There is a common belief that Jesus used parables to teach spiritual truths because they used examples of every day life that the average person could identify with and understand. I shared this belief for many years, until recently reading this passage during my personal study:
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” – Matthew 13:10-13 NKJ
Jesus goes on to quote a prophecy from Isaiah (6:9-10), the first part of which He referenced at the end of His answer in verse 13 above. It is the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy that I want to apply to how fantasy fiction writers can use biblical parables as storytelling patterns.
For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.
Jesus didn’t use parables to make the gospel more accessible. It was just the opposite, in fact. He masked spiritual truths with mundane examples in order to weed out those who weren’t really interested in hearing what He had to say and becoming “doers of the word.” Those who were seeking, however, would be able to discern the real message and make the application to themselves.
Fantasy fiction offers fertile ground for writers to tell their own parables. Well-tread themes and familiar debates can be draped in shiny new clothes and dropped into alien environments. This gives them a distance that can allow for a more objective consideration.
Unfortunately, too many writers take the wrong approach and try to bludgeon their readers over the head with whatever theme or truth they want to espouse. These attempts usually include diaphanous allegory or preachy soliloquies by the protagonist.
If the reader is sympathetic to the writer’s views, they may be able to get past the heavy-handedness and still enjoy the story. However, if the reader holds to a contrary belief, or is just looking for some entertainment, the writer’s tactics have ruined any chance they might have had in reaching the audience.
Writers don’t need to abandon their efforts to explore themes and truths dear to them, but they do need to employ a little craft. Embed the message in the natural, organic growth and interactions of the characters, in the smooth, logical flow of the plot. Following the storytelling pattern seen in Jesus’s parables will allow readers who aren’t interested in enlightenment to enjoy a good story. And for those readers seeking deeper meanings, the writer will be rewarding their perceptiveness.