The gospel isn’t an IQ test

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ― Anne Lamott

Recently, I was involved in an online discussion regarding the usefulness of the Church Educational System, which was really about the usefulness of how we teach things in the church, which is, as you may know, a topic I think about. Part of the conversation involved speculation regarding how many people would leave the church if the bowdlerized version of church history that we currently receive stopped. To some degree, this is a moot point; the internet has rendered attempts to sanitize history for widespread internal consumption counter-productive. Certainly, there are umpteen thousand exit narratives online where ex-members express their sense of betrayal and frustration when they learn x, y, and z about the church (note: umpteen thousand is an exaggeration; there cannot really be more than a gajillion out there (note: I’m not trying to get you to go looking either; I’ve pretty much summed up every single one with this sentence here)).

Some people would argue that we won’t lose that many people if we start teaching history using the Richard Bushman model (or some such). What they are actually saying is we won’t lose many of the right people if we change our teaching model. Remember, we have all heard stories of people losing the church when the priesthood ban ended (but that was okay, because they were racists) or when polygamy ended (but that was okay because they were polygamists). I’ve even heard stories of people leaving the church over misspellings or over the introduction of the three hour block (those silly, silly apostates). That people will leave the church over just about any reason is a truism; the question we should be asking ourselves is “what sort of people are we trying to retain?”

I ask because, for all that I dislike the Church Education System model of teaching, I understand its purpose and I think it is a noble purpose. It strives to provide an inoffensive, generally palatable spiritual product for the masses. We are actually interested in retaining everyone in the church, even the people who think that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy or that Jesus drank grape juice because the Word of Wisdom is eternal in scope. So thinking that improving the rigor of our historical narrative or our exegesis isn’t really about our struggle for truth; it’s about our desire to reshape the church in our own image (at least partly).

While I may not have been floored when I discovered that Joseph translated out of a hat, it is possible that someone else could be. It is not, and should not, be our role to manufacture a crisis of faith on someone else’s behalf. I’d object to it at a youth conference; I see no reason to let it slide in Gospel Doctrine. Your role in Church Education is to invite the spirit. That’s about it.

Now you can have a discussion regarding whether the fried froth we are given in Church Education actually does this (I believe that it can and does), but you can’t deny that they are trying. The people in the CES (bless their little hearts) aren’t actively trying to destroy testimonies years down the road by repeating faith-promoting rumors that will be misremembered in someone’s exit story on youtube. They are trying to keep your children from having sex prior to marriage (and possibly to go on a mission). They have enough, with that on their plate, that we should cut them some slack if the frequent mangling of scripture and doctrine that happens in seminary and institutes worldwide is encountered in real life. Again, it isn’t as if you don’t do it all the time, yourself.

Which brings me back to my original point: the quality of the history or exegesis presented to and repeated by members of the church isn’t our problem; what we do with it is. It shouldn’t require a great work of art or moving homily to get you to repent; reflection on your daily choices should be sufficient. And the tendency to see our daily choices as the product of our superiority, rather than of our consumer or social preferences only adds to our pride. Which is what this is all really about, isn’t it?


  1. Steve Evans says:

    “What they are actually saying is we won’t lose many of the right people if we change our teaching model.”

    No, I don’t think that’s what they are actually saying. I don’t know that the departures are predictable at all. I think these people are saying that you won’t lose large numbers of people, period. So I stopped reading your post there.

  2. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ― Anne Lamott

  3. Mark Brown says:

    They are trying to keep your children from having sex prior to marriage (and possibly to go on a mission).

    Well, they’re doing a pretty lousy job of that, too, if the hand-wringing in conference is to be believed.

    As you say, everybody gets it wrong now and then, but one third of the church’s annual budget goes to CES, and I don’t think the church is getting its money’s worth.

  4. “Your role in Church Education is to invite the spirit.”

    How can you invite the spirit of truth and if don’t make teaching the truth your objective.

  5. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’m not entirely sure that I’ve understood the thrust of your post, but let me try a thought experiment here:

    What if CES (or YW, or whatever) taught that if you were 100% modest and chaste, you would be married in the temple by the time you were 25. Period. Full stop. Guaranteed or your tithing back!

    Would we excuse that incorrect teaching because “They are trying to keep your children from having sex prior to marriage (and possibly to go on a mission). They have enough, with that on their plate, that we should cut them some slack”?

    No, I don’t think we would. I think we’d say that incorrect doctrine only ends up blowing up in your face down the road, even if it produces more obedience now. And that’s not OK. We can have a conversation about the difference between “incorrect” and “omitted,” which I think is far more relevant to the CES/correlation situation, but that’s it. We can’t excuse institutionally incorrect teachings. (Not that I’m sure that that is what CES is doing–I see the problem as more lack of inoculation and spiritual Twinkies, FWIW.)

  6. “Your role in Church Education is to invite the spirit.”

    There’s a group of people who have long, stroried, and successful history of doing just that. They’re called Quakers.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Julie, I’ve been taught something eerily close to what you present as a hypothetical…

  8. Mark Brown says:

    John, my biggest objection is the way you have framed this as an IQ test. It actually has very little to do with smarts or booklearning, and more to do with a general attitude and temperament. Neither my father or my grandfather were educated, but they enjoyed reading and had lots of cool books. If somebody had tried to dumb things down for them on the assumption that they couldn’t handle it, they would have been insulted. That is actually a pretty arrogant attitude, but that is what we have right now in CES.

    We have now raised a generation in the church where The Work And The Glory, a series of complete fiction, is seen a better (safer) history that Rough Stone Rolling. I think this state of affairs is impossible to defend.

