Matthew Bowman: Parables teach Latter-day Saints and others valuable lessons, but each one has its limits

Metaphors do carry meaning, but they can prevent deeper reflection from different perspectives.

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "The Sermon on the Mount," by Harry Anderson. In the Bible, Jesus taught by parables using common objects around him.

In 1992, Brigham Young University professor Stephen Robinson invented one of the most beloved metaphors in Mormonism.

His book “Believing Christ” became a sensation in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It targeted the harsh side effects of the “demand for perfection” in the church. Lesson manual after lesson manual, General Conference talk after General Conference talk, offered instructions and guidance and three ways to do this and four steps to accomplish that. For Robinson, it had all become too much.

He called for members to cut themselves a break. Nobody was perfect. The premise of Christianity was that Jesus Christ’s atonement would save all in their imperfections. Members needed to worry less about perfecting themselves and relax into the basic truth of Jesus’ love for them.

Perhaps the most popular snippet of Robinson’s book was a famous metaphor— the “parable of the bicycle.” As Robinson told the story, he encouraged his young daughter to save and save and save her pennies to buy a bike. But when she realized how insufficient her 61 cents were, Robinson stepped in and paid the balance. Thus, Robinson said, is the atonement of Christ. We save all we can, and Jesus makes up the difference, whatever it is.

In the parable of the bicycle lurk both the value and the pitfalls of metaphor when we talk about religion.

The parable paradoxes

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "Worth of a Soul," by Liz Lemon Swindle. In the Bible, Jesus taught by parables using common objects around him.

Metaphor as a tool to describe the work of religion goes back to the New Testament. “The kingdom of heaven can be likened to,” Jesus said, “a mustard seed”; “a man seeking beautiful pearls”; “a treasure hidden in a field”; “a man who sowed.” There are at least two striking notes to make about these parables. First, Jesus drew on common items around him to teach. Second — and this is the purpose and power of metaphor, poetry and art — God’s kingdom is no single thing.

Metaphor is allusive and incomplete, blurry around the edges. It works because it gestures to meaning but also leaves us with the sense that the metaphor might indicate much more. Jesus’ parables are, in their structure, paradoxes; they embrace the common and the strange. They seem firm and simple — all that planting and digging — but we never lose the sense that there is something more past the plain truths they teach. They remain enigmatic, and we know that because Jesus moves on from each one to compare the kingdom to something else.

Which brings us back to the parable of the bicycle. It both punctured but also reinforced the metaphors that shape how Latter-day Saints have talked about what it means to be religious for the past 60 or so years. These metaphors are so powerful that members have forgotten they are metaphors As such, they’ve become assumptions, maps for how reality works.

God isn’t a celestial accountant

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle D. Todd Christofferson speaks at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023. He reminds Latter-day Saints that God isn't a celestial accountant who operates a cosmic vending machine, giving blessings in exchange for good works.

The two dominant metaphors for Jesus’ atonement at work in the church today are law and finance. In the first metaphor, the atonement is about justice and mercy. The universe is a cosmic judicial system. In the second, the universe is a cosmic bank, and the atonement is about debt and compensation.

These metaphors make sense to contemporary Americans, who take a break from thinking about their mortgages and credit cards when they watch “CSI” on Hulu. The parable of the bicycle fits neatly into these worlds. It also reinforces wider cultural trends at work in the church — and in American Christianity.

The popularity of these metaphors in the modern church also makes sense. For decades after the abandonment of plural marriage, Latter-day Saints pursued middle-class respectability. In the United States, this meant law, medicine, business. The ranks of these professions filled church leadership, and the metaphors of these professions filled church manuals. These were men accustomed to thinking about the world in the language of contracts and finance and payments and forgiveness.

The result is that these sorts of metaphors permeated Latter-day Saint language and culture at the turn of the 21st century. In a sense, this is good and necessary. After all, any religion must speak to the world in which it finds itself. But when church members cease thinking of these as metaphors, tools for describing a universe, metaphors can become handcuffs, and the result can be a God who is a celestial accountant, a vending machine, to borrow from apostle D. Todd Christofferson’s metaphor, who gives us a can of blessings in exchange for 50 cents of good works.

This is transactional religion; religion shaped by the marketplace of modern capitalism. Seen in this light, the strains in the parable of the bicycle become evident. Robinson rejects utterly the transactional vision of what religion is; he is worried for his family members who have come to think of being religious as simply an endless series of obligations. The parable of the bicycle relieves much of that pressure. Yet it also exists within a world in which we must save our money, and Jesus’ atonement is analogous to debt repayment.

More metaphors, more meaning

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jorge Cocco Santangelo's Getsemani, or "Gethsemane," when it was on display in 2018. Christian theologians for centuries have devised many ways of thinking about Jesus' atonement

There are meaningful and important ways in which Jesus’ atonement can be thought of as the repayment of a debt, of course, and meaningful and important ways in which the practice of Christianity can be thought of like an investment. But religion is healthier and stronger when it does not bind itself to a single metaphor.

Rather, we might think of the church through other metaphors. Christian theologians for centuries have devised many ways of thinking about the atonement, from a quite literal defeat of Satan to Jesus choosing to maintain a loving relationship with anxious people who run from him. Neither requires a divine accounting and balance of sin and redemption.Similarly, it is obvious when examining the covenant systems of the Hebrew Bible, that these covenants do not work like contracts in modern America. For one, the covenant is never off when humans fail to keep it, as they endlessly do. For another, God’s promises do not come contingent upon any behavioral expectations: He keeps his promises separate from the commandments he gives.

The church is well equipped to think of behavioral expectations and commandments through metaphors far removed from investment and return. The most obvious of these revised metaphors is the family. In a family, people serve and do things for one another out of love and concern, rather than out of fear of punishment or hope for a reward. These ideas may never supplant the metaphors we more commonly use, but they can enrich them.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of the recently released “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America” and, in 2012, “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”