Everything that is wrong with LDS Gospel Teaching, Part Three: Organics are better for you

This is the third in a series of three posts. In the first post, I mostly whine about Sunday School and Gospel Teaching. In the second post, I’ll get more specific about what I think the problem is. In this post, I actually propose a possible solution.

Ok. So now I’ve blathered on for two long posts about how horrible everything is and why it is so horrible. “That’s great, Whiny McWhinikins!” you should be saying, “Where are these solutions you promised us?”

Um…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…

Organic farming is a complex agricultural system and I will likely do it no justice in my description today. Much worse, I’m going to compare it to teaching Sunday School of which, frankly, I have an equally hazy understanding. So I’m going to stretch a metaphor beyond its intent, most likely, and I am going to possibly do damage to both sides of it. Excited yet?

Organic farming is built on the notion, basically, that modern industrial agriculture is very, very bad. Bad for the land, bad for people, and bad business. Modern industrial agriculture seeks to turn its product into revenue as efficiently as possible, which means that other processes, even if they produce a reasonably better product for all concerned or have a better environmental impact, are less desirable. To be clear, I consider most of modern industrial agriculture as close to evil as we’ve got on earth; I do not believe that of the Church Educational System. The CES is trying to teach a wide variety of people the basics of the gospel as effectively as possible. Unfortunately, in so doing, they rely on the efficiency model of big business (or, in the case of the CES, big teaching). But those models are poor fits for Sunday School. Big teaching is about communicating a few ideas as simply as possible in order for them to be maximally comprehensible. Therefore, each lesson in the manual is geared to getting across, at maximum, three basic ideas. This is because there are limits on how much new information a brain can take in during a given lesson and because simple ideas are the most easily testable. Comprehension is tested in class through a series of questions, so that the teacher can gauge how well the basic ideas have gone down and reinforce when necessary. However, when students know that they are going to hear similar sets of three ideas every week (drawn from a larger set of fifty or so), the impact of emphasizing these limits goes down. The comprehension tests lose accuracy once everyone has internalized the answers, because knowing the answers becomes more important than searching for them in a class setting. Have you ever noticed that, although your children do learn stuff in primary, if you ever ask them what was discussed in a particular primary class, they have a very difficult time coming up with specifics? Does this describe your typical Sunday School experience? If we already know what is coming, week in and week out, our knowledge of the how and why of it is extraneous.

The biggest reason that efficiency models are a poor fit for Gospel Teaching is the need for standardization. Standardization allows the church to present specific messages at specific times the world over. However, standardization alters the message. Like a tomato that has been grown for shipping rather than taste, standardized messages don’t convey what is important about the gospel. Instead of offering insight into human and divine interaction, they offer carefully crafted slogans and calibrated examples. Even worse, the lessons can ask us to that we manufacture meaning on the spot in order to support these superimposed narratives (Don’t you hate question “Has anyone ever had an experience that relates to our topic?”?). Now, these things will do in a pinch, if you have no other options, but they should not be your bread and butter. It asks too little of both the student and the teacher to be truly spiritually nourishing, I think.

Organic farming, more than anything else, rejects standardization, sorta. There are standards (no pesticides, no genetic manipulation (aside from breeding), less mechanization, and so forth), but the standards are there, primarily, to guarantee the quality of the food, not to make it more efficient to get the food to you. Big teaching is interested in quality, too (those three messages will contain no false doctrine), but it is much more concerned with distilling the question down to something easily digestible, like a vitamin pill. Organic teaching, as it were, doesn’t want to just supply you with the nutrients, but all the flesh and pulp surrounding it, too. I’m going to borrow a few easily digestible slogans (O, thou hypocrite!) from organic farming (Actually, from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) to explain changes that I think would help.

Eat Food

In Sunday School, we need more direct interaction with the scriptures and with the words of the prophets. That means that teachers should be more encouraged to teach directly out of whatever standard work is being studied. That means students should be encouraged to share their insights from their own study during the week. That means that both student and teacher can (and should) do the work of finding quotes or ideas from modern prophets and leaders that illuminate the text. That means that, when we approach Sunday School, we should prepare ourselves for a weekly feast.

Teaching from scriptures isn’t hard, requires no particular education (beyond literacy), and no particular familiarity with the gospel (although that doesn’t hurt). Instead it requires the following: reading the text closely. If you read each verse, pause and think about what it means, what information it is trying to convey, how its context affects the meaning of that information, and how it should influence our lives today, then you are reading closely. I would provide an example, but space is valuable and I’m going to go over as it is. Look to Jim F’s Sunday School notes or Julie Smith’s or anything by the people at Feast Upon the Word. Just remember that those are their questions. Yours may be similar, but they needn’t be. The questions aren’t what is important, the method is.

Not too much

The 4 year cycle is a blessing in that it gets us to read some of each standard work with some regularity. It is a curse because it emphasizes covering ground over feasting on the word. Have you ever had the experience of visiting another ward, only to discover that they are one or two weeks behind your own in Sunday School. For me, because I am a bad person, I have a profound sense of disappointment and wasted time (“I’ve already been through this”). Rather than encouraging the excitement of hearing another individual’s take, the four year cycle offers standardized portions of the scriptures that are easily digested, but that turn your stomach if you get a second helping too soon after the first. While I think that encouraging folks to go through all the standard works is a good idea, setting it to a timetable forces people through at a pace that is foreign to the class, determined by the needs of the organization, not the individual.

Mostly Plants

I’m going to take this part of the metaphor in two divergent directions. Plant agriculture is, generally, more sustainable than animal agriculture. Sunday School should be all about sustainability. We don’t want to just give people their pre-cut portions of Gospel every week. We want to teach them how to find the feast themselves. That is why I believe the emphasis in Gospel Teaching should shift from information sharing to method sharing. If we teach using close reading, students will be more likely to take those methods home and apply them, then their children will be more likely to use them, and then their children and so forth. If you want to test in Sunday School, test for method, not information. This isn’t to say that information is unimportant. Doctrine is vitally important, but it will be more meaningful and influential if the individual member discovers it for themselves. To argue that a manual is necessary for people to get the correct doctrine is to argue that our doctrine can only be found in the scriptures under carefully controlled conditions. I don’t believe that for a second.

But what doctrines should be taught? I like how the slogan is “Mostly plants,” not “only plants.” Meat is an important part of our curriculum. The revelations and insights of our modern prophets and apostles do much to clarify and expand the scriptures. However, I don’t believe novelty or esoterica for its own sake is useful (nor do I believe that some sort of upper-division Sunday School course would be). The nourishing vegetable matter of the Gospel is mostly what we get every six months at General Conference and I love that. But those sermons are almost always drawn from the scriptures, the lives of our leaders, or their experiences, not from manuals. The basic doctrines of our church are as profound as the deep stuff, because they act in our lives to make us better, more Christian people. We should embrace that in our Gospel Teaching. The veggies and the meat both have a necessary place at our table and the feast is best sustained if we don’t gorge ourselves too often on the fats. That said, the fatness, I believe, comes from the combination, in correct proportion, of the two. Glorying in that fatness each week will, I believe, bring us closer together as a people and bring us all closer to our God. There is no reason why every Sunday School lesson in the church can’t be a feast upon God’s word and until that happens I think we are failing in our commitment to LDS Gospel Teaching.

So, that’s my manifesto, only it isn’t really a manifesto because I don’t expect the Brethren (or the CES higher ups) to read it and they will do what they want to do anyway and that’s fine with me. I have 3 last things to say, but none of it is necessary and I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped it.

First, I really like the Teaching, No Greater Call manual. It was a great resource for me when I was struggling to know how to get through to 11 year olds. It encourages people to follow their heart, the Spirit, and teacher’s intuition away from the manual (within reason). It encourages teachers to find their own voice and approach to the Gospel. And it encourages more discussion oriented classes. However, I think it should be used as a resource, rather than the sole basis of a course of instruction on how to instruct. Too often, I think, it emphasizes classroom management or technological innovation over individual attention or close reading. Instead, I think that Sunday School presidencies should hold regular classes with their teachers wherein they model close reading for the teachers, ideally in the scriptures and topics that are being studied. However, that is just my opinion. Overall, I think the book is a great resource.

Second, I think the church is already headed in this general direction. My impression of the lessons in Preach My Gospel is that they really are loose outlines and the missionaries are encouraged to follow the Spirit in picking and choosing what to teach. As I understand it, the current Gospel Principles manual follows a similar tact. Anything that puts more emphasis on letting individual teachers and students determine the course a class takes, rather than manuals, I am all for. I, in particular, think that as missionaries raised on Preach My Gospel rather than the Missionary Discussions begin to take over teaching in the church, we will see a great leap forward in our teaching and in the quality of our feast.

Third, my computer crashed several times over the course of writing this. In its first draft it was brilliant. Now, likely not. But I’m sure the angels in Heaven have it recorded so you’ll likely be impressed by this sometime after the Judgment.


  1. John, this series has been a treat for your readers. Well done! I really like your point about close reading of the text. Not only applicable to the scriptures, but everything we read–it’s a mind workout. Good reminder.

