Teaching Children Without Pissing Off God

I recently posted some initial thoughts on the topic of ministry ethics: namely, that they deserve more attention.  One of the most challenging but important areas about which we must develop better ethics, I believe, is the realm of ministry to children.  This includes how we teach them on Sunday mornings, as well as at home.

I certainly don’t have all of the answers in this realm.  My only significant experience teaching children about the Bible comes from about a year and a half working with preschoolers at church when I was in high school.  Even back then, however, I noticed certain problems.  Some of these were more about philosophy of parenting or education—how much order vs. creativity, etc.  There was a very sweet woman who led one of the classes but was very old school in her approach, which I found frustrating at points but ultimately was a stylistic difference more than anything.  Another issue which frequently came up was gender roles.  Even as young as two or three, the children were policing each other about what colors they used for crafts and absorbing adult assumptions about what boys do and girls do.  I also saw some disturbing things, like when a middle-aged man essentially made fun of a four-year-old for already being nerdy.  (He was admittedly one of my favorite children, so I wrote a sad/angry email to the director of our megachurch’s preschool program complaining about the jerk.)

Despite these many issues we could discuss, two areas stick out to me as needing especially serious attention:

1) Children’s programs at church must be inclusive.

I can’t tell you how intentional we had to be about making certain our ethnic minority children had examples of themselves in the books, craft supplies, etc. we were using.  (Ex: If we had magazine clippings for a collage, we had to go out of our way, it seemed, to ensure that we had plenty of diversity in the pictures of children we found—an effort I’m sure not all teachers would make.)  And perhaps even easier to miss were the invisible minorities of our class.  I’m sure there were other categories, but some of the most neglected at our church seemed to be those children whose parents were divorced or whose parents might not even be nice people.  There was a lot of, “God loves you just like your mommy and daddy!” type talk, which didn’t automatically include our child living with her grandparents or two daddies or our children living with one parent or even ring true for children whose parents might have been emotionally abusive or otherwise bonafide jerks.

It’s not necessary, of course, to go on a long diatribe about how different some children are or how screwed up some families may be, but it is important to pay attention to those statements made in front of the whole class.  Getting to know your children’s situations and making certain nobody is going unaddressed helps them feel seen and heard.  Though they might not think too much about this at two or three, they probably notice exclusion more than we realize, and it a good habit for us to get in as teachers so that we don’t end up behaving hurtfully when they’re 8 or 18.  I believe inclusion is one of the very important ways we can help people new to the church feel good about coming back and help prevent adolescents from needlessly giving up on church.

2) Children’s programs and parents must both do a better job teaching about the complexity of the Bible.

I recently read Pete Enns’ book Telling God’s Story: A Guide for Parents, which is part of his larger Telling God’s Story curriculum series.  Enns recognizes the complexity of the biblical narrative and the theological issues it raises and thus encourages a three-part division of emphasis in teaching which corresponds with increasing maturity.  He thinks elementary kids should focus on Jesus, middle schoolers should get the rest of the story, and high schoolers should continue to deepen their understanding by being learning about the cultural context of the Bible in greater detail and able to ask tough questions about tricky passages and our theology.

I certainly understand the merits of this approach, but I think it might also be possible to talk about certain more complex issues with younger children.  In any case, the most important thing—whether or not we wait to discuss certain topics—is to avoid teaching children things they must unlearn later.  We shouldn’t teach children things only to have to correct them later.  Of course, there are some things that are never being corrected in most of our churches that might only be corrected in seminary, and there are unfortunately many seminaries which could use some correcting, too.  The question is less whether the children will later be told something else (they may or may not) and more whether they should be told something else because the first thing they were told misunderstands, oversimplifies, or perhaps even lies about the Christian journey or the Bible or God.

If we think lament is important, let’s emphasize that from the beginning instead of only when our children are in college and sick of saccharine praise songs.  If we want them to one day understand the way Genesis 1 draws from other Ancient Near Eastern literature, let’s expose them to this concept as soon as they are old enough to begin to grasp it.  If we want them to be able to deal with Pauline epistles which may not have Paul as their historic author, we shouldn’t insist Paul wrote them when they are young.  If we want them to accept multiple atonement theories as legitimate, we should not pound penal substitutionary atonement into their heads with a hard mallet.  In order to teach with integrity we must teach accurately.  More importantly, perhaps, we must teach proactively so that the Bart Ehrman Boogie Man and other frightening characters can become (to both children and their parents) merely academics writing books about things they’ve already heard of and generally accepted.  There is no good reason to be afraid of the majority conclusions of academia unless one has been bred to fear them and see them as incompatible with faith.  Let’s not set our children up to lose their minds to keep their faith or vice versa.

