The Power of Parables

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.

At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

This is one of the many short but thought-provoking fables by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop I read as a child. It is also the source of the oft-quoted, but rarely attributed, phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The fable is only 90 words long, but it sure packs a punch!

Everybody loves a good story. From the brief to the epic, fictional or true-to-life, historical or modern, there is something compelling about a well-told tale, especially if we can identify a moral in the story that we can apply to our lives. We are drawn to fables, fairy tales, legends, and parables because we’re all searching for answers to life’s questions and dilemmas, but we generally don’t want those answers given to us in the form of a sermon or lecture. Like medicine going down more easily with a spoonful of sugar, life lessons seem more palatable when they’re in the form of a story.

The Bible is not only an historical account dating back to pre-creation, but it is also a treasure trove of stories and parables that still serve a purpose. Parables, we should note, are not the same as anecdotes—they are fictional examples and not true accounts. Unlike fables, which generally feature non-human characters, they are always about hypothetical but realistic human situations. When Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to teach spiritual lessons, he usually began with phrases such as, “There was a man…,” “A certain ruler…,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Sometimes his point came across clearly. At other times, it seemed he wanted to provoke his disciples to ask questions and dig deeper. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to use parables. For example, in 1 Samuel 12, when King David committed a series of grievous sins, God sent the prophet Nathan to him, and Nathan used a parable—a story about a rich man who stole and killed a poor man’s lamb—to bring the king to repentance. About 120 words (in the Contemporary English Version) is all it took to get David to confess, because those words became a mirror in front of his face.

That is the power of a good story. Not only does it get the message across in a simple and relatable way, but it also makes the point stick because stories are easy to remember, especially if they stir up emotions.

Despite the vastly different genres of stories that exist today, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the most effective ones share three key elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. From the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, to the 10th-century fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood, to the latest episode of our favorite television show, we pay attention because we empathize with the characters and we want to see them have a happy ending.

The more we know and understand Scripture, the better we can tap into the power of story. This is true when we’re sharing our testimony of faith or explaining Scripture to others, and it’s also true when we’re writing a feature article or book.

Language and Story

by Randy Petersen

A story lurks in every sentence.

See what I did there? You probably have a dramatic image flashing in your mind right now—the story crouching under the staircase, ready to pounce.

I’ve been reading a book that is alternately confounding me, challenging me, and dazzling me. It’s deep stuff, rooted in the study of language, its nature, and its origins. I can make sense of every third sentence, which I then have to read three times—and then it blows my mind.

The book suggests that human language is built on story—more specifically, what it calls parable. We find and express meaning as we throw one observation alongside a separate context. Our brains do this so naturally, we don’t even recognize it. When I write, for instance, that “language is built on story,” I’m throwing that philological principle alongside a tale of construction. Somewhere inside my brain, and yours, there are hardhats and backhoes and cement trucks with their spinning payload pouring a story-foundation for everything else we say.

There are two directions I want to go with this. (And you may already be recognizing a story of travel in those words—perhaps I’m stopped at a traffic light with the GPS saying “turn right” and my friend in the passenger seat pointing left. Travel is a common story-thread in language. How often have you written a piece that “doesn’t go anywhere” or “ends up” where you didn’t expect?)

You might already be traveling in my first direction. I say foundation and parable, and you’re thinking about Jesus’ mini-story of houses built on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching will withstand storms. So . . . how did Jesus teach? Often with stories. So if human language is built on a foundation of story (as my mind-blowing book asserts), and Jesus asks me to build my life on his own story-based teaching, can I build my writing on that foundation? Is there some way the divine story can inhabit my vocabulary, my syntax, my subject matter?

I’m not just saying, “Use nice words.” And I’m not suggesting that we ensure our writing aligns with theological principles. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that there are action-stories at the heart of our faith, and at the foundation of our lives. As language merchants, we can import the action of those stories—in all their vagaries, scandals, and contradictions—into our modern communication.

 Not sure exactly how to do that, though.

My second point is simply a writing tip. Find the stories in your sentences. Language wants to be active, dramatic. Treat ideas like people. Don’t just say what they are. Find out what they do. The resulting metaphors and mini-parables will energize your writing at a granular level.

I wasn’t going to tell you the name of the book, because then you’d buy it and blame me when it baffled you. But if you have the patience, it’s The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.