  2. Very, very good, John–but then Melissa and I generally aspire to be locavores, and I’ve got most of what Michael Pollan has written on my shelf, so I would agree with you, wouldn’t I?

    Regarding “Eating Food”: this suggestion crashes into the same obstacle which efforts to wean people away from industrial agriculture crashes into–going the organic route is demanding, expensive, and, especially when disconnected from a wholesale critique of how people around the world are socially and economically obliged to spend their time, rather unfair. When you speak of “students…shar[ing] their insights from their own study during the week…prepar[ing] ourselves for a weekly feast…reading the text closely,” you seem to have in mind a congregation of mostly middle-class (or better), mostly literate, mostly articulate Mormons. What about the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of poor and/or functionally illiterate and/or divorced-moms-holding-down-two-jobs-and-taking-care-of-three-kids-without-any-time-to-read-the-scriptures-and-just-drawing-on-the-stuff-they-remember-from-seminary-twenty-years-before members out there around the world? Should Gospel Doctrine not be designed for them? If not, how do they get their basic spiritual nourishment? In the same way that Monsanto points with pride to the bottom-line of hundreds of millions of people being able to afford sufficient grain in their diets, so can the Church point with pride to new converts from the rural Philippines to inner-city Detroit being able to be part of a gospel discussion. There’s no easy answer to that challenge, I think; just a realization that gospel teaching, like everything else, has to be cognizant of the inequalities and the systems which define a lot of our life.

  3. I should reiterate that I really do agree with your manifesto, John; there is too much standardization and routinization, too much manual-dependency, too little methodology (that is, too little talk about how one reads the scriptures) in our gospel teaching. But I can’t help but think that overcoming the enormous obstacles and inertia which prevents or pushes a great many members of the church away from a committed reading of the texts themselves will require a rethinking of much more than just what happens during Sunday School.

  4. To argue that a manual is necessary for people to get the correct doctrine is to argue that our doctrine can only be found in the scriptures under carefully controlled conditions.

    Very strong point.

  5. “We want to teach them how to find the feast themselves.”


  6. RAF,
    I think that, in a true pinch, the manual as we have it has to do. But, for far too many, it defines the maximum, not the mimimum of participation. Certainly, there are plenty of people who face issues of literacy and daily survival. This is, I believe, why the church strives to help people (and especially members) worldwide on these fronts. However, beyond basic literacy, the necessary time and effort for this emphasis is not something the church isn’t already asking of us. And, for all participants, Sunday School should be a place where Gospel literacy is taught. I contend that the use of the scriptures is absolutely necessary for that instruction. So, so long as scriptures are available, I think close reading should become the emphasis (at all levels really, but I’m flexible).

    That said, I have no problem with altering programs and processes to match local conditions (buy locally and all that, ya know). Of course people in the third world have a better notion of their needs than I do. Nonetheless, I don’t think that we are correct in assuming that they, as a group, simply aren’t ready or are incapable of approaching a text closely, nor do I think we should pat ourselves on the back for our capability for doing so (as you correctly note much of that capability isn’t our own doing).

    As it stands, if the courses are designed for people who make no spiritual preparation, I have a hard time believing that they get much sustaining spiritual nourishment out of the process in any case.

  7. Just a note in response RAF’s comment about middle class, literates as opposed to poor non-literates.

    I’m not sure that has to be an issue – or perhaps, to word it a little differently, poor people are often literate and if they aren’t literate to begin with they can certainly become literate. Gospel study (since it involves reading and thinking) can actually be quite an aid in that process.

    Some of the best lessons I ever heard in priesthood happened in a Guatemalan ward where the people were relatively poor. I remember one time we were sitting in priesthood and the teacher asked us elders pointedly if we had read the lesson ahead of time. For some reason I thought as missionaries, with our other duties, that this would not be a requirement or an issue. But he wouldn’t accept that from us or anyone else.

    Let me tell you – we all started preparing for those lessons during the week and it was an amazing experience to sit in those classes.

    I don’t know how we re-create that in our own wards – we have a culture which has created a different result (as these posts point out) – but I was impressed with how the people in this particular location in my mission were malleable and willing to accept responsibility in this way.

  8. Jonathan Green says:

    John, I think teaching a lesson based only on the scriptures is hard, and does require a good amount of specialized knowledge. Our scriptures are littered with footnotes because making sense of an early modern English translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew texts is in fact something that’s well beyond the experience of nearly everyone.

    And I think it’s self-evidently true that our doctrine can be found in the scriptures only under controlled conditions. There are as many or more ways to read a text as there are readers. Other Christians read the same Bible we use and come to dramatically different conclusions, and who among us does not have a near or distant relative with a freakishly weird interpretation of the Book of Mormon? What makes us a faith community is both the acceptance of a body of scriptural texts, and also the acceptance of certain people as authoritative guides to interpreting them.

    So I think that the most important inputs for good teaching are determined locally, rather than in SLC. A good and experienced teacher can present engaging and insightful lessons with the aid of (or in spite of) whatever manual is in use, but the best manual can’t help a situation where teaching is a low priority with local leaders, or where successful teaching is defined as eliciting correct answers to catechetical questions.

  9. Wonderful post. Thank you.

    I don’t think much will change, however, because of one large issue that applies to the Church’s overall philosophy on things far beyond Sunday School: correlation.

    As I’ve traveled the world and have visited other non-LDS churches, I love how different they are. Their buildings are different. Their dress is different. Their approach is different. They are all the same denomination and have the same basic beliefs in the fundamentals: the love of God, Christ, fellowman, etc. but they implement it very differently. Each congregation has a personality that is very reflective of the community. They internalize the core of the gospel and express it. This, to me, is the organic, “locally-grown” model.

    Our whole organization is correlated from top-down, and is more of the McDonald’s model. The franchises all look alike and have to do the same thing world-wide. This can lead to problems. They recently shut down all of the McDonalds in Iceland because the “policy” for their region was to import their supplies from a distribution center in Continental Europe. They weren’t allowed to use local products, so they just shut down.

    In the Church’s attempt to have everything correlated and the same worldwide, you necessarily have to achieve the least-common-denominator. It makes the experience bland. While some people talk about the “comfort” of going to an LDS Church in France and feeling right at home because everything is the same as along the Wasatch Front, I don’t go to France to eat at a McDonalds that reminds me of home – I do to eat French food.

    So, the problem is more than Sunday School – it’s a philosophy that, unfortunately, has gotten worse in the Church with correlation, etc. And I don’t ever seeing the leadership letting it go the other way.

  10. One more comment: There are much better translations of the Bible than the King James Version. They use more familiar language. They are actually closer in meaning to the original, using sources that weren’t available to the translators of the KJV.

  11. Jonathan,
    I think that we provide sufficient resources that anyone should be able to begin a close reading. I also believe that proper teacher training, demonstrating the method, will do a great deal toward developing it in others. I agree that it comes with practice, but I think that is a good thing.

    I also think that our movement toward lessons that offer outlines is more compatible with this approach. We can remind teachers to hit the necessary topics (tithing, atonement, priesthood authority) without telling them, in micro-managing detail, how to teach it. I think giving our members to opportunity to discover our doctrines for themselves within the text is important enough to require some flexibility in our expectations of doctrinal purity.

    I am, of course, in complete agreement with your final paragraph.

  12. Mike,
    I really don’t find correlation terribly problematic. As Jonathan notes, some prophetic guidance is very likely a good thing. So long as individual classrooms have room to breathe and learn, I don’t mind it in the least.

  13. John Mansfield says:

    I am skeptical of close reading. Much of it seems like making stuff up, a bit like numerology, investing importance that isn’t there on details that are irrelevant.

  14. I’ve enjoyed the series, thanks.

    As a side note, wouldn’t it be fun if in some wards every member was a Gospel Doctrine Teacher? I think of my ward and all the great people in it and how much we might be able to get out of each other if we were each assigned a week and if each person was encouraged to put solid preparation in for that one lesson. That would also give the entire class empathy for the position, perhaps a view of how much of the learning responsibility is their own, and would decentralize the position, making it more “our calling” than “so and so’s calling”. Just a thought that occurred to me as I read this. I’m sure it’s problematic in a number of ways, but on the surface, sounds like fun.

  15. Danithew,

    Some of the best lessons I ever heard in priesthood happened in a Guatemalan ward where the people were relatively poor.

    I don’t dispute that can be the case–in fact, maybe is in fact more often the case. I hope my comment didn’t cross over into condescending territory, presenting the poor as backward and in need of correlated help, etc. My intention was simply to gesture, in a short-hand way, at the obstacles which time, education, literacy, money, socialization (you can be fully literate, but have no skills in terms of speaking out loud or interacting with others in a teaching setting), and all the rest which the Church, perhaps justifiably, perhaps not, makes use of (the same way Monsanto does) in designed its streamlined, lowest-common-denominator lessons.


