What should you do when the lesson manual is wrong?

Last Sunday, I had the lesson that spoke about Thomas Marsh and his apostasy. Being an informed reader of BCC, when the subject came up I whipped out my iphone, reviewed John Hamer’s excellent post on Thomas Marsh, and then proceeded to explain to the class that the story told in the manual was in fact incorrect. The moment the words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I had put the teacher in a bad spot.  But, still, I KNEW the manual was dead wrong, and I felt I would be an accomplice in perpetuating slander if I didn’t speak up.

That day’s dilemma has remained on my mind.  Now that the Internet and the Bloggernacle have made available a wealth of new, unauthorized, but often very faithful and good materials, I find myself in the new position of both often knowing more about church history than the lesson manuals state and, thanks to the iphone, always having the ability to look “facts” up when I don’t know them.  I also find myself in the uncomfortable position of not always knowing how to use this new information, especially in official church contexts.

An abundance of unofficial Mormon sources on the web seems to present both pitfalls and opportunities for the church as an organization.  On the one hand, the church’s own embrace of online technology has allowed it to find new ways of presenting its messages and even new audiences.  I have non-LDS neighbors who read church magazines online.  But at the same time, the presence of many unofficial sources turning up on search engines means that the church also loses some control over its central message as search engines reward those who speak the loudest.  Everyday Mormons are increasingly influential in defining what Mormonsim means as they share their lives online, and people become far more able to tell if something in the correlated materials is not quite right. But, these unofficial sources are open to errors of their own (just like the manual!), and since I only read the best sources (like BCC) I’d never be aware if my worldview was wrong.

Since I see it as more or less inevitable that Mormons will get more of their information about the church from unofficial online sites, my hope is that we will be able to pool these resources to create Mormons who can be simultaneously informed and faithful.  Ideally, this abundance of information will lead to more rigorously researched official lesson materials for D&C (maybe the lessons can be fact-checked through a wiki just as geneaology is now screened by New Family Search), or, if the Interent presents too many “facts,” at least to an outpouring of inspired, creative thinking.   Perhaps, it will help us become more comfortable engaging with our past and to admitting our occasional errors without losing our faith.  Maybe, this environment will result in a church less interesting in controlling the contents of its brand or message and more transparency about where the authority of words comes from.  Or, maybe we could start giving official ratings to sites, deciding centrally which are “orthodox” and which are “not,” and thus using the Internt to further control the brand.  Unlikely, but possible.

These developments might have positive or negative consequences.  In the meantime, however, I still have to figure out what I should do in church when I know the lesson manual is wrong.  Maybe, I should just email the teacher a link to BCC.  Or hand my iphone to the teacher so that he can read the facts to the class on the spot.  Seriously, what’s an informed Mormon to do (twitter with the other people in class she sees reading the same information on their iphones)?

Next post:  How has my experience of Sunday School changed since I started hearing online about how the lesson I am having next week already went for people who had it the week before…

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    To be precise, the story isn’t “wrong.” But it is without context and at best incomplete. It’s too easy for us to be uppity elites about a manual that is more focused on themes of building the kingdom than on any real historical accuracy. Otherwise, I think you raise some good issues.

    My answer to your question is that it’s probably best just to keep an attitude of humility about things, bite your tongue most of the time and be attentive to what the Spirit prompts you to say, or not to say.

  2. Randall says:

    This is EXACTLY the dilemma that I face in sunday school and priesthood. I’m frequently informed enough to know that what is being taught is historically inaccurate or misrepresented, but I don’t want to embarrass the teacher or arouse doubts among my fellow congregants.

    For whatever reason, I generally sit on my hands and bite my lips in sunday school, but assert an accurate telling in priesthood. I’m probably more circumspect in sunday school out of deference to the age difference in my geriatric-leaning ward..

  3. Natalie B. says:

    I always regret when I don’t bite my tongue, but the negative consequence to biting my tongue is that I also realize that this tendency makes me treat online Mormons with more genuineness and respect than those in my ward. It bothers me that I just go home and then *really* discuss what I learned with online friends, because it makes me feel alienated from those around me who might actually know about and enjoy discussing the same things. More dilemmas…

  4. Natalie, I understand your dilemma. Through careful cultivation, I’ve found a few friends in my ward that share my love of history and are unafraid of talking about things in depth. I’ve also made a few missteps, too- there’s nothing more awkward than watching your friends turn green over the dinner conversation which you thought was perfectly acceptable.

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    If I think a portion of the lesson in the SS manual is problematic, for whatever reason, I tend to just ignore it. There are usually other themes in the lesson worth exploring, so I pursue those. Sometimes — as with the Simonds Ryder story a couple weeks back — I think the way the manual frames the story is so retarded that I use it to make a different point than the one the manual instructs me to. This horribly subversive act (not) can be done easily without necessarily pointing out that you’re doing it. Or you can point out that you’re doing it (as I did), and just make sure you do it with a tone that isn’t overly haughty or self-consciously controversial.

    Seriously, you can get away with a lot in your lessons if (a) you have credibility in your ward (which comes by establishing a diverse track record of comments that isn’t one-note with respect to various church “problems”) and, when you do need to point out something controversial, (b) you do so non-chalantly (i.e., act like what you’re saying is no big deal). If you don’t think of your own comments as edgy, you won’t come off as being edgy, and you’re likely to not be perceived as edgy.

    AB

  6. For what it’s worth, this is the perfect illustration of the “subversion” I failed so badly at explaining the other day, for which continued apologies are in order.

    John writes a post telling what he sees as the real story of Thomas Marsh. Natalie’s take-away point is that the traditional story is inaccurate. Both John and Natalie are right — but neither realizes or accepts or remembers (however either is willing to define it) that the facts are more complex than that, as Steve says in #1, and that the “milk strippings” story is neither completely right nor completely wrong (certainly not “dead” wrong). Natalie goes to Sunday School and announces to her class that the manual is wrong. She immediately regrets that announcement. Unintentionally, the lesson has been subverted.

    Natalie probably didn’t benefit a whole lot from the lesson because she was dwelling on her regret. (Someone else less conscientious might not have benefited because he was smug about his own superior knowledge.) The class, and certainly the teacher, was unsettled because of the unexpected announcement. It’s likely that nobody got a whole lot out of the lesson, or at least that section of it.

