June 29, 2009
I’ve been thinking about how God addresses us obliquely or parabolically. A parable is something that is put or thrown alongside us. It is as though it comes at us on a tangent, nudging or inviting new perspective without, forcing our hand or limiting our freedom.
Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008) reveals her main character through a series of stories of a New England town. In some of these stories Olive is hardly mentioned, but all of the reveal something of her personality and circumstance, the web of relations that make up her life and shape her values. I am reminded both of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote (Norton, 1961) in which he writes “I am myself plus my circumstance”—as good a definition of the self as I have ever encountered—and, rather obviously, the Bible in which the main character is revealed through a series of stories over time.
Peter Rollins (the same one who is a leader of the emergent church community called ‘Ikon’ –see previous entries) makes much use of parables and has published a collection of them called The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Paraclete, 2009). He deals more extensively with his view of scripture in The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (Paraclete, 2008) He writes:
“Within the Bible we encounter revelation as the felt concealment of God. Rather than God being rendered manifest in revelation, this term can be seen to define a tight web of three interrelated features. First, a revelation worthy of the name involves ‘epistemological incomprehension’. In other words part of the evidence that a revelation has occurred lies in the fact that what we have encountered cannot be understood within our currently existing intellectual structures. Second there is ‘experiential bedazzlement’. Here the incoming of revelation is evidenced in a type of oversaturation in which our experience is overcome. One is overwhelmed by the incoming and short-circuited by it. Third, there is an ‘existential transformation’. When a revelation occurs, the person who is receiving it is never the same again.” (p.119-120)
Elsewhere he warns against being so caught up in the poetry and music of an opera that we fail to take account of the story that is being told. He tells the story of a great Italian General urging his men to leap out of the trenches and attack the enemy in his most commanding and sonorous voice. The general is amazed to find that no one is moving but are all commenting to one another ‘what a marvelous voice he has’. (p.139)
We might think of this as another way in which God honors our freedom, and also declines to speak with clarity form the mountaintop, but prefers parable and the revelation of character in stories over time.