The Back Page: Storytelling and other Barbaric Practices

For once there was a modicum of attention in my junior church group. It’s a mixed-ability, mixed-age group, with plenty of mixed attitudes to God. It ranges from the ‘It’s all rubbish, I’d rather talk about huskies’ approach to a seven year-old who has recently brought her entire family to become regular churchgoers, has been baptised and is delighted to see her parents on an introduction to Christianity course.

We had come to the story of Samson. Many Messy Churches, ours included, have had a splendid time building Temples of Dagon and had even more fun destroying them, doing something remarkably horrible called ‘planking’ (don’t ask), and making paper wigs.

However, this Junior Church session was taking place a few months before Messy Samson and the story was new to all the children there. As usual, I tried to tell it by heart rather than from a book, but with my huskieand- other-animal-loving child in the group I wimped out of the bit where Samson ties the foxes’ tails together and sets fire to them. Nor did I mention prostitutes or removing the city gate (some justification for this, I feel, as we have some very tempting doors that definitely do not require lifting off their hinges). Even with these cowardly lacunae, the eyes watching me grew rounder and rounder. As I got to the end and the Temple of Dagon crashed to the ground, taking with it all the Philistines and Samson himself, there was a moment of silence. Then Grace, one of the children, said doubtfully, ‘That’s not the sort of story you usually get in the Bible.’

There is a school of thought that declares we shouldn’t teach Old Testament stories to children in church. It would certainly cut down on leaders’ anxiety about ‘suitable stories for children’ and would mean that there was less stuff to explain in the back-story. (For example: ‘A loom? Well a loom is a kind of frame to weave on. Weaving? Well, weaving is….’ ‘Philistines? In this story, they’re the baddies, ok? And if you can stop singing ‘Hey there, Delilah’, that would be great.’) So many of the Old Testament stories are more than a little awkward; it’s much more convenient to draw a firm line after Malachi and start there.

The December 2013 edition of Premier Christianity magazine also coincidentally featured Samson in its regular ‘Not suitable for Children’ piece with the headline ‘Samson the Thug (and Pimp)’. The writer, David Instone-Brewer, concluded with the words: ‘Children have a great deal to learn from this story. First they can be forewarned about the realities of sexual exploitation…and just as important is the lesson that revenge only results in escalating violence and never in justice…a powerful reality check.’

One well-known children’s work expert offered the opinion that Samson was arguably the first suicide bomber. Whatever he was or not, his raw, uncomfortable, unsanitised story is unforgettable. Like the best art, he seethes in our imaginations and becomes part of who we are, giving us resonance across time and space as we seek to make sense of the, raw, uncomfortable unsanitised world we find ourselves in and the raw, uncomfortable, unsanitised people we know ourselves to be.

Maybe my junior church session isn’t about finding a ‘teaching point’ in the story, but about being brave enough to tell or listen to the story at all. Leaving Samson and his dodgy, imperfect fellows out of the stories we’re prepared to tell children ranks with the train of thought that we should leave the crucifixion out of the Easter story because it’s ‘not nice for children’.

So, Grace, perhaps you are 180 degrees wrong. Perhaps this story is exactly the sort of story you find in the Bible. I just haven’t been very good at sharing them with you up to now.

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