Teaching Sunday School

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

I didn’t read Scripture much during my formative years. I married a United Methodist Church minister and, like most pastor’s spouses, was invited to teach Sunday school, in my case, to high schoolers. I was pretty good at it, too. I brought donuts every Sunday. I went over the three monotheistic religions because I didn’t want my young charges to get out of high school without knowing that Muslims and Jews worshipped the same God as we do.

I also wanted them to know a bit about the Bible. Most adults, even those of us who’ve been churchgoers all our lives, don’t know much about the Bible. (For example, go to a friend or family member who you know to be a regular churchgoer. Ask them how many different nativity stories there are in the New Testament. I’m willing to make a small wager that you’ll first get a blank stare, followed by the timid answer “One?” The correct answer is two. And they’re very different.) My students were going to have a least a passing knowledge of what was and wasn’t actually in Scripture.

I planned to start at one end of the Bible and go to the other, relating the events, stories, and parables. I didn’t have in mind to read the stories to them. The idea was to read the chapters myself, then retell the stories in my own homey way.

That meant I had to actually read the books myself and do a bit of thinking about them before Sunday mornings.

I found out that much (but by no means all) of the Hebrew Bible is pretty interesting. Genesis and Exodus are “edge of your seat” reading a fair amount of the time. I found out that there are two genesis stories and they’re different. I found out that, soon as his boat landed, Noah got drunk and spent a few days sleeping it off. One of my own and my students’ favorite stories was of Balaam’s talking ass.

So let’s stay with that business of two different and separate genesis stories. The first chapter of Genesis tells one story. The second chapter provides a very different story. The first starts with the “creation in six days” narrative that we’re all familiar with and ends with the creation of all humanity: “male and female He created them”. There is no mention of any Adam or Eve nor is the “tree of forbidden fruit” referred to. On the other hand, the second chapter makes no mention of “six days of creation”. The second and subsequent chapters are where we get the Adam and Eve and Serpent stories. Clearly, both stories can’t be literally, historically true.

So, why wouldn’t our priests, ministers, pastors, and Sunday school teachers be very clear with us about the existence of two different genesis stories? The answer lies in looking at just what people of dark motivations have done with the genesis story: provide support for the installation and sustenance of a system of patriarchy and bigotry that has done immeasurable harm to communities across the globe. Let’s look at a quick synopsis of the two stories to see how that happened:

Genesis Story One

God created the world and everything in it. He created all humankind, male and female, at the same time, in His own likeness. He took a look at everything and decided it was all good.

Genesis Story Two

God created a man. Then he took part of the man and made a woman. He also made a serpent that tricked the woman into eating the forbidden apple. The woman then tricked the man into sharing the forbidden apple. As a result, the man, the woman, and the snake were all expelled from Paradise.

I’m sure you can see now why men who were interested in gaining power and using that power to oppress (not to say, kill) others would prefer that everyone know and believe that second story. So they told that one. And ignored the other one, mostly.

Back to my students, then. I wanted them to know that Scripture does not support the misogynistic, racist, homophobic, divisive stance of too many Christians. That effort started with teaching them that the Bible has lots of stories that contain lots of messages, not a few of them in direct contradiction with one another. During every lesson, I repeated the caveat, “It’s important to remember that none of this actually happened. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find truth here.” That part is important because I didn’t want my students to get stuck, at some point in their lives, trying to defend the “inerrant truth” of what they were reading and hearing. Because the impetus to do so is one of the blocks in the foundation of Christianity’s harm and injury in the world today.

Those students are out of college now (or of that age, in any case). Were my efforts to teach Scripture in a hopefully enlightened way successful? Well, two of them led an effort in their hometown to get the county fair to prohibit the sale or display of the confederate flag. I’ve lost track of most of the others. All in all, I like to think that having a Sunday school teacher who didn’t see Scripture as a cudgel with which to beat others into submission or as a rationale for oppressing other communities set them on the right track.



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George Bohan

George Bohan

Born and raised in the South, living in Ohio. Writes about politics, management, and religion.