Brand “Christian” Challenges Part #1: Parable and Myth

I’ve decided to start up a new series that includes some straight talk for Christian leaders in urban Western contexts trying to build the church. These summarize challenges  Christians face in negotiating our changing world, recognizing cultural Christianity, and keeping a commitment to living out the Bible story in the twenty first century.

The first brand “Christian” challenge is the importance of truth – meaning both parable and myth.

You see, Often, Christians use the word “truth” with the word “judgement” in reference to calling out sin. But Jesus mostly judged the religious leaders of the day, including the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Evangelicals are really concerned with “truth”. But there are two types of truth we need to account for within the church, not just one.

Let me explain. Yesterday I was sitting in a service in which my husband informed a relatively wealthy majority white congregation that they were seated within two blocks of sixteen known illegal brothels. And I want to say they took the news quite well, which seems ridiculous, really, when you think about it. We should be able to state a fact about the community without too much angst*.

Before they can act towards the good of their neighborhood, Christians have to be made aware of their community. And there’s the catch. Many people in the church are in a state of deep unconsciousness, and even denial about our world. And so, telling certain truths can be a shock.

In their book Mighty Stories Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley diagnose this challenge as directly related to our liturgy, or worship.

Many Christians don’t deal well with the truth of parable, because they prefer the truth of myth.

A myth presents an ideal which we can agree upon. It makes us feel united, linked in our togetherness.

There are so many myths we ascribe to: national, family, sports myths. So it’s not unique to religion. Atheists have myths. We all do. They help us decide what we’d like our lives to look like in the future.

In conversation with an Aboriginal leader recently, she confessed to me why she wouldn’t be attending an upcoming Christian conference. “They want us there to tell a good story, but they aren’t willing to sit in our pain and brokenness as we navigate our actual lives”.

She was telling me this church wanted a future of a reconciled community so much they were willing to deny ways they were not reconciled, or things weren’t perfect, or there wasn’t a solution. What was happening now.

This sounds like half friendship, doesn’t it, if we as Christians amplify a “good story” from the platform, but are unwilling to publicly weep when people are suffering, hurting, and need help? … If a girlfriend did this to me, I would call her “superficial”. And yet, that’s often what Christians do to marginalized groups.

I think a good question to ask is, how does this fit with the redeeming symbol of the cross, which clearly recognizes public suffering and pain as the path to God’s triumphant victory?

Bono recently identified something like this in Fuller Studio‘s newly released documentary “The Psalms“. He said,

“The psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he’s feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion… And I often think, ‘Gosh, well, why isn’t church music more like that?”

Sure, there is deep solidarity in the laments of the psalmists, that resonances within the Beatitudes and other parables of Jesus. But, if we’re honest about it, Bono probably doesn’t listen to Christian music (or attend church) often. Because over the years there’s quite a few “explosive joy” songs out there, right?

What we’re not singing is passages such as these:

“No one who practices deceit
will dwell in my house:
no one who speaks falsely
will stand in my presence” – Psalm 101: 7

or

“Do not put your trust in princes
in human beings, who cannot save
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground:
on that very day, their plans come to nothing – Psalm 146:3-4

or

“But as for me, I am poor and needy:
come quickly to me, O God
You are my help and my deliverer:
LORD, do not delay” – Psalm 70:5

There are certain words and phrases in the psalmody embraced by the church today, while others aren’t, and the best way to get at this is the word “parable”. Anderson and Foley explain it this way:

“… Parable … is about contradiction. Parables challenge our expectations of a world without blemish. In the parables of Jesus, the last are first, and the meek inherit the earth. The parabolic perspective creates contradiction in both narrative and ritual in order to reveal a truth that is otherwise hidden.” (1998, Kindle Loc 81)

Parable causes a rupture in the way we see the world.

Parable is hidden in the words of a court jester who announces the emperor has no clothes, or in the brush strokes of the artist who paints the blind leading the blind…

bruegel-parable-of-the-blind-leading-the-blind0
Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

And, it is found in the image of Jesus hanging on a cross, having given the religious leaders one last chance to save him, but knowing they would chose the criminal Barabbas.

The Christian Bible uses truth in the form both of parable and myth. It presents an ideal, and then it tells us how we really measure up.

