Visualizing Holiness: Using Narrative to Teach Ethical Living

by Thayer Salisbury

Why stories are often the best tools to teach others how to live holy lives.

If they (condoms) are not really safe, how are we going to survive? Not having sex in this modern world is out of the question. The truth is, everybody is doing it.” This comment came not from an unbeliever, but from a young man training to be a Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK)1 teacher.

I was doing research concerning the effectiveness of different types of textbooks on ethics. Pilot projects were conducted at Nigerian Christian Bible College and Ghana Bible College. The final research was conducted at George Benson Christian College in Zambia and at Ghana Baptist Seminary. The subjects of the research were in training for Christian ministry or as CRK teachers for the schools. Yet it was quite plain from their  responses that these future leaders were not always practicing Christian ethics. Some of the comments indicated disbelief that such was possible.

The young man quoted above did not question what is commanded; he was simply not convinced that he could live by the commandments. Another person indicated similar doubts about the practicality of living by the standards of Christian ethics in his environment. Commenting on a narrative regarding bribery, he said,

I should think the book should have placed Augustine in a poverty-stricken area of Africa (such as here in Kalomo). Then I would have loved to see how he would avoid all those nasty, corrupt, and hungry policemen and government officials.

Earlier, I had experienced a similar reaction to efforts to encourage honesty in Nigeria. I had been asked to help build an orphanage. The site was not in the village where I lived and where the local mission schools had been built. This led to jealousy and accusations of bribery. My Nigerian co-worker’s response was to construct a lie and suggest that everyone agree to tell the same lie. We were expected to defend ourselves against accusations of bribery by engaging in dishonesty. On another occasion, the entire administrative committee of a school in Africa (including several Americans) were poised to tell an elaborate lie and to falsify government documents. They seemed convinced that there was no other way to deal with antagonistic officials.

This disconnect between what we theoretically believe and what we practice is not confined to those working in Africa. Recently, at a Christian university in America, a professor asked final-year ministerial students how many had viewed pornography in the last thirty days. Every student admitted to having done so.

The Power of Story
According to Iain Murray, what changed Britain from a nation of believers to a nation of unbelief was not logical argumentation, but a way of looking at life that was learned more from fiction than from argumentation (2009).

A nation raised on stories of George Washington telling the truth and of Abe Lincoln overcoming limited educational opportunities is going to be a different nation from one raised on stories of presidential adultery and obstruction of justice. Those entertained with the exploits of James Bond are going to live differently from those who have followed the exploits of Joseph in Egypt and of Pilgrim on the way to the Celestial City.

The stories that shape us do not have to be literally true to accomplish their purpose. We do not imagine that Vanity Fair, the Slough of Despond, or the Hill of Difficulty are real places, but those immersed in the thought world of Pilgrim’s Progress come to believe they can overcome temptation, discouragement, and difficulty. This power of stories to shape our thinking is why Plato wanted to ban poets from the schools. He recognized that his lectures, essays, and discussions would not have the desired effect if the students were listening to the stories of Homer. Rather than banning the most effective means, however, we must reclaim this power for good.

A Biblical Method
That God is well aware of the power of narrative to form our character is demonstrated in the preponderance of narrative in scripture. The Bible is more narrative than propositional in form. In fact, the Bible is seventy-five percent narrative (Steffen 1996, 125).

Additionally, the propositional portion of scripture is based upon the narrative. The New Testament would be incomplete without the Epistles, but it would still be coherent. We could reconstruct the nature of the faith and the workings of the early Church from the narrative portion alone. But if the narrative portion were removed, there would be no NT—only a largely incoherent collection of letters. The Gospels and Acts make sense even without the Epistles, but the Epistles would be difficult to comprehend without the Gospels and Acts.

When we look at the Old Testament, a similar situation is evident. Although we call the first five books “law,” they are not law in the modern sense. Genesis is fifty chapters of narrative with only a sprinkling of law. Exodus is the first portion of the Bible to give us large blocks of legal material, but this comes well into the book, in the midst of a narrative. The laws given are based upon the narrative that precedes the law.

The Bible does not open with the Ten Commandments. The commandments are preceded by sixty-nine chapters of narrative. The words immediately preceding the commandments remind us that God’s issuing of these commands to Israel is posited on his role in delivering them from Egypt: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3).

Functions of Biblical Narrative: Metanarrative
The Bible’s narratives function in a variety of ways. They are often used to establish or reinforce worldview. When narrative is used in this manner, it is sometimes called “myth” (Harris 1978, 389), but the term “metanarrative” is to be preferred. Cosmological stories that explain the origins of a nation are the most obvious example of metanarrative. Metanarrative is a story that tells a people, “This is who we are; this is the nature of the world in which we live.” 

An Israelite could not tell you who he or she was without telling the stories of Abraham and of the exodus. The fundamental OT metanarrative stories are the creation, the call of Abraham, and the exodus. These three stories combined to tell the Israelites that they were creatures created in God’s image, were called for his purposes, and that the Lord had delivered them from oppression in Egypt.

