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Parable, Metaphor and Myth

As suggested in the previous, section, sounds and words may function as a religious symbol. In this section, we will explore three types of verbal symbols that are more extended than a single word or sound.

A metaphor is a word that designates an ordinary, known object or experience and is used to describe the sacred.  It is thus a type of verbal symbol. “The Lord is my shepherd” is a metaphorical statement that sets up an analogy between the familiar and the holy.  However, by joining the familiar and the holy, new information and insight about the holy emerges.  In fact, new insight about the ordinary may also emerge.  Thus, a metaphor is more than an analogy, it creates something new in the understanding of the believer.

A Parable  can be defined as an extended metaphor in narrative form.  Parables usually use simple events to illustrate profound spiritual truths. A parable also invites the listener to become involved in the process of understanding and experiencing the sacred. The listener must use her/his imagination and mental abilities to discover and apply the meaning of the parable. In fact, the point of a parable is not always obvious and may require some reflection on the part of the hearer.  Moreover, parables tend to be subversive; that is, the point of the parable may challenge the hearer's assumptions.

Another type of religious narrative is the myth. A myth is a  narration of a sequence of events, either historical or legendary, but presented as being, and felt to be, ahistorical and eternally valid. According to this definition, classifying a story as a myth does not necessarily say anything about whether the story is "true" or not. For the study of religion, what makes a story a myth is not whether it is historically true, but how it functions.  As Livingston notes, a myth  “demonstrates the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.”

 In general, we can say that a myth is a narrative that:

  • Reveals the meaning and order of world
  • Shapes our sense of self ; that is myths tell us who we are.
  • Sanctions models of behavior; that is myths tell us how to act.
  • Explains why evil and chaos exist