St. Augustine and the Sunday School Teacher

In reflecting on the value of figurative language in On Christian Doctrine, Augustine explains that “I contemplate the saints more pleasantly when I envisage them as the teeth of the Church cutting off men from their errors and transferring them to her body.” I’m totally with him in that I love the idea of Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and hey, maybe Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon too, chomping us down into the digestive tract of Christian devotion; it offers something for the imagination to chew on during a dull sacrament meeting. However, for Augustine, this isn’t just a useful way to clarify the role of the saints in salvation; it’s how he reads the Song of Solomon: “Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing” (4.2). In Augustine’s reading, the speaker is addressing the Church, the Church is like a sheep, and the toothy-sainty mouth of the Church is the way to into Church central. This has to be what the Song of Solomon means, because it clearly can’t be what it appears to be, a lover’s song to his beloved.

Augustine knows that it can’t be a lover’s song to his beloved, because he knows that the Bible teaches only caritas (charity, or the motion of the soul towards God), and such a lover’s song  would instead teach cupiditas (the motion of a soul toward other souls, for its own sake rather than God’s). His rule for interpreting the Bible is the “rule of charity”: if a passage appears to teach charity, you interpret it literally; if it appears to teach anything else, you need to find a convincing metaphorical interpretation. This allows him to resolve the Old Testament to the New, and provides a means to read the OT’s anthology of ancient political, historical, spiritual, and literary writings as texts that have something to say about Christianity. For Augustine’s purposes (which don’t exactly include a reading the Old Testament as Hebrew scripture through a culturally sensitive and pluralist hermeneutic), it’s an elegant and tidy solution.

It’s also, however, quite Procrustean – this doesn’t fit your beliefs about the Bible? well, make it fit – and circular. The Bible teaches nothing but charity. How do we know that? Because the Bible told us so. Where? In [pick a passage], which can be read to figuratively state that the Bible teaches nothing but charity. And how do we know to read that passage figuratively? Because the Bible teaches nothing but charity, so there’s no other way to read it. It’s always a bit unsurprising when you approach a text already convinced of what it’s going to say, and discover that, indeed, it says what you already planned on it saying. It’s also a bit too easy to gloss over all of the more problematic, culturally distant, and frankly disturbing aspects of the Old Testament as being “just” allegorical.

Fast-forward through several centuries of Augustinian hermeneutics, add some Tertullian and Origen, throw in a little Aquinas, and you’ve got a long and rich tradition of reading scripture in a manner more figural than literal, using allegoreisis to make Old Testament texts look more Christian and therefore more legitimate. And, all these centuries later, this tradition is today alive and well nowhere more so than in our very own LDS Church Correlation Committee. The Old Testament Sunday School manual teaches the stories of Jonah and Isaac as “types and shadows” of Christ. David and Goliath is a story about overcoming challenges: Goliath isn’t a giant; he’s a figure for pornography, alcohol, and the corrupt multimillion-dollar industries who are out to get us. Lot’s departure from Sodom is actually an allegory of repentance, and Lot’s wife looking back is easily mappable onto Christ’s injunction to leave everything behind in following Christ (Luke 9.62). The lesson on Job is titled “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” and he’s constructed as an Everyman Christian and assigned a testimony of the Savior, which is what allows him to endure his trials so gracefully. Never mind that he’s supposed to have lived long before there was a Savior; the Song of Solomon was written long before there was a Church or saints, and that didn’t stop Augustine.

