Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology
by Sallie McFague


The purpose of theology is to make it possible for the gospel to be heard in our time. That is a formidable task. To many of us it seems an impossible task. In a post-Christian, secularized culture, theologians had barely recovered their breath after the "death-of-God" era when they were plunged into the radical subjectivity and drug-induced raptures of the counter culture, followed by a brief respite in the theology of play and the now current political theology. But the purpose of theology remains untouched: men and women who do theology are under the same command they always have been under, that is, to help the word of God be heard. Some say that God’s word needs no help—it can do its own work where and when it will—and finally, of course, that is true, for the mysteries of faith are beyond human control. But no theologian pretends to that work anyway; the most he or she would claim to be is a clearer of fields, a preparer of the soil. And it is this job -- the job of making the gospel credible or possible -- that seems so difficult to us nowadays.

But risks must be taken, for safe theology today is no theology at all. We live in a time of personal and social confusion and skepticism, a time that, for all its newly emerging religiosity, is a secularized and disbelieving time. If a person is a Christian and by vocation a theologian, then the task at hand is to help this society hear the good news. The assumption of the present book is that theology could better fulfill this function were it to attend to Jesus’ parables as models of theological reflection, for the parables keep "in solution" the language, belief, and life we are called to, and hence they address people totally. If theology becomes overly abstract, conceptual, and systematic, it separates thought and life, belief and practice, words and their embodiment, making it more difficult if not impossible for us to believe in our hearts what we confess with our ups. There is a way to do theology, a way that runs from the gospels and Paul through Augustine and Luther to Teilhard and the Berrigans, that One could call intermediary or parabolic theology, theology which relies on various literary forms -- parables, stories, poems, confessions -- as a way from religious experience to systematic theology.1

The credibility gap between thought and life, theology and personal existence, the gospel and contemporary society, is one which, given the nature of the form in which we have the good news, never should have occurred. For the parables of the New Testament, the passion story, and Paul’s writings are not ideas to which a spectator must somehow relate him- or herself, but stories of men and women whose lives are one with their thought. If one sees such genres as sources of theology, then whatever else theology may be, it is not "incredible," not something apart from my life, your life, or the life of our contemporary society. It is fearfully personal, which is to say, of course, fearfully social as well, for stories are always about persons in relation to their world And being personal in this way means also that theology is radically concrete, for there is no such thing as "a person in general," as the parables, and the confessions of Paul and Augustine, so painfully and gloriously illustrate.

The parable is a prime genre of Scripture and certainly the central form of Jesus’ teaching. Current scholarship sees the parable as an extended metaphor, that is, as a story of ordinary people and events which is the context for envisaging and understanding the strange and the extraordinary.2- In the parabolic tradition people are not asked to be "religious" or taken out of this world; rather, the transcendent comes to ordinary reality and disrupts it. The parable sees "religious" matters in "secular" terms. Another way to put this is to speak of Jesus as the parable of God: here we see the distinctive way the transcendent touches the worldly—only in and through and under ordinary life.

If Jesus as the parable of God, as well as Jesus’ parables, are taken as models of theological reflection, we have a form that insists on uniting language, belief, and life—the words in which we confess our faith, the process of coming to faith, and the life lived out of that faith. And at each of these levels we discover the necessarily parabolic or metaphoric character of our confession, for Christian language must always be ordinary, contemporary, and imagistic (as it is in the parables); Christian belief must always be a process of coming to belief—like a story—through the ordinary details of historical life (as it is in the parables, though in a highly compressed way); Christian life must always be the bold attempt to put the words and belief into practice (as one is called to do in the parables).

A theology that takes its cues from the parables finds that the genres most closely associated with it are the poem, the novel, and the autobiography, since these genres manifest the ways metaphor operates in language, belief, and life. Hence they are prime resources for a theologian who is attempting an intermediary or parabolic theology -- a theology that is, on the one hand, not itself parable and, on the other hand, not systematic theology, but a kind of theology which attempts to stay close to the parables.3. Such theology may not be the major tradition in Christian theology, but nevertheless it is an important tradition, as evidenced, for instance, by Paul’s letters, Augustine’s Confessions, John Woolman’s Journal, Kierkegaard’s writings, Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, or Teilhard’s theological writings. The hope is that such theology will surface as a major genre, for it attempts to serve the hearing of God’s word for our time by keeping language, belief, and life together in solution.

