Retelling the American 'Kingdom of God' Story in Parables

In every generation, people have told stories in order to make sense of life: its purpose, its disasters, its relationships, its unknowns. Each religion has its own stories that people of faith remember and hand down through rituals and sacred texts. Often, those stories are reimagined as they are retold in order to accommodate and understand new circumstances -- as when John of Patmos retold Daniel's dreams to provide critical perspective on the Roman Empire (I'm loving Elaine Pagel's new "Revelations"), or when Jesus retold Israel's Kingdom of God story as a way to shift the story's meaning from a national to a global vision.

As I observed previously, Jesus very deliberately reshaped the Kingdom of God story as he retold it. His use of the Kingdom of God story -- a specific contextual story that was grounded in Jesus' time and relevant to his listening audience -- verifies that the story was not intended to be solely otherworldly or irrelevant to its sociopolitical context. Through parables, Jesus affirmed Israel's yearning for the Kingdom of God, and simultaneously fueled hope and resistance by pointing to God's work already present in unexpected ways.

The parable of the mustard seed, for example, reassured Jesus' listeners that God was actively working toward the Kingdom's fulfillment, while the treasure parables held out hope that the Kingdom was within reach. Contrary to the perspective (in Jesus' day or today) that the Kingdom of God was an impossible dream to be realized only after the end of the present world, Jesus' parables affirmed the Kingdom of God as an achievable possibility. Importantly, the Kingdom of God story was also economically and socially inclusive, as Jesus retold it in the parable of the day laborers. [See Mt 13:31-32, Mk 4:30-32 or Lk 13:18-19 for the parable of the mustard seed. See Mt 13:44-46 for the treasure parables. See Mt 20:1-16 for the parable of the day laborers.]

Following Jesus' example of telling and reshaping stories with sociopolitical relevance, what might it look like for the American Church to become a storyteller -- and a prophetic editor -- of the American Dream story? To be clear, the aim of inciting the American Church to reimagine the American Dream story is not to impose theocracy upon our democracy. Instead, the goal is to eject the American Church from its seat of complicit privilege and out into the wilderness of renewed dreaming, where its creative energies might shift from navel-gazing survival (note the prominence of "vitality" programs for mainline Protestant congregants or the Vatican's circling of wagons against American nuns) to critical engagement in the daily realities of its American context. Storytelling is a time-honored vehicle for gaining new perspective on context, and the American Dream story -- already infused with religious imagery -- is an important theme for the American Church to utilize and reshape.

The American Church might, for example, tell a parable of a realized American Dream that no longer fences itself off from the global community: The American Dream is like a man who purchases a plot of land on which to build his home. Gathering floor plans and building materials, the man begins to build a brick house. While he is building, a neighbor visits and offers to teach the man how to add windows to his house. The man refuses. As the building project continues, another neighbor stops by and offers to teach the man how to add a fireplace and chimney. Again, the man declines. Still another neighbor offers to show the man how to build a doorway for the house. The man refuses. Soon the project is complete and the man has completely enclosed himself in his brick home. Night falls, and the man sleeps content in his new house. When morning arrives, the man wakes to find that his neighbors have come in the night and added windows, a fireplace, and a door to his home. Let those who have ears, listen!

Or the American Church might tell a parable of the American Dream that depends upon those who are "othered" in order to reach its fulfillment: The American Dream is like housework. The owners can imagine what the house will look like once it is cleaned, yet they are not willing to help and they disagree on how best to clean the house. Only when the maid comes to begin the work can the house be cleaned.

Again, the American Church might provoke new conversations about the American Dream with a parable that upsets current understandings of power and success: The American Dream is like a President of the United States who, upon observing a great need during his global travels, renounces his presidency in order to serve and meet this need.

The American Dream story needs to be provoked to new understandings. In the tradition of Jesus, the American Church is called to speak through the power of stories -- mirrored in bold and creative action -- to transform our sociopolitical context for the greater inclusion of all people in the American Dream.