Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology by Sallie McFague
Sally McFague is Carpenter Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Speaking in Parables was published in 1975 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Dick and Sue Kendall.
Chapter 6: The Story: Coming to Belief
Poetry, Christian poetry, is the most precise and direct metaphorical tradition, creating new contexts for images and symbols of the Christian tradition. One of the reasons that Christian poetry may be so rare in our time is that its direct approach, metaphorical transformation of traditional Christian language, is very difficult indeed in a time of disbelief. Eliot, our latest great Christian poet, avoids Christian language for the most part, seeking, as in the Four Quartets, for another language as the objective correlative of his religious experience. As we saw in the last chapter, popular poetry juxtaposes Christian language with contemporary analogues and contrasts and does thereby achieve a kind of ironic distance from that language; but direct contact with traditional language and symbols -- what Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins achieved -- is not easy, if it is even possible in our time.
Other genres provide other possibilities: the story and the confession, for instance. The story is a form very close indeed to our primary form, the parable, and its importance for Christianity can scarcely be overstated, as Amos Wilder eloquently insists.
When the Christian in any time or place confesses his faith, his confession turns into a narrative. When the Christian observes Christmas or Easter, in either case it is with reference to a story of things that happened.
It is through the Christian story that God speaks, and all heaven and earth come into it. God is an active and purposeful God and his action with and for men has a beginning, a middle and an end like any good story. The life of a Christian is not a dream shot through with visions and illuminations, but a pilgrimage, a race, in short, a history. 1.
The "history," whether fictional or real, whether told as a story or a confession, does not have the precision and purity of poetic "perspectival individuality." We find ourselves within the story, even more than with poetry -- or at least in a different way -- in the realm of indirection. 1b. The indirection of poetry is the indirection of discrete metaphor; the indirection of story is the indirection of parable as extended metaphor. The parable, as we saw, appears to be entirely underground except for the cracks in the surface, the stretching of reality, which allows us to see the new and unfamiliar context for life, unmerited love. The parabolic story may be, then, the indirect genre par excellence. But much more will have to be said to make that statement defensible.
Wilder provides us with some clues. His analysis of story in the New Testament focuses on the individual and on action.
We see, then, that one of the earliest and most important rhetorical forms in the Church was the story. This is theoretically significant. The new movement of the Gospel was not to be identified with a new teaching or a new experience but with an action and therefore a history. The revelation was in an historical drama. The narrative mode inevitably imposed itself as the believers rehearsed the saving action, including particular scenes of it that played themselves out in the market-place or the Temple-court, at a dinner with guests or in a synagogue. The locus of the new faith was in concrete human relationships and encounters. 2.
The gospel was identified not with a teaching or a "religious" experience but with an action or history played out in the particular stories of individuals. The stress on action over against teaching (the kerygmatic tradition) and religious experience (the mystical tradition) is significant, for it ties in directly with the way of the parables. Or rather we might say, the stress is on experience and belief only in action, that is, on the experience of coming to belief, the action the individual takes in response to an action on his or her behalf by God. The stress on the individual likewise relates story directly to parable, for in each of Jesus’ parables it is the life of an individual that is at stake.
The peculiar action of the individual which is at stake is, however, crucial and demands our attention. For, as I suggested above, it is not primarily his or her belief or religious experience that is at the forefront of such parables as the Wedding Feast, the Prodigal Son, the Laborers of the Vineyard, or such stories as those of Peter in the courtyard or Simon of Cyrene, but their lifestyle, or their belief and experience as lived, belief incarnated. One of the interesting things about the men and women in the Scriptural stories is that they appear to be caught in characteristic action, at that moment in their lives when they are most themselves, when they reveal themselves most precisely and definitively. Whether it is Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the younger son deciding to return home, the wedding guests refusing the invitation, or Peter denying acquaintance with Jesus, each person appears to be, as Auerbach says of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, "ripe." 3.
It is not intellectual belief or momentary experience that is revealed in these stories, but the style of life or belief chosen through a myriad of decisions and now come to a head that is revealed. They are, in other words, real individuals, fraught with all the amgibuity, complexity, and richness of those who possess real histories. Sometimes the clue to the reality of their individuality is given only by a phrase -- a widow, a younger son; sometimes we see the ligaments and joints of the history, as in Peter’s case. But in both instances we know that the parables and stories are being told about timeful individuals. Moreover, they were told to real individuals with equally dense histories -- to a man "desiring to justify himself," chief priests and Pharisees, a rich man, and so on.
To say that the parables are about the action of individuals and are told to other individuals is not to reduce the gospel to solipsistic ethics. That is what Bultmann comes close to doing, but there is little warrant in the parables for that direction. On the contrary, the story form, because it is concerned with individuals in action, demands just the opposite. Stories always project a "world," and, in contrast to lyric poetry, a very public world. The sort of action we find in the parables, for instance, is always decisions in regard to other people -- fathers and sons, masters and servants, husbands and wives, citizens and rulers. 3a. Moreover, to say that the parables are told to other individuals does not imply that they are didactic or moralistic. Stories, unlike poetry, are directed outward; the story is a public genre, inviting participation, empathy, identification. The parables are, I have tried to show, extended metaphors, and as such provide insight, but not in a way that can by any stretch of the term be called didactic. If the listener or reader "learns" what the parable has to "teach" him or her, it is more like a shock to the nervous system than it is like a piece of information to be stored in the head.
