Playing God

Hannah J. has guested with us before.

In the interest of strategy sharing, let me start by saying that having our class act out scriptures is the only thing my husband and I can do to harness the crazy energy of our CTR 4 class of eight kids. They love it. We started with the Nativity at Christmas time and have done stories ranging from Daniel and the lions’ den to the council in heaven. Every time we do it, the kids insist that we spend the entire lesson replaying the scene to give everyone a chance to act out different characters. The enjoyment and learning value of donning costumes and acting out scriptures aside, we always face a casting imbalance since our class has six girls and two boys. Roles such as King Herod, the wise men, and the angel Gabriel do not appeal to these young girls. Honestly, I do not blame them. When I was learning to read as a kid I was not interested in books with male protagonists. I loved Ramona Quimby, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew because, in the act of reading, I could imagine myself as these girls and women. This reality continually challenges my husband and I as we try to find meaningful ways for the girls to act and experience scriptural stories and learn the truths therein. We have to re-negotiate the roles for the talent available; our actresses instead act as Queen Herod, the wise women, and the angel Gabrielle.

A few months ago, our lesson was about the Council in Heaven. Using a few scarves and white shirts the children were costumed and cast in their roles. Jesus, Lucifer, and Heavenly Father were the people specifically in the “script” but we reasoned that Heavenly Mother must have also been there, as well as countless spirits/angels. I thought that perhaps the roles of Jesus, Lucifer, and Heavenly Father were more rigidly gendered and less flexible than the previous Nativity scene we had acted. The kids disagreed. One boy assented to be Heavenly Father and the other to be Lucifer, we got a quick female volunteer for Jesus and another for Heavenly Mother; the rest of the girls were happily cast as angels.

The scene played out in the following way: the “Heavenly Father” actor was too shy to outline the plan of salvation (that we were whispering to him) to the heavenly host/spirit children/classmates/fellow actors. However, the girl playing Heavenly Mother had no such difficulty; she boisterously told the class about the plan. After Heavenly Father saw that it was cool to do the play-acting, both him and Heavenly Mother related in unison to the host of heaven that they needed a Savior to carry out integral parts of the plan. Lucifer (coincidentally the most rambunctious kid in the class) volunteered himself and told the rest of the heavenly host that he would force them to do right so that everyone could make it back to heaven and the glory would be his. Jesus (one of the class’s best dressed and most quiet girls) proposed the plan that everyone should choose the right for themselves and that the glory should be Heavenly Father and Mother’s. We then asked the two angels to decide what plan they preferred. After some consideration one went and stood with Jesus. Without any prompt from us, the child Lucifer started appealing to his real life friend to join his camp. After much internal debate, she still decided to choose Jesus. All in all, I could not have imagined a better way for the kids to learn and experience the story.

We continued to replay the scene and switch up the roles until the class was finished. As I watched the scene unfold I found myself wishing that this were always the way we thought of the Council in Heaven. On Sundays and in General Conference I feel lucky when people even mention the concept of “Heavenly Parents”, let alone naming the existence of our Heavenly Mother. Just as the kids were willing to believe that a spare button up white shirt was an angel costume and that 3D movie glasses made a good wise wo/man look, they were also willing to play out the roles of our heavenly parents with ease and reverence.

As a university student, I studied and bemoaned the absence of women in scripture. In my classes we studied interpretations of women in scripture and how they often reflected the contemporary roles that women held in their religious community. Now, instead of writing papers that critique interpretations of scriptural women, I find myself as a primary teacher whose job it is to help four-year-old children gather meaning from these ancient and complex writings. In doing so, I want to provide relatable female scriptural role models for my female majority class. I want the girls in the class to know that, just like the boys, there will be meaningful places for them in their future religious community. In the same way that the scriptures are filled with visible male protagonists; the church is also filled with visible places and roles for men. Right now in primary both the children and us teachers use our imaginations to make meaningful roles for themselves in these scriptural stories. But this imaginative collaboration between leaders and the rest of us will be just as necessary as these children grow up and create meaning for themselves in their wards and spiritual communities. For now the task has been easy: the angel Gabriel becomes angel Gabrielle and no one knows any differently.

Last Sunday, we were acting out how Jesus called his apostles Peter, James, and John by making them “fishers of men.” After discussing the roles with the children, one girl decided that she did not want to be anyone (including the coveted role of fish). I proposed that she act as Mary Magdalene but this time my make shift inclusion tactics didn’t work; this girl was not content to be an apocryphal female character thrown into the story. It crushed me that this girl did not participate in the play-acting session because there were no viable female roles. It made me worry about the women and girls who choose to opt out because they do not see places for themselves in our community. Just like my creative interpretations of the character’s gender in the scriptures, some cosmetic changes can be made to accommodate women and allow them space to be actors and agents in this community. However, I am convinced that that is not enough. While I don’t claim to have any of the answers, I do know that our religious leaders and community at large, both locally and generally, needs to creatively engage with both women and girls to make meaningful roles for them.


  1. Hannah this is just wondeful. I remember when we talked about this experience for the first time, it was revelatory to witness what happens when we let girls simply choose and act.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    You are great teachers. Thanks for the insightful thoughts.

  3. I love this. So many ideas for my (also female majority) CTR5 class. They would absolutely love this, and I hope to be half as conscious as you are of making sure all feel included.

  4. Young men are leaving the church in vastly disproportionate numbers to their sisters and still BCC feels compelled to publish 100 posts kvetching about female scriptural representation for every one post (have there been even that many?) thinking to ask “what the hell is happening to the boys?” I know, I know the answer is to immanentize the eschato… er… tear down the patriarchy, “‘cuz patriarchy hurts boys too.”

