Sunday School Struggles

I’ve been going to this Sunday school class for well over a year now. Nigh on two years, maybe. I’m very fond of everyone in the class, but I’m beginning to struggle with what seems to be a fundamentalist, literalist tendency in the course.

Here’s some background. The class isn’t structured in any real way. The way it works is this: if you have a question – any question dealing with living in the Christian faith, whether it pertain to a neighbor cheating on his taxes, an in-law who just seems purely unlovable, or to a systematic theology question – you chuck your question in a hat. Eventually someone will draw it out, and the teacher has a week to research before leading a discussion about that question. Straightforward enough, and most of the time it works pretty well.

Today, the question had to do with the nature of God, and specifically, how the Old Testament God seems so much harsher than the New Testament God. The question cited God’s command to Joshua to essentially lay waste to Jericho, including the annihilation of every man, woman, child, dog, cat, guinea pig and goldfish.

It was the teacher’s job to show how the OT God and the NT God are, indeed, one in the same, and that there’s no discrepancy or inconsistency between God’s nature BC and AD. I think she actually did a fine job of this, the more I reflect on it, but during the class itself, I kept finding myself distracted by what clearly is a literalist bias.

(I feel a little guilty about harping on this. As I said, in the end the message seemed to come across, but something about the road we took to get there makes me feel very uneasy. But, you know how you sometimes feel uneasy about a conversation because you’re being challenged on an embedded belief, but at the end of the day, you feel that you can see things both ways? Yeah, this wasn’t THAT kind of feeling. It was genuine discomfort and a feeling that a bigger picture was being overlooked. Very strange.)

We talked about Rahab, and how God considered her righteous (He must have, since her house was the only one spared when the walls came a-tumblin’ down), despite the fact that she lied to her own people in order to protect Joshua’s spies. We also talked about Noah and the flood, and how people were constantly thinking and acting on evil impulses, so God wiped ’em out with a flood. And we talked about Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus comes, not in peace, but with a sword. Finally, we talked about how God didn’t ambush anyone, but rather gave them repeated warnings beforehand, to get with the program.

It’s kind of hard to wrap my head around this disquieted feeling. I do believe that God is the potter, and that it’s up to His discretion what use he puts his pots to, and so on. No problem there. It just seems that people continue to look at stories like Joshua and the Battle of Jericho to justify human violence in God’s name.

I think that the Joshua story is a good example to look at. Archaeological evidence seems to suggest that, rather than being a violent overthrow of the city, that the people of Israel (Jacob) “conquered” the city over a number of years, by a) failing to assimilate too much to the dominant culture, and b) rather, by being a formative force, changed the culture itself into a “Jewish” one. Our class today talked about how God was with Joshua, and everybody knew it, so when the walls came down, what a huge testimony that was to the power of Joshua’s God. People everywhere must have talked about it. Fact is, it doesn’t seem to have happened that way, according to the extra-historical record. It was more subtle than that.

The thing for me is that whether the story happened as the Bible tells it, or whether it happened as a result of cultural injection and conversion, it doesn’t really matter. I still think that God was the driving force, so the Biblical version is still “Capital T” True, just not factually correct. I think the alternative story is also more in tune with what I understand of God’s nature. Rather than doing things overtly – like commanding someone to attack a city and eliminate the entire population through violent human means- He tends to be more masterful, more subtle, more surprising. To me, it’s more suggestive of God’s power if the reverse acculturation version of the story is factual. Either way, both stories can be True: it’s just the insistence that – because it’s written in the Bible in a certain way – the Biblical version is the only literally true version. (This wasn’t explicitly stated in the class, but it is always implied.)

It is, to me, as though the integers of the Bible are and ought to be subjected to the greater Truth of the whole. It doesn’t matter whether there was a literal Adam and a literal Eve. It’s sufficient to know that Humanity, by virtue of our will, is sinful and idolatrous. That Adam and Eve are symbolic types doesn’t negatively impact the integrity of the Bible.

I was a German Philology major as an undergrad. In my studies I learned that Germans have two words for History: Historie and Geschichte. Historie relates to factual information about the past and, even though it discusses what those facts mean in a broad sense, Geschichte gets right to the heart of meaning. It’s kind of like the distinction that Henry Glassie makes in his book about folk history in Northern Ireland (Passing the Time in Ballymenone)between factual history and history of and belonging to the people. The latter contains facts, but facts are almost incidental. It’s what the story MEANS to PEOPLE that lend importance.

This was the background music playing in my head during the whole class, so I was distracted by its rhythm, and wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have been. For that reason, I missed how this came up, but at some point we started talking about God using tragedies and other people/cultures as media of judgment on the Jews. Our teacher never went so far as to say that God was punishing the Jews by causing wars, famines and tragedies like the Holocaust. I don’t believe she thinks that, either. Some people in the class seemed to be leaning that way, though, and it freaked me out. I can only hope that’s not what they believe. Our teacher actually did say that she doesn’t have God’s perspective, and doesn’t know what caused those tragedies, and in the end, she did confess God’s sovereignty, saying that He might well take those horrible events and use them as means to redeem His people – make something positive come out of horror and destruction.

