The Power of Jesus Narrative, and the Appropriation of Jesus Narrative in American Evangelicalism—Peter Heltzel’s Jesus and Justice
Jesus’ story is attractive. Non-churchgoers feel the same way about Jesus’ story. Broadly construed, Christian theology understands the whole Bible as Jesus’ story, encouraging all of us to be immersed in Jesus’ story as following him. (Why is this so? I will discuss that here at length.) Unimportant things aside, we all have our own stories. Even such stories comprise our culture. The reason that stories comprise our culture is that such stories have taken us in to their plots. Taking us in to their plots means that we have allowed such stories to be taken in to ourselves. By so doing, we gather all the disparate units and pieces of our life stories into a coherent whole through the frame our culture provides for us, and sometimes we piece together some tidbits of our common stories to come up with a new story frame, which is novel enough to modify our cultural story frame. But no matter what, stories cannot help being restrictive, for stories have to focus on certain aspects of the whole reality we are experiencing. For this reason, stories are differently constructed depending on whose vantage point they are approached. This is also true of Jesus’ story. What am I saying by this?
Dan McAdams of Northwestern University, persuasively writes in The Stories We Live By how stories affect our identities, making ourselves part of them. According to McAdams, the basic units of stories are images and icons. Such images and icons appealing to us are always showing themselves in the context of messages being delivered to us. Some representative examples are TV or magazine commercials, or those in social media such Facebook or Twitter. They have messages to deliver, and as we are consciously or unconsciously exposed to them we are beginning to take them attractively, as something we should follow. At this point, we should know that such messages are located in certain stories being narrated and re-narrated, so that we begin to narrate our stories with those stories. With regard to the life-ruling power of stories, James Smith succinctly explains.
The mall communicates its story not through tracts and didactic lectures, but through visual embodiments of the happy life, 3-D icons that we have come to revere as ideals worthy of imitation.
The visual embodiments of the happy life mean that not only in it is there a message about what the happy life is all about, but also such a message is conveyed in a particular story. In a common product commercial, there are happy people living happy lives, making us imagine what their lives are like. Their relationships are always good, with great professional careers, and so on. Such stories are what we hope to make ours. We dream what they show us. Isn’t it? That is how stories rule our lives. Stories rule us.
Jesus’ story functions the same way in our lives. The purpose of Jesus’ story in the Bible is to rule our lives. For this reason, Jesus’ story is located inevitably in competitive relationships with other stories, for every story has in it a purpose of life narrated, making it a goal to rule our lives.
I began attending the Bible Studies for the book of Hebrews. The beginning of chapter 3 prods its readers with its axiom, “Consider Jesus,” especially lest we should be tempted into the hardness of sin. What does that mean? I think that considering Jesus means considering Jesus’ stories. For in order for us to consider Jesus we should consider Jesus’ stories of life, death, and resurrection. That means, thinking by taking each apart, that we should consider the images and icons in Jesus’ story. And repeatedly so, as if we were exposed to TV commercials. That is how such images and icons become ours, through which the messages of Jesus’ stories are integrated into our stories, eventually leading our stories to be part of Jesus’ stories, and vice versa. Therefore, if you want to follow Jesus, you should immerse yourself in the stories of Jesus. Jesus’ stories coming into our lives, breathing, dancing, moving, leading, and sometimes causing conflicts, yet eventually successfully integrating our stories into Jesus’ stories, that is what following Jesus is all about.
But the problem is, even when Jesus’ story was written in a different time from ours with a different cultural background, it is multi-layered containing multiple aspects in it, which means that we always select and choose certain aspects of such story to be part of ours. Thus, we necessarily miss out on some others aspects of Jesus’ story.
Peter Heltzel’s Jesus and Justice will be an interesting read if we approach it from the foregoing perspective. In particular, it might be interesting to see how Jesus’ story understood and digested by not just individuals, but by organizations and institutions, will have an impact on how all of them relate to other persons, organizations, and institutions. The book itself deals with the history of American evangelicalism, so it might be a little boring. Not only does the book understand American evangelicalism through Martin Luther King Jr., and Carl F. H. Henry, it also addresses that how the two streams are distilled into the four representative evangelical organizations, namely, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Richard Cizik’s National Association of Evangelicals, John Perkin’s Christian Community Development Association, and Jim Wallis’ The Sojourners. That’s how the book is organized. First tracing the initial history of evangelicalism, and then attempting to define evangelicalism, the book jumps into the theologies of King and Henry. Without a pause it goes into the histories and theologies of the aforementioned four organizations.
