Looking for the Name


Someone wrote this week to ask me for the reference for a story he heard me tell a few years ago in my address at a Fuller Commencement ceremony. If having other speakers wanting to use a story from one of your speeches is a sign that you got your point across, then this particular story is a winner. I have been asked about it more than any other illustration I have ever used. I agree that it needs wider circulation, so here it is.

It is a story told by Albert Raboteau in his fine book—one that has had a profound impact on my thinking about many issues—Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford University Press, 1978).  Raboteau shows how the Christian slaves of the Old South typically had a deep reverence for the Bible, so much so that even when they could not read they found ways to make the Bible a central focus of their devotional lives. One young woman, for example, when she fled from her captivity, took a Bible with her. She had memorized key passages of Scripture, and had asked her mistress to mark the pages where the passages were found. Hiding in forests and swamps from her would-be captors, she turned to the marked pages and whispered the passages.

But here is the story that I so often get asked about. A young illiterate slave woman, a nursemaid to her master’s family, enlisted the white children to teach her how to recognize the word “Jesus.”  Having gained possession of a Bible, she would regularly find a quiet place where she would turn the pages of the Bible, running her fingers up and down the pages, until she found the name of Jesus.

My own point in using that story—often in graduation addresses—is to encourage Christian students to cultivate what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur labeled “the Second Naivete.” That young woman was exhibiting the First Naivete, in her case an expression of a simple love for Jesus Christ. The Second Naivete, however, is a “post-critical” state of mind. It is a naivete that we can come back to on the other side of sophisticated critical reflection.

I admire that young slave woman. I want her kind of simple love of her Lord, and her deep conviction that what the Bible is all about is Jesus. For those of us who have passed, as Christians, through the disciplined thinking afforded by programs in higher education—we can’t simply forget all that we have learned: the questions, the times of doubts, the wrestling with various challenges to our faith. In the end, though, we need to cultivate the Second Naivete. This means, for me, that the slave woman had it right. In the end, the Bible is all about trusting and following Jesus, the One who loved us so much that he came to live and die for the likes of us, doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Come to think of it, that young woman’s devotional exercise might be a good one for us to engage in periodically—turn the pages of the Bible, run our fingers down the pages, and don’t pause until we have found Jesus!

1 Comment »

  1. Al Raboteau was a fellow teaching assistant to Professor Sidney Ahlstrom at Yale back in the early ’70s — and a good friend. Our career paths took us very different ways (mine to teach overseas as well as pastor here) and I always wished I could have made a difference in the way he did simply by writing and publishing his first book. But it goes further than that — simply by including the story of the illiterate woman who wanted to run her fingers over Jesus’ name he has “anointed” all of us who want to preach and teach with the unforgetable reminder of what is most important. Thank you, Dr. Mouw

    Comment by Robert von Oeyen — September 22, 2009 @ 10:14 pm