Teaching Sunday School – Part 5
I wonder if I'll be able to put a date to when I broke the camel's back: will it be September 4, 2011? I'm probably over-reacting, but if that's so, at least I'll be happy about what I did: I got the kids some Bibles. They've always really liked my little pocket-sized KJV that I bring with me to Sunday School. They like the red letters for whenever an author has Jesus speaking. They like the size. They like the self-pronouncing names.
So I went and got a bunch of KJV bibles from the Internet: they were cheap and seemed like a good idea. Then, as I was ordering, I thought a bit about what I was getting them and decided to order a handful of similarly sized NIVs. Yes, I know that the NIV isn't the most accurate translation (trying to determine what is would be an exercise in futility and argument about the purposes and limitations of biblical translation), but it's certainly the most popular English version and one that any non-Mormon Christian is going to be very familiar with. Besides, almost anything would be better than the KJV (well, possibly not The Message, but that's my opinion).
The lesson was on Galatians and some fun chapters in Acts, which really ticked me off. We're going to be spending three weeks on the Corinthian letters, which are mostly rambling letters that address a multiplicity of topics, but for Galatians and Romans, where genuine Paul attempts to explain his complex theological model of Jesus as Messiah we get less than a single class session each. Why is that? The cynical side of me is actually rather convinced that the grace message of both Galatians and Romans is troubling to the Correlation Committee. Both of them are rather unapologetic in their approach: faith is what Paul feels starts the whole process of justification and salvation. Works don't ever enter into it.
Being an agnostic does not mean that I somehow shouldn't spend time trying to puzzle out what Paul is saying. I may not view Jesus of Nazareth the same way as Paul, but that doesn't mean that it's a waste of my time to try and understand Paul. It's intellectually lazy for some to approach Paul as though their belief system (or lack of one) somehow informs them better of Paul's points before they even read him. Mormons are certainly guilty of this as well. The lesson on Romans, for instance, attempts to push the teacher to tell the students that Paul is all about grace and works, which is like saying that the American Revolution was all about taxes on tea.
My own research on Paul is strongly influenced by the recent “New Perspectives” movement, especially the writings of N.T Wright. In fact, Wright's most recent book about Paul, Justification, is a fantastic exploration of genuine Paul's beliefs about God's plan for humanity. I think that Mormons are missing a huge opportunity by refusing to deal with this grace/works issue. As I keep studying the New Perspectives, and especially as I read Wright, I am constantly surprised by how my Mormon upbringing helps out in dealing with concepts that are apparently more foreign to traditional Protestants. Wright in particular is a fan of approaching Pauls arguments from a “covenantal” perspective. Mormons are all about covenants, and yet I see Wright go through some detailed discussion of suzerainty contracts to explain the concept.
I hope the kids weren't too bored with my attempts to cover the material of Galatians from a New Perspectives perspective :–). We'll see if it was helpful at all when/if I teach the lesson on Romans, which is basically a continuation and expansion of the themes explored in Galatians. AS it was, I know they at least enjoyed my telling them that Galatians is the “angry” letter, that Paul at one point in it is so angry that he expresses a wish that his enemies in Galatia didn't just stop as circumcision but were themselves mutilated (I didn't mention, however, that the footnotes' explanation of the phrase “I were that they were cut off” as a reference to excommunication is quite anachronistic and not nearly as likely as Paul actually calling for his opponents to cut off their own penises), and Paul's description of his dressing down of Peter due to Peter's failure to continue treating Gentile Christians the same as Jewish Christians. Seriously, I love Galatians because the veneer of the stoic “Saint” Paul falls away and we see a human being who can get seriously ticked off (at the end of the letter he even grabs the paper from his scribe and finishes the letter on his own ending with a terse dismissal of his opponents and a plea to “let no one trouble me”).
During the discussion I made sure to mention how for Paul, entrance to the new covenant community between God and humanity is based upon faith in Jesus. It's not based on doing anything in particular, and when Paul does mention things that Mormons would call “works”, such as avoiding contention (ironically) being unified, he does so more from an honor perspective. In other words, entrance to the community of Christians is based on faith, and once we belong to this community we should act like it. Paul nowhere says that bad behavior within this community will eject us from it, but rather asserts that the faith necessary to truly enter into the community and enter a justified status before God is a transformative faith. Once we are dead to sin Paul encourages us to leave it alone. That's what all of the stuff about fornication and other stuff is about.
Paul opponents accused him of being an antinomian, or a person who encourages lawless living, because of his assertion that sin is conquered by faith in Jesus and not through ritual observances as found in the Torah. Paul agrees with them, but denies being an antinomian. His constant expression translated in the KJV as “God forbid”, or more modernly as “hell no!”, is applied to the idea that a person should expand the miracle of being saved as an unrighteous human by being even more unrighteous and thus making grace abound even more fully. Paul's response is to reiterate that entrance to the community of Christ should create a yearning to live better, but he does not ever say that his opponents are wrong in their reductio ad absurdum. For Paul, faith is an “is”, and works are an “ought”: faith is the principle of salvation for God's community, and good works are how members of that community ought to behave.
We'll see if this lesson is the one that finally gets me kicked out, which would then free me to actually speak my mind even more fully in the adult Gospel Doctrine class! (Hmm, maybe that's why the Bishop lets me stay where I am?) Oddly enough, I was telling the kids that Paul, in Galatians, is all about faith instead of works, but if this is the end, I'm pretty sure it'll be because of the Bibles. And yet, I only got them the Bibles because I want them to read the Bible and the KJV is crap. Besides, once they actually start to read the New Testament, especially one without the thought-limiting “study aids” found in the LDS standard works, they'll already be in a better position to evaluate the faith claims of the LDS Church. As I've said before, I'm not trying to produce a class of future ex-Mormons, but rather a class of future well-rounded Mormons with a tolerance for the beliefs of others. As the LDS Church continues to retreat more towards fundamentalist in regards to feminism and homosexuality I'm sure that such an approach will probably force more young people with such a view point to not comfortably remain within the LDS Church, but that's up to them.
So that's how the week went: explaining to the kids how the modern faith/works debate is influenced by 450-year-old arguments of the Protestant Reformation, what Paul's actually saying in Galatians (which is still faith and graced, but not so much anti-works as anti-Torah), and giving them pocket KJVs and NIVs.
I'll let you when/if the hammer falls. :–) I hope it doesn't fall before the end of the year. There's still so much to try and work into the class: the hopeful Christianity of Romans to combat the guilty, neurotic Christianity of modern Mormonism; the pseudo-Pauline letters and issues of Pauline authorship (I actually covered a little of this already when trying to get them excited about reading 1 Thessalonians, the oldest book of the Bible [“What's the second oldest?” “Well, if Paul wrote it, then 2 Thessalonians, but there's some serious doubt that Paul actually wrote that one”]); James and his misreading of Paul in trying to respond to Paul's apparent antinomianism; and of course the craziness of the Revelation of John (not to mention all of the equally-crazy Mormon cruft that has accumulated around the Revelation and is in the manual). I hope I can get to all of it.
Thanks for keeping up with the posts if you're out there reading.