Why Parables Are Sticky
Parables, somewhat open-endedly defined as “any saying or narration in which something is expressed in terms of something else” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1987), are sticky.
I’m certainly not the first to notice this nor, I’m sure, am I the first to use that word to describe them. But there’s no doubt in my mind: such “sayings” are sticky.
Parables and all the ilk of tales and fables—which, contrary to what some might think, are not necessarily confined to fiction and literature—are gummy like glue, tacky with adhesive. They cling to us, to our consciousness, and to our emotional responses. Sometimes, somehow, they even get into our marrow. There they remain, meandering like rivers.
Once upon a time, and in a land that seems far, far away, such stories were continually evoked by our circumstances. They were invoked repeatedly in our interacting, observing, reading, and listening. We were frequently reminded of them by our parents, teachers, spiritual leaders, and friends. Even now, in what C.S. Lewis might call our “posthuman world,” we still glimpse them; but they are often ghostly and, even more frequently, one-dimensional specters of what they once were.
Although for many it appears that conscious awareness of parables has receded into the realm of myth itself, it remains true that parables are refracted through our culture, along the pathways of our lives. At times, they unfold like beautifully blossoming flowers. But on other occasions, they uplift like cobras coaxed to raise themselves from exotic baskets, weaving to and fro. Their dance is as mesmerizingly beautiful as the thought of their potential bite is unsettling.
Stories, perhaps, speak to us in the same way that a psychoanalyst might suggest that a repeating dream is the power of our subconscious reaching out to exercise due process on the so-called “subliminal self”: drawing us to a greater clarity, instructing us. It is possible that they are even warning us.
Parables are sticky, staining us like the residue of plants and earthly, growing things. When we tend, weed, and prune in our gardens we later discover stains on our knees and our fingers. Neither altogether pleasant nor unpleasant, the experience of being marked in such a way hovers mysteriously between them. It is a potently humane reminder of where we have been and what we have been doing; the natural dyes make a statement that we have been spending time in a creation that totally, utterly transcends us.
I think, at least for me, parables do pop up like recurring dreams. If you are a lucid dreamer, like me, when it happens perhaps you ask yourself, in a sort of sleep-like fog, “Ah, there it goes again…now, I wonder what will be different this time?” Such stories, whether fictional or not, are therefore mighty. The capacity to attach themselves to our lives and permeate our days like a proverbial haunting in and of itself gives them “gravitas.” And don’t forget their ability to morph like mythological shape-changers out of our disconcerting dreams, so that when you look at them in one way they appear to be one thing but looked at another way they are something different. Their angles can be myriad; their complexity is often quantum.
The multifaceted nature of these kinds of narratives is just one reason to read and reread Scripture. All the biblical tales including the parables told by Jesus are powerful. Not only is such potency their inheritance, as they are endowed with the natural force of such stories, but in Scripture they are delivered with the authority of the unapologetic logos of the Creator. This is also one of the reasons to reexamine many tales, told in many different ways and in different areas, that span the distance between poetry and physics. For, if you know how to look at it in certain ways, good physics is not so different from excellent poetry.
Some tales resonate with a positive force I welcome, because I think—at least in the moments of my lifetime so far—that I “get it.” This “getting it” is something, by the way, that even in the midst of the “warm fuzzies” of what feels like good, solid comprehension, makes me catch my breath and pause. I realize I had better go back and reevaluate. I’ve learned that being so easily in my comfort zone is a red flag, waving about so wildly it might as well be screaming, “Pay attention!” “Look again!” and “Hey you! What did you miss this time?”
Other stories resonate, but in quite a different way. They remind me of a splinter one can’t remove, but which every now and then produces a jarring, poignantly sharp, and aching pain—a token of the fact that often parables pull me outside myself, away from the safety of my familiar spaces and my preferred perspectives. At times, they wrench me out of my comfortable, analytically-configured and compartmentalized “boxes.”
Again and again, even familiar stories offer me something I’ve never encountered before. I gaze at them as though they are waterfalls wrestling with the air as it flashes with light around them. I stir myself from the mundane routines of my ordinary days and, like a lucid dreamer, I stand back and gaze. I let the hues of meaning swirl. Sometimes, what emerges is a river of tumult and not a lot of clarity. But at others, the waters harmonize (if only within a sudden blazing instant of stillness), and I see something I’ve never noticed before. I discover a treasure, a golden nugget, in the waters through which I’ve been sifting.
Dylan Thomas, in his “Poem in October” (1944), testifies to the strength of such stories when he calls to mind the wonder of childhood, drinking in the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world (as his poem also expresses, this is too often forgotten when the child becomes the man; sadly, we are in danger of forgetting it entirely in the 21st century):
“O may my heart's truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year's turning”
“I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
And the legends of the green chapels…”
Parables are sticky. No wonder all the greatest classical mentors and instructors—and by this I mean all those who have traditionally and historically been ipso facto classical, and also those who now, in the era of modernity’s apocalyptical educational experience, are turning back to what our elders knew and recognized as worthy—have taught through such stories.
In Norms and Nobility David Hicks discusses “classical education,” and as one who was classically educated and has spent over two decades classically educating others (with what light I have been granted at any given time), I recognize that what is encapsulated by the term “classical education” is, in fact, Story with a capital “s.” It is Story that speaks with the voice of authority about what and who we are, “Imago Dei,” and what our purpose is:
"Classical education eventually fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices: the impassioned debate of the many great figures of myth and history concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent in man. Through his imagination, the student participates in this dialectical confabulation . . . The Ideal is refined, and action and thought join inextricably in the life of virtue” (47).
Parables, stories, fables, and tales outstay most of their narrators as seeds; they are planted in the souls of attentive students. The fruit may well appear long after the tales were first told and heard, and the tales may often be the gifts that keep giving.
Lately—perhaps because of this season of life, where I am acutely aware of how much I continue to need instruction towards virtue, and because I have always been a lover of fables, parables, and tales—such stories have been much on my mind. Some are from the Bible. Some are tales I read or heard as a child. Others were recounted to me through great poems and works of fiction. A few are the stories told in paintings, music, history, mathematics, and science (for, never forget, all things tell their stories). They have clung to me over a lifetime and continue to disciple me long after their narrators have left my side.
Join me in this upcoming series about parables as I explore some of these sticky tales that have not ceased their teaching. Wander with me, wakefully, within some parables of sunlight.
by David Kern
by David Kern
by David Kern
by Joshua Leland
by Lindsey Brigham Knott