Certainly all of this serves to make the text more handily didactic, but at a price –  and the price is the text itself. If you teach diligently from the manual, it turns out you hardly need the Bible at all. You can just look up the verses the manual uses to proof its moral, figure, or allegory, and skip the context. In fact, you pretty much have to, because the context will almost invariably complicate the tidy figural reading of the lesson manual and raise awkward questions the manual can’t answer. Job’s line about “my redeemer” comes after a long and detailed complaint against God, and in the context of him bitterly wishing for a judge between him and and the Divine. (Closer inspection does suggest he’s a little angrier than the figure of patient suffering we’ve canonized him into). If you put aside the ostensible figurative meaning of Isaac’s near-miss sacrifice, you have to confront a much more disturbing story about a God who demands things like the sacrifice of one’s children, and then backs out with an angelic “Just kidding!” If the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land is taken as a literal, historical journey, rather than an anagogical figure for our own journey to the Kingdom of Heaven, then you have to deal with several literal, historical genocides on the way, made all the more disturbing because they’re done in the name of God. Allegorizing these stories is a way of glossing over their alterity and avoiding the hard questions they raise, a way of effacing the scriptural text itself in preference for our traditions about it. (Oh yes, what was that about the Catholics and their reliance on tradition instead of revelation?)

In some places, this preference for the allegorical/figurative over the literal/historical actually suggests not that there is a superfluity of meaning in the Old Testament, but that we are actually struggling to find meaning there at all. What is the spiritual significance of Ehud stabbing Eglon so that the fat covers the knife hilt, or Hezekiah stopping up the springs outside of Jerusalem? Is it possible these are recorded as historical events, and that they aren’t meant to be read spiritually at all (though in that case, we do have to ask, what does it even mean to read this text as scripture?)  How seriously are we taking the scriptural text if we insist on turning it into a different text before we can find a meaning for it?

Of course, in the immortal words of the Simpsons, it’s easy to criticize – and fun, too! I have no trouble skimming through the manual’s version of the lesson and, maybe a little smugly, deciding it’s of no use to me as a teacher. Working out how I am going to organize the lesson is, however, much more difficult. Given forty-five minutes to teach the entire Book of Job or Judges  I can see the appeal of an all-encompassing figurative reading, a clear moral, and characters who are neatly good or bad, who worship the right God or dismiss him, and who succeed or fail in keeping with their faith or idolatry. Besides being easier to plan and execute as a lesson, I think it makes an easier connection to our own struggles in our own lives, and if the scriptures don’t have some meaning for the way we live and worship in our own lives, I’m not sure why we should study them at all.

But I also think that real lives in the real world, whether historical or immediate, don’t fall into neat allegories of spiritual truths, and that the events – especially the tragedy and suffering – of life are rarely given satisfactory significance by the imposition of an external  structure of meaning. And I think the way we make meaning out of a text as complex as the Bible will ultimately be not so different from the way we make meaning out of our own lives. I haven’t so far figured out so far how to always keep attention on the text qua text, while also finding a more personal and spiritual dimension to talk about so that  Sunday School doesn’t turn into Melyngoch’s Lit-Crit-Lite Hour. Some parts of the Old Testament make it easier to manage this balance than others –the Book of Job clearly has something to say about suffering, sin, and innocence that we can all relate to, while sometimes in Chronicles it’s hard to find much to relate to at all, to say nothing of a spiritual dimension to the text. (And then there’s Ezekiel . . .)  But I’m convinced that if we want to find meaning in the Bible that really resonates with our own lives, we have to do it by taking the text on its own terms, trying to understand the beliefs and desires of Biblical characters in making the decisions they do, and thinking through how this portrayal of the experience of God relates to our own. Life is not lived figuratively, and we do both life and scripture a disservice when we allow the meaning we come looking for to efface the story being told.


  1. There is a lot here to think about, and I will need to do some thinking before I make any substantive comment, but for now I just want to register my hearty approval of a post which manages to combine both Job and The Simpsons. Very well done!

  2. .

    I’ve done a lot of subbing in GD this year and I’ve bumped into this problem quite a bit. Essentially, I end up ignoring the manual entirely (even to the suggested chapters — so long as I don’t overlap with a previous or future lesson I figure I’m okay). I do however, look for lessons worth learning. The purpose of GD after all is to engage the Bible as scripture, not so much as history etc. But I believe in pushing right on through the tough parts for possible answers, rather than otherwise.

    Augustine’s game is a fun game and I think it’s legitimate, but I also think it is incomplete. The real challenge of the Bible is in allowing it to be E. All of the above.

