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Same Dance, Different Tune:

Re-Narrating Pre-Christian Religious Practices Within the Kingdom of God

Research Paper

NS512 - Jesus and the Kingdom of God

Dr. Joel B. Green

March 17, 2010

Matthew H. Lumpkin
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1. Introduction
The Kingdom of God can be described as the broad arc of God's action in creating,
redeeming and recreating the cosmos.1 This narrative is at the core of a socially constructed
"life-world" expressed in shared conceptual patterns, language and embodied in practices.
Conceptual patterns, language and especially practices derive their meaning from the narrative
framework in which they function. For example, the practice of ritual washing has different
meanings for first century Judaism than it does for John the Baptizer, the early church, and for
Muslims in the seventh century, or for either group today. The practices themselves can be the
same, but embody different narratives and thus have different meanings.
The early followers of Jesus and early church community which produced the New
Testament tended to frame their proclamation and writings in terms of calling their hearers to
enter and have their lives shaped by the Kingdom of God narrative. As gentiles entered this
narrative in ever-larger numbers they brought with them their prior conceptual patterns,
languages and practices which developed new meaning, or were re-narrated, situated within the
story of the Kingdom of God.
This continues to happen today as individuals and groups whose conceptual patterns,
language and practices are shaped by a religious or ideological tradition other than Christianity
(e.g. Islam, Hinduism, or indigenous or primal religions) allow practices from their life before
entering the Kingdom of God narrative to be given new meaning in the context of their new
story. I would like to suggest that this is actually a crucial step in the process individuals and
groups go through in order to "own" their faith and integrate their own stories into God's story.
Or to put it another way, this is part of what it means to paint "our present lives on the grand
mural of God's programme."2

1.1 Thesis
In this paper I would like to argue that this process of re-narrating prior religious
practices within the narrative of the Kingdom of God can be observed in the New Testament as
well as in some newer religious movements in more recent history with important implications
for how we view the concept "syncretism" today. I will ultimately conclude that religious
practices have little or no intrinsic meaning but find their meaning in the narrative context from
which they flow and which they embody.
I will begin by discussing a few key examples from Acts and Revelation before moving

I am not arguing this point, but assuming it in order to use my space here to argue my thesis.
Joel B. Green, "Living the Kingdom," (Jesus and the Kingdom of God, class lecture, Fuller Theological
Seminary, March 9, 2010).
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on to discuss how this dynamic may be observed in the historical religious experience of African
Americans and the present day experience of so-called "Insider movements" among Muslims and
Hindus. I will then conclude with a few observations as to how this process might inform the
way that the church today thinks about new religious movements particularly the massive global
pentecostal revival transforming the character of Christianity by means of this very process.

