sunday school

By request, if not popular request. This post is about an amusing experience in teaching Sunday School from inside a liberal Christian point of view. If you don’t share that point of view you may find it upsetting or just weird.

First, a little context. I agreed to help teach a Bible curriculum to children 2nd through 6th grade. The pastor’s agenda was to get the children familiar with the general layout and organization of the Bible. The curriculum mostly focuses on games identifying the order of the books, and looking up words to fill in the blanks of worksheets. My own additional agenda is to give them tastes of the actual content of the Bible.

It is Pentecost and curriculum lesson uses the first part of Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit. It seems logical to me to lead up to this with what comes before. I begin by saying, “In the past few weeks, we’ve been studying the Gospels. How do they end?” The children think I’m asking a books of the Bible question and list the Gospels. I say, “No, I mean, what happens at the end?” After some confusion, one child says, “Jesus gets killed.” The children start discussing how he was killed, they are not sure. “He was stabbed.” “He was hanged.” Then one remembers: “He was crucified.” We talk about what that means. Some of the children start acting out death scenes. I say, “And then what happened?” There is puzzled confusion “He was buried,” “They went home.” The other teacher gives a hint: “What do we celebrate on Easter?” One child says, “Oh, I know, He came back to life.” I say, “Yes, he was resurrected.” A child says, “He was killed and then he came back to life.” Another child says, in a matter-of-fact voice: “And then he died again. He died and came back to life and then he died again.” Several children pick up the chant, “He died, he came back to life, he died again.” Oh dear.

I say, “Well, that’s not what the Bible says. Let me read to you what it says in the first chapter of Acts: as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” There is a stunned silence. The children stare at me, mouths agape, eyes bugging out. They have never heard this before! Finally, one says: “Did that really happen?” Another says, “That’s not true, is it?”

Ah, the liberal Christian’s moment of truth. If you are a liberal Christian, at this point you are laughing or cringing or thanking God that you had the good sense to say no when you were asked to teach Sunday school.

“Well,” I say, “that’s a good question. Adults ask these same questions. We know what the Bible says. But we have different ideas about what it means. In fact, our pastor is preaching about the Ascension of Christ right now in the worship service. Of course, I don’t know what he’s saying.” The other teacher offers: “An important idea I’ve gotten from our discussions of Marcus Borg is the difference between truth and facticity. What is important is spiritual truths, not physical details.” The children are getting a little restless.

I say, “Let me tell you what happens next, and then we can do the other activities. First the apostles had to wait until Pentecost, which was a Jewish holiday. And then, here is what it says:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
“What?!” some children say. “Fire on their tongues? Didn’t they get burned?” One child starts acting out having a burnt tongue. “It’s a metaphor,” one of the sixth graders says. “A metaphor, a metaphor,” the children chant. They’ve learned about metaphors in school. I say, “The Holy Spirit is the part of God that is inside you. When God’s spirit entered people, it felt like fire.” The other teacher says, “ That’s why we often use fire as a symbol of God.” I show them the pictures I’ve pulled together from several children’s Bibles of artists’ portrayals of Pentecost. Then we adjourn to the worksheets.

Here’s what the pastor said about the Ascension while I was teaching Sunday School:
“It is important that we not get stuck on this fanciful, unbelievable story. We know we live in a modern, scientific world where we understand that God is not sitting on the next cloud over there. We don’t have the same view of the cosmos that ancient people did, but that is not the point here. The story of Christ’s ascension is not a page from an science text book. Rather, it is a song of words and description of a post resurrection event that illuminates the meaning of the Easter itself.” The rest of the sermon is about drawing on God’s power in working for peace and justice.

I still see the children staring at me in shock: it is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. At the time, I was laughing to myself and inwardly (hopefully not outwardly) rolling my eyes, thinking: “How could these children not know that Jesus stayed risen?” and blaming their other teachers and parents. But then I remembered later that children are pretty selective learners, and I’ll bet many children are confused about doctrine even in conservative churches. Kathleen Norris writes in Dakota about her shock in confirmation class when she learned that Jesus died: she had somehow missed this despite weekly attendance at her traditional Presbyterian church.

