This is the second in a series of three posts. In the first post, I mostly whine about Sunday School and Gospel Teaching. In this post, I’ll get more specific about what I think the problem is. In the final post, I will actually propose a possible solution.
Here is where I shift from whining to crazy talk. I recently saw the movie Food, Inc and my wife and I have been reading about modern industrial food. In a book called The End of Overeating, the author notes that chicken nuggets do not come from any discernable part of the chicken. Instead, nuggets are a combination of water and chicken goo, that is ground up chicken. If you’ve ever peeled back the batter on a nugget, you are familiar with what I am talking about. In nuggets, the contents of the nugget are pre-chewed (like baby food) because that provides a smoother, more pleasant eating experience (no gristle or bone). As a result, the person eating has less of a sense of how much they are eating and they tend to eat faster (less chewing necessary). Why only eat 6 nuggets when you can eat 9, and so forth. The emphasis in the modern industrial food complex is on providing the consumer with food as cheaply and pleasantly as possible. It’s emphasis is not on providing food which is good for you. Which is fine, to a degree, because you’ve got a head and can choose for yourself. However, in most stores, buying the ingredients necessary for a decent salad is actually more expensive than buying a burger from the local fast food emporium. Which do we tend to follow: our heart/head or our wallet?
The application to Gospel Teaching? I, briefly, worked at BYU in the department of Religious Education and I was fairly unsuccessful there as a teacher. But I listened, because I wanted to be better. At BYU RelEd, they have too few teachers teaching too many students. It is not unusual for instructors to have 5 classes a semester , meaning literally hundreds of students each. As a result, certain types of teachers tend to flourish at BYU RelEd: those who can take Gospel Ideas, distill them to their essence, and communicate them as widely as possible. Certainly, those aren’t the only types of teachers found there and all their teachers are very effective, but do to the department’s unique mission, people who can mush up the Gospel and get it to the masses are valued. In that department, I was told that their classes were different for two reasons: 1. the purpose was not to impart or share knowledge, it was to make people better people (a goal I applaud); 2. therefore, the goal of the class is not to separate those who get it from those who don’t (an unacknowledged goal of much university teaching), but rather to make sure that everyone gets it. Standardization is critical to accomplishing this goal.
Again, this isn’t to say that standards of doctrine or teaching are enforced (that wasn’t my experience at all). But it does mean that if you, the individual teacher, don’t standardize, you will drown. I once had a colleague come in and evaluate my teaching. The primary negative that he mentioned was that I ran it like a graduate seminar. He didn’t have anything against graduate seminars, which are very useful, but rather he was trying to get me to see that if I did this for several classes, I would drown in work (indeed, a portion of my decision to walk away from teaching in academia was due to the need for more standardized course creation on my part and my dislike of that process). You can’t teach such large numbers personally and, therefore, you shouldn’t try. You’ll go nuts. There is a reason that a lot of the PhDs in RelEd are in Instructional Technology. Tools that make educating students more efficient are necessary in that environment for sanity maintenance. The same goes for Seminary and Institute teachers, who operate under similar teaching loads and who, for that reasons, sometimes graduate to become instructors at the Y in RelEd.
The problem being that, when Sunday School manual production time comes around, those people on the committee are often people who were raised as teachers in this system. The determination to make sure that everyone gets it as efficiently as possible requires streamlining, of the lessons, of the doctrines, and of the scriptures. We don’t teach the scriptures in Sunday School, we teach these streamlined doctrines supplemented by scriptural proof texts. If our primary goal is to get a set number of religious ideas out with as broad a distribution and as little time as possible, then it is a good system. But if our goal is, as I was told in BYU RelEd, to make people better, it is likely misguided. Becoming better requires work, the sacrifice of all things; Sunday School doesn’t.
In fact, Sunday School is currently designed to require no work from its students whatsoever (and only a minimum from its teachers). You could, at a moment’s notice, teach a lesson anywhere in the church (that speaks your language) if you can get a hold of a manual, no matter what your experience. Which is good, in its own way, because lots of our teachers don’t have much (or any) pedagogical experience and they require a lot of support. But, I would argue, this is clearly intended as a stop-gap measure. Instead, we’ve turned it into the model of how lessons ought to be taught. Using our manuals exclusively, nowadays, is all technology, no instruction.
This technological emphasis in instruction results in bland lessons that don’t evoke real, lived lives (scriptural or modern). Our lessons are often the pedagogical equivalent of a form letter. To some degree, we can get away with this, because the Spirit is a very forgiving colleague. But we are denying ourselves as teachers and our students of the opportunity to draw closer to God through the instruction of the Spirit if we are simply going through the motions. Going back to Elder Scott’s talk in conference, although Elder Scott clearly valued one lesson over the other, it was clear that both teachers had put an effort into what they taught. That pedagogical effort, I think, had some influence over the ease with which Elder Scott felt the Spirit in those classes.
Standardized lessons are great for emphasizing basic gospel messages, but at the expense of real experience living the gospel and interacting with the scriptures. If we can’t teach people how to live a gospel life without resorting to a series of platitudes and scriptural cliches, then all we are serving folks is fried froth. Like spiritual fast food, we are filling folks up on easy answers and spiritual mediocrity because it is fast, easy, and standardized. Instead, we should invite them to the table to feast with us on the real, wholesome, messy, tasty, pulpy, and savory word of God.