    That’s why I think that when the “real story” is blogged, at a time chosen because the story is about to be discussed in a church class, we have a duty to be careful how we blog about it, so as NOT to be subversive of the intended point in the lesson. One way to do that might be to acknowledge that an upcoming lesson is likely to include an inaccurate piece of history; here’s the real history; here’s why the story has likely been twisted over time; here’s the point the teacher will be trying to make with the inaccurate story; here’s how we might counter that in class without disrupting the entire lesson. Or some part of that, anyway.

    As for your question on how to handle incomplete or distorted stories used as class illustrations, Natalie, I sure don’t have the answer. When teachers in my ward teach that the earth is only 6,000 years old, or that Moroni dedicated the Manti Temple site, or that Merlin the Magician gave valid prophecies concerning the loss of priesthood authority from the earth — all of which have in fact been taught, recently — all I can do is sit there with my hands covering my eyes. I literally cannot face the teacher when such things are taught as gospel.

  7. Molly Bennion says:

    AB is so right about credibility. I would add that credibility comes not only by the sum total of your comments but also by your involvement in the ward. Contributing your time and talents builds street cred.
    Also, when I teach I can sound like an infomercial for the rush of good new history. We should help each other get comfortable with new information and learn where to find the most reliable.

  8. I found when I taught GD that avoiding inaccuracies was simple – I just stretched out the parts I liked. Wrong, but easy. As a student, it required more tact… more than I usually have. I tried to bring up alternative points of view, or to provide context to a story, with an almost apologetic tone. i.e. “Not to cause trouble but have we considered that we may this version may not contain the whole truth behind Thomas Marsh’s leaving?”

    I think the trouble we face when we challenge the instructor, or more precisely the manual, is when we approach it as an accusation. Tone is crucial.

    Of course, this is all moot for me now that I teach the 9-11 year old girls. I can do and say whatever I want and they don’t know any better. bwah-ha-ha-ha!

  9. The questiion that I was faced with Sunday with this same lesson (and having been informed earlier in the week on BCC) was this….What do you do when you know the lesson is wrong and you are the bishop?
    My decision (in order to avoid REALLY placing the instructor in a tough position) was to quietly step out and go visit a different SS class.
    Now…how to work the real story into my next sacrament service address…

  10. What Aaron said about not sounding like your point is a big deal has some merit. Or you can say something about how you were reading the other day that there are some conflicting accounts about what happened in this particular case, and regardless of which one is true there are lessons we can learn from it, and so on. If you can talk about “additional facts” or “different recollections from other witnesses” rather than flatly saying that the manual is “wrong” you probably have more credibility.

  11. I think calling the manual “dead wrong” is about as inaccurate as saying the only reason Marsh apostatized was over milk stripings. :)

  12. *in regards to the Marsh story in particular.

  13. From the copyright page in the teacher’s manual:

    Comments and Suggestions

    Your comments and suggestions about
    this manual would be appreciated.
    Please submit them to:

    Curriculum Planning
    50 East North Temple Street, Floor 24
    Salt Lake City, UT 84150-3200
    USA
    E-mail: cur-development@ldschurch.org

    Please list your name, address, ward, and
    stake. Be sure to give the title of the manual.
    Then offer your comments and suggestions
    about the manual’s strengths and areas of
    potential improvement.

  14. Ardis, maybe our hands cover our eyes at different times and for different reasons, but I like your comment.

  15. As the Marsh story came up in class last Sunday I broke out my phone and quickly confirmed my recollection that the Marsh story was not quite as simple as presented. I pondered saying something but let it slide. I couldn’t see much upside to commenting especially when I was unsure of what really happened. I did however leave class feeling pretty disappointed about what I had just sat through. I would like to have explored some of the issues surrounding Marsh’s exit but Sunday School is often not a rewarding venue for exploring such things (for me anyway) and the teacher certainly wasn’t headed that direction.

  16. To the list of Steve’s biting his tongue, and Ardis’ covering her eyes, I add my own: burying your head in a book. Wow – that’s quite an image!

    In the end, I think Steve’s advice to use a whole lotta humility is probably best (“bite your tongue most of the time, and be attentive to what the Spirit prompts you to say, or not to say.”) And based on the fact that you regretted your comment, Natalie, I would guess you agree. Interesting topics, thanks.

  17. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Merlin the Magician gave valid prophecies concerning the loss of priesthood authority from the earth”

    Hearing this in GD would put me in a cool mood for like … weeks! ~

  18. Natalie B. says:

    Yeah, I agree calling it “dead wrong” is a slight distortion — I just like exaggerating for style!

    Since I see this being a more and more frequent problem as we get more informed, I really am interested in what you all see as good responses. I do think correcting the manual produces a bad vibe (Ardis is right here). On the other hand, it also makes me feel icky to participate in an online community where we discuss issues with complexity and depth and then to sit in silence at church with the attitude that we can’t handle the truth there. I feel like I am judging and juvenalizing people rather than striving to learn with them. For me, that also detracts from the spirit. So, I guess I feel genuinely torn about this issue, and I am still struggling to find a response. Maybe it is all about tone and phrasing…

  19. Natalie B. says:

    One more thought: Even though this is not an optimal solution, maybe if I focused more on the morals people are trying to draw from stories regardless of whether those stories are true or not (as Hamer hinted at a way to do in his post), then I could at least find meaning that is just as intelligent and complex in SS as online and have less of a rift between my now two experiences of church.

  20. I taught this lesson last week-to the young people. We discussed the Thomas B Marsh story and “the rest of the story”. It makes it a full picture. What actions and decisions put your mind in a place in which milk strippings would matter? When we honestly disagree with a prophet what can we do? (prop 8 comes to mind-or blacks and the priesthood) How is patience a part of following the prophet?

    This experience does make me wonder about every little vignette in the manual and what is the rest of the story.

  21. Benjamin Orchard says:

    Since I’m not teaching GD, but Priesthood, I often find that the lessons I am called upon to teach are full of interesting stories, and I frequently wonder how accurate they are, historically speaking.

    My practice has been as the teacher to focus on the intent of the lesson, and if I’m uncertain of the historical accuracy, to avoid those areas which I cannot be certain of unless they are direct quotes from Joseph Smith. The editorial narratives that describe events I nearly always skip as they are almost always boring and frequently irrelevant to the content of the lesson.

