October 25, 2020

Damaris Zehner: I Am Not the Hero of the Story


I Am Not the Hero of the Story
by Damaris Zehner

I’ve noticed an interesting psychological phenomenon, in the words of the immortal Andrew Steyne in The Gods Must Be Crazy.  I first came across it some years ago in a Sunday school class I taught and more recently in some commentary on gender roles in Disney movies.

First the Sunday school class.  I was a guest teacher, visiting as part of fund-raising for mission work.  I didn’t know the adults in the class, but their reactions were identical to those of everyone else I’ve discussed this with (and to mine, initially).  The story was Jesus’ parable of the workers paid the same amount regardless of the time of day they were hired.  I suppose the chief message of the parable concerns God’s sovereignty and his graciousness in extending salvation to nations other than Israel.  True enough:  but the most striking thing about the story is that we all assume we are the workers who have been at it since the beginning of the day.

This is evident in the indignation or bafflement of almost all who read the parable.  It doesn’t seem just, we say.    Those guys worked all day.  Paying the same to someone who only worked an hour simply isn’t fair.  (Among children, at least, “That’s not fair!” is always the complaint of the one who feels unfairly done by, not a plea by the recipient of the blessing for impartial justice.)  The latecomers, on the other hand, generally don’t complain; they’re just grateful for whatever they’ve been given.

Why is it that we identify ourselves with the hard workers and not with the latecomers?  Do we really think we have achieved enough through our efforts to dictate to God how he should reward everyone?  I wonder why it takes so long to occur to most of us that we are really the ones who deserve nothing and are rewarded with grace.

I pondered that reaction off and on over the years; then last week I watched the Disney gender roles commentary for the children’s literature class I’m teaching.  It began with the inevitable – and largely correct – points about how sexualized females (of any species) are in Disney movies.  It went on to the inevitable – and probably less correct – worry that young girls are irreparably damaged by these images.  Then a psychologist addressed Beauty and the Beast particularly.  This psychologist works with abused children, so she has an insight I respect, but I still think her view of the story is too narrow.  She sees Beauty and the Beast as a story that glorifies abuse and counsels women to stay in an abusive environment; consequently, she thinks it is pernicious and not appropriate fare for children.  I can see what she means, of course:  Belle is imprisoned, threatened with starvation, and yelled at, yet she becomes convinced that there is something sweet under the hairy exterior of the Beast.  That is painfully like the thinking that can go on in an abusive relationship, and any abused person needs to get free from both the relationship and the mindset.

But this is a fairy tale, not a mirror of real life, and once again it comes down to the same question:  Who are we in this story?  Are we Belle, beautiful, special, brave, patient, and abused?  The psychologist thinks that children always will identify with Belle, and that it’s right that they – and we – should do so.  But what if we’re the character whose anger and selfishness drive people away, who despairs of being saved before the transformation into total bestiality is complete?  What if we’re really the Beast?

We think of fairy tales as simple children’s tales, but they are neither simple nor exclusively for children.   They can’t be read or heard on only one level, any more than the Bible can.  Yes, Beauty and the Beast is a happy-ever-after tale of the triumph of a brave young woman.  However, we can also step into this tale in the skin of the Beast; then it becomes a story of redemption, of the power of love and patience, of despair healed and self-loathing wiped away with a kiss.  It is a story not of internal achievement but of external grace.

The psychologist who works with abused children will and should make her own decisions about what is beneficial for her clients.  That doesn’t mean that I accept her condemnation of fairy tales as literature or as windows into the human condition.  We just need to know how to read them, and, most importantly, who we are in the story.

Evidently the humility with which we approach a tale (or life, the universe, and everything) determines whether we see it as good news or bad.  Jesus’ parable, though annoying to the already righteous and hard-working, is wonderful news to those chosen last.  Beauty and the Beast is good news to those who know they are unlovely distortions of who they should be and lack the power to change themselves.

Jesus says the entrance into the kingdom of heaven is narrow; perhaps it is also low.  We may have to bend our heads and come in on our knees if we want to marry the prince and live happily ever after.


  1. Fairie tales were hardly ever written for children. Mostly they were allegorized commentaries on the human condition which took a bit of self-realization and pondering to suss out. So, too, with Jesus’ parables. Let’s also consider that when reading Matthew 23 as well.

