Monday, May 06, 2013

May Book o' the Month, or, Sallie McFague on how Parable destabilizes Myth

I recently decided to dig back in to Sallie McFague’s “new classic” work, Metaphorical Theology. This was occasioned by my recent observation of what is, unfortunately, a pervasive phenomenon: a self-described “Barthian” attempting to make his or her bones by beating up on someone who is generally recognized as doing a different kind of theology. Now, as DET readers know, I have no problem with drawing lines. But why would one want to re-hash such thoroughly hashed (*chuckles) terrain?

In any case, I had studied McFague’s book with some care before, but I had never gone cover-to-cover on it. So I decided to remedy that. Although I retain criticisms of McFague’s program, I found a good deal of salutary material within her pages. One such instance of highly salutary material is McFague’s discussion of parable. This is a rich vein that McFague mines well. Below is an extended discussion from McFague on the interrelation of parable and myth. I hope it motivates you to turn (or return) to this text with an appreciative (if still – as always – critical) eye. For this reason, I have also designated McFague's volume as the current DET Book o' the Month.


Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology, 46–47. As always, italics comes from the author and bold comes from me.
Ricoeur . . . [suggests] that parables work on a pattern of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation: a parable begins in the ordinary world with its conventional standards and expectations, but in the course of the story a radically different perspective is introduced that distorts the listener, and finally, through the interaction of the two competing viewpoints, tension is created that results in a redescription of life in the world. The uneasiness generated by the disorientation of a parable, introduced by the alien perspective, is nicely suggested by John Dominic Crossan: “I don’t know what you mean by that story, but I’m certain I don’t like it.” A parable is, in this analysis, an assault on the accepted, conventional way of viewing reality. It is an assault on the social, economic, and mythic structures people build for their own comfort and security. A parable is a story meant to invert and subvert these structures and to suggest that the way of the kingdom is not the way of the world. . . .

Throughout the parables, then, two standards—or we could say, two models—are in permanent tension with each other, and the effect of their interaction, for anyone who allows himself or herself to be personally involved, is profound disorientation. Thus, not “liking” the parables is the appropriate initial reaction to them. Crossan says the parables place the listener “on the edge of a raft” and what this means is the end of conventional security: “You have built a lovely home, myth assures us: but, whispers parable, you are right above an earthquake fault.” Ricoeur insists on the same point when he say that the reorientation in a parable is of an open-ended and relative sort, which does not allow us to remake our world according to a new set of rules and standards. If this is the case with parables, then “Christian” politics, art, morals, economics, philosophy, and so forth, are all questionable ventures, unless undertaken with appreciation for the relativity and partiality of all such “systems.” What the parables stand for is opposition to all forms of idolatry and absolutism, even the new orientation to reality brought about through the parables’ redescription of reality. The permanent function of parables is to enhance consciousness of the radical relativity of human models of reality, even when these models are “divinely inspired,” that is, based on the new way of the kingdom.
I especially appreciate the emphasis at the end on the “permanent function” of the parables. It puts one in mind of the Reformed tradition’s approach to theology . . .

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