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Moving Beyond Sunday School

April 19th, 2011 by Madeleine

On this blog we often rail against new-atheist readings of Biblical texts. Our pages are littered with expositions as to what a text is really saying when you consider the context, genre and textual evidence, all of which demonstrates that the new-atheist readings of the texts are at best wanting and at worst down-right stupid or dishonest. But, of course, it is not just atheists who sometimes fail to read Biblical texts properly.

Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho

I was reminded of this recently in an exchange with someone who on considering Paul Copan’s work in Is God a Moral Monster? and Matt’s blog series God and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I, Part II and Part III, asked me:

“If these Biblical battles are so clearly exaggerated, why aren’t they taught to be so in churches? When I learnt in Sunday School about how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho”, should the Sunday-School teacher have added “Of course, it didn’t really happen!”

Aside from the fact that I thought it was an interesting observation on his part that he had never really sought to take his own understanding of those passages beyond Sunday School level, I think there is something in his question but before I go on I should make a brief qualification. Neither Copan or Matt have argued that the Battle of Jericho never happened; they have argued that the ‘genocide language’ in the earlier parts of the Book of Joshua should be read as hyperbolic hagiographic accounts of Israel’s early skirmishes in Canaan and that this language and the accounts of those battles should not be read in isolation from the rest of the Book of Joshua and the surrounding texts – especially Judges. This more Canonical approach shows that the Bible does not teach that the Canaanites were genocided by the Israelites.

As to why Sunday School teachers don’t get into how to interpret the ‘genocide passages’ in Joshua, I expect it has something to do with the same reason the dove with the olive branch is generally not depicted flying over any floating, swollen corpses in the pictures of the happy pairs of animals floating on an ark with a rainbow in the background that dot the Sunday School walls. A Sunday School teacher should focus on the message or point of these stories and leave the realities of floods and wars and their effect on the people who don’t survive them for when a child is older.

But this I guess is my correspondent’s point. The church seems to have produced Christians en masse whose understanding of these passages has not really moved beyond the Sunday School glossing of the story – their understanding now appears to be the Sunday School version plus, now they have lived a bit and get that floods and wars kill people, X number of dead people. If you scan the comments on the half or dozen posts Matt has published on the ‘genocide passages’ on this blog you will find Christians struggling to get their heads around the idea that perhaps instead of reading only Joshua 6-11 and forming a conclusion that is only fractionally more in touch with reality as the Sunday School stories they should instead read all 24 chapters plus a fair decent way through Judges.

Now I am not trying to say that my fellow Christians are all stupid (or even that new atheists are). I think that this state of affairs is entirely understandable, natural and none of us should be surprised that it exists because the disciplines of Theology, Hermeneutics – competence in ancient languages and culture and interpreting texts from within that culture – are not skills the average layperson picks up as they go through life.

This is normal in any field. Take Law. Most people have a basic enough understanding as to how to go through life and understand enough of the law to stay on the right side of it without their holding a law degree but does that mean they can pick up any statute and understand it accurately and immediately know how to apply it? Not always and especially not if the statute is old as it is more likely to have been drafted verbosely in ye olde English with no punctuation and a liberal sprinkling of precise archaic legal terms. Even if you pick up a plain English one, some statutes conflict with others, some are vague, some have precise terms in them that have a specific meaning in case law and some are just poorly drafted. Most people are not remotely likely to be able to read these tricker pieces of legislation to the degree of competence I can read them to because I have a degree in law.

The best way for a lay person to understand an old or confusing statute is to go to a lawyer for assistance or head to a law library and pull out some case law, commentary and guides to legal interpretation. You would be nuts to do none of this and instead proceed on the assumption that because you can read English, you have experienced life in New Zealand and you think on talking to your family and friends, watching TV and having caught a bit of talkback radio that you understand what the law is on this topic and further that you are so sure of what it means you are prepared to write books on it, teach it to other people, defend it on the internet and challenge law scholars to public debates, and so on, but people take this approach to Theology all the time and Christians can be guilty of doing so too when they really only have a basic knowledge of the subject.

The problem of failing to appreciate that Theology and Hermenutics, like any subject, have areas the lay person can easily grasp and areas where a specialist is needed is exasperated by a pervasive anti-intellectualism within the (Protestant) church (at least in my corner of the world) where theology is a ‘Pharisaical [read: bad] thing that gets in the way of a relationship with Jesus and one’s own personal revelation from the Holy Spirit as to what text X [frequently written to the Israelites personally] means to me today’. Further, some denominations seem to practice the idea that everyone can be a preacher or a teacher if they love Jesus and can speak engagingly and have a passion for others. They scoff at the idea that those teaching the church should be qualified and tend to either hold to the idea that if someone is qualified then they are automatically not likely to be an engaging teacher with a passion for Jesus or that requiring this is somehow a backwards pre-Reformation step.

There may be good reasons why Sunday School teachers and children’s books teach the Noah story, Jonah and the whale, Adam and Eve in the garden, Jesus and the loaves and fishes, the Battle of Jericho and so on complete with cartoonised pictures and glossing over of anything that might give children nightmares. Children are not any more capable of understanding the finer points of textual interpretation and hermeneutics than they are capable of understanding the finer points of statute interpretation and conflicts of laws. The problem is that as they grow in their capability to understand these things, this kind of simplified Sunday School reading of the Bible as a bunch of stories rather than as a canonical sequence doesn’t seem to get left behind as the Sunday School student matures into the adult Christian.

