The Prophetic Power of Parable

Thursday, April 20, 2023

From Michael Anthony Howard, Minister of Faith in Action,
Living Water Association, Ohio North East, UCC

Tags: Streams of Connection | From Our Association Ministers | Faith in Action

If we are to get it right, perhaps Drag Story Hour has a lot to teach the church about the Gospel. An important mark of faithful ministry is our engagement in sacred stories and traditions. Stories open a portal for experiencing the sacred. They infuse the mundane with meaning. They have the power to forge family out of foes, engrave holiness on the hardest of human hearts, and make the profane sacred. In an important sense, our sacred stories are much like drag in that they have the power to challenge and reshape the stories we tell about the world around us.

The most prophetic task before us, as daunting as it may seem, is to be caretakers of the stories we tell. Storytelling is a sacred calling, an essential part of our participation in the healing of this world God so dearly loves. What is a good story without good storytellers? The calling to be faithful caretakers of our stories and traditions—to tell better stories—means attending to how stories affect the wellbeing of our community.

One way to see the power of story at work is through the distinction between myth and parable. In The Dark Interval, John Dominic Crossan, explains that a myth is a story we come to believe because it seems to settle some contradiction. Myths reconcile differences. They help make sense of the world. They tell us that the world is a certain way for good reason. They give us simplistic answers to complicated questions. Myth imposes meaning rather than discovering it.

As Crossan frames it, parable is the polar opposite of myth. Where myth provides certainty, parable raises questions. Parables point out contradictions. They are not meant to reassure us but to change us. If myths reconcile what was otherwise irreconcilable, parables pull apart pretense. Crossan explains, “The surface function of parable is to create contradiction within a given situation of complacent security.” Parables are prophetic and unsettling; they challenge the fundamental principle of reconciliation by making us aware of the untruths embedded in it: “You have built a lovely home, myth assures us; but, whispers parable, you are right above an earthquake fault.”

When seen from this framework, the Gospel functions as a revolutionary parable by upending our false mythologies about the world in order to unmask injustice so the healing can take place. The Gospel, as a parable, challenges us to rethink who we are, what we value, and why.

Parables contrast the world as it is with the world as it can and should be. This distinction between myth and parable can be seen played out everyday among those who work to bring social change. The prophetic power of parables offer alternatives to the oppressive mythology that holds the world hostage. When a minister wears vestments during a public protest event, or a congregation hosts a community-wide prayer vigil, we see the Gospel function as parable through their witness.

It was the prophetic power of parable at work in the ministry of the Community Church of Chesterland that was under attack recently in the days leading up to their “Drag Brunch Story Hour” on April 1. During Drag Story Hour, storytellers use drag to read books to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores. It has been an important spiritual practice in United Church of Christ congregations for decades. Events like these make space for children and families to engage with stories they perhaps already know, but in ways that celebrate difference and challenges gender norms. Where oppressive myths use shame to create conformity, Drag Story Hour use storytelling to create a community of belonging and acceptance.

If we are to be caretakers of our sacred stories, then we need parabolic storytellers. As unsettling as they may seem, parables break open the false narratives of our world so that new, redemptive narratives can be born. Stories embody the alchemical art of transmutation—revealing hidden beauty in the discarded and discarded beauty in ourselves. That is, perhaps, what makes drag queens such good storytellers. When we get it right, this is what the Gospel can do, break open our false narratives and to reveal the beauty of God in all of us.