Flannel-board Theology


Mrs. Chitwood and Mr. Apple.

They were my Sunday school teachers when I was growing up. Every week, I’d sit in a back room of First Baptist Church and learn about the Bible. The green felt board would be sitting on the easel, ready for the day’s lesson. Mrs. Chitwood would put felt Peter on the felt board with the felt waves and the felt boat. Then Mr. Apple would place felt Jesus on the felt water and tell us the story of Peter’s faith, doubt and Jesus’ ability to save him from the waves as he walked on the water.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for my Sunday school teachers. I’m grateful for the stories. We should continue telling our children the biblical story. But “how” we tell the stories is so important. Because the problem with flannel-board theology is that in an effort to make these biblical stories “appropriate” for children, we ripped the guts out of them. We turned these horrific, beautiful, challenging, raw stories into two-dimensional caricatures of the originals.

I’m not saying that we have to get into all the often gruesome, sometime sexual or deeply theological topics of the Bible with children who don’t have capacity to understand. What I’m saying is that we can’t water down the biblical story simply to make it approachable or easily digested. And we certainly shouldn’t omit or change sections of the story that we have a hard time explaining.

I grew up thinking that the biblical characters we hear so much about were “heroes” because that’s the language often used for those characters. But when you read the Bible, these men and women were DEEPLY flawed humans. And that’s the point! We are meant to see ourselves in them. The Bible isn’t sanitary and without conflict because our lives aren’t either, and I believe that the Bible is meant to give us a glimpse into the character of our humanity and the God that continues to pursue us.

So what’s the balance between making the Bible understandable, without watering it down so much that it become a shadow of what it was meant to be. Truth is, I’m not entirely sure. But I will say this - It’s very difficult for talking vegetables to accurately portray the depth of the biblical narrative.

I’ve got two kids of my own, and this is something that I often wrestle with. How do I teach them about the Bible - about the character of God - without going full Bible Nerd on them, or ripping the guts entirely out of the stories? I don't have all the answers, but there are a few things that I’m learning are critical. One is to use language that is appropriate for where they’re at, but without omitting language, changing the story, or inserting my own socio-political views into the narrative.

One example of omitting a whole section of the story because it’s not favorable to how we want to understand the character, is the story of Jonah. Show me a children’s curriculum that includes chapter four in the story of the book of Jonah. Chapter four is where Jonah completely unravels, asked to be killed, and we are left without answers to his selfish, unrepentant attitude. I’ve never seen it in any Sunday school teaching, but that’s the story. And it’s important because WE ARE JONAH. Often selfish and unrepentant - one minute celebrating obedience to God - and the next wanting to curl up and die.

The second principle I’m trying to teach my kids is that the whole bible is one continuous story. The Bible Project (a non-profit out of Portland, OR) does SUCH an amazing job of doing this. It’s important that we help people connect the dots in the Biblical narrative - especially between the Old and New Testament. I grew up thinking that the Old Testament was about a mean God who killed everyone and the New Testament was about a nice Jesus who healed everyone. How do we resolve this perceived conflict that so many people have about the Bible? And how do we avoid it altogether by teaching our children that, as the Bible Project says, “the Bible is a continuous story that points to Jesus and has wisdom for the modern age.”

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. But I’ve become more and more convicted about looking at the Bible with flannelboard theology - as a two-dimensional story with the guts ripped out of it, because it’s an easier pill to swallow. I’m learning to approach the Bible in a way that allows me to see, and wrestle with, all of the complexity, beauty and mess that the stories reveal about our relationship with a God who loves and pursues us.