Teaching Sunday School – Part 4
Back again! I didn't teach Sunday School this week, so there's no real new updates there. When I'm not teaching I tend to take a support role; I don't appreciate when a team teacher tries to hijack my lesson, so I feel it's appropriate for me to show the same courtesy. I try to give factual information when I can, however, as well as summations of what the kids read.
Speaking of summation, it seems as though a large part of each lesson I have is me merely summarizing the proof-texts in question instead of the class reading them for themselves. It bugs me each and every week when these kids struggle to try and read the language of the KJV. As adults who have been raised in the LDS Church we've all suffered through it and have overcome. We've learned the rhythms and idioms of Jacobean English, so for us reading the KJV isn't actually that hard. Sitting with these kids who are still in the middle of their Seminary years really brings me back to how horrible the KJV is and how dense and foggy the text seemed to be as a youth. Seriously, we read through the Saul on the Road to Damascus pericope and, while these kids knew the story well enough, when pressed for details they had trouble even finding those details in the narrative! Yet there I was sitting with my NSRV (like I'm going to actually use a 400-year-old text) knowing that if I simply read out loud from my text they'd follow it quite easily. Maddening.
I've promised the Bishop that I'd used the King James Bible (I can't remember when it came up, but it did at one point) in class, so while I prepare and get ready with my Greek New Testament and bring my NSRV to class (because I'm not that good with Greek yet), I'm still stuck referring them to their woefully antiquated King James scriptures. I've made my dissatisfaction with the KJV quite clear to the class (as well as its limitations upon me as a teacher), but so far nobody has taken me up on my challenge to purchase a modern Bible and bring it to Church. Oh well, at least one change that has occurred is that they're aware of the many different English translations and that they're not problematic for Mormons to read after they asked me one day which translations I have read and liked (answer: NIV is the most readable, NSRV tries to be the most true to the text, Jerusalem Bible is the most thought-provoking, etc).
Yes, I've read all of those versions (and portions of many others). I like the notes for the NET Bible (though they're far too conservative on controversial issues), and I always enjoy reading the Skeptic's Bible (and the Skeptic's Book of Mormon, for that matter). I'm not afraid to say it: I love reading and studying the Bible. Doesn't mean I believe it, to be sure, but belief and enjoyment do not have to go together.
The Bible is an old book. It's from a different culture (actually, it's from many different cultures and is influenced by Babylonian, Persian/Zoroastrian, Greek, and even Roman culture and beliefs), and it's not a modern book. It usually doesn't care about issues like slavery, the rights and equality of men and women, or such things as tolerance for other people and beliefs. It's often violent, vindictive, and presents worldviews that are dangerous when fully followed in our modern world. Why do I like it?
Because that's not the whole story. Liking the Bible is not a binary thing: acceptance of one part of it does not require acceptance of another unless you feel that the whole work is linked together by divine approval. If you believe in an inerrant text that is “God-breathed” or “inspired”, then you'll probably be interested in the countless apologetics that have been written over the millennia to explain the real shortcomings and problems present in the Bible.
But the Bible does present, at times, some very interesting questions to be answered. In opposition to the Book of Mormon's “Pride Cycle”, which features an an integral part of the process the doctrine that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, we have the dual knockout punch of the Hebrew Bible books of Job and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), both of which have as their central question: Why does life allow the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer? And both books refuse to answer the question, instead choosing merely to fling real life into the debate: all of us have suffered when doing what God “wants” us to do, and all of us have been blessed when going against the “commandments”. The solution found by the time the Christian New Testament rolls around is the dualistic idea of heaven and hell: the discrepancy will be made right in the next life or that this world will shortly be remade into a new world where such injustices no longer occur. For the majority of the New Testament authors this new world is coming quickly and the transition will not be pretty. When Jesus came the first time it was to start the ball rolling in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth; when Jesus comes again, he will finish the job and the world will be made anew. No more death, no more evil, and no more injustice. (Note: this is not unique to Christianity and is known as “apocalypticism”; however, it is certainly from apocalyptic ideas that Christianity formed.)
All of this gives a sense of urgency to much of the New Testament. The central message of most of the New Testament is not “Come Unto Christ because it's a Good Thing and you'll Feel Happy,” it's “You'd better be ready NOW, and the only way to be ready is to make yourself right with God through his Messiah”! The New Testament is not a pro-family collection: there's not enough time to worry about that sort of thing. The New Testament is not a pro-peace collection: war and peace will distract us from focusing on what's important.
I won't disagree that this can be a very discouraging and unloving message, but it is a very passionate message. It is a demanding message. It is a loud message. The focus is not on the Atonement of Jesus (a doctrine that, when it is present at all, is never really agreed upon by the various writers). The “atonement”, if discussed, is usually what begins the process: Jesus's death allows his followers membership variously into a covenant with him or simply directly into the kingdom to come, and his resurrection is the first crack in the barrier between this world and that barrier is about to collapse completely.
This is possibly very interesting to you as a reader (or not, I don't know), but if you're much like me, which should you care? I'm a psilanthropist, which means that I believe that the historical Jesus (yes, I think there was a historical Jesus, but I don't know much about his actual life) is the son of Joseph and Mary. If there was anything supernatural about him, I would count myself as an adoptionist, which means I find myself in the camp that believes that the “Christ” came upon Jesus at his baptism where Jesus became God's son. But frankly, I simply don't care about the issue as I find the idea that an all- powerful God is powerless to allow sinful humans to be in his presence bizarre: the very idea that an atonement is necessary is very limiting to me (this probably represents a failing of my own to fully understand orthodox Christian theology; I'm sure they have very detailed reasons).
