The Power of Bible Stories as Teaching Tools of Impartiality

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John Rawls, an influential ethicist at the end of the 20th century, tried to imagine that we could step behind a hypothetical "veil of ignorance" to resolve human problems with impartiality, unadulterated by personal preferences. This idea does not work! How could we remember the relevance of the pressing human problems we need to help resolve if we at the same time forget what we know? How can we cut off the vital human cares that so energize our individual and group endeavors—and still understand and solve the problems at all?

Clearly, impartial decisions need the aid of moral imagination, not Rawls' ignorance! Well-crafted stories feed our imaginations to step beyond the factual limits of our own particular lives. Here is where exemplars are essential in facilitating impartial moral decisions. Storied concrete problems and resolutions uniquely cultivate and guide our ethical imaginations. A well-stated case study enables us to examine thoroughly another's decision as if it were ours to make—and so we become more impartial. Case studies, anecdotes, and parables can ingeniously take us "off guard," liberating our impartiality.

Understanding these time-tested roles of Biblical narratives can free us from possible blinding personal preferences and the rigid expectations within our roles. As a result of this liberating impact of exemplar-guided moral imagination, we are able to discover and affirm the impartial moral decisions and agreements we desire.

Astute leaders since ancient times have understood this effect of stories. Good leaders and effective critical thinkers have regularly used this dynamic tool for fair moral accord. Exploring the "Development-Wonder" found in Bible stories is hugely powerful in its own right, because the moving plots of these narratives so effectually draw us into impartiality.

2 Samuel 12 provides a great Biblical example of stories as effective power-tools of impartiality. It includes the account of the prophet Nathan's use of the Sheep Owner Parable to bring King David to his moral senses. David, king of Israel, lusted after Bathsheba, a beautiful woman who was married to a soldier in David's army. After "sleeping" with her, she became pregnant. David, anxious not to have his own sin revealed, devised plans to escape blame. When these did not work, he finally gave military orders that placed Bathsheba's husband in serious danger. This last plan worked: Her husband was killed. David was then able to marry the widow Bathsheba.

Nathan went to David to confront him about his evil choices. Moreover, Nathan was clever: He told a profound story, an exemplar, with the implication that he was asking for advice. The story dealt with a man who had only one sheep but whose sheep was taken away and eaten by a rich man who had many sheep. David became enraged at such behavior and decreed that the rich man in Nathan's story should die. Then immediately he changed the punishment to the rich thief paying four times over what he stole.

Nathan's simple application was: "You are the man!" King David had jumped to the right moral judgment in the parable before he recognized how the story was an obvious analogy of his own very evil behavior.

Needless to say, as a powerful king, David might not have been so quick to recognize his own moral error if Nathan had tried to work out some agreement with David on a careful, deductive application of one of the great Biblical principles. The Sheep Owner Parable enabled David to be quite impartial, before he saw the personal application. King David's power and his "righteous" self-image might have blinded him otherwise, and Nathan's own life could well have been endangered.

The prophet Nathan was intensely wise to turn to a well-told story and the awesome power of analogy. King David and the rest of us have been the beneficiaries ever since.

And by this Biblical story so well modeling the power of analogy, we are also able to draw another analogy with all good story-telling and its abundant fruits of impartiality into our own consciousness, conduct, and character.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.