Wednesday, July 11, 2012

from Remembering My Mentors: Janet Robinson, Bible Teacher

by John Shelby Spong

Her name was Janet Robinson and I met her shortly after my 12th birthday. She was a member of my church and active as a Sunday school teacher. She was an unmarried lady in her late forties or early fifties. She was a stocky, heavy-set woman, but no one would have referred to her as over weight. She wore very basic clothes, usually suits that were either brown or navy blue. Her shoes had heels, but they were square and low, laced-up oxfords more often than not. Her brown hair was folded into a bun at the back of her head. She never used lipstick or make-up of any sort, believing those things to be something against which the Bible warned.

She thought being a muted woman was being a proper woman. She was a very enthusiastic, even an emotional Christian, who was devoted to Jesus whom she called “My Lord” and she referred to him as “precious.” It almost seemed to me that she was in love with Jesus. She would not have used those words, they were too romantic, but he was the focus and the primary love of her life.

In the 1940’s in the South, the public schools were in many ways the parochial schools of evangelical Christian Protestantism. There were few Roman Catholics in those days in the South, still fewer Jews and almost no admitted atheists or agnostics. Generally, everyone was a member of some church and the religious debates in that region were over such internal issues of whether infant baptism or adult baptism was proper, whether wine or grape juice should be used at Holy Communion and whether a personal and sometimes intense conversion experience was essential to the Christian life as opposed to just growing up into a Christian conviction.

The sins against which most clergy railed from their pulpits were alcohol, card playing, divorce and profanity. There was not much attention paid to smoking as a sin since North Carolina was in tobacco-growing country and no one wanted to attack the crop that was the basis of the economy.

Most of the churches and cultural institutions were by law segregated. This was the time of Jim Crow in the South, of public water fountains marked “white” and “colored” and where the separation of the races was not only the norm, but was believed to have been instituted by God and ordered by the Bible. Abortion was not only illegal, but criminalized, which meant that an underground abortion industry thrived, not always safely. “Florence Crittenden” homes for unwed mothers were well known, and great shame was attached to those who went there and to their families. Alcohol was illegal in public, but a thriving bootlegger business provided “spirits” to those who could pay.

The Charlotte Council of Churches decided that the Bible ought to be taught in public schools and petitioned the school board to accomplish this. Of course, the Council of Churches assumed that it would be an evangelical Protestant fundamentalist approach to the Bible that was taught since most people knew no other. The school board accepted this request in an interesting compromise between church and state. The Bible teacher was to be hired and paid by the Charlotte Council of Churches. The public school officials, however, would have to approve the choice and to certify that this teacher was properly trained and accredited. Full faculty status with all its privileges was then bestowed on this teacher. Full credit toward graduation was given to these classes on the Bible.  All of that was quite legal in the late 1940’s in North Carolina.

The person hired to fill this position at Central High School in Charlotte was Janet Robinson, and it was in this position that I experienced her as clearly as I did. I was 17 by this time. Two courses on the Bible were offered as electives in my high school. I took both courses from Janet, one in my junior year and the other in my senior year. This meant that for two years in High School I was in Janet’s class for one hour a day, five days a week. This was more time than I spent with any other teacher. I began to absorb from her the content of the Bible in an enormously thorough and systematic, if fundamentalist, way. She captured the drama, the excitement and the attached moral lessons in every story.

The first year was mostly on the Old Testament and her style was to teach biographically. I was gripped daily by the narratives of such people as Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Isaac and Rebekah, and Joseph and his brothers. I cringed at such details as the sacrifice of Isaac ordered by God and then miraculously stopped when the voice of God intervened to tell Abraham that God had only ordered this sacrifice to test his faith. (I don’t recall it being mentioned that Abraham had an older son named Ishmael by Hagar, and that both Hagar and Ishmael were banished from the tribe because of Sarah’s jealousy. “Miss Janet” also had trouble teaching things in the Bible of which she disapproved, like multiple marriages or the incest between Tamar and her father-in-law Judah, to say nothing of the adulterous relationship of David and Bathsheba that produced King Solomon.) Some severe whitewashing of these texts took place under her tutelage.

I was, however, mesmerized by accounts of Esau selling his birthright, Moses at the burning bush, the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, Israel’s adventures in the wilderness; the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, and those marvelous vignettes in the book of Judges about Ehud, Gideon and Deborah. We moved on through Elijah and Elisha, Samuel, Saul and David. Under her powerful story telling ability, these people rose to hero status until I thought of them as personal friends. In that class, we were encouraged to compose psalms, to memorize certain proverbs and certain texts like John 3:16, but books like Leviticus and the Major Prophets (Isaiah through Daniel) received short shrift except for Daniel. Who among us can resist stories like Daniel in the lion’s den or the characters known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their adventures in the fiery furnace? I do not recall that we learned about any of the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) with the exception of Jonah and the whale.  A memorable story was never ignored.

Year two, under “Miss Janet,” was on the New Testament.  Jesus was the star—from his birth, which had literal stars and angels attached, to his crucifixion, which had literal thieves on each side of the savior and where he spoke the seven literal words from the cross. These accounts were related in dramatic and emotional terms. We learned the popular parables, memorized the beatitudes and marveled at the miracle stories, especially the one about Lazarus, who was raised back to life after being, not only dead for four days, but also buried in his tomb.

When we came to Paul, it was through the book of Acts, not the epistles, that we engaged him. I do not remember ever reading an epistle. The stories in Acts were filled with such Pauline adventures as shipwreck, being bitten by a snake and preaching so long into the night that a lad named Eutychus, who was sitting in the rafters, went to sleep and fell to the floor. Then there were Paul’s trials before Felix and Festus and his final journey to Rome all of which were filled in with excitement and tension. Much of my love of the Bible and certainly some of my teaching style was born at the feet of this woman.

She knew nothing of critical scholarship or of how the Bible was actually formed, but her love for the Bible, her devotion to Jesus, remained to be forever reflected in my life. My habit of daily Bible reading and my love for this book are her gifts to me. I will be forever in her debt. Janet died about ten years ago in Charlotte, but she lives on in every book I have written, and I acknowledge her with gratitude. I suspect that she would be surprised to know this because most of her disciples became Baptists or fundamentalist preachers, and some of them are quite hesitant to include me among the “The Elect of God!”


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