Interview: John Dominic Crossan on Power of Parable

John Dominic “Dom” Crossan and his colleague Marcus Borg are among America’s most popular Bible scholars. Not long ago, we also recommended Crossan’s multi-media curriculum, called The Challenge of Jesus, which we refer to in today’s interview. This week, in Part 1 of our coverage of The Power of Parable, we provide an overview of this fascinating new book and brief examples from the text.
Here is Part 2 of our coverage of Crossan’s new book …


Click the cover to jump to the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: Most weekends, you are crisscrossing the country, teaching in many different kinds of congregations. In your travels, are you currently teaching from this new book?

DOM: Yes, in some places. I was in Boston not long ago and lectured on this. I often use photos and videos as I teach, because it helps people to more easily understand some of these stories. In one of my lectures, I talked about a boat from the Sea of Galilee as a visual metaphor, for example, and showed the pictures of such a boat. People do start to think about these stories in fresh ways. I remember that someone asked me: “Could there also be physical parables in the things that Jesus did? Could his action with the temple moneychangers be considered a physical and visual parable?”
And I said: “Yes, exactly.” That’s how Jesus taught—by telling stories and showing people things they would remember. Nintey-eight percent of people in Jesus’s world weren’t getting their messages by reading things—they were picking up visual and verbal cues. One of the most powerful visual cues about social control in the Roman empire were the coins that showed everyone who was in charge and what that ruler’s message was for the people. The new emperor would put a word or phrase on his coins that would tell people about the social order. This is how people expected to learn about the world—from visual and physical and verbal sources.

DAVID: Hearing you talk about Rome, which you also covered extensively in your earlier Challenge of Jesus curriculum—I am reminded of how much religious content we’re seeing in the 2012 U.S. campaigns. As a religion news writer, I’ve covered faith in politics for decades, and I have to say: This year’s campaign is remarkable.

DOM: Yes, we are hearing a lot about what religion should mean from some of these politicians, aren’t we? We’re hearing so much from Rick Santorum that he sounds like he’s running for Demander in Chief. He likes to tell us what all normal Christians must think, which usually amounts to what Rick Santorum thinks. But, that’s not all that different than what political leaders claimed in earlier eras of history.

DAVID: What we’re discussing here relates directly to your new book, of course, because in the second half you raise some of the same issues you covered at greater length in The Challenge of Jesus.

DOM: Oh, yes, and this theme goes back even further in my work. There’s a direct continuity going back at least to God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. It’s also an important part of a book I’m doing for Harper in 2013 about the question of divine violence. I’m asking: Is God violent? The subtitle of the book will be something like: How to Read the Christian Bible and Still be a Christian.


DAVID: You’re not stomping on a soap box, though. You’re writing about the big questions that lots of men and women are raising, especially after a decade of American warfare.

DOM: Oh, yes! This question comes up wherever I travel. I’ll be talking about the historical Jesus being non-violent and someone will raise a hand. They’ll say, “Come on! That sounds nice but how do you square this nonviolence with all of the violence in a book like Revelation? What about Jesus calling people a brood of vipers? That’s at least verbally violent.”

After hearing this over and over again from people, I have gone back through the New Testament and looked carefully at this question. And, there is a steady increase in the rhetorical violence of Jesus as you move from Mark and to Matthew, Luke and finally to John. This direction in the level of rhetorical violence does connect to the larger question: Is God violent? The whole Bible—beginning to end—is really violent. That’s not just my judgment. As I travel and teach, I hear this point raised by so many people.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t think that Jesus was a violent figure. But I haven’t written much about this issue in my past books. As I explore this more fully, this raises an important question for Christians: If Jesus is the revelation and image of God—and if Jesus is not violent—then what do we do with the fact that God does seem violent in so much of the Bible?

DAVID: You’re touching on an important point that runs throughout your writing and teaching: For Christians, the focus is on Jesus first and primarily. It’s not on the specific words of every Bible verse. Am I saying that right?

DOM: For Christians, Jesus is the norm of the Bible. I say it that way. We say that we are Christians—not Biblians. The revelation of Jesus is the norm and the criterion for the way we approach the entire Bible. Yes, that’s important, because so many of the debates we’re hearing today center on this question of the authority of the Bible.

