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Christian Fiction, Evangelism, and Parabolic Storytelling

There’s significant discussion among Christian novelists about the aim of storytelling. Should Christians create fiction…jesus-teaching-2

  1. to inspire and encourage fellow Christians?
  2. to sow seeds in non-believing readers?
  3. to simply entertain?
  4. a combination of all of the above?

Jesus’ teaching methods often come up in this regard. While Christ’s methods appeared to vary per audience — sometimes He was didactic, other times He was more ambiguous or elusive — His teaching was always rich with allegory, symbol, and metaphors.

The Gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ dual approach in regards to the peasant crowds and His own disciples:

He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. — Mk. 4:34 NIV

The general idea being that Jesus’ teaching method differed from general, non-believing audience to insider, initiate audience— to the “crowd,” he spoke in parables; to “his own disciples,” he explained everything.

Some use this to approach to draw parallels regarding Christian fiction. They suggest that Christian fiction should be more didactic than parabolic; it should be aimed at “disciples” rather than the “crowds.” This isn’t necessarily to insinuate that Christian authors should not write for general audiences, but that when they do, their method should be more parabolic, using similes, metaphors, ambiguity, and allegory, rather than straight-forward proclamation of the Gospel.

However, this idea of Christian fiction as evangelism is not without its opponents.

Some suggest that Jesus used parables not as a way to illuminate truth to the unenlightened, but as a way to harden those not called by God. For example, notice this discussion at Goodreads on Christian Fiction’s role in evangelism. One commenter (Nathan) said this:

Some say that Jesus taught in parables, which is an example of using fiction to teach the gospel truths. But do you remember the reason He did so? He clearly told His closest disciples. It was so that those who had not been elected unto salvation before the foundation of the world, those NOT given to the Son by the Father, would NOT hear and obey the truth. Lest they be saved!

Interestingly, this opinion is not without biblical foundation.

In his classic, The Parables and Metaphors of Our Lord, British preacher and evangelist G. Campbell Morgan, tackles this apparent discrepancy: Did Jesus use parables to illuminate Truth to the spiritually hungry or harden the hearts of the unregenerate?

After His teaching of the multitudes, the Gospel of Mark notes Jesus’ follow-up:

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” — Mk. 4:10-12 NIV

From this, some (perhaps correctly), interpret Jesus’ parabolic method as a means to further harden the hearts of the uninitiated. Parables were used to reinforce their unenlightened, unforgiven state.

Morgan challenges this interpretation, suggesting that Jesus’ use of parables was indeed a tactical approach.

“When [the multitudes’] hardness of heart made Him angry, then in a very different and enlarged form He began to use parables.” (pg. 14)

Morgan traces this “hardness of heart” to the previous chapter wherein Jesus sought to heal the man with the shriveled arm and was forthrightly challenged by the authorities.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts — Mk. 3:5

This stubbornness of heart and public resistance of Christ, according to Morgan, led to a change of approach. But is it reasonable to believe that the parabolic method was employed to prevent men from understanding and receiving God’s mercy? Morgan answers,

“That would surely be blasphemy, and would contradict the whole purpose of God in Christ, and of Christ in the world.” (pg. 14)

So Morgan digs deeper, looking at Mark’s account alongside Matthew’s.

“According to Matthew, the disciples had inquired the reason for speaking in parables. The Lord’s answer was that it was given to them to know the mysteries. He told His disciples that the difference in method was do to a difference in relationship. To those of His disciples who were obedient, who submitted to Him, the mysteries could be made known. To those without, those not yielded, and not obedient, those refusing and hardening the heart, the parabolic was the necessary method.

