Learning to Write Parables

After listening to a conversation between Rob Bell and Peter Rollins about parables (it’s a fantastic podcast if you have forty minutes to spare). Peter Rollins shows off his impressive database of parables from all over the world and even shares some of his own.

What surprises me, however, is that even though I’ve heard parables all my life, I’ve never taken a critical lens to the form. Their narrative structure is fascinating!

Parables work in a way that subverts the listener’s common knowledge. This sort of structure reminds me of Jesus’ work — toppling traditional views on religion, government, relationships and money. It’s no surprise Jesus’ oral teachings took on such a subversive structure! Content and form united…

Everyone wanted Jesus to be the warrior Messiah — redemptive violence incarnate. Instead, what the world got was the Word incarnate — peaceful nonviolent protest, grace, life and love.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written poetry, but I’m always drawn towards opportunities where content and form are brought into union. Parables feel to me like a lovely blend of prose poetry and creative writing and I wanted to share my first whack at it.

Parable Structure

1. The parable starts with the position the listener takes for granted — common knowledge or ideology. A priest abandons a naked, injured man on the side of the road, so the priest can maintain the purity laws.

2. The parable then presents a contrasting idea that the listening might find offensive or disturbing. A Samaritan stops and helps the injured man, and gives him money and clothing.

3. Now, the structure of the parable seems to suggest that the opposite position fulfills the original position. The right thing to do was to help the man, even though it defies common practice, or purity laws.

The Parable of the Songbird

A young man, struck by a love for his God, enters into monastic service, yet after taking his vows, the feeling of God’s closeness fades away from him.

Shaken by this feeling of loss, the young monastic rises before dawn to enter the sanctuary an hour earlier than the rest of his brothers.

In front of the altar, he falls to his knees and prays for God’s presence to return. Every day — through Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring — for forty years he rises early and performs his private liturgy.

As the seasons pass, his face sags, and his hair becomes grey and sparse — he is no longer a young man, but an elderly one, well respected by his friends and brothers. Yet in his heart, he aches for the Love of God he felt in his youth.

One wintry evening, the old monk goes for a walk. As he slowly climbs a snow-packed ridge, he hears the soft notes of a songbird. In this moment, his soul cried out in ecstasy, for he had touched the Word one last time.

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