Primary Source Saturday: Martial

Martialis (source: Wikipedia)

Martial (source: Wikipedia)

Who: Marcus Valerius Martialis was a Latin poet born between 38 and 41 CE and who died between 100 and 104 CE.

What: His literary legacy is comprised of books of epigrams, that is, short witty poems. Some of them are quite beautiful, describing the deaths of friends or reflecting on the grace of the hare as it swiftly flies across the arena, but the majority are focused on the lives of Rome’s elite offering praise and scorn (mostly the latter). He has a reputation for writing explicit poems, but most of the time he is simply rude rather than ribald.

Why: Like Lucian, who was discussed last week, Martial is an important source of information on the social engagements of the Greco-Roman world. Several epigrams speak directly both to the conditions Martial endured as a client to a wealthy patron and Martial’s expectations (often unfulfilled) of the benefits he would reap from the arrangement. Since Martial often situated his epigrams within the daily affairs of affluent Romans, he provides insight into a wide variety of subjects. For example, his epigrams describing the arena offer interesting background relevant to the Christian martyrs. He describes instances where prisoners are made to dress up as figures from myth or from theater and act out the stories for the amusement of the crowd. Martial describes a prisoner forced to play the part of a robber, Laureolus, about whom there was a popular mime:

As, fettered on a Scythian crag, Prometheus fed
the untiring fowl with his too prolific heart, so
Laureolus, hanging on no unreal cross, gave up his
vitals defenseless to a Caledonian bear. His mangled limbs lived, though the parts dripped gore, and in all his body was nowhere a body’s shape. A punishment deserved at length he won he in his guilt had with his sword pierced his parent’s or his master’s throat, or in his madness robbed a temple of its close-hidden gold, or had laid by stealth his savage torch to thee, O Rome. Accursed, he had outdone the crimes told of by ancient lore ; in him that which had been a show before was punishment. (On the Spectacles, VII)

This habit of using the arena to play out legendary stories may be behind an enigmatic passage in 1 Clement:

 1CL 6:1 To These men with their holy lives was gathered a great multitude of the chosen, who were the victims of jealousy and offered among us the fairest example in their endurance under many indignities and tortures.

2 Through jealousy women were persecuted as Danaids and Dircae, suffering terrible and unholy indignities; they steadfastly finished the course of faith, and received a noble reward, weak in the body though they were. (Lake)

“Danaids” probably refers to the fifty daughters of Danaus who were forced by their uncle to marry their fifty male cousins and who subsequently murdered their husbands on their wedding night. How the women were made to play out this story is hard to decipher, but the other example, “Dircae,” requires little imagination. Dirce was killed by being bound to the horns of a bull.

Martial also sheds light on another difficult historical subject: the development of the codex form of the book. It will not be news to most of you that books used to be written on scrolls, but you might not know that the transition from scroll to bound leaves is not well understood. From what we can tell, the success of the book as we know it today is largely due to the influence of Christians. It is clear that the codex format had predecessors in the wax tablets and parchment notebooks used by businessmen and government officials to take notes and compose documents. Less clear is how we got from these reusable notebooks to papyrus codices. Given the scant nature of the evidence, it is somewhat surprising that Martial contains one of the only explicit mentions of the use of a codex for a literary work in the first century CE.

You, who wish my poems should be everywhere
with you, and look to have them as companions on a
long journey, buy these which the parchment confines
in small pages. Assign your book-boxes to the great;
this copy of me one hand can grasp. Yet, that
you may not fail to know where I am for sale, or
wander aimlessly all over the town, if you accept
my guidance you will be sure. Seek out Secundus,
the freedman of learned Lucensis, behind the entrance
to the temple of Peace and the Forum of Pallas. (Book I, II)

So early is Martial’s reference that the Latin word “codex” was apparently not yet in use. Instead, Martial uses the phrase “membrana tabellis” translated somewhat loosely above but literally meaning parchment tablets. The reference to grasping one-handed amply demonstrates that Martial describes a small codex. In addition to this helpful clue about the development of the codex, Martial also sheds light on the book trade in general. Notice in the above quote he directs readers to a book seller in Rome. The normal method of book propagation involved borrowing a copy from a friend and hiring a scribe to produce a copy, so it is interesting to get a peek into the world of book dealers. (See Harry Gamble’s recent article in Hill and Kruger (eds.), The Early Text of the New Testament) Martial is an important source for both Roman life and for the development of the codex, one of Christianity’s most enduring legacies. Not bad for a bawdy poet who spends most of his time gossiping about his peers.