    I think it’s self-evidently true that our doctrine can be found in the scriptures only under controlled conditions….What makes us a faith community is both the acceptance of a body of scriptural texts, and also the acceptance of certain people as authoritative guides to interpreting them….A good and experienced teacher can present engaging and insightful lessons with the aid of (or in spite of) whatever manual is in use, but the best manual can’t help a situation where teaching is a low priority with local leaders, or where successful teaching is defined as eliciting correct answers to catechetical questions.

    An excellent response. I wouldn’t go as far you seem to be in saying that our doctrine requires “controlled conditions” to be discerned, but perhaps that’s because I consider “our doctrine” to be properly be a far more minimal, far more flexible and indeterminate a creature than some make it out to be. Either way, I agree that, given that what holds us together is not just the scriptures but the particular way in which we, as a community, receive them, local teaching is absolutely paramount. Which brings us back around to my point earlier about talking about how one reads the scriptures, about the arguable importance of real training and pedagogy….both of which are, by design, mostly absent from our Sunday Schools

  16. My grandfather was quite the Sunday School student. He’d been a friend of folks like Hugh Nibley and Sidney Sperry. Sperry tried to talk him into going to the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in theology, but he was married, had two kids, and needed to support them. He would study the Sunday School lesson material for at least 10 hours each week, then stand up in class and give a comment of three sentences or less, or ask a question that it might take the entire hour to answer. He wasn’t the teacher. Even at his funeral, people came up to me and told me how much they looked forward to his 30 seconds in Sunday School each week. One former bishop of his was called to be EQ president in a Spanish branch, but would call my grandfather each week just to ask what he’d said in class that day.

    I don’t currently have a calling, but I’ve spent most of the past 15 years or so teaching the teenagers. Most recently, the 16-17 year old teens.

    My approach was this:

    1. Make coming to Sunday School the best available option. When I was growing up, the good kids went on a doughnut run during Sunday School, and the bad ones smoked in the parking lot. Class should be preferable to either of these two. I’d have treats on occasion (random reinforcement works better than constant), and allow some socialization time before the lesson. This was to make sure the best available option wasn’t sitting in the foyer socializing.

    2. Give a compelling reason on why this stuff you’re talking about is important. Each January, I’d let the kids know just how long they had until they could be putting in mission papers, should they choose to serve. I’d bring up some bizarre situation – a question or problem I’d been faced with on my mission, or from one of my brothers, and then point out that they could be in the exact same situation in three years or less. Better yet, I could point at a missionary from the ward currently serving and point out how they were sitting in that exact chair just eight months ago, and now he/she is in an area of the world where they have been a member longer than the Stake President there. They’ve heard this same material over and over since nursery, this is their last chance to learn it well enough to teach it to somebody else.

    3. I’d usually cut the lesson to one point. I found they got way more out of lessons when there was just one thing to discuss. At the end of each lesson, I’d ask, “So, when you go home and your dad asks you what you learned about at church today, what are you going to tell him?” The following week, I’d ask if anyone remembered what we learned the week before. They almost always knew. I decided 100% retention of a single topic was preferable to 0% retention of three topics. I’ve had students tell me four years later how they still remembered a particular story or illustration – but I’ve got some particularly graphic ones that are difficult to forget.

    The manual is, by definition, lowest common denominator. We should multiply to whatever level we think our classes can handle. That being said, the best lessons I ever had with my classes were when a teen would ask a question, and I’d bag the prepared lesson and teach whatever principle was bothering them at the time. It takes study and (most of all) the willingness to remember what it was like to be an idiot 17 year old.

  17. Great comment, Michael (#16). I teach the oldest girls in primary and do much the same. I need to do more of #2, though.

  18. Hold on, where is Sterling’s list of questions, part 3 followed by Steve’s salty reply?

  19. Mansfield,
    I thrilled and excited to learn that, for you, a cursory perusal of scripture is sufficient. However, I don’t think that is a pattern to be followed by the average reader.

    RAF & JG,
    I’m not sure that we actually disagree. I’ve no beef with insuring that certain points are hit, so long as it comes organically from the reading. Does that establish a difference?

  20. Very well done John.

  21. John I think I respectfully disagree. There is plenty of “organic teaching” going on. How many times at BCC have we seen killer lesson plans on controversial topics presented as posts? I think the wild card in GD teaching is as always the instructor. The better the instructor the better the class no matter what is in the manual. The better instructors can take a stale manual lesson and turn it into a delicious meal for the class.

    For the record I believe that modern agriculture is a blessing from God. Similar to advances in medicine and technology. Its the reason that hundreds of millions of poor people in the 3rd world are alive today.

  22. bbell,
    I know there is a lot of organic teaching going on. My point is that the manual and the system don’t do enough to support it at present and, to some degree, work against it. That’s why the manual and the system have been my emphasis in this critique, not individual teaching. Our manuals should encourage this, not discourage it, as I fear they currently do.

    I admit that modern industrial agriculture is good at getting basic nutrients to people and that it is excellent at marketing substances for profit. Beyond that, I won’t go.

  23. John,

    The good teaching that we all want is an art. Some elements of it can be taught and passed along but a lot of it only comes from individual personality traits of the teacher. You put any manual in to the hands of an inept boring teacher and guess what? You get inept boring lessons. And vice versa. If a good teacher gets that same manual boom goes the good lesson.

    You are right that Preach my Gospel is a giant step forward. Back in the 1990’s a couple of my comps and I jettisoned the discussions and created our own teaching plans based on our investigators individual needs and objections.

  24. John, I think your conclusions about SS are correct. I think your characterization of the food industry and food consumption are generally faulty [grin].

  25. Bro. Jones says:

    #21 First, there are wildcards other than the instructor: the students, the Sunday School Presidency, and the overall climate (socioeconomic, political, cultural, etc.) of the ward and the particular GD class. I understand what RAF was getting at in #2: I taught a class in a particular inner-city ward once that, as a result of many different demographic issues, was extremely challenging. The class was all new or uninformed members, they were happy to listen passively but extremely unwilling to participate any other way, and they required very simple “spoon-feeding” if you will. I got taken aside and yelled at by my SS President for “lecturing and not letting the class members speak.”

    I assume he heard this as a report from someone else and hadn’t actually sat in on the class, because 1) I never saw him otherwise, 2) when he actually did sit in on a class at my invitation, he ceased his criticism, and 3) he had absolutely no helpful advice for me. Solution to problem–for a number of reasons, I went inactive and failed in my calling. I’m not looking to spread the blame around, but I’m just saying there are more moving parts than the SS teacher.

    A final note about the “modern agriculture” argument–bbell, you are absolutely correct about modern agriculture literally making life possible in many developing nations. However, as time has gone on, many serious side effects of modern agriculture have begun to appear, including environmental issues, health issues, overfarming, and questionable economic practices. These issues cannot be ignored, although chucking all modern advances isn’t a likely solution.

    To continue the analogy to Sunday School, I think the top-down, simplified approach that John has taken issue with absolutely does solve a lot of problems–and in some places may have made testimonies and member activity possible where it wasn’t before. But over time, it has created side effects of rewarding mediocrity, failing to engage many members, and failing to draw connections between Scriptural/Gospel lessons and daily life. We don’t need to toss the whole system, but to ignore these problems or blame the victims does nothing.

  26. Even though Mansfield’s comment was short, I think he has a very valid point. How many of us have listened as one of our teachers produced a grand epiphany based on the selection of one word or phase over another in a given verse?

    Clearly Mansfield wasn’t advocating a cursory reading of the scriptures. But “close reading” usually yields silly results when given scriptures are interpreted without the benefit of the rest. Only a scripturally educated person with a sharp mind could manage that on the fly. Thus, we have “lessons”.

    Don’t get me wrong — I do like “close reading” approaches, especially in seminary, but the teachers who use it are very educated in the gospel.

  27. fair enough, bbell. Whom the Lord calls, he won’t qualify (or improve).

  28. Martin,
    If you could point out to me where I said to ignore context, I’d find Mansfield’s criticism valid. Instead, I’m just going to continue to consider him a crank on this front.

  29. John Mansfield says:

    C., why do you expect cursory perusal to be the alternative to agonizing over minutiae? Not getting tied in knots over mint and anise and cummin doesn’t require tithing in a spotty fashion. Tuesday at dinner, my boys kept cracking each other up with “Watch out for the bread!” Yesterday, one of them decided being a Mormon involves too much death for him. Such things come of looking at case after case of scriptural interactions. Dissecting each word and verse under a microscope limits how much material we are dealing with, to be made up mostly with ideas that don’t originate from the scriptures.

  30. I just forwarded this to my father, as he is both an organic farmer (until a few years ago he was conventional) and the ward Sunday School teacher. I thought he would enjoy the comparisons.

  31. Thanks for this series, John. It has been an enjoyable and thought-provoking read for me.

  32. Sterling Fluharty says:

    My theory is that the vast majority of church members have a testimony of only the first half of Bloom’s taxonomy when it comes to studying the gospel. I even see this in manuals like Teaching, No Greater Call, which assiduously avoid any mention of advanced critical thinking skills such as research, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. The one exception may be our penchant for application. I would love for us to implement John’s vision of close reading of scriptural texts in our Sunday classes, but I am not sure what it would take to wipe out the anti-intellectualism in the church.

