Gowler, David B. The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 320 pp.; Pb.; $29.99. Link to Baker   

David Gowler’s earlier book on the parables, What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000) was a handy guide to the various approaches to the parables in scholarship. This new volume from Baker Academic extends that project by studying how scholars, pastors, preachers, philosophers and artists have understood Jesus’s parables. This book is a reception history, although it ranges broadly in both chronology and disciplines.

Cover ArtGowler includes chapters covering examples from Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE); Middle Ages (ca. 550-1500 CE); Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Since he includes so many examples in each chronological period, each sub-section is necessarily brief. This may frustrate some (there is obviously more to be said about prolific writers Augustine or Luther), but it is the nature of the book Gowler has written. On the other hand, by limiting his comments only a few thousand words, readers may use this book as a kind of devotional reader. The brevity allows a reader to profitably spend a few moments reading a section without sacrificing the overall themes of the book.

Some of the selections are the most important and well known authors, but some selections are more obscure. For example, in the section on Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE), Gowler includes several of the earliest and most important Christian writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine), but also the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, two obscure writers (Macrina the Younger and Ephrem the Syrian), but also examples in Early Christian Art, Oil Lamp and Roman Catacombs. He also includes the Dura-Europos House Church and Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels and several Byzantine Mosaics and a song from Romanos the Melodist.

This diversity is seen in Gowler’s selections for his chapter on the Middle Ages. Gregory the Great, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas are well-known to most students of church history, but the Sunni writer Sahih al-Bukhari (ca. 870) is far from a household name in contemporary evangelicalism. It may be a surprise for some readers to learn some of Jesus’s parable were discussed in Islamic literature, but as Gowler observes, this illustrates the trajectories gospel traditions could follow. The next writer Gowler includes in this chapter is positively obscure, Wazo the bishop of Liège (985-1048). He is primarily known from a biography written by Anselm. This chapter also includes several panels from the Golden Gospels of Echternach (Codex Aureus), an illuminated gospel produced between1030–1050. The book reproduces several pages illustrating parables in grey-scale. It is well worth the effort to find these images available on the internet. Gowler includes several pieces of art (Albrecht Dürer) and architecture (Chartres Cathedral) in this section, although he only provides a link for the images from Chartres.

Golden Gospels of Echternach

For the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, he includes the reformers Martin Luther John Calvin, but also playwright William Shakespeare, poet George Herbert and the remarkably evocative art of Rembrandt and Domenico Fetti (1859-1623).  One of the more obscure examples in this section is John Maldonatus (1534-1583), an example from the counter-Reformation who likens the “stony place” in the Parable of the Sower to the heretics Luther and Calvin.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries are even more diverse, ranging from William Blake’s art to Søren Kierkegaard, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the hymn writing of Fanny Crosby. The inclusion of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is a pleasant surprise. Douglass used the parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14:16-24 as part of his argument against slavery and the plight of the black slaves as similar to Lazarus in one speech, as a symbol for women’s emancipation in another. A rare biblical scholar in this period is Adolf Jülicher, a constantly referenced work on parables but rarely read.

For the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Gowler includes such diverse voices as Thomas Hart Benton, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. along with more pop-culture examples such as writer Octavia Butler and the play Godspell. He has a section on Latin American Receptions, a Jewish writer (David Flusser) and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

In his concluding comments, Gowler asks, “What Do Parables Want?” Since the parables themselves are literary works of art, they function like any other type of art. Jesus was often ambiguous when he told a parable, and this ambiguity generates the variety of interpretations evidenced in this volume. When Jesus spoke a parable, he demanded a response, as in Luke 10:36-38: “go thou and do likewise.”

Although Gowler includes many examples of the reception of Jesus’s parables over the last two millennia, there is far more to be said. For example, he has barely scratched the surface of in the modern period with respect to art and literature. A catalog of scholarly approaches to the parables could generate another (much longer) book. Gowler maintains a blog, A Chorus of Voices: The Reception History of the Parables, where he has additional examples. Earlier posts on this blog are the seed-bed for this book and occasionally there are links to art and architecture examples. The book also includes an appendix briefly describes each of the parables covered in the book, although Gowler gives biblical references throughout.

Conclusion. This book is a joy to read, a book I would recommend one reads the book slowly. In many cases the examples are obscure and it will reward the reader to look up a few names in an encyclopedia or dictionary in order to place the section in a proper historical context. Gowler demonstrates an amazing range of scholarship, equally at home in patristics as in the Reformation, in both medieval and contemporary art. By including such a wide range of voices readers will be challenged by the diversity of responses to the parables of Jesus.

NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.