    • Matthew 23, exactly. What might I be doing that fits with Jesus’ “woe to you”-s, and have I become the Beast….

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      In the original HCA version, the Little Mermaid gives up her fish-tail for the sake of the prince, who then rejects her. Then she finds Jesus or something.

  2. Damaris, this is one of the best things I have read in a while. Thank you for this.

  3. Damaris, adult men had a kind of power over women and children that is, afaik, all too accurately portrayed in the Charles Perreault versions of fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast. While i completely agree that there’s more going on there, i also do agree with the psychologist you cited. The Disney movies *do* make it seem like that kind of abuse is what girls should expect – and that if you put up with the beadt, you all,of a sudden *will* get a handsome prince as the reward for your suffering.

    I think we need to keep in mind that the target audience for these films simply doesn’t have the life experience to be able to discriminate and say, “Well, obvy, nobody should evernhave to enfure abuse” and then sit back and enjoy the finer points of the story. They’re very young kids, after all.

    Have you ever seen Jean Cocteau’s film versiin, “La belle et la Bete”? Not for the younger ones, but very good (though the Beast is very much superior to the insipid prince who shows up at the end!)

    • Apologies for typos – blasted tablet!

    • Yes. We can only approach these stories with humility if we have a sufficiently developed sense of our self’s worth to kneel. But the sense of self’s worth has been systematically crippled by abuse and oppression for many; in these cases, such humility is impossible, and the already existing situation is reinforced by reading these stories.

    • I think those who have been crushed all their lives by the power of others who had authority over them identify neither with the workers who came late or the ones who came early in Jesus’ parable; they are unable to form such identification, because their experience tells them that the only things that matters in the story is the power of the landowner, his immunity from any standards of fairness, and that he may do whatever he wants with his property, however arbitrary. The dynamic of the story, for them, is not about what happens to the workers, but the power and prerogatives of the landowner; this is especially bad for those who have been taught to consider themselves as the property of another.

      • There is a perverse irony in abuse that the interests of the abuser are thought by the abused to also be their own; hence, those who have been systematically abused, and taught to consider themselves property, would identify with the character of the landowner rather than the workers. This is a third way reading the parable besides the other two mentioned in the post.

        • And this is not just about the domestically abused. The reading which sees the power and prerogatives of the landowner as the central elements of this parable, and other biblical texts too, has been used throughout Christian history as a means for the powerful to oppress those they had authority over. For instance, how would peasants living under a feudal system of rule not naturally see the main character in this text as the landowner, and not think this text underwrote the right of their feudal lords to do what he would with the land and resources that belonged to him? For many, today and in the past, the center of this text is in the power, rights and prestige of the landowner.

          • This. Maybe many people identify with the hard workers, but the problem with the story is that people give it a political spin and focus on the rich man’s right to do whatever he wants. The rich man plays the role of God in the parable and as many ultra-wealthy people and their admirers take the same view, this could be seen as an endorsement.

            Of course Jesus also represents God as an unjust judge who as to be nagged into doing the right thing, so I think one should be careful of pushing a parable’s message beyond what was intended.

          • I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question.

            Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

            “No,” says the man in Washington, “it belongs to the poor.” “No,” says the man in the Vatican, “it belongs to God.” “No,” says the man in Moscow, “it belongs to everyone.”

            I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor; where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality; where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.

          • It’s not about pushing a parable’s message into meanings it wasn’t intended for, but unpacking the subtext of a text, the cultural and social baggage it carries beneath the surface of its meaning, even unbeknownst to itself.

      • amen

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      Also “In the Company of Wolves” (not to be confused with “In the Company of Men,” which is also good)

  4. Excellent writing as usual, Damaris. Indeed, I think we all have the tendency to see ourselves as “Beauty,” the trick being then to frequently look in the mirror and make sure we haven’t become “Beast.” (Self-examination seems to be one of Jesus’ themes, and I’m continually thinking about how I present Christ to make sure I haven’t drifted toward Phariseeism.)

  5. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
    Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. – GK Chesterton

  6. I forget who said it, it might have been Dorothy Sayers, but *somebody* said that it is only unfamiliarity with their cultural and historical context, and overfamiliarity with the parables in general, that prevents most people from reacting to them with the same shock and outrage that the Pharisees had.