All of this is to say that to see the story as conveying an experience of believing or "belief in action" is to see it as very close indeed to the parable form, for, as we noted in our comments on the parable of the Wedding Feast, the implied question was, On what logic -- that of merit or of grace -- do you actually live your life? The question is neither "religious" nor "open"; it is a secular question having to do with the social, complex, ambiguous quality of actual human lives. The "religious" questions are there in the parable of the Wedding Feast -- the identity of the king and the relation of Jesus to the parable -- but they are given only in "soft focus." What we are reaching for is a way of saying that the lowly, contemporary "way" of the parable is also our way today, not only because it is probably the only way possible for us but because it is a if not the way of the New Testament as shown in the stories and the parables. 3b.
As I mentioned in Chapter 2, the novel owes its central concern with the development of character through temporal decision to biblical stories and preeminently to the story of Jesus, for if, as Erich Auerbach says, God was somehow with Jesus of Nazareth struggling with time and limitation, then human history must be the realm of the truly significant. And Amos Wilder says, "sometimes one is tempted to think that there is only one story in the world summed up in the formula of ‘lost and found,’ and that all the stories long and short in the New Testament or the Bible itself are variations on this theme." 4 Much the same can be said of the Western novel, not because the majority of the heroes of novels are "found" (neither are they in the New Testament parables), but because the lost-found struggle, the pattern of the individual in search of his or her real identity is the pattern in so many of our novels. Auerbach notes that Dante epitomizes this dramatic notion of salvation which is ingredient both to Christianity and to the novel.
Dante was the first to configure what classical antiquity had configured very differently and the Middle Ages not at all: man, not as remote legendary hero, not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical type, but man as we know him in his living historical reality, the concrete individual in his unity and wholeness; and in that he has been followed by all subsequent portrayers of man, regardless of whether they treated a historical or a mythical or a religious subject, for after Dante myth and legend also became history.
Man alone, but man in every case regardless of his earthly situation, is and must be a dramatic hero. 5.
The two notes of individuality defined in a social world and action or embodied belief, which we saw are characteristic of Scriptural stories, are also, according to Auerbach, the central qualities of the Western literary tradition. The focus on individual, dramatic, historical destiny in the Western novel is, I believe, a witness to the parabolic or metaphorical tradition, the insistence that the unfamiliar and "religious" be somehow ingredient in and radically relevant to the mundane contours of complex historical life, that men and women, the human metaphors, be in motion from here to there.
William Lynch says it very explicitly in his Christ and Apollo: "what we need is the restoration of a confidence in the fundamental power of the finite and limited concretions of our human life." 6. He contrasts the symbol of Apollo with Christ, letting Apollo stand for "a kind of autonomous and facile intellectualism, a Cartesianism, that thinks form can be given to the world by the top of the head alone," while Christ stands "for the completely definite," "as the model and source of that energy and. courage we again need to enter the finite as the only creative and generative source of beauty." 7 What Lynch objects to is two kinds of imagination, the univocal and the equivocal, the one which flattens out all the density and variety of historical complexity through the imposition of an idea (the allegorical and didactic mentalities) and the other which sees everything as completely diverse and unrelated to anything else (the fideistic and the autonomous mentalities). What Lynch is driving at with his insistence on the analogical imagination, which finds in the images of limitation "the path to whatever the self is seeking: to insight, or beauty, or, for that matter, to God," is directly related to what I have called metaphor as method.
This path is both narrow and direct; it leads, I believe, straight through our human realities, through our labor, our disappointments, our friends, our game legs, our harvests, our subjection to time. There are no shortcuts to beauty or truth. We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potencies of being-in-the-flesh. 8.
The univocal and equivocal imaginations deny metaphor, deny that any new insight can come through the ordinary -- the one flattens it to sameness, the other escapes from it -- but what Lynch calls the analogical imagination delves into the mundane, for it is precisely in and through the complexities of historical, limited existence that insight comes, if it comes at all. This is, of course, to take the mundane story of Jesus with radical seriousness as the metaphor of all human movement.
It may seem that we have wandered far from the story as the central tradition and from the novel as a genre for the metaphorical renewal of Christian belief in our time, but I think not, for all that has been said has been an attempt to show the basically parabolic nature of the novel. It has been an attempt to suggest that the Western novel is haunted by the story of Jesus, in the sense that like the hiddenness of God in that human life, the image of human life in the Western novel is one in which human beings grapple with the transcendent through the inexorable limitations of historical existence. Such a parabolic way is in sharp contrast to the unchanging present of mysticism and the timelessness of the "message," both of which deny dramatic growth in time. Mystic simultaneity is very evident on the contemporary scene in the complex phenomenon represented by N. 0. Brown, Eastern enlightenment, and drug-induced insight; didactic timelessness is still present in our churches and in Readers’ Digest Christianity, where reliance on "right belief" or conversion underlies popular notions of Christian faith.
But Scripture, Auerbach, Lynch, and the Western novel say something much harder and more joyful, harder in that the literal and the transcendent are not opposed, but neither is their relationship discovered "in an instant" or with the top of the head; more joyful because, as Lynch says, "who wants to overcome the literal?"
Who, if he were honest, would not be happier if he knew that beauty and understanding were completely contained within the literal, the plain, the ordinary, completely self-enclosed fact that meets the eyes and ears? 9.