There is a lot of stuff we liberal Christians struggle with about religious education for our children. A lot of what gets taught is a very small subset of what I call the “good parts” of the Bible, but this can get tedious. As one fellow teacher said about one curriculum we used: “God loves us and we are God’s disciples. God loves us and we are God’s disciples. God loves us and we are God’s disciples. I’m really glad God loves us and we are God’s disciples, but we did that last week and the week before and the week before that, and it gets a little boring and I’d really like to talk about something else.” Most of us (at least in my generation) were taught the Bible stories pretty literally as children, and then find our way to a more metaphorical and spiritual interpretation as adults. One question I wonder about a lot is whether you can appreciate the power of the stories if you don’t first learn them literally. But can you teach them literally if you don’t believe them literally? My own adult children’s professed atheism could be taken as a demonstration that the liberal intellectual faith cannot reproduce itself, but it could also be taken much more narrowly as a commentary on my own parenting.

One last comment. One infuriating thing about being a liberal Christian is that atheists and conservative Christians are allied in agreeing that we don’t count as “real” Christians.

Advertisements

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

17 thoughts on “sunday school”

  1. As usual, I am with you, OW on not being counted as real Christians – either from the Christian right or from athiests. It’s a peculiar place to be. I am a Buddhist-Baptist. Welcome Om.

    I think you did a good job and that is basically what I say when we actually talk about the bible as text. these are stories designed to teach us something — let’s talk about the something rather than if the laws of physics or biology or whatever allow the story to be somehow “true.” The truth of the story is in the lesson, not the facts.

    So then I move very quickly (when I cannot squirm out of teaching sunday school which I have become very adept at doing) to how we can live the lesson in our everyday (4th grade) life. Here that would be to remember that the divine (a bit of the connection that is the universe, god, or whatever) is in every person and out job is to recognize and honor it. (I think that would be the lesson).

    My favorite thing about my church is that it does not stick to the easy parts of the bible for liberal christians — we charge right ahead and somehow this incredible guy, makes it make sense in a new way. We are lucky to have found such rare spirtual homes, OW — someday I want to visit yours and you should come visit mine.

  2. Oh — ps — one of the things we read when talking about the resurrection (which i think none of us read literally at my church, though of course I cannot speak for everyone) is the Maya Angelou poem, “I rise.” If you read it with that frame it beomes and even more interesting and wonderful poem than when read otherwise.

    PS — please don’t all of you think I am nutty. I am nutty, though. Hmmm. but not about this. OK maybe about this. Oh never mind.

  3. The children stare at me, mouths agape, eyes bugging out. They have never heard this before! Finally, one says: “Did that really happen?” Another says, “That’s not true, is it?” … “What?!” some children say. “Fire on their tongues? Didn’t they get burned?” One child starts acting out having a burnt tongue.

    Awesome. Out of the mouths of babes. Reminds me of an old joke about a new priest coming to work in the parish, and getting shown the ropes by the old priest. They are getting ready for Sunday’s mass and checking the liturgy. “This week we’re doing the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes, where Jesus fed the five hundred,” says the old priest. “I think you mean the five thousand,” says the new guy. “What?” “Jesus fed the five thousand, not the five hundred.” “Well,” says the old guy, “I think we’d better do it the old way, because in my experience they have a hard enough time believing he managed to feed five hundred with only that much food.”