2. The Process in the New Testament

2.1 Acts
There is much that could be said about the dynamics of the gospel message moving out
from Jerusalem into the Roman empire described in the book of Acts. I would like to highlight
two aspects of this which are of of particular significance for my thesis. First, as the disciples
begin to proclaim the gospel to non-Jews their focus is on the class of gentiles known as "god-
fearers." Second, those charged with proclaiming Gospel are surprised to find critical aspects of
their own conceptual patterns (with regard to things like ritual purity, circumcision etc.) are
challenged, undermined and deconstructed by means of their God-directed engagement with
2.1.1 Gentile God-Fearers: Acts 8:26-40
Alongside Jesus' charge to the disciples in 1:8, Peter's sermon at Pentecost to "Jews,
devout men from every nation," foreshadows that this narrative is heading outward. However it
is not until chapter eight in Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian God-fearer on the road to Gaza
that we begin to see what an important role will be played by the interaction between Jewish
followers of Jesus and the God-fearers to whom they preach.
God sends Philip to meet the Ethiopian (v. 26) who is on his way home from having
come to the temple in Jerusalem to worship (v. 28). The Ethiopian is busy reading from Isaiah,
absorbing the narrative and language of Judaism (v. 30). Philip offers to help him understand
what he is reading. He begins with the very scripture being read and from there tells the story of
the Gospel of Jesus and situates the Jesus narrative within the broader arc of the narrative of
Judaism (v. 35). The Ethiopian's immediate response is a desire to embody this understanding
of where he is situated in this new story in a practice: baptism (v. 38).
Ritual washing was not new in the practice of Judaism. It is a regular part of daily life
and the maintenance of ritual purity. Yet in the ministry of John the Baptizer the practice took
on new meaning as it narrated a different story. The meaning of baptism for followers of Jesus
shifts again after Jesus' death and resurrection into embodiment of that story. We are not given
the content of Philip's explanation to the Ethiopian. However his response at least indicates that,
in his understanding, the practice of being baptized made sense as a means of responding to and
joining in with this new understanding he had gained from Philip.
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Given the shared narrative, conceptual patterns, language and practices between ethnic
Jews and gentile God-fearers it is entirely reasonable that the Gospel story would begin to be
shared with them first. The job is simply easier. To be a God-fearer means one has already
accepted that the God of the Jews is the one true God and that he is the creator of all things and is
in some sense at work in the world inviting humans into a relationship with him. But this is only
the beginning of the story of the Kingdom of God. As they travel, Peter, Paul and many others
continue to begin their proclamation with those who share the beginning of the story: Jews in
diaspora meeting in Synagogues and gentile God-fearers who are often close-by (e.g. 18:6).
Though the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian do not make it explicit, there are challenges to
Philip's conceptual patterns here, too, as he re-narrates his own prior understanding of the story
of the Kingdom of God in light of Jesus.3
2.1.2 Mutual Transformation: Acts 10
The tension of this two-way transformation for the Jewish proclaimers of the Gospel is
made explicit in the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts chapter ten. If an Ethiopian eunuch was
a scandalous addition to the Kingdom of God, how much more a Roman centurion of the "Italian
Cohort?" This text is rife with scandal, challenge and deconstruction of the Jewish life-world.
Cornelius is first to receive a vision from God who tells him to go seek out Peter and
obeys immediately (vv. 1-8). Peter receives a vision second in which he refuses to eat from a
collection of unclean things three times until God rebukes him for calling "unclean" what He has
cleansed. Cornelius's men arrive to retrieve Peter who grudgingly agrees to go. Upon arriving,
he reminds these non-Jews that he is violating his own rules of purity to associate with them
before asking why they sent for him (v. 28). It is not until Cornelius recounts his vision that
Peter finally understands: "that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears
him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (vv. 34-35). It is important to note that despite
the vision Peter received, it is not until a personal encounter with Cornelius that he comes to
understand what it was that God was trying to teach him. Though Peter is in the role of
proclaimer of the Gospel he and those he is sent to must re-narrate their prior conceptual
patterns, language and practices in light of the broader arc of the story of God's Kingdom
revealed in Jesus.
2.2 Revelation
Just like the book of Acts, Revelation is such a rich text that my space here could never