Who, indeed? But only once, Christians believe, has that unity of the literal and the transcendent been accomplished. It is what the saints strive for, what Dante attempted to suggest in the closing lines of the Divine Comedy, what, in a lesser way, many of our best novels grope after as well. And it is terribly hard for a novelist to bring off. Many of the most successful metaphorical novels have been of the nether side; that is, evil is easier to embody, it seems, than good. The parabolic mode, insight into evil through metaphoric transformation, is attempted in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Melville’s Benito Cereno and Moby Dick, Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle, Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Mann’s Death in Venice, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The other possibility, the evocation of the transcendent good -- grace, beauty, God -- through the hard temporal realities of individuals in action is much harder to carry off, as evidenced in Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and perhaps most poignantly in the dismal failure of most literary attempts to portray the central mystery, the life of Jesus -- Kazantzakis’ The Greek Passion, Faulkner’s A Fable, or -- most dismal of all, historical novels about Jesus (what could be less hidden?) such as Douglas’s The Robe. And yet others seem to make it, or almost make it: Silone’s Bread and Wine, Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and The Bear.
It seems to me that these latter novels are all illuminated by discussing them in terms very similar to the ones we used to discuss parables: they evoke the graciousness of the transcendent by means of a distortion of the familiar, for the purpose of providing a new and extraordinary context for ordinary experience. The extraordinary, however, is always disciplined to the inexorable limitations of human dramatic growth in time. In other words, their method is by metaphor, moving from the mundane -- but never leaving it behind -- to the transcendent by "figuring" it in terms of the human metaphor. A classic example is from The Brothers Karamazov: Alyosha’s rapture in Book VII, where "the mystery of the earth was one with the mystery of the stars." 10. On the face of it the passage is a mystical experience; but the way Alyosha got to it was by way of Father Zossima’s putrefying body: he had to go through that experience of radical dissociation, accept it and take it with him, an experience fully described in the earlier part of Book VII, in order to come to the insight that "the silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens." When he threw himself down and embraced the earth, he was embracing as well the stinking body of Father Zossima.
It might be helpful at this point to look more fully at a few novels that have attempted a parabolic portrayal of the story of the human experience of coming to belief. The examples from which we might choose are many; the ones chosen, however, are representative of different strategies, none of which is entirely successful, but several of which are close to the parabolic form.
Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country could be described as a "Protestant" novel; it comes closer than any other novel I know to telling a story of justification by grace through faith. 11. An old priest, Stephen Kumalo, travels to Johannesburg in search of his son Absalom, and discovers that the boy is convicted of the murder of Arthur Jarvis, son of James Jarvis, the chief white landowner of Kumalo’s native valley. The story is one of mounting personal agony for the two fathers, Kumalo and the elder Jarvis, as in different ways they search for their sons, Kumalo for the release of Absalom from the murder charge or at least the boy’s repentance for his act, and Jarvis for the significance of his son’s life which was devoted to the improvement of the lot of the blacks in South Africa. The personal histories of the fathers and sons are miniatures of the larger black-white confrontation in South Africa, the pattern of social disintegration and the hope for its moral restoration. It is a painful tale, burdened with an inexorable logic of defeat at the hands of a racist society -- we "know" from the beginning that terrible things are in store -- but illuminated by another logic, that of grace, by no means so certain, for it operates in secret with persons (Kumalo and the elder Jarvis) whose formation by it is in terms of the gradual and ambiguous growth of actual human development.
Yet Cry, the Beloved Country is in some ways a "message" book, it is within the didactic Christian tradition and not, I believe, in the parabolic tradition at its best. I say this in spite of the fact that in language and tone it is probably the most "biblical" novel ever written. The novel has a lesson, a moral, to teach, not unlike the lesson of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one doubts whether it would have been written apart from social outrage; it can be taken as propaganda. But one cannot, I think, classify and put down this novel that way, and in any event a propagandistic novel, a novel of social protest, can have considerable aesthetic impact. This one does, and the reason it does, I believe, has to do with the parabolic way in which the message is handled; the message, through various techniques, is rendered indirectly so that the insight gained by the reader is genuinely though not overwhelmingly metaphorical. It is, in any event, not a straightforwardly didactic book.
In the first place, there are no direct statements by the author. Dialogue predominates and many voices, many points of view are heard; such a multitude of voices cannot be unified discursively, and they never are. It is an oral book, not a visual one, so that movement and variety rather than stasis and simplicity are central. Of the thirty-six chapters, only two are straight narrative; the rest are a mingling of lyric and dramatic modes. The complexity and pain of the social theme are shown, not preached. The variety of voices is heightened by the different dialogue styles Paton uses: the lyric, almost biblical way he renders the Zulu dialect; the cliché-ridden language of the commercially oriented, English-speaking community; the chanting rhythms and repetition of the native "chorus"; the clear, logical, terse style of the educated black priest who helps Kumalo find Absalom; the cynical, humorous tone of chapter 23, a satire on justice.
