For the last few months I’ve been thinking a little about parables after I discovered a number of parables that James E. Talmage wrote early in the 20th century and began to wonder what other Mormon parables have been written. I did discover one page of links to “Parables from the Prophets,” (which I suspect might include things that aren’t always considered parables), but, in contrast, rarely do we talk in Mormonism about parables that aren’t from the New Testament.
Which leads me to the questions: What is a parable in Mormonism? Why don’t we call other stories parables? And why do we largely ignore parables that aren’t in the scriptures?
This subject did warrant an article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism by Susan Howe, which covers Mormon attitudes toward the parables of Jesus and mentions a few additional parables in the LDS scriptures — in the Doctrine and Covenants. But the article is notably silent on any parables outside of scripture.
When it comes to Mormon literature, parables are even more ignored, if I’m not mistaken. Cracroft and Lambert’s A Believing People doesn’t mention parables at all, and its short fiction section doesn’t include anything close to a parable.
To me, its clear that a parable is a literary genre — a form of short story. From the quick investigation I did, parables generally include the following characteristics (corrections and emendations welcome), they:
- use characters, situations and customs familiar to the audience
- are generally told in the 3rd person
- have a simple plot
- are didactic
- teach a spiritual or instructive principle
- do not claim or indicate that the events related actually occurred or the characters existed. If they do actually exist, they are generic.
I’m quite sure that Mormonism uses many, many stories that fit the definition of a parable. Non-scriptural parables are regularly told in conference and appear in lessons and church magazines. In fact, I suspect that Mormons use parables so frequently that they could be a rich source in the exploration of Mormon literature.
So, why don’t we give them a second thought?