A Religion Class for All Mormons?

Can you teach the gospel in a way that appeals to all Mormons? I didn’t think this was possible and so my answer has always been a resounding: NO! However, my wife has begun attending an Institute class in our stake taught during the week at 9:30am. The class fills with mainly women for this reason, but a rather diverse group. From very conservative/traditional women to rather liberal women. All speak glowingly of the class.

My father is an Institute teacher and so I have thought about this question a lot. By and large it seems that gospel teachers appeal to certain, somewhat distinct groups. There are the "intellectual gospel" teachers who follow the pattern of Nibley and others and there are the "emotional gospel" teachers who follow the pattern of John Bytheway and others like him. These are gross exaggerations, obviously, but it does seem that most teachers fall somewhere along a continuum between these two stereotypical types.

However, the Institute teacher in our stake seems to break this mold. She received a theological degree from Duke and so has a lot of intellectual heft to her lessons. At the same time, she adds in a lot of emotional/inspirational-type elements. Thus, during the weeks leading up to Easter she spoke extensively on the Passion and the other Christian traditions surrounding Easter. She gave historical insights into the time of Christ and Jerusalem specifically. She also handed out a "last will and testament of Christ"–a rather "cutesy" document using a list of scriptures to show what Christ would impart to us from the Atonement. The effect: everyone seems to enjoy her classes and to get the spiritual enlightenment/motivation they want.

How does she do it? I don’t know. But I posit a couple elements (some already obvious from what I’ve written). She mixes elements of the intellectual and the emotional. I think this accomplishes several things: 1. it panders to both types of groups but very importantly it 2. pulls the emotionally tended people into an intellectual environment and the intellectually tended into an emotional environment. I think both groups enjoy feeling a bit of the other side (pulling them away from their natural predilections, their safety zones, etc.).

Next, she doesn’t seem to wander far from mainline sources. She doesn’t teach speculative theology and she steeps her teaching in the scriptures and correlated Church writings.

Whether this is a universal key, I don’t know. Obviously there are some in the stake that have self-selected out of the class, so my claim to its universal appeal is relative. However, I haven’t seen such broad appeal from any institute, seminary, Sunday School, or religion teachers that I have ever taken a class from (except of course my Dad’s, I love you Dad).

Are her methods a window into a universal key to good LDS teaching? Are the principles I have clumsily extrapolated the key or is it possibly something else?

Comments

  1. It’s difficult to find a balance, and many don’t see the need. (That is, the “emotional” teachers see no need to be more “intellectual” and vice-versa.)

    A friend of mine likes to call these light (emotion) and knowledge (um, knowledge/intellect), and both are necessary for good Gospel teaching, I think.

  2. Rosalynde says:

    HL, where do you live? Who is the teacher?

  3. Rosalynde says:

    Okay, I just checked something, and HL, if you live in the La Cresecenta, CA stake, the teacher is my mother, Christie Frandsen! (She emails me her handouts, and her last missive was indeed “Christ’s Last Will and Testament”) And I have to agree with you: she is an exceptionally gifted teacher, and, apropos of the thread below, she’s a great example of a woman who has attained a real local prominence through conventional channels because of her intellect, ability, dedication, and energy. (She also teaches early morning seminary and two institute classes.) Not to toot her horn too much, but she has inspired literally hundreds–maybe even thousands–of women to take confidence in their ability to study and understand the scriptures and doctrine of the church. Furthermore, she has gained the respect of priesthood leaders, as well, and is frequently invited as the guest and featured speaker at stake conferences, youth conferences, women’s conferences, and even CES conferences, where she instructs men as well as women.

    Yes, I’m very proud of her, and I owe her so much!

  4. HL Rogers says:

    Rosalynde,
    I was aware that the teacher is your mom. I didn’t make an obvious nod to it in the post because I wanted her outstanding abilities to be a stand alone example without a nod-nod wink-wink to the bloggernacle community.

    However, I’m also glad you picked up on it as you have much to be proud of. Now if we could just get your dad to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh…

  5. Rosalynde says:

    Okay, so now I’m embarrassed for going on about her. Obviously you have the advantage over me, though: you know my name and family, and I have no idea who you are! (Are you in my family’s ward?)

    My dad claims to listen to Rush Limbaugh only for comic relief…

  6. danithew says:

    Rosalynde, your mother sounds like a great teacher. When I read what HL Rogers had to say about her I couldn’t help but think of a woman Bible teacher I learned about named Nehama Leibowitz who also had huge appeal to people from all walks of life and religious perspectives. I was sad that I didn’t learn about Nehama until I was reading her obituary in the paper years ago … but what an amazing obituary it was.

