Sunday School As Ritual

RussellMormon 15 Comments

Read your scriptures”
“Go to Church”
“Watch Saturday’s Warrior”
(heaven help the Sunday School who has a Saturday’s Warrior faction)

“Sunday School answers” generally do not receive very good press from many Latter-day Saints, especially those of the blogging ilk.  Instructors beg, plead with their students: “Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?”  The typical response is either befuddled silence or a massaged version of the above.  Normally, it is explained in the context of a personal experience…after all, we note, this means we’re applying the doctrine (note the almost elixir-like aura surrounding the word apply–as though all applications were equally relevant to classroom discussion).  I mean, seriously, does that story about your dog finding a bone really tell us much about missionary work and scripture study?  And then, if one expresses frustration about the intellectual drain that such questions have on your mind, you invariably hear a response–either then or later in a Sacrament meeting talk: “Primary answers are primary answers for a reason *insert some chestnut about how they are “primary” to our faith and always reliable, so forth, so on*”  And all in the name of uplifting one another when all we’re doing is banalizing hackneyed stories and analogies…

Now, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I wrote the above as more of a gripe than a thought.  As horrific as some answers to Sunday School questions might be to even the nominally attuned gospel, perhaps our very idea of Sunday School lies at fault.  Instead of sitting there waiting to be spiritually entertained, perhaps a more helpful analytical framework rests in viewing Sunday School as collective ritual rather than a venue for data transmission.

Noted scholar on the sociology of religion, Roy A. Rappaport, argues that rituals create “the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic.”  The answers they give matter little in terms of data transmission; in all transparency, yes, you really do know that faith moves mountains, that your ancestors are waiting, depending on you, that a frog will be boiled alive by gradually heating up the water, and that driving the wagon too close to the canyon edge is not a marketable skill in gospel economics.  Rather, it’s the fact that they say them at all that creates the meaning.

We, gospel gadflys that we are, are probably the ones sitting in the back waiting for the next provocative comment.  Yet if we sat by thinking these things during a Zulu male maturation ceremony, we would probably feel wildly out-of-place.  Maybe many of us do already.

Treating Sunday School as a ritual rubs against our free-wheeling grain; that I’ll concede.  Sunday Schools should be like spiritual graduate seminars to us; not some old-school gathering together to measure ritualistically the cosmos or whatever it was they did at Stonehenge.  Or maybe it’s our Protestant edge that doesn’t like the idea of being in rituals in the first place.

But for me, the Mormon mystique of officially gathering together with a common vernacular, using spiritual shorthand (hat-tip to Elder Maxwell’s phrasing) to communicate a common experience, has a beautiful element of ritual that is all to easy to miss.

Comments 15

  1. I think Sunday School, in itself, is great. What gets me, though, is the manuals. There’s so little challenge and so very few truly thought-provoking questions, which is perhaps OK for the investigator’s class, but it would be nice to see the rest of us have to pick our brains a little more than we do. When I taught the adult Sunday School class in my branch, I found myself making up almost all of the questions I asked because the ones in the manual were getting so repetitive and almost ridiculously basic that I found it hard to keep even myself, the teacher, awake.

    1. Some learn only from the teacher. Big burden on you to make it worth it. Some learn from the spirit as prompted by the teacher or the scriptures or others comments. The best teacher in the room is the spirit. Those who are prepared to teach a lot of interesting material will struggle if the spirit doesn’t take over. I’ve done it both ways. Be ready to abandon all your interesting material, but be ready to cover the lesson’s points.

  2. I’m sorry. I’m of the school that believes “Primary answers” are primary answers for a reason.

    Say your prayers
    Read your Scriptures
    Go to Church

    Those are the big three.

    John 1:1-5 highlights why they are the primary answers.

    God delights in clever analysis of the gospel. He delights even more in those who follow the simple drill He keeps repeating at us. I don’t consider the two to be in conflict or even competition with each other. I wonder why so many intellectuals insist that they are.

  3. If Sunday school IS a ritual, all I know is that it’s usually a ritual that makes me bored and want to go home. This approach seems to me rather like saying, “Hey, my iPod is generally useless; it has about a 3 minute battery life and when it will actually play a song, it skips so much that it’s unrecognizable… but, you know, it makes a beautiful and stylish paperweight.” I’m all for looking on the bright side, but wouldn’t it make more sense to get the iPod repaired? I go to my Sunday School class to learn (well, actually I go because I ought to––hoping, really hard that the lesson will be decent); we already have a powerful and riveting ritual in the Church. When I need more than that, I go to a mass, particularly now that you can find one o’ them old-timey masses with all the fixin’s. (And I agree with FD, revising the manuals would be a perfect place to start. When I teach lessons, I find I have to disregard the manual completely to avoid the necessity of fighting off nausea.)