  9. Homily shmomily. I don’t think RB would like it if Rough Stone became the GD manual. But I imagine he could write a great GD manual. And imagine if he did do that. And we had a Richard Bushman gospel doctrine manual next year. For all sorts of reasons, that would fly off the shelves. And people would read it. And I could go on in my fantasy. And on CES trends. Well I’ve said my piece on that today.

  10. one thing you didnt mention is, what is honest? what is the right thing to do?

    the honest and right thing to do should be more important than the potential outcomes. do what is right let the consequences follow. that is not something i ever hear when talking about church history

  11. I sympathize with your attempt to sympathize with the CES, but I’m afraid I don’t buy what I see as the main point here. Just because they have good intentions does not justify the way they are going about it, as mentioned above. And I hesitate at your seemingly dismissing the exit narratives in your first paragraph; you may not have meant to do it, but you seem to act that their reasons are single and simplistic. In reality, the problems are varied and multifaceted, and cannot be summed up in a single sentence.

    The problem isn’t that they get certain facts or events wrong, it’s that they are packaging the gospel in a way that doesn’t prepare students for the problems they will face in today’s information age, providing a framework that can’t handle issues that can otherwise be contextualized. Just because we can’t answer all the issues doesn’t mean that we can’t move in the right direction–or be frustrated when those we trust with our children are dragging their feet. I think it’s completely justified to hold their feet to the fire given what’s at stake, and how things are currently going.

  12. The most frustrating thing is that positive improvements could (at least theoretically) be achieved through a few simple steps. If their leaders or one of the big “B” Brethren called for an alteration in approach and a reversal of Clark’s “Charter Course” worldview, there is no group more prepared to do a 180 and be completely obedient to the new counsel. I know it would take a lot of work and time to overcome decades of problems, but at least taking a step in the right direction could be easily achieved.

  13. I think we’d say that incorrect doctrine only ends up blowing up in your face down the road, even if it produces more obedience now. And that’s not OK.

    I have a lot of sympathy with this idea. Lots. But there is one more facet to consider: age and maturity. We all learn to handle ambiguity and deal with punctured narratives better as we age. Indeed, we come to expect it and even, if you’re me, be amused by it.

    What I’m saying is this: my association with the church is no longer strongly linked to its narratives because I’ve come to a point in my life that such things are almost immaterial. My relationship with God is what it is, and church is the place I go to work out certain parts of the obligations so incurred. But church is not where I go to learn much, nor is church history a significant aspect of my relationship with God. And that would not have been the case when I was younger.


  14. Ben P-
    I have to disagree with you on one of your points. We are working in CES to prepare students to face the problems of life using the scriptures and the principles found therein to make decisions clear. That has been the focus in CES for the past few years. I agree that we must do better, hold “their feet to the fire given what’s at stake”, but to comment on the state of the CES classroom based on past experience will not work. Look at the product CES is pushing out today.

    Things have changed for the better and I believe they will continue to improve. A few years ago they introduced sequential scripture teaching, and today the brethren are pushing CES to teach the principles of the scriptures in such a way that the youth can see the scriptures as a manual to help them get through the difficulties they will face in their lives.

    I have posted some thoughts on that illustrate my point.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    John C., Sorry to keep piling on! I just re-read the post and find that I have yet more quibbles and objections.

    “Your role in Church Education is to invite the spirit.”

    I agree with this statement, but I think you are trying to steal a base. In face, I think you are trying to go first to third on a bunt single. People experience what we call the spirit in different ways, but I hope we can agree that it is more than goosebumps and tears. It usually has to do with some kind of enlightenment, and that is more likely to occur when some form of serious study is taking place. In other words, true conversion is more likely to happen when we are reading the scriptures seriously (not just memorizing scripture mastery verses) than it is when we are reading Especially For Mormons.

    So, I guess I question whether the “inoffensive, generally palatable spiritual product for the masses” is doing any good. Even though baloney is better than nothing, it isn’t very nourishing.

  16. “It is not, and should not, be our role to manufacture a crisis of faith on someone else’s behalf.” -Another +1

    I was stunned as a teenager when one of my high school friends who had only been baptized a few months, answered questions in sunday school with as much insight that I thought I had. It was then I began to recognize that that gospel was simple to understand yet difficult to implement (if I let it be).

    I also came to recognize that there is much more to staying on a path the Lord would be pleased with. My friend has not stayed in the church. I recognize my parent, siblings, friends, callings and then my wife and children and other things that have helped me stay on the path I committed to at baptizm. There is power in these other factors.

    I am also grateful for the bloggernacle and its ilk for opening my eyes to the possibility of messy history and doctrine while retaining faith.

  17. Mark Brown-

    I would like to know where you are getting your numbers. What is your reference?

  18. The approach to teaching history–our founding stories and such–that the church takes now is already such an improvement over what the previous-day church handed down to us (i.e. the scriptures) that it’s hard for me to complain. Yes, it’s still sanitized, but I think much less so than the OT, NT, and even the BOM. Those authors couldn’t do what we do now due to lack of technology (not to mention cultural restrictions and literary traditions), but I think few of us would question the value of what they did record.

    I do wonder at the worries about people being driven away by learning the truth (or something closer to it). If the scriptural narratives of instant divine justice, polygamy, genocide, murder, racism, oppression of women, and crazy etiological myths haven’t scared them away, why would any of this modern softball stuff shake their faith?