As has been said, parables are metaphors. Parables are stories, of course, but of a particular kind -- stories that set the familiar in an unfamiliar context, which is also what a metaphor does. A metaphor is a word used in an unfamiliar context to give us a new insight;a good metaphor moves us to see our ordinary world in an extraordinary way.

In Florida consider the flamingo

Its color passion but its neck a question.

(Robert Penn Warren)

my salad days

When I was green in judgment.


What is at issue, of course, is not just metaphor as a useful (or even a necessary) means of communicating something we already know. This would be allegory, not metaphor. Rather metaphor is a way of knowing, not just a way of communicating. In metaphor knowledge and its expression are one and the same; there is no way around the metaphor, it is not expendable. One can insist that certain metaphors are incorrect or inappropriate or do not "fit," but then all one can do is suggest other metaphors that are preferable. One cannot do without any metaphors.

To say, for instance, that Jesus is "the Messiah" or "the Logos" does not mean that these are useful images which will convey to the populace what the cognoscenti (those who are in on the real truth behind the images) have in some purer form. The insight or revelation comes with the metaphor -- they are given together. As in poetic inspiration, the knowledge and its expression come together in a flash -- poets, for instance, cannot "say" what they want to say apart from metaphors. Presumably they have an intimation, inchoate and confused, of something new that they are attempting to bring to the surface and express, but the only way of grasping it, of pointing to it, is through the recognition of certain ordinary words as the "right" ones to serve as the "grid" or screen -- a way of seeing -- for what is not perceivable directly.4. Likewise, to suggest that Jesus is the Messiah says something about Jesus in terms of all the Hebrew paraphernalia of messiahship. It is a grid which highlights certain things and depresses others, and this is our knowledge of Jesus (this image and many others -- servant, brother, Logos, healer, shepherd, king, and so on).

To say, then, that a New Testament parable is an extended metaphor means not that the parable "has a point" or teaches a lesson, but that it is itself what it is talking about (there is no way around the metaphor to what is "really" being said). Thus to say that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a metaphor of God’s love suggests that the story has meaning beyond the story of a human father and his wayward son, but that only through the details, the parable itself, are we brought to an awareness of God’s love that has the shock of revelation. If the story of the Prodigal Son tells us about that love, it does so indirectly, for the story itself absorbs our interest. We do not, I think, naturally allegorize it (is the father "God"? is the feast a symbol of "the kingdom"?). The story is "thick," not transparent; like a painting it is looked at not through. William Wimsatt the literary critic, says that a stone sculpture of a human head refers to a particular human head, to be sure, but what interests us -- and what may ultimately illumine our appreciation of that "real" head -- is concentration on the carved head before us. The story of the Prodigal Son is a sculpture, a metaphor, of something we do not know much about -- human becoming and God’s extraordinary response.

The world of the parable, then, includes, it is, both dimensions -- the secular and the religious, our world and God’s love. It is not that the parable points to the unfamiliar but that it includes the unfamiliar within its boundaries. The unfamiliar (the kingdom of God) is the context, the interpretative framework, for understanding life in this world. We are not taken out of this world when we enter the world of the parable, but we find ourselves in a world that is itself two-dimensional, a world in which the "religious" dimension comes to the "secular" and re-forms it.

There are other kinds of worlds; for instance, there is, in mystical traditions, the possibility of a "religious world" where we are encouraged to leave behind all that is secular, temporal, human, political, fleshly. And there is a flat, "secular world" which is nothing other than human and historical; such a world has no other dimension that informs it. But the parabolic world is neither of these -- it is neither secular nor religious but both at once. And the implication is that there is no true human life that is either secular or religious. Dante knew this in the Divine Comedy, for he envisioned paradise as a world in which all that is human is taken up and transformed, a world in which nothing human is lost. Teilhard knew this also in his grand evolutionary march of the natural and the human towards its fulfillment. Such visions are on a continuum with the world of the parable because they say that the world, the true world, is at one and the same time two-dimensional. We do not live in a secular world that must be discarded when we become "religious," nor do we live in a "religious" world which has no truck with the secular; the parabolic world shows us another possibility (and this is what the incarnation is about) -- that "God is with us" in, through, under, and for our human, historical, temporal world. In such a perspective, the doctrines of creation and redemption take on a new meaning—God himself formed the world and re-forms it, the world was never without his power and presence, it was never alone. Nor will we ever leave it behind -- faith in the resurrection of the body is the shocking assertion that true life is forever two dimensional, the assertion that the world of the parables is the world, known now only in prolepsis and in secret, but on a continuum with that time when the city of the world and the city of God shall be one.