    • Clay Crouch says

      Robert Capon, if he didn’t say it explicitly, certainly expressed this in his writings.

  7. The Gospel according to St. Walter!

    • There’s a short story to be written, I’m sure, in the idea of a missionary telling a new tribe the Gospel only to have them see themselves as Jesus.

    • I’m not getting the reference to St. Walter, turnsalso. And there is a somewhat horrifying account of a tribe dedicated to elaborate treachery; when they were told the Gospel, they assumed Judas was the hero. It’s from the book Peace Child, by Don Richardson.

  8. I can’t help but think of Scot McKnight’s recent post (“Which Character Are You?”) that was a book review dealing with what we hear in stories, including a certain passage of Scripture. The post talks about an informal poll in response to the story, and the results were interesting:

    “…clergy empathize with Jesus and laity do not; clergy do not empathize with disciples but laity do; clergy do not empathize with Pharisees but laity do….I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed preachers don’t identify with being a disciple more; I’m concerned laity don’t empathize with the character of Jesus. What I’m shocked by is the absolute difference. Mark Allan Powell’s book, What Do They Hear?, opens up for pastors and laity the differences between how they read the Bible and what they hear when they read it — especially when they are not together…many see “meaning” as “message” and focus on the theological, propositional content. Others see “meaning” as “effect” — what the text does to the person or how it “affects” them.”


  9. What a great and enlightening viewpoint, it’s baffling I have never seriously considered that!

    In terms of the Beauty and the Beast story, I wonder if you could take it one step further. It appears that Belle if anything perhaps more represents Christ, who remained faithful to and didn’t abandon the beast (us) despite all his flaws, and in the end was the one that helped transform the beast and redeem him.

    • “Belle if anything perhaps more represents Christ” — Absolutely!

    • Not to forget that the reason Belle went into captivity in the first place was to ransom her father.

      Belle’s actions are not weakness, but strength and beauty of the deepest kind.

      Love is stronger than death, and everything that is death-dealing, including abusive relationships. The only reason we are sensitized to the abuse angle is that we have an ethic (thoroughly Christian-by-way-of-Judaism, even though some people want to deny this, like fish denying they are swimming in water) that it is wrong to use and abuse people.


  10. Burro [Mule] says

    The parable of the day laborers and the landowner always struck me as being one of Jesus’ most subversive moments. The desire for justice, the need to see the scales balance, is so deeply ingrained into us that it is hard for us to see the landowner as anything but a capricious tyrant. I have no doubt I’d be one of the last-hired, sniggering at the naivety of the hard-working mokes all the way to the wineshop with the landowner’s unjust [and unearned] shekel burning a hole in my pocket. You can believe I’d be back at 4pm the next day, expecting a repeat performance.

    It has only been recently that my eyes have been opened to the moral majesty of this parable. There are going to be a lot of people in the Kingdom of God, according to my calculations, with an unearned shekel burning a hole in their pocket. If I concentrate on the effort I put into the earning of my shekel, how could Heaven possibly be Heaven for me? Of course, there will be a lot of people there who will look upon my shekel as equally unearned, and they will definitely have a case. Living in Late Imperial America, as a beneficiary of its violence-by-proxy, I get a far better deal than I deserve. Heaven won’t be Heaven for any of us until we get over the shekel.

    As far as the Disney-hating psychologist, I find it interesting that she’s already been aptly caricatured in Lilo And Stitch as Cobra Bubbles. There isn’t anybody who wants to maintain her employment who wouldn’t admit openly that Lilo would be better off in foster care than with the well-meaning but clearly overwhelmed Nani, but would she really? Can the Algorithm replace genetic propinquity?

    That said, I’ll stand with the sage of Burbank over against the psychologist. What possible fairy tale could you possibly spin about psychologists, universal child care, and guidance centers?

    • Good stuff in your comment, Mule.

      –> “Heaven won’t be Heaven for any of us until we get over the shekel.”

      God’s math never seems to make sense, and whenever we often get offended when His math doesn’t seem to work in our favor, we need to remind ourselves that He’s usually making math mistakes in our favor. HUGE math mistakes (see the parable of the forgiven debt). When we enter his Kingdom, our math needs to go out the window.

      –> “Living in Late Imperial America, as a beneficiary of its violence-by-proxy, I get a far better deal than I deserve.”

      I think about that a lot.

    • Just a side note, Mule, asking your indulgence.

      Not commenting on the problems with foster care or universal child care. (I was able to earn money at home with flexible work via my computer while my children were at home, and I count that as one of the greatest blessings of my life.)

      What I am commenting on is the ideas about mothering and blood-being-thicker-than-water that I frequently hear, straight-up or insinuated, from “cultural conservatives” and others.

      Reality is that some mothers, for whatever reason, do not have a “maternal-nurturing” bone in their bodies. I do believe such a situation is “unnatural” – one of the many things about our life outside Paradise that is unnatural. That’s why so many fairy tales are centered around orphans – we all agree such a situation, though common in the times in which the fairy tales arose, is outside the norm. Not all foster care, in those days or in ours, has been undertaken by people simply for whatever financial gain may come from it. In fact, there are numerous stories about foster parents who end up legally adopting their foster children and giving them good homes.

      Love is thicker than blood.

      It was love that made my birth mother give me into the keeping of Catholic Charities in the mid-1950s, knowing that she could not provide a stable home for me by herself in the social milieu of the time (biological father was married to someone else…). It was love that made my parents willing to take me in and raise me as their own, and that made my parents’ wider family do the same. It was love that compelled them to raise me in the Catholic Church – my dad was a regular attender, unlike the fathers of most of my Catholic friends – and instill in me an awareness of God. It is all that love that has undergirded and made possible my knowledge of who I am. Of course my genetic heritage counts – and I believe the heritage of the love given me by very imperfect people is much more important.

      I am the recipient of many blessings because of my adoption, more than quite a number of my friends and acquaintances who grew up in “normal” families. And the status of each of us in relation to the Father, according to St Paul, is Adopted Child (who can never be disowned, in the context of the Roman law of his day).


      • Burro [Mule] says

        Dana –

        it was not my intention to denigrate those who raise foster children, nor that fostered children were in any way deprived. As always, it is hard for me to say Anything without saying Everything.

        I don’t think there is any Algorithm that can possibly ensure that every child born into this world receive a loving and nurturing upbringing, anymore than there is an Algorithm which can ensure that everyone will get an adequate share of the fruits of this good earth corresponding to the level of their input. That doesn’t stop us from trying, though, and to be honest, I don’t think it’s wise for us to stop trying. Despite some noises I’ve made to the contrary, it’s obvious that we’ve made some incremental improvements over the centuries that have made this word a safer and happier place.

        However, the only place you can go when you step outside the Algorithm is into Discernment, Humility, and Self-sacrifice, all three of which are chronically in short supply, but which your adoptive parents obviously had in abundance.

  11. Thank you, Damaris; beautiful words, as always.

    The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20.1-16 is one of the most multi-interpreted of Jesus’ parables. Some of a more libertarian persuasion will no doubt see it as a business owner having the right to pay whatever he wishes to whomever he wishes whenever he wishes for whatever reason he wishes. Others who believe in “equal pay for equal work” will deem it to be an illustration of an injustice which must be remedied through government rules and regulations. And then there’s the “chief message of the parable concerns God’s sovereignty and his graciousness in extending salvation to nations other than Israel” as you mentioned.

    I see this parable as a simple, broad, illustration of grace (i.e., irrespective of nations or such). It tells me that those who die young having lived a safe, comfortable, trouble-free, pain-free life will be welcomed by Christ into kingdom and receive the exact same reward as the much older person who suffered unspeakable horrors in prison for his faith and then died a cruel martyr’s death.

    Someone once said, “there is no grace in the marketplace,” and I agree, for the transaction of goods and services for money is not grace. But in this parable Christ uses a marketplace story to illustrate grace. Brilliant!

  12. This could make a great T-shirt, tattoo, or Koo-zee motto:

    Evidently the humility with which we approach a tale (or life, the universe, and everything) determines whether we see it as good news or bad

    Great stuff Damaris; please keep writing IMONK material, or something.

    • “This could make a great T-shirt, tattoo, or Koo-zee motto” — my goal in life, Greg. Thanks.