To buzz or not to buzz.

Since my whining about Her.meneutics the other day got some attention, a fellow blogger was inspired to take on one of the posts I mentioned which condemned women who use vibrators.

Because I haven’t had the patience to critique this post myself, I thought it might be nice to pass you along to Sara’s analysis.  So go read “Oh You Brassy Hussy!” parts 1 and 2!

The one thing I do want to elaborate on is that in part 2 she mentions that masturbation is often recommended by therapists.  It deserves mention that during my Gender & Sexuality class in Fuller’s MFT program, I learned that masturbation figures prominently in the treatment for several sexual dysfunctions.  It annoys me to no end when Christians condemn masturbation not realizing they are also condemning other human beings to be unable to have sex with a partner.

Ministry Ethics

People do MAs instead of MDivs at Fuller for two reasons:

(1) To avoid language classes and focus on ministry.

(2) To avoid ministry classes to focus on academic stuff.

There is actually a third reason, too, which is something along the lines of “stupid –> thought didn’t need one because didn’t plan to be ordained.”  I might or might not be a part of that third group, but I digress…

I’m definitely a part of the second, though.  Even so, we had to take a couple classes which related a bit more closely to ministry.  What we didn’t have to take, though—what I don’t know that I ever even saw offered at Fuller, really—was a class about the ethics of ministry.  Everyone had to take an ethics class, but this was thinking about the death penalty, war, racism, sexuality, end of life issues, etc.  There wasn’t a class specifically about ministry ethics… and I find that a little strange.

I think the ethics of ministry is a very important course because there’s not necessarily the consensus on such issues that exist about ethical and legal issues for fields like marital and family therapy.  For my second Fuller degree in the Marriage & Family department of the School of Psychology, I had to take such a class.  A number of values drive MFTs, such as justice, autonomy, beneficence, non-malfiecence, and fidelity, and very specific codes guide practices in areas from confidentiality to advertising.  Our tests were multiple choice but hard.  Some case studies were extremely murky, but there were “right answers” that the profession had agreed upon, and once those answers were explained in light of the ethical guidelines, it all made sense.

The course was challenging, and you left the class knowing that you would need to 1) continue to study in order to pass your really difficult licensing exam and 2) seek help from supervisors and peers in the profession in uncertain situations to ensure you really do act ethically.  To go against these principles and codes was obviously something people had done before (yes, sometimes therapists have sex with clients and lose their licenses…), but they were taken so seriously in the class that if anyone knew that anyone else didn’t obey the rules, there would have been some intense shaming going on. There was a very strong sense of responsibility to clients which motivated students to think carefully before acting so that they might uphold the standards agreed upon by MFTs.

Somehow ministers agree less about ethics than MFTs, however.  Pastors and other Christian leaders do so many ridiculous things they have no business doing.  For example, many ministers think they are counselors.  They do not have adequate training in therapy so this is dangerous.  They do damage to people and their relationships because they don’t know what they’re doing.  This, my friends is unethical and should be strongly frowned upon by other ministers.  But everyone does it and few are frowning.  What’s up with that?  It’s so clearly a bad idea.  It’s an awful, awful idea, really.  They need to stop right now, and we should make them through establishing a consensus about ministerial ethics.

Another problem in ministry is emotional manipulation and coercion.  There can be so much unhealthy pressure coming from leaders and laity alike just because religious people often struggle with judgmentalism.  What is crucial for ministers to keep in mind, however, is that they occupy a place of authority in people’s minds.  Even in a “low church” setting where people call their pastor by his or her first name, they have influence—perhaps more than they realize.  The same perhaps especially true of many non-ordained ministers working in ministry with children and young adults, since an age gap also contributes to a power differential.  While plenty of people have plenty of backbone and will simply leave a community if they feel pushed around, there are also people who are really looking for advice from leaders they trust.  What is challenging for leaders is knowing how to effectively guide their flock without essentially making decisions for them about what to believe or how to behave.  Sometimes people will not realize for some time that they were acting more on the basis of a leader’s views than their own, but once realized, this knowledge can really sour someone’s relationship with their church or even with their faith as a whole.  Autonomy, then, is an important value for ministers, too, as well as therapists.

Other important ethical issues might relate to specific ministry areas such as economic development, evangelism, teaching children, etc.