A theology that is informed by parables is necessarily a risky and open-ended kind of reflection. It recognizes not only the inconclusiveness of all conceptualization when dealing with matters between God and human beings (an insight as old as religion itself), but also the pain and skepticism -- the dis-ease -- of such reflection. Theology of this sort is not neat and comfortable; but neither is the life with and under God of which it attempts to speak. The parables accept the complexity and ambiguity of life as lived here in this world and insist that it is in this world that God makes his gracious presence known. A theology informed by the parables can do no less -- and no more.

Like all theology, however, its purpose is to be a servant of the hearing of God’s word in a particular time and place. Theology is, then, always hermeneutical, always concerned with how the gospel can be "translated" or understood -- grasped -- by people. This is not, of course, merely a problem of renewing biblical images now grown into clichés or of communicating information, but the more basic problem of serving the hearing -- and acceptance-of the word of God. Such hearing and acceptance in the parables takes place through imaginative participation when an old word or story or event is suddenly seen in a new setting, an insight with implications for one’s belief and life. We will necessarily be concerned, then, with how insight occurs through language, how one comes to this moment of belief, and how one works it out in all of one's life Coming to belief through insight and the life that then ensues -- this parabolic model -- has deep implications for theology: it is these implications which form the heart of the present essay.

The plan of my modest attempt in this book falls into two main parts, a foundational part and a constructive part. The foundational chapters will look at metaphor and parable as basic forms which provide for theological reflection a method of uniting life and thought. Preceding these basic formulations will be a chapter attempting to give an overview through concrete examples of where we are headed and another chapter reflecting on Some crucial problems in contemporary theology to which intermediary or parabolic theology speaks. The second part will deal with some forms of Christian reflection -- the poem, the story, and the autobiography -- as sources for parabolic theology as it attempts to integrate language, belief, and life. This essay is, for me, merely "on the way"; it does not present an example of the kind of theology it calls for.5. The present work suggests a method and resources toward such a theology; another book of another sort is called for eventually, because if metaphor is the method, the result will be more like a parable than a system. The reader should know that an overview of the argument of the book has appeared in my article entitled "Parable, Metaphor, and Theology" in the December, 1974 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

My debts are many. I feel my efforts in this book are a small contribution to the work of an emerging company of American theologians who increasingly see the importance of story and parable for Christian reflection. My own work for a number of years been deeply influenced by that of Erich Auerbach, Robert Funk, William F. Lynch, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Amos Wilder. I am especially indebted to a few people who have read and offered criticisms of this work: Mara Donaldson, Mary Lee Kelly, Michael Novak, Sr. M. Aquin O’Neill, Timothy Sedgwick, and George Stroup. Finally, I have been supported in innumerable ways by Eugene TeSelle who, in the mundane and often trying demands of family and professional existence, has lived out his belief in the equality and liberation of women. To him this book is dedicated in gratitude.



 1. Such theology is truly an interdisciplinary venture and many contemporary American theologians are currently involved in it. I find the work of the following theologians particularly helpful: David Burrell, Stephen Crites, John S. Dunne, Ray L. Hart, William F. Lynch, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Richard R. Niebuhr. All of us are, in one way or another, interested in the role of the imagination in theological reflection and we find ourselves dependent on the writings various Biblical scholars on parable (Robert W. Funk, Dan 0. Via, Amos N. Wilder) and of philosophers and literary critics on story, poetry, and metaphor (Erich Auerbach, Owen Barfield, Max Black, Martin Heidegger, Susanne Langer, Elizabeth Sewell, Philip Wheelwright).

2. Much interesting work to which I am indebted is currently being done on parables as metaphors; see, for instance, Amos N. Wilder, The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), reissued as Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); Robert W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1966); Dan 0. Via, Jr., The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967).

3. I am indebted to Michael Novak, in a letter dated October 25, 1971, for the idea of what I call intermediary theology. "In between imaginative literature and academic theology there is a form of intelligence which is precise, discursive, and analytical, but also in touch with concrete experience and with the imagination. That is the model for academic intelligence."

4. For expansion of this notion of metaphor as grid or screen, see Max Black's essay, "Metaphor," in Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962), pp. 24-47.

5. Two books which, in different ways, are examples of the sort of theology I have in mind are Richard R. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1972) and William F. Lynch, Images of Faith: An Exploration of the Ironic Imagination (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973).