The power of parables

December 29, 2008|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

A reader recently complained that religion is based on "just a bunch of stories." I replied that the stories happen to be true - not necessarily as science, history, or journalism - but as an indication of how things are and how people are meant to be.

One reason adults become skeptical about religion is because their faith rests on stories they learned in childhood. Jonah and the Whale, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and Noah and the Ark are vivid tales that appeal to the imagination rather than to our intellects.

Jesus of Nazareth was a master storyteller, and the faith of his followers rests on the wisdom behind his simple parables. There was no fire and brimstone in Jesus' preaching. He neither harangued nor moralized. Instead of issuing commands about how to live a faithful life, he chose to tell stories, leaving it to his listeners to conclude how the tales applied in their lives.


In contrast to later generations of preachers, Jesus was remarkable for his silences, which lent poignancy to the tales he chose to tell. Rather than speak or write about himself, he left it to others to preserve his stories.

Parables are products of the imagination. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, all the characters are fictitious. The same applies to the story of the Sower and to the Good Samaritan.

The kind of fact one finds in a newspaper story can be verified, but is seldom retained in one's memory or changes one's behavior whereas the truth behind parables is that the situations and characters are believable, and the story itself calls for the reader or listener to change his or her life.

Religion is the ongoing adventure of God and his creatures. The effectiveness of Jesus of Nazareth relied less on the directions he gave his followers than on the tales he told them.

Two of the most celebrated storytellers of the last century trusted the truth of imagination. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis crafted tales of fanciful characters and imaginary times and places - moral adventures in which good clashed with evil, demanding courage to secure redemption. Today, long after their death, Tolkein is celebrated worldwide by adults and children for his Lord of the Ring books, and Lewis for his Narnia tales. Their stories live on not only in books but in spectacular films.

In their personal lives, Tolkein was a cradle Christian, whereas Lewis was raised to believe in science and reason alone.

One evening, the two friends argued for hours on end, as Lewis disputed whether the Christian faith could be proven. At length, exasperated with his truculent friend, Tolkein countered that it is the Christian story, not its historical and scientific details, that calls for faith. If Lewis trusted the stories he himself created, Tolkein insisted, then his friend should surely believe in the stories that Jesus told.

Lewis the storyteller was disarmed by Tolkein, and his conversion to faith was as swift as St. Paul's. He became the greatest religious apologist of the 20th century.

(David Yount's new book is "How the Quakers Invented America" (Rowman & Littlefield). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and

The Herald-Mail Articles