The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.