Our Sunday School teacher sat on a folding chair, her ankles demurely crossed, an open book perched delicately on her knees. Beside her chair, an easel supported a sheet of plywood that had been covered with fuzzy cloth. She read us Bible stories that were suitably edited for our young age and, as she read, she placed paper cut-outs of Bible characters on the flannelgraph. They adhered almost magically.
Sometimes she would let us, her students, put the paper dolls, oh so carefully, on the flannel board.
There little David, armed only with a slingshot and great faith, faced off against the giant Goliath. There Jesus walked on water as casually as we might stroll down a sidewalk, but when impetuous Peter climbed out of the boat he fell into the sea with a mighty splash and had to be rescued. There Lot and his family fled the destruction of wicked Sodom but his disobedient wife glanced back and was turned into a pillar of salt.
My Sunday School teacher told me stories full of wonder, adventure, and mystery. I am thankful. She helped to start me on a path of faith. She contributed to my life-long love of the Scriptures.
The Apostle Paul wrote: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11 NRSV)
I left Sunday School long ago. I realize now that the Bible stories I heard back then were sanitized. They were simplified to teach unambiguous moral truths. They were purged of sex and violence inappropriate for young ears. I may have heard about the destruction of Sodom, but the sin (attempted rape) for which that city was punished went unspecified. Nor was I told the sequel: a sordid tale of drunkenness and incest (Genesis 19:30–38). These things had to wait until I was grown and had put an end to childish ways.
I know now that there are no flannelgraph saints.* The Bible’s patriarchs and apostles, prophets and disciples, are three dimensional. They are fallible. They are sinners. They live the full range of human experience. They feel the full gamut of human emotion. Their stories are not simple, sanitary tales with clear moral messages.
The Bible is messier, more adult, and more wonderful than that.
*Okay, I have to admit that there are a couple of characters in the Bible who might qualify as two-dimensional, flannelgraph saints. I’m thinking specifically of the Patriarch Joseph, he of the rainbow-colored coat. The guy seems a bit too good to be true. I sympathize with his brothers who were so annoyed by him, though, of course, I cannot endorse their selling him into slavery.
Daniel, too, is something of a Johnny One-Note, but since he is presented as a model of faithfulness for an oppressed people, it is probably appropriate.