  33. Manny,
    I’m not advocating getting lost in minutiae (I’ve specifically stated that I don’t think focusing on esoterica is helpful and none of the examples of close reading I provided do that). So you are misreading the intent of the post and my intent. Close readings are necessarily contextualized. Again, if you can find the spot where I advocate ignoring the weightier things to focus on grammar, I’ll grant your criticism. But I didn’t (at least not intentionally) and I’m irritated that you are reading me that way. That’s why I’m being snippy, which you probably don’t deserve. Sorry.

    Also, I completely missed the point of your two examples, but I’m dense.

  34. John C, this has been a very helpful series, and the discussions have been enlightening.

    Two things I would like to add. My first takeaway is that I need to be a better student myself for both GD and PH, and invest more time in studying before coming to class. I am committing myself to do that (ie, an informed consumer).

    Second, and perhaps the most important to me, is that teaching is a combination of skills and artistry. Both skills and artistry can be taught, and and improved upon. Some people will be naturally better teachers than others, but anyone can be taught to be a better teacher than they are now.

    I’ll go out on a limb and draw a comparison here that I think is valid. My wife teaches math in a public school junior high. Over the last ten years, she has spent a lot of time (and some money) attending classes about improving teaching, and math teaching specifically. These are classes about how to teach math, not classes about math. Her observation is that secondary math teachers who take advantage of these inservice opportunities are generally better teachers with better skills than most of her college math professors, who possessed greater knowledge.

    The point I am trying to make is that while knowledge of gospel doctrine and the scriptures is useful, and at least at some level a requirement, teaching skills (pedagogy) make you a better teacher faster than greater subject matter knowledge. We don’t do enough training of teachers in the church, and we’re suffering for it. The manuals have reflected that kind of culture of late, but the new Gospel Principles manual, along with the experience of Preach My Gospel are at least a step in the right direction (less scripted, and more adaptable to circumstances).

  35. Jonathan Green says:

    John C., I agree with John Mansfield, at least to the extent that you should clarify what you mean by ‘close reading,’ and that close reading is only one of several possible ways to approach a text, and that sometimes a close reading can be very silly.

    A different approach to the scriptures that has strong scriptural support and long practice is what we call “likening the scriptures unto ourselves.” The devotional practice of figuring out how you or I or anyone else is kinda sorta like Nephi or Alma or Joseph doesn’t require us to parse every word in a verse. Often, it operates on a narrative level that ignores whole passages at a time. And that’s OK!

    For an example of a close reading gone badly astray, I’ll offer an example of my own dissatisfaction with the Old Testament manual. In the lesson about Lot, the manual makes much of the fact that Lot “pitched his tent toward Sodom.” According to the lesson manual, that means Lot was attracted to sin, or something like that. This, I think, is a kind of close reading that we can do without. The one verse is only providing a geographic location, and other biblical passages treat Lot as a righteous man living in a sinful place.

    In general I think close reading is a valuable skill that teachers and students should learn, but it isn’t the only or best way to approach the scriptures for all occasions.

  36. John Mansfield says:

    I could elaborate on the examples if you wish me to, Crawito. I expressed skepticism of one point of this post, which I don’t think a misreading of the whole thing. Many think close reading would transform Sunday School teaching. I think we already have plenty of close reading and it can be just as poor as any other style of teaching. Close readings could be mass manufactured, for that matter, if it was what we needed.

  37. Antonio Parr says:

    Here’s a question:

    We are counseled to limit our teachings to what is found in the manual. But sometimes a poem or lyrics to a song or a quote from a non-Latter-Day Saint communicates the truth at issue in ways that are new and enlightening and inspiring.

    The current approach seems to be that if a General Authority uses the quote from a nonmember or from a broadway play or whatever, then we can. Under this approach, I may have a great CS Lewis quote that I wish to use, but can’t because a General Authority has yet to use it in General Conference. However, if the following General Conference a General Authority uses the quote that I believed months prior to be perfect, then I can from that moment on use the CS Lewis quote. Silly, isn’t it?

    When I go to Gospel Doctrine, I am happy when a quote from CS Lewis or Bono or Bob Dylan or Pope John Paull II or whoever is presented to make a point. Mormonism embraces all truth, and I am happy to hear fresh new ways of bringing to life cherished truths that seem dull from monotonous descriptions.

    So, for me:

    Scriptures: Great
    Stories from Christ’s life: Great
    Lesson Manuals: Great
    General Conference Addresses: Great
    Poems and lyrics and wise sayings from non-Latter-Day Saints: Great

    (For those of you lucky enough to own a copy of O.C. Tanner’s “Christ’s Ideals for Living”, take a look at how these former Sunday School lessons were organized. They are the perfect model for teaching Gospel Doctrine.)

  38. I suppose that I believe that a good close reading involves treating what the text says with great care. That doesn’t preclude paying attention to grammar, but it isn’t necessary. Of course, in my mind, I wouldn’t think of Jonathan’s example as close reading, but rather random proof-texting, because that point has little to do with Lot’s history in isolation and in context it seems to me to me that he was trying to be in the world but not of it. Nor do I see anything wrong with likening the scriptures to oneself (although I think it is an activity enhanced by paying some attention to the context of the scriptural story, as well as the context of one’s own life).

    Honestly, I don’t think there is one way to a close reading, so long as you passionately integrate the scriptures into your teaching. I chose the close reading model, because I think it is far more adaptable than the current model. Different people are going to draw different things from scripture and I think close reading helps keep those things in appropriate context and that it helps those things make more sense when we apply them to ourselves. So much of this might be semantics. Of course, I could tell people that under no circumstances should they find the direction of Lot’s doorflap significant, but I don’t think that would be helpful.

    John M.,
    I’d be happy to hear your elaborations. Also, if you thought I was advocating injecting more esoterica into Sunday School, then you did miss my point, but I likely did a poor job of explaining it. Finally, I think that teaching people to read and find value in scripture is important and I think that the Sunday School program (short of family) is our best vehicle for that. I think encouraging close reading will help with that better than our current system, but, as I stated above, I’ve no problem with adapting teaching style and method to the circumstances of your local classroom. Almost anything would be better, I think, than our current widespread practice. To a great degree, I chose close reading because of a lack of better ideas.

  39. Also, Crawito made me laugh. Thanks for that.

  40. John Mansfield,

    Your initial comment also resonated with me. In my experience, “close reading” often means over-analyzing a passage or phrase, and then pretending you’ve mined something insightful out of the text, while in reality you’re confusing banality with profundity. There is nothing duller than listening to a lot of churchmembers confuse the two. That said, this may just mean that many of us are bad at close-reading, just like we’re bad at everything else. Maybe the solution is to do more close readings, so as to improve our skills. I dunno.

    Jim Faulconer is famous for blogposts where he offers up close readings of canonical texts. I know a lot of people like these. Personally, I don’t (though I do like many of his other posts). This isn’t necessarily a condemnation of Jim; it may be a condemnation of me. I just don’t like close readings as a rule (unless the scripture is particularly juicy or ambiguous in some way), and prefer bigger picture issues and discussions. But again, I don’t offer up my own preferences and tendencies as normative.


  41. Also, liked the post, John C. Thanks.

  42. I think you’re off your rocker as far as “organics” is concerned.
    The shiny apple I pick up from the basket at Walmart will not make me less healthy than the one in my backyard. Unless of course I’m unlucky for some reason, which could happen with “non organic” apples too (and might even be more likely to happen because it hasn’t been forced to adhere to rigid standards).

    Is there any likelyhood that some people just resent being called to teach and then being told what, and to some degree how to teach?

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to improve our manuals, but remember the final say in the class room always rests with the teacher–they are entrusted with what to present from the manual, what to leave out, how to present it, etc.

    I have no problem with the way the manuals are, even though in nearly every lesson I could think several ways I’d attack the topic in a different manner.

    I don’t really have a beef with close reading and I do it often (I’d say I was inspired to read into something a certain way at that time). I think a lot of the close reading, we are likening the scriptures to ourselves, or trying to add additional meaning to them.

    In the example of Lot above, I’m not worried one way or another if Lot was a sinner, or what the literal fact was. I think if we can argue until were blue in the face about “How’s Pres. Obama doing?” then we certainly can’t come to a decisive conclusion about the state of Lot’s tent a few thousand years ago. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t look at that scripture and say to myself, Is my house and my heart pitched toward the world or toward Christ? – so to speak.

    I think it’s a lovely point, and I never would have thought about it without the close reading which is Johnathan Green apparently doesn’t like in that verse.

  43. I think the tension between what some are calling a “close reading” and other approaches is heightened by an unclear idea of the outcome of SS.

    For good or bad, the purpose of the class is not to learn a series of things about a particular text; but to become better LDSs. This could be quite bad for many close reading approaches since the acquisition of facts is only the means of achieving a particular ends. This is also why so much proof-texting goes on. The idea seems to be to include the bare minimum of context that will foster good members of the church. An argument for any kind of close reading approach (and I don’t think John C. has a radical-everyone learn Hebrew and Greek-approach in mind) must be couched in terms of the outcomes of such an approach.