While it is not reasonable to expect the adult Christian to accurately be able to do advanced hermeneutics one should not need a degree in Theology to be able to grasp that the Bible is a book and that you need to read it as one. You would not pick up a novel and flick it open to a random page and begin dipping in and out and focussing only on a few paragraphs out of order which tell only the story of one character. To fully understand the greater plot and get who all the players are and how and why their stories are being told as part of the greater story you need to read the whole thing and keep in mind how all the parts and sub-plots fit together. If, on reading the text as a whole, you find something that you don’t get try asking a specialist or locating some commentaries written by a specialist. Carefully listen to and read these and compare a few, consider the reasoning advanced and how cogent it is.

How far you go into this depends on how you are wired. With law I have been at mummy groups with my babies and I have raised the topic of current debates over proposed legislative changes and I have observed glazed eyes, a distinct lack of invites to extra curricular social activities and a stingy slice of the chocolate brownie. Some people are just not interested. The other extreme is my friend David who has been known to re-write the government’s budget and then phone me wanting clause by clause feedback. Whatever your bent, it pays to know your limitations and do your homework before you start asserting.

You are hardly going to walk up to a lawyer and tell her – as a lay person having done no proper homework to support your assertion – that she is a moron for saying in her professional opinion that the law prohibits action X simply because you’ve grown up believing that it does not or that it just seems obvious to you and everyone you know thinks you are right. You’d be the moron.

So why do you do it to Theologians?

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9 responses so far ↓

  • I approve of this article. :)

  • Well done Madeleine. I would go one stage further, most people simply do not think. I dont mean to be rude or disparaging but the realities of coping with ordinary everyday live dont leave most people with the time, mental clarity etc to think bigger or more complex issues through. Not to mention that our schooling system doesnt teach critical systematic thinking and analysis ie most people arent taught thinking as a skill.
    Although there are plenty of comments i disagree with made at this site, most of them display a significant level of thought input and as such represent a non-representative portion of the population.

  • @ Madeleine:

    “The church seems to have produced Christians en masse whose understanding of these passages has not really moved beyond the Sunday School glossing of the story”

    Yep, and they argue on that basis too. As for a lay person attempting to get beyond that level of understanding – when do you expect them to do that ? The point (AFIAIK) of social Christianity is that it provides a matrix for people to live their lives within, and further enquiry beyond that gloss level is either actively discouraged or lapses into near parody – the opening scene of The Life of Brian and the mishearing of the Sermon of the Mount is brilliant example

    [The audience members at the back of the crowd are having trouble hearing the Sermon on the Mount.]
    Man: I think it was, “Blessed are the cheesemakers”!
    Gregory’s wife: What’s so special about the cheesemakers?
    Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

  • Yo Paul have you ever been involved with a genuinely practicing Christian church, every time you make some generalisation about Christianity it bears no relationship to my experience. I’m tempted to think you see what you expect to see [ie the negatives] and have never engaged enough to meet the positives.

  • @ Jeremy:

    “Yo Paul have you ever been involved with a genuinely practicing Christian church, every time you make some generalisation about Christianity it bears no relationship to my experience.”

    They’re not generalisations but based on personal experience and on discussions that I’ve and still have with believers and non-believers.

    As for the use of the phrase ‘genuinely practicing Christian church’ – would that be a no true scotsman type of comment ? :-)

  • No it wouldnt be, rather we back to a discussion we have had before, ie nominalism cf practicing

  • An interesting read and one that pushes a fair few buttons with me. I have a couple of comments.

    I’ve grown up in an honest an bible believing church that wasn’t crazy but I have concerns about the old testament.
    I heard all the stories you talked about but as a young reader I quickly sat down and read the entire thing for myself. I turned out alright of course but always had allot of outstanding questions I was a little to embarrassed to bring up. I agree with you that you can’t tell the whole story to kids but my question is when is the right time? We tend to give our children a full bible as early as they can read.

    Maybe, due to so much mishandling of the texts and the need to read between the lines, the old testament should be removed from the cannon. Most people are happy to give a new christian just a new testament or translate that part first. I wonder if that should be more generally applied.

    Secondly, I think that it would be a mistake not to listen to non-professionals. As a professional myself (an engineer) it can be amusing to hear a lay person expound on an issue they know nothing about but equally as un-amusing to be shown up by a lay persons fresh reading of the situation when I haven’t seen the wood for the trees. The lay person shouldn’t be teaching but neither should they be ignored.

  • Argument from anecdote, how original.

    John, it depends on the parents. We don’t explain the nuances of stress/strain loading to pre-teens because they don’t have the mental structures in place to understand it.

    Explaining 3500 year old texts to children who barely understand that there are people other than themselves, let alone cultures completely foreign to them, is probably an exercise in futility. However adults should be getting meat, not milk, which would allow them to answer questions that their children come up with.

    “You are a royal priesthood” or, there is no laity. All believers are priests. However there are specialists in any subject, and unfortunately interpretation of 3500 year old texts is one of those subjects.

  • Jason, I’m more asking questions than trying to argue anything… but to clarify, I couldn’t agree more that explaining stress strain to children is likely to go over their heads. But doing so is unlikely to have any affect other than to bore them.
    Tales of war, suffering, plagues etc on the other hand may need some censorship (as Mad. suggests with Noahs ark) for younger minds as it may be unkind to burden them with issues they do not have the capacity to yet understand.
    My question is really at what age is the old testament appropriate. Maybe I could phrase it another way… would you put a G, PG, M, R15, R18 or other rating on the old testament, and if it’s problematic maybe we should just focus on the new.