Flannelgraph Preaching (Part 1)

Flannelgraphs, alternatively named flannel boards, are sturdy panels covered with flannel. Displayed on an easel, they facilitate the telling of stories, usually in the small nooks and crannies of basements (called “classrooms”) in many Christian church buildings. While most basements reek of semi-sanctified mold and tater-tot casseroles, flannelgraphs are impervious to the odor. Flannel representations of Bible characters are also versatile and easy to manufacture. Cutout Bible characters easily adhere to the flannel background, making an inexpensive but memorable story time for children of most ages. I can still picture, and even feel, Daniel in the lion’s den, Esther before the king, fiery furnaces, Moses and his staff, and a donkey who supposedly talked (flannelgraphs do not bray, kick, or actually speak). Every week the thin flannel delivered an exciting and wonderful story. But was that it? Was it just a simple story? Or was it supposed to be more?

Beyond the Flannel Veil

Most stories can be illustrated with cutout characters or probably even with Jell-O molds. 3-D might be more impressive, but cost undoubtedly rises in direct relationship to impressibility and the additional dimension. If the storyteller has a clue, even non-ambulatory Moses figures seem to come alive when plastered next to a cutout piece of flannel representing a burning bush that does not burn. But it is hard to illustrate abstract thoughts with flannel, clay, or any other tangible substance. While flannelgraphs might bring the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to life for young folks, they do not capture the smoky, sulfuric odor very well, nor do they incorporate the Christ-centered, redemptive theme that is found throughout the entire Old Testament (and certainly the New Testament as well).

Old Testament stories, told with or without flannel, need to be related to the Messiah and his redemptive plan. In one fashion or another, to one degree or another, biblical stories need to be shown as part of the grand sweep and swath of progressive revelation. A revelation that ultimately points to Jesus. Do you remember how Jesus set himself as the centerpiece at the table of the Old Testament?

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)

In the grand picture of salvation, every aspect of the Old Testament weaves itself as one fabric showing Jesus Christ. Jesus, using the tri-fold designation of the Old Testament to emphasize comprehensiveness, taught that all of the Old Testament preaches Christ the Messiah. The Old Testament is a Christian testament. The Old Testament is about Jesus. Jesus not only is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, but he is the theme, the focus, and the subject matter. In fact, Jesus emphatically declared that the Old Testament was bearing witness to him:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40)

While scholars differ on the degree to which they see Christ in the Old Testament, it is not argued that he is prominently found from Genesis to Malachi (or 2 Chronicles in the Hebrew canon). But how do you portray Christ in the Old Testament on a flannelgraph? Should every Old Testament flannel story kit come custom-stocked with a Jesus figure? Should a flannel Jesus (I guess he might have a beard and longer hair, but then, who did not in those days?) be plastered on, over, or next to Esther, Elijah, and Eli? Can you not see a child-attached Jesus hovering above Joseph’s dungeon, almost like a UFO? How is Jesus to be incorporated into every scene so that Luke 24:44 and John 5:39–40 are accurately represented? Even if there were no Second Commandment violation (which there would be in this scenario), who would think this is a good idea?

The white lie in this scenario is not a lie of addition; it is the lack of it. Do not forget the entire story. Do not forget Jesus. Do not simply teach moralistic stories using biblical characters. If your goal was moralism, why not use Aesop’s Fables? Instead, avoid the white lie by teaching narratives in context. Christians are pretty good at noticing the immediate context of a passage, especially New Testament Epistles. But many evangelicals err when they forget the context of the particular story in light of the entire Bible (a wider context)—God’s grand theme of redemption.

So that the cutouts stick to the flannel background, flannelgraph characters were also made of flannel, fuzzy felt, or were backed with sandpaper so they would not fall into fiery furnaces prematurely—or plunge headfirst onto linoleum floors with unmatched patterns (since they were donated to the church, and free is free). Jesus and sandpaper? Sounds more like something John the Baptist would wear. We know flannel can stick to honey, but can it adhere to locusts? Getting the narrative to stick in the minds of the children may be relatively easy, but how can flannel demonstrate the story of the Redeemer and adequately represent Christ in an Old Testament narrative, poem, or prophecy? I am glad you asked. How can we teach the Old Testament while keeping authorial intent and showing the grand theme of redemption?

