[Warning: A fascinating summer read has drawn me back into the confessional...bear with me.]
My summer reading began with Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook God Wrong by James Loewen. The basic purpose of the book is to describe the reason why the average American knows so little about our own history. He argues it is because, in an effort to idealize the Republic and its key historic figures, we have edited out information which clouds the preferred ideal narrative of American history. In doing so, we have defined competence in the subject of American History to three areas. First, we must learn and respect a series of dates (October 12, 1492; 1620; July 4, 1776; 1860-65; December 7, 1941; September 11, 2001). Second, it is deemed imperative to learn the oversimplified biographies of several key historic figures (most can describe Helen Keller’s childhood stories, but few know she was a radical Communist her entire adult life; and, many can describe President Woodrow Wilson as the progressive thinker behind the League of Nations, but few know he was a white supremacist). Finally, the student must appreciate the way events and figures in world history have been used by the larger sense of America’s destiny; even if this “history” is outright fabrication (for example, pretty much everything you think you know about Christopher Columbus).
Loewen argues that the visible agenda of teaching history in such a manner is to ensure that all high school graduates have an ability to name certain key figures, maybe recite a few tales about them and to describe their place and role in the creation of the American Dream. The hidden agenda is to ensure the preservation of a narrative written by and to the glorification of those who have benefitted the most from history.
He begins by saying that History is one of the few academic subjects which, at certain key junctures, the student is pretty much told that everything they’ve learned up to that point is idealized and simplified tripe. College freshman taking American History 101 are shocked when a professor portrays Lincoln, the martyred, log-cabin-raised/country lawyer become savior of the Republic, as an emotionally haunted person who dug up his dead son’s body more than once and was married to a woman who may have been insane much of her adult life. Franklin, the inventor-statesman, is recast as a lewd, womanizing manipulator. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, is also a slave owner who fathered children with a slave. At what point did we decide that learning the less-than-ideal, though true, side of historical events and personas was not essential to learning our history? Those who have never read or learned about such primary source documentation of the other side of history experience such information as an effort to undermine truth, justice and the American way. So, purposely ignorant of the whole of our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
The process Loewen describes is also a fair description of how the Christian faith transmits – or, rather, fails to transmit - its message. We begin with idealized Sunday School descriptions of key figures: Abraham, Jacob, David, the prophets, the disciples, and, even, Jesus. But most American Christians’ historical and theological education end at about 8th grade where Scripture is largely still taught to what Piaget called the concrete operational mind, thereby reducing all Scripture to the preferred narrative of a morality play; that is, good things happen to good people. However, these characters and their stories begin to take on entirely new meanings when engaged with critical thinking methods learned in late adolescence and adulthood. Sadly, the majority of folks never get – or take advantage of – an opportunity to do so.
I have led a couple dozen Disciple Bible Study groups over the past 16 years. This intense and lengthy study pulls few punches and challenges lay persons and clergy to delve beneath the superficially idealized understandings of Scripture they’ve harbored since childhood. Watching an adult begin to struggle with the moral realities of David and Bathsheba – a story not typically taught in elementary or even junior high Sunday School – is rewarding, but somewhat scary as well. For most life-long United Methodists, the wheels nearly always come off the wagon when reading Paul as an adult. Most remember the Sunday School stories about a brave Paul preaching and being persecuted; writing from prison cells and being happy about it. But, to allow oneself to read Romans and Ephesians 2 and be confronted by the full implication of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone is to realize Scripture is not merely a morality play, salvation is not about achieving a passing grade in the deportment category of one’s spiritual report card, and discipleship is neither a spare-time volunteer activity nor does it have anything to do with seniority within the church or living a pain-free life. In short, the predominant preferred narrative implodes.
Thousands of hours in Disciple Bible small groups has also shown me that, like those confronted with the realities of the fullness of American history tend to blame the messenger rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance of a learning opportunity, Christians with arrested faith development can get angry, even ugly, when confronted with a less-than-simplistic Scriptural teaching. Even after actually showing them where it is that Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to bring peace; I have come not to bring peace but a sword,” or other such shocking expressions we rarely quote in Sunday School, I’ve seen folks view me askance and say in doubt-filled tones: “If you say so” as if my saying so created those red letter words ex nihilo.
As a preacher, I pray I haven’t lied to my congregations. But, if I have, I have done so with good intentions. Further, I’m pretty sure I’ve passed on some gigantic fabrications. [The difference between these two, dear readers, I’ll leave to you; this is me dealing with my own cognitive dissonance.] Most often, I’ve just avoided challenging the predominant preferred narrative.
Seriously, it’s so much easier to preach a morality play.