    In Sunday School I am fortunate in that I have had a very capable and knowledgeable teacher for a while. That teacher recently moved to Switzerland (we’ll miss you Sister L!), but I think her replacement is suitable. She started off saying that she’s certain she’ll offend someone. She’s also the type that’s willing to consider a broader perspective, and she’s well educated. This helps a lot.

    I would say that if you aren’t the one teaching the lesson the way to handle this depends strongly on the teacher. If the teacher is someone you know is open to learning more about various views on the gospel, then kindly hand them Rough Stone Rolling or something similar–give them the material to get a broader perspective. Give them a wiser perspective. Do it over dinner at your house. Initiate a gospel discussion outside of church.

    If they are like several teachers I’ve known, then you might consider a lot of time in humble prayer–and you might think about how to engage them in mind-broadening discussions still. That said, I’ve had some teachers that were so bad that it wouldn’t have mattered what you said in class, they simply wouldn’t have noticed. One in particular, I could have said the sky was black, and that this was a sign of satan’s growing ownership of the world, and how it meant we needed to all have a year supply of ammunition, as prophesied by Brigham Young and he would have said something like, “Okay, and can someone now read D&C 121:22″, because that was what he had planned to do next. He wouldn’t comment on my remark, he wouldn’t deny it, correct it, or acknowledge it, he’d simply just move to the next point in his plan, because that’s how he taught–a series of scriptures followed by his remarks, then he took comments which he ignored completely. MOST. BORING. CLASS. EVAR!

  22. I will say I learned a bunch about what to do in Sunday School class from Hugh Nibley. My husband and I were teaching (newlywed at the time). He rarely said a word. He did have a fascinating comment when we got to polygamy as his own parents were polygamous and when he raised his hand we tripped all over ourselves to call on him as it was the first time he had done so.

    FWIW His comments were always personal experience and never related to his studies.

  23. Inasmuch as it was the first time in our new ward, I wouldn’t have had the credibility to say anything even if I had wanted to. I think the teacher did a fine job with it, though (emphasizing that Marsh had come back to the Church), although I don’t really know—I got pulled away in the middle of the story to play piano for Primary. So I guess that’s what I recommend—being pulled away to play piano for Primary during any part of a lesson that you feel is less than completely accurate.

  24. I think one of the things at issue here is that Church materials privilege simplicity.

    Combine that with time/space constraints, and the result is often a reductionist simplistic presentation, with little room for contextual concerns, nuance or grey. I allow that “the Gospel is simple” *may* be a true statement, but depends heavily upon our definitions.

    One common counter-reaction to this is often just as simplistic and reductionist, whether done for effect (“the manual is dead wrong!”) or with more serious intentions. Many people who leave the Church continue this simplistic view, it’s just that the Church is on the other side of the line, all lies and deceptions and bad motivations.

    I realized recently that this privileging of simplicity is a bigger problem than I had thought. I agree, and have explained before that GD and most other venues in Church are for doctrinal teaching and edification, not deep historical teaching or discussion of controversial topics. But I would feel much better if the Church *DID* provide some depth somewhere. I would be fine with simplistic edification-focused FP messages, if there were fully-developed less-simplistic FP works elsewhere. The Powers that Be don’t have time or space constraints if they so choose, since they control Church media and publishing.

    Perhaps the Church is slowly realizing that simplicity in everything (again, manuals, talks, Ensign) does not ultimately serve our purposes. I see evidence of that in a few Ensign articles here and there, but they remain the exception and not the rule.

  25. Kristine says:

    In some ways, it’s a lot easier when teaching kids–the parts of the lesson they’re likely to be captivated by are generally not the same as the one the adults like, so I’m already used to pretty heavy-duty re-emphasis and reconfiguration of the lessons in the manual. Our ward is a little behind (wacky Stake/Ward conference schedule this year), so we’re just now getting to this lesson. Our SS President is pretty good about keeping the teachers in touch with each other and sending little bits of encouragement and reminders via e-mail, so I used his list to share some info. about Marsh. Here’s what I wrote:

    “In preparing for this lesson, and I learned some more about Thomas B. Marsh. I think it’s worth considering the larger context of his disaffection from the church, both to be fair to him, and to learn as much as we can from the history. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_B._Marsh for a concise version–I can provide more extensive bibliography if anyone is as geekily interested as I was . Ultimately, this is also a more interesting lesson in personal apostasy than the milk and strippings story we know so well.

    His time spent in Boston is a fun connection, too–I tried to find out where he lived, but struck out. It appears that he had moved away before the first documented branch meetings in Boston (see here: http://cambridgereunion.blogspot.com/2007/03/meeting-places-in-boston-and-cambridge.html) for a list of the known meetingplaces of Mormons in Boston and Cambridge.

    Needless to say, I won’t be passing along much of the Thomas Marsh/Mormon War story to my 13, 14- and 15-year-olds; I know exactly what would happen if I started talking about mobs and Danites in that crowd!”

    We’ll see what happens.

  26. Name (required) or is it? says:

    If you remark that you KNOW the manual is DEAD WRONG!!!! then you come across as a bloviating, arrogant, know-it-all. But then again, that’s how you come across here.

  27. As to the larger point, when I’m teaching and I disagree with the manual, I say so (depending on what point it’s making).

    “The manual suggests x, but I think the manual’s wrong or at least, incomplete, and here’s why.” People pay attention to that, and good discussion often ensues ;)

    If someone has objections to that, I share Dan Peterson’s story (BYU Arabic professor, FARMS guy, sometime-Church-manual-writer), which I got directly from Dan (so no 4th hand, Uncle’s ward in the Bermuda Triangle distortions)- apologies for the formatting. I cut and pasted from his email.

