The Power of Parable

By Robert Pérez & Justin Adams

“I was never a gay basher. However, I was so smug that I never explored God’s Word on the matter any further,” confessed Rev. Arlo Duba. “I never got very excited about the issue of gay and lesbian participation in ministry, simply assuming that things had been set for two thousand years.”

That’s how Rev. Duba  – a retired Presbyterian minister and life-long conservative Christian – begins the story of his conversion. He was once quietly, but nonetheless steadfastly opposed allowing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from serving as clergy in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. He is now publicly sharing the story of how his “mind was changed.”

His story – not just his spiritual journey, but his willingness to share it with others in order to bring about social change – is a potent example of the power of storytelling in support of social change. It’s what we call “The Parable Effect.”

The Parable Effect is the magical quality that allows a reader or listener to be transported into the mind of the story’s protagonist– essentially turning on the empathy switch in our brains. Jesus understood the power of parable to change the minds of those who feared change. There’s been significant research in the last decade to prove what Jesus seemed to know intuitively.

The Proof is in the Research

That research shows that we’re more likely to change our minds when our brains are in story-absorbing mode than when they are in the hyper-analytical, fact-considering mode. A September 2008 article in Scientific American Mind on the science and secrets of storytelling highlighted two such studies.

In the first study, psychologist Melanie C. Green, an expert on the influence of narrative on individual beliefs at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that information that was labeled as “fact” increased critical thinking. In contrast, information that was labeled as “fiction” had the opposite effect – increasing the likelihood that people would accept the ideas more easily.

In the second study, Jennifer Edson Escalas, a marketing researcher at Vanderbilt University discovered that people respond more positively to advertisements that tell a story about the product compared with those that make a fact-based argument for the product. (Think back to those Palmolive commercials in the 1970s where Madge hocked dishwashing liquid by focusing on how soft it made your hands – much more effective than the “tough on grease” appeal).

Keith Oatley’s paper, “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact,” argues that, “just as computer simulation has augmented the theories of language, perception, problem-solving and connectionist learning,” narratives can be a simulation to “illuminate the problem of human action and emotions.

Harnessing the Parable Effect: More Light Presbyterians

Those working to create social change can harness the Parable Effect as a potent tool in their communications arsenal. Fenton’s work with More Light Presbyterians (MLP) is a great example of the Parable Effect at play.

MLP is a national organization working for full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA). They are in the midst of a nationwide campaign to change the PCUSA Book of Order to allow LGBT people to be ordained as ministers.

Changing language in the Book of Order is the religious equivalent of  amending the U.S. Constitution. All 173 presbyteries in the United States must vote on ratification. It’s a near year-long process that requires countless discussions in churches across the nation.

As the strategists working for MLP, we knew featuring personal stories could have great influence in the debate. Enter Rev. Duba, who MLP staff first encountered in their outreach efforts.

A Minister’s Conversion

Rev. Duba is a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament, a retired dean of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and a self-described “life-long conservative Presbyterian.” Throughout his life, he had known gay people, including gay Christians. Nonetheless, he had voted to maintain the status quo within his denomination during previous attempts to amend the Book of Order to allow LGBT people to serve.

“I just never questioned that the church might have gotten it wrong,” Rev. Duba offered. “Somehow, in all my years of Bible study I had never found anything in my Bible reading to challenge that assumption.”

In 2005, while researching early baptismal practices, he began studying Acts 8 and 10 – Philip ministering to the Samaritans and the Baptism of the Gentile Cornelius.

“I became aware of a progression of call for a broader inclusion in the church beginning in Luke’s gospel,” said Rev. Duba. “There was a call for inclusion of those previously excluded from religious participation.”

“This particular study didn’t convert me easily or quickly,” he added. “I got the impression that God was simply nudging me bit by bit and taking me where I didn’t want to go. In that sense, it was difficult to change, to admit that I had been so unperceptive.”

“With more study, I started to feel wiggly and squiggly inside,” Rev. Duba admitted.. “Eventually, it was really pulling the shades away from my eyes.”

Fast forward to the summer of 2008. The Presbyterian Church was in midst of an attempt to ratify the Book of Order to allow LGBT ordination (an earlier attempt  fell seven presbyteries short of ratification out of 173 presbyteries).

