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.