The Ethiopian is also a eunuch. His Gentile status compounded by his lack of bodily wholeness has
meant that despite the hundreds of miles traveled to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, he has always been held at
arm's length from full-participation. Yet Philip, led by God to meet him, offers no such barriers to the practice of
baptism which has functioned thus far in Acts as a confirmation of joining the community of the church.
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accommodate all I might hope to draw out from it in support of my argument. Instead I would
like to highlight the way that Revelation draws on the deep well of the vocabulary of Jewish
literature and experience to situate the story of the present experience of the mixed Jew and
Gentile churches scattered throughout the empire.4
2.2.1 Re-Narrating the Vocabulary of Judaism
New Reality
Revelation calls its hearers to see reality from a new perspective, that is, a more real
perspective of what is going on behind the present circumstances by situating them within a
broader narrative arc of cosmic history. Revelation seeks to pull back the curtain on every-day
reality in the Roman empire in order to re-narrate present realities providing new meaning for the
experiences of the young church, particularly experiences of suffering and persecution. But the
very language it uses to do this draws deeply from the Jewish story.
Prophetic Visions
The structure of the book is a series of transcendent, numinous visions John has of Jesus,
God, heaven, and all manner of surreal imagery. Without direct quotation of passages from the
prophets John manages to evoke their gravitas and revelatory import by presenting his visions in
terms evocative of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Joel and others. A few of these patterns include a
vision accompanied by bright light; a sense of fear, awe and dread in the presence of God; a call
from angelic guides to observe and to write; God enthroned with saints around him; bizarre and
richly symbolic imagery and creatures. This final feature is further heightened by the
apocalyptic genre in which John writes. Christ shape-shifts from Lion of Judah to little lamb
standing on God's throne with its throat cut and bleeding out (5:6). Again, we see the use of
animal imagery here rooted in Jewish vocabulary (Lion of Judah: Davidic Monarchy; lamb
slaughtered: passover sacrifice, Isaiah's suffering servant) but shifting and morphing into a new
context, a new narrative.
Babylon and Exile
Given John's dependence on the prophets of the the period of Israel's exile, it should
come as no surprise when he calls Rome "Babylon," the proto-typical empire in the history and
imagination of Israel (18:2). In doing this he accomplishes a number of things. First, he cuts
Rome down to size by reminding her that she is just the latest in a long line of empires, all of
which the people of God have lived to see fall. Second he frames the experience of the followers
of Jesus he addresses, both Jew and Gentile, within the narrative of exile. The prophets of exile

For a more detailed description of the way the prophets of exile "mined" their own tradition for language
and narratives they could re-imagine to sustain Israel see Walter Brueggemann, The prophetic imagination (Fortress
Press, 2001).
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were crucial for the survival of Israel as a people and Judaism as a faith because of the manner in
which they were able to re-narrate the identity-shattering experience of conquest and exile. The
prophets explained Israel's suffering in exile within the broader arc of God's action in the world,
and most critically, in terms of God's cosmic kingship and the implicit contingency of all other
kings upon God's rule.5 This narrative provided a frame upon which the exiled Jews could hang
their experiences of suffering, loss and culture-shock. This is precisely the kind of crisis the
early church faced under Roman persecution and John's apocalypse offers a similar cure: a story
that makes sense of the experience in such a way as to provide meaning that renders suffering
more bearable as part of God's story of creating, redeeming and re-creating the cosmos. Yet,
John is not simply re-telling the Jewish story. He is taking the language of Jewish experience
and giving it new meaning through a new context in a broader story. This story seeks to look
back and incorporate the Jewish story that came before but it also reaches beyond that story. The
language may be the same but the meaning is shifted by the new narrative frame.
If Revelation functions in the way that I am arguing then we might expect different
practices to accompany an alternative narrative. In fact, Revelation is intensely concerned with
the response of the hearers to their persecution. It calls for faithfulness to this story in the face of
suffering by means of patient endurance (cf. 2:3, 7, 10, 11, 25, 26; 3:5, 12; 13:10; 14:12; 15:2).
The book itself models other practices which serve to embody the alternative story of reality to
which it bears witness. First, the very syntax of the book is arcane and strange, preserving not
only a sense of perspective from outside but carving out a linguistic distinctiveness that resists
the narrative of Roman power and domination that threatens to swallow-up the community in
exile. They use terms mined from Judaism and Hellenism but with meanings shifted by their
new context in the narrative of the Kingdom of God. Second, worship is featured prominently
throughout the cyclical narrative structure of the book. Worship is directed to God's throne upon
which the slain lamb stands (5:6). The heavenly elders and creatures both model worship of the
lamb and highlight the narrative-reinforcing nature of worship. In their songs of worship they

Though he doesn't see this process as clearly in Revelation somehow, Bryan makes this point well with
reference to the relationship to the contingency of kings in the rest of scripture upon God's rule Christopher Bryan,
Render to Caesar (Oxford University Press US, 2005), 79.
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recount the cosmic drama, beginning, middle and end.6 Non-violent endurance while bearing
witness through distinctive language and worship which re-enforce the alternative reality
narrated by these practices are both the means and content by which the people of God resist and
persist. Through this story they are able to see their way through the present suffering into
survival and flourishing that will outlast the pretenders to power of this present age.