Rev. Duba received a call from a dear friend who had worked with him when he was at Dubuque Theological Seminary. His friend belonged to a group called Presbyterians for Renewal, which opposed LGBT ordination.

“We’re putting up an ad opposing the amendment,” the friend said. “You’ll contribute, won’t you?”

“No I won’t,” Rev. Duba replied. “My mind has been changed.”

It was a short phone call. And Rev. Duba has never heard from that friend again.

Three years after his study of baptismal rites led him to Acts and the Gospel of Luke, Rev. Duba has become a public and vocal part of the current campaign to amend the PCUSA Book of Order – sharing his conversion story in a recent full-page ad in Presbyterian Outlook – a national denominational magazine that is read by those voting in the ratification campaign.

While the voting has just gotten underway – and has a long way to go – three presbyteries which previously voted against LGBT inclusion in 2008 have already flipped their vote in support of inclusion.

We’ve shared Rev. Duba’s story in detail because it’s an excellent example of the Parable Effect at work. Not only was Rev. Duba’s mind changed while studying Biblical stories of inclusion, but his own conversion story has now become its own social-change parable.

Five Steps to Activating the Parable Effect

As you work to put the Parable Effect to work for you in your social change work, here are some important tips:

Match the protagonist to your behavior change. If you’re trying to reach an emotionally conflicted audience, spotlight a character who has worked through that same conflict. “The stories of people who have changed their minds are profoundly powerful,” said Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians. “People look very closely at the reason that people change their minds. It gives people moral permission to raise the same questions, especially when it’s a church leader who is sharing his story.”

Choose a credible messenger as your storyteller. Reputation matters when it comes to changing minds. Fear is often the most significant barrier to changing one’s point of view – fear of social isolation or just fear of change. Two things are known to quiet fear. The first is reputation. Do I trust the person who is asking me to consider a new point of view? Is she or he like me? Think about the opening words of Rev. Duba’s ad: “I am a life-long conservative Presbyterian.” For emotionally conflicted Presbyterians – who are likely to be moderate to conservative in their social views – Rev. Duba’s identity will help them to bypass the first fear hurdle.

Spotlight the familiar. To bypass the second fear hurdle, you should tap values, stories and images that are familiar. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says, “Familiarity quiets the amygdala” – the part of our brain that regulates our fight or flight response. Asking people to change their minds is automatically disquieting. Introducing familiarity will help to tame anxiety. In Rev. Duba’s ad, there is a lot of familiarity for church-going Presbyterians – from Bible stories to images of Christ. To invoke the familiar, Rev. Duba closes his ad with a slightly new take on an old a Bible Verse: “Today, inspired by Galatians 3:28, I now affirm:

All of us who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed in Christ.

There is no issue of ethnic identity except citizenship in God’s kingdom,

no issue of servitude except the service to Christ,

no issue of gender or sexual orientation, except the bonds of covenant faithfulness,

for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.”

Add something unexpected. Jesus was a master storyteller because he always threw a surprise into each of his parables. In the Good Samaritan, the surprise was that the injured man at the side of the road who the Samaritan stopped to help  was a Jew; Samaritans and Jews generally despised one another. Likewise, you don’t expect someone who identifies as a conservative Christian to be leading the charge for lesbian and gay inclusion in Mainline Christianity. Those genuine surprises – especially those relevant to the plot – are likely to get people to pay more attention to the moral of your story.

Repeat your stories often. Finally, stories are only able to communicate valuable moral lessons if people hear them. Therefore, you have to look for as many opportunities to repeat your story as possible. Repetition helps to reinforce the true power of the Parable Effect. That’s why we saw this ad as a starting point for a conversation – not the end point. To ensure that Rev. Duba could continue to tell his powerful story of transformation, MLP created a page on their website that allowed people to “continue the conversation with Rev. Duba.” Because of the importance of repetition to teach moral lessons, we were thrilled to learn that a Sunday school teacher had emailed asking for physical copies of the ad. She wanted to use the ad and the imagery in it to lead a discussion about inclusiveness with her youth group.