“Go on to verses twenty-one to twenty-five in this fourth chapter of Mark. He used the lamp as His illustration. This lamp is not put under the bushel, which would extinguish it. It is put on a stand. The parables therefore constituted a lamp, a lamp shining. It was not in order to hide things, but that the hidden things may be brought to light. These people could not, because of the attitude they had assumed, receive the mysteries, the profound things of the kingdom of God. His disciples could receive those mysteries; but to those without, the parable was the lamp.” (pg. 15, emphasis mine)

Morgan concludes,

“He gave them parabolic pictures so that they might inquire. The purpose of the story, the picture, was to lure them to think, in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery.” (pg. 16, emphasis mine)

Ones’ interpretation of the purpose of the parables will indeed affect how they answer the question of Christian fiction as evangelism. If the purpose of the parable is to harden the hearts of the stubborn and resistant, then (as commenter Nathan concludes in the comment thread I linked) Christian authors should avoid such an approach because we have no idea whom God has chosen. The far better approach, this interpretation would conclude, would be a more didactic, unambiguous presentation of the Gospel (think Jesus interpreting the parables to His disciples).

However, the Christian author who sees the purpose of the parabolic method as a way “to lure [the reader] to think, in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery,” ambiguity, allegory, symbolism, and metaphor are indeed powerful tools in our writing toolbox.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • David James November 6, 2014, 7:38 AM

    Good article, Mike. I’ve even heard from a minister that the parables He told weren’t anything new, but parables that everyone there knew about, yet He would change something about the parable, usually the ending, and that would cause them to see it in a completely new light. Then when He was with the disciples He would have to explain to them why He had changed things.

  • Tim George November 6, 2014, 11:39 AM

    Back in good ole’ Fiction Addict and Marcher Lord Press times, Jake Chism and I did in interview with Kerry Nietz and Stuart Stockton when this same kind of topic was addressed. The conclusion then was that Spec-fic was a great platform for posing big questions. If those questions lead the reader to search for answers, great. If not, then hopefully they still got a great story.

  • Kathy M. Storrie November 6, 2014, 8:03 PM

    Calvinism (The belief that God chooses who He wants to be saved.) gives the unbeliever permission to refuse God and blame Him later in Hell for not choosing him. It also gives the believer a reason to feel spiritually superior. Just because GOD knows ahead you will accept His Son doesn’t mean He stops trying to reach the ones who won’t. Unbelievers in Hell will be there without excuse when they remember the opportunities they had to choose His Son.

    Calvinism paints an ungodly picture of partiality on God’s part. Why bother listening to parables of the gospel if God has already chosen who gets in to the Kingdom of God? Why would God not let each of us choose? The Bible says: “For God so loved the WORLD (not the chosen) that He gave His only begotten Son that WHOSOVER believes in Him should not perish.” Just because God knows who’s going to choose Jesus doesn’t mean He only chooses them; he chooses all of us and we have the opportunity to choose back. I believe those who never hear about the gospel message of Christ are not held accountable and they will be judged according to how they obeyed their God given conscience.

    Four hundred years passed between the prophet Malachi and John the Baptist. The Jews heard nothing from God during this increment of time. Many of the priests, scribes and Pharisees had become cold and demanding in obeying the letter of the law. Even though most of the Gentiles (Romans, Samaritans, etc) had over ridden their consciences we get to hear how some had not with the story the Roman centurion and Samaritan woman at the well who believed in Jesus more than the Jewish priests. Jesus used simple or/& familiar stories (like you suggested) to explain the kingdom of God to a spiritually starved generation. Jesus told parables to this diverse audience because he knew the hearing and hearing of the word of God would build faith in Him.

    • David James November 8, 2014, 7:35 PM

      Calvinist theology isn’t necessarily incorrect, rather incomplete. Much like Arminian theology. The two must complement each other rather than argue with each other.

      Calvinist theology basically states that God is all-powerful and always accomplishes His will while Arminian theology basically states God loves all people and wills the reconciliation of everyone.

      Both are correct and should be added together to come up with the logical conclusion that God is all powerful and accomplishes His will to reconcile everyone to Him.

      There is much more understanding of scripture than this to back it up, but since you quoted John 3:16 I’ll use that for my reply here.

      It’s always amazing to me when people quote John 3:16 as a way to condemn people who are currently unbelievers to the land of “eternal torment” and “Hell”.

      “For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian.”

      This declares God’s love and how He is not wanting any to perish. This is further illustrated as you continue to read further in what has been subdivided and should really be read as a whole starting before the 16th verse. Putting it in context, Jesus had just told Nicodemus about what is begotten from flesh and what is begotten from spirit to answer his question about going back into the mother’s womb, so picking up from there:

      “Thus is everyone who is begotten by the water and the spirit.”

      Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “You are a teacher of Israel, and these things you do not know? Verily, verily, I am saying to you that of that which we have perceived are we speaking, and to that which we have seen are we testifying, and our testimony you are not getting. If I told you of the terrestrial and you are not believing, how shall you be believing if I should be telling you of the celestial?

      “And no one has ascended into heaven except He Who descends out of heaven, the Son of Mankind Who is in heaven. And, according as Moses exalts the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Mankind be exalted, that everyone believing on Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian. For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian.

      “For God does not dispatch His Son into the world that He should be judging the world, but that the world may be saved through Him. He who is believing in Him is not being judged; yet he who is not believing has been judged already, for he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.

      “Now this is the judging: that the light has come into the world, and men love the darkness rather than the light, for their acts were wicked. For everyone who is committing bad things is hating the light and is not coming to the light, lest his acts may be exposed. Now he who is doing the truth is coming to the light that his acts may be made manifest, for they have been wrought in God.”

      John 3:8b-21

      Let’s look at a few things there:

      First, Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus a basic item of the terrestrial that Nicodemus already lives in so He could then illustrate a concept of the celestial and Nicodemus just wasn’t getting it on any level, not even to the point of understanding that concept of the natural, so Jesus called him on that.

      So He then talked about Moses and the serpent, since Nicodemus understood scripture, and compared that to what was to occur with Himself. Then He said, “For God does not dispatch His Son into the world that He should be judging the world, but that the world may be saved through Him.” So, did He complete His mission? Was His mission a success or a failure? Has the world been saved through Him?

      He then goes on to describe what the judging actually is. Read it again. Do you see mention of eternal torment of “the flames of Hell” in there anywhere? No, rather He is talking about the judgement Man makes of God where those who are doing bad avoid God and those doing the truth seek Him.

      Don’t forget that Jesus as the Christ is the last Adam, and here is the comparison between them:

      “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive”

      1 Corinthians 15:22

      “All” means “All”. Either Jesus reversed the curse of Adam or He did not. The Bible doesn’t leave any wiggle room there. At the cross He said, “It is finished!” Well, was it, or do we have to do more in order to finish salvation? If we have to do anything, then it is salvation by works and not by grace through faith lest any man should boast.

      Evangelism shouldn’t be about us preaching to “get people saved”. We can’t save anyone, and Jesus accomplished it all on the cross 2,000 years ago. It is merely our job to share the good news of that and to give our own personal witness to what He has done in our own lives as we follow Him. People will judge as they may from there, just as Jesus said they would.

      • Gary Whittenberger November 10, 2014, 8:24 AM

        No, Kathy, Jesus didn’t save anybody on the cross 2,000 years ago. If God exists, he would not have transferred the penalties due to sinners to a scapegoat. That would violate the principle of individual accountability which God would not violate if he existed and were perfectly good. Instead, each individual would be punished proportionally to the number and severity of his sins, with no exceptions, including you, me, and everyone else. I’m afraid you have received some bad information which you have swallowed “hook, line, and sinker.” It is merely our job to use our rational capacities to think through these issues, draw valid conclusions, and spread the good news!

        • David James November 10, 2014, 11:09 AM

          Gary, were you responding to Kathy or to myself? Your comment begins with “No, Kathy” yet is posted as a reply to my own reply to her. Just thought I’d check on that one.

  • Gary Whittenberger November 11, 2014, 9:05 AM

    David, I was actually responding to your post and put the wrong name on it. Sorry about that.

    But, still, I think the underlying assumptions you made are seriously flawed.

    • David James November 11, 2014, 9:58 PM

      I made no assumptions. Merely reading scripture and taking it in context to find out and illustrate what it means rather than assuming what a small segment of it means before reading it in context.

      But let’s say I had made assumptions, and that you are saying they are flawed. In what way would you say this? Yet since I have already been able to see from other comments you’ve made elsewhere on Mike’s blog over the course of time before you ever replied to me here, I already know you to not believe in God or in the Bible as God’s Word, so if that’s your only reason for seeing these “assumptions” as flawed, then you really don’t have to reply.