That does seem to be the over-arching Biblical theme, to me: God created the World and everything/everyone in it, the people rebel, God sends them a redeemer, the people repent, then the people rebel and the cycle starts over again.

But it’s that constant hope that God (regardless of which Testament context you find Him) will redeem us that speaks to the Truth in the Bible. It’s not in details about whether there was a literal Battle at Jericho, or whether that story was told in order to hint at a broader Truth. I think this is a healthier way of looking at the Bible, and it lends itself less easily to justification of violence by human hands, ostensibly by command of God, and disintegration than does a literalist view.

Just my zwei Pfennige.


2 Responses to “Sunday School Struggles”

  1. I read your blog on Historie vs. Geschichte and your frustration with the Sunday School class. I first encountered this distinction reading Karl Barth (English translation). A couple of comments from not your average fundamentalist: The Bible is full of Geschichte–history that is unverifiable either because we have no physical record, or because it is supernatural, transcendent. “Christ died”…that is Historie; it is highly probable empirically that a man named Jesus lived and was crucified it the first century. But “Christ died for our sins”…i.e. the significance of his death, this is Geschichte. The resurrection is Geschichte. This means that the two major components of the gospel of Christ which must be embraced for salvation, Christ died for our sins; Christ rose again, are not Historie, but Geschichte. According to the Bible, then, our eternal soul depends upon claims of the Bible that are in the category of Geschichte. Therefore, we are on dangerous ground when we start letting Historie trump Geschichte in the biblical record. There are better examples than Jericho, but let’s take that one, since you brought it up. In the realm of Historie, archaeologists are not even agreed on where the site even exists. Historical sciences can be mistaken, as history (Historie) has affirmed again and again. But the Bible makes claims as to its truth. Before dismissing so easily what is not Historie, I would ask myself what presupposition I have that prevents me from accepting a claim of the Scripture because it does not fall into the realm of Geschichte. Do you believe the gospel? Then you already embrace truth claims in the realm of Geschichte. Why not the rest of it? If you read Calvin, check out the Institutes, in pariticular I.1.6-8, esp. 8 where I think he speaks of verifiable evidence of the truth of Scripture; but at the same time, Calvin insists that it is the Holy Spirit only that will convince a person of the truth of the Bible. If you look at III.25.3, this addresses the virgin birth in particular (another example of Geschichte) that I think you wil find very helpful. I appreciated your post!

  2. Greg,

    Wow! Thanks for coming by and classing up the place. I appreciate your willingness to elevate the conversation. I’m not sure I can contribute on this level, but I’ll try to explain myself.

    First, possibly a minor point, possibly not: I actually believe in Jesus’s resurrection as a point of Historie. The Gospels and Paul present the occurrence as an actual fact, going so far as to include about 500 witnesses (some by name, but most not) to the resurrected Jesus. One might dispute the claim based on the NT’s bias, but the resurrection is presented as fact. (But that’s a lot of time and words to spend on what might not be an important disagreement that you and I seem to have.)

    Such is not always the case in the OT. I don’t know whether the author(s) of Exodus expected the audience to believe that there was a literal battle of Jericho. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Regardless of the Historie surrounding the Jericho event, the fact that the Jews dominated there -by whatever means- is Historie, and there’s a lot of identity-pertinent Geschichte there, to boot. The Bible does, indeed, make claims to this story’s truth, but I don’t think it’s necessarily vital to believe in it’s literal truth as long as one can see the more significant Truth.

    Apart from that Jericho example, which kind of muddies the pond, we could pick the story of Jonah, for instance. I don’t believe that a guy named Jonah was swallowed by a fish and lived in its belly. It’s very improbable, actually. But I understand the story’s larger Truth as this: Jonah was called by God, Jonah refused the call, Jonah wound up in hellish circumstances until he repented and finally answered the call.

    What presuppositions do I have that prevent me from viewing a story as historical truth? Well, with the Jonah example, I know that people don’t spend 3 days underwater, stewing in digestive juices and come out to tell the tale. I mean, with God ANYTHING is *possible,* but it makes so much more sense to believe this particular element of this specific story as allegory rather than as historical fact.

    The point you raise about the Gospel is different. Our salvation does not hinge upon whether we believe in a literal Noah and his ark, but it does presuppose our belief and ultimate hope that – even though dead people don’t get up and walk around apart from in B-movies – God will ultimately raise each of us, as he first did in Historie with Jesus, His Christ, some 2000 years ago.

    I haven’t had time yet to look at the Calvin texts you alluded to, but I’ll check them out. I’m grateful for the discussion, and am open to further schooling. 🙂

    Grace and Peace,


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