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Book Review: Parables as Subversive Speech

By Weeden Nichols
Review | December 23, 2010

HAYS, Kan. - William Herzog's slim volume, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), is deceptively heavy in concept at points, and deceptively heavy in implications.

At first glance, a treatment of the parables of Jesus would seem to be of interest only to Christian persons of theological inclination. Of course it would be of interest to that sector, at least to those who are willing to ponder an alternative understanding of Jesus' meaning in certain parables and, by extension, an alternative understanding of what Jesus was about in his earthly ministry. The volume might be also of interest to Jews and Muslims, the other two "religions of The Book." They might be interested to know that the Christianity that has impacted them is not the Christianity that might have been, or the Christianity that might come to be.

I first encountered Herzog as a recurrent source in a volume by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Another recurrent source in Nelson-Pallmeyer's work was John Dominic Crossan. Crossan, in turn, is an important recurrent source for Herzog in the volume presently under review. I should note that Herzog provides a foundation in, literally, hundreds of very solid sources (to include Albert Schweitzer, for example). The Crossan references proved so interesting to me, however, that I shall pursue him further in the future.

There are some ideas about the Bible that seem at least implicit to this reviewer in Herzog's work (and there is the possibility that I am projecting what is in my mind in some areas, instead of identifying that which is implicit), which persons of some Christian denominations might be obligated to reject.

One is that the Bible is an anthology of various kinds of writings written by a variety of writers at various times for various purposes. Many of these writings have, over the years, been modified or augmented, again for various reasons, by various writers, and have been translated well or poorly. That the whole volume is the inerrant "Word of God" seems unlikely. The Bible contains myths of origin that were, in part, acquired by the People of Israel from previous cultures and peoples. It contains the history of a people, told either somewhat or very self-servingly, as is usually the case with the writers of a history. It contains purity and hygiene laws that had evolved in the tribe for various reasons, but were seen as given by God. It contains rules for reverence, respect, and conduct, also purported to have been given by God. It contains nuggets of wonderful wisdom and passages of the most graceful, and often sensual, poetry. That it contains truth is undeniable - contains truth - not that it is truth. (The naïve may take all the truths as prescriptive, without the insight that some truth is merely descriptive.) The Bible, as we know it, may contain revelation - contain revelation - without certainty that it is revelation. And, most importantly for those of us who are of any variety of Christian persuasion, it contains sayings, teachings and example of our prophet and teacher (most would say Savior), Jesus. (As an aside from this reviewer, Jesus is one of the major prophets of Islam.) These sayings, teachings, and acts were assembled by the Gospel writers from bits and pieces that had been preserved, usually passed down by oral tradition, sometimes perhaps incompletely, sometimes perhaps inaccurately, sometimes missing the point entirely, but fine-tuned by the Gospel writers to support a point the writer thought it important to make about Jesus. This fine-tuning to the purpose of the Gospel writers includes standard and non-standard transitional introductory passages, and standard and non-standard editorial postscripts. Decades of good scholarship have pretty well identified, in most cases, what is the basic Jesus story, and what is introductory or transitional and what is the editorial postscript. It is very likely that some of the Jesus stories are simply made up and attributed to Jesus, in a sincere attempt by a writer to illustrate what the writer believes is a truth about Jesus. Thousands of theologians, religious authorities and sermonizers have taken these Jesus stories in their own directions, good or bad.

It is a peculiarity of broad strains of Christianity in the United States that Jesus' total ministry had to do with spiritual matters, end-times, and Hereafter. It is central to this work by Herzog (some contemporary talk-show hosts to the contrary), that Jesus was also concerned, and perhaps centrally-concerned, with economics and justice. I gather that Herzog's interpretation of the results of his research and the aggregate of his references is that Jesus was engaged, at least in part, in what we now call "consciousness-raising." It seems clear that Jesus was not a Zealot - that he absolutely did not advocate any sort of uprising against the Roman occupiers, which would have had catastrophic consequences for the revolutionaries and their families and communities. Instead, it seemed that Jesus simply wanted people to see clearly what the interests and objectives of the elite were, and how ordinary people had internalized the objectives and values of the elite, instead of considering their own interests. It appears that Jesus wanted people to have a vision of a better way, to work toward quietly when and if an opportunity presented itself. (Sort of reminds me a little of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, in which Frank suggests that ordinary people have somehow been swindled into working and voting against their own best interests.)