  3. You’re over my head, Melyngoch, but I like it!

    I also think that real lives in the real world, whether historical or immediate, don’t fall into neat allegories of spiritual truths, and that the events – especially the tragedy and suffering – of life are rarely given satisfactory significance by the imposition of an external structure of meaning.

    Your first point here definitely makes sense. I think the way we talk about our experiences in church settings, particularly bad experiences, dramatically overstates how often our experiences do fall into allegories of spiritual truths.

    I tend to agree also with your latter point, but I thought that made me a cynic. Isn’t this–imposing an external structure of meaning on the events (particularly tragedies) of life–one of the major businesses of religion? In a lot of cases I think it’s pretty successful. Or am I misreading you?

  4. What is the spiritual significance of Ehud stabbing Eglon so that the fat covers the knife hilt . . . ?

    Also, regarding this, I thought the importance was that it’s extra bad to stab someone in such a manner. Regular old stabbing isn’t any good either, of course, but if the fat is covering the knife hilt when you’re done, you can bid the Celestial Kingdom goodbye. Which means, of course, that, all else being equal, it’s better to stab skinny people than to stab fat people. I take comfort in this, as a fat person. 🙂

  5. “The texts were beautiful; but it was not them that my soul so pitiably desired. I had plenty of texts, and better ones too; the ones I picked, I picked only in order to steal. Once I had picked them, I threw them away; I feasted only on the wickedness that was the fruit of my theft.”

    (from Augustine’s Guide to Correlating the Bible for Sunday School Teachers, Part II)

  6. I like your point about the convenience of allegorizing difficult stories. The way the literal vs. symbolic question (itself already a framework I’m not sure I’m totally on board with) plays out in LDS discourse is kind of fascinating; I think it was Kiskilili who observed to me once that we appeal to “symbolism” when we are confronted with something that on its face would be be offensive or absurd to our modern sensibilities. Not just in the OT, but also with regard to potentially sensitive aspects of liturgy or other scripture. Which I think is a problematic way of dealing with symbolism; I’m all for playing with symbolic readings and the possibilities they can open up, but I don’t think it’s responsible to use that approach as a way to escape uncomfortable aspects of the text. (I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me, “don’t you realize that such-and-such is just symbolic?”)

    But my own approach to teaching the OT is hugely problematic, honestly, so it’s a good thing I’m not doing it. Because when I’ve done it, I’ve found that all I want to do is dig out interesting theological questions. Which in itself maybe isn’t bad, but I find it easy to gloss over context and pull out questions without seriously considering whether such questions actually have anything to do with the text at hand. I do think the OT poses a lot of fascinating theological questions, but I also think I’m overly primed to find them–which isn’t exactly engaging the text. It can make for fun discussions, but I think should I be called to teach GD again, I’m going to have think a little harder about what I’m doing. To some degree I think it’s also the basic problem of not knowing a lot about the OT–I’m a lot more comfortable with the NT (because while I’m no NT scholar, I’ve at least studied it some). Really, teaching the OT is a lot to ask of a layperson. Not that I’m necessarily critiquing that–there are certainly benefits–but it’s worth acknowledging.

    I’m also thinking that another complicated issue with the OT specifically is that of anti-Semitism. Is it legitimate to read OT texts christologically? I realize that might be a less loaded question if we weren’t coming out of centuries of Christian persecution of Jews grounded in supercessionist ideas. But as it is, there’s something disquieting about Christians telling Jews that we know better than they do what their sacred texts mean. And yet we’ve made them our scripture, too, and arguably also have claim on them. Maybe because I’ve been overly sensitized to the issue, I notice that I tend to be somewhat skittish of christocentric readings. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. And I’m even more wary of LDS-centric readings, in which the text is magically shown to clearly state contemporary LDS teachings. But is that really any worse than what Christians have been doing for centuries? (I’m asking that of myself, noting that I tend to be more forgiving of the latter than the former, and wondering why that’s the case.)

