Over at Meridian (ht: Grant Hardy), Jeffrey Marsh offers an interesting perspective on the structure of the D&C manual, a subject that Ben Park has ably discussed as well. Ben’s post covers many of the problems with a topical approach and I will try not to repeat those here. However, Marsh’s article suggests some reasons why this approach might be useful for our time. First, he suggests that a topical approach allows the manual to cover more ground while highlighting the ‘unfolding doctrinal drama of the Restoration’. Second, the manual is a unique approach to a unique period of history. I would like to suggest a few reasons reasons why I am not quite convinced.
According to Marsh, the first-draft of the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual was organized chronologically. Yet, after submitting that draft to the Twelve for approval the writing committee received these comments: “There have been so many revelations received since the end of the Doctrine and Covenants, and so much Church history has occurred since the martyrdom at Carthage–is there any possible way to cover the revelations that have been received and the history that has taken place since then? Can we include more? And do it without adding any more pages?” [paraphrased by Marsh].
Certainly this is an interesting perspective to take and I can see why our leaders would want to emphasize the nature and scope of continuing revelation in the church. Yet, perhaps this shift in emphasis could have been accomplished by collapsing some of the material that covered these earlier periods (obviously I am speculating about the content and structure of that unseen first draft) and instead give more time to material from later periods. A radical reorganization does not seem to be required, or even hinted at, in this response.
At the same time, I would suggest that organizing the material topically actually obscures the ‘unfolding doctrinal drama’ because it is not at all clear how or where a particular doctrine was unfurled. Our history has often been presented in ways that are congruent with the theatrical; we love the stories and visual images of those early years. We even reenact them. As a drama, the Restoration is a theatrical production whose characters work and struggle to reveal our theology. The action, of course, plays out over time on the stage as the curtains are lifted and dropped, and sets are altered. However, the dehistoricization of our history and doctrine, in effect, places another set of curtains in front of that stage where the drama is actually happening. The actors are still playing their part and the doctrines are still being revealed, except that all we see now is the conclusion: the final moments of the final act when the finished product is brought through this second curtain and into the light. In short, I think this approach actually obscures what Marsh thinks it reveals: the unfolding drama of the Restoration.
I do not disagree that our time is unique in some ways and I sure that Marsh would agree that there are many things about our world that are not all that different from the past. The question I want to explore here is what makes this time period so unique that it requires a unique teaching manual. This is not entirely clear in Marsh’s piece and I cannot think of an argument that might support this position. But, and perhaps this is just my own preference, I can think of one reason why the uniqueness of our time might require a historical approach.
The church’s position in the world has been inevitably shaped by its relationship with those peoples and places it has come into contact with. The unfolding doctrinal drama is embedded within the unfolding history of the world as a whole and also the specific histories of countries and nations. Revelations related to the priesthood or the size and location of temples will be understood in a slightly different light when viewed through the international growth of the church. There are clearly some unique features about our era but I am not sure how they relate directly to the structure of this particular manual.
One final caveat: I think organizing this manual chronologically would provide one other wonderful opportunity. We could insert lessons that allow for local variation. For example, every six months, or so, there could be a lesson which deals with the specific history of the church in a specific part of the world. So Europeans would learn about the history of the church in Europe and Africans would learn about the history of the church in Africa. These materials could be prepared by the committee but with guidance from our excellent church historians (perhaps even with local help). They could then be distributed to the relevant areas with the other teaching materials. These local supplements would not radically decentralize the manual or the writing committee but it would allow local peoples to see themselves in the history of this church.
Marsh and I both agree that teaching the unfolding doctrinal drama would be a spiritually enlightening and enriching effort. I suppose we disagree about how that is best accomplished. However, I appreciate his attempt to provide some insight into why he have the particular that we do.
1. In all likelihood, this is all based on my preferences.