3. Some More Recent Examples

Having looked at how the process of one's prior conceptual patterns, language and
practices are brought into dialogue with the broader story of the Kingdom of God we now turn to
two examples of this process at work outside the NT: the historical experience of African slaves
in the American South and the contemporary phenomena of "insider movements" that is,
followers of Jesus who remain within other religious traditions.
3.1 Slave Worship in the American South
My argument is not simply that we can see this process at work in the New Testament,
but that it can be observed wherever individuals and groups find themselves having to reconcile
what they have known with a new experience. Israel in exile in Babylon found their very
identities shattered by forced removal form their land and reconstructed those identities by
means of a new narrative and practices associated with it (emphasis on dietary laws, prayer,
language etc.) Similarly, African slaves in America turned to some of the their prior conceptual
patterns, languages and practices for materials out of which to construct their identities. The
horrible reality is that is that the narrative they were resisting, one in which their lives were own-
able, expendable and under the dominion of white people was one put forward by those claiming
the name of Christ.
Peter Randolph was a slave preacher in 19th century Virginia who had discerned the
hypocrisy embedded deep within the words and deeds of the white church. Blacks were
prohibited from gathering for religious purposes without whites present to supervise their
worship. Yet slaves still gathered secretly often at night or in remote places where they could
worship with their own preachers, their own language, songs and practices. Milton Sernett

"Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things and
by your will they existed and were created," (4:11). "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you
were slain and by your blood did ransom men for god from every tribe and tongue and people and nation..." (5:9).
The present suffering of the church is narrated in the cries for justice from the souls who have been slain for bearing
witness to this story (6:10) as those who have been saved from such a fate sing, "Salvation belongs to our God who
sits upon the throne and to the Lamb! (7:10)" Finally the culmination of the story comes from disembodied words
emanating from the throne: "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be
his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no
more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore for the former things have passed away..." "I
make all things new," says the Lord.
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writes: "They lifted up the name of Jesus as their liberator and held forth a vision of a better day
when there would be no more cowskin lashes."7
After his emancipation in 1847 Randolph describes the typical practices of these secret
"They first ask each other how they feel, the state of their minds, etc...
Preaching in order, by the brethren; then praying and singing all round, until they
generally feel quite happy. The speaker usually commences by calling himself unworthy,
and talks very slowly until, feeling the spirit he grows excited, and in a short time, there
fall to the ground twenty or thirty men and women under its influence. Enlightened
people call it excitement; but I wish the same was felt by everybody, so far as they are
sincere. The slave forgets all his sufferings, except to remind others of the trials during
the past week, exclaiming: 'Thank God, I shall not live here always!'"8