  7. [T]he events – especially the tragedy and suffering – of life are rarely given satisfactory significance by the imposition of an external structure of meaning.

    Wait–you don’t want these events to have meaning at all, or you just don’t want them to have meaning imposed on them by others?

  8. Th.,

    The real challenge of the Bible is in allowing it to be E. All of the above.

    I suspect that I agree with this, but I don’t know how to quite make it work on the ground ever. I don’t really feel like I know enough about Biblical history to get super historicist in my teaching style, but I do still feel like it’s important to think of it as a text written as history, or as poetry, or as folktale/literature, or as whatever familiar genre I can approximately tie it to. And in parts, I always want to talk about authorial voice and bias (e.g., how seriously do we take it that all the other tribes and living in Canaan are evil and must be destroyed, given there’s clearly a mytho-political advantage to writing your history in those terms?), but that tends to complicate reading the text as scripture, meaning the authorial voice is authoritative. And I’ve tried to teach Job and Jonah as fiction, which makes sense to me, since I have no problem with the possiblity of moral fictions being canonized as scripture, but of course that’s in defiance of the manual, and I’m always secretly worried I’m about to get fired from my calling for things like that.. I suppose it’s just a difficult balance, teaching the OT as scripture, and teaching it as whatever other genre it might be, because an awareness of each genre seems likely to produce slightly (or wildly!) different interpretations of a given passage.

    On the other hand, when it’s going well (and I’m not overly anxious that the institute missionaries are spying on me to see how apostate I am 🙂 ), that’s what I love about teaching the Old Testament — when it’s harder to nail down a clear “moral of the story,” I think the discussion has the potential to take off in any of a number of directions, and produce a wider of variety of interesting meaning.

    Is it legitimate to read OT texts christologically?

    This is my biggest issue with the manual! And this comes straight out of exactly the patristic and medieval tradition that we’re supposed to be so leery of — of the three types of allegory you’re supposed to be find in the Bible, it’s the third, the tropological (through which all the events of the OT gain all kinds of new and improved meaning by being read as pre-figurations of events in the NT) that I find by far the most problematic, and with which the manual is peppered. I suppose I’m quite skeptical that the writers of the OT had any specific foreknowledge of Christ and Christianity, or that if they did, they would have lodged their knowledge in abstruse metaphors; or, especially, that God has engineered human history to have meaning in terms of foreshadowing rather than on its own terms. (Maybe I just take it too personally, but I’m not wild about the idea that my own life is being manipulated into an allegory of, say, the Second Coming, so that it can have a didactic effect for someone else down the road; I’m therefore not willing to take take Abraham’s life as an allegory for something outside of his own life-story.)

  9. I tend to agree also with your latter point, but I thought that made me a cynic. Isn’t this–imposing an external structure of meaning on the events (particularly tragedies) of life–one of the major businesses of religion? In a lot of cases I think it’s pretty successful. Or am I misreading you?

    This is an interesting point, and definitely have mixed feelings about it. Part of my own life is the religious ideology I embrace, and so in interpreting my life, it will be through a certain lens of faith, certain beliefs about my identity and relationship with God. And I might offer Katya some interpretation of some aspect of her life based on our shared religion, as well as my knowledge of her particular religious beliefs or anxieties, and that still seems okay. But if my well-meaning home teacher informs me that the premature death of my favorite cat happened because God wants to test my patience in adversity — that seems suspicious, even borderline offensive. Maybe it’s the difference between religion offering us a a structure through which to interpret our own lives, because we make it a part of our lives, and religion becoming a way for us to maraude about interpreting other people’s lives for them.

    Tangentially, this is actually something that made me enormously uncomfortable in the mission — the way they encouraged us to find people grieving the death of a loved one and use it as an opening to introduce them to the gospel. It just seemed so manipulative, and so presumptive — like we could just swoop in as authorities on their lives and tell them what their grief REALLY means.

    Wait–you don’t want these events to have meaning at all, or you just don’t want them to have meaning imposed on them by others?