  44. sam,
    The shiny apple you pick up at Walmart like won’t taste as good as you would like because, most likely, it was bred to be tough to damage in shipping, not to taste good. Also, Walmart only purchases certain types of apples, meaning that there is less financial incentive for orchard growers to breed heirloom varieties. That said, food stuff is a bit of an ourobouros, so I’m happy to shuck the metaphor if it is an impediment to you.

    I also agree that a good teacher makes a world of difference and that good teachers, generally, don’t feel bound by the manual as it is. I am trying to argue for manuals that do more to encourage and develop good teachers (and students).

  45. I should also add, one of the largest problems with SS IMO, isn’t the manual per se, but the fact that following the manual has become a moral imperative. I’m not advocating tossing the manual aside; but instead that we take the manual for what it is–a manual, not scripture.

  46. I really like the notion of teaching in a way that people want to go home and feast on their own, where they remember because they engaged.

    My quibble would be that I think the spirit of the manuals is designed primary for that — for asking questions of the scriptures and really pondering them and what they mean in our lives…if used the way I think it should be used. So as you say, “I think we are heading in that direction” I think perhaps we are more there (or we should be) than perhaps some would think. (I hear an awful lot of complaining about the manuals, but I see them as being potentially guides for a very organic experience, not simply about same-old-same-old information sharing at all.

    So I guess my point is that I think we ought to give the manuals more of a chance with the very things you are suggesting.

    I think, too, that the notion of “sticking to the manual” is less about only saying the words that are in the manual and more about not bringing in extra stuff that is not really fundamental and focused on the scriptures and words of the prophets. In fact, I think our leaders are trying to keep people from simply “sharing information” that would detract from the kind of engaging experience that can make our classrooms sacred space for us.

    One last thing — I think if people come more prepared, having read the text and engaged it and pondered it during the week, questions like “Has anyone ever had an experience that relates to our topic?” actually, imo, won’t be so jolting or so silence- or frustration-inducing. In fact, I think questions along those lines can actually add a lot — the whole “likening scriptures unto ourselves” concept that someone mentioned earlier is something we have been encouraged to do. In my mind, such an approach makes each class unique — organic, if you will — because each classroom involves people who have unique experiences and perspectives.

    So, imo, if everyone’s minds and hearts are already on the topic when we enter the classroom, we will be more prepared to engage (whether vocally or not) in ways that will help us get more out of the class and help the Spirit be there — and prevent cookie-cutter classroom experiences — even if you are visiting a ward that is a couple of weeks behind ( ;) ), this kind of real-life engaging with the scriptures and asking questions of the scriptures (which is something that I think we are also encouraged to do) can make each classroom experience unique.

  47. m&m,
    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I chose to focus on the manual because I think it could do a better job of supporting good teaching (it does now, if you are a sufficiently savvy teacher). My suggestions are along those lines primarily.

  48. I’ve enjoyed this series for raising some good questions and proposing some good ideas. Some responses:

    1. I have long proposed that wards of much size (not huge size) have two GD classes (more if possible). Not so that one is orthodox and one is speculative, or one is basic and one is advanced, or anything like that. Just so there are two rooms with two approaches that people can choose between. There are people who don’t care for the kinds of comments I make in class and, if there are two rooms, they can choose the other one, just as one example.

    2. I have worked hard in my EQ for more than a decade to help encourage a willingness for people to pull down the facades and be more real and more brotherly toward each other. We frequently laugh during lessons, and I feel safe in making sometimes challenging comments to pull the conversation away from the conventional. On a friend’s suggestion, I attended HPG a few weeks ago, and found it boring and standard. I got the sense that the culture of that room is less open to that kind of reality, humor or challenge. I’m clearly not HP material any time soon, but I’m considering hanging out there periodically to see if I can shake things up a little bit.

    3. When I was EQ instructor (I did the Brigham Young manual), I announced how I was going to teach each lesson at the beginning of the year: I would teach based on the assumption that people had read the lesson and thought about it, I had no problem with waiting in silence for answers, and I would always begin by asking people for anything from the lesson that spawned insights or questions with preference over anything I brought to the lesson. I would never ask if people had their manual in class, nor would I ask if anybody had read the lesson. It took some adjustment, but we did build a culture of thinking and responding that has endured pretty well.

    4. I think a huge problem in the Church is unrealistic expectations on spiritual matters: first, unrealistically high and naive, and then unrealistically low and cynical. People experiencing the first kind will be inevitably mugged by reality, with some choosing to ignore that reality, others freaking out and leaving, and the third remaining, but with the second kind of expectations. It takes a bit of intellectual and spiritual maturity to understand that God, the Spirit and the Priesthood all have real and useful power in this world, but that the ways in which those powers work are not immediately evident without significant investment of effort, thought and patience. To some degree, we are all Oliver, trying to translate from the plates, but unwilling to take any thought other than to just ask for it. I see in this manifesto an encouragement of making more effort, and I agree with this part quite a lot. We also need to have faith that God will teach us through the Spirit as we seek answers and understanding.

    SS/EQ/HPG/RS are focal points of sharing that learning, but we can’t get by on 40-80 minutes of study a week. We need to be thinking about these things (at least) most days, not just so we have something to contribute during class time, but so we are engaged with matters of the Spirit as part of our dialogue with God.

  49. I think great lessons are only to be found when the teacher and learner are studying enough to feel the spirit. If the teacher is studying until she/he feels excited about this particular subject or set of verses..then the teaching will almost always be good. If the student has the same experience they will feel the spirit in the class and if the teacher can’t teach, the spirit can.

    In our current manuals everything is available and encouraged for this approach, but people take the easy way out. Sure we can change the manuals or the approach, but until people are really seeking the spirit, it won’t matter much.

  50. John C. you’re exactly right – by prioritizing uniformity and emphasizing covering ground, we miss out on the opportunity to understand the students and to truly teach. It is like having a school board plan the entire year of lessons when it’s the teacher who really knows what areas of focus the students would benefit from.

    I have heard from other members legends of legendary GD teachers who’s lessons were the stuff of legend… but they seem to be rare.

  51. Natalie B. says:

    I really like your concept of teaching a method rather than information. While it is true that we are unified by a body of doctrine, I believe that the JS story also means that we are unified in our belief in the method through which we receive revelation–a method that focuses on careful reading and pondering of the text (If any of you lack wisdom…). If we focus too much on reading the scriptures through the lens of what GA’s have said, believing that we don’t have access to the doctrine without their glossings, then the promise of being able to have access to God is somewhat lost in my opinion.

    I think you are also right that close reading is also a good, accessible method of scripture study to teach. It is something that people can use to make the scriptures meaningful to them wherever they are. I actually feel that close reading is particularly suited to less wealthy populations, because unlike other methods of teaching that rely on expensive technology, close reading requires only the text. Is close reading a great way to get a historically accurate read? No. But it is a good way to make the scriptures personally meaningful.

  52. As a side note observation, it is kind of interesting that the bloggernacle is sort of like sunday school sometimes – no matter what blog you attend they’re blogging about the same stuff.

  53. Great manifesto. I agree with it all.

    I would add that CES puts too much focus in manuals, when there are other technologies out there that can enhance Sunday School.

    Why don’t we have Teacher’s Development Course being taught over the dish satellite? Not every ward has a person skilled in teaching. Too many of the courses are focused on Primary, and how one can use various gimmicks to get and keep the children’s attention. There is very little help for older classes.

    Also, why not have advanced classes taught via satellite recording? OT this year is very basic, as is the PH/RS manual. How about some instruction for the instructors on how to make it more interesting? How do you make tithing interesting to High Priests? Should we ask that question thousands of times in each and every ward in the system, or just handle it once from SLC through technology? Chances are, if handled via SLC’s satellite, we would ensure higher quality lessons everywhere, rather than hit and miss as we now have.

    Teaching, No Greater Calling? Then let’s give it the same intense consideration we give to seminaries and institute classes.

  54. We have two GD classes in my ward. This is partly because it’s a big ward and partly because no two people ever seem to agree on the way GD should be taught. This thread is a good example of that.

    The funny thing I have noticed is how people choose which class to attend. One class is always held in the RS room, with its soft seats. Some people attend there regardless of the teacher simply because of the seats.

    Other people tend to peek into each room and see who’s teaching that day. Each class is team taught so there are a total of four teachers and one or two of them are always a lot more popular than the others. It’s funny to see people jockeying to find out who’s teaching and where they will attend each week.

    The bottom line is that people really want to be entertained. The teachers that bring humor and personal experiences into each lesson and draw the Spirit into the lesson while drawing out good discussion from the students are the popular teachers.

    I think teacher training can be very valuable in helping create better teachers across the board, as can good manuals. I hope the Church will do both of those things to help improve teaching.

    I’m not sure I really understand very well how the idea of organic farming plays into this concept. Are you saying that the Church should decentralize its manual production apparatus and let regional offices do their own manuals from the ground up?