    > Having, some time back, served on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee of the Church for nearly ten years, I
    > would never, ever, take a Gospel Doctrine manual to be an official and binding declaration of Church doctrine. We tried to get things right, we prayed about our work, and what we did was reviewed in Salt Lake before publication, but it scarcely constituted scripture.
    >
    > A story:
    >
    > Once, the scriptural selection about which I was
    > assigned to write a
    > lesson included, among other things, Acts 20:7-12,
    > in which the
    > apostle Paul drones on for so long in the course of
    > a sermon that a
    > young man (ironically named Eutychus or “Fortunate”)
    > dozes off and
    > falls from the rafters. Paul has to restore him to
    > life. As a joke, I
    > inserted a passage in my lesson manuscript that read
    > somewhat along
    > the following lines:
    >
    > “Have a class member read Acts 20:7-12. Have you
    > ever killed anyone
    > with a sacrament meeting speech? How did it make
    > you feel? What
    > steps can you take in the future to ensure that it
    > does not happen
    > again?”
    >
    >
    > Members of the committee laughed, and the committee
    > chairman sent my
    > lesson on up, incorporating their suggested
    > revisions but also still
    > including my little joke, to Salt Lake City. Where
    > it passed
    > Correlation. (I can only assume that each member of
    > the committee
    > chuckled and then passed it on, expecting that
    > somebody else would
    > remove it.) When I received the galleys of the
    > lesson back for final
    > approval just before it went to press, the joke was
    > still there. I
    > faced one of the greatest moral crises of my life,
    > but finally called
    > Church headquarters and suggested that they probably
    > didn’t really
    > want the lesson to go out to Church members entirely
    > as it stood. So
    > the joke was removed.
    >
    > The point being that Gospel Doctrine manuals are not
    > to be confused
    > with authoritative divine revelations.

  28. Kristine says:

    And I second the recommendation to go play piano whenever possible. I have myself been saved from personal apostasy on many occasions by being pulled away to play piano for Primary!

    Also–don’t take your iPhone to church.

  29. As a general guideline, if you feel you absolutely must interrupt the simpleton teacher as he leads the rubes of the class by the nose towards the goal of negligible value called “spiritual edification” and interject what you read on BCC, it’s best to try to sound slightly apologetic about how much smarter you are than everyone else in the ward.

  30. Natalie, I think your concern is valid. I just wonder how you expected the teacher to respond? – “Natalie says this account is false…so…uh…lets…end the lesson right here. Thanks you Natalie for making sure the manual didn’t deceive us.”

    If we’re bringing up uncomfortable issues to enhance the discussion, I think people will respond well. If we’re playing the role of history police – not so much.

  31. On the other hand, if you decide that you can let it pass, do be sure to shift in your seat with visible discomfort, so those with eyes to see and ears to hear can seek you out after class and have the mysteries opened up to them.

  32. Strangely enough, I had read the post on Thomas Marsh and had been following it pretty closely. I had read far enough to get the feeling that the milk incident hadn’t happened at all. So, when I was asked to teach GD Sunday and it was that lesson, I was a little conflicted. That’s when I re-read the whole post and thread again. I came to the realization that the story wasn’t completely false but only a small part of the bigger picture.

    Needless to say, in a preface to the lesson, I emphasized that the stories in the manual that I was going to draw from were incomplete and there was more to these stories than what was in the manual. I was surprised that the first comment was something along the lines of “It’s never one small thing, but usually a series of things.” It was a great comment and it allowed a good discussion on that topic.

    I got the feeling that most understood that these stories were simplistic representations of the individuals in the story for time constraint’s sake.

  33. I commented on it in class last Sunday, even though I originally told myself that I would not. The problem with the milk story, for me, as part of the lessons is that it makes it so easy to dismiss Marsh and his wife as petty. There are obviously people who have left for such reasons. Yet, my struggle is not with getting along with others, but my general discomfort with so many aspects of Mormon Culture. In this way, I feel that I can relate to Marsh. What can I do to not follow his path? How can I keep the faith, while not always agreeing with the attitudes and behaviors of other Mormons? Those are questions that I find useful for me and most relevant to the Marsh story.

  34. John Mansfield says:

    Bring up stories you like better that make the same point. Personal stories are usually welcome, or you could say “I liked what President Uchtdorf said in Conference about the plane that crashed in Antarctica because it was just two degrees off course. Like President Uchtdorf said, ‘Small errors and minor drifts away from the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring sorrowful consequences into our lives.'”

    Then because everyone thinks President Uchtdorf is cool, they’ll forget they were ever talking about Thomas B. Marsh. Then some skeptic behind you will cast doubt on the story you used. “Come on. There has to be a sequence of errors that lead to an airplane crashing. It’s not as if leaving the airport a couple degrees off-course means everyone is fated to die.”

  35. Kevin Barney says:

    It is difficult to try to correct something in a GD class from the position of being a student in that class. It takes the skills of a diplomat to accomplish such a thing effectively without causing more problems than it is worth. You’ve really got to pick your battles, and then follow much of the advice given above (e.g., you need to have established street cred in your ward, be matter of fact and not try to shock, try to put a positive spin on the new information in the context of the lesson or support it with a story, etc.)

    Most of the time I conclude it’s not worth it to even try.

  36. Randy B. says:

    I agree entirely with Kevin here.

    Different story when you are the teacher, but as the student, this is almost always a no-win proposition.

  37. In most every other environment in the world that I can think of, the proper way of correcting a superior or instructor is in private, after the fact. If there were going to be a salvation-based test immediately following the class, perhaps I would feel differently, but because there is not, I think it’s absolutely a no-win situation to bring it up in class.

    You simply wait it out, then talk privately to the instructor after the class period. This allows the instructor to then–in a very easy, comfortable fashion–to start their _next_ lesson with a brief addendum to the previous one. No awkward feelings for anyone, no lost face, and the “truth” still gets told

  38. Re: #26: (“If you remark that you KNOW the manual is DEAD WRONG!!!! then you come across as a bloviating, arrogant, know-it-all. But then again, that’s how you come across here.”)

    Duh. And if you condescendingly attack Natalie B. for sticking her neck out a little in order to advance a discussion, well, that just makes you a jerk.

    Well, actually, maybe what you did is just prove one of her points: if you try and speak your heart and mind, watch out, because most people will not give you the benefit of the doubt.

    So, thanks for that.

  39. BTD Greg says:

    I was Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward for a couple of years. It was a calling I thoroughly enjoyed and, unless they were just being nice, people seemed to appreciate my lessons. Looking back on it, I was probably pretty cavalier about what I taught. I approached the lesson manual as guidelines for the topic at hand and took my source material from wherever I felt like taking it (though I usually liked to cover the scriptures as well as possible in 50 minutes).

