Avoiding the Three Sedating Sins

By Stephen Carter

Note: As part of our partnership with Sunstone, Dialogue, BYU Studies, and other LDS journals, we regularly bring you selections of the best each has to offer. This article originally ran in Sunstone, March 2005. Teaching in the Church is a constant balancing act of various backgrounds, goals, talents, and needs, which results in lots of discussion, discussion, and more discussion. This article brings some humor to the discussion (particularly, British humor in the form of Douglas Adams) and offers some great ideas.

photo public domainIn his book, Fear and Trembling, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes something that has lodged in my brain with the tenacity of a chorus from any Barry Manilow song. He muses about what it might be like to teach the story of Abraham and Isaac to a congregation. It's a strange story. (How often do we tell stories about attempted infanticide with any degree of sympathy for the guy on the blunt end of the knife?) It involves a man who is commanded by God to plunge a knife into the heart of his son -- a son who is supposed to father Abraham's giant future kingdom, no less. But it is also probably one of the most mind-blowing meditations on faith and sacrifice in literature.

Kierkegaard imagines that, in the first place, it would be quite a decision for anyone to choose to tell the story. Because really, who wants to be blamed for a sudden violent decrease in youth program attendance? But imagining that the preacher decides he must tell the story of Abraham, Kierkegaard hypothesizes that he should approach the telling of the story with great care. At every point he should remind his audience of Abraham's overpowering love for his son. He should remind them of how heinous this act is, and detail every misery, every regret, every broken social contract required to fulfill the commandment God gave to Abraham. Because what if -- what if someone actually takes the story seriously? What if, the next day, a man decides to take his son out to a mountain to offer him as a gift to God? This would be a catastrophe, and the preacher would be obligated by all that is good to make every attempt to stop this man from carrying out a sacrificial act that the preacher himself had lauded just the day before.

Kierkegaard spends the rest of his book hypothesizing about how Abraham's story works in the larger scheme of things, and I encourage you to read it. But I want to stop here because I am interested, not in Abraham, but in the fellow in the congregation who was so struck by Abraham's story. I'm trying to remember the last time a Sunday school lesson affected me like that. No, not the last time I felt homicidal -- I feel that way quite frequently during Church lessons -- but the last time I felt as though I had entered a space as spiritually volatile as Kierkegaard's hypothetical sermon. When was the last time a Sunday school lesson took the Rubik's Cube of my soul, mixed it up completely, pasted on new colors here and there, and threw it back in my lap? In other words, when was the last time a Sunday school lesson converted me?

Sadly, not in recent memory.

And this bothers me. I'd like to think that our church meetings can be places of great growth for the souls of people like me. I'm trying to figure out why my Sunday meetings seem so benign and impotent. If I can, maybe I can do something about it. Thus, I offer the following: an analysis of the average Sunday class, undertaken by an amateur rhetorician (whose English and philosophy degrees should be counted as liabilities rather than assets), and some ideas on how to improve things.

T o begin with, it seems I should ask: what is the goal of the two hours we spend in Sunday classes? Are they for instruction? Edification? Enlightenment about the principles of the gospel? Are they for reaffirming our beliefs? To give nourishment to our world-weary souls? To explore the highest heights and the deepest abysses? To learn the mysteries of godliness? Let's say the answer is D -- all of the above. So the question now is, how does the average Sunday class go about achieving these objectives?