Revisiting Sunday School

Sunday School – full of surprises …

Why Study Sunday School?

Children’s Sunday school may seem a rather weak research topic.  After all, fewer people go to church these days.  Parts of the media claim most people don’t believe, and those that do are interested in questions such as life after death.  These are hardly dangerous ideas.  Sunday school in the UK is one of the tamer things in life.  Why bother with it?

Whatever claims are made about religion being out of touch with modern life, Sunday school does not exist in a vacuum.  It is part of public discourse, like news bulletins, advertising, and school textbooks; the messages which compete for our attention day in, day out, all using the same techniques, such as stereotypes.  How else would ‘sex sell’, and how else would we know what we want to buy next?  None of the messages is necessarily very influential in isolation, but they mount up.  I am absolutely sure I believe in Global Warming, and that sugar rots my teeth.  However, I am less certain this is about the evidence.  Possibly I have just been hearing these things for so long they ‘must be’ true.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is revising its guidelines for advertisers, to discourage use of gender stereotypes.  This comes after a long consultation,[1] and according to the report, stereotypes may seem like cute generalisations, but they cause harm,[2] being linked to male suicide,[3] sexism,[4] body image pressures,[5] bullying, and other ‘mental, physical, and social harms’.[6]  The ASA is especially concerned to protect young children, and prevent them from internalising these ideas.[7]  Advertising is one of many factors.  The ASA suggests that some others are families, schools, and ‘aspects of some cultures, communities, and demographics’.[8]  In other words, religion and tradition.  For most people from a Christian background, or even an atheist one, that includes Sunday School.

The ASA is keen to curtail damaging stereotypes which limit children’s prospects,[9] and they are basing their decision on a body of evidence going back at least to the nineteen-eighties, when researchers observed that adverts act as ‘scripts’ for young women’s behaviour.  Since then, not only has this been confirmed, but consumers have become tired of clichés, and advertisers are encouraged to be more imaginative, if only to be more effective.  Consumers polled by the ASA said they were aware stereotypes influenced their feelings and behaviour, and reported anxiety caused by advertising and other messages.[10]  The picture is overwhelmingly negative where stereotypes are concerned.

My research focusses on a well-known Sunday-school version of the Abraham story,[11] examining the ideas embedded in it.  Rather than look for what the story says outright, this involves analysing what is suggested and implied.  For example, no-one is telling their Sunday school: ‘women exist only to make babies’.  However, in this retelling of the story, Abraham is definitely in charge, and Sarah is obsessed with becoming a mother.  Abraham never really speaks, and Sarah worries and gets angry a lot.  The story does not announce that this is how all couples are, or how all men or women are, but the way it is put together and presented, and the series of stories it is part of, make it clear that Abraham and Sarah are models to be imitated.  The embedding is subtle, and many readers may not have spotted it, but the story relies on the same harmful stereotypes the ASA is trying to shut down.  Women spend their lives taking care of others and having babies.  Men make decisions, have careers, and build things.  Women ‘do’ relationships and emotion, while men do everything else, without communicating or feeling.

Parents who applaud the ASA’s new policy are still taking their children to Sunday school, and still reading these stories at home.  If gender stereotypes are damaging in advertising, can they somehow be benign here?  Unlikely.  In fact, they may be worse.  Whereas I might laugh off an advert, or even write to complain, ideas put forward in church are not so easily dismissed.  Many adult Christians, including those using the materials in my research, reject gender stereotyping, and read the Bible with a progressive mindset.  Nevertheless, their children may be internalising these harmful ideas in Sunday school, or in youth group.

This version of the Abraham story is as crudely stereotypical as any story could be, and would fail the new ASA test without a doubt.   It owes far more to modern stereotypes than to the Bible, and on reflection, many parents might prefer it not be used.  A lot of current church teaching for adults challenges out-dated interpretations, and in spite of passionate disagreements, churches have modernised by distinguishing between historic attitudes, and fundamental doctrine.  The same effort needs to be made for children’s teaching.  Resources like those in my research are recent and widely used, in spite of contradicting all the efforts made for grown-ups.  Children deserve the same level of protection from harmful clichés in church as when they watch TV or visit the library.  A conversation on stereotyping in Sunday school is long overdue.

Illustration: The Hospitality of Abraham (Ravenna), Photo by Lawrence OP via Flickr :  [CC BY-NC ND 2.0]

[1] Advertising Standards Authority, Depictions and Harm, 2017 <>, p.4.

[2] Depictions and Harm, p.37.

[3] Depictions and Harm, p. 7.

[4] Depictions and Harm, p. 7.

[5] Depictions and Harm, p. 7.

[6] Depictions and Harm, p. 37.

[7] Depictions and Harm, p. 37.

[8] Depictions and Harm, p. 37.

[9] Depictions and Harm, p. 37.

[10] Depictions and Harm, pp. 13-14.

[11] Genesis 11:26 -25:10.

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