I’m sure some individual denominations do have ethical codes, but I’m wondering why there’s not interdenominational agreements or anything that parachurch organizations also are willing to sign.  To start with it wouldn’t even need to be the most detailed statement—something is better than nothing.  A good starting point, however, might simply be more classes on the topic.  Bringing together professors and students with an interest in ministry would be a wonderful place to bounce around ideas and debate ministry ethics.

Based on my own experiences, I definitely have some specific ideas about ministry ethics, but before moving forward with this topic, I’d love to hear from others.  What sorts of ethical problems have you observed in ministry?  What principles, guidelines, or rules might be useful to implement to prevent future harm?

Primary Source Saturday: Lucian of Samosata

Who: Lucian of Samosata was a satirist writing during the “Second Sophisitc” born around 125 CE and died circa 180 CE.  A.M. Harmon, the translator of most of the Loeb volumes concerned with Lucian describes him in this manner:

Rightly to understand and appreciate Lucian, one must recognise that he was not a philosopher nor even a moralist, but a rhetorician, that his mission in life was not to reform society nor to chastise it, but simply to amuse it. He himself admits on every page that he is serious only in his desire to please[.]

What: The bulk of his work is comprised of satirical dialogues. My favorite, “Philosophies for Sale”, has been quoted on the blog before. In addition to these satirical dialogues, he has written the  novel “A True Story” that is widely believed to be the first science-fiction novel ever written. He also wrote essays addressing popular figures of his day and dealing in an amusing way with contemporary issues.

Why: So, why should a New Testament/Early Christianity person read Lucian? There are a couple of good reasons. First, some of Lucian’s pieces shed an incredible amount of light on second century Greco-Roman culture. As an example, consider his essay called “On Salaried Posts in Great Houses.” Lucian humorously exposes the difficulties that face rhetoricians seeking to gain from the patronage of the wealthy. In the process, he reveals a great deal about the duties of clients to their patrons, the nature of feasts, and generally provides an interesting window into the politics of patronage. More directly relevant is a hilarious narrative called “The Passing of Peregrinus” that tells the true story (no pun intended) of a philosophical wanderer who tried on various lifestyles, including Christianity, before settling on Cynicism and committing suicide in spectacular fashion on a great pyre just after the Olympics. The story is interesting because Peregrinus’ Christian years bear a startling resemblance to the imprisonment and martyrdom of Ignatius. The parallels are so interesting, that Lightfoot even argued some sort of literary dependence on the letters of Ignatius. While Lightfoot certainly demands of the text more than it has to offer, it is striking that Peregrinus is arrested in Asia Minor for civil unrest related to his Christianity, transported to Rome for trial, and ministered to by delegations from churches in Asia Minor. Ultimately, Peregrinus renounces Christianity and is spared the mill that would make him into the wheat of God. While no thought of a literary relationship can be defended, the “Passing of Peregrinus” does demonstrate that the situation of Ignatius was common enough or at least well-known enough to function as a literary trope. Lucian explicitly declares that the sending of delegations and the ministry to those imprisoned was the common custom of the Christians. It is also interesting because Lucian implies that Peregrinus’ rise to leadership was somehow tied to his arrest. This could support the theory that the government, which engaged in no widespread persecution until Decius in 250 CE, had a policy of targeting leaders. That does appear to be the case with Ignatius, since the movements of his coreligionists seem to be unimpeded. All in all, Lucian’s “Passing of Peregrinus” offers a fascinating window into both philosophical conversion and the practice of the Church in the case of imprisonment. The text can be read for free by downloading the relevant Loeb volume here. (N.B. While Lucian provides interesting information about the customs of the church, it is clear he is completely unreliable as a source of its doctrine.)

Good-bye Her.meneutics!

Friends, the time has finally come for me to remove a link from my blogroll, something which I don’t believe I’ve ever had to do.

When Christianity Today first began its Her.meneutics blog, I was excited by the promise of interesting theological reflection and cultural critique from a female perspective.  I’d long been bitter over the lack of women’s voices at blogs like Out of Ur, which caters to a “Christian leader” audience and boasts zero regular female writers.  While having the women segregated off at Her.meneutics is not necessarily ideal, I read numerous posts that were interesting and thoughtful—some even feministy!—and thought it was worth a link.

My enthusiasm for Her.meneutics has been waning significantly over the last couple years.  I’m not certain if the editors there would be able to pinpoint a shift in the blog’s tone, but at some point it did take a decided turn toward idiocy.  There are certainly decent posts every now and then, but for months, I haven’t been able to visit the site without becoming angry.  Still, because it was interesting (in its own way) and because I was lazy, I did not remove it from my blogroll…. But the time has come.