    Like Aaron (#5) and Eris (#8), I found that it’s really easy to selectively emphasize the parts of the lesson you choose to cover and de-emphasize the parts you are less impressed by. Is this wrong? Maybe, but it’s also something of a necessity as you’ll probably never be able to cover everything fully anyway. I almost never (probably never, but I’m leaving myself some wiggle room here) used the suggested questions in the manual (e.g., “Do you think it’s important to follow the instructions of the prophet?”) because I didn’t find them particularly helpful in generating class discussion.

    That said, Natalie’s post is more from the class member’s perspective. I think there, you kind of have to pick your battles. Even a good teacher can have a hard time steering a class back on track when a well-meaning class member says something that risks derailing the lesson. Maybe the teacher had other things they wanted to cover than the difficult personal history between Thomas Marsh and early Church leadership. Acknowledging that there may be more to the story than the manual suggests is fine, and might help generate a good discussion (most problems with the Church aren’t as simple as they seem), but the teacher simply might not have the time or resources to give full historical context to the story.

  40. John Hamer says:

    What should you do when a teacher in church is teaching from a manual and the manual is wrong? Or what should you do when the teacher ad-libs something that is wrong?

    In both these cases, you have to consider the context that you find yourself. You’re in a class, composed of members of your religious community (with whom you’re sharing a part of your religious journey, at least while you continue to live where you do). The class is all-volunteer, and the volunteer that has put in the most effort is the teacher. You should consider this audience, their feelings, and their needs, to the extent that you are able. In most cases, the correct response is to say nothing at all. People here are talking about sitting on their hands, biting their tongues, and looking deep into their opened scriptures — and that’s often the response that is most considerate of the teacher.

    If the teacher asks for input or specifically asks you for input, then you should craft a response that edifies while it corrects, and that takes the feelings of the teacher into account. Above all, I would avoid shaming the teacher.

    However, when we’re outside of that particular context and are here in this online context, it’s obviously quite appropriate to open up the hood on the stories being told in the culture, pull their innards out, examine them from every angle, and look for new insights.

  41. Margaret Young says:

    How about another scenario? Recently, after working out, I took a jacuzzi with a non-denominational preacher. At least, that’s how he described himself. He had bleached blond hair. I mentioned that I had several good friends who were pastors. After a moment, he said, “You know, I saw this really good movie the other day. It’s called _The Godmakers_.”
    Now, I think most bloggers imagine I’m nice. I am usually nice on blogs. But I’m fully capable of being not-nice. In this case, I didn’t say what I wanted to (“So did you start losing brain cells when you dyed your hair, or did you just feel that the bleached look fit you?”), but stiffened immediately and said, “That film represents a very reductive view of Mormons. It doesn’t let us speak for ourselves. It lets others define us–and they do it without any charity.”
    “But,” he answered, “it has Mormons in it–well, former Mormons.”
    “Former,” I repeated. “They do not represent us as we are.”
    Unsaid: I thought you were a NON-DENOMINATIONAL preacher. Non-Denominational and anti-Mormon? Where do you get off, Buster? And are you planning on doing it anytime soon? Could I suggest Mount Timpanogos?
    He tried for some reconciliation: “Well, I do like Romney. I’m really nervous about having a Muslim in the White House.”
    Another sore temptation. The line I wanted to say is from _Shadowlands_: “Are you trying to be offensive or just merely stupid?” Instead, I said in a rather stern monotone, “President Obama is a Christian.”
    Ah, but this guy had read about Obama ADMITTING he was a Muslim.
    Why post this in this conversation? Obviously, this ND preacher had no problem with a very one-sided history, with parsed lines the basis of his opinion on Pres. Obama and on Mormons.
    Why would I NOT defend my Mormonism to a man who was basing his view of my religion on a slanderous film? Why would I not defend my president to a man who was judging him according to misinformation?
    If I hear the “milk and strippings” story again, I will hasten to defend Thomas Marsh. Nicely. Now that I have more information, I believe that to do less would be a disservice to my policy of safeguarding the good names of those around us, even those in our history. (And since I just dissed the preacher, let me hasten to say that he never told me his name.:) I would defend gently, without causing a big fight, but would probably say something like, “There are some interesting things to be learned from that story, but we need to recognize that it is one chapter in a very complex life. From what I’ve read of Thomas Marsh, I must say I respect him. I won’t go into detail here in class, because there’s no time, but the story in the manual doesn’t do him justice.” Then I would probably find something to compliment the teacher on–like the way her shoes matched her outfit.

  42. StillConfused says:

    I view the lessons in church as kindergarten with the stuff on BCC as high school (sometimes, unfortunately for me, college). The lessons are dumbed down and as such pretty sketchy on full disclosure. In the Church’s defense, I have been in a Sunday School class or two where some extremely intellectual types argue a minute point and I have no clue what the john they are even talking about. So I say that if the class is too lame or dumbed down, read the scriptures or the BCC

  43. Margaret, that is among the least sexy hot tub stories I have ever heard.

  44. I’ve written up my own lengthy comment from the Thomas Marsh class here.

  45. Margaret Young says:

    gst–I was hot and bothered.

  46. This is precisely why I don’t use any of the stories when I teach Gospel Doctrine. We just discuss the scriptures in a practical way and we try to have class members use personal experiences.

  47. Steve Evans says:

    If you can’t get a pastor to lay off the antimormonism when hot-tubbin’ you know that preacherman has fire in his belly.

  48. Liberal Mormon says:

    We had this lesson in Gospel Doctrine in my own ward last Sunday. The teacher did list the three things suggested in the manual (milk strippings, misspelled name, not getting into the Kirtland Temple dedication) but then erased them. When he asked about what things can lead to apostasy, I instantly used one of the listed items in the teaching manual: that of rationalization. I used the example of how Satan tempts us gradually into shades of gray, not just outright sin. I mentioned Spencer W, Kimball’s story of the camel getting into his master’s tent gradually during a sandstorm. Then I also pointed out how many things in life are like that, that it just isn’t straight black and white but very complex, especially when it comes to people’s behaviors. The comment was well received and I’m glad I have a copy of the teacher’s manual, read the lesson ahead of time, and think of what I can do to steer away from the historical inaccuracies.

    Now if I had taught the class, I would not have listed the milk strippings and Frazier Eaton’s not being able to attend the Kirtland Temple dedication but would’ve listed all the other stuff, especially about Hiram page and the misspelling because those are recorded in early church history. If someone had brought up the milk strippings or Kirtland Temple dedication, I would’ve pointed out how those stories were related by George A. Smith, grandfather of the prophet George Albert Smith, and how those stories were told many years after the event and can be read in the Journal of Discourses

    I hope my comments can help some of you in the future.

