An example of a myth is “Beauty and the Beast.” In its simplest form, the story resolves all inherent problems. The tension of the drama concludes in the most ideal fashion. The beast is released from his beastliness and becomes a beautiful prince. Together with the stunning princess, they live happily ever after. The double function of myth is to resolve unique contradictions and to create a belief in the permanent possibility of reconciliation. In other words, myths project a world that is not real.
In a parable, however, contradictions and ambiguities arise. It creates irreconcilable disruption that requires change. A parable is therefore often unsettling. In O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi” Jim & Della each sell their most precious possession in order to buy a gift for the other. The end of the story is of course filled with great irony and loss, yet they also discover how deep their love is for one another. There is no neat & tidy ending in which everything “works out,” but there is disruption that leads to discovery. In other words, parables embrace the real world and send us forth equipped to live in it.
A church’s story-telling must be anchored in parable, not myth. Our stories ought to be authentic reflections of the lives we live. That authenticity should allow room for ambiguity and vulnerability.
Sadly, many churches embrace myths rather than parables. Christians often prefer to believe in “happy endings” where everything is awesome and we get along perfectly all the time. Church as business wants to sell products, and what sells is myth. It may attract people for a season, but it doesn’t equip them to follow Christ into the real world.
By contrast, Jesus lived in the reality of a fear-plagued world. He told stories anchored in truth-telling rather than fantasy. And he calls us to likewise live into the authentic stories of contradiction & ambiguity.
Herbert Anderson & Edward Foley write this in their 1998 book, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine: “Parable is especially difficult for human beings because it has one natural enemy: secret keeping. When communities such as families or parishes keep secrets, the consequences are extensive both for the individuals and the communities. Whether it be by explicit decision, implicit agreement, collusion, or a combination of these, communities sometimes decide to never tell the whole story and to keep some past event hidden at all cost. As a result the community is stuck in fixed patterns of interaction, roles are rigidly defined, and stories are closely monitored in order to keep the secret safe. Such secret-keeping is deceptively mythic: prematurely announcing that reconciliation is possible without allowing participants in the story to name that which needs to be reconciled.”
Reconciling with the world and with each other is not possible without truth-telling. And to tell the truth, we must accept the fact that it will be messy and require forgiveness. Let us be people who embrace the contradictions and messiness of parabolic story-telling. Let us be a church that lives in the truth of broken, imperfect lives. Let us embrace the grace of God. Not as a mythic story that magically makes everything awesome. But as a true story that embraces contradiction, ambiguity & disruption for the sake of God’s mission.