New book by Ray Belliotti examines Biblical parables

Friday November 1, 2013Christine Davis Mantai

In his newest book, “Jesus the Radical: The Parables and Modern Morality,” SUNY Fredonia Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy Raymond Belliotti interprets and critically examines parables in the New Testament.

Belliotti lays the groundwork for his 15th book by explaining that, unlike academic philosophers, religious reformers and custodians of societal traditions utilize stories to establish their moral conclusions. As a result, the Bible is rich with imaginative parables that press themselves upon our minds, stir our deepest emotions and teach us moral lessons in unforgettable contexts.

The power of parables and folklore arises from their accessibility, colorful cast of characters and magical allure, Belliotti said. Events occur in stories that transcend the natural laws of reality – animals become active moral agents, superhuman beings intervene and miracles spring up at appropriate occasions. Additionally, comedic and tragic artistic considerations often demand the inclusion of episodes that require the audience to take astounding leaps of faith.

As a result, parables and folklore are exquisitely more entertaining than a painstaking philosophical demonstration, Belliotti concluded, but they are also less rigorous than philosophical arguments. Conflict, tension and outright contradiction pervade Biblical parables when the entire set of moral tales is considered as a whole.

“Perhaps that is their greatest lesson: the human condition resists neat, fully coherent explanations and principles that might capture the complexity of our moral life,” Belliotti said.

“Jesus the Radical: The Parables and Modern Morality” connects the lessons of six parables – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Unforgiving Servant, the Rich Fool and the Unjust Steward -- with contemporary philosophical issues structured around morality and the art of leading a good human life.

“I hope to highlight just how radical was the historical Jesus’ moral message and how enormous a challenge he raised to the conventional wisdom of his time. More importantly, I aspire to demonstrate how deeply opposed is Jesus’ moral message to the dominant moral understandings of our time,” Belliotti said.

“Although our conventional morality is generally profoundly influenced by Judeo Christianity, several of Jesus’ revolutionary insights have been marginalized. By imagining how our world would appear if those insights were highlighted, we can perceive more clearly the people we are and the people we might become.”

Charles Taliaferro, professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Faithful Research and a member of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, considers "Jesus the Radical: The Parables and Modern Morality” to be essential reading for anyone, Christian or non-Christian, who thinks Jesus' teachings are conventional, tame and unchallenging.

“Belliotti offers a critical, searching and engaging examination of Jesus' parables, situating them in historical context, but also viewing them with an appreciative yet critical eye on their contribution to the field of ethics and to our own thinking about how we should live," Taliaferro said.

Much scholarly debate centers on the most plausible interpretation of the historical Jesus, the nature and timing of the Kingdom of God, and the identity and agency of the Son of Man. Belliotti argues that regardless of one’s answers to these perplexing questions, Jesus intended that the values and ideals of the Kingdom of God that he articulated should guide human action in this world.

“Jesus the Radical: The Parables and Modern Morality” was published by Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowan & Littlefield.

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