A second major parabolic device is the complex personal story of the fathers and sons which implicitly carries the larger story, the social story of the black-white confrontation. The personal story is intricate and convincing; it supplies metaphors for the disintegration-restoration pattern, and they serve it well. Mention was made earlier of Amos Wilder’s comment that all biblical stories might be understood in terms of the "lost-found" motif. That is certainly true of this story, which explicitly incorporates the Prodigal Son parable on several levels, not only the relation of the fathers to their lost sons, but Kumalo as an elder brother who hates his younger brother, John, a prodigal. Reminiscences of other painful stories are also recalled in the names "Absalom" and "Stephen." But more important than the mythic dimensions is the agonizing temporal development of the two fathers as they work toward acceptance not only of their sons’ deaths but of each other, the murderer’s father and the murdered one’s father. Paton is too much given to coincidences and neat juxtapositions, and the final restoration -- growing intimacy between the fathers, the coming of an agricultural advisor to restore the valley’s deteriorating land, the presence of another son in the murdered Jarvis’s boy, and the hope of yet another one in the womb of Absalom’s wife -- seems too good to be true. But parabolic hiddenness is what predominates, I believe, in the stories of the fathers and sons, and because Paton has shown the reader through dramatic personal growth the pattern of disintegration and restoration, he has created an extended metaphor of the experience of coming to belief in the workings of the gracious transcendent in both personal and social realities.
To move from Paton’s novel to works by C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams is to move to another universe. If Paton’s novel verges on being a message, Lewis’ and Williams’ novels come close to being allegories. Both the message and the allegory have been sturdy traditions in Christian literature and, as Lynch suggested in his comments on the univocal imagination, they share the characteristic of tending to flatten out the complexities of historical life for the sake of the "idea." We noted that tendency in Paton’s too-neat coincidences and restoration, but it is far more pronounced, in very different ways, in Lewis and Williams. These novelists are more complex than Paton: reading Paton is like reading "Bible stories"; reading Lewis and Williams is like reading medieval theology. No attempt will be made here to "do them justice"; the literature on the complexity of their romantic religion, sacramentalism, favorite theological doctrines, literary techniques, and the like is vast, and it is not our main concern. I am concerned, rather, with the parabolic qualities of their novels as illustrations for my thesis that the experience of coming to belief is a story and novels which tell that story are a source for theological reflection.
In that respect Lewis and Williams do not come off very well. To put it simply, most of their work is high-level illustration of supernatural truth, not stories of people on the move toward belief. Lewis’ most successful novel, I believe, is the first part of his science-fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, in which a Cambridge don named Ransom is kidnapped by two diabolical characters, the scientist Weston and the entrepreneur Devine, and transported via rocket ship as a sacrificial victim to the inhabitants of another planet called Malacandra (Mars).12. The reason this novel is successful is that it is the least allegorical of his works; there are few one-to-one relations between the characters and events of the novel and some outside structure or pattern of ideas. Another way to say this is that the novel is only implicitly Christian, or that it is mythopoeic; it envisions another world, a world before the fall -- created goodness, if you will -- which has an integrity in its own right. What the reader, or at least this reader, retains of the novel is not a pattern of Christian belief but descriptions of the three kinds of rational creatures who inhabit the planet and of the fantastic shapes and smells and pastel colors of the beautiful land.
A mass of something purple, so huge that he took it for a heather-covered mountain, was his first impression: on the other side, beyond the larger water, there was something of the same kind. But there, he could see the top of it. Beyond were strange upright shapes of whitish green: too jagged and irregular for buildings, too thin and steep for mountains. Beyond and above these again was the rose-colored cloud-like mass. It might really be a cloud, but it was very solid-looking. . .It looked like the top of a gigantic red cauliflower -- or like a huge bowl of red soapsuds -- and it was exquisitely beautiful in tint and shape. 13.
Descriptions such as this one convey a dream-like quality, an Eden quality, entirely appropriate to such an innocent world; the reader gains a sense of what such a world must feel like, not what it means. Dreaming innocence is not, however, human life, and when Lewis contrasts Malacandra and "the silent planet" (earth), his low estimate of human life becomes evident: when Ransom acknowledges to one of the rational creatures that the speck through the telescope is his planet, "It was the bleakest moment in all his travels." Because Lewis has kept the action in this novel on the supernatural level, in the nontemporal, a-historical Eden, he can affirm life here; but the contrast between Malacandra and earth is such that human life is seen as brutal and brutish.
Charles Williams’ early novel, The Place of the Lion, is so blatantly supernatural and allegorical that it will serve a useful role in analyzing the type. 14. This little novel tells of curious happenings in a small contemporary English village: ordinary animals and people, it seems, are suddenly turning into extraordinary creatures, into the invisible, supernatural ideas or forms of which our natural examples are but faint images.
"He believes -- and I believe it too," Mr. Foster said, "that this world is created, and all men and women are created by the entrance of certain great principles into aboriginal matters. We call them by cold names; wisdom and courage and beauty and strength and so on, but actually they are very great and mighty Powers. . . . Our knowledge will more and more be a knowledge of that and not of this -- more and more everything will be received into its original, animals, vegetables, all the world but those individual results of interior Powers which are men." 15
"Men" eventually go the way of the animals and vegetables, however, as the hero becomes Adam. It is heavily allegorical and the reader must work constantly to get the metaphysics straight, which is obviously a more important job than attending to the characters, who, after all, are only images and substitutable. The real world is the supernatural world: the natural proceeds from it and is secondary to it. What this amounts to from a literary perspective is seeing the story as merely a frame and the characters as useful mediums for dramatizing the ideology. It is important to note that Williams’ variety of sacramentalism is oriented to nature, not to human beings; to vision, not to hearing; to space, not to time; and magic is the key to transformation, not dramatic growth. In magic anything might turn into anything else in the twinkling of an eye before one’s face; but such nature-oriented, visual, spatial, magical imagery has little if anything to do with human transformation. Nor does it have anything to do with the form that reflects the way of human transformation -- the parabolic, hidden way that works through the complexities and the sharp angles of time and glimpses the gracious transcendent only in the density of the ordinary. Williams’ sacramentalism is in the head -- if one gets the pattern, one has gotten the main thing; once Pauline, in Descent into Hell, understands the notion of co-inherence, the mutual sharing of burdens, her struggle is largely over. Williams has written that "the world exists for the Incarnation rather than the Incarnation for the world"; 16 a statement like this puts the operation strictly from the top down, and that is precisely the problem with intellectual sacramentalism. All sorts of transformations can occur in the mind and to things, but human transformation is parabolic, metaphorical transformation -- it is historical, and complex.