The relationship established between humans and the Lord by creation, and between Israelites and the Lord by the exodus, was stated propositionally as well, but it is the retelling of metanarrative which establishes the possibility of the propositional creedal statements making sense. God does not just call upon the people to accept the statement, “You are God’s treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5). Moses is commanded to first recount their metanarrative (19:4), and then to state its meaning (19:5). Even after the status has been accepted by means of the metanarrative, and stated propositionally by means of the creedal statement, it must be narrated again and again throughout Israel’s history to reinforce the worldview.

Functions of Biblical Narrative: Parable
Within the Christian community, the use of the term “parable” calls to mind a specific set of biblical stories rather than the broad category intended by literary critics who use the term. Parable, to the literary critic, is a story that calls into question the society’s interpretation of its metanarrative. It seeks, at most, to modify the worldview, not to radically alter it. A parable is not told by a societal outsider offering a new metanarrative. It is told by an insider. It assumes the truth of the metanarrative, but questions the common interpretation being given (Harris 1978, 389).

Nathan’s famous parable (2 Sam. 12:1-4) does not question the metanarrative of David’s kingship, but Nathan wants David to look at this foundational narrative in a new light. His being chosen as king does not justify his action against Uriah. In fact, it makes the deed darker. In the worldly view of kingship, being king gives one the right to lord it over others. But Nathan wants David to look at his calling differently. Nathan accomplishes this new look at the story of David’s life through a story of his own.

Since the goal of a parable is to cast the metanarrative in a new light, the parable may often be fiction and be recognized as such. The metanarrative cannot establish the worldview without being accepted as a true representation of the facts (although it is often figuratively expressed), but the parable may move us to draw different conclusions from a previously accepted metanarrative without necessarily introducing any new “facts.”

The construction of good parables requires a clear understanding of the current metanarrative. In fact, the whole idea of most parables is that the teller sees the metanarrative more clearly than the listeners. At the end of their conversation, David knows no new facts, but he has been forced to look at the ones he believes in a new light.

Biblical Use of Narrative: Paradigms for Living
Some narratives do not serve to establish the worldview or even make a major adjustment to it. Rather, they are addressed to smaller pieces of everyday morality. Such narratives seek to show us behavior that is proper within the established worldview. What is God’s attitude toward murder? What will happen if we tell a lie? These are not worldview questions, but they are practical questions of everyday morality which are to be grounded in our worldview. Such narratives help us understand how we are to live out our worldview in life. Many of these questions could be addressed propositionally, and are often addressed in this way in the laws. But many are also addressed through narratives. 

Murder is not first addressed by the command of Exodus 20:13, or even by the appeal to consider the worldview issues involved (Gen. 9:6). The morality of murder is first addressed through the story of Cain and Abel. The story in Genesis 4:1-16 creates a horror of murder that can be referred to later in scripture (1 John 3:12; Jude 11) and in daily life. 

Lying is forbidden by command in scripture, but it is also represented as a weakness of faith through the telling of a story. When Abraham lies to Pharaoh (Gen. 12), the first result seems to be that he is blessed. He obtains various goods, seemingly as a result of his lie (Gen. 12:16).

Only much later (Gen. 16 and 21), when Hagar (perhaps one of the slaves he obtained in Egypt) is taken as a concubine, do the negative consequences begin to appear. The bitter fruit of lying does not always come to light immediately. In fact, blessings seem to have come from the lie. Under other circumstances, lying is represented as outright rebellion against God (Acts 5). Ananias and Sapphira meet their punishment immediately, but within the context of Acts, we are not caused to think that immediate punishment will always be the case.

Thus, some of the narratives have an ambiguity or moral complexity which we may find disturbing. They sometimes offend our desire for clarity. Yet in this ambiguity, they are better representations of reality than the simple categorical command. In real life, one may be faced with a situation that seems to demand dishonesty. One may lie and “get away with it.” Like Abraham, one may even seem to have been blessed as a result. The truth behind the observable facts is that it is God who has blessed and protected his servant. And the lie may have indirect consequences at a later date.

Our Practice
When we compare the biblical material with our teaching methods, a sharp contrast is revealed. Where Jesus would tell a story, we set forth arguments. Where Jesus uses parables, we use propositions. As Martin Thielen points out,

Jesus’ primary style of preaching was storytelling. When Jesus wanted to teach people about the love and grace of God, he didn’t say, “Let me share three principles about God’s love.” Instead, he said, “There was a man who had two sons….” (1994, 38)

We must remember that Christianity is to be a way of life, not just a set of beliefs. For it to become a way of life, people need to visualize living in that way. The commandments articulate statements of how life ought to be lived, but the world is currently providing the narratives that adjust the worldview and provide paradigms for actually living life. We may have the better theory, but the world is winning the moral battle. Immorality has the upper hand in part because we have failed to communicate the practicality of holy living. Even those who want to live such lives cannot visualize doing so.

