The Invisible Famine in The Parable of the Prodigal Son

ImageThere is a space in the back of the eye where the optic nerve exits on its way to the brain.  This part of the retina has no light sensors and therefore it is blind.  The reason there are no gaps in your sight is that your brain fills in the missing information with what it assumes to be the most likely pattern.  Because this is not what you perceive it is hard to believe you’re actually missing part of the picture unless someone directs your attention to an experiment that can prove it.

Recently I was reading E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien’s  Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes and I learned something about the way Americans read The Prodigal Son:

“Mark Allan Powell had twelve students in a seminary class read the story carefully from Luke’s Gospel, close their Bibles and then retell the story as faithfully as possible to a partner. None of the twelve American seminary students mentioned the famine in Luke 15:14, which precipitates the son’s eventual return. Powell found this omission interesting, so he organized a larger experiment in which he had one hundred people read the story and retell it, as accurately as possible, to a partner. Only six of the one hundred participants mentioned the famine. The group was ethnically, racially, socioeconomically and religiously diverse. The ‘famine-forgetters,’ as Powell calls them, had only one thing in common: they were from the United States. Later, Powell had the opportunity to try the experiment again, this time outside the United States. In St. Petersburg, Russia, he gathered fifty participants to read and retell the prodigal son story. This time an overwhelming forty-two of the fifty participants mentioned the famine. Why? Just seventy years before, 670,000 people had died of starvation after a Nazi German siege of the capital city began a three-year famine. Famine was very much a part of the history and imagination of the Russian participants in Powell’s exercise. Based solely on cultural location, people from America and Russia disagreed about what they considered the crucial details of the story. Americans tend to treat the mention of the famine as an unnecessary plot device.”

Famines are unreal to typical American readers.

I have been thinking about this a great deal.  My first thought was to wonder what other nuances we Americans, with our full bellies, overlook in the Biblical text.  When I think about the things Jesus says and does in the Bible, it is clear that fear of famine was present.  Jesus demonstrated and spoke about the abundant generosity of God with loaves and fishes, wine and bread, figs and seeds.  He asked his followers to live a kind of radical trust.  They could leave their wealth, their work, their families and as God provided food for the birds and the plants he would do so for his people.  It isn’t a metaphorical abundance, a reference to being “full” spiritually or emotionally.  (We in the U.S. generally read it that way.) He’s talking about an abundance that is physical and tangible.  He is talking about food.

But famine blindness has implications that go well beyond theology.

Until I read about this study, I thought I was rather well-versed in the story of the Prodigal Son. I have read it in Luke.  I’ve read two books by Henri Nouwen that meditate on the meaning of the parable by focusing on the tale from the perspective of each character.  My (as yet unpublished) sequel to the novel Angel has a recurring motif of the Prodigal Son.

I did not remember the famine.

Like an optical illusion that reveals the existence of a vision void on the retina, this study made me aware that I have blind spots.  I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but it is clear that suffering that I have not experienced personally is not fully real to me.   I can read a story and not even notice that it is there.   I can relate to the pain of your divorce, because I’ve had a break up.  I can grieve with you because I have suffered loss, but when you are experiencing a kind of pain that I have not, I might not just be unsympathetic, I might not even notice.  This does not make me exceptionally blase, it makes me human.  The best I can do, now that I am aware of this fact, is to do my best not to forget it.  I may think I have a seamless image, but I don’t see everything.

Famine blindness has implications for how we function as a nation as well.  It costs a lot of money to get a job in Congress or the White House these days.  The gap between the wealth of average Americans and the people we elect to represent us is growing.   The 113th Congress has become wealthier than the last, with incoming freshmen bringing in a median net worth of $1,066,515 each — about $1 million more than that of the average American.

When a factory worker who has just been laid off tells his story to a millionaire congress member, does that person actually hear all of the pertinent details of the story or does it fall into that Prodigal-Son-famine-void where the blind spot is seamlessly filled with what the listener expects to be there?  What does this mean in terms of how our national social problems are addressed?

I will no doubt write another post or two on the Prodigal Son.   Now that I realize the famine is there, I have been thinking a great deal about it.





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