But I still like the New Testament because, to me, it represents the thoughts of some very intelligent people even if they believe in some rather fantastic claims. Following the complicated, yet well-organized, reasoning of Paul takes some real work and effort; examining the differences between Mark and Matthew can be very illuminating about the beliefs of some of the early Christians. I find the collection fascinating for the window it opens up to the ancient world. It's a loud conversation that occurs as you read it. Just look at James responding to Paul about works: he's not exactly disagreeing, not exactly agreeing—-instead he changes the meanings of the terms and moves the focus of the argument. Fun!
An analogy I've employed with friends is that the Hebrew Bible is like a house a few hours after a huge party has occurred. The whole place still smells kinda odd, but it's been mostly cleaned up. There's still evidence of the mess, but it's in the process of being cleaned (just don't go looking in some of the closets like Judges). But the Christian New Testament is like coming into the house mere moments after the last guest leaves: it's messy. It hasn't been entirely cleaned up. There's still stains on the walls and lampshades on the ground. Between the few people left in the house you'll not get the same story about what happened between any of them. All that the writers of the New Testament can agree upon is that God has been interacting with the world recently, and it has something to do with this Jesus guy.
Of course, some of that is taking the New Testament writers at their word, which is tough to do. I'm not saying you have to (I don't), but I'm saying that part of the fun is doing so.
And there are parts of that message that can be beneficial for humans. Sure, there's better formulations of ethical behavior than the Golden Rule, but I'd argue that the Golden Rule is generally a great idea. Yes, the New Testament writers often approach the end of the world and the destruction of the wicked with an uncomfortable excitement, but they also do preach about the need for tolerance, love, and respect within the community. It's not perfect (it'd certainly be better if it were more about love for everyone more often than it was about love for other Christians), but it's still good.
And that's one of the reasons I teach the class right now. The LDS Church can be very harmful in how it approaches its own doctrines. The idea of eternal families can often be used as a hammer to beat people into submission with the threat of losing their eternal family. The debate between James and Paul about “works” is often turned into a discussion about “ordinances” by Mormons, with the assumption that the Christian New Testament is somehow clear and obvious about the necessity of things like baptism or the Temple rituals (hint: it's anything but). These approaches, and other like them, to the Christian Bible can produce horrible results in some people: guilt, anxiety, perfectionism, depression, and worse. Adults and youth within the LDS Church are often sold a false bill of goods when they're told that the New Testament presents a unified voice on LDS doctrines that is always in agreement with modern prophets. And then, when they believe that the New Testament is “Mormon” in its outlook, they simply help perpetuate that view for others.
But the New Testament is not clean, and it is not Mormon. In some ways, it's almost against Mormon ideas: Paul clearly believes in the importance of grace (hopefully more on that later in a few weeks when I finally get to cover Romans in class and can report on it—-if there's one thing that keeps me going, it's the idea of talking about the genuine and pseudipigraphal epistles of Paul), the apocalyptic focus on the coming-right-now-better-be-ready End of the World means that it's remarkably anti-family, and the idea of the gifts of the spirit being tempered by a need for authority is held by only a very small part of the New Testament.
Within these differences, though, lies the solution to many of the cultural problems created by current Mormon thought, I believe. Within the chaos of so many different ideas lies the opportunity to present an alternative interpretation that is just a valid as the traditional Mormon one. There's enough to focus on within the book that presents a narrative against guilt, against anxiety, and against bigotry. You can show people a New Testament that is kind, soft, and loving; you can show the importance of inclusion, of equality, and of respect for others. You can show the importance of questioning, and you can show the importance of rejecting blind faith.
Is it really what the New Testament preaches? Debatable, but it's at least as valid as the Mormon view, but with an end result that is healthier. Instead of view the New Testament as a secret book that only Mormons truly understand and that supports all aspects of Mormon culture and doctrine good and bad, we can approach the New Testament as a piece from history that needs to be engaged with and that presents things both familiar and foreign that don't always line up exactly with what we were raised to believe.
For instance, I tried to emphasize last week that the entire community was presented as selecting the Seven (Acts 6...), that the Apostles were not administrators but were missionaries and that they wanted nothing to do with running the Church. I emphasized that what is arguably the first Gentile convert to the Church (the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8...) was a man who was part of a marginalized sexual class in both Jewish culture and religion. Because of the sexual class he occupied he was not allowed to participate fully in Jewish rituals (he could never be a priest in the Temple) and was viewed as not being a complete man in typical Jewish culture. (I figured it was enough of a comparison to not have to ask the kids, “Can you think of any social sexual classes in the LDS Church who occupy a similar role? What do you think you could learn from this story in Acts?”) I've been very vocal before about pointing out the presence of women in the narratives we've been reading and about their full participation in the stories we read. Hopefully it's enough to at least get them thinking about those areas where the LDS Church simply doesn't measure up when it comes to issues dealing with women and homosexuals.
I should probably stop there because I could easily keep going, but that, for me, is why I think it's still beneficial both for me to teach this Sunday School class as well as for an agnostic theist such as myself to continue to appreciate this first-century collection.