Book review: Jesus the Storyteller

Jesus the Storyteller

Stephen I. Wright
SPCK Publishing

I guess I should have paid a bit more attention to who it was that provided cover quotes for this book. If I had noticed they were all academics, perhaps I wouldn’t have been quite so surprised at the scholarliness of this work. For all that this is described as an ‘accessible’ work, it is first and foremost an academic thesis.

I knew from the first couple of pages I would be out of my depth. I could perhaps have used a more gentle introduction – this felt very much like diving in the deep end of the thesis. I clearly recall being absolutely daunted by the first few PhDs I read in my own discipline of librarianship when I was relatively unfamiliar with the subject area – the same feelings resurfaced here, feeling I ought to know more about what is being discussed. However… once I had gotten over that initial shock I began to see the arguments and pointers and get a much better feel for the shape of the book. This review probably does not, therefore, do this book justice as I’m not really enough of a theologian to be able to locate it in the wider context.

So here’s what I made of it. The central idea is that over time, the parables have been picked at, pulled apart, and analysed to within an inch of their lives. The first few chapters present an overview of how the parables have been dissected and discussed in recent and older literature. Theological viewpoints are contrasted. The idea that in telling parables, Jesus was revealing many layered truths is challenged. Wright’s thesis is that these layers of meaning have completely obscured the point that the parables were performed as stories, and he therefore aims to encourage us to think about what parable-as-story means.

The formal form of storytelling is discussed – something else I’d never really thought about – as is the role of performance in an oral culture. That Jesus’ culture was predominantly oral was not a new idea – but the idea of the stories being ‘performed’ as they were handed down was. The explanation of the dynamics of storytelling set lots of interesting trains of thought off in my mind.
Wright moves on to give an overview of how the parables are treated in the Gospels, weaving in the idea that they can be seen as ‘scripts for performance rather than literary texts.’ In other (my) words, after rather a long time of the analysis of the text of the parables, we can benefit by going back to first principles. And one of those first principles might be ‘performed, not read.’
The latter part of the book presents the parables and invites us to think about character, setting, plot, point of view for each one – plus a reflection on the point or significance for the original hearers. It concludes by suggesting there are two overall conclusions about the role of parables in our understanding of the historical Jesus. Firstly that they perhaps tell us less about theology or message or thinking than has been supposed. Secondly that they tell us more about Jesus’ praxis – not least that storytelling was part of his way of being.
This is a careful, academic approach to a significant aspect of Jesus’ life. It is an accessible read – it is clearly structured, with good links between ideas and sections. The path of argument is well laid out for the reader to follow, as befits a book based on a PhD thesis. I’d like to have time to read this book again, more slowly and carefully (and with a theological dictionary). I’m intrigued by what is a glimpse into a wider world of scholarship that is unfamiliar to me and I’d like to be able to explore it more fully.

Who would I recommend this book to? I think Sipech would enjoy this as a read.

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