  19. If CES was honestly worried about retaining young people, they’d instruct their institute teachers to refrain from teaching anti-evolution in the classroom.

  20. Mark Brown says:

    Mogget, it is great to see you here slumming at BCC. Welcome!

    If I may, I think your point about age and maturity illustrates perfectly my previous argument. The notion that we need to dumb things down, otherwise members will freak out, is incredibly paternalistic and condescending. Maybe, maaaayyybbbeee, for seminary we need to filter a few details, but that leaves us no excuse for the adult curriculum.

  21. Seminaryteaching: I really want to believe you–I really, really do, but having looked over the new manuals and sat in my fair share of institute and seminary classes over the last few years, I maintain my critique. It’s still too black/white, too presentest in approach to ancient scriptures, too de-historicized toward modern revelations, and too sanitized with Church history. I know that there are many within the program that are aware of these programs and try their best to overcome them (you may very well be one of them), but until there is a visual structural change that I can experience, I’m pessimistic. And if comment #9 on the institute thread (the post preceding this one) is accurate, there are still major problems.

    Also, it is difficult to sympathize with an organization that has maintains a highly problematic relationship with women. (Especially after similar problems have been addressed in all other LDS employment positions.)

  22. Mark Brown says:

    seminaryteaching, I assume you mean my comment # 3, where I mention 1/3 of the church’s annual budget?

    I got that from a personal conversation with a CES zone administrator, about 8 years ago.

  23. Yes, it’s still sanitized, but I think much less so than the OT, NT,

    I don’t think I’ve ever thought of the OT as “sanitized,” as it is usually rather blunt about the human condition. I’m also not entirely comfortable with a straightforward comparison of the way we teach modern history with the presentation of historiographical materials in the Bible. How we think about history, and how we present it, is heavily conditioned by cultural environment, etc. So while it makes sense to say that the teaching of church history may be coming more in to line with modern canons, it’s not really an ideal approach to compare church history to the Bible.

  24. Hello Mark, yes I’m slumming a bit between semesters! Good to see you again, as well!

    I do think an age-appropriate presentation of history is something that could use more thought. Teen-agers can be very, very brittle. As I teach in a Catholic school, and have students from very diverse religious backgrounds, when I read posts like this I find myself grateful that the Catholics have, by and large, done a pretty good job of thinking through much of this stuff.

  25. I have to say I don’t think inviting the spirit is particularly helpful if people do not learn the principles of the gospel in a depth sufficient to withstand severe criticism.

  26. observer fka eric s says:

    I do not disclose to my young daughters that a sport called softball exists while disclosing that soccer exists. I also distract them if we drive by a softball field so they look the other way. This technique (the means) will justify protecting and preserve the limited time they have as a youth and myself from wasting their youth with hours of boredom (the ends). Someday, when they are “ready” for the truth about softball, I will tell them at the right moment. And I will be OK if they hate me for not exposing them to it. I’ll be damned if I have to sit through one of those games.

  27. Steve,
    I think that whenever we talk about “not many” people leaving the church over some decision or another, it is always “those people.” We don’t even like those people; why do they come to church? If we honestly thought a given decision would drive our grandmother from the church, we’d never countenance it in the name of truth. We’d at least let it lie until she passed.

    I think that the Spirit does a better job of communicating sincerity of belief than it does of filtering truth from falsehood. Of course, I think that truth is necessary for sincere belief, but I think that God’s standard of truth is either much higher or much different from our own.

    I agree that we shouldn’t condone institutionally incorrect teachings. That you think I’m saying that indicates I’m communicating poorly. I’m trying to say that some people, having heard institutionally correct things their entire Mormon life, still leave with the impression that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy (or some such). They will sometimes even remember a Gospel Doctrine teacher from their youth or a seminary teacher in 9th grade who assured them of this fact. Our proper response to such is gentle persuasion and love unfeigned, not tossing them into the deep end to see if they’ll survive or not.

    Don’t be a shill for the oats. That’s how they got Wilford Brimley.

    I think that you are making my point. I don’t honestly know what IQ is supposed to measure (my guess: the quality of the pre-school you attended), but it simply isn’t important in the gospel. Nor is having read book a, or article b. Those are good things, and I would encourage anyone to read them (assuming I agree with the premise and conclusion), but they aren’t necessary and they aren’t terribly important.

    Things are dumbed down because they are assuming that the lowest common denominator is the safest, least-offensive place to preach from. There is a possible point to that if the goal is to drive away as few Mormons as possible. Perhaps that’s a stupid goal (I’m open to that), but I understand it.

    Finally, regarding the Work and the Glory, a linguistics professor of mine once told me that people would rather read a bad novel than a good textbook. Start passing out copies of the Giant Joshua if you want to combat Elder Lund’s influence.

    dudebro (really?),
    If you can come up with a clear moral direction that obviously points the right way, let me know. Consequences matter.

    Ben P,
    I am, frankly, not terribly sympathetic to exit narratives. I understand why some people leave the church; others I do not. I don’t foresee anything that is going to change that. And they really do all follow similar patterns (I think that if you search the googles you can find templates (like step 4 recovery templates) to help you explain yourself). Generally, I’ve heard it all and worse at this point and, while I don’t begrudge anyone their experience, I don’t know that much can be generalized from reading a bunch of them beyond my little sentence.

    Are you asking me if I’m planning on sending my kids to seminary? Not at present. Maybe if the teacher is someone I really trust. For that matter, I don’t know that I’m going to encourage my kids to attend church much beyond Sunday and temple trips. My experience (personal and otherwise) with the MIA organizations has been mixed at best. But I do accept that these are people trying their best to solve the problems of 10 years ago. I won’t kick them while they’re down.