Herzog could have made the mistake of citing Liberation Theology as a contemporary parallel to Jesus' method. It would have been a mistake because that would have provided grounds for immediate dismissal by most readers, due to the general prevailing association of Liberation Theology with Marxist analysis. Instead, for a contemporary parallel, Herzog extensively describes the methods of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian-born educator. Herzog was wise to make the more neutral choice, in order to avoid losing his readers at the very start.

Of great value to anyone interested in the context of Jesus' life and ministry (and this would include Christian chaplains) is Herzog's excellent, authoritative, portrayal of the history, politics, culture, social organization, agriculture, and economy of the local world contemporaneous with Jesus. Without this grounding it would be an understatement to say that a mere reading of certain parables in the Gospels would miss much, if not everything of significance.

Without giving away too much or attempting to reproduce Herzog's treatment in detail (densely and carefully reasoned and impossible to reproduce in a review) I can point to one category of useful surprises provided by Herzog. That is the category of "God-figures."

The conventional interpretation of The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20: 1-16) is that the landowner is a God-figure. This conventional treatment always had seemed unsatisfactory to me. With the landowner as a God-figure, it seemed to me that the only lesson provided by the parable (and parables should provide lessons) was passivity - God is capricious and incomprehensible - don't even try to understand - simply accept. All treatments I have heard in sermons and homilies have been either simplistic or extremely stretched and strained.

Another example of the God-figure problem treated by Herzog is The Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 16: 1-9). It is obvious that a party referred to as "the unjust judge" cannot be fully a God-figure; however, this parable is customarily used in sermons and homilies as a lesson that one must be persistent in prayer, in order to convince God to accede to our petitions. This is patently absurd. How could a being, known to be all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere-present, need to be worn down by persistence? Such a God would be constantly aware of the needs of the petitioner and what was best for him or her. No, the party who repeatedly petitioned the unjust judge, and who finally prevailed, was providing the lesson of persistence in pursuit of justice. Of course Herzog examines the matter from many more angles than I have just finished doing. I can only say that my interpretation is what I derived from Herzog's treatment. It would interest me to know what the readers of this review, who go on to read Herzog, derive from it.

This reviewer recommends, without reservation, this small but dense volume by William R. Herzog II.


Many people dont know it but many popular childrens rhymes had deeper meanings. For instance "Sing a Song of Sixpence" and "Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have you Been?" make fun of royalty.

We can argue the origin of the Holy Bible scriptures until the permanent ink fades from the archival papers it is written on (or translated onto). But, we can't, in our human earthly state of being, prove our arguments. It is an absolute matter of faith in our acceptance of the premise that God is, was, and always will be.

The Bible began in oral tradition and finally was recorded by scribes at a much later time in history than the events being described, especially the early history in the Bible. There are no secular recordings of history covering the time of creation, as recorded in Genesis. The secular world has tradition and myths that attempt to explain that time. But for much of the Bible history we do have recorded secular history that does, in fact, verify many of the stories.

The Bible is a collection of writings full of metaphors, analogies, & hyperboles. This does not mean it is not truly the word of God. It does mean we must understand the time and culture it was written in. It requires, if it is to have any real meaning to us today, that we accept that it was written or spoken to a particular audience at a particular time in history. We must relate our present situations to those times to benefit from history.

Intelectual knowledge cannot explain the human emotions nor can it replace the human limitations that only faith can sustain or explain.

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