The last straw was a post that compares Hobby Lobby to the martyred St. Stephen and encourages Christians to believe the ridiculous and unscientific lie that the hormonal birth control causes abortions.  It’s offensive to me as a Christian, as a woman, and as someone with a brain.  Other great contenders for worst post ever include a piece about a Jewish Christian who apparently thinks she can follow Jesus while living a settlement in the West Bank (?!?) and a piece that hated on vibrators.  There were some other pretty bad ones, but those are the ones that really stick out.  ;-)

I do think a few of the posts at Her.meneutics are worthwhile… but the editors obviously have no filter.  I don’t have time to pan for gold, and I feel a little awkward about “recommending” a blog publishing so much that is downright disgusting.

So good-bye Her.meneutics!  We will only sort of miss laughing/crying/raging at you.

(As a sort of addendum, I really think that part of why I always followed Her.meneutics is that I hoped I could maybe write for them one day, less because I loved them and more because I saw it as an actually plausible place for me to gain an audience as a woman writing on religious topics.  I’m pretty certain I have not endeared myself to them by writing this blog post, so I guess that dream is shot, eh?)

Martial: My Favorite Epigrams – Book I

Those that made me laugh aloud:

If I remember right, you had, Aelia, four teeth:
one fit of coughing shot out two, and another two
more. Now in peace you can cough all day: a third
fit has nothing left there to discharge.

He who fancies that Acerra reeks of yesterday’s
wine is wrong. Acerra always drinks till daylight.

Warning – this one is a little ribald:
That I write verses little squeamish, and not such
as a schoolmaster would dictate in school, is your
complaint, Cornelius; but these poems cannot please,
any more than husbands can please their wives,
without amorousness. What if you bade me indite
a marriage song not in the words of a marriage
song ? Who brings garments into Flora’s festival,
and permits prostitutes the modesty of the stole ?
This is the rule assigned to jocular poems, to be
unable to please unless they are prurient.
Wherefore lay aside your squeamishness, and spare my
pleasantries and my jokes, I beg you, and do not
seek to castrate my poems. Than a Priapus as
Cybele’s priest nothing is more disgusting.

One of my favorites:
Lately was Diaulus a doctor, now he is an undertaker.
What the undertaker now does the doctor
too did before.

Lately you did not possess a full two millions, and
yet so profuse and open-handed, and so large in entertainment
were you, Calenus, that all your friends
wished you ten. The god heard our vows and prayers,
and within, I think, seven months, four deaths gave
you this sum. But you, just as if nothing had been
left you, but rather your two millions robbed from
you, came down – wretched man! – to such starvation
parsimony that those more sumptuous banquets which
you provide just once in the whole year you now
set out at the squalid expenditure of dirty coppers;
and we, your seven old comrades, cost you only a
half-pound of bad silver.  What reward for merits
like those should we pray for? We wish you a
hundred millions, Calenus. If this sum fall to you,
you will die of hunger.

You complain, Velox, that I write long epigrams,
you yourself write nothing. Yours are shorter.

My favorite serious epigram:

When wasting disease choked his guiltless throat,
and o’er his very face crept black contagion, Festus,
dry-eyed himself, spake to his weeping friends,
and purposed to pass to the lake of Styx. Howbeit
he marred not his righteous face with secret poison,
nor with slow starvation tortured his sad fate ; but
his sacred life he closed by a Roman’s death, and
set free his soul by a nobler end. This death may
Fame prize more than great Cato’s doom : Caesar
was this man’s friend.

When Dead Men Make You Laugh

The following is taken from Lucian’s Philosophies for Sale:

What else can you do fairly well ?
Everything except catch a runaway slave.
Why can’t you do that?
Because, my dear sir, I am unable to apprehend


I’ve arrived in Chicago for SBL

I’m here in Chicago waiting for the fun stuff to start. If you see me on the book floor, do stop and say hello. I’d love to hear from you.

“Why I’m Still Evangelical” at At the Threshold

I’ve been surprised and excited to see that my recent post on “Why I’m Still Evangelical” at At the Threshold has been being passed around on Facebook quite a bit!

I’m a little disappointed that I haven’t had a chance to post as much here recently, given how extremely busy we’ve been these last couple weeks.  I hope to rectify that soon!  In the meantime, I hope that anyone who makes their way here from my post enjoys looking at some of my and Jeremiah’s older writings.

I’d also love to hear from readers!  I’ve seen a few comments on Facebook, but no comments on the blog post itself yet.  I would love to hear more about what your experience has been and why you do or don’t identify as evangelical.

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012