Sitting on a Soggy Picnic Blanket: Theology of Interruption and the Parables of Jesus

Picnics Interrupted

A local Chicago news source recently reported that Lake Michigan has risen four feet since 2013, consuming whole beaches. In May, the lake was fifteen inches above average and could be rising another six. These high waters are bound to interrupt our summer picnics here in Chicago, but will we allow our lives to be interrupted as well?

In light of stories like these which highlight climate change, now is a better time than ever to bring back Laurie Zoloth’s 2014 AAR presidential address entitled, Interrupting Your Life: An Ethics for the Coming Storm Zoloth asks her audience to confront the reality that “we are living in the Last Place,” a planet that is burning. The severity of environmental degradation begs us to change our life styles and infrastructure lest our future go up in smoke. Literally.

In her address, Zoloth insists that we do our theology from this very perspective. She calls it a “theology of interruption.” Given that the ultimate interruption will result in the end of life as we know it if we continue driving down the road we are on, Zoloth’s address asks, why shouldn’t our theology reflect this reality rather than going on as if we have all the time we can buy?

To be a being is to be living in the illusion of a life that is continuous, busy process. We are committed to continuity, to historicity, to plans and prospects, to the order of things, their repetitions, patterns, and sequences. We expect, rather touchingly, that we live in a consistent, progressive narrative, and the interruption of being is a break in the story we want to resume–we have made promises, we have bought tickets, we have a book contract, we are on the way to salvation, we need quiet for our mindfulness and not that noisy kid, or that cry in the dark (Zoloth, 6).

…we have planned picnics with our friends on Lake Michigan.

Zoloth encourages theologians to embrace interruptions and resist the urge to simply scout out a drier beach so we can finally unpack our baguette and sunscreen. This is a call to do theology sitting on our soaked picnic blankets, allowing the interruption to take the focal point of our gaze.

“To be interrupted is to be broken-in-to. It is to have one’s view blocked by something one does not want to see–say the beggar, say the warming air, the acidifying ocean–to have one’s talk stopped, the speech act, the professing, a declaration in your own voice, your own needs, your own story, stopped: a disagreement, perhaps, or someone calling out for help, a question, a story orthogonal to your own” (Zoloth, 6).

I’d like to suggest that allowing the interruption to take center stage in our pursuit of “faith seeking understanding” is inherent in Christian scripture already. We find a version of this theology in the parables of Jesus.

Parables Interrupt

My husband and I have been reading a lot of scholarship on the parables of Jesus lately. As a result, I’ve become convinced that if theologians and ethicists were to adopt a parabolic approach, they might become more effective interrupters. Jesus’ parables are literary tools crafted to do nothing but interrupt his readers/listeners.

In church, parables have become reduced to children’s stories reassuring us that God will always accept us back after we have strayed, and that faith can grow from small to big like a mustard seed. But, Biblical scholars argue that we have domesticated and allegorized parables down to a pulp so that hearing them almost always results in unleavened, mediocre, comfortable non-action.

On the contrary, parables have potent power behind them to transform the world as we know it. They are a literary tool meant to jar readers/listeners out of their comfortable complacency. Amy-Jill Levine writes in her new book, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi: Short Stories By Jesus (2014),  that parables are meant to reframe our vision, and their messages are often very unsettling [1]. John Dominic Crossan frames parable as “story grown self-conscious and self-critical,” subverting the listener’s world [2]. Barbara Reid describes parables this way:

Jesus’ parables do not stay on the level of the familiar. Always there is a catch. They were not pleasant stories that entertained or that confirmed the status quo. They were startling and confusing, usually having an unexpected twist that left the hearers pondering what the story meant and what it demanded [3].

Reframe, unsettle, criticize, subvert, startle, confuse, demand… These disruptive attributes carry a distinct purpose within the parable. Crossan notes, “parables intended to shatter the structural security of the hearer’s world and therein and thereby to render possible the kingdom of God” [4].  Jesus preached the Kingdom of God using parables for the very reason that the parabolic process requires action on the part of listeners/readers. The hallmark of the parable is that it leaves the listener/reader pondering what is demanded of herself. Action is required as a result. In fact, the parabolic process is not complete until the listener/reader reacts to it [5].

An Interrupted Conclusion

I am not going to offer a witty conclusion, neatly tying together theology of interruption and the parabolic stories of Jesus. You will have to draw your own parallels here. I’d like to take a moment and dwell in the interruption.

The other day, my drive home from work was interrupted by police cars and yellow tape. Two young men were shot just minutes before we would have driven by.

Many lives were interrupted by this event. My route was interrupted. But did I allow this event to interrupt my theology? My work? My life?





[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi: Short Stories By Jesus (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 25.

[2] John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Allen, TX: Argus Communications, 1975), 57, 9.

[3] Barbara Reid, Parables for Preachers: Year A (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 7.

[4] John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Allen, TX: Argus Communications, 1975), 123.

[5]Amy-Jill Levine, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi: Short Stories By Jesus (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 4: “We might be better off thinking less about what the “mean” and more about what they can “do”: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb…”