The Stories We Choose to Tell: A Disturbing Correlation Between the Stories We Choose to Tell and Our Identity
Stories are genuinely one of the most potent weapons available to humankind. More often than not, the one who controls the narrative of a tale controls society. This fact explains the verbal warfare amongst our politicians and, unfortunately, why people, not too far back in history, supported many unnecessary wars. The stories we are told have a way of shaping our perspective of reality by becoming the lens through which we view the world around us. Jeannette Armstrong, speaking about Native American stories, rightfully observed that through the language of stories, "I understand that I am the one being spoken to, and I am not the one speaking."
Emancipation from the powerful grip of a story is only possible when a different story is told. Only in the presence of a different narrative can we question and investigate the information we have held and possibly break free from its powerful grip.
Seventh-day Adventism is also rooted in stories without which we would lose our unique identity. Biblical stories like that of creation (Genesis 1-2), and the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, are fundamental to who we are as Seventh-day Adventist Christians. And so are the stories of Hiram Edson's vision by the cornfield and the numerous stories about the life, ministry, and death of Ellen and James White.
Just like the carefully curated stories that our politicians use to sway the multitudes, could it be that there are some stories that we have purposefully not told, mis-told, or just not told entirely?
William Ellis Foy's Story
William Foy was a Black preacher whose ministry played out in racist America in the mid- to late-1800s. During Foy's ministry, God gave him four prophetic messages, which Foy delivered faithfully. In her later years, Ellen White could recall seeing Foy in vision and listening to his lectures in Beethoven Hall. One doctor Henry Cummings testified of William Foy's physical condition when receiving a prophetic vision. Cummings stated that he "could not find any appearance of life, except around his heart." These conditions, described by Henry Cummings, were similar to those observed later when Ellen White was in vision.
It is evident from the historical record and works such as that of Delbert W. Baker's The Unknown Prophet that William Foy was a faithful messenger of the Lord in an extremely hostile society. After the Great Disappointment of 1844, Foy, a Millerite preacher at that time, continued to preach and teach until he died in 1893. In the life and ministry of William Foy in racist America, we find a man living out the words of Jesus, "Behold; I am sending you out like sheep among wolves."
Unfortunately, Foy's story remains largely unknown and, in some cases, grossly mis-told. Foy is still known by many as one of the people who rejected the message that was subsequently given to young Ellen White. And in the many miss-tellings of his story, he is often used as a moral lesson on what happens when one rejects God's call in their life. J. N. Loughborough echoed the miss-telling of Foy's story in his time when he wrote saying Foy "became exalted over the revelation, and thus lost his simplicity; hence the manifestation of this gift to him ceased, and soon after (the disappointment of 1844) he sickened and died."
Here are two versions of a story, both circulating within the storytelling circles of Adventism. One version has and still enjoys considerable mainstream coverage over the other. And yet, fewer people stop to ask why this is so, and how promoting one or the other of these versions helps shape our Adventist identity. Could it be that allowing both tales to flourish in the public square might disturb the status quo?
Pro-Western Prophetic interpretation
Bible prophecy is one of the pillars of Adventism. We consider ourselves a prophetic church with a prophetic message, and indeed we are. In many of our evangelistic seminars, we make certain to highlight the prophecies of Daniel 2 and Revelation 12. What often makes these prophecies easier to understand and engaging to the intellect is that they are always conveyed through the medium of a story.
Our Prophetic tapestry begins to unravel as we start evangelistically using our subjective experiences as an interpretive grand narrative. An example of this one story narrative approach to interpretation is visible in how many still suggest that the beast that came out of the earth in Revelation 13:11 is to be understood as America rising out of an "unpopulated area" (North America). Well, there is another story that's worth our attention. A story that's struggling to get prime time in our evangelistic campaigns. It is a story that admits a population of "about 54 million" Indigenous people in North America, suggesting that the land was not unpopulated as the first story claims. Anthropologists and geographers may argue on the exact numbers and the methodology used to calculate, but the fact remains. There were millions of people already calling North America home.
So, once more, we are faced with a choice: which version of the story will we embrace and why? Does embracing one or the other aid our Christian mission? Can both these versions co-exist? And ultimately, are there any spiritual casualties when we embrace one or the other of these versions?
I believe it to be our collective and individual calling to pay close attention to the stories we tell. Because, more often than not, the stories we choose to tell have a way of working against what we stand for and the God we represent.
Continuing to insist on the native community that this land was unpopulated and given to Christians by God opens wounds and makes it hard for them to understand and accept the good news about a God who is not at war with people, but desires to save as many as possible.
It is no stretch of the imagination to say that there is a strong correlation between the social challenges we are facing as a church and the stories we choose to tell. While many of the stories we tell appear small and irrelevant, I guarantee you they are not!
Let us pay attention to the stories we tell in our children's Sabbath School classes because the pictures and felts we use to tell those stories will make a world of difference to the child of a minority as they work through the challenges of belonging.
It is amazing how much brokenness can be addressed through a story. If this is hard to believe, look no further than the story of Jesus the Messiah.
Notes & References:
1. Armstrong, Jeannette. Whispering in the Shadows. Penticton: Theytus books, 2000
2. Adventist Pioneer Library, "The Christian Experience of William E. Foy." Accessed September 20, 2020. https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/1116.75#76
3. John Loughborough, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists (Battle Creek, MI: General Conference Association), 71
4. Denevan M William. "The Population history of American indigenous peoples." Accessed September 20, 2020. https://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/p/Population_history_of_American_indigenous_peoples.htm
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, and author currently serving in the Osoyoos Church in the B.C. Conference. Pastor Thandazani and his wife Matilda have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. (themscproject.com)
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