    As to your second comment, I agree completely. Also, if it was going to happen, it would have already happened.

    You’re all smart and stuff.

    The scriptures aren’t really a manual for anything, aside from (usually) approaching God. You can find both good and bad advice in there. I’m not sure that is the approach to take.

    Mark (again),
    “So, I guess I question whether the “inoffensive, generally palatable spiritual product for the masses” is doing any good. Even though baloney is better than nothing, it isn’t very nourishing.”
    Agreed that this is the question. My impression is that the PTB think it is doing good enough. Mayhap seminaryteaching can enlighten us?

    “If the scriptural narratives of instant divine justice, polygamy, genocide, murder, racism, oppression of women, and crazy etiological myths haven’t scared them away, why would any of this modern softball stuff shake their faith?”
    Because that was then and this is now and never the twain shall meet.

  28. #26 for BCotW

  29. #19. Thank you Tim. This is something I struggled with this year as I taught the OT as an Institute teacher.

  30. I am, frankly, not terribly sympathetic to exit narratives.

    As maddening some of those exit narratives can by, I sincerely offer that until you can sympathize with them you won’t figure out a better way to deal with them.

  31. Ben,
    I’m skeptical that there is a good way to deal with them.

  32. John: I think an adapted CES approach could go a long way to helping the matter. I know it would have with me growing up.

  33. Steve Evans says:

    “I think that whenever we talk about “not many” people leaving the church over some decision or another, it is always “those people.””

    Not me, man. But I’m cool that way.

  34. It’s likely that I am not given said statements the most charitable reading.

  35. Even if the OT tells about horrible things, it always tells us that the person doing it was justified if that person was on the “right” side. That would be like us trying to retell the Mountain Meadows Massacre in terms that put the Mormons in the right. We don’t do that, at least not anymore. Also, a lot of the grittier parts of the OT are sort of irrelevant to the gospel or, frankly, pretty contrived (Samson, Jonah, Job)–they still have the Grimm’s Fairy Tales nastiness, but I don’t think that makes it any more of a realistic account. Now we may shy away from telling the whole story, but we aren’t quite into making things up to the same degree. It definitely is just a different way of communicating, but since it is read now as if it were history by most members, I think the comparison is still appropriate.

  36. #19: I can’t believe that it will be much longer before exactly that happens. Kids are just way too smart and have way too much access to information for the ignorant anti-evolution narratives to survive. They’re just too damaging to the church. The corner was turned so long ago at BYU that it’s got to percolate up and then back down eventually. Thirty years ago teaching anti-evolution viewpoints was a bad idea, but given the scientific breakthroughs since then and the Internet, now it’s a colossal, stupendous, nuclear-winter bad idea.

  37. Mark Brown says:

    John C., if I understand your point, you are saying that we can determine the optimal approach for religious instruction by how counting how many people each approach “drives away”?


    This sounds too much like the way a corrupt bidnessman excuses his cupidity. Hey, his hands are tied, and he must obey the market, whatever that leads.

    While I agree that CES certainly doesn’t intend to blow up testimonies 10 years down the road, that is certainly a predictable consequence. Part of the reason people might leave the church now over some detail or other is because we don’t provide a safe environment where people can grapple with challenges to their faith.

  38. Mark Brown says:

    36, Owen,

    I admire your optimism, but we are actually going backwards in that regard. Did you see the Pew survey a year or so ago which showed how attitudes have changed over time? In the 1950s, LDS people were more comfortable with the idea of evolution than we are now.

    Of course, I blame John C. and CES.

  39. Mark,
    I’m not saying that’s how I’d do it. Nor am I saying that one approach or the other would drive x number of people away (I tend to think it would come out about even). I am saying that those CES folk are doing their darnedest to strengthen people in the church, which, for them, means being as inoffensive and un-challenging as possible. And that’s fine. If CES was more challenging, I doubt people would put up with it at all.

    Ultimately, my point is this. Life itself provides sufficient cause for doubt and crisis for most people. That the church isn’t particularly interested in adding to people’s crises is not a bad thing. For that matter, the notion that the church could figure out what would inspire a crisis and what won’t is a bit silly. So, choosing to be as bland as possible results in the fewest number of church-inspired faith crises. I think.

  40. Well, I’m clearly a neanderthal, Mark, so I can see why I’d throw the polls off.

  41. I see the problem as that CES writes manuals as if the controversial issues never existed, so that when people do see it on the Internet, it shocks them. I think we need to teach the members that the GD class is a basic class and there’s lots not covered that they can find elsewhere. That said, I think I would prefer the membership hearing history from a faithful side of things than from an anti-Mormon website.The shocking part isn’t so much that we have historical challenges. The shocking part is that it seems CES seems to delight in hiding them, and hoping no one peeks on the Internet. We do not need to dwell on such issues, but we shouldn’t go out of our way to avoid them, either. I know the members I’ve taught would rather hear the truth about such stuff from a faithful member, who can couch it in friendly terms, than to have their faith suddenly seem frail and weak.
    I’m on my stake’s speaker’s forum, where I am invited on occasion to speak on LDS topics to groups. I have to be ready to answer questions regarding polygamy, priesthood ban, MMM, Joseph marrying girls, Jesus and Satan as brothers, etc. What happens when a regular member, trained up in CES’ way, is asked such questions by their non-member friends who study up on the Internet? You get a “deer in the head lights” look, and then sheer panic.