A Case Study

Let us examine the book of Ruth and the lady named Ruth so that we can discover whether woolly cloth can hold its christological own with this Old Testament treasure.

When a book is entitled “Ruth,” the reader really cannot be blamed if he mentally props up the name of the book as the central figure. I am not actually advocating changing the name of the book, but for the sake of mental highlighting I want you to add Boaz to the title of the book of Ruth. But you need to add more than Boaz. The theological subtitle to Ruth should be: Christ is a personal redeemer like Boaz, but better. If you still insist on Ruth in the book’s title, how about “Ruth’s redemption through Christ-like Boaz” or “God’s majestic sovereignty as a Boaz-like redeemer in Ruth’s life and lineage?” Catchy? Popular? Flannel worthy?

Some books of the Bible received their names due to a predominant theme unfolding throughout. For example, Genesis is a book of beginnings, and Exodus stresses Israel’s physical redemption from Egypt. Psalms contains psalms, or songs, and the book of Proverbs teaches wisdom through sayings. Occasionally, the moniker of the book is based on its author. James wrote James and Peter wrote 1 Peter and 2 Peter. Other books were letters named after the people they were meant to address (Hebrews, Romans, Philemon, etc.). Lastly, there are a few books, like Samuel and Job, which relate stories about their namesakes. The book of Ruth correctly conveys the idea that the book is about this particular lady, but is Ruth the character of characters throughout these four chapters? Should the name of Ruth be Ruth?

Ruth, the woman, could and should be commended at many levels. Some of her positive attributes could include:

  • Converting from paganism to Judaism (Ruth 1:16)
  • Showing loyalty to her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:16–17)
  • Being in the royal line of David (Ruth 4:18–22)
  • Devotion in the dark days of Judges
  • Supporting her mother-in-law (Ruth 2)
  • Having humility (Ruth 2:10–13)
  • Being a hard worker (Ruth 2:7)
  • Sacrificing food for the sake of Naomi (Ruth 2:14, 18)
  • Seen by Boaz as having outstanding character (Ruth 3:10)

For a gentile, Ruth is not too shabby and definitely flannel worthy. She is admirable in many ways and, in a strictly moral world, is a person to imitate. But is that the author’s main intention? Is the purpose of this book to teach someone to “be like Ruth?” Let us not rush to such a verdict. Be careful—when the author’s intention is overlooked, kooky and often bizarre lessons are both forcibly extracted from and wrongly imposed upon the Old Testament. I think I could convince you if I asked, “What would you say if someone taught Ruth as an example of how to get along with a difficult mother-in-law or used Ruth to highlight the practical advantages of sleeping at the feet of a man, especially after he has eaten and had a few drinks (‘How to get an eligible bachelor’)?” We readily refuse these applications. Bravo.

Does the Book of Ruth mainly teach its readers to imitate Ruth? Follow Ruth? Ruth is only who she is because of another’s redemption! Without the Lord’s grace, Ruth would be doing what was right in her own eyes just like the rest of the people living at the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). Admittedly, Ruth is the great-grandmother of David (Ruth 4:22), who is in the royal line of Jesus, but is the book of Ruth primarily about Ruth the woman? While Ruth the lady should not be denigrated, the reader of the book of Ruth needs unclouded vision to see past Ruth as the key person in the narrative. Daniel Block concurs, “Ruth is not the main character of the book. . . . Of the 3 main actors in the drama, . . . Ruth speaks the least often, and her speeches are the shortest.”1 So Ruth should be out of the running for the book name and the primary flannel character. Ruth does not redeem. Ruth receives redemption.

Notes

  1. Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, in New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 1999), 588.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in Evangelical White Lies, NoCo Media, 2016.

You can find this whole series as it publishes here.


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Posted by Mike Abendroth | Tuesday, January 2, 2024 | Categorized Education, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching the Word | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Mike Abendroth

Mike Abendroth (MDiv, DMin) is Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Bible Church (West Boyleston, MA), where he has served since 1997. He is host of No Compromise Radio and author of Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers (2007), The Sovereignty and Supremacy of King Jesus (2011), Things that Go Bump in the Church (2014), Discovering Romans (2014), Sexual Fidelity (2015) and Evangelical White Lies (2016). He is married with with four children. When not enjoying his family he is often found on a bicycle.

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