  • Gary Whittenberger November 12, 2014, 9:35 AM

    David, as I expected, you are not dealing directly with my claims. You are just brushing them aside with a flip attitude — “He’s an atheist, so I don’t need to engage with him.”

    If you re-read what I said, you will see that what I claimed does not depend on whether atheism is true or not. My claim is that if God exists, then he would not operate in the manner, i.e. through atonement, scapegoating, or transfer of penalties, as you have assumed or concluded he would. If you think he would, then please defend your position by something more than implying “I just believe what this guy wrote two thousand years ago.” Please present an argument based on reason and not on faith, dogma, or authority. Think outside the box a little bit!

    • David James November 12, 2014, 7:24 PM

      You’re absolutely right, Gary. I am not dealing at all directly with your claims, and I won’t. Not on here at least. You have been bringing those same things up on different threads to different people here at Mike’s blog who all come at their belief in God and the Bible from differing perspectives, and whenever I have seen you do this – much as you did here – it had nothing to do with the actual blog entry topic but rather was just you wanting to use someone else’s comments on God and the Bible to further your own agenda.

      I don’t give a rat’s ass if you are “a theist” or “an atheist”. Indeed, with what I’ve read from you on here (and I don’t catch every single blog entry Mike puts up, just the ones that have titles which catch my interest; nor do I keep track of every comment on the ones I have read, so I may have missed something from you on here) I have not actually seen you come out and say you are an atheist.

      Did you see me use that word in my last comment on here? No. For all I knew you were someone that is highly spiritual and does not believe in a central “god” or “God”. For all I knew you could be someone that is convinced a particular group manufactured the Bible and the history of the middle east. There are so many types of “unbelievers” in the Bible and of God out there I have encountered, that frankly, you saying now that you’re an atheist merely helps me narrow down what you actually do believe.

      Of course, you didn’t actually say here that you were an atheist. Rather, you decided to create a fictional statement from me (one which I never stated, nor thought) and put that word in that made up statement. So it’s still entirely possible that you are not an absolute atheist and that you are something else entirely. For all I still know, you could just be another personality of Greg – Tiribulus showing up on here just to make noise from the other end of the spectrum. (I don’t really believe that last one, but anything is possible; let Mike track the ISP trail to figure that one out)

      In either case, it’s irrelevant at this point. I would have no problem with discussing these matters and “claims” you have brought up if you weren’t just out to attack the various people commenting on Mike’s blog with these same things over and over again in this trollish manner and were to actually bring them up in the context of the blog entry. And if and when you actually do that, you should really direct them to Mike since he would have been the one that had written the blog entry to begin with.

      • Gary Whittenberger November 13, 2014, 6:56 AM

        Oh, and by the way, David, please take note of these statements which you made:

        1) In a previous post you said “…I already know you to not believe in God…”

        2) But in your last post you said “Did you see me use that word [“atheist”] in my last comment on here? No. For all I knew you were someone that is highly spiritual and does not believe in a central “god” or “God”.”

        An atheist is a person who does not believe in God. In the first statement you know that I am an atheist, but in the second statement you don’t know. You have contradicted yourself.

        But once again, the point I made was about the claim you made about salvation under the condition “if God exists.” Rather than deal with my challenge and defend your claim, what do you do? You go off on a tangent about me and atheism, and even contradict yourself! All that talk is irrelevant. Please get back to the issue at hand and stop wasting our time.

  • Gary Whittenberger November 13, 2014, 6:05 AM

    David, is this an open discussion forum? Yes, it is! And so, I can respond to Mike’s posts, your posts, or anyone else’s, whether you like it or not. Mike has a right to expect that everyone will communicate in a civil manner, and I have always done that. I don’t know what your agenda is, but mine is to participate in religious and philosophical discussions where people disagree with my positions.

    Instead of focusing on me, please get back to the primary issue here. When you are “merely reading scripture and taking it in context” on this forum, you are presenting it as authoritative. Stand up and defend your scriptural claims against my challenges, and do it in a way that is relevant to Mike’s post.

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