When we turn to more successful examples of parabolic novels, there are many from which we might choose, as was suggested earlier. Our choice of two -- J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away -- is therefore somewhat arbitrary, but not entirely, for so much has been written about such novels as The Brothers Karamazov and The Sound and the Fury, and the stories of Alyosha and Dilsey are such perfect illustrations of the parabolic way, that they are almost too easy. Tolkien and O’Connor offer more of a challenge, for the initial impact of reading either of these authors may well be exactly the opposite of appreciating the metaphorical potential of their works. Tolkien’s fantasy of little people and strange creatures, of evil powers and gracious rescues seems anything but parabolic; O’Connor’s stories of Jesus-haunted heroes constantly talking about the bread of life and "the sweat and stink of the cross" hardly seem to be more likely candidates. But I think both are strangely and marvelously parabolic.
Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings creates a "Secondary World" complete in itself, related to the "Primary World" as fantasy is related to imagination, that is, "secondarily." 17. Unlike Lewis and Williams, he offers no suggestion of supernature-nature, superior-inferior; the world created by fantasy is a world unto itself, having secondary relations with the real world which, however, are nowhere spelled out. What is created is a world believable on its own terms, so that the reader need exercise no suspension of disbelief, experience no conflict with science, no dislocation through the necessity of discovering what characters and events "mean." They do not mean anything other than who they are and what happens, for the story is, I believe, a parable. To be sure, the cracks in the realistic surface, the surrealism, are far greater than in parables in the "Primary World," but the story is still parabolic, for the transcendent unfamiliar, both good and evil, operative in this tale works within the givens of this world. The peculiar way this parabolic action takes place in The Lord of the Rings is, however, more mythic than human, and what I mean by this is that in contrast to subjective, dramatic human growth (such as O’Connor depicts in Francis Tarwater), the movement in Tolkien’s trilogy is more external, more the grace of power than of persuasion. But this is possible and right in a fantasy world, for the givens of this world are not highly complex beings; the focus is not on human transformation but on the struggle of good and evil forces in the world, a struggle of mythic proportions, and it can be resolved mythically.
This is not to say that the novels are allegories, for they are not: the imagery is largely unassigned. Nor is it to say that the struggle is a-historical, that it takes place "above" the characters or uses them; it is not a supernatural struggle. It is a deeply historical struggle in the world of the Hobbits, Dwarves, Ents, Orcs, Sauron, and the wizards; given this kind of world, the mythic struggle of good and evil is the parabolic way to portray it.
Another way to put this is to say that in order to see this tale as parabolic one must allow Tolkien’s world to be "the world," and, as many have discovered, this is not hard to do. One reason may be the extraordinarily temporal character of Middle-earth. It is not, like Lewis’ and Williams’ worlds, spatial, a world which one sees with one’s mind but which could in an instant vanish. Rather it is, on its own terms, deeply, densely historical, stretching back for eons (concerning which Tolkien appends one hundred pages of genealogies and other data) and covering within the story so many incidents, so much detail, that one could not possibly "see" it or hold it in one’s mind; one can only feel it, grasp it with the imagination. Having gotten in on and accepted this world, the operations of good and evil are entirely appropriate. It is the way of this world.
But the trilogy is, because of this peculiar "mythic" nature, metaphorical in yet a more precise way. For what the mythic pattern, the heightened renditions of good and evil -- the Gandalf rescuers and the Sauron evil lords -- allow for is what Tolkien elsewhere has called "recovery," seeing things as we were meant to see them. Writing of Tolkien’s notion of "recovery," a recent commentator says,
All things become blurred by familiarity; we come to possess them, to use them, to see them only in relation to ourselves. In so doing we lose sight of what the things themselves really are qua things -- and "things" here includes people, objects, ideas, moral codes, literally everything. Recovery is recovery of perspective. .
We re-discover the meaning of heroism and friendship as we see the two hobbits clawing their way up Mount Doom; we see again the endless evil of greed and egotism in Gollum, stunted and ingrown out of moral shape by years of lust for the ring; we recognize again the essential anguish of seeing beautiful and frail things-innocence, early love, children -- passing away as we read of the Lady Galadriel and the elves making the inevitable journey to the West. 18.
The way to the recovery of perception is accomplished here through the heightening of things, making the familiar more alive, more potent, more splendid than it is in the "Primary World." The unfamiliar, the sight of things in their singularity, is accomplished by the deformation of the familiar in the direction of the larger than life: this is the mythic way to stretch reality, to open the cracks into it.
But it is not an entirely satisfactory way for human beings, for, as I mentioned earlier, the action of the transcendent is largely external, and little reformation through moral choice and persuasive grace takes place. Frodo, the hobbit who over these three novels journeys with a magic ring whose evil powers must be destroyed to save Middle-earth, refuses at the last moment to part with the ring. He puts it on his finger, and an overriding if somewhat ambiguous grace in the figure of the treacherous Gollum comes to the rescue by biting off Frodo’s ring finger and going down with the ring into the chasm at the Mount of Doom.
