|Publication Date: 15 May 2014|
|Publisher: SPCK Publishing|
|Page Count: 224|
|ISBN-13: 9780281064373, 9780281072293|
Jesus the Storyteller
It is hard to imagine a better introduction to Jesus' parables.
Wright's basic contention is that for too long Jesus has been understood, or, indeed, misunderstood, as a teller of parables. His suggestion is that we reclaim the categories of story and storyteller.
This is a bold stroke which succeeds in challenging a range of received wisdoms about Jesus the orator and in applying in a fresh way the category of Jesus the narrator.
While remaining true to the text of the Synoptic Gospels, Wright avails of Aristotle's 'Poetics', rather than his 'Rhetoric' in this analysis and also of contemporary scholarship on narrative theory.
Wright helpfully outlines the shape of the book. Part 1 outlines and analyses the history or parable scholarship in the last 250 years; Part 2 addresses what each of the Synoptic Gospels makes of the stories which Jesus told and why; Part 3 explores how the stories fit in with the life and work of Jesus; and Part 4 draws together what we might justifiably extract and, indeed, extrapolate about Jesus and his observation of life and teaching about God from the stories he tells and the varied ways he tells them.
As we ourselves will read and reread the Bible, we will learn a number of valuable things from Wright which may surprise us.
One is that the comparative, indeed conflictual, character of Rabbinic parable as a genre is not automatically and uncritically to be transferred to Jesus as storyteller.
The second is that treatment of Jesus' parable thus far has not been considered in light of what we might term his 'overall strategy'.
Wright, therefore, attempts to locate the stories in the ministry of the historical Jesus. This takes us to the heart of the dilemma about seeing the stories as parables clustered around themes of morality. See page 4: "...and preachers take evasive action when it comes to the king who first burns a city in response to the refusal of a wedding invitation, then imprisons one who has accepted it (that is: such an invitation) because he is not wearing the right clothes (Matthew 22:1-14)."
Is it clear that there is a problem if our quest is still for a linear moral expression of theology around moral expression of theology around moral absolutes in Jesus' earthly preaching.
So, what conclusions and insights does Wright offer in this courageous and exciting book? One is that the stories as stories bring together keen observation and reflection, rather than seeking to persuade, reveal, promise or warn. The telling phrase in this regard is to be found on page 177: "It is not that the stories are saying that the 'spiritual' world is like the 'ordinary' world. Rather, through portraying a slave, a tenant, a father, a troll-collector, they invite listeners to see themselves, or someone they know well, within the narrative, and thus make its world their own." And, we might add, draw his or her own conclusions.
Another is that the ambiguity of the stories makes them unreliable evidence about Jesus' expectation concerning the kingdom.
What, therefore, of Jesus? Wright takes up Herzog's description of Jesus as "pedagogue of the oppressed" to capture a sense of his teaching as an empowering event. He talks also of the stories as being speech-acts which do something by the very act of saying it. How many of us have ever dared to think reverently and obediently of Jesus the Jester (pahe 182)?
Rather powerfully, Wright disturbs us by saying that Jesus was not ruled by a diary divided up between teaching and doing miracles, meals with sinners and being kind. As a prophet, he taught the people of Galilee to read their situation not as God's will but as a consequence of the violation of God's covenant. This jester is not messer, but a person and prophet of wisdom.
Imagine a book that takes the familiar stories of Jesus and reads them with an
immediacy and attentiveness that makes them as fresh and startling to us as they
were for those in the first century who hung on every word that Jesus spoke.
Stephen Wright has written such a book. Jesus the Storyteller begins with the
story of scholarship, a story that, although not as riveting as the stories Jesus
spoke, helps to set the context of how, under the umbrella of parables, the stories
of Jesus lost their narrative character in the nineteenth century and how there has
been a slow movement towards interpreting them as stories once more in the
twentieth century (with some significant exceptions!).
Wright then lays out the groundwork for his own reading: he emphasizes how
the stories were first told orally and heard with a raw immediacy, then remembered
and retold in community settings, as well as performed repeatedly in new and fresh
ways not only by Jesus in different contexts, but also by his followers. Wright also
highlights reception history and, most importantly, the narrative character of the
This last category, narrative, most dramatically shapes the rest of Wright’s
book. After a brief overview of how the stories of Jesus fit into the larger narrative
of each Gospel writer, Wright takes us through the stories themselves, with careful
attention to the setting, character, point of view and plot of each.
Once we realize that the setting of these stories is that of first-century Jews in
Palestine, suffering economically and politically under Roman occupation, the
stories about farmers sowing seed, noblemen and slaves, debt and forgiveness,
tenants, landowners and labourers begin to have extremely relevant and sometimes
Once we recognize that the characters in the stories (farmers, labourers, violent
kings, absent landowners, slaves, Pharisees, toll-collectors, debtors, lenders,
widows, judges and Samaritans) were all known and easily identifiable for Jesus’
listeners, we see that these stories would not have been heard as metaphors but
rather as stories about situations and people that Jesus’ hearers were intimately
involved with for good or ill.
Once we see that the narrator doesn’t always agree with the characters in the
story (a wicked king, for instance), we realize that perhaps not every story is a
metaphor for God.
And once we know how the plot works, we are free to recognize that these
stories are not allegories for more spiritual truths, but that they invite the hearer
into a new world where, in the midst of violence and oppression, the kingdom is
present in unexpected and life-giving ways.
This accessible book deserves to be widely read and pondered, preferably with
the Gospel accounts close at hand, in order that Wright’s illuminating reading
might invite us, in turn, into the vivid and compelling stories that Jesus told.
Whilst it is relatively easy to affirm that Jesus was a teller of stories, it is much more challenging to understand what that might have meant for the gospel writers, let alone to ponder the implications for the 21st century preacher. Stephen Wright seeks to integrate the parables into an overarching consideration of the ministry of the historical Jesus. Our Lord teaches not only by ‘telling’ but also by ‘showing’; using the medium of realistic, provoking, questioning stories into which the learners can enter and then form their own response. Beginning with a historical survey of scholarly insights into Jesus the storyteller, he goes on to examine how each of the synoptic writers incorporated the stories into their accounts in their own particular way. He then uses the tools of narrative criticism, considering how the first listeners might have reacted as they heard the stories on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Full indexes mean that this is a book that can easily be browed and hence turned to readily for fresh insights when asked to preach on a particular parable as well as on more general encircling themes. ‘Scholarly yet highly readable’ is how it is described on the back cover and I concur.