We’re in the throes of VBS this week, our second VBS of the summer. Nearly 300 kids from the community are busting the seams of the church. Two of them are my boys. For the next few days I’ll compromise on my normal ‘cool music in the car only’ policy, and we’ll be riding around Alexandria listening to bible songs and talking about the fiery furnace and other stories.
A few days ago, Tony Jones’ post raised a question about why we (churches) do Sunday School at all. I’ll admit at the time I read the article it annoyed me; I’d just spent several hours planning for our fall kick-off. I was invested.
Now, in the midst of VBS and having thunk on it, I have a better sense of why we- as church- do what we do with our children.
The answer takes me all the way back to my own childhood. So bear with me.
The Bible and Basic Cable
Like most children of divorce, I grew up with Basic Cable as my primary babysitter, or, at least, the only babysitter that could reliably subdue me into docile behavior.
At some point in my early elementary years, I stumbled upon a children’s cartoon called The Flying House. The show featured three kids, some sort of robotic creature called SIR and a scientist named Professor Bumble, who bore an eerie asiatic resemblance to Doc Brown from Back to the Future. In the show, the children somehow stumble into Professor Bumble’s house just as a strike of lightening has jinxed the time machine the professor has invented.
All this happens of course during the opening score whereupon all five characters are jettisoned back in time to first century Israel. Each of the fifty-two episodes that followed take place during some moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. Even as a child I thought the plot conceit rather thin, and with every new episode I expressed incredulity over the odds of Professor Bumble’s time machine always landing the characters in the same three year span of time, to say nothing of the fact they repeatedly found themselves in the same little patch of the Ancient Near East.
My incredulity was feigned, however. Secretly I loved each of the episodes and the Gospel stories they traced. I would’ve been nothing but disappointed if, for an episode, Professor Bumble accidentally took them to the Gettysburg Address or to some alternate geographic spot in the first century. In ways I couldn’t articulate I yearned for Professor Bumble to take me to the empty tomb, to the Damascus Road or to the Father’s runaway youngest son.
I didn’t grow up in a religious home or family. My grandmother was the only person I’d ever seen praying. Jesus was someone I knew only as the person nailed above every bed in our small home. Church was a cold, dank castle we went when my Aunt Lisa married a guy named Chet. The Flying House was my congregation, my Sunday School and my VBS rolled into one. It was the Church where I first learned the stories of scripture, where I ingested the themes of mercy and forgiveness and God’s choosing of the lowly over the proud.
Looking back, I can say without exaggeration that this crappy, Japanese import converted my imagination and, unseen, laid the foundation for the faith I received years later.
All kidding aside the guiding convictions I share today about scripture can be traced back to The Flying House. Scripture’s ability to transform the imagination, scripture’s essential characteristic as story or narrative, and it’s primary function as script are all orientations I first acquired sitting on the cold basement floor in front of the television.
Philosopher Alistair McIntyre says that humans are ‘story-telling animals.’ We’re narrative creatures.
I learned from The Flying House that scripture is essentially story in the sense that it provides us with a narrative framework around which we can pursue our lives. That’s what those forty-three minute anime episodes were doing to me- they were giving me a narrative by which I could better answer the question ‘What must I do?’
Scripture is essentially story not only because it gives us a narrative structure to our lives. Scripture is itself essentially a story. This is one of the significant ways Jews and Christians part ways not only with Islam but with many other of the world’s religions.
For some reason (I blame it on the Enlightenment), we associate ‘story’ with fiction. We relegate it to a lower tier of truth than rationally, generally derived principles. In this our thinking is exactly the opposite from the Hebrew way of thinking.
Despite our prejudices ‘story’ is the primary vehicle by which God has chosen to communicate with us. After all, we refer to God as the ‘Word.’ Scripture of course includes many genres, such as poetry, law, letters, and history, yet scripture is overwhelmingly a narrative vehicle. The majority of scripture is told through stories and within all those stories, books and genres scripture conveys one, singular overarching story (Time in ministry has taught me that it’s this core story that eludes many earnest, even life-long Christians).
The fact that my very first immersion in scripture came in the format of a cartoon show helped form my guiding belief that the primary way we receive these stories is as script. These are stories meant to be performed. They’re not intended to be believed in- how do you believe in Psalm 23? They’re not meant to be passively received, as words that forever will remain on the page. They’re not meant to be understood at arm’s length as history. They’re meant to be performed in the sense that Psalm 23 invites us to live a life where God is our shepherd, our only want and we fear nothing, not even death.
Thinking of scripture as script allows us to recognize that scripture’s meaning, it’s this-world implications, and it’s emotional texture will differ as its taken up and performed by different Christians in different times and places. The story of Jesus washing his friends‘ feet will in one context be a story about how humble, humiliating service best summarizes discipleship. In another context that same story will be a story about repentance and baptism, about how only those who’ve been ‘washed by Jesus‘ may have a share with Jesus.
And where a stage is the proper venue for Hamlet to flourish, worship- the gathered community- is, I believe, scripture’s native soil.
And this venues like Sunday School and VBS come into play and play an urgent role. If scripture is primarily narrative that’s meant to be embodied and performed in our lives, then the necessary first step is to LEARN THE STORIES.
It’s because I’m thinking of who my boys will become that I’m willing to listen to terrible bible songs in the car. Bad music is a small price to pay if it means I get to hear that my boys now know the story of Daniel and ‘Nebuchawhat?’