  13. More difficult still is understanding God as the One who is wronged, injured, and abused; crucified. The cross is a sign of grace and one of impending justice.

  14. I think comics are an interesting parallel to your thoughts here. In comics, there is always (nearly) an explicit “hero” that the reader is meant to identify with, but the hero is not always worthy of that title. Unlike “Beauty and the Beast”, where it takes a good amount of introspection to see ourselves in the not-hero, comics can play with that relationship by making the hero uncomfortable to identify with.

    The Hulk was always my favorite hero as a kid, because he is incapable of hiding his emotions. When he gets angry, he literally transforms, and the people around him are forced see it and to cope. I guess, its not that he can’t hide it, it’s that he can’t be misunderstood. Anyway, it’s not exactly a flattering reason to identify with someone, and even at the time I could recognize that.

    At the same time, some heroes are impossible to identify with. I love Superman stories, but he’s kind of designed to be un-relatable. He’s a alien, in superhuman physical condition, with unbelievable power, and is pure enough to never abuse that power. He is the hero, but you cannot identify with him, because he is better than you in every way. That disparity is something the reader consciously has to reconcile with, due to the nature of the story.

    • –> “I guess, its not that he can’t hide it, it’s that he can’t be misunderstood.”

      Yes. There is no mistaking the Hulk’s motives. “Hulk mad!”

      I wonder what the world would be like if everyone was as open as the Hulk.

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      In the first Hulk movie, it’s all about daddy issues. In the second, we see that he’s done everything in his power to control his problem–from a suicide attempt, to monitoring his pulse all the time, to practicing letting a martial arts guy hit him. I liked that version better. I think Banner should be worthy to lift Thor’s hammer.

  15. Please pardon the interruption. For anyone interested, Paul and His Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright is on sale in Kindle edition for $5.99 at Amazon. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set is on sale for $7.99. Don’t know if the sale is temporary or permanent. Both are exceptionally good deals.

    • Thanks for the interruption! Many NT Wright titles are marked down. I have been wanting these but not able to afford the regular prices.

  16. OldProphet says

    I have always thought that the parable of the vineyard workers meant that it is never too late to come to Jesus. Whether young in life or old, it’s never to late to come to know or follow Him. No matter your age, the pay is the same, as are the eternal rewards. A commitment at 5, or a death bed conversion; either gets you into heaven with our wonderful Savior! Just sayin, just thinkin, just prayin,……

  17. OldProphet says

    My own interpretation of that parable nigh be skewed by the fact that I was a late comer to the Jesus party. I was 30 when I met Him. I’m a 4:59 pm guy!

    • For me, I was a 3:58 kinda guy, and a 4:15 kinda guy, and a 4:33 kinda guy. You know, periodically checking in, moving along, coming back, moving along…

      God is good.

  18. OldProphet says

    Do you think that this means that I’m a Happy Hour Christian? “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”! Da,da,da LOL!

  19. Eckhart Trolle says

    This parable seems to be a product of a time when non-Jews were becoming Christians (i.e. after Jesus’s death), and the Jewish Christians were not entirely comfortable with this. If Jesus told the story himself, it must have had a very different meaning. Notice how the point-of-view problem resembles that of the Prodigal Son, or the Woman Caught in Adultery.

    • Yes. Whatever content of this parable actually came from the mouth of Jesus was later adapted by the Christian community to address the situation you describe. It bears a heavy intra-community political burden.

  20. Excellent piece.
    While I’m generally critical of Disney work, “Beauty and the Beast” is different and subversive. I always thought its true theme was “don’t judge by outward appearances,” as witnessed by the absurdly handsome villain, Gaston, and his beautiful but brainless groupies, the Bimbettes. By contrast, Belle’s love transforms the man with his inner ugliness on the outside (Beast.)
    Ii certainly never saw the parallel with Stockholm syndrome, although my college-age daughter tells me it is much discussed among her peers. As she rightly points out, though, Belle never meekly gives in to Beast’s roaring; she gives it right back!
    You may not be aware, but one of the creative minds on the film was Glen Keane, author of the beloved (at least at my house) Adam Raccoon books. It’s not hard to see that some of his Christian sensibilities may have had an impact on shaping the story.