The Power of Bible Stories as Teaching Tools of Impartiality

Great stories have a profound way of bringing people together in the process of helping to transform their behavior and beliefs. Who does not want to identify with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Samson, and the endurance of Job? We all benefit from the narratives written about Bible exemplars, especially the paradigms of Godliness. Bible stories grab our attention, grip our imaginations, and guide our wills — whether we personally engage the written narratives or see them reenacted well, as in the "A.D. The Bible Continues" epic series.

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(By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist.

We want to be like some of the Biblical characters, and their stories are patterns that inspire us.  While we can use the logic of deduction to apply the principles taught in the Bible, we can use the logic of analogy to be instructed and inspired from the exemplars and paradigms of Scripture stories. Both deductive and analogous logics are enlightening and empowering—but analogies drawn from the Biblical narratives move us on a deeper level. For good reason, 75% of Scripture is story.

Of course, people should attend frequently to the great principles of the Bible, and apply them deductively. Those precious principles matter. Many Christian writers focus on Biblical principles. In my own writing, I often concentrate on principles, [such as here, here and here]. Knowing the principles is one thing, applying them to our daily lives is another, and both knowing and applying principles matter greatly.

To teach or preach a Bible text well is to discover at least one great principle in the text and to help people apply it. This is my mode of teaching and preaching—and how I teach others to teach and preach. Before a good sermon is over, all the people in the congregation should have some principled action in mind that can help guide them to honor and please the Lord more by their lives, by God's grace.

Besides, in Jesus' last command—what we call the "Great Commission"—Jesus commands us to teach others to obey vigilantly all that he commanded. Here we not only have a command as a principle to obey—we also have a command to teach his commands. We have a principle to teach his principles. In logical terms, Jesus' last command is an enduring "recursive principle." We teach his commands because in one of his commands he commands us to teach his commands! Support for living and teaching Biblical principles could not receive a clearer endorsement!

A holy "hurray" for Biblical principles! Do not leave home without them.

Nevertheless, as vital as the principles are, the narratives are also essential. The Biblical stories report on examples of the application—or examples of failures in the application—of Biblical principles, but they do so much more than that. Recently I wrote how so many Biblical stories are especially precious because of "their integration of diverse Godly values into one narrative," for example. Biblical stories have numerous other assets in addition to this remarkable integration, such as enabling our moral impartiality.

Exemplars, well-told paradigm stories, such as we have especially in the Bible, are the essential power-tools of impartiality. For good reason, the best ethics studies, conferences and textbooks make great use of case studies and well-crafted anecdotes. Using a case study from a different industry will allow people to drop their guard, not be defensive, in honest exploration of excellent decision-making—before following the analogies to their own challenging situations and decisions.

Jesus powerfully exploited this impartiality benefit in the way he crafted his parables. A story of the unusual father of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) frees us impartially to look again at our heavenly Father and at our own parental roles. Many in his urban audiences would not personally relate to the Shepherd of the Lost Sheep, the Woman Who Lost a Precious Coin, or the Persistent Widow—nevertheless the perseverance that each main character represented could all the more easily be understood and embraced by all. Furthermore, by also selecting models that were otherwise repulsive to his audiences—such as the Unjust Steward (Luke 16) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10)—Jesus all the more effectively and impartially taught wise cunning in the first case and courage, compassion, and readiness in the second case.

Our guard is down when we begin to read or hear a parable of Jesus because at first we think that the story is not about us—but then we discover that analogously we are characters in each of Jesus' wonderful parables. Jesus is a genius at impartiality.

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.