    The following link provides a description that is very similar to the one I read in the papers:

    http://www.ou.org/yerushalayim/lezikaronolam/nehama/ja93.html

  7. HL Rogers says:

    Sorry for the stocker-esque I know you, you don’t know me element here. Just quickly, my family and I moved into the stake a couple months ago but my uncle, Doug Turley, and his family have been in the area a long time so we have heard about your mom’s classes etc. for a while.

    I wonder to what extent we can tailor lessons that really do engage everyone. Obviously I didn’t mention the spirit, which plays a large role. But pedagogy should not be overlooked. It seems fundamental to me that a teacher must be able to relate to all her/his students. The emotionals and the intellectuals; the hard core and the edge walkers. And relate in ways that do not compromise the doctrine to pander to the whims of the students. It seems a difficult task–perhaps the reason we see it so rarely.

  8. HL,

    I have seen the same thing in the classes I’ve been to. Teachers who can blend both emotional insight and careful scholarship really are maginfying their calling. Besides having some training, being talented, and having done some reading, I would guess that it has quite a bit to do with putting in the time to ponder how to teach the people in the specific class. When I do it, prayerful preperation really does alot to improve my lessons.

  9. Teachers who can blend both emotional insight and careful scholarship really are maginfying their calling.

    And those who can’t really aren’t. Pity the teacher who stumbles.

  10. Aaron Brown says:

    I agree that both the emotional and intellectual components are crucial if you want to create a teaching environment that has broad-based appeal.

    Another approach, however, is to create multiple gospel doctrine classes, and let members drift to the one that best fits their personality, interests and/or ideology. The Cambridge First Ward, to use a probably atypical example, had multiple gospel doctrine classes running when I was there, and one of them was taught by an MIT physics professor who was so emmersed in non-LDS Biblical scholarship that an entire class could take place without any overt Mormon references (except for a few obligatory tie-ins at the end). This wasn’t to everyone’s liking, but I quite enjoyed it (as did the Bishop, from what I could tell).

    Aaron B

  11. The problem with Aaron’s approach is that sometimes when a ward does this one of the teachers is not as polished as the other, for whatever reason, resulting in the other garnering a cult-like following.

  12. HL Rogers says:

    As to #9: I do indeed pity the teacher who stumbles. The preying class will pick the flesh right off the teacher’s bones. ;>)

    I agree you have to take care that no one gains cult status. We members seem drawn to personality cults for some weird reason–it must be the evangelical side of our religious consciousness.

    However, I have also seen successful dual classes, though usually separated by alphabet with 4 teachers who each teach one of the two classes twice a month. This seems rather successful.

    Also, surprised no one’s come after me for approving of a correlation-based lesson. I thought for sure I would at least get some snark from Steve. Oh well…

  13. But then again, I forgot what ward Aaron was referring to. Nothing “unseemly” would ever happen in the Cambridge First, now would it?

  14. sorry HL, it was hardly snark-worthy. Wait a second….

  15. Elder Dahlquist (general young men’s president) says that people assume when it’s a church calling, they don’t need to be trained, and that they’re mistaken about that. Some people are naturally gifted as teachers and it shows. Some people put in a great deal of effort and it pays off. Once in a while you get a combination of the two, which is a treat for everyone. And then there’s everybody else….

    I don’t mean to be as negative as I may sound. I do, however, resent it when someone thinks ten minutes reading the manual the night before is all he (or she) needs to conduct a good class. It sounds like the teacher HL is describing is both gifted *and* well prepared.

  16. Danithew, if you haven’t already, you should get Leibowitz’s Studies in . . . series, 7 volumes of commentary on Sabbath Torah readings. I understand, though I may be misremembering, that they were created as weekly handouts to be given out on street corners for Sabbath study.

  17. Seth Rogers says:

    You want to be a “good” Sunday School teacher?

    Show up.

    Do that and you’ll probably be ahead of a lot of the competition.

  18. I like the discussion of good teachers, because I think we could be a lot better at teaching, and because, as HL suggests, it really can interest all audiences. I think it’s just that many people take on a style that only appeals to certain groups.

    Steve Walker, who teaches Bible as Lit at BYU, has always been loved by everyone. I think it’s because the approach, as the class title suggests, is not really either doctrinal or devotional. He looks at the scriptures themselves. I think a good plain close reading, like Jim provides at T&S, is probably one of the best ways to win the largest audience.

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