  5. Wilhelm–do you have a source for your numbers?

  6. I’m curious too. I’ve heard that the church is also losing young women and that leaders are increasingly concerned about them.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Wilhelm, first the comparative magnitude of practicing between men and women in western religion is a fascinating topic–one note necessarily new to the particulars of current trends (see for example the priesthood reforms of the early 20th century). Secondly that has little to do with helping girls and women find affirmative images in scripture and other gospel narratives. Lastly, you are terribly rude, and not welcome to comment similarly.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I love your teaching method; good work!

  9. About Wilhelm’s point about what is happening to the boys (the relative gender ratio is immaterial as we should the loss of one sheep), yes it is the systemic (gender, patriarchy) problems we have that are to blame there as well. We do a great service to the girls when we emphasize their inherent worth, but we do them a great disservice when we suggest we don’t need them to *do* anything individually necessary to building the kingdom. For boys we do them a great disservice by not teaching them they have inherent worth. They are only true and good as long as they fit narrowly defined parameters of masculinity. Not into scouting (in the IS), not sure you want to be ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, don’t want to serve a mission? If so, there is literally no place for you, as a man. And heaven forbid you compound those grevious errors with singleness or homosexuality, because not only is there no more place for you, you are somehow tainting the spaces around you. I think all of the things we ask of boys are good and help them grow and develop. But for the boys that struggle with that very shortlist of options, finding a way to stay and nurture their faith is an almost insurmountable slog. So, to end this ramble – noticing how restrictive attitudes affect girls automatically raises awareness about boys’ experiences. It’s not a zero-sum game.

  10. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”

    That is a distinction that needs to be made loudly, and often. When I brought up roles for young women with my bishop, his reply was that the boys needed those opportunities more than the young women because the young women were inherently more spiritual, etc. We gently and persistently disagreed on that latter point, but I still don’t understand why he thought extending responsibility to the young women automatically meant taking it away from the young men.

    And yes to teaching young men that they have inherent worth!

  11. While I don’t have official numbers, by reading Jon Birger’s Date-Onomics (which is an excellent read) it would appear that the church is losing men at a faster rate than women. He spends half a chapter on LDS dating. His source material for the chapter is interviews he conducted with professional matchmakers in Northern Utah. They all have binders full of women whose requirements for a date are 1) male and 2) active LDS.
    So if girls are born into the church at the same are as boys (and I assume they are), the three possible explanations are: 1) active LDS men are marrying non-LDS women in droves, 2) many active LDS men are proactively remaining single, or 3) the church is losing men to activity at a noticeably higher rate than women. You can decide which one is most likely.

  12. You’re a much better teacher than I ever hope to be. Great stuff. But how on earth do you act out Book of Mormon stories with that many girls? There are only two decent roles in all 500+ pages.

  13. Not a Cougar says:

    Guys, I’m totally happy to discuss the rates at which men leave church activity v. women, but let’s save it for a post that focuses on that issue. Or request that BCC build a forum so that you can create topics on the issue to your hearts’ content.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    This is why I sometimes find play acting problematic in primary. You have to be careful to be inclusive but if it’s not possible I honestly think it’s probably better not to do it.

    To the other point, as others noted it’s not a zero sum game. We can improve in all aspects of our lives even while noting we may be weaker in some than others.

  15. I love how you are including your class in the lessons! I’ve been in primary leadership forever it seems and it’s a joy to see teachers who get the children involved in any way rather than expecting them to sit tight in a chair for way too long :-)

    Just a note though, that we are asked in the handbook to not have anyone role play Heavenly Father or the Holy Ghost and only to role play the Savior when it’s in the nativity (not as a child or adult) It’s in the primary section of the handbook (11.8.5) Something to consider for future classes.

  16. Guys thanks for the love and comments.

    Wilhelm – I Agree with Not A Cougar. ‘Nuff said.
    Marcella – I had only found out about those rules after I had done the council in heaven lesson. I think that for me, part of the lesson of this story is really profound things can happen when we give children the responsibility of depicting profound stories in our scriptures. But honestly, I’m not sure I would change anything even now that I do know.

    I get why playing God or the Holy Ghost could be a concern, God is only ever portrayed in the the temple or first vision videos and also having kids play God has the potential to get irreverent fast. And there is nothing really to act out the Holy Ghost doing, except for maybe descending like a dove? However, as long as the kids are being respectful, I see no problem with acting out the scriptures with Jesus especially since the majority of the lessons for the CTR 5s use stories from the New Testament. It would be strange to not have someone acting out Jesus’ part if you are acting out stories from the New Testament such as Jesus walking on water or Jesus healing the blind. You would have to eliminate most stories from the New Testament. I think the main point here is that playing out the scriptures helps the kids experience them in a meaningful way and we cut it off if it gets too irreverent.

    As a way of update, I actually wrote this about 10 months ago and these days our class does not act things out as much as we used to, in part, because now the majority of the girls in the class insist on playing princesses (sometimes I can convince them to be angels). So unless we are role playing the story of Esther or we just add a bunch of extra-scriptural princesses in the story, it just doesn’t work anymore. In the beginning of the year, acting out stories was like magic but our class may just have grown out of it or take the activity for granted now.

  17. This discussion about the rules of play acting has me thinking. We are all asked to be like Christ—not necessarily in theatrical sense but through emulation of His actions. However, men do have the privilege of ritually acting out Christ through priesthood ordinances. The confinement of ritual acting to men, while restricting all other representations, is thought-provoking.

%d bloggers like this: