A Parable Parable

The following is not persuasive writing. It is an effort to craft a tool for explaining my position. Hopefully, this tool could help explain my position to those who claim to believe that the words in the Bible are “literally true.” It would be nice if it could also allow a discussion of the multiple meanings of that term.

The Parable of the Parable of the Sower

There was a public meeting of the Joint Policy Council on Agriculture and Higher Education. They discussed factors that threatened the traditional excellence of higher education agriculture programs and the competitiveness of the agriculture industry. A preacher came to the microphone and asked if the organization would support exposing students to the biblical point of view on agriculture–namely that seeds should be scatter everywhere, and in the places that God intended them to grow, they would grow. The preacher admitted that he could not say for sure whether the models designed by agricultural science were right or wrong, he just wanted to ensure that students were exposed to the Biblical alternative.

Explaining the Parable of the Parable of the Sower

I honestly don’t know what a modern farmer would have to say about this. I am not a modern farmer. I suspect, it is poor guidance on how to plant seeds. But what I know, and what everyone knows, is that one should not read the Parable of the Sower this way. Does that mean I don’t think the Parable of the Sower is literally true? I guess. Does it mean that I don’t think the Parable of the Sower is true? No. The Parable of the Sower is very true; it describes phenomena that anyone who has been in a church for a while has seen.

The most tragic thing about reading the Parable of the Sower as a guide on planting crops is NOT that it is bad guidance on planting crops. The most tragic things about reading the Parable of the Sower as a guide on planting crops is that it misses the actual truth of the parable.

This is equally true of reading Christian mythology as history or science.

8 replies on “A Parable Parable”

Most biblical literalists are likely to tell you that no one would take the parable as a planting guide. They argue a lot for context, and so they can fall back on “you aren’t reading that in context” whenever something is provably absurd in the literalist viewpoint.

The stuff they hold to as literal in the sense you describe are just as absurd, but they aren’t as provably absurd, and so they continue to hold to them.

That’s absolutely right, which is why I don’t think this is an “argument” per se. It is an effort to explain my position, which is this:

The Bible isn’t wrong, the literalists are wrong.

That is all an analogy ever does. It clarifies the position of the author of the analogy. It never proves anything. (And is usually only even persuasive to folks already sharing the point of view.)

The discussion I want to have with literalists is why I think they are reading the story wrong. And this parable of parables is intended to point out that I’m not really arguing with them about science, but about religion.

The parable of the sower, actually has an explanation of the parable that follows. So, yes, it is impossible to take as literal.

The problem behind your setup, Jim, is one of hermeneutics. “Literalists” “take the Bible literally” — which is to say they interpret the text in a literal fashion (which, in point of fact, they really don’t with absolute consistency. Or, better, with the consistency of expediency for their particular argument at the time). At any rate, one’s position regarding Holy Writ is always, inevitably, and necessarily an interpretation. On the level of the “original texts” (or as close as we can come chronologically), every translation is always-already an interpretive choice. On the level of the English translation, reading any text automatically involves subtle (and some hidden) choices as to emphasis, context, interweaving of sentences in some sort of semantic meaning, etc. On the level of reading within a faith-context of any sort, one imports pre-understandings which are shaped by inherited traditions of interpretation (i.e., that this particular assemblage of ink, paper, and glue represents something important to our self-understanding as a community, and that it, further, contains implications for both individual living and the community’s life together and in the world, for example). All of these pre-interpretations are just handed to us, visibly or invisibly. Sorry about that.

Literalists simply choose one particular set among the many, and then claim that it is the only legitimate one (to be fair, this is a traditional move, beginning with the earliest Christian controversies).

My point after all this verbiage, is simply to say that all of it is an interpretation. What keeps that from trite cliche-dom is that it then brings to awareness the twin issues of legitimacy and validity. Legitimate interpretations are simply ones that do indeed exist in the text. Does Matthew, for example, contain anti-semitic passages. Yes, indeed, Matthew does. They are there, and one cannot deny that fact. Validity, on the other hand, measures every interpretation against some sort of standard. With Matthew, again, one might measure those anti-semitic passages against Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” vision, in which case they fall far short of that inclusive dream.

The crucial issue, coming back to the “literalists,” seems to me to hang on divergent criteria for validity in interpretation. Literalists use one, and those with another view use another.

What seems to me to be helpful, then, is to see if we can identify the criteria we use, test them to see if they measure up to our vision of God’s activity, values, and intentions (a theological claim which lies at the heart of any faith-orientation), and then converse about our visions, and see where we can find common ground, and where we differ. And the, of course, what we choose to do about our differences.

Here’s where the famous Disciples slogan, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity,” comes into play. The tough part, then, is to decide between what is essential and what is nonessential.

Oh, great — another interpretive decision! AAAAAUUUGH!



I did read your whole response, but my question comes from the first line, “The problem behind your setup, Jim, is one of hermeneutics.” My point of the Parable of the Parable is to make my position more clear. And, I suppose, to show others that they too use my way of reading the scripture sometimes.

Do you think this is not necessary? Or do you think the Parable Parable is a bad way to do it? Or do you think it is necessary, the parable parable is a fine way to do it, but it is all futile in the end?


You are quite correct that every reading involves interpretation, but that doesn’t get us off the hook of needing to try to get the point.

My problem with the literalist interpretation of the Christian Bible is that given even a very liberal definition of “literal”, the task is impossible. There may be more than one “right” way to interpret the scripture, but that doesn’t mean there are no “wrong” ways.

Coming upon a lengthy conversation in a blog is as awkward as happening upon a face-to-face discussion among friends at a restaurant. Too many comments calling for response. Love the topic & out loud I'm saying "yes!" a lot.

Jim, the parable of the parable is a great one (farmer's daughter speaking). It achieves for me the point I think you intended. It is a helpful exercise for me, and I may be tempted to entertain it in sermon.

Bob, I so appreciate your reminder of the sticky presence of hermeneutics (as hard to lose as our shadows are). one’s position regarding Holy Writ is always, inevitably, and necessarily an interpretation And I say, "yes!".

In fact, I suspect this is WHY literalists work so hard at reducing scripture-reading to a science. Fear of slipping from certainty keeps them trying to squeeze out all the wiggle-room in interpretation. Ah, but that fear could so safely be exchanged for the joy of many possibilities.

Then I come to your last comment, Matt, & read There may be more than one “right” way to interpret the scripture, but that doesn’t mean there are no “wrong” ways.
Love that teaser. So on what criteria would we identify the “wrong” ways of interpreting scripture?

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