The Challenge We Face
Today, people are being told, “It is impossible to live by the standards Christians espouse. No one lives that way. Everyone commits adultery and lies; most people steal occasionally.” The effect of such teaching is being felt. There has always been sin in the camp, but not at such levels. Our people are giving up the fight. Among Christian leaders we find moral apathy, and even open sin. In response, we could post the commandments in each classroom and at other prominent locations. If it were a matter of the commandments not being known, this would certainly be desirable. But the evidence suggests that even among those who know the commandments, standards of behavior are low. In regard to sexual immorality, we could increase awareness of sexually-transmitted diseases and try to deflate the “safe sex” myth. However, I think many of us would question using fear of physical effects as a primary motivator for morality.

The Gospel Is the Motive
The primary biblical motivation for holiness is not the commands, nor is it fear—it is the gospel. Deliverance from Egypt stands behind the Ten Commandments, and Calvary stands behind the call for godly living in the NT. Paul’s primary argument for sexual purity is neither a commandment nor the fear of illness. His primary argument is the gracious action of God: “You were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).

In the 1980s, three professors at Abilene Christian University collaborated on a study of teenage sexual behavior among the Churches of Christ. David Lewis, Carly Dodd, and Darryl Tippens found that purity was more common in grace-oriented congregations than in more legalistic ones (1989, 98-100). Where the gospel story is not really believed, there can be little hope of making significant improvement, and, even if such improvement were attainable, it is pointless. Promoting ethical living on any other basis is an insult to our Lord, a suggestion that his sacrifice may not have been necessary.

But even where the gospel has been clearly communicated, we still see significant failings. Even those who know they should live to the glory of the One who gave himself for them often struggle to do so. Many have no mentors, no model of godly living. Their greatest need may be for a practical picture of holiness in their context.

Efforts are currently underway to present narratives of holiness in our culture. Focus on the Family has produced a radio drama called Adventures in Odyssey that is essentially a morality tale set in small town America. Movies such as Amazing Grace, The End of the Spear, and Fireproof have been distributed to theaters. The concept of using culturally appropriate narrative to encourage holiness is alive in our culture. The problem is the preponderance of negative messages. Most of the time, whether in the schoolroom, theater, or even our own homes, our youth are being told that they cannot resist temptation. Parental diligence to monitor the nature of the messages being received is needed, but parental diligence alone will not be enough. When there are so many wrong stories, and so few good stories, the overall effect is precarious.

The Challenge and Opportunity
Writing good narrative is more difficult and time-consuming than writing a good essay. Preparing the script, rehearsing, and recording a radio drama is more difficult than recording a radio sermon. But these things need to be done. There are simpler forms of working toward this goal as well. Many of us have stories we could tell about our own life experiences that would help others visualize themselves living holy lives. We need to tell those stories and encourage others to tell their stories. In 1976, Elmo Hall, an English professor at Oklahoma Christian, was rebuking a student for foolish behavior. As the lecture went on, the student felt more and more hopeless. He had tried and tried to escape this sin, but he was not getting any better. Finally, Hall changed his tone and said, “You know, when I look at you, I see a lot of the Elmo Hall of twenty years ago.”

Thirty years have not dimmed my memory of that moment. Those words changed my life. They helped me to believe that there was hope and that I could, with God’s help, overcome sin. To live holy lives, we need to know what holiness is, but we also need to be able to see ourselves living that way. That vision is best gained by hearing the story of how someone else has been led to live a holy life. Teach the commandments, but tell the stories as well.

1. The governments in many African countries still feel that a person is not fully educated if his or her education does not include religion. Thus, religious knowledge classes are required for high school graduation. In some places, Islamic religious knowledge is taught, but in most schools in sub-Saharan Africa it is CRK that is taught. George Benson Christian College is one of the teacher training colleges in Zambia where a person can be trained to get a job teaching CRK (as well as math, English, or history) in the government schools.

Harris, Maria. 1978. “Myth to Parable: Language and Religious Education.” Religious Education 73: 387-398.

Lewis, David, Carly Dodd, and Darryl Tippens. 1989. Shattering the Silence: Telling the Church the Truth about Kids and Sexuality. Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate.

Murray, Iain. H. 2009. The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth.

Steffen, Tom. 1996. Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry. LaHabra, Calif.: Center for Organizational and Ministry Development.

Thielen, Martin. 1994. “Beyond Infosermon.” Leadership. Winter: 38-43.


Thayer Salisbury is a graduate of Abilene Christian University (M.A.) and Concordia Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). He has taught at schools in Nigeria, Swaziland, and Canada and has been a guest lecturer at schools in Ghana and Zambia. He and his wife, Chery, have four sons and three grandchildren.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 396-402. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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