Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: Sunday School Standards

Over Spring Break, I picked up a book to review for a Christian publication, a devotional for kids that included Bible stories with a short paragraph of application. There was really nothing wrong with it…except that, of the 101 stories it included, you would probably be able to name at least 90 off the top of your head.

They’re what I call Sunday School Standards. Any kids’ worker worth his salt could pull out a flannelgraph and short, quippy song about any one of them. Any kid who grew up in the church could summarize them fairly accurately (although I’ve learned that if you’re asking a little boy, it helps if the story involves fire or weapons). And any adult who hears one of these stories in church crosses his arms, sits back, and thinks, “I dare you to teach me something new about this old story,” probably without realizing it.

This whole experience made me wonder: why are certain Bible stories more commonly used for kids than others? You’d think the main qualification would be easy to understand. As I flipped through the stories, though, I noticed that a lot of them are pretty complicated, given the different culture or weird background info you need to know. Here’s the list that I came up with for what makes Sunday School stories popular.

  1. It has an animal in it.

I’m convinced that this is the only reason why people tell the story of Baalam and his donkey so often. I always thought this story was cool—talking animals, just like Narnia!—but if you had asked me to explain the point of the story, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. It’s actually kind of complex, if you read it again as an adult. But it has an animal, which makes it kid-friendly. (Jonah and the Whale and Daniel and the Lion’s Den are two more that fit under this category…would the story really be as coloring-book-adaptable if it was Jonah and the Submarine or Daniel and the Guillotine?)

  1. Anything about Jesus or King David

Jesus makes complete sense, but I feel like when there’s a story from the Old Testament, at least two out of three times, it’s about David, the action-figure kind of guy with serialized adventures. The problem for me is that, growing up, I always saw David as the man-after-God’s-own-heart hero who only messed up that one time with Bathsheba (the details of which were sketchy in my young mind and involved a cucumber and rubber ducks). Now, as I read through the Samuels again, I realize that my tendency to assume that David is doing the right thing all the time doesn’t really reflect reality.

  1. Features of violence, adultery and/or genocide can be minimized

So we skim over the details of Sodom and Gomorrah, show the buildings with flames coming out of them, and mostly just talk about how weird it was that Lot’s wife got turned into a pillar of salt. The most obvious and strange way this applies is the story of Noah. The entire point of the story is God’s mercy in saving a few from a worldwide judgment of a corrupt culture…and somehow we end up with cartoon nightlights and baby mobiles with animals going in two by two and Noah smiling as everyone on Earth drowns.

  1. It involves a child/teen character

Naaman’s servant girl? Great! Josiah the boy king? Oh, we can totally pluck him out of the obscurity of Chronicles. 12-year-old Jesus in the temple? Perfect. Elijah calling down a bear to maul the teenagers who made fun of him for being bald…um, not so much. But most of the time, a story is (roughly) a bajillion times more likely to be used if you throw in a kid as a main character.

  1. Has a happy ending

Or, if it doesn’t have a happy ending, we can make it into a happy ending. Some very important stories just cannot work this way. My roommate had to teach preschoolers the story of Stephen being stoned once. There’s really no good, age-appropriate way to do this, especially when this particular group had an animal every week that they brought in and related to the lesson. That week was a lamb. My brilliant-but-quickly-rejected idea for a tie-in was saying that Stephen followed Jesus like a lamb…to the slaughterhouse. No one thought that would work for preschoolers.

  1. Teach one of the fruits of the Spirit or another virtue/moral

Let’s face it: Jesus did a lot of miracles. So how do you decide which ones are Sunday-School material and not just “and then Jesus healed someone else”? You go for the ten lepers where only one came back, because it teaches thankfulness, and kids can understand thankfulness. In that case, the moral follows pretty well from the story. Other times it can be a bit forced (think the story in Judges of Jael tent-pegging Sisera being used to teach that you shouldn’t talk to strangers…true curriculum story).

Now, I just want to say that I grew up with the same stories that everyone else did, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Some of the Sunday School Standards are classics for a reason.

Sometimes, though, plucking random Bible stories out of context and serving them up to kids with corresponding coloring pages can be dangerous. It tends to make them seem disconnected, maybe even more like stories—fictional stories—than they should.

Or, other times, kids might be able to understand more than we think, and might need more than happy little moralizing stories to help them grow, especially as they get older. As a writer who loves telling stories for kids, this is a big deal for me. It’s a hard line to find: how to teach something meaningful in a new, interesting way without going over any heads.

On Palm Sunday, I want to take this topic further and get into the Easter spirit by talking about how we tend to fictionalize the story of the resurrection…especially to kids. But that’s another blog post.

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