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Parable and Truth

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the 2007 French film that won numerous awards and was nominated for more including four Oscar nominations, is the true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby.  Bauby suffered a stroke and lived his remaining years “locked in” to a body completely paralyzed except for his left eye.  He uses this eye, through coded blinking, to dictate his memoir of the same name.  I find something extraordinarily beautiful about the way Bauby chooses to express himself poetically despite the tediousness of the task and the utterly humiliating state of being he is reduced to from his former position of influence and affluence.

Watching films like this make me wonder at the amazing imagination we have been given.  Story has often been considered falsehood or at best escapism, yet the tide is shifting as we come to realize the power of imagination for good purpose.  Indeed, our imagination is just one way we are imaging our Creator.  We have an imaginative God who speaks to us in more than just a list of dos and don’ts.  So, too, do we have this ability to share truth through story.

When I was in seminary, my Storytelling professor, Olive Drane, told us a story about the twin boys Truth and Parable.  In the story, Truth has an urgent message to share with his town.  In his haste, Truth runs into the town square stark naked, shouting his news to all who will hear him.  But the townspeople are horrified by Truth’s display, beat him, and send him away.

Discouraged, Truth returns home to his twin brother, Parable, who is well-respected in the town.  Parable cleans his brother’s wounds, gives Truth his own clothes to cover his nakedness, and encourages Truth to try again.  This time, when Truth returns to the town square wearing Parable’s clothes, the townspeople listen to his message and accept him.

But might people miss the truth we want to convey if we cover it with story?  Isn’t it safer to speak the truth plainly and ensure we are heard?

Even artists disagree on the appropriate balance between story and truth.  Poet Emily Dickinson wrote famously, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Yet Southern short story author Flannery O’Connor one wrote in an article that she was determined to write her message “in large print on the wall so that the blind could see it.”  Is it subtlety, then, or shouting that wins the day?  To put it another way, how many layers of Parable’s clothes must Truth wear before the townspeople will accept him?

Perhaps it depends on the message.  Perhaps it depends on the artist.  Perhaps it depends on the audience.

In the film, Bauby shares his life story in painful detail, yet the success of his life lies not in his worldly accomplishments but in his ability to imagine, to feed his soul though he is “locked in.” Rather than dictating a minimalist report of his life, which would have been so much easier, Bauby chooses to make the extra effort to show the truth of his experience and the truth of the person he has come to be–with all his flaws–through story.

Bauby didn’t set out to write a book.  He didn’t grow up taking creative writing classes or attending seminars.  He was a magazine editor, interested in the world of fashion.  But he had something to say, and before he died, he took the time to say it. And the world is better for having heard and learned from his story.

Maybe you think to yourself, I’m not an artist. I don’t have a story to tell. But you’re wrong.  Everyone has a story.  Maybe it’s not a fable like the Princess and the Pea.  Maybe it’s not an award-winning novel like The Old Man and the Sea.  But it’s part of who you are. And the world will be better off having your story, too.

Jesus, who is the Truth, spoke often in parable and usually refused to explain himself even to his disciples. We’ll take a look at why Jesus spoke in parables tomorrow.

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