  49. From # 37: “In most every other environment in the world that I can think of, the proper way of correcting a superior or instructor is in private, after the fact. If there were going to be a salvation-based test immediately following the class, perhaps I would feel differently, but because there is not, I think it’s absolutely a no-win situation to bring it up in class.”

    After four years at BYU and six years at IU, I feel safe in saying that the only classes I’ve attended or taught in which “correcting” a “superior” were not appropriate were classes in which the “superior” was a royal jerk who had no business teaching anyone anything. I’d say maybe two or three professors tops in all that time were so small that they were unable to create an environment in which students felt comfortable suggesting corrections or alternative explanations. Performers should not be interrupted or contradicted, instructors must be.

    I think the “diplomatic skills” mentioned above are essential for church members to develop. Historical details are rarely of lasting importance to the salvation of class members, but incorrect doctrines are taught just as often. It has to be possible for class members to redirect the teaching of incorrect principles such as racism, condemning sinners rather than sin, etc. Most teachers realize when someone makes a gentle correcting/redirecting comment that what they said was not what they intended or that they hadn’t realized the full implications of what they were saying. Sure, we shouldn’t push and push — if it gets that bad then the leadership needs to be counseling/replacing the instructor — but gospel doctrine classes are not meant to be a recitation-response exercise.

  50. So, how is de-emphasizing points you don’t like in the manual “wrong”? I do it all the time when teaching lessons – no apologies and no regrets.

  51. Owen (49)–
    I can see my comment is not as clear as I meant it to be upon re-reading it. What I meant was this: It is _always_ appropriate to correct privately. It is not _always_ appropriate to correct publicly. When in doubt–as the OP indicated as being the case–go with the slam dunk.

  52. Hey, I think the comment I made ended up in the spam filter / moderation… sweet! That’s never happened to me before.

  53. One minor correction (if we’re allowing that kind of thing here) to John’s excellent comment at #40: The teacher isn’t a volunteer, he’s a conscript!

  54. Margaret Young says:

    Owen–I’ve heard that IU has a reputation for being a huge party school. Is that a reductive and unfair assessment or is it accurate? (I’m trying to do at least a feeble link to this post.) My reason for asking is that my son wants to go to IU, since his sister lives in Indiana. If you can’t answer that within the confines of this conversation, please e-mail me personally. I’m easy to find, since I’m at BYU.

  55. The question of the post is what to do when the Manual is wrong. So why make this the problem of the teacher? Where is the effort to get the Manual corrected? Not avoided, but corrected?
    Isn’t this what should be done in private after class? See #13.

  56. IU is RED HOT! Yes, it’s a big party school, but also has a strong LDS community, with ridiculously high LDS representation in a number of graduate programs.

    I’ll email you.

  57. #6 – AMEN!

    We Mormons, of all people, should know that history is not black and white. Maybe the cream story DID happen and the high council recorder was sick that day and it never made its way into the official record. Maybe Elder Smith mis-remembered and the matter went straight to the First Presidency since the family in question was Marsh’s.

    At any rate, I doubt Elder Smith was lying outright. The manual is quoting an important LDS historical document. Let us not forget that history is never one-sided. In Sunday School, we may hear just one side to prove an important point.

    There are many, many, many aspects of our history that are way more controversial than what we hear in Sunday School. That doesn’t make them not true. In fact, we testify that the events ARE true, controversy notwithstanding. Sunday School just isn’t the place for the controversy. Save that for the symposia.

    All that said, I’m sure there’s a better story to illustrate the point the manual is trying to make with Marsh.

  58. I think Steve was hitting on an important point in #1. Sunday School is not really meant to be a place where people have historically accurate, nuanced, post-modern discussions. It is intended to reinforce commitment to the gospel and the church.

    That is also why Sunday School is really not enjoyable for me. I have no interest in reinforcement, and really enjoy the breakdown. But I realize that while perhaps, maybe, there might be a few other secret geeks in the room, for the most part that analysis is not what the rest of the ward wants. So I feel like its better for me to let the majority enjoy it than for me to make waves for my own minority amusement.

  59. I realize that John Hamer made my point earlier, without sounding b*tchy. Always the better man than I, John. Much love.

  60. There are ways of dealing with controversial material without being offensive. If you bracket your statement with a couple of positive observations, you rarely start a fight. And if you discover that you’ve unleashed a controversy which has detoured the lesson entirely (a discourtesy to the teacher), then you have an obligation to gently move it back on track–with good humor, if possible.

  61. Clay (#56): You say, ” I feel like its better for me to let the majority enjoy it than for me to make waves for my own minority amusement.”

    I agree that making waves, and derailing a whole lesson is not desirable, nor is it spirtually satisfying. However, I wonder about your conclusion. To me, a well-placed and charitable comment in class about what the larger Thomas B. Marsh teaches us about our own reaction to apostasy or offense in the church is not a minority concern. I would think that most of the folks in the class would be interested into delving into precisely that kind of gospel discussion. Maybe you’re just talking about another scenario? What’s the minority concern you mention?

  62. Just to second what Owen said–there’s quite a strong LDS community here in Bloomington and at the university. I don’t know much about the undergraduate experience, but my impression has been that (as at most institutions) you can find whatever you’re looking for. If you want to party, there’s plenty of that, but the Institute and singles’ branch seem to provide almost constant opportunities to socialize with other LDS.

    (Owen, do I know you? What program and ward are you in, if you don’t mind saying?)

    /threadjack

  63. If New FamilySearch is the standard of truth then heaven help us all.

    But I like the wiki idea.

  64. Eric Russell says:

    I recommend declaring the instructor an apostate, in front of the whole class, for teaching false doctrine. The teacher ends up hating you forever, but it does get peoples’ attention. So it’s kind of a trade-off.

  65. Eric, I think that’s inappropriate for Gospel Doctrine class. But I’m glad to note that it’s SOP for the High Priest group.

  66. It depends on the style of the teacher.

    Some (very few) gospel doctrine teachers really want a discussion of thoughts and experiences and different viewpoints by way of mutual enrichment of class members. In those classes, I feel free to raise points like Natalie’s, because I think they are welcome and expected.