Flannery O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away does suggest a more satisfactory relation for human beings between the ordinary and the transcendent though it is, on the face of it, a very strange one indeed.19 Her novel is about a fourteen-year-old boy, Francis Tarwater, who, after the death of his great-uncle, a self-proclaimed prophet, goes to his uncle Rayber in order to fulfill the Lord’s "call" that he, Tarwater, baptize Rayber’s young idiot son. Tarwater fights the call and comes to fulfill it only by way of the tortuous route of slowly realizing the shallowness of Rayber’s rationalistic secularism and his own deep allegiance to and need for "the bread of life." It is a richly complex, many-layered novel, abounding in biblical and traditionally religious language and in discrete metaphors which, by placing that language in new contexts, renews it.
Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, deeply influenced by Southern fundamentalism, a woman of enormous passion, wit, and commitment, with a religious view of life so overwhelming that she can be compared only to Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky -- and perhaps to Barth. In commenting on her own work, she made the following very interesting statement.
I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and that what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken half-way or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction. 20.
Her Catholicism is in many ways old-style, pre-Vatican II. Good and evil, the battle, often violent, of God and the devil for the individual soul is central. She is concerned not with the salvation of the world in social or economic terms -- no agricultural experts here! -- but the baptism of idiots. Tarwater’s first and despised duty as a fledgling prophet is to baptize the idiot boy: this counts in her scheme of things. This is a sort of religiosity that it is difficult for modern, secular people to understand and appreciate; she goes against the grain not only of the more obvious kind of rationalistic secularism embodied in Rayber but against all of the best in liberal Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant. Evil is pervasive, substantial in her work, in a way reminiscent of Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment "had to" commit murder to start on the road to redemption. Violence, evil, battle, passion -- the extremes -- are integral to her vision. God and Christ fight for man’s soul. Tarwater (tar: sin; water: baptism) is Everyman, another Prodigal Son, on the universal journey from evil to salvation. But unlike the morality plays which this pattern suggests, O’Connor’s novel is not an allegory.
She manages to deal with this whole supernatural belief package through what she calls embodying "mystery through manners" and what I would call creating a parable or an extended metaphor. "It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." 21.
This brings us to tile heart of O’Connor’s extraordinary achievement, and it brings us also to the question of her art as parabolical and metaphorical. The best way to approach this question is through what she calls prophetic vision, for it is both her central aesthetic insight and the theme as well as the achievement of her novels, particularly of The Violent Bear It Away.
Prophecy, which is dependent on the imaginative and not the moral faculty, need not be a matter of predicting the future. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that goes into great novels. It is the realism which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth.22.
The prophet is a "realist of distances," one who sees things with their extensions of meaning and thus sees far things close up. It is a paradoxical double vision: simultaneously keeping in focus the universal implications of a particular present as well as the potential particularization of the universal and eternal. It is, for example, Tarwater learning of his own history -- his whore mother and his birth at the scene of a wreck -- in the context of the history of Adam and the Second Coming; it is in the remark by the Negro hand on old Tarwater: "He was deep in this life, he was deep in Jesus’ misery"; it is Bishop, the idiot, whose fish eyes are the center of that "extension" into unreasonable, absurd love for both Tarwater and Rayber. Prophetic vision of this sort -- in other words, metaphor, the linking within one image of the "this here" with the "that there," the distortion of appearances "in order to show a hidden truth" -- is everywhere in this novel. It is its movement in the deepest sense for it is precisely seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and seeing far things close up which allows Tarwater to reject Rayber’s secularism and to embrace the call of the Lord. It is also, of course, what we have called the metaphorical method, taking the human in all its particularity and mundanity as one partner in associations to move beyond the human -- but in such a way that that human is never left behind.
This metaphorical vision is what separates O’Connor from both fundamentalism, with its literalism, and from Barth, with his avoidance, if not fear, of the sensuous, temporal, and concrete. She is doctrinal, but her doctrine is thoroughly embodied. At the same time one says that The Violent Bear It Away is a religious novel with a vengeance, and that the supernatural appears to be everywhere evident in it, one must also say that it is thoroughly parabolic -- the supernatural never obtrudes. The supernatural, embodied in the manners of Southern fundamentalism, is not another world impinging on and depreciating this world. The supernaturalism is ingredient in the story; the manners convey the mystery, a mystery which is worked into the story, is the story, by means of the manners. Thus Tarwater’s pilgrimage, within the givens of this novel, its "world," is a thoroughly historical and mundane one: he journeys out of "the stinking shadow of Jesus," back into it again through hard personal decisions and actions, not through visions or miracles. There is nothing miraculous or supernatural about the action of this novel; it is thoroughly parabolic. To be sure, the distances are collapsed and events are stretched, but this is of the nature of parable and metaphor; the ability to collapse and stretch is the province of the imagination and of its offspring, metaphor.
