Friday, January 16, 2015

Broadening the Sunday School Canon: Ten Texts for Teenagers

Much of the time and energy I spent this past year working on my forthcoming book was devoted to revisiting the items I had chosen to be on my list of 100 things a student should know before Confirmation class. 

Most of my choices for the list were inspired by years of teaching Confirmation classes and working closely with Sunday school curriculum curricula. But the final list came together one snowy winter night during our 2011/2012 holiday vacation. In that moment the list was one part brainstorming, one part venting, and one part pipe-dreaming. 

Even though I spent two years blogging through this list, I didn't sit down to look at it as a whole until I started working on the book. With each chapter I wrote, I struggled with all of the things that were not included in the list:

Why am I including all three parables from the 15th chapter of Luke (the lost sheep, coin, and son) instead of including the parable of the Unforgiving Servant?

Do I include the story of Zacchaeus instead of the raising of Jairus’ daughter? An iconic passage from Isaiah, but not one of my favorites from Micah?

How do we put limits on what we read or know or explore in the Bible?

I have always tried to reiterate that the list represents not the maximum but the minimum of what a student should learn in those early years of Sunday school and of Bible reading at home with their parents.

But the truth is that we set limits like this all the time, both intentionally and unintentionally. 

We use the term canon to describe the Bible - the collection of chosen and approved texts that were gathered together and called sacred over an extended period of time.  It was this process of canonization that determined which gospels would be considered authoritative, which letters were authentic, which ancient epics were inspired. 

But in pastoral and academic settings we frequently use another term as well: “the canon within the canon.” This phrase represents our tendency to fall back on a smaller selection of stories and passages within the Bible again and again.

Sometimes we do this as individuals - connecting with certain passages more than others and returning to them again and again while never stretching ourselves to dig more deeply into unknown or uncomfortable parts of the Bible.

Sometimes we do it as pastors and preachers - returning to the same passages and stories again and again in the pulpit, either through preference or simply due to a slavish dedication to the lectionary which itself has become a canon within the canon in its repeated three year cycle.

Often we do this as educators when we create curriculum and classroom experiences that return again and again to the stories that we know we are expected to teach to children - Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, The Nativity, Jesus Walking on Water, the Conversion of Paul. 

The 80 items on my list that deal directly with the Bible pretty accurately cover the standard Sunday school canon. My struggle in working so closely with this list was coming to terms with the finite amount of time we have with children in the classroom and the truth that this limitation forces us to make decisions not just about what we will teach, but also about what we will not be able to teach. 

What I hope that I was able to do effectively with my list was to start to broaden that Sunday school canon just a bit by suggesting adjacent or complementary stories and passages that we can use in the classroom to enhance our “go to” Bible lessons. For example, instead of just teaching the story of Moses in the bulrushes, teach the story of Shifra and Puah, the midwives who spared the lives of many Hebrew babies.

But it is also important to remember that as students get older we can very intentionally expand not just our Sunday school canon but their biblical literacy as well. In my experience there is less rigidity in our expectations of the biblical material that we teach to teenagers, and we also have the potential for more frequent Bible study opportunities as they begin youth group, hopefully in addition to more formal Sunday morning classes. 

Below is just a small sample of stories that provide a lot of conversation potential for youth. Again, these are obviously not the limit of what new stories you can introduce them to. These ten texts below are really meant to stretch your imagination when it comes to choosing what we have time to teach and what we don’t have time to teach. 

In middle school, students are ready to be stretched and to know that you trust them to read more difficult parts of the Bible. They are also still shaping their understanding not just of the Bible but of themselves as believers and as members of a community and a tradition. Here are some examples of stories that I have found success in teaching with this age group: 

1. The Second Creation Story (Genesis 2: 4b - 25): We often conflate the two creation stories in our concept of how the Bible describes creation. Middle schoolers are primed and ready to start having conversations about how the Bible offers a diversity of images and how the Bible is not a linear narrative but a sometimes messy combination of a variety of traditions.

2. Solomon’s Judgment (1 Kings 3:16-28): We spend a lot of time teaching children about King David, but his son and heir Solomon often gets ignored. This story of Solomon judging between the two prostitutes is about as iconic a biblical story as you can get. Reading it with younger youth can give us a chance to talk honestly about why there are so many stories about prostitutes and how we “deal” with that as readers. It is also very appropriate to make them familiar with a story that can thematically be found repeated again and again throughout literature. 

3. Jesus’ Visit with Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42): This story can help students expand their understanding of what it meant to be a disciple of Christ beyond the 12 men who traveled with him. While it has been used in the past to create archetypical understandings of how women serve in the church, it really speaks to all of our experiences of balancing between service and spirituality. It is never too early to start that conversation with young men and women both. 

4. Jesus and Pilate (John 18:28-40): The Gospel of John provides some of the most unique gospel stories, and some of the most evocative. The philosophical dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in John 18 can open up a conversation with young people about the political elements associated with Jesus’ death. There are also a variety of dramatic interpretations of this story which can provide helpful conversation starters on how we imagine this trial really happening. 

5. Paul and the Unknown God (Acts 17:16-34): This story of Paul addressing the Athenians could have been taken right from a Rick Riorden novel, as Paul travels through the city appalled at the number of statues dedicated to the Greek gods. Reading this together with middle schoolers can illustrate for them the mission that the apostles had in evangelizing among the Gentiles. It also provides some great theological language for articulating who and what God is for Christians.

High School students are ready to wrestle with some of the hardest parts of the Bible, and honestly some of the hardest parts of themselves. I have always believed that it is better for me to introduce students to difficult texts in a setting where they can ask questions and think constructively about how the Bible shapes their understanding of the world and of their life as a believer, rather than leaving them to discover these parts of the Bible on their own.

6. Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16 - 19:28): This story, while difficult to read, shapes many people’s understanding of what the Bible says about sexuality. I have found that reading it together with youth can help them to move past the popular conception of this story to really examine carefully what is happening in it. This is not really a story about sex but rather a story about violence. Reading it together is an exercise in deconstructing the Bible and our expectations for what it says. 

7. The Rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:22): Similar to the story above, this story can lead to helpful conversations with youth about sex and violence. Unlike the story above, the rape of Tamar eerily echoes some of the conversations we continue to have about violence against women today.

8. Psalm 51: We always teach children Psalm 23, and it is obviously an important “liturgy” for them to be able to draw upon in times of grief or struggle. But the Psalms contain within them the whole spectrum of human experience, and repentance and seeking forgiveness is an important liturgy for the believer as well.  Helping youth connect with Psalm 51 connects them with the language of sanctification and transformation through grace and growth.

9. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31): There are not too many parables like this one in the Bible, which is what makes this parable so interesting to read with youth. It also provides a very clear message of our calling to reach out to those in need in the world, especially when we have so much to give. 

10. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11): I honestly never read this story from the time of the early church until I was in seminary. The shock value of two church members dropping dead in the act of lying to the community provides an opening for discussing how we live together as a Christian community today. Do we hold one another accountable? Are we supposed to? Why don’t we?


What stories are you using when you study the Bible with youth? How are you broadening not just their biblical literacy, but their understanding of how the Bible relates to the church and to their lives? 

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