Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A problem of using parables

I don't normally write about religion on this blog, but recent events surrounding Shirley Sherrod's firing from the USDA seems to draw parallels with how people are brought to an understanding via the parable. Therefore, I will venture into religion only so far as to the point of the use, misuse, and importance of the parable, specifically in Christianity.

You might know about what happened with Shirley Sharrod, the USDA employee that was fired from her job because of a web video of her recounting a story that purported to show how she -- a black woman -- was a racist against poor white farmers in Georgia. Furthermore, it was alleged that the events that she was recounting occurred while she was working for the USDA, instead of 23 years or so prior to her being hired there.

One of the problems was that she was recounting her story as a parable in which she would explain how her worldview was changed from a black vs. white mentality to a rich vs. poor mentality. However, until she talks about that change, her comments paint her as having a very race-oriented (one might say "racist") mindset. However, that was the point of the story: to show how she changed her viewpoint through verbally "painting a picture" for her audience.

This is a very common way of explaining events, especially life-altering ones: describe the previous condition, and then describe how one was changed due to certain events. In fact, it's a common way of expressing things in many religions, including Christianity. However, it is a style of narration that is open to misinterpretation based solely on not-terribly-difficult quote selection.

Indeed, some parables in the Bible and other holy books would seem -- if taken without their entire context -- to be very different from their intended meaning (especially if one views the story through a different cultural lens):

The parable of the net (Matthew 13:47-50) is one of a series of parables that tries to explain the kingdom of heaven. However, if one looks only at the first half of the parable, then one is left with a strange impression of what is in store when it comes to judgment:
 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away.
So... if this was all you read (and many of the comparisons in Matthew 13 are only one or two sentences, so form-wise there is nothing to say that this couldn't be the only part of the parable), then you might think that good people (the good fish) are going to be hunted down by some authoritarian police force (a "dragnet"?) sold for meat and consumed (what else would fishermen do with fish that they caught and put into containers?), their souls destroyed forever, whereas the bad are allowed to return to the world. However, this is just a metaphor for sorting the good from the bad, and the remaining two lines do indeed make this point:
So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And this isn't the only one in which a misinterpretation by mere truncation is possible. The same can be said with more famous parables, like the one about the sower of seeds. If you only read Matthew 13:3-7, as opposed to reading it through to verse 10, the parable only talks about all the failures of the seeds to take root, and nothing about the successes (which are in verses 8-10). Or if one reads the first part of the parable of weeds in the field (only Matthew 13:24-27 or even Matthew 13:24-the first sentence in 30), you won't come across any statement of the intent behind the man's actions (which is contained in the second sentences of verse 30). And so on and so on.

True, many parables are less amenable to this sort of edited self-incrimination, but people know when reading the Bible, that they should read the entirety of the story, which is exactly what didn't happen with Ms. Sherrod. The supposedly incriminating video showed her recounting the part of her story when she was explaining how she used to be stuck in a race-based mindset, before she was enlightened, before she started to be a major positive force in helping in race relations in rural Georgia.

It would be like telling the story of Jesus, but then ending the story at the point of crucifixion, with nothing about the empty tomb or being revealed to hid disciples. Such a story would leave out one of the basic fundamental beliefs of the Christian church, the salvation of man due to the sacrifice of Christ by God. In other words, such an editing of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul would be analogous to the editing of the Shirley Sherrod video: it leaves out the most important part of the story.

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