  4. For the most part when I taught gospel doctrine, I usually read one quote from the manual and make sure I said it was from the manual just so the class members would feel that I taught from there.

    Other than that, the lesson content rarely saw the light of day.

    I was not searching for “clever analysis”, I tried to get some of the class engaged in the message of the scriptures to be covered. The basis for the lessons were good questions and the class participation. Good questions are not found in the SS manuals, as anyone who has ever read one knows.

    Good lessons came from the life experiences of the class members, rarely anything I said.

  5. I am a Joint Gospel Doctrine teacher in our ward and we have been doing power point presentations the last couple of weeks which have been a blast.

    I started off my lesson with Eckhart Tolle the Natural Man and broke them off into groups we all studied a Cadburys chocolate bar on the screen one group used all the tools they could think of that the church teaches us to resist the temptation of chocolate and the other group used a principal taught by Tolle what ever we resist persists.

    After the debate we only had 5 minutes to cover the lesson it was great fun!!

  6. Just another thought if you have been an active member for 30 years you have potentially heard the same lesson over and over again for 7 times.
    Who is going to care (except for the one fanatic) if you go off on a tangent.

  7. I agree that we put WAY too much responsibility on others to “teach us” in SS. If everyone came to class having read the lesson and thought about it, or even willing to participate honestly and openly without rancor and in a spirit of humble sharing we would have VERY different lessons than we generally have.

    Our current Gospel Doctrine teacher follows the general outline of the lesson exactly – reading a short quote and opening a discussion. She digs into each concept deeply through class discussion for 5-10 minutes, and encourages all to join in no matter their views, then moves on to the next quote and discussion. She tells us in no uncertain terms that the class will be silent and boring if we don’t participate. I haven’t attended a boring SS class in this ward for over two years, and I have learned something most weeks (seen something in a slightly different light) because the teacher puts the onus where it should be – on the students.

    The problem isn’t necessarily the manuals; the problem is how they are used by the teacher and how prepared the students are to participate and flesh out the topics through personal perspective. That’s my take, anyway.

  8. Sunday School as ritual. I guess I can see where this is going. In Sacrament Meeting, the sacrament prayer is said the same way every week. When they say “amen,” we say “amen.” We all raise our right arms to the square. Every talk begins with a stupid joke and an appeal to Webster’s dictionary. Then in Sunday School, we read a bit, give rote information that has been filtered for us. We all shout out the “primary answers.” Then they say a prayer and we go home.

    And you’re saying the reason we do all that exactly the same every week… is the same reason we give the sacrament prayer exactly the same way every week?

  9. Post

    I wouldn’t go to that extent. At the end of the day, I am part of the intelligentsia’s class, so I like a rousing discussion in Sunday School as much as the next liberalish Mormon. That said, I think there is beauty to be found in the common parlance…that it binds us together as a people if we let it.

    At any rate, all who think we should de-canonize Webster as the authority on what gospel words mean, please make it manifest.

    And if you oppose, you will be summarily stoned with plastic popcorn. Thank you brothers and sisters…we will now hear from…

  10. I dunno…I’m probably thinking grass-is-greener-like (or perhaps just ignorant of history), but it seems that in some organizations, ritual is created with intention.

    But it seems that especially in the Sunday School example, ritual is created for convenience. It’s easy to go by the books and use standard answers and keep the wheels going, even if that is dreadfully boring.

    I’ve remembered trying to spice up my church life in the past, and eliminate rituals created from mere convenience. It’s fun sometimes, but other times I realize I’m just too tired and really, “Read scriptures/pray/fast/attend church meetings will fit the bill.” I admit church isn’t something most members I’ve been around seem at their 100% for.

  11. By ritual, it seems you mean an experience we do somewhat mindlessly and repetitively, not a ceremonial event with symbolic significance done mindlessly and repetitively (temple maybe?). The one thing I will say is that if you’ve been through a period of inactivity, you really do find the return to the routine invigorating and comforting. Maybe that is the power of ritual.

  12. Ideally, our particpation in ritual is not mindless, though it may be repetitive and habitual, right? I am currently teaching the Sunday School curriculum to a group with less experience in the Church than the ususal Gospel Doctrine class. In some ways, my lessons are a bit like trotting out for a group of the unitiated a body of old ideas that I have kicked around many times before. It is interesting to see how the class often finds these familiar (to me) ideas to be interesting and motivating. And their fresh interest spurs mine. Part of ritual is conveying infomrmation from the iniatated to the unitiated. Or in current Mormonspeak, “We are all teachers.” I think Sunday School can be ritual in that sense.

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