From this description we can see a few things. First the role of ecstatic preaching and
prayer are central to the secret meeting. The resemblance of this mode of prayer and singing to
the traditional African "ring shout," can be observed. Randolph also describes the hymns and
worship songs sung at these meetings composed by slaves as directly addressing the source of
their suffering: slavery and the beatings their masters inflicted upon them. Such content would
never be allowed in officially supervised meetings. Finally the exultant cry Randolph quotes at
the end highlights the manner in which his hope springs from a future deliverance from this
current situation. The secret meeting here described serves as a two-fold venue: 1.) possibly for
religious practices brought into Christian worship from prior African indigenous religion and 2.)
most definitely for the language of resistance situated within the narrative of God's deliverance.
And yet we cannot overlook the fact that this situation differs in one crucial aspect from
that of the first century church to which John Revelation: the narrative which the worshippers are
resisting is a twisted telling of the Kingdom of God narrative which supports the practice of
slavery. Or to say it another way, the narrative they are resisting is an unfaithful re-telling of the
story of the Kingdom of God. Under the oppressive hand of slavery and the exilic experience of
fractured identity many enslaved Africans were still able to see through the false-story of white
preaching and articulate a re-narration of practices like ecstatic prayer in such a way as to situate
their lives in the story of a God concerned with freeing slaves, the God of Exodus and new
3.2 Insider Movements
A more recent manifestation of the process of re-narration of prior religious practices
within the broader arc of the Kingdom of God can be observed in the so-called "insider
movements" observed by missionaries working among Muslims and even more recently among

Milton Sernett, Afro-American Religious History: a Documentary Witness (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1985), 63.
Sernett, 67.
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Hindus.9 Put simply, the term "insider movements" refers to individuals and groups who become
devoted to Jesus often through reading the New Testament, but, for a number of reasons, retain
their religious identity within their prior tradition. They often continue to worship among other
adherents of their religion who do not share their devotion to Jesus frequently and carry on the
same practices. Yet their understanding of these practices, their conceptual patterns, have been
shifted and thus the meaning of the practices is also shifted by means of being situated within the
broader arc of the Kingdom of God narrative.
In 1989 J. Dudley Woodberry looked explicitly at Muslim religious practices (the five
pillars of Islam: confession of faith, ritual prayer, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage) and argues
that each is simply an expression of faith common to the heritage of the prior Abrahamic
monotheist traditions: Judaism, Christianity.10 His argument is aimed at helping Christians in the
West to appreciate how followers of Jesus from Muslim backgrounds might continue to express
their faith through practices that seem "Islamic" because the practices themselves derive from a
common religious ancestry: Abrahamic monotheism.11
I would like to extend his argument one step further and trace religious practices such as
five pillars of Islam back to our common human ancestry. They need not carry an Abrahamaic
or monotheistic pedigree in order to tell the story of the Kingdom of God (or any other narrative
for that matter), any more than language telling the story needs to be traceable back to Hebrew or
Greek in order to be able to tell the story. Our conceptual patterns, language and practices
operate at a human level. The important question is not where did they come from, but what
narrative are they embodying and how are they shaping a people to faithfully live, tell and
instantiate that reality.

4. Conclusions
I have attempted to describe the process by which prior religious practices may be re-
narrated within the Kingdom of God and the resultant shift in meaning embodied by those
practices stemming from a new context within the narrative of the Kingdom of God. By
observing the process at work in the NT and in two more recent examples of religious
movements, I have suggested that religious practices function similarly to language, that is, their