  4. I don’t really know any atheists who deny that liberal Christians are Christians. I’ve certainly heard of fundamentalist Christians accusing liberal Christians of not being Christians and vice versa, but never encountered an atheist doing so. Atheists tend to just laugh and point out the No True Scotsman fallacy. (Because it’s always “No True Christian believes X.”) If you think you’re a Christian, you are one. Good on you, I suppose. 🙂

  5. P.S. I’m not saying No True Atheist would say liberal Christians aren’t Christians; merely that no that I know personally or virtually would. Maybe I run with too many liberal atheists. 😉

  6. You did not think this thread could take a sociological turn, but here it goes. The feeding of the 5,000 is one of those things that stumped me as a kid because it was the obvious contradiction between literal and metaphorical/impossible. So, when it is preached in my church, a careful reading reveals that between the time Jesus assessed the quantity of food and the time all were fed, he asked people in the crowd to break into smaller groups and collect any remaining food. My pastor says, “this is classic social psychology. people withhold/hoard when they see others as others. when people see the people around them as people, they share.” So the miracle is that when we are human to each other, we share more effectively. The research is overwhelming on this point. So food did not miraculously appear, the “miracle” is that this really smart guy 9jesus) knew how to get people to feel responsible for each other versus being individualistic/selfish.

    I would not normall bore you with all of this, but it really is one of my favorite reinterpretations of a bible story that makes sense to me as a sociologist. And you can see how it was seen as a miracle.

    So there you go. how long can I procrastinate what I MUST do today?!?!?!)

  7. I’m not a theist, and I don’t think liberal Christians are not real Christians. I’m less likely to see them as dangerous Christians.

    Ultimately, I think there is some kind of spirituality enzyme that my body just does not possess. Belief is just not something I can do. It makes me feel like a demi-sociopath sometimes.

  8. Belief is just not something I can do.

    You and Max Weber both.

    So food did not miraculously appear, the “miracle” is that this really smart guy (jesus) knew how to get people to feel responsible for each other versus being individualistic/selfish.

    If he’d written it up more carefully and gotten it published it in the JPSP, he’d have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble.

  9. I think laurabethnielsen is correct about the loaves and fishes thing. Back then there were no McDonald’s. People were not stupid so when they took off for a religious picnic they packed a lunch and what travels well is bread and dried fish.

    I saw a similar miracle in the late 60s at an anti-war rally at Iowa. It was a crowd of 5,000 and this long haired freak wearing sandals and overalls pulled out five joints and two hits of blotter acid. He started tearing the joints in blotter paper in half and passing them around. Got the whole crowd stoned.

  10. Dear Liberal Christian,

    Where is the danger in believing that the stories in the Bible are true? Why is that seen as something to be avoided at all costs?

  11. Danger? Avoided at all costs? That’s not what the post said. What we liberal Christians believe is that you can know God and be guided by God and by the life and teaching of Jesus and the resurrection of the Christ without necessarily believing that all the details in the stories in the Bible are literally true in the material factual sense. Some of the stories are probably factually true, others are not. We look for spiritual truth, and for lessons in the stories of people who were pretty obviously violating God’s laws. We believe that Bible was written by people seeking to respond to and understand God (not directly by God) and that these people often wrote in poetry and metaphor as they sought to explain things that were beyond normal human understanding. The Bible itself contains obvious contradictions in the stories that claim to be factual history of normal human events (e.g. the reigns of Saul and David). Stories involving supernatural events could have been understood by the people who wrote them to be metaphorical, just as people writing today often use metaphor.

  12. Who decides which stories are factually true and which are not? Theologians? What are the criteria used when making this decision? Removing God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit from the writing of the Bible is like taking the batteries out of the remote…you can see it and press buttons but it will not work for you. The Bible is a legal document that discusses spiritual laws and explains the story of and the promises contained in the Covenant God made with Israel. Stories of the consequences of not keeping that Covenant abound. The Bible also explains why and how those of us not born into that Covenant, not born Jewish, can legally partake of those promises and also enter into Covenant.

    Mental assent or understanding the Bible solely with the intellect and reason will not enable the promises or give you access to the covenant. Why is this important? Because that Covenant is what provides physical, emotional and spiritual protection, growth, development and blessings for you and your family. God keeps covenant with those who keep covenant with Him.

