Jim Taylor

Taylor: Finding the right ending

‘If you left out the moral, how would you end those stories?’ asksLife and Faith columnist Jim Taylor

No, I am not going to write about the recent U.S. election.

Instead, I’m going back some 80 years, to a collection of academic papers I recently received, written by my father while doing his studies for a PhD in psychology.

He was, at the time, acting principal of an undergraduate arts college in India. His students belonged to four different religions and at least six language groups. And he was using those students to test psychological theories developed for western nations — Europe and North America.

The only thing he proved, he admitted later, was that western categories simply didn’t fit the eastern mind.

But some of his exercises have interesting implications.

In one, for example, he gave students an unfinished story. He asked the students to complete the story. Then he asked them why they liked that particular ending.

One such story (slightly westernized to remove Indian allusions) described a boy from a poor farming area, who had struggled to get through school. Now he had to write an examination for university entrance. But his father had an accident on the farm. The boy had to take over the farm, and care for his father as well. He had no time to study for his exam.

How would they finish this story?

Their responses tended to focus on either fantasy or reality.

Fantasy endings typically depended on external sources — some kind of deus ex machina — for a happy ending. So some students argued that because the boy had done everything a good son should do, either fate or the gods should help him ace his examination.

A lesser fantasy might suggest that the school principal – not mentioned in the original version of the story – respected the boy for his efforts, and would intervene with the university.

Reality versions, on the other hand, were more likely to assert that life is tough. The kid flunks; he’ll spend the rest of his life working a dirt-poor farm. Too bad; so sad.

Or they blamed social issues. Poverty penalizes the already disadvantaged. Universities perpetuate class distinctions. Elites rule.

I couldn’t understand my father’s analysis of statistically significant deviations based on religion, sex, and language. But the exercise made me wonder how that technique might be applied to Jesus’ parables in the Bible.

Suppose you stopped the parable before you get to the moral so conveniently provided by the biblical authors.

Suppose the parable of the Prodigal Son stopped where the older son refuses to join the festivities. Or before the five bridesmaids are told they should have been better prepared for a delayed wedding party. Before the workers in the vineyard get told why the master chooses to be generous. Or right after the farm scatters seeds wildly, before Jesus offers an explanation.

If you left out the moral, how would you end those stories?

Would you require a higher power to make everything work out?

Would you choose to punish those who failed to measure up?

Could you even imagine any conclusion other than the one you’ve always heard?

Your preferred endings might tell a lot about how you expect the stories in your own life to work out.

Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.