Beyond Flannelgraph Christianity
As a child in Sunday School, I learned a lot from the flannelgraph, an easel with a flannel-covered board, on which were placed flannel-backed paper cutout pictures of Baby Jesus, twelve-year-old Jesus, Jesus passing out bread and fish, Jesus walking on the water, Jesus on the cross, Jesus coming out of the grave…to use a bad pun, you get the picture.
The flannelgraph lends itself to a child-level Old Testament survey – probably not so much for Levitical laws or Ezekiel’s visions. Yet, it works quite well for learning the basics about Adam and Eve, Esau and Jacob, David and Jonathan, Jonah, and my personal favorite, Elijah and the priests of Baal, as told by Peggy Pinkham. I can still hear Peggy describing Elijah mocking the priests: “Guys! Yell louder! Maybe Baal is asleep!”
Of course, as we grow up spiritually, we are expected to progress beyond the elementary things of the faith. We are to desire meat, not just milk. The Bible holds so many encouragements to do so that it seems unnecessary to list them. I Corinthians 3:2 has Paul complaining of being restricted to feeding spiritual milk to infants-in-Christ at the church in Corinth. He desires that we work toward a richer and deeper understanding to help each other grow in grace. Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect that sometimes we prefer to stay at the flannelgraph. Why is that? There may be some positive reasons, and I will mention these. First, there’s something to be said for recalling what we first learned and who taught us in order to get a handle on how much God has brought us along. Another reason might be that in our infrequent bouts of humility we seem to realize that keeping it simple does avoid mistakes we know we are prone to make. So, to stay simple is to stay in bounds. Fair enough. There’s also a concreteness, a sense of unity around the flannelgraph. We all identify with the “flawed goodness” of David, that Saul should have repented but didn’t, and that Abel is the good guy and Cain the villain.
Yet, there are reasons why we need to move on. I sense that resistance to grow comes about because we don’t much like change. We like it somewhat – if the other guy does the changing. However, we’re not so fond of it when we need to change. It’s hard work.
Take the example of science. Those who know me know that I have long been interested in the Book of Genesis and the decades-long suspicion of science by conservative American Protestantism. Instead of an eagerness to learn what science – the study of God’s work in nature – can teach us about Scripture, we have too often thought of science as a threat to the authority of the Bible. The result has been a systemic unfamiliarity with science, leading to a tendency to misrepresent what is being said by the scientist. Why? It seems generally a sincere attempt to protect the Bible, as well as an expression of loyalty to that Bible. There is an admirable component to the resistance – but again, only to a point. The real problem here goes unrecognized. Is Truth really being defended, once we take a thorough look at the situation?
I would opine that what we are defending is our immature understanding of what the Bible is saying. We’re stuck at the flannelgraph. Yes, the flannelgraph is great for teaching the basics, but the story is much deeper and richer and more helpful than those boiled-down-for kids condensed versions.
I hope to write further on this subject of science vs. the Bible, but not from the perspective of a series on why Evangelicalism tends to misinterpret Genesis, although I will use examples from that book frequently. Rather, it will be to encourage us to look deeper into familiar Scriptures and see them as provoking more questions – and better yet, fewer pat answers. That should help us read our Bibles better, moving beyond the flannelgraph stage of understanding – from the milk to the meat.