    When you constrain God by the limitations of man’s reason, man’s logic, and man’s intellect, He is prevented from being God in your life. He is a Gentleman and He won’t do more than what you allow Him to do in your life (unlike satan who’ll do whatever he can get away with and then some). If you do not understand God as the Creator, as the author of ‘eternal’ Spiritual laws and the Creator of nature and of the ‘temporal’ natural laws of science, then you cannot understand that as the Creator, He is not subject to what He has created. The ‘supernatural’ events in the Bible and those events we refer to as miracles are merely the temporary suspension of the natural laws…because He can do that as their Creator. When a person has entered into a legal Covenant with God, He then can suspend natural laws for you and your family when needed.

    Unfortunately, the prerequisite for entering into Covenant with Him takes more than believing in Him…believing Him is required and those are very different things. Many people are unable to free their minds from their earthly tethers in order to have the open mind, free from all limitations, needed to believe Him and what He wrote (through people) in the Bible.

  13. No offense meant, but you seem to have constrained God pretty tightly in your own mind as bound by a very human legalistic logical contract. It sounds like this image provides you with great spiritual comfort. Others know God in other ways. Blessings to you and yours.

  14. Olderwoman,

    No offense taken. I do have more questions. I’m wondering how you interpreted my comments as constraining God? I have been wondering about this for some time, actually. How is believing that God can and has and will continue to do the impossible and miraculous seen as constraint and choosing not to believe the impossible and illogical seen as being open? The covenant is documented in the Bible, the terms are there, and the benefits are there. The Bible is a legal document, it’s referred to as the Book of the Law, especially the Pentateuch. You said, “We believe that Bible was written by people seeking to respond to and understand God (not directly by God) and that these people often wrote in poetry and metaphor as they sought to explain things that were beyond normal human understanding.” Choosing to reinterpret the recounting of biblical events as poetry and metaphor excludes them from the realm of reality. Why is that not seen as constraining God’s actions to those that are only considered possible? What is there about acknowledging that the writings are directly from God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that causes many people to reject that possibility?

  15. Levite: Sorry for slow response. I’m not sure there is much value in challenging your beliefs as I know you are not going to change them, just as I am not going to change mine. My view is that we are human and thus have human understandings of God, while God is actually beyond our human understanding. I find spiritual power in humbling myself to accept that there are things that I do not know.

    The parts in what you said that constrain God are: 1) “The covenant is documented in the Bible, the terms are there, and the benefits are there. The Bible is a legal document, it’s referred to as the Book of the Law, especially the Pentateuch.” 2) “Unfortunately, the prerequisite for entering into Covenant with Him takes more than believing in Him … believing Him is required and those are very different things. Many people are unable to free their minds from their earthly tethers in order to have the open mind, free from all limitations, needed to believe Him and what He wrote (through people) in the Bible.”

    As I understand you, you believe the Bible was written by God, directly or indirectly. It appears important to your beliefs to accept the truth of everything you read in the Bible, and believe it is a sign of faith to “believe in” super-natural events. I don’t know what you do about the parts of the Bible that describe people believing that God is telling them to do what seem (to me) to be patently immoral things, or the parts of the Bible that are in direct contradiction to each other. As I see it, believing that God requires people to believe in the literal truth of a single collection of writings is limiting God. So is viewing God as requiring a legalistic contract in which salvation or God’s care is dependent upon believing in the literal truth of a particular set of human writing. You and I don’t necessarily have different views of God as transcending human experience, but we do have different views of the Bible and whether God has to be understood only through the Bible. I believe the Bible was written by people trying to understand God and what God wants of us. Those people were sometimes in error. It is not important to my willingness to commit to God to believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. I also believe that God has been revealed through other texts, not just the Bible. As I said, I’m not trying to convince you, I know you have a different view.

  16. Olderwoman,

    Thank you very much. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and the time you spent on your explanation. It was very helpful to me and gives me a clearer picture of your viewpoint.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s