Army of one

I was chatting with my wife yesterday and we started talking about Moses… ya know… the guy with the white beard from the Bible. He was the one with the staff, wearing a robe. Had sandals. Ring a bell?

I can’t really give you a straight story of what he did because as many times as I have read the story, heard it, seen it in a movie, or discussed events from it, I can never keep it straight between any of the other guys who potentially matched the physical appearance of the description I just gave you.

Why is that?

We never met these people. We really don’t know what they looked like. We have ideas of what their customs were and how people dressed in society from that time period … but why do we have this pre-conceived notion of what THOSE particular individuals looked like? … so much so that I am easily confused between one character and another.

This was a question that came up while my wife and I were chatting yesterday, and she came up with the answer: Flannelgraph.

For those of you who never grew up with Flannelgraph, it was a Sunday School method of story-telling in the early/mid 80’s I don’t know if they still use it or not, but essentially, it was a big flannel board they’d put up on an easel, and the Sunday School teacher would tell the children a story and illustrate it using paper cut-outs of characters that had a velcro-like adhesive on the back that would stick to the flannel board. As the years passed, the characters tend to lose their “stickiness” and inevitably, while the teacher would be trying to tell the story, the characters would be falling off the board, causing quite a disruption and making it very difficult for the children to stay focused on the story.

The main problem lie in that the materials that were provided with the Flannelgraph were stock materials for all of the stories. You had one old fat man who played the part of Moses, Noah, Abraham, and various other fitting parts, a couple of scruffy lookin’ guys who usually played the part of a disciple, Cain, Moses’ sons, or possibly the guy who carried Christ’s cross; a few women who played various parts of women crying, being healed, or someone’s wife; an occasional soldier; and Christ: the Caucasian male with blue eyes, a white robe, blue sash, and long beautiful brown hair. He came with removable sandals so that the disciples could wash his feet, and an optional body that was either clothed in aforementioned attire, or beaten to a bloody pulp. There seemed to be absolutely no difference between Greek, Hebrew, or Roman. They all looked the same: white skin with brown hair.

There were other props that went along with these stories: a road, on which a man could lay on the ground awaiting a Samaritan or where Christ could carry his cross; a stone house, which looked very much like a home modeled after the Flintstones; a tree, from which Zacchius, the “wee” little man (apparently Scottish), would sit or under which Christ would pray his last prayers before being hauled off by the mob to be crucified. I also seem to recall some chariots, on which soldiers would ride, or men would be carried off to heaven, as well as streams, where babies would float in baskets. These streams came in two pieces, so they could be split and people could walk between them on dry land until the crowd lost their adhesive and fell off the board entirely, along with the Egyptian army who was in pursuit.

There were also stone walls that would serve as the backdrop for a castle, a city gate, or the inside of a building. This wall also came in two parts so that you could tear it apart as “walls came tumbling down.”

It all had a very Monty Python-type animation feel to it.

Ok, you get the idea. Flannelgraph… Multimedia technology for the 80’s.

Effective story-telling device? Perhaps. I’m sure that there are thousands of men and women who now know the stories of the Bible from having attended Sunday School and seeing their favorite characters “now in color” blaze into action on the flannel board.

…But there are a select few of us who seem to get the stories of Noah, Moses, and Abraham confused because they all seem to look like the same guy in our minds. I can just imagine meeting them in heaven and saying, “YOU’RE Moses? You look nothing like your Flannelgraph. You don’t look like Noah or Abraham, either, strangely enough.”

“Yeah. We get that a lot.”

3 responses to “Army of one”

  1. A few extra thoughts for someone at least partially “in the know” *heh* I used to work at CEF – a children’s ministry that helped pioneer flannelgraph and make it what it is. I’ve also taught children’s church and sunday school using flannelgraph a few times, I have to admit…

    Note that many churches will “save money” by only buying small flannelgraph kits, and re-using them for multiple purposes, rather than buying new kits for everything. Since they often use the kits per age group/year, the kids aren’t usually exposed to them for more than one year at those churches. So it’s not that there aren’t different figures for different things necessarily.

    However, on the other side of the argument – there are indeed many flannelgraph “kits” that are specifically created to be multi-purpose / multi-story *heh* I can definitely agree that this does cause confusion for kids – or is, at the least, distracting:

    “…and so Elijah was wandering around, hiding from King Ahab…”, says the Teacher.

    “Hey!”, yells disruptive child #32, “that’s not Elijah – that’s MOSES from last week!”

    “My cat peed on my favorite shirt”, mutters disruptive child #17.

    “I need to gooooo to the POOOOOTTTYY!”, says ultra-mini-bladder child #8.

    Personally, I was always confused by the fact that pretty much all flannelgraph people are white (ie caucasian).

    Also, flannelgraph is still a simple, cheap, effective and portable way to keep a child’s attention on a story (kids are, as a rule, fairly visually oriented). It’s the same reason why kids love puppets of all kinds (heck, even a sock puppet can amuse them for hours).

    Granted, a kid will take a video over flannelgraph any day – but given the choice between just listening to a story, and being able to visualize it with flannelgraph…? And who doesn’t remember the frantic waving of hands to be the “helper” in putting up those figures on the board (“ME! pick me!!”).

  2. I was one of the lucky nerds who had his own flannel-graphs at home from which I could concoct my own pseudo-Biblical adventures.

    That was back in the 70’s when a gift certificate to the Christian Book Store was the standard prize for winning anything in Sunday School.

    Sure I could have bought an entire collection of “Jesus [heart]’s you” pencil toppers (which looked for all the world like erasers, but they never actually erased anything), but I was more serious-minded (read “dorky”) than the average 7 year old. I had to have the “Jonah and the Whale” flannel-graph kit.

    Sadly, my lack of foresight severely limited my options: Even though Jonah was interchangeable with all the other brown-haired, Caucasian men in the Bible, the whale (and he was definitely a whale in this flannel-graph kit and not a “big fish” as the Bible alleges) could not be used in such a multi-purpose fashion. His role was pretty much circumscribed.

    Needless to say, I became somewhat of an expert on the Jonah story and was rather disappointed at the recent Veggie Tales version which strayed from the Biblical account on more than a few minor details. Chief among them was the liberal use of cheese curls, which I have strong reason to believe were not even invented until sometime after the whole Nineveh incident.