As Christians, we’re supposed to believe in the incarnation, right? The incarnation is about Jesus. And, as a Christian, Jesus is the way I read the Bible. Now, I’m not saying that the Old Testament is violent and then this nice Jesus fellow comes along and changes things. I’m saying that the entire thrust of the Bible should be seen through Jesus for followers of Jesus, for Christians. That affects the way we think of the violence that also is there in the Bible.


DAVID: In Part 1 of our coverage of your new book, we will point out to readers that you are not saying Jesus is a fictional figure. Some readers, glancing at your book cover, may jump to the conclusion.

DOM: I say clearly that Jesus is a historical figure. I don’t think most people disagree on that point. And, I think we all agree that the Good Samaritan is not a real person; he’s a character in a parable. But, here is what I want people to think about: What is a parable? How is a parable a part of the Good News of the Gospels? Jesus wanted his stories to say very important things to people—and he wanted them to remember these stories and keep thinking about them for a long time. Even more than that, he wanted them to enter into these stories as they kept thinking.

Jesus’ teaching method was to lure people into participating in the stories—in the same way that many good stories get us to participate in them. You remember it and you carrying it home with you, still thinking about that story. You hear Jesus talking about a sower and you wonder: Who is this sower? Why did he cast the seed in this way? Imagine if you were among the people who heard these parables for the first time from Jesus. In the Bible we read today, the Gospel writers usually try to neatly explain the meaning after each parable, but Jesus used these participatory stories to leave people hanging as they went away.

So, we know that Jesus taught by making up these parables, these stories. Were the people and details in these parables what we would call non-fiction? No, the parables were fiction. But they were very important in the way Jesus taught about the Good News. And the word Gospel means Good News. So, what is this genre of a Gospel? What are these Gospels? And, can we have parables about real persons in a Gospel? These are the kinds of questions I am raising.

DAVID: I was intrigued by the various categories of parables you describe in the first half of your book. You’re suggesting fresh ways to think about these stories that we’ve heard so many times over the years. So, let’s talk about one example of a genre of parables that you call “challenge parables.”

DOM: Let me begin with the picture on the book’s cover, which I love. It’s this sort of Art Deco image of a sower. Then, you look a second time and you realize: Oh, that’s a woman! Wasn’t the sower supposed to be a man? That visual double take is an example of how parables work. The stories stay with you and you participate in them to the point that you begin thinking about the details in new ways.

A challenge parable makes you hesitate for a moment in the way you think about the absolutes you assume are true. Imagine a pin that is held too close to a big balloon. The pin has not popped the balloon, but just the thought of this sharp pin very close to a big balloon makes you nervous. Can we be sure of what’s about to happen? A challenge parable makes you uneasy. It takes your absolute political, economic, religious and social assumptions and tells you a story in the opposite direction that forces you to think. We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. Now, if Jesus had just wanted a nice little story about the value of helping people who are hurt, then he could have put the Samaritan in the ditch. Then, the story might have had this kind Jewish man coming along and reaching out to help even this Samaritan down in the ditch. The point might have been: We all should be nice and help everyone, even if we see that it’s someone like a Samaritan who has been injured.

But, no, Jesus puts the Jewish man in the ditch and it’s the Samaritan who is the helper. That makes it a challenge parable. People would have heard that story and it would have unsettled their assumptions about the way the world is supposed to work.

DAVID: In Part 1 of our coverage of your book, we’re going to point out that you are not alone in urging Christians to loosen up their assumptions about how they read the Bible. Other important authors, today, are also warning Christians that we may have backed ourselves into a corner of literal readings. So, you’re not out on a limb, all alone. As I see it, you’re on the cutting edge of what many churches are discussing these days—but you’re not alone. Do you feel that way in your talks to churches?

DOM: I’m telling people that we need to remember what we believe as Christians. I’m saying that Jesus is a person, not a book. The Gospel of John doesn’t say: For God so loved the world that He sent us a book. No, God sent us Jesus. That’s the point of the incarnation at the heart of Christianity. The Bible is not the criterion for Jesus. That begins to make Christ irrelevant. He’s just a part of a text. No, Jesus is the criterion for the Bible. And that is a very challenging message because Jesus’ teachings are so challenging, to this day.

Jump back and read Part 1 of our coverage of Crossan’s Power of Parable.

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