    I definitely think things have meaning, even if the meaning is only in the making of it. I suppose that all depends on the degree to which you use external structures — probably you could make the argument that finding any meaning in any text or any life depends upon the imposition of some external structure or code of meaning. What I’m criticizing here is just the tendency to do this specifically by imposing other narratives and references on the texts or life events we’re looking at.

    To give an example (I’m a little worried I’m over-indulging in theory-speak — exams may have turned me into a complete crackhead): suppose Ziff has three daughters, two of whom profess their love for him and expect an inheritance, and one of whom gets married and moves to France. I could say “Hey, Ziff’s life looks a lot like King Lear’s!” and therefore determine that (i) his first two daughters don’t really love him, (ii) his third daughter moved away because he treated her badly, and (iii) all of this will teach him an existential lesson about identity, loyalty, and the politics of human relationships. But before I drag him out to the wastelands of eastern Nebraska to see if he goes mad and starts raving into the storm about ungrateful children, I might ask whether it’s fair to impose an entirely separate narrative over Ziff’s life and determine the meaning of Ziff’s life based on that. Maybe his first two daughters really do love him and are eager to help him build his corporate empire of statisticians, and he needs to learn a lesson about the limits of capitalism. Maybe his third daughter and her lovely French husband come home every Christmas, and the life lesson he’s about to learn is going to be that French people aren’t nearly as snooty as he’s always thought. None of these things actually have much to do with King Lear.

    It seems to me that wherever we’re constructing a meaning, from text or life, it should be as much as possible through the pieces text and life itself, rather than from reference to other texts or other lives — though on the other hand, both occur in the context of other texts and other lives, so it’s impossible to extract that external reference entirely. I suppose I’m raising a much larger question of how we make meaning out of life at all, but I think I see Lynnette coming in her very best Paul Ricoeur costume, so she can tackle that one. 🙂 I’ve been long-winded enough tonight as it is.

  10. Dang it all, I seem to have misplaced my Ricoeur costume! Which is probably just as well, since Ricoeur rather intimidates me. 🙂

    But I’m thinking that part of the problem with the way the Bible is often taught is that the narrative is seen as a means to an end–a neat moral or a theological statement. As if narrative were just a clunkier way of conveying truths that could be more efficiently conveyed in an abstract assertion. But I would argue that a primary way in which we make meaning out of our lives is to construct narratives, so it’s kind of backwards to then attempt to cook the narratives back down into something simpler–which is a way in which I often object to the manual. I love systematic theology (obviously), but I don’t think it’s in any way a “purer” form of what gets conveyed in narrative.

    Okay, this comment maybe made more sense in my head. But what I’m trying to say, I think, is that perhaps one way to frame the issue is to consider that the narrative itself is something constructed to give meaning to the events; in a sense, the narrative is the meaning, so it’s odd to try to pull a meaning out of it. Which also means that narratives aren’t interchangeable–an assumption that arises if you see the narrative as simply something that can be boiled down to some basic moral or type that can be equally well illustrated by other narratives (which is why, in your example, the King Lear imposition would be a problem–it’s assuming some amount of interchangeability, rather than allowing us to think about Ziff’s story as something complex and unique). Our challenge, then, is to engage the narrative without assuming in advance that we already know (based on other narratives or theological ideas) its meaning. And that’s where I would bring in Ricoeur, (though with much hesitation since I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about, though that doesn’t usually stop me!) But I do like his point that a narrative opens up a new possible world, and encountering that world can change the way in which we understand the world in which we live. But that can’t happen if we think we already know the point of the story.

    Also, the power of a narrative, I think, is in its ability to engage us affectively and not just rationally–to speak to our imagination. Rational arguments have much less power to be transformative–you can cognitively understand something without being the least bit changed by it. So the narratives lose their power when they get turned into a point of some sort.

