Introducing: Sunday School for Sinners & Saints

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“Look in the Book for the answers to all the questions that are puzzling you. Look in the Book and you will find all the answers come to life right before your eyes.”

I sang those lyrics during a musical with my church’s children’s choir when I was in elementary school. In the production, a giant Bible was positioned in the middle of the stage and we, the soloists, walked through the pages dressed as the heroes from the Bible’s great stories. It was a playful if a little on the nose way of illustrating to our parents and ourselves how the Bible can come to life and while I can’t remember a single lyric from any of the other children’s musicals in which I performed, those two sentences have remained embedded in my spirit for the better part of thirty years.

I was raised in the suburbs of Dallas—the buckle of the Bible Belt—and spent every moment I could within the walls of my Pentecostal church. I was a church junkie, it was my fuel, my fire, my fun and my freedom and I loved it there. I loved singing with my friends in musicals, I loved playing games during Kid’s Church, and I loved learning about the heroes and villains of the Bible during Sunday School each week.

The stories were simple then. David defeated Goliath. Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Noah had the animals line up two-by-two. All of this played out in my mind as if by Precious Moments figurines—porcelain images of perfect white people with halos that hovered gently above their heads. The heroes won, the villains lost, and God always made sense.

After spending my formative years in near fulltime church ministry—even living and working at my church for a year after high school—I went to Bible School like all the good little Super-Christians in my circle. After three years, I transferred to Baylor University to learn how to be a writer and a person which eventually led me to New York, the place I love more than anywhere in the world.

Now, I write. A lot. For eight years, I wrote articles and conducted interviews for an online magazine I created and in doing so, had the opportunity to talk to many of my heroes: Oscar winners, gospel singers, TV legends and Olympic gold medalists. I’ve also written essays about my upbringing, my college experience, and the backyard tree of my childhood which I loved like it was a person. Among those essays, one was about the Bible’s David. I had a sprig of an idea (which is just enough to jumpstart an all-consuming writing project) and for two years, I explored my relationship with the story of David. Over time, countless edits, and numerous rewrites, it morphed into an essay about the church today, the dogma of my youth, and that finicky concept of the continuous work of scripture interpretation.

At a certain point, one of my college friends read through it and among her comments, she said she enjoyed the way I retold David’s story and would enjoy reading more of the Bible through that lens—through my lens. That got me thinking. Were there other characters in the Bible I felt strongly enough about to examine through the prism of today’s culture? Turns out, there were.

The list that accumulated were the heroes and villains I’d learned about initially in the Sunday School classes of my childhood. From David, I looked at Samson, then Joshua, and then Jonah. Some stories covered many chapters in the Bible like Esther’s and others were only a few lines long like Zacchaeus up in that tree. Over the course of reading and rereading these already very familiar stories, I ran into plot points I’d missed in Sunday School, sparkly new moments of insight, and I realized despite having spent years of my life studying the Bible, there was oh so much more to uncover. I also saw how so many of these Bible stories were applicable even if you don’t prescribe to the Christian faith tradition.

In church, the Bible was often referred to as “the living Word” and in reading these stories with specific intention as an adult, I found that to be resoundingly true. The lessons learned, the pratfalls, and the decrees informed by the traditions of the day still hold deep meaning, but what exactly is that meaning now?

The American church is in a pivotal moment. People are divided—tweeting and posting and arguing like it’s their calling to do so—and many outside of the Evangelical establishment now see it as being irreparably out of sync with the rest of the world. The cultural heel-digging of the church in regards to social and societal inclusion has widened the divide between Evangelicals and everyone else to the point where Christians appear as if they care more about their politics than they do about loving people. But in the words of Point of Grace, the definitive all-girl Christian quartet from the 90’s, “There’s a cross to bridge the great divide.” So in the face of this dissension between Evangelicals and seemingly everyone else, I looked back to the Bible, the originating place for so many people of faith, for answers. Through the B.C. and A.D. characters and personalities, I’ve seen a lot about the world we live in today and about myself as a person operating in that world.

I’m not a biblical scholar and I don’t have a degree in anything spiritual. I consider myself a layman when it comes to biblical interpretation and while there’s much to learn from those who’ve dedicated their lives to the scholarly understanding of scripture, I can only bring myself to these stories. But that’s okay. It’s more than okay; it’s necessary.

As a kid, stories in Sunday School were told to us for two reasons. The first was to teach us about God’s love but the second was to give us context for what was happening in our young lives. Being kind to each other, learning to share, helping someone who fell down on the playground. That was the world we lived in at that moment and those were the actions and reactions we could relate to at the time. I took the same approach to these stories now that I’m in my mid-thirties. I had to bring myself and my experiences to the text.

In my neighborhood in Harlem, summer means parks filled with kids, teenagers playing basketball and families setting up card tables on the sidewalk for curbside picnics—all scored by the melodic dings of the Mister Softie trucks doling out misshapen Spider Man ice cream bars with gumball eyes. When I first moved into my building, the sight of a grill on the corner of Broadway and an extended family of twenty eating burgers and dancing to the music of a parked car caught me off guard. My first thought was that I couldn’t relate but after watching them talk and laugh and dance, I realized it actually wasn’t foreign to me at all.

As a teenager, I’d eat dinner with my friends every Sunday night after church. Many times, we’d caravan back to my parent’s house and set up camp in the front yard. With music playing from one of our cars—usually mine because I had a convertible—we gossiped about the backslidden and vented about our choir director who wore her insecurities on her sleeve. We ate take out, swatted away mosquitoes, listened to Britney and the Backstreet Boys, and talked through our doubts about God or faith or ourselves. To borrow a Christianese word, we fellowshipped. Spending a summer night eating together outside in a seemingly random place, my friends and I weren’t all that different from the family grilling on the corner of Broadway listening to Beyoncé. I simply had to view my neighbors through the lens of my own human experience and instantly, we shared more than we didn’t.

That’s us and the Bible. We read it through the lens of what we know today and hopefully, that view will expand and heighten so we can see more than we saw before. Because of that, there are large swaths of me in these stories. The Bible is a living document because we bring ourselves to it. It’s alive because we are living through it. My cultural context, my learned outlook, my understanding of the world around me, I bring all of that with me to reading this text that’s outlived history itself.

“Look in the Book for the answers to all the questions that are puzzling you. Look in the Book and you will find all the answers come to life right before your eyes.”

So that’s what I’ll be doing each Sunday from now until Easter. Hopefully it will challenge you to approach the Bible with a new set of lenses for yourself. Even if you’re not a Christian and believe the Bible is a bunch of fairy tale hocus pocus, take a chance on learning about these heroes and villains. More than likely, you’ll also be learning about yourself.

A new retelling of a story from the Bible will post each Sunday morning until Easter. Grab some coffee and join in the conversation below.

3 thoughts

  1. Looking forward to reading all of them. Since I teach kids in Sunday School now, I will enjoy bringing your thoughts into my classroom.

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