Recovery of the biblical narrative
My grandmother was illiterate. But her biblical literacy, acquired through my father’s recitation of Bible stories, was truly remarkable. I used to credit her knowledge of the Bible to her memory and my father’s vivid storytelling ability—until recently when I came to appreciate the narrative form of the Bible itself. The Bible is essentially a story, a narration of God’s gracious activities in the lives of patriarchs and prophets, the nation of Israel, the life of Jesus, and of the church.
To be sure, this is how my father presented it. Paralleling Ellen White’s Conflict of the Ages series,1 he told the story from Genesis to Revelation, in the context of the great controversy between good and evil. For him, the great controversy was not simply a doctrine or fundamental belief—but an existential reality. It was something taking place in his own heart. God and the devil were real spiritual powers contending for supremacy over his life. Indeed, what I remember most about my father is how he saw everything in his life and around him, small or large, in light of the cosmic war between God and the devil.
My grandmother, too, saw things in the same light. For both of them, what made “the great controversy” so immediate and fundamental was their experience with African traditional religions. As anyone who has observed them firsthand would attest, real and pungent spiritual forces suffuse tra-ditional religions. When individuals become possessed, spirit mediums perform strange acts. They speak in voices of dead relatives or shriek and howl like animals. The divine and the demonic, religion and magic, are not differentiated in African religions, indeed in all traditional religions.
This lack of differentiation, especially between the divine and the demonic, explains the ambivalence of the primitive sacred: how it was regarded as beneficent, yet also dreaded as malevolent. Indeed, as my father told me, his first prayer, before he knew anything about the God of the Bible or the gospel, was after a night encounter with a witch, at the tender age of ten. Greatly terrified and hal-lucinating, he mumbled a prayer. The deliverance he experienced that night was the reason why, a few years later, when he went to Nyazura Adventist Mission School, the revelation of the great war between God and Satan made such a deep impression on him. As he put it himself in the words of Colossians 1:13, God “rescued [me] from the dominion of darkness and brought [me] into the kingdom of [His] Son.”2
The experience of being “rescued from the dominion of darkness” polarized and changed my father’s worldview. As a result, he experienced a thoroughly radical change in how he perceived life from its origin to its ultimate culmination. That radical change led him to reject the traditional concept of his ancestral religious culture, rituals, and magic. From the realm of the demonic, he moved to a spiritual discovery of a God of love, the Almighty Creator and Redeemer that the Bible reveals. This discovery led him to embrace Jesus as his deliverer and Savior from sin to righteousness.
To him, being a Christian meant moving from one view of life to another. It was the adoption of a new identity. In Abraham, my father saw his paradigmatic example. The great patriarch, Abraham, was called by God from his country, people, and family to become the founder of a new nation: Israel. As my father used to say, “There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the call of God and claims of country, tribe, and family.” He was right. Put together these claims and you have a new identity, a new culture. Indeed, etymologically the word culture, from the Latin cultus, means adoration or worship.
Who is to be worshipped?
The adoption of this new culture raises a new question: Who is to be worshipped, God or Satan? Due to the devil’s masquerades, the issue comes in confusingly diverse modes and guises, and this is one reason why my father placed such a high premium on the life stories of Bible characters. Those characters provided radical role models and practical answers to the question of who should be worshipped. As Paul put it to the Corinthians, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). My father’s existential quest to imitate the “examples” and heed the “warnings” made his own life a living example, a powerful witness for Christ. All his neighbors became Seventh-day Adventists, and the people he personally brought to Christ number in hundreds. His lessons and sermons were always spiced with personal examples of his own spiritual struggles and victories.
This personal witness made my dad’s Bible storytelling and witnessing vivid, memorable, and inspiring. To be sure, the inspiration came from the Holy Spirit. One of my earliest memories is of being deeply moved as I enjoyed listening to my father. I also recall the consciousness I had of an inner battle between good and evil whenever I disobeyed my parents. This early experience of the Spirit moving on me is the bedrock on which my faith in God and His Word is based. Incidentally, my grandmother also spoke of being moved by the Spirit. Indeed, according to her, the movement of the Spirit in the depths of her inmost soul enabled her to discard the folklores and pungent superstitions and become a devout Christian.
Her devotion was a result of sympathetic imitation. She strove to imitate the examples of Bible char-acters, especially the life of Jesus, as evidenced by her long conversation-like prayers. Here, let me underscore that human beings from earliest childhood learn by imitating significant others: parents, teachers, peers, pastors, celebrities, and so on. That is how we acquire the language, habits, customs, and values of our culture. Often the Scripture underscores the significance of imitation in learning: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children” (Eph. 5:1); “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1); “We did this . . . in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate” (2 Thess. 3:9); “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
I could cite more texts, but the crux is that only life stories or examples provide “models” for imitation. Indeed, that is why, among the ancient peoples, only Israel “purposely nurtured and developed prose narration to take the place of the epic genre.”3 That narrative is the essence of the Bible. This cannot be stressed enough, “because it tends to be eclipsed by the assumption that the Bible consists of a set of doctrinal propositions, with illustrative stories.”4 While doctrines and theology may be teachings derived from the biblical narrative, the narrative itself seeks to describe and make explicit a spiritual experience and to portray the divine-human encounter or relationships. But neither doctrine nor experience can fully capture the modalities of spiritual life. For this we need an experiential depth.
While seeking this experiential depth, we need to remember that there are elements that escape narration, exegesis, and hermeneutics. That is why prayer and humility are indispensable to the understanding of Scripture. Only “the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). In fact, the main obstacle to understanding the Scripture is our inner resistance to the Word of God. “The mind governed by the flesh,” said Paul, “is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rom. 8:7). As such, one of the principal aims of the Spirit is to reveal to us our inner resistance, which is rooted in our pride, the most pungent and devious of all human passions.
This pride in the Pharisees, along with their dogma and theological obstructionism, led Jesus to teach great truths in parables. “The secret of the kingdom of God,” He told the disciples, “has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (Mark 4:11). Parables served as decoys. By eliciting imaginative and sympathetic participation, they lured the hearers from their bastions of pride and tradition. As Ellen White rightly noted, “Jesus desired to awaken inquiry. He sought to arouse the care-less, and impress truth upon the heart.”5 Indeed, that is why He “did not deal in abstract theories, but in that which is essential to the development of character, that which will enlarge man’s capacity for knowing God, and increase his efficiency to do good.”6
Here is a lesson for us today. Seventh-day Adventism has been encapsulated into 28 fundamental beliefs. Lost is the rich biblical narrative, the varied divine-human experiences, from which the beliefs are based. We must recover these biblical stories. Indeed, unlike direct doctrinal formulations, they depict and elicit a broad range of human actions, emotions, and decisions, along with their con-sequences. Above all, they provide concrete models for imitation.
I saw their efficacy in my illiterate grandmother’s life.
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1 Ellen G. White’s Conflict of the Ages series traces the history of God’s action from before Creation to the new heavens and the new earth through five books, published by the Pacific Press Publishing Association: Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), Prophets and Kings (1917), The Desire of Ages (1898), The Acts of the Apostles (1911), and The Great Controversy (1907).
2 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New International Version.
3 S. Talmon, “The ‘Comparative Method’ in Biblical Interpretation—Principles and Problems,” Göttengen Congress Volume (Leiden, 1978), 354, quoted inRobert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 25.
4 Herbert N. Schneidau, “Biblical Narrative and Modern Consciousness,” in The Bible and the Narrative Tradition, ed. Frank McConnell (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1986), 132.
5 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 20, 21.
6 White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 23.