But the reading experiences of this book may turn out to be a fascinating one, given that the reader focuses on the question of how these individuals and institutions digest Jesus’ story to be theirs and re-narrate their stories in light of Jesus’ story they understood. In particular, closing examining how White Evangelicalism and Prophetic Black Christianity chose and selected which images and icons of Jesus in order to listen to which messages of Jesus, finally succumbing to which version of Jesus’ story is fascinating. The two streams may seem disconnected to each other, but they have in common a historical origin of their emergence as the Cane Ridge revival meeting in the beginning of the 19th century. Therefore, the 18th century revivalism is what both share together. Accordingly, Heltzel shows that both streams share the four common characteristics of evangelicalism, namely, 1) emphasis on conversion; 2) acknowledgment of the biblical authority; 3) activism; 4) emphasis on the cross and resurrection. However, this is where the commonality between the two ends. While white evangelicalism brings in to its story Jesus’ victory and resurrection, black prophetic Christianity makes use of images of failure, frustration, hopelessness in Jesus’ story to make their own. Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) appropriates a theology of Holy Saturday ( a theology which imagines and theologizes what Jesus was going through between his death and resurrection), in order to understand and integrate her suffering and oppression into Jesus’ story, making her faith grow through it. (Later Jacobs was released from her slave status through praying God unyieldingly.) What Heltzel is saying is this is not just one instance, the rest of which is entirely different from, but there were so many who were like Jacobs, such as Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), Fanny Lou Hammer (1917-1977), andMartin Luther King Jr. (1929—1968). The theologies and lives of these figures are having a great impact on modern evangelicals, which makes Heltzel argue that the black prophetic Christianity’s narrative should be regarded as legitimate part of American evangelical Christianity.
On the other hand, white evangelical Christianity, even after the abolition of slavery, either actively colludes with sentiments of white supremacy, or passively condones the oppression of blacks. For example, while D.L. Moody nominally opposed the racial segregation, he tacitly let his revival meetings to be conducted in racial segregation. Also Carl Henry, while vocally opposing any type of racial segregation or racism, fell short of joining actively other activists and workers, such as MLK Jr. Heltzel argues that underneath such passive attitudes lie their understandings of Jesus’ story. That is to say, Moody and Henry took seriously Jesus’ Lordship, yet their Jesus was not the suffering one, nor was he the one who participates in the sufferings of his people here and now.
However, the future is not as grim as the picture Heltzel has drawn so far. For American evangelicalism is beginning to integrate within itself more of the Black Prophetic Christianity’s prophetic impulses into the Jesus story it understands and identifies with. Heltzel names leading figures of this emerging movement to be Shane Claiborne, Malinda Berry, Bart and Tony Campolo, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, David Gushee, Lisa Sharon Harper, Gary Haugen, Sammy Rodriguez, Adam Taylor, Richard Twiss, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. No longer are they all white males, but the significant part of them are women and non-whites, which Heltzel predicts to be the leading tendency in the future. Among Asians, there are such leading figures such as Soong-Chan Rah, Eugene Cho, and Francis Chan.
Jesus’ story is multi-layered. There are so many ways of depicting Jesus’ story. If we are willing to follow the Hebrew’s command “Consider Jesus,” then what we should learn from this book is not just enumeration of historical facts or American evangelicalism’s close details. Rather, this book aims to get across the message propounded so far, which is that we are beings who are shaped by stories, and we need to be shaped by Jesus’ story if we can call ourselves Christian. This is what Korean Christianity should reflect on. Initiated by American white male missionaries, Korean Christianity has made its abode in the story of Jesus represented by victory, success, and flourishing, rather than failure, endless suffering, and frustration. Now is the time for Korean Christianity to reflect back on what kind of Jesus story we are following. Is the Jesus really the Jesus of the Bible? What pieces and messages of Jesus have we consciously, or inadvertently, missed out on? If we do not begin to do this, then we might be led farther down the road that we are already treading on, which is mostly the way of the prosperity gospel. Perhaps that is the biggest challenge and question this book throws on its readers.