There is a saying which I’ve seen variously attributed to African, Amerind and Asian wise men, which goes “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.

A little while ago, I blogged on the back of a short story by Ursula le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (here’s a link if you’re interested), which is most definitely “made up”. On the other hand, through an entirely fictional place and people, it conveys a really important truth about how I, at least, feel about morality, and in particular the utilitarian concept that the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good. It rests on the concept that the entire happiness of an otherwise idyllic, utopian society is founded on them keeping a vulnerable innocent in appalling conditions, and never even speaking a kind word to the victim – and, on learning of this truth about their society, some elect to walk away, then or later, despite leaving also all the positives of their society.

Now, the blogger who reminded me of the story was using it as a metaphor (or, probably strictly speaking, an allegory, which is an extended and often more symbolic metaphor) for the church – and it made sense and conveyed, I think, a truth about the church. I used it as a metaphor for western society, and in particular the society of the UK in which I live. It doesn’t aspire to the category of myth – myths are the great stories, the archetypes of human interaction or of the identity of a people. The story within the story of Omelas is, for the society described, a myth (as are our British legends of King Arthur, a foundational myth) – Ms. leGuin writes science fiction and fantasy, so within the logic of the story, it might be true, and in that event it would be a true myth,  or it might be false, in which case it would still be a myth, but the happiness of Omelas would not actually necessarily depend on their continued cruelty. As it is clearly a foundational myth, though, tinkering with it might well produce unanticipated consequences even if there is no material causal link between the misery of the innocent and the wealth and happiness of the society, which is why I use the caveats “necessarily” and “material”. One such possibility lies in the works of Rene Girard; the innocent may be functioning as a scapegoat, and thereby actually contributing to the peace of the society through psychological rather than material mechanisms.

The thing about metaphor, allegory and myth is that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether “it happened this way”, the truth (or falsehood) of one of these literary figures is in how we apply it to situations in the real world – and it is then true to the extent that we are able to construct such an application.  A similar example is a joke – if I say “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar”, you are not going to ask me where the bar was, or what an imam was doing in a bar anyway, or when this happened, far less whether it happened. Those are just not the point – the point is in the punchline (which is “and the barman says ‘this is a joke, isn’t it?’ “).

Similarly, when Jesus told parables, they were metaphors or allegories; it wasn’t important whether they happened that way (or at all), the message what in what you took from them. We are quite happy with the idea that Jesus made up these stories on the spot to illustrate a truth (or sometimes several truths) which were outside the stories themselves. Happily, even my most fundamentalist friends realise this.

However, when we are talking of events in the life of Jesus which are recounted in the gospels, the more conservative among us suddenly become very concerned about whether things happened this way – where the bar was, in other words – and it becomes very difficult to get beyond that.

There is a quite excellent book by John Dominic Crossan called “The Power of Parable – How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, which treats the narrative history of Jesus contained in the gospels as story, not asking whether it happened this way, but what lessons we can draw from those stories today. This just ignores the issue of “whether it happened like that” and looks at a selection of stories from the gospels purely on the basis of what these stories can tell us about the situations we are in now.

The trouble is, I suspect that my more conservative friends would really not be able to glean anything from it, because Crossan is taking as read the fact that the gospel writers were adjusting their stories in order to make their own points…

It rather recalls to me discussions on the old Compuserve Religion Forum, where a wide variety of people were posting, from absolutely fundamentalist Christians through very liberal ones to atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions – the objective there was to discuss the religion, not to proselytise or fellowship. There were permanent problems actually getting a viable conversation going between these viewpoints, as the fundamentalists permanently homes in on whether the Bible was an inerrant historical (and scientific) account. Where I found an avenue to better discussion was in saying “let’s set on one side whether it happened that way, leaving biblical criticism and theology for later, and discuss application – how does this account impact your life at the moment?” As Kenneth Arthur writes in “Out of the Ashes” (recently published), “Whether we believe a biblical story to be literal or allegorical, the critical understanding comes from the message conveyed by the story. These messages don’t change based on whether the events told are completely fictitious or whether they happened verbatim.”

That way, we could sometimes manage to avoid the issue on which the two sides were never going to agree, and have sensible discussions. Not infrequently, the result was that a biblical inerrantist and a non-supernaturalist materialist could actually agree on the meaning of a passage, and that ultimately it was the application which mattered to them.

And they “got the joke”…