On Parables as Literature

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?

7 thoughts on “On Parables as Literature”

  1. .

    I think a proper parable doesn’t just up and tell you how to interpret it. And open-ended symbolic stories seem verboten.

  2. Interesting question, Kent. This may help answer it.

    I’m writing an English composition textbook for first year senior high school students. It involves a chapter on each of ten types of academic paragraph. Each chapter includes an example of each of the ten types of academic paragraph, the aim being to teach partly through repetition of form. One type of paragraph taught in the book and exemplified in each chapter is the narrative paragraph, which uses a story to support a controlling idea. The topic of a narrative paragraph is a change, often a lesson (aka a change in thinking or attitude). It is very difficult to come up with factual anecdotes to illustrate points about academic writing. I find myself writing parables and feeling a bit guilty about it, even though students I’ve shown the chapters to seem to intuit the pedantic origin of the little tales. The factual anecdotes tend to be first person. The fictional ones tend to be third person.

    I wonder if Paul H. Dunn’s eventual woes didn’t have to do with witting or unwitting infringement of the second feature on your list.

  3. I’ve written two parables.

    I actually think we (as a culture) have a TON of parables. We just call them faith-promoting rumors, most of which (if they don’t come from the pulpit) are in third person.

  4. If we stretch the definition beyond the biblical form to consider any short work that is parabolic, then my Speculations series are parables. In fact, they draw heavily on Kafka’s use of parabolic form, although I push a bit more heavily on the didactic and also play with modern forms of discourse.

    If my memory is working, I believe that Neal A. Maxwell has written a few parables, although he was more fond of the allegory or extended metaphor.

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