Excerpt from Seed Falling on Good Soil, by Gordon W. King
Stories as Agents of Change
My sleep is often interrupted in the night due to my illness. Sometimes I listen to a radio, using an earphone in order not to bother Regine. One such night, I was riveted by a BBC interview with Dr. Mukesh Kapila, who described an afternoon in March 2004 when he sat behind a desk in Khartoum writing a report for his superiors at the United Nations in New York. Kapila was the UN’s senior representative in Sudan. He held little hope that the lines he was writing about Darfur would have any greater impact than his previous reports.
A tall woman in torn, dirty clothes unexpectedly appeared outside his office, having somehow made it past the security guards and administrative staff. She introduced herself as Aisha and chose to sit on the floor rather than to use a chair. She explained that she had come from Darfur to Khartoum in order to tell him her story. Aisha had been with her family in her town’s market when Arab militia attacked on horseback and in vehicles. They rounded up the women and girls and raped them systematically “like a production line in a factory.” She passed out after being abused by several men. When Aisha gained consciousness, houses were burning and the men of the town had disappeared (and never returned). Somehow she journeyed 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to Khartoum to meet with Mukesh Kapila.
Kapila had received third-party reports about Darfur over the past months. Now he was confronted with the personal story of a survivor. His subsequent actions would cost him his UN career and lead to years of death threats. He booked a flight to Nairobi and called a press conference without the permission of his superiors. He exposed the violence sponsored by the Government of Sudan and the inaction of the UN to protect vulnerable
populations in Darfur. He had been ambushed by Aisha’s story and felt compelled to make a series of dangerous personal commitments.The interview with Mukesh Kapila shows how stories can shape our lives. This theme is brilliantly analysed in Arthur Frank’s book Letting Stories Breathe. Frank proposes that narratives are dynamic, living entities that have the capacity to touch our emotions, challenge our perceptions, and work as agents of change in different social contexts. His theory of socio-narratology gave me valuable insights for approaching the parables of Jesus. Three concepts have been particularly important.
First, Arthur Frank suggests that each person creates an “inner library” of stories in their personal memory banks. These narratives come from diverse places—family histories, the prevailing culture, religious faith, folk tales, the media, movies, books and even malicious gossip. We use some stories again and again to reinforce a particular worldview or value system. We move other stories to the back shelves of the inner library, where they fall into disuse and are almost forgotten. Using Frank’s analogy, we could say that the parables of Jesus are carefully crafted stories that have entered into the libraries of diverse audiences throughout the ages. Some of these narratives have been given prominent places, which is reflected in the way we use phrases such as “a good Samaritan,” “a prodigal child” or “a mustard seed project.”
Second, Frank introduces the concept of “narrative ambush,” where stories unexpectedly assault listeners and overwhelm their defences. These stories can shake us to the core and force us to examine our values, motivations, ideologies, and apathy. Though we often build walls against the rational discourse of people on the other side of political and ethnic boundaries, a powerful story can unexpectedly leap over these protective fences and
penetrate our hearts.
Third, Frank describes certain stories as “dangerous companions” that have a way of living with us or showing up at inconvenient times. These stories can inspire us to undertake risky journeys of great virtue or vice. They push us towards nobility or destruction. Aisha’s story was a dangerous companion for Mukesh Kapila.
These three descriptive concepts, “inner libraries,” “narrative ambush” and “dangerous companions,” have shaped my approach to the parables. The stories told by Jesus were not “cute rural tales.” They were not the “wise reflections” of a philosopher recounted while resting in a pleasant meadow. They were also not sermon illustrations told to reinforce a religious message. The parables were the message. They were memorable. They ambushed people by speaking of the coming of God’s rule in territory controlled by the Roman Empire. They were dangerous because they encouraged people to take creative actions in ways that gave expression to the gospel saying about taking up the cross and following Jesus.
I conclude the introduction by noting that it was dangerous for Jesus to talk about the kingdom of God in a land ruled by an emperor who commanded legions of troops. It would have been a safer option to speak about the family of God or the age of the Spirit. Most of the people who heard his stories lived on the margins, where they contended with hunger, poverty, social exclusion, and a growing sense of resistance to the kingdom of the Romans and their puppet Herod Antipas. His audiences also included a few people who were agents of the elite minority and thereby benefited from the culture of domination and privilege. Jesus used parables to address both groups by casting the vision of an alternative kingdom which offered personal and social transformation. The following chapter will attempt to portray the social setting of Galilee and Judea in which the message of Jesus was proclaimed in deeds of healing, words of teaching, and, of course, stories.