    On a side note, I have been, over time, a little disappointed in the manuals focusing on the words of a particular prophet each year in PH/RS. I liked the idea a lot at first, but teaching from those manuals got to be more and more frustrating for me and I ended up just pulling a few quotes out that I thought were particularly good and then using a bunch of other sources (including the scriptures, conference talks and other approved–and sometmes more questionable–materials) to teach the subject.

    I don’t think that makes a particularly good manual. It felt at times like the manual was really straining to find relevant quotes from the particular prophet to cover the subject of that lesson. The corollary to that was that some lesson subjects seemed a little manufactured, just because there were a number of quotes on that subject from that prophet.

    My hope is for manuals that really incorporate a lot of good source materials to help the teacher bring a lot to the lesson. Those can include a close reading of particular important scriptural texts, but need not be only that, and probably shouldn’t be.

  55. ummquestion says:

    Truth is revealed and understood through the Holy Ghost. If I am repentant and have taken the Sacrament worthily just moments before attending GD, I have the influence of the Holy Ghost with me and I am entitled to have it reveal further light and knowledge to me during class.

    We open every GD class with prayer-to dedicate that meeting to our Father through our Savior and to invite the Spirit to participate (such invitation does not have to be verbally stated) and I participate in that prayer.

    The farming analogy is actually built into our doctrine. The gospel is good, organic seeds that produce a multitude of delicious things, but only if they are planted in fertile, well prepared soil and then tended faithfully. If I come with dry, baked, unfertilized, unprepared ground-no matter how good the seeds are, or how entertaining the person handing out seeds is, I will not reap a rich harvest.

    Nowhere in the gospel of Jesus Christ is it taught that my teachers, the manuals, the Brethren, those who correlate the curriculum, my neighbors, or fellow ward members are responsible for my feast or famine, my entertainment or boredom, my knowledge or ignorance. It does however clearly define who is.

  56. alextvalencic says:

    John, I am so glad to see the final conclusions you made! There were allusions to them, but I was concerned that you were going to call for some dramatic change in the way SS is taught. I think that the most poignant statement was this:

    If you want to test in Sunday School, test for method, not information. This isn’t to say that information is unimportant. Doctrine is vitally important, but it will be more meaningful and influential if the individual member discovers it for themselves.

    It is hard to do this, and it is really, really, really hard to do this well. But, oh, so very rewarding! This method requires focusing on one or two key points, and letting the class dig in deep., and sharing how they did the digging. Students don’t have to be great intellects, philosophers, or anything grandiose to do this. It can be done with the children in the Nursery just as much as it can be done with the HPG.

    One of the most urgent needs in pedagogical practices is to move away from the idea that the role of a teacher is to fill the students’ heads with “stuff” and move toward the idea that the role of a teacher is to help students discover “stuff” on their own. So for all those who have said that pedagogical practices have little to no role in the realm of Gospel teaching, I blow a big fat raspberry at them. Teachers in the Church need to understand basic pedagogy just as much as teachers in the public education system.

    One of the simplest changes to make in GD, and every other instructional period in the Church, is to make sure teachers know that they do NOT have to cover everything in the manual! Every lesson includes a statement similar to this one, found in the Primary manuals: “Select the discussion questions and enrichment activities that will involve the children and best help them achieve the purpose of the lesson.” [emphasis added]

    My hope is that teachers will use the manual to identify the topic and purpose of the lesson, and use the Scriptures and the teachings of our Latter-day prophets to achieve this purpose by involving the class and helping them, as we so often say in the Church, help themselves.

  57. What about just having a sort of master teaching manual of some kind for the teachers and get rid of the manuals for students.

    Instead of a set number of lessons for set times of the year, just let the teacher pick from a huge catalog of approved lessons or something like that?

  58. The problem with manuals is that too many teachers just read straight from the manual. Too much data in a manual means the teacher does not do personal research, pray and study over what should be taught.

  59. Why don’t we have Teacher’s Development Course being taught over the dish satellite?

    This was done. :) (First thing you see on the ‘lessons’ section of the Gospel Library on lds.org.)

    John, I guess my thought is how much more can we do in a manual? I think if people are going to use the manual as a crutch rather than a guide, I think that will likely happen no matter what it looks like at some level.

    It seems that we can often have two extremes — those who use the manual too much as a crutch (did anyone notice that Bro. Osguthorpe included being willing to close the manual when the Spirit prompts in his GC talk?), and those who cast it aside for whatever reason (which people probably would use that talk as wrong justification hehe).

    Anyway, again I wanted to say that I appreciated the notion of process over information. I think that concept alone has a lot of potential power in it.

    And Blain, I love your #2. That is what I aim for, too. I think the more open we are, the more real we are willing to be, the more we can savor the power of how the gospel can help us face the challenges of life and understand the Atonement better.

  60. (And incidentally, I think Blain’s #2 is why I love SS — I live in an area where people are more willing to be real, to get beyond the facade and regurgitation of concepts. It’s a huge blessing to worship in that way with others.)

  61. m&m,
    I would recommend, if asked, to put less factual information in the manual. The more that teachers and students have to rely on their own ingenuity and the Spirit, the better for all concerned. This is, to a great degree, why I think Preach My Gospel is a step in the right direction.

    Even better would be to put too much factual information in the manual, forcing teachers to pick and choose and use the manual as a resource instead of a crutch. Either of those would go a long way, I think.

  62. 58 — Thanks. Not everybody likes the tone in that room, but I think more people do than don’t.

    And, interestingly, it’s one of the problems that I’ve had with GD most everywhere I’ve gone — a strong pressure to give the same answers that have always been given, to ride the gospel hobby-horse of the instructor, and to not be open to any ideas that are outside the box.

    Probably the most fun I had in GD was the week (one of three) when my friend, who had been teaching GE for a couple of years, was the instructor during the D&C year, and the lesson was on the Martyrdom. He idly wondered out loud where to start, and I suggested the Nauvoo Expositor, and he thought that was a good idea, so he invited me to start, and I did, and we went from there. I don’t think we mentioned the bottle of wine that was shared the night before the Martyrdom, but we did talk about Joseph’s pepperbox. He was released within two weeks, but was called to the high council, so I don’t think that was entirely to silence him.

    And then there was the week, earlier that year iirc, when the previous instructor was talking about D&C 20 where it says that, without the priesthood, no one can see the face of God and live. I started to introduce the Hebrew metaphor where seeing someone’s face meant to be in their favor, but the instructor cut me off and shouted me down “No! This is not a metaphor! We are supposed to literally see the face of God!” for about 20 minutes. The following week he apologized to me privately, and again before the class, but went on for another 5 minutes about why he was right and I was wrong, without offering me a chance to say another word about it.

    I went to GD about twice a year for a decade, and that was around the middle of the decade. I’ve been going now for a couple of years, and it’s gone better. The rest of the time, I was in GE. New members and investigators are way better at handling embarrassing issues from Church history and difficult doctrines than the GD crowd.

  63. Thanks, John — I was just going to follow up by saying I am trying to get my head around specific ways the manual might facilitate more heartfelt teaching.

    The ‘too much information’ thing to me is already there, though. It’s impossible to get through all the points and questions. I think one thing Elder Holland taught in that WW leadership broadcast should be said over and over again — you’re not going to get through all the material! The more people understand that it’s about experiencing the scriptures, not getting through content, the better. I will say that I think there are still too many teachers who don’t understand that. They will shut off discussion because “we have to move on.” I always think, “Why do we *have* to? That kind of thing is hard to change because I think the information/content approach is almost instinctual.

    Don’t you think some of it is that people don’t trust themselves to be able to actually feel and follow the Spirit?

    I also have wondered if part of the problem is the word ‘teacher’ connotes a relationship that wrongly puts the teacher at a higher level of sorts where they feel pressure to, well, “teach something.” I see teachers’ roles more as facilitators and discussion leaders. I wonder: Could a different role label help communicate process over content?

  64. The thing I really like about the revised Gospel Principles manual is that the lessons are really short. If you don’t create discussions, you are going to have a lot of time left on your hands. Too many instructors treat class teaching as a sacrament talk.

  65. “I think one thing Elder Holland taught in that WW leadership broadcast should be said over and over again”

    I think that training should be mandatory viewing for everyone called to teach, and they should have to watch it every six months.

  66. I think that training should be mandatory viewing for everyone called to teach, and they should have to watch it every six months.

    Would be a good idea.

    I agree with your #64, too, Kim.

  67. StillConfused says:

    I like your analogy. I think it hits the point. It is along the lines of Walmart vs. mom-n-pop; and Apple vs. IBM.

  68. StillConfused says:

    The following should also be mandatory:
    comfy seats
    preprinted major subject points that are posted during the class
    personal stories
    table cloths, displays, etc

    oh wait — that sounds like Relief Society

  69. Natalie K. says:

    If your basic argument here (sorry, I only skimmed, I’m sneaking onto the internet while at work) is that we should just throw out the manuals and teach straight from the source, I couldn’t agree more.

    My time teaching YW gave me a deep distaste for the church curriculum department. The seminary teacher’s guide was better. But I’d still just rather dig into the scriptures myself and find a lesson there. It is always better when we do that. The lesson you build will be better because a) you’re forced to actually review your materials, and b) it is going to stem from your personal knowledge/experience/passions, and will come with a lot more of your own spirit.

