level and why they acted and thought like that.

Most of all, I wanted to know if Christianity had caused that vortex of nastiness, if Christian leaders had simply taken advantage of the cultural forces already creating it, or if those leaders themselves had fostered and helped birth those cultural forces.

In short, I’d experienced the mother of the scientific method: the sudden thought of “Huh, now that’s weird…”

Using Time Wisely.

Even more, though, I was beginning to realize just how much time I spent talking about what felt like the same stuff over and over again–reinventing the wheel. I was starting to crave a space for my ideas that would be more permanent and organized. And I wanted to write about those ideas in a format that would allow me to take the time I needed to unpack and contextualize things the way I like.

Maybe there existed a better way for me to do this.

And now here we are. 

Thank you, my dear friends, for the last six years. I appreciate you so much. Thank you, thank you for supporting my work–through much-appreciated gifts, patronage through Patreon, clicks and shares, and of course through the inestimable gift of your time. May we have many, many more years ahead of us!

NEXT UP: I’ll show you how a Christian leader tried to teach complementarian men how to show empathy to their wives–and failed miserably. See you soon!


Endnotes.

The synoptic gospels are the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, because they’re so extremely similar to each other. John is the odd man out. (Back to the post!)

Some folks think this phrasing sounds very ableist, meaning it casts people who can hear as being more moral and superior to those who can’t, and casts not being able to hear as a morally inferior position. I use the phrasing here only because it specifically quotes the Bible. A better way to phrase it might be “Let those who can understand be the ones to receive this message.” (Back to the post!)

I wrote about this parable way back in 2013, at which time I remembered the Christian as saying the tribe was African. However, I don’t see that element in the thread six years later. It’s possible he edited his post by the time I rediscovered it, but since I don’t know, I’ve left that element out of this post. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.

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