Climbing down from the Sunday School Pedestal

Recently, I was asked to prepare a brief presentation on the topic “How to use non-KJV translations of the Bible in Sunday School without seeming snooty.” I have to tell you that this is a fascinating topic for me. It seems to me that if the mere use of alternate translations is enough to brand one “snooty,” there are other things at work than a love of Jacobean English.

What is the danger in being branded snooty? At best, I think that the danger of being branded as the “not-KJV-using” Sunday School teacher is the danger of being branded one of “those people.” I have heard it theorized that the value of Hugh Nibley is not to be found in what he wrote, but rather in that he was writing it. So long as there are those people out there, ably defending the faith and sparring with the apostates and antis, then we don’t have to worry about it. Those people walk the line, so that we don’t have to.

Thus, if you appear to be someone who studies the scriptures closely, you run the risk of being placed upon a pedestal and, therefore, being dismissed. People get into a habit of interacting with you warily, as if you spend all of your free moments thinking up pop quizzes to spring on them. I tend to believe that they are more scared of your humanity; if you fart or burp in their presence then the spirit cannot really speak through you.

So, if you attempt competence in teaching the scriptures, there is a real danger that whatever you say will be ignored because of your sheer other-worldliness. This works well within the context of your typical Sunday School lesson because those attending do not actually come to learn anything. Rather, they are there in order to have what they already believe confirmed. Thus, the ethereal scholar is effective at providing the expected Sunday School experience: a repetition of the same questions, followed by the same answers, resulting in the same conclusions, lulling us to sleep.

How does one avoid this trap? I don’t believe that there is a single way out that is effective in every case. However, I am willing to offer some suggestions that may or may not work for you:

1. Figure out why you want to use another translation

Your motive in teaching is important. For every class, you should spend time figuring out what you want to teach and why you want to teach it. The lessons provided are best understood as guidelines; I don’t believe that even the Correlation committee believes that they are the best approach in every conceivable situation. Instead, you should search for inspiration and guidance as you study. Look for those things that become important to you as you study and try and decide which could be reasonably applied to the students in your class. In other words, prepare for everything, but go into the class with only those things that you believe your class will actually need. Sunday School is not the place to introduce Gee-Whiz material; leave that for water-cooler and cocktail party conversation.

2. Treat the scriptures as documents written by real people

Study the context of the weekly selection and do your best to give your students a sense of the time and place in which these scriptures were written. Your students want to understand the scriptures and most understand that the history of a passage can enlighten us as to its original meaning (or a close approximation thereof). Of course, this may lead you into an uncomfortable discussion of issues like dating and authorship, however these issues are not fatal to the spirit of Sunday School. As your students come to understand more regarding the history of a biblical story, they should gain a greater appreciation for what we have in the Bible and, more importantly, an understanding of the many ways in which many different people have tried to understand God and to seek His will. In our church, we don’t believe that any one person has a monopoly on understanding God and, therefore, we should approach the scriptures as an opportunity to learn from other’s attempts at understanding.

3. Ask uncomfortable questions

People love to come to church to hear the pleasing word of God. However, it strikes me as relatively rare that we actually deserve to. In offering this suggestion, I am not telling you to focus on calling your class to repentance. I just believe that any able teacher of Christian behavior will quickly discover just how unchristian s/he is. Dealing with God’s precepts inevitably leads us to ponder the degree to which we fail to measure up. Rather than allowing this to depress you or wallowing in feelings of hypocrisy, give your students the opportunity to do it instead. Instead of merely noting the commandments, ask your students what they are doing to keep them? Offer them the opportunity to contemplate how well they are living the Christian life and give them a chance to recommit to doing a better job. Go along with them for the ride; admit what makes you struggle with a given doctrine, but also explain how you are dealing with it for the time being. In suggesting that, I don’t mean to encourage one to air out all one’s personal demons, doctrinal or otherwise; rather I am suggesting that the Gospel is hard work and reminding your class that it is meant to be is useful for them and for yourself.

4. Always operate from the position of a sincere believer

In the recent Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, Elder Holland suggested that you remember to end each lesson with testimony. I don’t believe that he went far enough. Your whole lesson should be a testimony. If you need to bring up hard issues, bring them up in a context of someone sincerely seeking to understand them. Your teaching is going to work over your testimony and there is no reason why you shouldn’t share how this is taking place with your class. Your scripture reading should be bringing you nearer to God; share with your class how it is. Your study should be enlightening your mind; share with your class how it is. If it isn’t, try and figure out why it isn’t and share with your class how you are changing it. Perhaps this is a dangerous approach; I have heard many stories of people who have been called as Gospel Doctrine teachers who have studied themselves out of the Gospel, as the saying goes. However, I believe that faith is a choice. It is a choice made seriously and it is a choice made daily. If you are still making that daily choice, keep teaching and keep teaching what you learn from it. If you are not, ask the bishop for a transfer to the nursery, the single greatest calling in the church.

If you do the above, it is my belief that your students will see your abiding interest in the scriptures and the meaning it has for you. This may inspire them to approach the scriptures themselves. In the end, that is your calling: you are meant to be an example of a faithful, searching member (searching, in particular, for God and His will). People may or may not remember what you say on a given Sunday; they are much more likely to remember you and your belief over the long haul.