    And, best of all, we’d never be left with an atrocity like this:

    (sorry, I don’t know how to hyperlink things, this site doesn’t have little buttons to make it easy.)

  70. m&m,
    When I mean way too much material, I mean WAY too much material so that there isn’t any doubt regarding whether or not it’s possible to get through it. Like maybe 50 pages of stuff for each lesson. But that, for now, is crazy talk. Offering too little is a lot better for the time being, I think.

    I suppose the aspect of the current manuals that I like least is that they give the answers to the questions. Fewer questions with answers supplied would be better, I think. Actually fewer material supplied in general would probably be better.

    I do think that people shouldn’t feel compelled to cover everything (obviously) and I agree that teacher confidence is an issue. That’s why modeling with Sunday School presidencies is so important for training, I think.

  71. Great series, John C. My GD class owes you one (though none of them will know it except Danithew)

  72. It would probably help if Sunday School Presidencies included women, as one significant problem in teaching Sunday School is appealing to a mixed-gender audience. To paint with an overbroad brush, the model of teaching John suggests as an ideal is based in a (stereotypically) feminine mode of discourse, but I suspect that more men than women teach Gospel Doctrine (and certainly all Sunday School presidencies are men). I think it’s something that ought to be explicitly paid attention to, since we maintain that it’s valuable to have a mixed-gender class as part of the three-hour block. If the content of the discussion is very similar to RS and Priesthood meetings (i.e. focused more on application and practical understanding of scriptures/doctrine than textual analysis), then the mixed gender format should be leveraged as a source of important insight.

  73. I suppose the aspect of the current manuals that I like least is that they give the answers to the questions. Fewer questions with answers supplied would be better, I think.

    As I look through the lessons, I see a mixture of some w/ answers, some w/o. I wonder if the ones with are to help people who are newer in the gospel or inexperienced w/ the scriptures have some foundational information to go from (at some level, some information is important, no?… especially as we think about a worldwide church w/ so many never really having had experience in the scriptures) — I’d be interested in your thoughts there. How to balance all of that, etc.

    FWIW, I’ve never been a fan of those kinds of questions, either, but truth be told, I’ve have never felt like I had to use them, since there are other types of questions there and some that come to mind as I prepare and even as the class discussion unfolds.

    I’m still wondering how else to encourage teachers to trust themselves and the Spirit more, though. Maybe some of that just comes with experience?

    (Thanks for the thoughts. This is a topic I care a lot about, too, and appreciate you taking the time to do a little back-and-forth with me.)

  74. John, btw, I assume you have seen the T&S article on this topic? I think point 1 is important — that *some* factual knowledge is important in the process. I agree, though, that if that is *all* that is done, something will be missed.

    Actually, looking at all the points Dave shared in context of this post of yours makes me think a little more of the interplay between both information and process. When I stop to think about it, even though I don’t necessarily use the informational points per se in the manual, there is almost always some level of touching on information in the process of discussing/applying/asking questions of the scriptures, no?

    Maybe that is some of what the manuals show us…that interplay of information and process. ???

    Just s’more thoughts swimming in my head….

  75. (duh…hadn’t gotten to your comment 16 over there. sorry)

  76. Thank you for the series John. I’ve enjoyed the posts and my new SS president husband is grateful too.

    As a side note, I was spoiled for a few years having Jack Welch as my GD teacher. FWIW, I don’t think he used the manual. (But why would he right?)

  77. Actually, Kristine, Sunday School is on of the few places I encountered mixed-gendered presidencies. The one I’m in now has a woman as a secretary.

    And now, I get out of Dodge!

  78. alextvalencic says:

    m&m (63) “I also have wondered if part of the problem is the word ‘teacher’ connotes a relationship that wrongly puts the teacher at a higher level of sorts where they feel pressure to, well, ‘teach something.’ I see teachers’ roles more as facilitators and discussion leaders. I wonder: Could a different role label help communicate process over content?”

    There is a rather substantial body of literature that focuses on this very topic. Your question brings up the most fundamental of all questions when it comes to teaching: What does it mean to teach?

    Your statement implies (to me, at least), that you think that teaching is the same as lecturing. Yet college professors, who quite frequently lecture, are rarely called teachers. They lecture, they profess; hence, they are professors.

    The vast body of literature which I mentioned focuses on the idea that teachers are not on a higher plane of knowledge, in which their primary role is to dispense knowledge from the cup of wisdom which they, the teachers, are blessed to have in their possession. Further, these educators are working hard to help teachers realise that their primary role is to serve as the facilitator/guide/coach/whatever-term-most-helps-them-understand-their-role who does not dispense knowledge, but rather guides the students in the discovery of knowledge.

    So, I would say that it is not necessary to change the name of the role, but, rather, the change what we mean by the name.

  79. John, I’ve seen mixed-gender presidencies, too, but they were squashed as soon as the PTB got wind of them. (So, shhhhhh!)

  80. “I suspect that more men than women teach Gospel Doctrine”

    Not in our ward. We have been predominantly women. In the 8 years we have been here, I was the forth man. We have had at least twice as many women.

  81. Kim, that’s why I said “I suspect…” There’s just no way to know, and everyone’s anecdotal experience will suggest something different. The reason for my suspicion is simply that men are more frequently regarded as “scriptorians” and authoritative interpreters. Then again, if it’s the facilitation of discussion rather than imparting information that we’re after, it may be that people recognize that many women have this skill set.

    And congrats on being predominantly women :)

  82. I seriously doubt that adding a woman or 2 into the SS presidency matters at all to the GD exp. How could it? The exp in GD is highly dependent on the quality of the teaching and the willingness of the class to participate. What does a SS presidency do anyway? Does anybody even know who is in the SS presidency? I do not know who my wards SS pres members even are and I teach GD all the time and sub consistently in the teenagers classes.

    My own view is that SS presidencies should be if not abolished then 1 person can run it. Esp in wards that struggle to fill callings. Its a real waste of ward talent to put 4 people in a SS presidency.

    To have a good GD class pretty much requires a good instructor of either gender. And who keeps track of this kind of stuff? Are there really gender bean counters who keep track of the gender of the GD teachers? Our regular GD instructor is female but I see her as an individual who happens to be a decent teacher/presenter.

    Who really thinks that if the SS presidency was of mixed gender that that would change the teaching quality?

  83. Um, I do, bbell. There was a suggestion that SS Presidencies could usefully model good teaching strategies, and since teaching and learning styles tend to vary across genders, it would be useful to think about what that means for people’s experience in the classroom.

    For instance, it’s less common for women to voice their opinions in the kind of arrogant and dismissive way you do above, and the stating of opinions in that way tends to silence women and others who are a little hesitant about speaking up in the first place.

  84. “John, btw, I assume you have seen the T&S article on this topic?”

    m&m, that’s not actually called an article–it’s called POACHING.

  85. or instance, it’s less common for women to voice their opinions in the kind of arrogant and dismissive way you do above, and the stating of opinions in that way tends to silence women and others who are a little hesitant about speaking up in the first place.

    Kristine being the exception to the rule, of course. /snark

  86. Hey, Kristine didn’t jump on the original post for the horrid misuse of “tact” for “tack.”

    And, since she and I are charter members of the Society for the Preservation of Nautical Metaphors, I think her tactfulness shows she deserves some leeway on this issue.

  87. It’s true, Matt–I am the one who proves that variation between individuals in the group is greater than the average variation between groups. And good luck to anyone who tries to intimidate me into not commenting in Sunday School :)

    Thanks, Mark B. I’m glad someone appreciates my self-restraint.

  88. You’re most welcome, Kristine.

    I’m just glad Matt’s snark finally gave me an opening. 24 hours of holding off was killing me. :-)

  89. Thank you. I enjoyed the post, but your target is erroneous.

    CES and Sunday School are organizationally unrelated. Sunday School curriculum is prepared by writing committees under the auspices of the Curriculum Department. At times, members of these writing committees may include CES employees, but that is the extent of the connection.

    CES is responsible for seminary, institute, and LDS college/university religion courses–not for Sunday School materials.

  90. I still worry sometimes about our Curriculum Dept. Daniel Peterson was tasked to be on the development team for the New Testament lessons. He was given the section where a man falls and dies while listening to Paul’s sermon.

    Dr Dan decided to put in a joke, so he had as followup questions that included this:
    How would you feel if someone died while you were teaching?

    He didn’t think it would go very far, but it passed all the way through correlation. He had to personally yank it out at the end of correlation.

    So, while I appreciate people like Daniel Peterson helping with the curriculum, it shows that the process still leaves much to desire. (I personally wished he would have left it in there).

  91. In my defense, I was going to write “tack” originally. I’m glad you both corrected me by refraining from correcting me.

  92. Oh, and Alex,
    I know that. Go back and read what I wrote in the Second post.

  93. Ah, my apologies then. I have not read the first or second posts. The four references to CES (no references to Curriculum–“big C”), all adjacent to discussion of sunday school and gospel doctrine, with no reference to seminaries, institutes, or church institutions of higher learning, threw me off.