  42. Oh, and I think another great danger to the current CES design is that people go inactive because they are bored out of their minds with the lesson plans!

  43. John: why must a nuanced and contextualized approach to scriptures and history in a Church setting result in a crisis? That’s an assumption of yours that I frankly don’t get. I think setting and approach is a major factor in how people deal with these types of issues, and I’ve had enough experience teaching at BYU, institute, and seminary to convince me that it could be more of a learning experience than a “crisis” situation. In today’s internet age, nearly everyone is going to be bombarded with these problems, so it might as well be within a faithful setting and from a trusted source. To assume that they won’t experience these faith crises in their life is a very risky move, and I would argue has already proven to be problematic to say the least.

    I see it more as averting crisis than introducing it.

  44. What is this CES everyone is writing about? Is this like 15 or so years back when the Church was told, “No more Sunbeams,” and the Church answered, “Wanna bet?”

  45. John C wrote: “I am saying that those CES folk are doing their darnedest to strengthen people in the church, which, for them, means being as inoffensive and un-challenging as possible. …. So, choosing to be as bland as possible results in the fewest number of church-inspired faith crises. I think.”

    But that is the problem. In doing their darnedest to be bland, they are d@mning all of us to blandness! Elder Holland once stated that we need to light our pulpits on fire as they once did in the Church. CES is going in just the opposite direction. Even if they do not add historical controversies, the teachings are so bland, disparate and choppy that there is no real depth of study even of doctrine. Why can’t they create a manual, where we spend a month focused on faith, another on charity, etc.?

    I’m convinced that the road to h#ll is paved with bland intentions.

  46. Mark Brown says:

    John, everybody saw through SIR as an unwarranted and transparent attempt to get undeserved R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

    But you can’t blame the church for trying to change the name and re-brand the whole thing.

  47. Clark Goble says:

    I think the original post was just trying to suggest that we shouldn’t take as our starting point a view where the spiritual elect are all we have to worry about in our teaching. And I’m really, really sympathetic to that. It’s easy when you have a strong testimony to make it through rough times whether it’s some member offending you, some doctrine you don’t understand, some social practice that seems unjust, some historical fact that makes people seem untrustworthy or so forth. That sort of thing might not be easy with a strong testimony but it’s at least more likely you’ll make it through.

    The problem is what to do with everyone else. Further, it’s simply a fact of life that a testimony isn’t a one time thing. Sometimes your testimony is strong. Other times it’s weak. Worse, what’s a challenge for people really varies from person to person. Some people get floored by polygamy where for others 19th century polygamy is as far removed as Abraham’s polygamy and about as problematic. It’s really hard to know how to deal with it.

    The assumption about so called vaccination approaches to controversial history is the assumption that everyone will encounter it so it’s better to get it over with now with a sympathetic teacher who has a testimony. I’m just not sure that’s the case. Especially with immature people. (i.e. the 14 – 22 year old crowd – sorry if you were very mature at 22. I sure wasn’t.) I do agree it’s very important to prepare people for their eventual encounter. I’m not sure teaching about it is the best way. For some people it is. For others they just aren’t ready. It sounds like everyone wants a one size fits all policy and that’s just not possible. I’m really, really sympathetic to the vaccination approach. But that’s because I tend to think everyone’s going to eventually have a trial of faith and “the elect” talked about on your mission is really about who’ll pass that trial. But I really don’t think we should be going around causing crisis of faith either.

    So I don’t really have a good answer for all this. I just know I’d feel pretty awful if I talked about say polyandry and Zina Huntington Smith and someone had a crisis of faith because of it and left the church. Just as I’d feel pretty awful if I was trying to do the right thing and in my incompetence offended someone. I just pray I don’t get put into that spot.

    Which isn’t a lot of help for seminary and institute teachers who are in that spot.

  48. To be fair to John, the LDS church has an exceptionally high rate of youth retention (70%) per Gallup, so maybe we need to worry about this less? It’s our convert retention that sucks (10% if you derive it froma few stats) so maybe we need to worry about that more?

  49. Mark, get with the times. The R’s been dropped. Our system of church education is now handled by the Smithsonian.

  50. Matt W: I’m not sure how much to trust that. At a recent discussion in SLC, Elder Marlin Jensen frankly said that internal studies have shown young adults leaving in droves, and that he doesn’t think a higher percentage were falling away since the Kirtland era.

  51. I have been a Seminary Teacher three times and currently am an Institute Teacher.

    Imo, the biggest issue is two-fold:

    1) Most seminary and institute teachers in the world are not scriptural scholars – or, at least, they aren’t called because of their scriptural scholarship. They are volunteer(ed) due to their “faithfulness” and willingness, in the case of Seminary, to get out of bed at an abominable hour and deal with sleepy teenagers. Thus, they often are ill-equipped educationally to teach in a professional, scholarly manner. Also, as temple recommend holding, faithful members, they tend to be the more literal members.

    2) The manuals tend to be written knowing who will be teaching from them just as much as who will be learning from the teachers, imo.

    Having said that, there are some really good, surprising things in the Seminary and Institute manuals. There are things that are taught openly and unequivocally (like Joseph Smith instituting polygamy) that I hear people say is “hidden” by the Church. I just wish, in the case of the OT especially but with all scriptures, that there were crystal clear messages that state it’s ok to see many of the stories as figurative, mythological and/or allegorical. A simple, “It doesn’t really matter if we see these stories literally or not; what matters are the lessons we take from them” would be wonderful.

    Oh, and I love the opening quote.