    Though I’m not really sure how to turn all of this into a practical way of teaching GD. Except that, as you note, beginning with the premise that you already know the moral of the story is a good way to rob the text of any real power. Not to mention that it’s a good set-up for a boring recitation of well-worn answers. But I have to admit that I’m a lot better with theory than with practice, when it comes to actual pedagogy.

    I do love, though, that you have institute missionaries spying on you.

    And I think the way we make meaning out of a text as complex as the Bible will ultimately be not so different from the way we make meaning out of our own lives.

    I really like this.

  11. I wonder if one solution to the problem of reducing biblical stories to a simple moral lesson is to imagine ourselves living in the scriptural narratives. I agree with Lynnette that narratives have greater power to transform our perceptions than doctrinal discourses. Scriptural narratives, in all their complexity and ambiguity, seem to have been carefully crafted by generations of prophets/scribes and to have been favored by God. Thus it seems that we should try to embrace the narrative complexity and ambiguity as a method of understanding human-divine relationships.

    Nephi’s advised that we should “liken the scriptures unto ourselves.” I do not think he meant that we should seize on some facile moral. Instead, I think he advocated that we imagine ourselves within a scriptural narrative. In 1 Nephi 17, Nephi imagines himself as Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, and his knowledge that God intervened to facilitate the survival of the Israelites gives him faith and confidence that God will likewise bless his family as they journey to their promised land in the Americas.

    I study medieval retellings of stories from the Bible. One of the reasons that these retellings fascinate me is that the medieval poets craft the stories within the contexts of their own cultural situations. Considering the stories in new contexts often reveals new tensions and insight concerning human-divine relationships. For example, in an Old English poem about the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites are portrayed as ranks of Anglo-Saxon warriors who are arming for war against the chariots of the pursuing Egyptian soldiers. It turns out that the expectation of both armies that they will engage in battle with each other is thwarted when God fights his own battle against the rebellious Egyptians with the very elements of the earth–the Red Sea. I wonder what defeated expectation of divine behavior that the Anglo-Saxon poet was grappling with for him (or her) to highlight that aspect of the scriptural story.

    When I have tried to imagine myself in the contours of scripture stories I find myself wanting to know more about what happened in between the verses that were recorded in the scriptures.

  12. Good thoughts.

    I’d be interested in hearing your take on New Testament authors’ proclivity to quote Isaiah in their narratives of Christ’s life and their subsequent letters. Matthew seems to do it the most, but Mark, Luke, John, do it some and Paul and Peter also tuck Isaiah-isms into their writings. Matthew seems to be writing from a tradition rich in the custom of finding types and symbolism in centuries old scripture.

    Perhaps, just as one of these inspired men read Christ’s life with many types and symbols noted and the others were less inclined to do so, we have similar variations of thought in our own congregations on how essential or not we feel type seeking or symbol reading is in Old Testament text.

    If so, it seems to me that perhaps the type-seeking contingent may have gotten a few more seats on the manual-writing board this time around.

    Which means that the non-type-seekers who teach lessons will just have to dig a little deeper until the next manual re-write.

  13. Because when I’ve done it, I’ve found that all I want to do is dig out interesting theological questions. Which in itself maybe isn’t bad, but I find it easy to gloss over context and pull out questions without seriously considering whether such questions actually have anything to do with the text at hand.

    Man, either you are too hard on yourself or when I look at someone else’s religion all I see are the loopholes I would avail myself of. Just because I may not to be able to tell the difference between eating a bag of Dove chocolates, staying up till 2am working in my lesson plan and the subtler promptings of the Holy Spirit- doesn’t mean I wouldn’t claim that whatever interpretation I chose was clearly divinely led.

    I would also like to argue for a Bible edited by S. Morgenstern. You know, a good parts only-version. With footnotes that explain all murder as symbolic and all romance as an earlier day Cosmo article. “King Solomon gives ten tips on how to drive him crazy with breasts like a gazelle!!!”

    I have also decided in my official capacity as a Director of Religious Education that I am going to adopt Bono’s adage that the only rule for a rock n roll band is, “to never be boring.” I’ll let you know how it goes when I inform the board of this new development.


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