Ironically, this second truth is common language used by secular poets such as Bono, many of whom reject the church, and trade-off their participation in the industry for personal reputation among Christians. And yet faith serves as content for much of their lyrics. Interesting much?

We should be able to sing about the brokenness of humanity in a Christian gathering, even if it divides “us” in various ways.

If Trump’s U.S. Presidency campaign has taught us anything, the church needs better language for “politics” in this moment. We need language for intersections between faith and power. Because God is with the poor and needy while they await his help, even if we aren’t singing about their life experiences.

We need to reclaim parable as Christian language.

Our brand problem that the good news is supposed to be proclaimed to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. Because they are the ones that can see straight through our myth making. We need both types of truth, but this news requires more truth in the form of parable.

——-
*I deleted this section from the post after comments. It wasn’t so helpful because I equated ‘illegal’ with ‘trafficked’. But I think some Christians will still want it said, particularly those who know the context. So here it is.

While historical memory of the New Atheists does not attend this far, Christians publicly and actively fought human slavery since 1789 with abolitionist William Wilberforce. Once a congregation is made aware of its neighborhood, it can get involved. Involvement in this case wasn’t to judge people’s sin or out of an emotional need to rescue anyone, but to communicate God’s love to the women this figure represented, and to commit to support police efforts in prosecuting traffickers – if and when that was needed.

6 thoughts on “Brand “Christian” Challenges Part #1: Parable and Myth

  1. Tanya you’re conflating sex work with trafficking in this post. Just because a brothel is illegal, doesn’t mean that the workers aren’t consenting to be there. In fact, most sex work in the US is done illegally. Brothels are only licensed in some parts of Nevada, so if you want to set up anywhere else, you’re outside the law. One question – will taking a ‘gung ho’ approach, without knowing the actual situations of people who are working in those brothels, be helpful to them?

    1. Great comment Labalienne. Sydney Australia, has a regulated industry (sounds similar to Nevada). Sex workers in the unregulated ones are *often* not there according to their will. That doesn’t mean that some aren’t there by choice. It is common for girls to choose the income, or as accommodation. But the reason that these brothels were found was because of illegal activity from a Councillor, who was imprisoned for his activities. In this particular area, there is a racial dynamic that is difficult to explain – most if not all of the sex workers are Asian. In my understanding from community development workers, many are very marginalized women. So saying, I tried to make it clear that there was no-one rushing in to “save” them. Any follow up will be working with police and community workers. The actual point was, it is often not okay to talk about this in church, because it ruptures our ideas of a “good” neighborhood. But this doesn’t seem biblical – there are sex workers mentioned in the Bible, such as Rahab, who is in the lineage of Jesus.

  2. Being Asian and marginalised is not the same as being trafficked. Even if they have entered illegally, you don’t know for certain whether they want to be there or not. Tell me again, why does the church, along with the police, need to help people in the sex industry?

  3. There’s a pretty huge caveat on that sentence that’s there in black and white: “if and when that was needed.”

    I wrote it because there are times when my husband, the manager of youth workers in a local FBO, has been really appreciative of the church’s involvement. His organization has put $4 billion into the economy based on a Price Waterhouse Coopers independent evaluation, and they regularly draw upon resources in the local churches. I’m not going to go into any further detail because I don’t think that’s wise in a public forum.

    I have no idea why you would not want the police helping sex workers. Maybe you can explain that.

    Blogs for me are not finalized thoughts, so I appreciate your feedback and dialogue.

    1. Hey Tanya, thanks for listening. There is a fair bit of research which indicates police violence against sex workers, particularly in a criminalised environment, is at extraordinary levels. It’s hard to understand, but I guess institutionalised power structures work for the benefit of ‘upright’ men most of the time. Any ethical action needs to be acutely aware of the agency and subjectivity of those involved before drawing on the powerful (power over?) resources of FBO’s, social workers and the police.

      1. Ah. Devastatingly sad.

        Thanks for explaining, and for your insights.

        I think you’ve done your PhD on this? So I might look that up once I’ve submitted mine.

        I’m definitely not claiming to be an expert in this…. just advocating talking about real life a bit more.

        Happy for you to be the authority, and to be directed towards realities you’ve observed. Also happy to emphasize the agency and subjectivities of the women, while still saying that I believe faith based organizations *can* be of help.

        Wish we could have this conversation over a hot chocolate.

        T.

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