Theology and Story
Why does everyone love a good story and how is story related to theological reflection? The answers to these two questions are, I believe, related. We all love a good story because of the basic narrative quality of human experience 22a. ; in a sense, any story is about ourselves, and a good story is good precisely because somehow it rings true to human life. Human life is not marked by instantaneous rapture and easy solutions. Life is tough. That is hardly a novel thought, but it is nonetheless the backbone in a literal sense -- the "structure" -- of a good story. We recognize our own pilgrimages from here to there in a good story; we feel its movement in our bones and know that it is "right." The imitation theory of the truth of art has at least this on its side: in a sense a good story, a true story, is "true to" the structure of human experience. It is also, of course, a deformation of that experience, the placement of that story in a new context, and it is this that makes for the creativity of art, its novelty, moving us beyond where we are. We love stories, then, because our lives are stories and we recognize in the attempts of others to move, temporally and painfully, our own story. We recognize in the stories of others’ experiences of coming to belief our own agonizing journey and we rejoice in the companionship of those on the way.
For the Christian, the story of Jesus is the story par excellence. For his story not only is the human struggle of moving toward belief but in some way that story is the unification of the mundane and the transcendent. That God should be with us in the story of a human life could be seen as a happy accident, but it makes more sense to see it as God’s way of always being with human beings as they are, as the concrete, temporal beings who have a beginning and an end -- who are, in other words, themselves stories.
What ought theology to make of this? Obviously a great deal. To see belief not as a set of beliefs but as a story, an experience of coming to belief, means that theological reflection ought itself to be shaped by the story, take to itself, both in form and content, the story. Theological reflection of the sort I have in mind would be narrative and concrete, telling stories -- after all, even the creeds, those monuments of doctrinal formulation, do this! From the novelist as well as from the stories in Scripture the theologian should take courage to concentrate on the experience of coming to belief, not on the "beliefs" themselves (the sedimentation of experiences of coming to belief). The latter job, the systematic one, is necessary always, but the more crucial task for our time -- the task that will help people to hear the word of God -- is the more difficult one of locating, testing, and understanding those stories -- artistic, personal, social, and political -- which carry experiences of coming to belief. This is, of course, what the story of the people of Israel is to the Jewish theologian, what the story of black oppression is to the black theologian, what the story of the poor is to the third-world theologian.
The story form is of peculiar importance to Christians, but, as Stephen Crites indicates, not to them alone. "A man’s sense of his own identity seems largely determined by the kind of story which he understands himself to have been enacting through the events of his career, the story of his life."23 It is basic to human experience as such, to one’s sense of identity. We learn who we are through the stories we embrace as our own -- the story of my life is structured by the larger stories (social, political, mythic) in which I understand my personal story to take place. Moreover, as William Beardslee insists, the story form tells the individual "where he has come from and where he is going," since "by creating its own ordered world, wherein through struggle and action an end is achieved, the story expresses faith in the ultimate reality of order and life."24 The gospel story, modeled on the story of Jesus, does this and more -- it not only provides an ordered context from the past (as do all sacred stories) but also leads from the past into the future, for the gospel story, strongly eschatalogical, is a story of hope.
The centrality of story to human experience and to Scripture raises a question. There is a good deal of discussion currently about the primary literary genre in the Christian gospel -- sermon, story, parable, and so on. I think William Beardslee correctly suggests that perhaps no one form need be pressed as primary in the New Testament or in the history of Christianity, but that there are different ways of bringing faith to expression, and different preferences make for different kinds of theological reflection. For instance, Beardslee maintains that the story with its ordered world (and theology based on the story) expresses faith in order and life.25. But our time, as Beardsiee admits, is not one of narrative order -- our novels lack plots, resolutions, and developed characters. If one thinks of some of our most interesting novelists -- John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Günter Grass, Donald Barthelme, or Vladimir Nabokov -- one must admit that the ordered world of the story apparently does not seem possible to them. One can, of course, criticize such novelists for failure to speak to our deep need for ordered narratives, but to do so, and then, as is often the case, to prefer as more "Christian" novelists those who still have plots and developed characters but are often second-rate, is to be false not only to the temper of our age but also, I believe, to the resources of the Christian tradition.
Perhaps it is necessary to admit that the narrative, at least in the grand nineteenth-century tradition of Tolstoy, Austen, and Melville, is not the form for our time. Where first-rate novelists are able to be narrative, as in the case of Doris Lessing, William Faulkner, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we should rejoice in their accomplishments, for they provide unusually rich resources for the theologian in understanding what it means, in contemporary terms, to create metaphors of coming (or failing to come) to belief. But when the narrative form lacks integrity, as it seems to for many contemporary novelists, it cannot be insisted upon. It may be that the parable, while itself a story of a certain kind, is a more appropriate genre for our time, for unlike more developed narratives it does not call for the same degree of faith in cosmic or even societal ordering. It is a more skeptical form with regard to such matters, insisting that the gap between the human and the transcendent is closed only through personal risk and decision. It only insists that the secular and the human is the place of God’s presence -- a presence for the most part hidden under the ordinary events of everyday life. It insists, in other words, on faith, not on an ordered structure built into the nature of things upon which the individual can rely. The parable is the form for a secular people, and it is interesting to note that many of the novelists mentioned earlier have strong parabolic elements in their works.
All this is not to say that the story is not central to Christianity -- it is at the center of the tradition, as we have insisted all along. But it seems to me that a particular kind of story, the parabolic story, the kind of story which does not assume an ordered world but perceives order only indirectly, intermittently, and beneath the complexities of personal and social chaos, is the kind most pertinent to our times. To admit this is by no means to sell out to cultural relevance, for the parables of Jesus, and Jesus himself as the parable of God, are such stories.