  52. I’m here at CES in Vegas and it is nothing like you guys are describing.

  53. Ben,
    “why must a nuanced and contextualized approach to scriptures and history in a Church setting result in a crisis? That’s an assumption of yours that I frankly don’t get.”
    It’s not really an assumption I’m making (at least, not knowingly). I would say that there are a lot of people in the church who pride themselves on it offering clear answers to life’s questions and on it supporting and being supported by a non-nuanced approach to the gospel and the world around them. And their ability to rationalize, to self-justify, and to develop selective blindness is, at least, equal to our own. I don’t think that approaching the gospel with a bit more overt nuance would hurt them per se, but I think it would be a true downer for them. I also suspect its a great way to drum up the attendance rolls for evangelical churches across the Wasatch Front.

  54. Sonny,
    We approach it from the outside looking in (and from a place where the various Church curriculum organizations do not get much respect). So, please, correct our misgivings and misinterpretations.

  55. Clark Goble says:

    If we go by the self-identification surveys then we have a fairly low growth rate which means those who leave are matched and slightly expanded by new converts who maintain their testimony. I think there’s an understandable bias in the Church to maintaining the youth. Would any of you want your son or daughter to leave the Church? Of course not. I just think people are perhaps a bit naive about how much control they actually have on this by the time people are teens and young adults. Really a lot depends upon what the parents do when the kids are young. And even then it’s no guarantee.

    I don’t know how well we do maintaining the youth. In many ways more is asked of Mormons than most faiths outside of perhaps the Amish or the like. We pay 10% of our wage and are sexually chaste and reject a lot of things young people like to experiment with. Its a hard thing to ask of the young. I suspect given all that we do remarkably well – especially when what we ask intellectually demands we learn how to become spiritual and gain answers on our own. There’s no passive reception the way we might accept a lot of science because the evidence is easy to establish without much effort on our part. It’s simply ridiculously easier to be skeptical of a testimony than it is to gain one. And that ignores the many social incentives to act differently. Throw in non-practicing peers and it becomes even worse. Honestly it’s remarkable we have a growth rate at all.

  56. John,

    Sorry about my 52. Poor attempt at humor. I was referring to the CES (Consumer Electronics Association) Conference held annually (and right now) in Vegas.

  57. Oh, and I think that many people leave because they haven’t been nourished by the “good” word of God enough outside of church, so they end up relying on church instruction to do the nourishing – and when that nourishment is not health-sustaining . . . I’m not blaming those who grew up in a culture that didn’t expect a lot of extra-church depth-digging, but I might be gone if I hadn’t reached a level of comfort and peace with my own unique perspective through my own individual study and contemplation but relied mostly on what I have been taught at church.

    Much of it has been great; much of it has been mediocre; some of it has been nothing short of really weird; some of it has been quite bad and even damaging; some of it has been truly jaw-dropping in its stupidity. (To be fair, things I’ve said have fallen into all those categories at one point or another.)

    I think the real disconnect isn’t the universal level of the instruction but rather the lack of openness to verbal questioning that is necessary to keep those who will tend to leave later in life if they still don’t get their questions answered – or, better yet, learn how to accept questions in the first place.

  58. I liked the post :) Although I’m disappointed you’ll be ignoring the prophetic counsel to send your children to seminary.

  59. What I find facinating about this discussion is that 5 years ago I would have cared very much about it, but now it seems unimportant. What changed? I moved from Utah, where much of my connection to the church was about what was taught on Sunday, to an urban ward on the east coast, where my primary concern is making sure everybody has enough to eat, brother so-and-so stays sober, and sister such-and-such gets a bed at the shelter. We’re not too concerned here about what is or isn’t in the manual, and the “watered down” CES-produced materials are generally sufficent as a platform for members to share their spiritual perspectives. It’s not complete. It’s not very interesting. It’s certainly not my primary source of gospel information. But it gets people talking about the right topics, so that a relatively unsophistated group (speaking several different languages, I might add) can teach each other the gospel (at least the important parts). So while I never thought I’d admit this about the church-produced materials, “they’re working fine.”

  60. Clark Goble says:

    I think that’s right Ray. I don’t mind if people teach so-called “pablum” so long as it’s done by the spirit and we teach people how to gain a testimony and how to deal with the inevitable trials of faith. I think it’s that later that we just don’t do as good a job on as we could. (Although as I said I think ultimately we do a pretty remarkably good job given what we ask of people)

  61. “I do wonder at the worries about people being driven away by learning the truth (or something closer to it). If the scriptural narratives of instant divine justice, polygamy, genocide, murder, racism, oppression of women, and crazy etiological myths haven’t scared them away, why would any of this modern softball stuff shake their faith?”

    its not the issues themselves that matter, it’s institutional credibility. People can stomach a lot of issues, and do. But the LDS church asks a lot from their members. a lot. And if they feel that they have been misled, or misinformed by the institution that can hurt. As they say, its never the crime, its the cover up.

    The LDS does not hold itself to the same standard of honesty that they hold their members to (that with holding info is still dishonest, that white lies are dishonest, etc. )

  62. what’s worse, is that it’s an unforced error. there is no reason to not be institutionally honest, and it would be beneficial for everyone.

  63. dudebro,
    I’m not certain that your notion of what the LDS church holds its members to actually reflects what it holds its members to. For that matter, I’m skeptical that the church, as an institution, can be characterized as being dishonest (even if it does bowdlerize some elements of history). So, basically, I think you are mischaracterizing the church’s approach and the motivation behind that approach.