    Many, perhaps most, teachers treat class more as a catechism. What I would call glorified Sacrament meeting talks, where the teacher makes the points he or she wishes to make, rather than a genuine attempt to allow class members to share their own thoughts and perspectives to the extent they might defer from the teacher’s points.

    In the same way that I do not seek to “correct” errors made from the pulpit, I do not feel like it is appropriate or expected to “correct” the glorified Sacrament meeting talks sometimes given as lessons.

  67. John Hamer says:

    gst #51: I don’t you should lose sight of the fact that you’re ultimately all volunteers. Everyone chooses to go and to participate (or not), including the teacher. That remains true even if volunteering to be a part of this particular expression of Mormonism and of Christianity means abdicating your personal agency and personal revelation in the division of particular community tasks.

  68. Continuing the threadjacking:

    ZD Eve: I’m the only LDS Owen I ever knew in Bloomington…

  69. Margaret Young says:

    I have made a personal commitment that I will not allow false witness to be borne against someone if I know that it is indeed false witness. I won’t sit quietly while a teacher or someone else explains that blacks were less valiant that whites in the pre-existence. And if only a part of a story is told, but leaves an impression of someone which damages his/her reputation, I feel obligated by my very baptismal covenants (keeping the commandments) to say something–to do it courteously and not contentiously, but (as I think we still say in YW), nonetheless to “stand for truth and righteousness…at all times.”

  70. Again, we really don’t know whether George A. Smith’s recollection was false witness against Marsh.

    Had I known the details of the story before last Sunday, I probably would have just said something like “We may want to view Marsh more sympathetically, since Geroge A. Smith didn’t tell the story until 1850. Marsh never mentions that it happened, nor did the high council record show that such a case was reviewed in Far West. It’s possible that the story is totally fabricated or that George A. Smith got Marsh confused with somebody else.”

  71. #71:To me, the question seems to be, did they who wrote the manual know the full or correct story of Marsh or not ?
    Using a story is a good way to give a lesson. But it should not leave the listeners believing they have hear a history, when the story was either incomplete or folklore.

  72. And by folklore what you mean to say is ‘widely accepted yet not necessarily the complete truth’…

  73. Holden Caulfield says:

    I think it’s worth considering 1) what is the purpose of “correcting” the manual in class and 2) how will it affect the purpose of the meeting.

    Given those two thoughts, I pretty much keep my mouth shut during lessons.

    Two weeks ago, my sister-in-law was teaching about the Word of Wisdom. It was made to seem so black and white from day one to today. The class discussed the “finer points”, i.e. caffeine drinks……I wanted to ask why was wine the last drink Joseph Smith ever tasted (from his History of the Church he drank wine shortly before the martyrdom). I thought 1 and 2 above and stayed quite. As a half-in, half-out member, I just wanted to temporarily interrupt everybody’s pride in the church having the WoW.

  74. #72: Personally, I don’t like the term “incomplete truth”. Incomplete facts, okay. But Truth should be “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
    Folklore is an effort to give a truth, by using a story that may not be true. That’s okay too.

  75. My apologies if someone has already made this comment, but you KNOW the manual is DEAD wrong? Good grief, did the holy ghost testify of this to you, thus compelling you to testify of this “fact”? I just don’t get why it would be so important to “correct” a story like this. You don’t know what happened. The story is being used to try and illustrate a point in the lesson.

  76. Re: #26: (”If you remark that you KNOW the manual is DEAD WRONG!!!! then you come across as a bloviating, arrogant, know-it-all. But then again, that’s how you come across here.”)

    Duh. And if you condescendingly attack Natalie B. for sticking her neck out a little in order to advance a discussion, well, that just makes you a jerk.

    Well, actually, maybe what you did is just prove one of her points: if you try and speak your heart and mind, watch out, because most people will not give you the benefit of the doubt.

    That made me smile.

    It is interesting that while Marsh did not tell the milk strippings story, he did repeat the narrative that he left the Church for petty reasons, sinned against his brethren and was an example of how God punished those who apostatized, and how at the point of death, he had realized he needed to come back to the faith.

    The way the lesson manual approaches his story is true to the narrative he repeated on a number of occasions in Utah.

    Had he been engaged in a different narrative, I’d feel a lot different about the story, given that I share his last name, the story always gets some discomfort, and that all the Marshes in the United States at that time were related to John Marsh as are their descendants.

  77. As one who has contributed to in a small way to advancing the discussion about Marsh’s apostasy, I endorse the inclusion of the milk-stripping story in the manual. I have no objection if teachers draw information outside of the manual to enhance the lesson.

    When I volunteer extra information I am extremely conscious of whether it comes from a reliable source that I can direct people afterward if they want to study more. I almost invariably discuss my comments in the socializing time between class to those who are curious. Quite frankly, the bloggernacle discussions about Thomas Marsh have included some degree of misinformation (I would be more diplomatic in pointing this out if the same partially (mis)informed opinions were brought up in a classroom setting). So what I suggest is that for me a little humility is in order in judging whether I have enough grounds to challenge the lesson manual, teacher, or other students in class. At least the manual has gone through correlation and source checking and a degree of peer collaboration. Not saying the lesson manual is infallible, but, for instance, if you haven’t read, say, Cook’s article on Marsh, you might want to err on the side of caution and silence. I also like to let people know they are free to disagree with me, while respecting their opinions.

    With Marsh in particular, one can, like Margaret, come to appreciate Marsh more by learning more about him. For me, while there are some bright spots, the overall trend is that the opposite is true. The more I read about him, the bigger the jerk he appears. I’ll spare the details. I tend to still revere prophets, warts and all, but not sympathize with apostates, beauty spots and all. So while I agree that Marsh’s apostasy story is biased and not the whole story, it does a good job of painting an impressionistic picture or an abstraction of his personality that holds true (for me) despite encountering all the same ideas that have contributed to others complaining about the manual.

  78. Natalie B. says:

    Ah…I can’t wait for Book of Mormon when we don’t have to worry about history. Just text-based analysis, which I prefer.

    But, seriously, I have been thinking that a lot of the problems we have in SS would be avoided if the lesson manual would focus us more in on the actual text. I remember that Richard Bushman gave fabulous lessons on D&C in which we read sections of the text and then thought deeply about what was going on. By sticking to the text, we were able to have spiritually awakening experiences that any reader could participate in, while also avoiding the problems that come up when we start bringing in lots of outside sources. It was hard to feel uncomfortable participating so long as you were only talking about the words on the page.

