how to tell a story


Listen my friends! Behold, a teacher went out to teach. And as he taught, some of his students were playing with their iphones and didn’t hear a word he was saying. Other students were half listening as they thought about what they were going to watch on TV later on. And when the bell rang, they forgot all the words the teacher had spoken. Other students listened carefully to the teacher and realised he was talking a load of rubbish but if they pointed it out they might get in trouble. And other students with spongy brains and no capacity to think for themselves absorbed every word the teacher said and mindlessly assumed it was correct. Those who have brains, let them think.

A parable, according to the dictionary, is “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle”. The character Jesus reportedly used parables to deliver his message from the god God. These funny little riddles were apparently difficult to understand, and in fact his closest friends required full behind the scenes explanations, while he left the masses he preached to in a state of confusion:

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

The parables of Jesus are often unpleasant, at times unjust and even made me feel uncomfortable when I was of a religious persuasion. However, moving from the character Jesus to the character Aesop and my enthusiasm level shoots through the roof. These stories I’ve carried with me and mentally referred to throughout my life – instantly true, instantly real and instantly useful. If Jesus was truly divine, he surely would have delivered stories that, like Aesop’s fables, are instantly recognisable and understood in any society, at any time. Not stories that need a private explanation, that need to be understood in the context of their delivery, and the meanings of which are endlessly debated.

Here’s my favourite from Aesop.

The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey

A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”

Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?”

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them:

“Please all, and you will please none.”