  64. No worries, Sonny. I’m still trying to figure out what SIR refers to.

  65. ok, you can disregard some of my overgeneraliziations. but my point remains, the members that leave, i dont believe do so because of the issues themselves, but because of what they perceive to be institutional dishonesty. and to the extent that they are doing things that are often labelled so, they could just change them. why have paintings of joseph smith doing things with the plates that arent backed up by evidence? who is it helping? and if that painting causes even one person to leave, is it worth it?

  66. The Gospel may not be an “IQ” test, but we are taught that it is a “test.” How do you give the correct answers if you haven’t been taught the true subject matter? Thankfully, this “test” isn’t about church history, it’s about learning principles and implementing them into our lives.

    History is important and it should be learned and it should be given truthfully, but who really has the answers. So “Joseph translated out of a hat?” Why? Is that good? Is that bad? Does that mean he made it all up? What if we don’t like the answer the “teacher” gives us? Should we find our own answer and now that we have our own answer, is our answer the right answer and the “teachers” the wrong answer?

    Sometimes it seems like you can’t really “teach” history, you can only present it. And then it’s up to the audience to decide what lessons they want to take from it.

  67. At FHE last night, our lesson was on the coming forth of the BoM. I casually mentioned the various means of translation, including the U&T, the hat, and the officially sanctioned (as least in the Gospel Art Kit) “looking studiously at a page of the plates and dictating to Oliver.” I got a follow up question about the seer stone from my 10 year old (the same one whose favorite fact about J.S.’s life is his pepper-box pistol), but everything seemed fine. I’ll let you know in 20 years how it all works out.

  68. Forgive this parental intrusion, but I refuse to let any institution dictate the “form” of truth to me or my four children. I see Seminary, CES and even GD as well meaning attempts to assist our understanding. But it is within the confines of family scripture study and with the assistance of the Spirit, that our family arrives at our conclusions. Will we have crises of faith? Sure, but I believe that the critical thinking skills my father imparted to me are some of the best skills I can pass onto my children. That we have church-wide teaching strategies at all illustrates to me that, once again, the idea of helping the parent to help teach their children is the lowest of priorities found in the church.

  69. whizzbang says:

    There was a recent CES guy and his wife who posted a 6 hour “exit” interview on Youtube. He was interviewed by John Dehlin. I can honestly say that I remember almost nothing from my early morning seminary days other then going. We had a NUTBAG teacher who got disfellowshipped for a year and she had some bizarre ideas about stuff. So in hindsight I have had to unlearn everything she taught me. Even now she teaches teh GD in her class and heaven forbid you challenger her even politely because she has a very short fuse. I recall an article in the BYU Religious Educator written by Gerald Lund about how seminary was rarely pivotal in people’s lives. I always thought it was dumb to have the Church say that parents should read the scriptures with their kids yet how can they when they are sent off on a cold winter’s day to seminary?-the whole thing seemed so at odds with one another

  70. This is my problem with your post:

    “…the quality of the history or exegesis presented to and repeated by members of the church isn’t our problem; what we do with it is.”

    The latter is more often than not a direct result of the former, they are not independent factors. While I understand that criticizing a system does not require any virtue or work, I can’t help to feel a bit diappointed at the generation of ignorants the Church has raised with the CES system.

    The bubble of fantasy some of our members live in is extremely worrying. In my experience, it is the very contrast of this fantasy bubble when they are required to step into reality what comes as a shock to members. It isn’t so much that there are questionable things in our historic past, it is that sickening feeling of “my whole life I have been believing on a fabricated/manipulated story.” It is that little tingle in your stomach when you realize “oh, so the picture I was presented with was simply a big fat pile of BS, but covered with roses, to mask the stench of reality beyond it.”

    That is, in my honest opinion, the culprit of what makes members leave. I think if there was credible material within the Church to address questionable bits of Church past (without an effort to justify, stretch and/or force it to fit “the Lord’s will”), the reaction would be much different. But you are right… we are so deep in the big fat pile of BS right now, that it will require quite a careful plan to bring objective narrative without causing shock, and this is quite beyond the capabilities of our current CES personnel. But the more we continue to build that big fat pile of BS, the more difficult it will continue to be to bring true objective material to an LDS classroom without causing reality shock.

    While on my mission, I was made to recite the following quote at loud:

    “The Standard of Truth has been erected. No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing. Persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame. But the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and dependent till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, until the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah will say, ‘The work is done.’”

    Truth, of course should have had a big asterisk next to it. And for the rest of the quote, well.. we don’t really believe in it in many contexts do we? We believe that Truth can actually have a negative effect on the progress of “the work.” Our members are not really ready to handle truth.

    I also pitty the parent who thinks it is CES’s job to keep their children from having pre-marital sex or go on a mission. Maybe that is exactly the problem. What exactly is the purpose of CES? Without this definition, I guess anything they do can be justified.

  71. #68 What if there isn’t a family structure, with family scripture study. What if one’s father didn’t give them any critical thinking skills? There are MANY youth who are navigating on their own and CES can be good tools for them. Teaching parents so they can teach their children is excellent, but in that we can’t forget those who for whatever reason don’t have the parental support regarding church matters.

    #69 Parents can still conduct scripture study even if their children are involved in early morning seminary. Again that’s assuming that the youth you are speaking of have parents that were going to conduct scripture study in the first place.

