Simpsons Will Go to Sunday SchoolBy Patricia Rice
© St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Saturday, August 3, 2002.
Harry Potter, the Simpson family and a host of Mayberry characters from the old Andy Griffith television show are going to Sunday schools this fall. Reruns of their stories of faith and goodness will kick-start class discussions on Bible values.
The dog days deflate many folks, but Sunday school teachers get energy looking at new curriculum. The hottest trend in Sunday school teaching is teaching Gospel values through popular culture icons such as the Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa Simpson, Harry Potter or Sesame Street look-alikes.
A new Simpson Sunday school teacher's guide based on the 1-year-old " The Gospel According to The Simpsons" by Mark I. Pinsky comes out next week. The new "Gospel According to Harry Potter - Spirituality in the Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker" by Connie Neal comes out in a couple weeks. A companion teacher's guide to Neal's Potter books is in the works.
Next year, a guide to Gospel values found in the more obviously religious "The Lord of the Rings" will be published. Westminster John Knox Press, the print arm of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., is publishing all three sets of books and teacher's manuals.
"Kids today are used to a lot of stimulation, great audiovisual materials at (weekday) school," said Janet Williamson, 54, who has been teaching Sunday school for more than 30 years and now supervises 35 volunteer teachers at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Webster Groves.
She has begun Sunday school classes by screening a 25-minute video in which familiar characters present scriptural values. Cartoons can help children apply the Gospel ideas to their daily lives. Parents applaud engaging teaching materials.
"Parents are very serious about wanting their children to enjoy studying Scripture for their whole lives," she said. "Sunday school materials today are much more creative than they were even a few years ago."
"Truth in that show"For six weeks, she led an adult class by showing Mayberry videos. Then, using a teacher's manual, she opened discussion about the "morality" episodes as morality tales. The adults in her Cornerstone class enthusiastically related Mayberry philosophy to Gospel directives.
"There is a lot of truth in that show," she said.
Williamson is eager to see both The Simpsons and Harry Potter teacher's manuals. She keeps up on what's available to her and her Cornerstone teachers by attending a publishers' Sunday school curriculum conference in Dallas every winter. She also joined other area teachers in spring at the first Sunday school curriculum fair given by Lay Renewal Ministries Resources Center, a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian store in Maplewood.
At the center, there was positive buzz about Neal's earlier book, "What's A Christian to Do with Harry Potter?"
"I loved that book," said Suzie Halloran, assistant director of Lay Renewal Ministries. "Parents and teachers are interested in seeing how to talk to their children about Harry Potter."
Halloran has not seen, or stocked, Neal's newer book on Potter but is eager to look. She also had not stocked the Simpson books.
"The Simpsons" has been too edgy for some parents. Initially, many careful parents wouldn't let their children watch it.
"During the first two or three years, the focus was on Bart, the bad boy son, and he offended a lot of people," said Pinsky.
Pinsky allows his two children to watch only certain programs on television, and then, only on weekends, if they mute all commercials.
Three years ago, when his son, then 8, asked to watch "The Simpsons," Pinsky agreed only if he sat beside his son to discuss any inappropriate behavior or language.
Instead of hitting their television's "off" button, Pinsky discovered faith and morality in many of the episodes. Pinsky, the religion writer for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel newspaper, began taking notes. Knox published "The Gospel according to the Simpsons" last fall and has sold 70,000 copies.
Wide appealFinding faith in cartoons has appealed to a wide spectrum of the religious community. Preachers have used the book in sermons. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a second-generation Pentecostal leader in the Assemblies of God, was overheard reading aloud from "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" to security companions on a June plane flight. The newly appointed leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, called the Simpsons cartoons and Pinsky's book "one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility and virtue."
Westminster John Knox Press hired a Methodist minister, the Rev. Samuel F. Parvin, to adapt Pinsky's book into a 10-week Sunday school teacher's manual. Each of the book's 10 lesson plans begins with a specific television episode, which can be purchased from producer Fox Network or Amazon.com.
For example, in one class, students view an episode in which the father, Homer Simpson, hires a man to illegally hook up a cable television service to their home. The following Sunday at church, daughter Lisa studies the commandment forbidding stealing. Afterward, she protests her father's illegal cable hookup and talks about how sinners go to hell. Eventually, the family disconnects the illegal cable.
After watching a 25-minute episode, a teacher or student can study one Old Testament and one New Testament reading that reinforces the cartoon's story. That lesson plan then offers about 30 questions to spark class discussion.
Williamson delights in the creative material that Christian publishing houses are using to hold children's attention.
Today, many denominational presses have become much more creative at developing curriculum packages that include large posters, science projects, art projects, fun quizzes, take-home magazines, and literally bells and whistles. While teachers using the "Bible Quest" curriculum read the story of Noah, a CD plays the sound of boards being sawed, elephants thumping onto the ark, occasional drops of rain and finally a deluge.
"'Bible Quest' tries to engage all the senses," said Pam Brown, vice president of the St. Louis-based, Christian (Disciples of Christ) Board of Publications, one of nine denominational publishers producing the "Bible Quest" curriculum.
"The new materials make it easier to recruit teachers and make them better teachers," she said. "Now anyone with any sense can walk into a Sunday School class and teach it. Recruitment has never been easier."
Last updated on September 22, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)