Story-Telling as Faithfulness

We sat around a table, taking turns reading and enacting the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian oppression. Spicy horseradish, sickly-sweet Manischewitz wine, and unleavened bread brought the various scenes to life as we wept over our past sufferings, celebrated the faithfulness of the LORD, and longed for the return of the Messiah. This was my first Passover meal and the pungent burn of the maror caught me off-guard; I had to choke back welling tears. Still, I was even more surprised by the words we spoke: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim, and then Adonai our God brought us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” The audacity of such a thought: We were there! We were delivered! In telling the story we had become its characters.

Perhaps it was too audacious for me. With some creative anachronism, a modern Jew could claim to have been there, to feel the Egyptian slavery ache deeply in her bones. But what right did I have, Gentile that I am? I felt that I was verging on callous cultural appropriation, like a white American pretending to have been personally wronged by chattel slavery. Yet Paul, himself a Jew, is unabashed to make such a scandalous claim for Gentile Christians: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea” (1 Cor 10:1). Though we Gentiles are unnatural branches grafted into Israel’s story, this engrafting re-determines our past and future. In Christ, in the Messiah, we receive a new history and a new destination: his Jewish history and his destination as the only one whom sin cannot hold.

As a people who now participate in the bewildering story of Israel, we have much to learn from our Jewish sisters and brothers and the Holy Scripture we have received from them. That we Protestant Christians have written off the Jewish concern for ritual is a grave tragedy of history. While we are certainly saved by the grace and blood of Jesus Christ alone, there remains a deep and abiding importance to ritual—even under the new covenant. Ritual is the way that we participate in our own history. It is the way we inscribe stories deeply into our being, into our sinews and tendons. The logic of the Passover is one and the same as the logic of The Lord’s Supper: salvation must be remembered. The Exodus, the Passion and Resurrection, these events must be remembered because they change everything. By remembering and celebrating what God has done for us in the past we learn how to hope for God’s good future with greater resolve.

I am not saying that every Christian ought necessarily to celebrate Passover (though it’s not such a bad idea). I am saying that we ought to take story-telling very seriously, because we remember who we are and what God has done for us through story-telling. In my own Evangelical tradition we have an analogue to Passover: testimony. Much like Passover, our testimonies are stories about an event that happened in the distant past: the Word became flesh, was crucified, buried, and three days later rose from the dead. Yet, like Passover, we know in our bones that we were there, actors in the passion play—for our sins are there, nailed to that tree. Though the bulk of the story of our salvation took place some two thousands years ago, we have faith to believe that it is just as relevant to us now as it was to the Apostles then. Contrary to all the protests I offered as a young Christian when asked to share my testimony, this practice is not “stupid”; story-telling is essential to faithfulness. If we are not convinced of each other’s testimonies, our faith will most certainly fail.

Since I’ve already defended the often-embarrassing practice of sharing testimonies, I’d like to quickly speak up for two other stereotypically Evangelical concerns. The first is reading Scripture. As important as our testimonies and our subjective experience of God’s work are, they are nothing if they are not wed to the story of those who have been faithful (and unfaithful) in the past. It is impossible to think that we might understand our own story if we have not first understood Scripture’s story of God, the world, and God’s people. To borrow a metaphor from N.T. Wright, we Christians are actors in the fifth section of a play. Though the Bible provides the script for the first four sections and a rough idea of how the play is to end, there is no script for the fifth section. In order to succeed in this last act, we must study the scripted acts (Scripture) deeply and innovate in consistency with them.

The second concern is related to the first. We must be careful about the media we consume. This is not legalism but—to extend the previous metaphor—the mark of a good actor. If we are not vigilant in this, we will distort the story by importing contradictory themes—or worse, replace the divine plot with a twisted one. There are manifold dangers and snares here, but for the sake of brevity I will mention just one: pornography. With or without words, with or without even the most rudimentary of plots, pornography impregnates our minds with a false story about the world. Pornography ensnares us with a deeply visceral story about what our desire is for, how we are to be fulfilled, and how we ought to relate to one another as sexual beings. Pornography, as well as many other forms of media, is a siren song that will dash us upon the reef and consume us if we do not resist its alluring call. But the only way to resist is to bind ourselves hand and foot to the ship that is salvation: the Gospel. In the end, the only way to break the power of a false story is by cleaving to the true story, proclaiming its truth and power for us and for all of history. We must be bold enough to proclaim: “We were there! We were delivered!”

Written by John Shelton