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Telling the truth but telling it slant

June 6, 2016
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or 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?

Jesus and multitudes

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?

Who knows?!

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….

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From → Dad Talk

7 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    Once again you’ve nailed it. After reading the first half of your post I started formulating how I would answer. But then the second half of your post gave pretty much the answer I would have given.

    As you said, the Apostles didn’t necessarily “get” the parables any more than anyone else. The only difference between them and the others, is that Jesus provided a special explanation to them. But why does he explain things to them and not to everyone else?

    It’s because they are his disciples: They have already made the decision to place their faith in him. Those who have not already put faith in Jesus won’t “get” his explanations even if he does explain them to them.

    It’s a similar situation with you and your father. Before you had decided to place your “faith” in him (though I realize you don’t see it as a “decision”), some of his words and sayings were meaningless to you: You would discount them out of hand. But once you came to the realization that his words were worth attending to, even though their application was not immediately apparent, then you were open to realizing their value at a later time, once they had “sunk in”.

  2. Agellius,

    I’m glad that you noted that I wouldn’t see it as a decision. So, while I get the general concept — faith comes first, and then (sometime?) comes understanding — it seems to me that getting that faith first is not necessarily a brute force choice. Like, I would say it was definitely a subtle shift or change over time, but I can’t really pinpoint anything I did to put that shift in motion. I didn’t “earn” even that.

    • Agellius permalink

      I agree that faith is not a brute force choice that is earned. But I think it’s still an act of will, in the sense that you were able to understand and profit from certain things your dad said once you were willing to “take the time to decode them — or at the very least, take the time to stick around to ask them to be decoded.”

      As you said, “Ultimately, a lot depends on my own attitude. The messages are here, but they aren’t forced on me.” If they’re not forced on you, that implies that you have free will in their regard. Similarly, the truths of Christianity (as I see them) are not capable of forcing assent, since they can’t be proven either scientifically or logically. How we react to them depends on our attitude towards them. Our attitude towards them is not entirely under our control, but it’s not entirely out of our control either.

  3. Mary Ann permalink

    I definitely agree that metaphors and parables are like feelers, but I also think they have value as more accessible ways to understand some of the ideas. Kind of like how music, arts, and theatre engage the audience. It taps into emotions and can often be more effective than any lecture at helping people understand the impact of how we treat each other. Like you said earlier, “If I didn’t see a direct applicability to my life, then out it went.” The stories create applicability by drawing us in and identifying with the characters. Once we re-emerge out of that story, it is not unusual for us to then ponder on what we saw and felt in the story and start thinking about it in terms of our own lives.

    In a related vein, the genius in any religious leader using everyday objects or familial and employer/employee relationships is that when an individual goes back to their daily routine after hearing the parable, they are encountering imagery that can instantly recall the story they heard. One time when I was picking weeds out of rocky areas and switching over to picking weeds in the dirt I recalled the Parable of the Sower and just started mulling it over. The action of picking weeds and recalling the parable became linked, and I now often consider it in passing every time I pick weeds. By using symbols applicable to the individual, it’s a little easier for that individual to remember the story and eventually develop curiousity about the meaning behind the symbols. A different way to get the parables to “sink in.”

  4. Mary Ann,

    that’s a super good point — metaphors can often be a way of making complicated truths easier to understand. And I LOVE the comments on the ability to transform seemingly mundane things into daily reminders for the larger story. A few years back when I read the Unvarnished New Testament, I was actually impressed by how different various stories felt when the veneer of our standardized religious language was removed — and the translator pointed out that, to people back then, those words would not have been standardized…they would have been ordinary terms imbued with new significance.

    This is also why if I’m checking out Bible verses these days, I’ll usually check out translations *other* than King James Version — just to see if there have been different translation choices made.

    I wonder if maybe we lose out a bit because we are studying metaphors that were more at home in a previous era but which do not necessarily resemble our day-to-day lives now (like, if I live in an apartment complex and never see any weeds or any plants, really, then does that mean I should find a different metaphor?)

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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