“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.