  94. alextvalencic says:

    John, you know that, and Alex knows that, and this Alex knows that, but it seems that many folks commenting don’t know that. Perhaps a future blog post can be an explanation of the many departments and organisations that run out of Salt Lake and how they do (and do not) interact.

  95. That’s not a blog post, it’s a multi-volume work!!

  96. Steve Evans says:

    An interesting one, though, as so much of that bureaucracy is a black box.

  97. Other than the simplistic black-and-white treatment of ‘industrial’ farming vs. organic farming in your creating a metaphor, I completely agree with your series and thoroughly enjoyed it.

  98. You’ve totally found your voice! You know when you read GA talks and you can actually hear them saying the words in your head; their inflections, cadence? Well I totally heard your voice in my head. Scary, I know. Maybe this means that you have GA in your future. Scarier, I know.

    These were all really great, but this post in particular was outstanding! Probably because, while I’ve spent countless years grumbling about Sunday School, I have never thought about what would make it better.

    side note- Michael Pollan was on the Daily Show the other night. I think it was the one I was telling you about, but I’m not sure.

  99. Natalie B. says:

    Perhaps a future blog post can be an explanation of the many departments and organisations that run out of Salt Lake and how they do (and do not) interact.

    I’d love a post on this topic. I’m somewhat unfamiliar.

  100. Kristine #87- I was jokingly going to say that I never knew you ad so much in Common with Sarah Palin, but not even I can go that low.

  101. Your statement implies (to me, at least), that you think that teaching is the same as lecturing.

    Just now getting to this…. My concern is that I think sometimes people in the Church think teaching = imparting knowledge/lecturing/etc. There’s this panic of “I don’t know enough” from people who are insecure about it, and a sense of “Oh, I have to work hard to teach something new” from a different group of people. Both approaches, imo, miss what it means to be a teacher in the church. Esp in SS, I see it as a peer role, facilitating discussion and discovery.

    But I’m sure you are right that we don’t need to change the name, just hope that more people can understand it all. what it means to teach in the church.

  102. Chelsie,
    Thanks, Hi, and Welcome!

  103. Someone said this:

    Back in the 1990’s a couple of my comps and I jettisoned the discussions and created our own teaching plans based on our investigators individual needs and objections.

    Were you, by any chance, the bunch who decided, that the Manifesto was actually not based on revelation, and that Polygamy should never have been abandoned? They ended up excommunicated, and afterwards putting up a new organization that is one of the “True” Churhc(es) of Jesus Christ of LDS. (I know these guys were an earlier development, though.)

    Perhaps that’s why we have manuals and Correlation? And, so that we’re spared the always-inevitable heated — albeit so important and always current — discussion of whether or not Adam and Eve had navels…

  104. I was going to say, that my 30-year experience has been that whenever I come to class prepared by studying the scriptures and putting some thought into it, I have come away edified. It takes a very badly disrupted class to not follow that pattern.

    Still, our doctrine is very simple. The core principles are within the grasp of any semi-literate person, and a scholar is no better a disciple than the semi-literate one who has absorbed and internalized the important point of doctrine.

  105. John,
    I just wanted to join in the chorus of praise. This is a great series you’ve put together, and one that I will use in evaluating my teaching. Thanks.

  106. Latter-day Guy says:

    I was going to say, that my 30-year experience has been that whenever I come to class prepared by studying the scriptures and putting some thought into it, I have come away edified.

    Huh. Really? For me, studying beforehand can add to the frustration. I remember one Sunday in particular, dealing with John 3 and the concept of being “born again,” there was so much good material in the text, but the class was focused mostly on fluff. Now, that class doesn’t stand out in my mind because of the content (or lack of it)––such lessons are common enough in my experience––but because of how irked I felt.

    These days, I bring a book to class. After 10 – 15 minutes, if the lesson seems like a total wash, I check out. It isn’t particularly charitable, but getting annoyed is less charitable, so I choose the lesser evil.

    More generally, John, I love these suggestions––as I have the whole series. Thanks you. There’s a lot to consider here.

  107. They do not give you an opportunity to share your wonderful insights?

    That was not intended as sarcastic as it sounded.

    Besides, think if even most of the people in the class had come prepared, and shared their thoughts sincerely.

  108. Latter-day Guy says:

    “That was not intended as sarcastic as it sounded.”

    :-) To abuse a Spinal Tap quote: That’s okay, my sarcasm meter goes up to eleven.

    In all seriousness, when I have an insight, I love to participate. The trouble is that frequently the lesson (like the one mentioned in # 106) does not move into territory that would make my thoughts (meager as they are) germane to the discussion. Indeed, sometimes it seems like Gospel Doctrine lessons have an almost preternatural ability to steer clear of those portions of the text that I feel are enlightening. It’s probably––in part––just a taste issue. However, I also suspect it has something to do with our frequently faulty approach to the scriptures in general (as John has pointed out).

    In his review of an LDS work of scriptural commentary, Louis Midgley wrote:

    The tendency is to divert attention away from the message and meaning in the text under consideration, and back towards what we already know. Such efforts do not enhance our understanding; they tend to make the very teachings they celebrate seem merely sentimental and insubstantial. Such endeavors also tend to close the door on the untapped possibilities within the scriptures. Our tendency is to rely upon presumably authoritative statements on matters that may seem urgent to us, but which may not have been of concern to those responsible for providing us with the [text].

    They seem to approach the text … already knowing, from sources exterior to the text, both the questions and the answers. Hence there are really no new insights, no discoveries on the teachings found in the text, that are not already accessible from sources already familiar to the Saints.

    That really sums it up. For the most part, we go into GD lessons, already knowing the approved questions and their acceptable answers. That’s why lessons tend to fall flat. However, there are always happy exceptions to that tendency, and perhaps today’s lesson will be one… I hope.

  109. Yes, it is true, that oftentimes we succumb to the temptation of taking the easy way out by parroting that, which we know to be safe enough.

    I have always thought that, as long as I hedge my ideas by saying that “this is just my personal interpretation” or something to the effect, I can share my “out there” ideas.

    That worked for me as a new convert 30 years ago, and it still seems to work. And yes, people have walked out of Sunday School classes because of something I have said, but I don’t mind. I’ve never tried to tell them they’re wrong, just that I think there are other ways of interpreting it.

    So, in a word, yes, there is a tendency to take the route of least resistance. But it’s not like it’s dictated to us by anything that is said by GA’s. If anybody, it’s the “middle management” that want to have as few hassles as possible, and therefore encourage everyone to stay well within the boundaries they perceive.

    And, anyhow, it is also important to remember that the gospel really is not rocket science in that the principles to be learned are fairly simple. I have no wish to have those discussions about Adam’s navel in SS. Let’s save them in the HPG, where I can say what I think.

    All in all, I think that we would do well to make sure the GD teachers understand, that we are not distributing information. If anybody comes away from SS with a new resolve to live in such a way as to be able to have a personal relationship with the Savior, it’s total success for that Sunday.

  110. Yes, there you have it. In the CN article, there is some easy-to-digest stuff suggested. Or then not.

    What it’s saying — and from what I know from other Church sources about teaching — there are tons of people, who actually need some pre-digesting. We do not all have 20 hours a week to put into SS or RS/EQ lessons.

    But if we do have those 20 hours, we would do well to prepare to teach the gospel instead of selling Amway or something. Or getting all carried about some Bible scholar’s book about who and where actually wrote the Torah books. It may be interesting to someone, who knows the scriptures well enough to speculate on stuff like that. But it doesn’t uplift someone, who is struggling. Especially it isn’t helpful to speculate very far with people, whose grasp of scriptures is very poor.

    (And those are real-life examples of those lessons that I have experienced.)

  111. Then there was this YW president, who thought that the manual was so boring that she replaced the manual with her own, professional educator’s ideas.

    The result? Each lesson was her “warm fuzzies” about how great it is to have the True Gospel. Fried froth, in other words. She would just tell “heartwarming” stories and couplets.

    Teach Charity, compassion, patience, humility, longsuffering, &c. Even that would be better. We have these guides, because people without experience will have at least something to start from. And people like I described will have some guideline to follow instead of talking of the same stuff over and over and over. Not five different rotating subjects. Just one.

  112. Latter-day Guy says:

    110, YD, I’m afraid that article fails the “Scientology test”––big time.

  113. Latter-day Guy says:

    See here.

  114. For me, studying beforehand can add to the frustration.


    I’m all for sticking to the manual. There really is a ton you can do without going outside of its bounds. But honestly the real problem are just people ill equipped to teach these things. And the rule of sticking to the manual is because of those who really go off the deep end.

  115. Antonio Parr says:

    I’m all for finding inspiring information outside of the manual that magnifies the truth found in the manual. Poems. Quotes from C.S. Lewis or Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King or Lowell Bennion.

    (The Church used to do this: check out O.C. Tanner’s “Christ’s Ideals for Living”.)

  116. Antonio Parr says:

    113. Latter-Day Guy: Thanks for keeping alive Ronan’s Scientology test.

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