Comments

  1. Interesting stuff Crawdaddy. I have to wonder though, are you sure that was your assigned topic?

  2. Excellent post!

  3. I tend to believe that they are more scared of your humanity; if you fart or burp in their presence then the spirit cannot really speak through you.

    I lose more potential converts that way!

    This is a very interesting and important topic in my mind. As a practicing Bible Dork, I find it very hard not to do things like quote other versions or translate my own just for the sake of clarity and understanding. But I think that my intentions get misunderstood all the time. We dorks need guidelines like these to follow. And non-dorks need them to understand us dorks. This is quite a public service you are rendering HP.

  4. I wish that I knew enough for this post to apply to me. Good stuff, J-dogg.

  5. …if you fart or burp in their presence…

    Holy cow, HP. All these years you have been teaching my priesthood quorum and I never knew it was you!

    I’ve been thinking how to apply the thoughts you have presented here to my situation (youth SS teacher). Any suggestions? I guess I’m thinking I need to be a bit more careful than I would with adults, but then I’m afraid I’m talking down to them.

  6. Regarding teaching youth, it is more difficult because they are not yet used to the idea that education consists in figuring out good questions. They expect you to give them answers. That said, I think that youth would be excited if you went outside of the curriculum in order to show them how complex the situation is. I think that they are much more interested in Gee-Whiz material than the adult Sunday School attendee.

    In other words, I think that the average teenage Sunday School class would like to cover the same material. Ultimately, I think that it is your attitude with them that makes the difference, not the material so much.

  7. Ardis Parshall says:

    The “snooty” comes not from using those materials; it comes from using those materials with a smirk, drawing more attention to the teacher and his brilliance than to whatever scriptural point is being taught.

    C.S. Lewis in my favorite essay, “Learning in War Time”: “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge — our knowing — more than the thing known; to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger.”

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I think there is a difference between trying to teach exclusively from an alternate translation and using one judiciously to explicate a difficult text or to make a point. In my experience people would feel very uncomfortable with the former, but would in general appreciate the latter.

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    “those attending do not actually come to learn anything. Rather, they are there in order to have what they already believe confirmed. ”

    Back in the day when I used to get an ego thrill over antagonizing people, speaking of snooty, I liked to call this thing that you’ve described ‘taking hold of the Iron Rod, and just standing there.’ I thought I was quite clever, but see now that it doesn’t really communicate the intensity with which one might be holding on, or the determination and gravity by which one’s feet are ‘firmly planted.’

    ~

  10. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have to say that I love every comment I have ever read by Thomas Parkin.

  11. Go along with them for the ride; admit what makes you struggle with a given doctrine, but also explain how you are dealing with it for the time being.

    Your scripture reading should be bringing you nearer to God; share with your class how it is. Your study should be enlightening your mind; share with your class how it is.

    This is very wise and insightful, and incredibly useful.

    I guess I’m thinking I need to be a bit more careful than I would with adults, but then I’m afraid I’m talking down to them.

    I would never be ‘careful’ with youth SS. Teenagers love emotional intensity. (It’s why Of Mice & Men is so memorable for HS students.) Show your own intensity in dealing with the application of gospel principles applied to situations with which they can relate. It makes me angry to see youth leaders in the church pandering to the youth’s natural tendency toward a lack of intellectual engagement instead of reaching past it to emotional and spiritual intensity.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    MCQ, it’s not just you!

  13. “The “snooty” comes not from using those materials; it comes from using those materials with a smirk, drawing more attention to the teacher and his brilliance than to whatever scriptural point is being taught.”

    Wow, that’s harsh. Sound to me like this may be a case of a class member failing to think about what the teacher is actually teaching because they can’t get past the teacher’s personal idiosyncrasies.

    This is an interesting discussion. I especially like the advice about asking uncomfortable questions, though I’m not sure I would phrase it the same way. I like to think of it more as “asking difficult questions.” For example, I think, “Why would the Lord command Abraham to kill his son?” is a very fair question. Additionally, I think teachers should be brave enough to ask questions that they themselves don’t necessarily know the answers to.

  14. Ardis,
    I agree that there is a danger of too much self-aggrandizement in teaching (which Mark IV address a couple of months ago in a post better than I could). This is why I think it is so important to (as Kevin puts it) use outside info judiciously, not just because one can.

    Greg,
    I don’t think it is a problem to ask a question to which one doesn’t know the answer, but one should always know an answer.

  15. Thomas Parkin says:

    MCQ,

    Thanks for #10.

    I mostly notice with every post that my grammar is as awful as ever, and that I’m grouchy – and I recall that online discussion – which I’ve got a long history with – rarely brings out the best of me. (I could link some bits – but my past isn’t very family friendly.) But, gracias. :)

    ~

  16. So, back to the “other translation” topic…just what translations are you lugging to GD class? I’ve brought the RLDS Bible & the NIV Bible. I always get a kick out of the big eyes & open mouths as I reference them during class & how many people rush up afterwards to touch & feel this contraband. Why are we so inbred in our thinking? Sometimes just asking a non-maintenance question in class draws stares of fear, like they are afraid to consider a question that doesn’t have an answer found in the manual. I know the early Saints didn’t feel this way!

    However, if I have time, I love the comparrisons I get from these extra sources as I prepare my GD lessons. New insights flow!

    BTW, which translation was Moroni quoting to Joseph Smith since it wasn’t the KJV?

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