Friday, July 4, 2008

Parables & Arguments

As you can see, part of my mind is still occupied with exploring the secret of parables. You may have also observed that I rarely, if ever, achieve anything like the compact elegance of Jesus' parables. More than ever, I am in awe of His artistry.

Clearly, "shorter is better." In my opinion, my strongest entry so far is the Parable of the Ring. It's a transparently simple concept that requires very little set-up, description, or blah blah blah. It comes to the point and hits you between the eyes with it, getting away while you are still stunned. As for the longer and more elaborate ones, I find myself endlessly compelled to redact them. Even after many revisions, stories like the Landlord, the Lawsuit, or the Hospital still don't have the impact of the Ring or the Cookies.

Another that becomes clearer is that the distinction between "To what shall I compare this generation" parables and "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God" parables is roughly equivalent to the distinction between Law and Gospel. When the story begins with a reference to the Kingdom of God, it tends to be an uplifting and encouraging demonstration of the work God has done for us in Christ, or the work He still does for us through Word and Sacrament. When it announces a similitude to the present generation, it usually comes off as an indictment of our errors and our rejection of God's promised gifts. "Kingdom" parables are comforting and reassuring. "Generation" parables are sharp-edged weapons of religious controversy.

Which is not to say that both types of parables, and others besides, aren't equally argumentative. My last effort illustrates an "in-between" type of parable that simply presents two alternatives and illustrates the contrast between them. It uses a thesis-antithesis approach to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, truth from falsehood. But if this parable's argumentativeness is more obvious than in other cases, it is because contrast is the focus of its argument.

The "kingdom" parables make an argument too; as it is in the world of men, so it is with God. If the logic of the word-picture holds up, so does my argument about the nature of God's kingdom. Likewise, the "generation" parables make an argument: the present situation is like the scenario described in the story. As one should not be allowed to happen, neither should the other.

Let's look at the concept of "argument" through our hermeneutical spectacles. Too many of us think "argument" means a contest of loud yelling and hurtful sarcasm between two people who never give serious thought to what each other is saying. Properly used, the word "argument" means "ordering the evidence so as to convince and persuade" - to convince others that your conclusion is right; to persuade them to act accordingly.

Argument is a key ingredient in all true and effective communication. Far from being necessarily hurtful, arguments can bring comfort, confidence, and joy to people who need them. Argument is also a constant but often unrecognized player in all Bible interpretation. Without making an argument, there would be no way to translate the dead letter of written revelation into a living word that moves hearts and changes lives. Between every piece of Biblical data and every truth claim, moral value, or doctrinal assertion, there is a connecting argument.

Don't be fooled by anyone who claims that he is simply telling you what the Bible says, without "doctrine" or "interpretation" or "argument." If he says one thing that isn't a verbatim quote from a highly literal translation of Scripture (if not the Hebrew or Greek original), he is giving an interpretation, making an argument, pronouncing a doctrine. Don't even be fooled if what he tells you seems to follow (by effortless, airtight logic) from the Bible verse(s) he chooses to read at you. As we saw when we looked at the concepts of analogy of faith and context, etc., the Bible passages he doesn't choose may be as important, or even more important, for considering the doctrine in question.

I'm going to be out of touch for a couple days. Don't give up on me! I'll be back with more gab about hermeneutics, parables, symphonies, books, and who knows what else.

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