Telling the truth but telling it slant
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —Success in Circuit liesToo bright for our infirm DelightThe Truth’s superb surpriseAs Lightning to the Children easedWith explanation kindThe Truth must dazzle graduallyOr every man be blind —~Emily Dickinson
If you talk to many Mormons undergoing faith crisis or transition (are those terms synonymous?), you will usually find a preoccupation with truth, honesty, and authenticity. Most discussions of a “middle way” will grapple with a tension between maintaining appearances to avoid alienation on the one hand, and being straightforward and honest about their doubts and disbeliefs. I typically see very strong claims that honesty must be open and forthright — it is not only telling falsehoods but omitting relevant truths, or presenting truths in ways you know could be misinterpreted, that is deceptive. (See more discussion about truth and lies at Wheat & Tares.)
Are parables deceptive?
With that as context, I want to transition to another issue I’ve been thinking about since I wrote my last article here. Agellius commented on my post on grace with the Parable of the Sower, and although I was already familiar with this parable, I opened up Matthew and read further. Right after that parable, the disciples pull Jesus aside and ask him a question that I still think is quite relevant: what is the deal with parables, anyway?
More importantly, from the perspective that truth-telling requires forthrightness, are parables deceptive?
And Jesus says, starting in Matthew 13:11 :
11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
This explanation introduced more questions for me — what determines whether someone will be given the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven or not?
In referring to the fulfilled prophecy, Jesus makes it appear that he is presenting truth clearly in front of everyone, but some people (the Apostles) understand the point, while others will not see what is clearly in front of them (“though seeing, they do not see”) But this doesn’t seem to be the case, especially when you compare to the counterpart of this story in Mark 4. It seems that the Apostles are just as confused about what these parables mean, and Jesus has to take them aside to give them (and, by extension, all of us readers of the Gospels) the answer key.
So, he knows that there are more straightforward ways to explain this stuff, and he explains using those more straightforward ways to some people…how do we explain his original use of a less straightforward approach? Does he not want everyone else to understand him?
Does Jesus want everyone to understand his message?
When I googled for this, I found that I am not alone in asking this question about these scriptures. In fact, some people wrote articles openly asserting that Jesus precisely didn’t want everyone to understand his message.
Although that answer seems reasonable to me (see also my blog’s title), I don’t think I can take that answer at face value. I’m aware that some folks actively believe that Jesus didn’t come to save everyone — but I am also aware that the questions of Calvinism, of God’s sovereignty vs man’s agency, are not settled.
So, how would someone who doesn’t believe in a limited Atonement (or who doesn’t believe that God plays favorites) explain the cryptic methods of Jesus?
The adventures of The Janitor
I don’t know if he’s like this with everyone, but I have always found my father very difficult to understand. He often speaks in some sort of extended metaphor — and he usually doesn’t explain the antecedents. For example, for several years now, he has referred to himself as The Janitor.
What does this mean?
Only through years of…not even context clues…just merely context crumbs…have I begun to build a working hypothesis for the meaning of this metaphor. After years of stories, years of comments my father has made about himself or about other people, I have interpreted as follows: janitors are usually not highly esteemed. In fact, many people look down on janitorial positions. Even for many people who don’t judge that role, we rarely think about janitors when they are doing their job well.
…but when the janitor is absent, that absence is stark. We take clean buildings for granted, so when trash or messes start accumulating, it’s noticeable.
My father, similarly, is someone who works behind the scenes in a way that is rarely noticed — but when he decides to step away, his absence is palpable.
And this rings true to me. Even though at my company, the partners have prestige, on a day to day basis, it’s best to honor the executive assistants, secretaries, schedulers, and, yes, the janitors.
This is just one example. Every time I go back home to Oklahoma, we’ll usually have some extended conversation on something, and I’ll try to write key points discussed from that conversation either in my journal or here on this blog. I write these things down not because I understand them, but because I don’t. Writing gives me the opportunity to try again later.
And that last part is important.
When I was younger, I would hear things my father would say, and I would dismiss them. If I didn’t see a direct applicability to my life, then out it went. You can probably still see some of that in my Dad Talk archives — I have my experiences and he has his, and when his experiences don’t match mine, it’s just too easy to set aside his experiences as not being as relevant for me.
But over time, even if I haven’t been able to understand many of the things he’s said or find immediate application, I have recognized more and more that these comments are nevertheless worth paying attention to. These words, however cryptic, are worth recording. Worth reading and re-reading. Worth visiting and revisiting. Worth searching and researching.
They are a gift.
Ultimately, a lot depends on my own attitude. The messages are here, but they aren’t forced on me. I must take the time to decode them — or at the very least, take the time to stick around to ask them to be decoded.
There have been several times in recent years where my father will say something to the extent of, “You’re now ready to understand…” — after which, I, like the Apostles, will get the “answer key.”
And here I get it. There’s a lot of stuff I am told now that I would surely have thrown away if I was told it so straightforwardly in the past. If someone isn’t ready for those comments, it is easy to mock, easy to reject, easy to dismiss. And that would ultimately be not only a waste of time for him, but also a big sign of disrespect.
I can understand why someone — especially with radical and counter-intuitive truths — wouldn’t want to open themselves up to being so easily mocked or rejected because someone wasn’t ready to hear yet.
So I can understand that using metaphors or parables are more like putting out feelers to see who might be ready to hear more.
…or maybe Jesus was the first clickbait. You’ll never believe what #6 on what the Kingdom of Heaven is like….
From → Dad Talk