If theological reflection were to model itself on such stories, on parabolic stories, what would it be like? It would, I believe, not fear secularity, hiddenness, ironic distance, and indirection in the experience of coming to belief. It would not insist on open declarations or solid resolutions; it would realize that genuine human experiencing is so complex and intricate that such declarations and resolutions are often not possible and, if insisted upon, not honest. It would learn these things not principally from the "content" of the stories but from their "form"; whether a novel is, like O’Connor’s, an experience of coming to belief within a recognizably Christian universe, or, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, an experience of deepening despair over the ways of the universe, it would see them both as parabolic stories. Richard R. Niebuhr says that "believing is not commanded by beliefs. Beliefs come from believing; and believing is generated in experience." 26. If this is true, then the complexity, hiddenness, and skepticism inherent in human experience of anything cannot be denied, and they can be denied least when the experience in question is that of coming to belief. As H. Richard Niebuhr says with characteristic eloquence in this passage, they surely ought not to be denied by Christians.
But now for Christians Jesus Christ appears not only as the symbol of an ethos in which the ultimate response to the inscrutable power in all things is one of trust. He is also the one who accomplishes in them this strange miracle, that he makes them suspicious of their deep suspicion of the Determiner of Destiny. He turns their reasoning around so that they do not begin with the premise of God’s indifference but of his affirmation of the creature, so that the Gestalt which they bring to their experiences of suffering as well as of joy, of death as well as of life, is the Gestalt, the symbolic form, of grace. That so to reason and so to perceive requires a great relearning which is never completed in their lives; that for the most part they do not reason and interpret on the basis of the new premise but on that of the old; that they tend to interpret the action upon them by which they are and by which they cease to be as inimical or indifferent; that they respond therefore for the most part in the manner of an ethics of death, Christians agree. Their true life, man’s true life, is still hidden, as Paul says, with Christ in God. That is one of many reasons why they cannot defend themselves or recommend themselves. But the hope of that life of universal responsibility, of citizenship in the country of being itself, of reaction in all reactions to the God of grace, to the grace which is God -- that hope is there, and there is rejoicing when the potentiality that has been put into life becomes for some brief moment an actuality. . . . Thus Christians understand themselves and their ethos, or somewhat in this fashion. They cannot boast that they have an excellent way of life for they have little to point to when they boast. They only confess-we were blind in our distrust of being, now we begin to see; we were aliens and alienated in a strange, empty world, now we begin sometimes to feel at home; we were in love with ourselves and all our little cities, now we are falling in love, we think, with being itself, with the city of God, the universal community of which God is the source and governor. And for all this we are indebted to Jesus Christ, in our history, and in that depth of the spirit in which we grope with our theologies and theories of symbols. 27.
1. Wilder, Language of Gospel, pp. 67, 64-65.
1b. Or as Stephen Crites says about necessary indirection when dealing with the depths of human truth, "Honest men try to tell the truth, but in order to do so they are obliged, like liars, to tell stories. . . . Stories have been told, and told with imagination, in the serious attempt to speak the truth that concerns human life most deeply" ("Myth, Story, History," Parable, Myth and Language, ed. Tony Stonehurner [Cambridge: Church Society for College Work, 1968], p. 70).
2. Ihd, pp. 76-77.
3. Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 327.
3a. Stephen Crites’ remark on the most physical mark of human individuality, the face, as formed through encounter is a lovely comment on this point. "A face is in large measure formed by those common and uncommon human transactions which are the substance of history. For people live their lives vis-à-vis. That is perhaps a consequence of their ungainly, gravity-defying posture. Standing upright, they face out toward the horizon, not toward the ground, and so are brought face to face with one another. Words and looks pass between them. When a man is addressed in look or word it is a whole face that addresses him, and his whole face shapes itself in reply. Over the years his face bears the marks of these exchanges and of his personal character that has ripened through them" ("Myth, Story, History," p. 66).
3b. There is much that counters this bold assertion, which for someone who is not a New Testament scholar must remain at the most an opinion and at the least a hope. However, the mounting interest in and importance of parable and story in the New Testament in the work of a wide variety of New Testament scholars is my evidence for taking this position. Bultmann is basically opposed to it, as are doctrinal theologies of the more open and metaphysical sort, but much traditional theology -- Pauline, Augustinian, Lutheran, Calvinistic, Barthian -- has significant similarities to it. It has been an important strand in Christian theology and my modest effort is merely to highlight it by looking at some of its clearest manifestations in literary genres of Western Christianity.
4. Wilder, Language of Gospel, p. 67.
5. Erich Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World, trans. Ralph Manheim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 174-175, 94-95.
6. William F. Lynch, S.J., Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (New York: New American Library, 1963), p. xiv.
8. Ibid., p. 23.
9. Ibid., p. 33.
10. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, 1950).
11. Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1950).
12. C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967).
13. Ibid., p. 42.
14. Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1947).
15. Ibid., pp. 45-46.
16. "Fathers and Heretics," review of Fathers and Heretics: Studies in Dogmatic Faith by G. L. Prestige, Time and Tide, November 16, 1940, p. 1123.
17. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 3 parts (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970).
18. R. J. Reilly, Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (Athens: University of Georgia, 1971), pp. 205, 206.
19. Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1960).
20. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), p. 32.
21. Ibid., p. 124.
22. Ibid., p. 42.
23. Stephen Crites, ‘Myth, Story, History," p. 68.
24. William A. Beardslee, Literary Criticism, p. 17.
25. Ibid., pp. 16-18.
26. Richard R. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion, p. 69.
27. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Moral Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 175, 177-178.
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