  79. Natalie B. says:

    Some thoughts on what the purpose of SS is: I think it really depends on the ward. In some places I have been, people really wanted to have an academic discussion. In other places, people seemed more interested in just connecting emotionally. Other wards have been a mix. I suppose I think that SS should really be whatever the participants want to make of it.

  80. Natalie B. says:

    77 – You bring up a topic that I find very interesting, which is the idea of fact checking and peer review. Online sources do risk being less reliable, but I found myself thinking a lot during this post about what it means to be invested in facts within a church context. On the one hand, this post started with the idea that the manual didn’t have “facts” right; on the other hand, I found myself wonder why I felt the manual needed to have the facts right. Facts matter to me if what we are learning is being presented as a history, but spiritually, it doesn’t seem that important to me whether what we are drawing strength from is factual or not. This is a round about way of saying that sometimes our desire for “facts” about church history is in an odd relationship with religious traditions that have more spiritually creative aspects.

  81. Floyd the Wonderdog says:

    As I reflect on the Thomas B. Marsh story and how so many people think that no one would leave the church over something so petty, I am reminded of a friend in Philadelphia who went inactive because the bishop did not stop to shake his hand as the bishop was walking into priesthood opening exercises. The funny (strange, unusual, bizarre, fill in your favorite here) thing was that I was standing next to him at the time and the bishop didn’t shake my hand either. The bishop just walked in and up to the stand. He didn’t stop to shake anyone’s hand. Was that the only reason this brother went inactive? Probably not. But I don’t know everything that was going on in his life or his mind at the time.

    Parallells to TBM? The milk may not have been the real reason he went apostate, but at this late date we may never know. He may certainly have taken offense over the milk strippings. It is possible for people to use a single incident as a fulcrum to justify making great movements in their lives that they have contemplated for some time, such as going inactive or becoming apostate.

  82. Marilyn says:

    Interesting conversation, folks. The last few years of my membership in the Mormon Church, I purposely became the Primary pianist for two reasons: I could no longer sit in Relief Society or Sunday School because of exactly what you have discussed here. Especially Relief Society, where class members absolutely cannot make a comment that would in any way whatsoever disagree or minimize or challenge anything the teacher says. The second reason was that I knew the ward members would not want to hear some of my views and would not want their children to hear them either. Piano was safe for everyone. But I still left. Chose my gay daughter over a church led by homophobes.

  83. #82:”Piano was (is) safe for everyone.”
    Maybe that’s the reason everyone will only be playing the harp in heaven?

  84. If the point of Gospel Doctrine (and Sunday School in general, one assumes) is for doctrinal teaching and spiritual edification, then using false stories (or stories that are likely to be false) is counterproductive. One cannot have faith that built on falsehoods. If the church manuals are incorrect, then they seem to be deliberately so, since it is so easy to get the facts correct in a church with such extensive history and archives. But, as others have pointed out, correcting people in class does no good. When apostles and prophets repeat the same false stories about Thomas Marsh, it is hard to refute them in class.
    And yes, before someone asks, I know that the milk strippings story is false. Every time I hear it, I get a bad feeling inside from listening to the slander of the first president of the quorum of the twelve in this dispensation. That bad feeling is the holy ghost telling me that the story is false.

  85. It’s just “false” eh? Can you see colors Mel? Or is everything black and white in your world?

  86. I disagree Marilyn. But your exmormon status and antipathy, leads you to characterize the Church in absolutes.

    Did this get posted on RFM or what?

  87. Um, did you actually read the manual or was this based on the teacher’s lesson, which in my experience can diverge wildly from what is really in the manual? Also, much care should be taken in deciding something you read on the internet is more accurate. There may be errors in both versions. Probably the point being made is the important thing. We don’t go to SS to become excellent church historians, (although it would be nice if they were fleshed out a little better at times), but to learn some principles. Just saying…

  88. Alf O'Mega says:

    From the manual:

    “Attention Activity
    As appropriate, use the following activity or one of your own to begin the lesson.
    Write the following phrases on the chalkboard:
    A pint of cream
    A misspelled name
    No available seating at the Kirtland Temple dedication

    Tell class members that these phrases all have something in common. They are all reasons given by early Church members for their apostasy from the Church.”

    Would anybody care to defend that last sentence?

  89. Natalie–I know I am very, very late to the conversation, so I do hope you see this eventually.

    Last week I, too, defended Bro. Marsh during Sunday school (though I admit, I was a bit less kind, referring to the story as apocryphal). My circumstance may be a bit different, in that the discussion of apostasy focused on a bunch of hypotheticals from people who neither know nor understand anyone who has left the church. In fact, tolerance of homosexuality and other immoral behavior was the main reason cited for leaving the church, as I recall. My experience is most people who leave the church do so after enduring many slights and offenses that are truly hurtful, or after the weight of evidence simply overwhelms their testimony. The problem for me with the Marsh (and the other stories included, to be honest) is that they trivialize the struggles of those who leave the church. I think that makes it too easy for those who never question, and too hard for those who do, and ultimately does a disservice to us all as members. So, as uncomfortable as you were, I say what you did was the right thing.

  90. I stopped going to Sunday School and Priesthood meetings completely. Not because of things like this, but rather because too many people in my ward see the country’s wars of aggression and acts of torture as a “token of bravery” as Mormon’s letter discusses in Moroni 9.

    Isn’t this what destroyed the Nephites?

    And heaven forbid I bring this up in the class.

  91. Weeks ago, I was asked to sub in Gospel Doctrine while the usual instructor was on vacation. As the teacher, I found the lesson I was given was “incomplete”. Led the teacher to surficial material. Had a real problem with whether to teach TRUTH or only 1/2-TRUTH. Struggled and wrestled with it. I taught the deeper TRUTH because I felt like I was misleading the class if I didn’t. But I understand that most members just aren’t at that “deeper place” to hear “deeper things”. Sad, but true. Hoping that my lesson was aided by the Spirit and taught the individuals in the class as they were able to receive. I’ve noticed things like this in manuals more than a few times. I try to suppress what must be pride on my part. Constantly trying to balance humility and the urge to help educate and inform members of the doctrines we claim to believe in. Thanks, Natalie, for verbalizing my thoughts.

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