Friday, December 31, 2010

Re-Imagining The World: An Introduction To The Parables Of Jesus

Bernard Brandon Scott's Re-Imagining The World is a marvelous introduction for the general reader to the power, the possibility, and the multi-layered nature of the parables of Jesus. In the introduction, Scott says that while the book is not a scholarly text, his hope is that it is, nonetheless, scholarly. Indeed it is. Using a variety of sources - the Beatles, the Talmud, non-canonical Christian texts, Pliny the Elder - Scott brings to life a perspective upon and understanding of the parables of Jesus that restores to them their arresting, even scandalous quality.

A point that Scott makes early on is the distinction between orality and literacy, something we moderns need to keep in mind when considering the reality of the parables, indeed considering the pre-literate Gospel tradition, which began as oral storytelling, only later to be committed to paper in a literate, sometimes narrative, form. By drawing on a wealth of information in a succinct manner - very often his asides are quite literal, boxed definitions or quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures, or some other source - Scott makes clear in a variety of ways the inherent power of oral storytelling to use compression to its advantage. What even a single word conveys in a parable, requires, at a minimum, several pages of unpacking for the modern reader.

As presented by Scott, the parabolic teachings of Jesus remind me of what Walter Brueggemann writes about The Prophetic Imagination. Using the prophetic call of Jeremiah as a template, Brueggemann sees the prophet's call as both destructive and constructive; to use the words contained in the scriptures, "to pluck up and to plant." In much the same way, Scott's introduction to the parables shows Jesus deconstructing our received notions of the sacred and holy, as well as constructing alternative possibilities for real human community lived outside these received notions. Central to the destructive/constructive project lies the very first parable he considers - the parable of the leaven.

This was the most arresting point for me, as a reader. Indeed, I wondered how, in all the years of reading and study, this short parable of a woman baking bread could be overlooked for its radical revisioning of holiness, of our view of women in society and their relationship to sacred community, and much else. The destruction/construction continues in each of his discussions, from the Mustard Seed right through to the parable of the great feast. In each case, Scott shows the way, in as economical a way possible, Jesus subverts, and even insults and confounds, our received ideas, in the process offering a living, breathing alternative to those ideas.

Were I to teach a short class to laity on the parables, this would be the central text. Despite the three previous posts that point out where I differ or disagree with some of Scott's methodological choices, this short work opens up the parables of Jesus in a new way, offering to any reader reasons to think, perhaps to frown in disagreement, but certainly to be challenged and, best of all, changed.

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