This is indeed new. I have had the good fortune of hearing it presented by the pioneering researcher first
articulating it, a researcher at Fuller's Global Research Institute. Bharathi Kammalakar Duvvuru, "Christ as
Christianity," (lecture/sermon, Altadena Baptist Church, June 28, 2009).
J. Dudley Woodberry, “Contextualization among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars,” In The World
Among Us, Dean Gilliland, ed. (Dallas: Word, 1998), 282-312. Revised 1996 with additional notes in International
Journal of Frontier Missions 13 no. 4 (Winter 1996): 174-182.
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context determines their meaning. As their narrative context shifts, so can their meaning. Now,
I would like to offer a few tentative conclusions as to how this conceptualization of both the
Kingdom of God and the process of re-narration could be helpful in re-framing the way the
Church today conceives the notion of syncretism which has generally been used with very
negative overtones to describe any conceptual patterns, language or practices which resemble a
prior tradition.
Religious practices contain little to no intrinsic meaning but primarily derive their
meaning from their narrative frame and the socially constructed life-world it instantiates. Thus
religious practices may be carried from another, prior religious system into expression within the
Kingdom of God. This is a fruitful way to think about the Kingdom of God in the first century
NT communities as they expanded out from Jerusalem into the hellenistic world. This process is
also a fruitful way to think about how the grammar, vocabulary or "vernacular" of religious
practices can come to be reshaped by means of situating one prior narrative within another,
larger narrative. If the process is faithful to the larger narrative of the Kingdom of God we
cannot call these practices "syncretistic," and historically, the church has not.12
However, simply re-narrating a prior religious practice within the Kingdom of God
narrative does not guarantee that it faithfully embodies that story. Child sacrifice and ritualized
sexual practices, for example, by their very nature are probably unable to embody the story of the
Kingdom of God faithfully. I would like to suggest that the language of syncretism might still be
useful to describe unfaithful re-narrations of religious practices that try and fail to situate the
narrative they embody within the story of God's action within the world. Such practices might
rightfully be called syncretistic. However, the extent to which a re-narration of a practice is
faithful can only be discerned by a community of faith that includes insiders to the prior religious
Finally, I would like to underline the fact that this process is at work in every person and
group seeking to situate their own story and that of their people within the narrative of the
Kingdom of God. Thus we are all, always engaged in the process of re-narrating our culture's
practices, religious or otherwise, in ways faithful to God's action in the world. And to the extent
we are unfaithful in our conceptual patterns, language and practices we are all in danger of
syncretism so defined. Before I reject the faithfulness of a follower of Jesus who still remains a
Muslim, I must first hear Peter Randolph's critique of the syncretism in my American Church's
longstanding, unfaithful support of slavery. The charge of syncretism always cuts both ways.

Christmas on Winter solstice, Resurrection celebrated at the Easter, Spring fertility festival --the list goes
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But so does the call to practices that faithfully embody God's story.
This is of particular relevance to the church today as we enter an unprecedented era of
global communication, cooperation and conflict within the church and without. As the growth of
the pentecostal revival in the global south continues to contrast with plateau and decline of the
church in America and Europe, the potential for mutual mis-understanding grows ever greater.
But so does the opportunity for mutual edification and discernment, provided we come to that
encounter with some awareness of the process I have described and an openness to one's
understanding of God being expanded through the narratives of others.
Just as Peter learned in his encounter with Cornelius, being on the side of proclaiming the
gospel does not protect one from the painful experience of having one's unfaithfulness or
"syncretism" exposed and named. While only an insider can know the meaning of a practice as
it functions within a community, we need the perspectives of outsiders to be able to discern
faithful narration from syncretism. Too often in the history of the Church those with the most
power chose instead to assert their narrative as normative and kill, exile or marginalize those
who dissent. But as the stories of Israel, Revelation and the African American Church attest,
faithful narratives have ways of out-suffering and out-living those who seem to hold the power
today. Such domination is unfaithful to the Kingdom of God: the story of a community in which
the particularities of tongue, tribe, and nation are not erased and subsumed but find their place
within the broader narrative arc of God's action creating, redeeming and creating the world anew.
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Brueggemann, Walter. The prophetic imagination. Fortress Press, 2001.

Bryan, Christopher. Render to Caesar. Oxford University Press US, 2005.

Duvvuru, Bharathi Kammalakar. "Christ as Christianity." lecture/sermon. Altadena Baptist

Church. June 28, 2009.

Green, Joel B. "Living the Kingdom." Jesus and the Kingdom of God. class lecture. Fuller
Theological Seminary. March 9, 2010.
Sernett, Milton. Afro-American religious history : a documentary witness. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 1985.

Woodberry, J. Dudley. Contextualization among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars. In The

World Among Us, Dean Gilliland, ed. Dallas: Word, 1998. Revised 1996 with additional
notes in International Journal of Frontier Missions 13 no. 4 (Winter 1996).