Fellow Passengers: This week marks the start of the Advent season, and it also marks the start of a new gospel, Matthew. This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 1:1-17) transports me to the West African village of Juffure, The Gambia, May 17, 1967, where a young author from Tennessee was visiting the local griot (oral historian) in search of details of his ancestry. The griot, Kebba Kanji Fufana, began reciting two hundred years worth of names from the history of the Mandinka tribe, and mid-stream captured the author’s attention with the name Kunta Kinte. This was the name the author, Alex Haley, had heard from his grandmother as she told him stories of their family history and rise from slavery. Fufana’s story of Kunta Kinte matched the story Haley had heard as a child, and three years later, Roots was completed. Anyone familiar with the mini-series or the book would recognize the names of those following Kunta Kinte: Kizzy, Chicken George, Tom Murray, Cynthia Murray, Bertha Haley, Alex Haley.
The first page of Alex Haley’s book has some great sentences: The two wrinkled midwives, old Nyo Boto and the baby’s Grandmother Yaisa, saw that it was a boy and laughed with joy. . . It was the hour before the first crowing of the cocks, and along with Nyo Boto and Grandma Yaisa’s chatterings, the first sound the child heard was the muted, rhythmic bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp of wooden pestles as the other women of the village pounded couscous grain in their mortars, preparing the traditional breakfast of porridge that was cooked in earthen pots over a fire built among three rocks.
Alex Haley must have learned from teachers similar to those found on the the weblog site entitled 10 Tips for Creative Writers by Kennedy and Jerz. I’m drawn to tip #2, Write a Catchy First Paragraph, which explains, In today’s fast-moving world, the first sentence of your story should catch your reader’s attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Kennedy and Jerz would probably have put Matthew’s first 17 verses as a prime example of what not to do in today’s fast-moving world, that is, start your story with a list of 46 genealogical names. But then again, Matthew wasn’t writing for today’s fast-moving world. In the ancient world of oral history, where the village griot held a place of great honor, genealogy was more than a list of names. The stories behind each name were no doubt told and re-told so many times that the names themselves carried great significance for the hearers. It got to the point where you didn’t need to hear the whole story; simply saying the name could conjure up an entire epic saga. I’m reminded of the joke of the prison where the prisoners only had one book to share. It was a joke book, and the jokes were numbered. After several weeks and months of sharing jokes, it got to where someone could just say a number and evoke raucous laughter among the fellow prisoners. One day a new prisoner came in, heard the numbers being called out along with the ensuing laughter, and he inquired about the strange phenomenon. When he learned what was happening, he decided to give it a try, and yelled out, twelve! but his effort drew no laughter. Someone broke the silence, explaining, some people just can’t tell a joke.
I think Matthew could tell a joke. I suspect that his listing of the 46 names in Jesus’ family tree was intended to evoke incredulous laughter among his listeners, especially in light of the holier than thou self-righteous snobbery that surrounded them. You see, like any tribal griot, Matthew didn’t include every name in the history; he went through a process of picking and choosing, and therein lies the rub. He selected some of the more scandalous stories, including several scoundrels who sinned boldly. Behind these names lie stories of adultery, incest, murder, prostitution, foreign inter-marriage, and other skeletons that Matthew decided to bring out of Jesus’ closet. There is bound to be some theological rhyme to Matthew’s reasoning – he is after all setting up the story of a Savior who lived in solidarity with the sinners and the outcasts, as opposed to those who sat in judgment. I would guess that these stories are the very ones the baby Jesus started hearing on his mother’s knee. They are the stories that told him who he was. And as he grew older, he would no doubt do as all children do, and beg to hear the stories over and over again. Mama, tell me the one about Rahab. . . laughter, laughter, laughter.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.