  72. In response to #70: The CES instructor that I mentioned on the University of Utah thread earlier today, John Peterson, told classes on multiple occasions (often in answer to a student asking, “So why don’t we learn this stuff in Church?”) that the purpose of CES was to provide more in-depth study than Sunday School on topics that couldn’t be covered in Sunday School due to time constraints or that were the harder-to-digest “meat” of the gospel, not suitable for all audiences. Because students actively sought out these CES classes, the feeling was that it was safer to teach about “difficult” things without harming testimonies–that those going to the effort to seek such instruction beyond the “required” coursework of Sunday School were more likely to have already had encountered some of these things and to be consciously looking for further guidance, as opposed to the situation in wards, where new members and lifelong members are thrown together into the same class and so the instruction had to be comfortable and appropriate for the newest learners. He was on the committee that wrote the John Taylor RS/Priesthood manual and so saw those necessary Sunday School curriculum compromises up close and made peace with historical omissions there, even while expressing his gratitude for the supplemental learning space provided by CES. If the strongly anti-CES comments here are to be believed, either his understanding of the purpose of CES was somewhat different from the official stated purpose, or there’s been some failure of implementation.

    I did my undergrad work at BYU and had for the most part stellar and demanding religion teachers there, so my exposure to CES instruction has been limited to my release-time high school seminary experiences (some very good, some downright awful), Dil Parkinson’s terrific grad-student-oriented Institute class in Orem (though he was a BYU Arabic professor, so doesn’t really count as CES), and finally John Peterson’s Institute classes at the U. Oh, and during my grad school years I did tag along with girlfriends to some of Michael Wilcox’s big fireside-type evening classes at the U. Not my cup of tea, but the post-lecture cookies and socializing were fun.

  73. whizzbang says:

    @71-I suppose but what’s the point to having another scripture session at like 5am every day on top of breakfast, shower schedules, and blah blah balh and then off to seminary for another round of it then a full days work and school for the kid all the while keeping fit and jogging and getting enough to sleep and eat healthy! I have come to the conclusion that you just can’t fit it all in

  74. John, thanks for the thoughtful post. Like some other people before me, I was struck by this line: “Your role in Church Education is to invite the spirit.” This is a valid goal, but if true, it shouldn’t be called Church Education, should it? More appropriate might be Faith Promotion, or maybe Catechism?

    I come from a tradition in which religious education for people 12 years old and up involves teachers presenting troubling texts to a class, asking questions like “Was that prophet wrong?” or “Is God being unfair?” and then loosely guiding the ensuing debate. I’m a fan of it–those classes kept (keep) me involved in religious life. I get why a teacher might prefer the CES approach, but it’s hard for me to imagine why students would willingly attend if the goal is to insulate beliefs instead of poking at them. (Doesn’t it get boring?) More to the point, I think my tradition’s approach results in adults with views about God and religion which can adapt and grow in response to all sorts of new information without risk of major faith crises. Is there something that would make this method of education unworkable for LDS teens?

  75. 71-1 Sistas in Zion. I agree that there are issues with broken families. I myself am a product of one. That’s where the church comes in with inspiration and guidance. Local leaders need to find ways to help them as many helped my father and me (plus four other siblings). But again, even in those circumstances all members need to learn to think for themselves and not rely on others’ testimonies or directions. I believe in “telling” members to hold to the rod of iron is not the same as asking them to prove to themselves why they need the iron rod in the first place.

  76. “Oh, and I think another great danger to the current CES design is that people go inactive because they are bored out of their minds with the lesson plans!”

    Totally. And because teachers aren’t provided the means to teach interesting lessons, teachers who want to be interesting have to turn to outside materials anyway.

  77. #46 — So the SIR (Seminaries and Institutes of Religion) rebranding was abandoned? I hadn’t heard that they’d gone back on that officially. I just assumed that the new terminology had yet to penetrate the vernacular.

  78. Mark Brown says:

    Wow, two rebranding efforts in the past 5 years. Maybe they really do realize they have a problem.

  79. #73 If you are family trying to do morning scripture study throwing early morning seminary into the mix can make it difficult to fit it all in, not to mention dealing with the attention spans of adolescents. #75 The situations we were talking about was when the adolescent is the only member or only participating member. However you are correct all members do need to learn how to think for themselves and gain their own testimonies.

  80. Clark Goble says:

    A few other thoughts. First if your primary knowledge about the gospel comes from what you hear in seminary and Sunday School you’re doing it wrong. You should be studying on your own. There are tons and tons of resources out there if you want them. If you only do the absolute minimum then sorry. It’s sad you leave but don’t blame the Church.

    Next, I don’t know how good release time seminary is. However most of the world doesn’t have it. The rest get a short lesson once a week or are cursed for early morning seminary where everyone is far, far too tired to learn anything. However even in seminary, as I recall, it’s mainly forcing you to read the lesson and get a bear minimum out of it. What you learn is ultimately your choice. Perhaps too much of a choice for teenagers. Which is why we have the joke that so many missionaries read the Book of Mormon the first time in the MTC and the MTC gains more converts than any other mission.

    I think we’re asking too much of CES. Can it be improved? Of course. But it seems to me most of the criticisms aren’t really addressing the main problems of CES but are instead asking them to do more than they could possibly do. CES becomes a scapegoat.

    All that said we definitely need a place where people can discuss these sorts of things. Perhaps that’s partially something the new technology of the internet can help with? i.e. maybe we should be grumbling less about CES and instead try and provide a place where these issues can be faithfully addressed. (Not blaming anyone mind you)

  81. Some great comments. I have some sharp critiques of CES, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a steaming pile of bs. I realized, instead of typing out a long comment, I’ve already mostly said my piece, and little has changed since then.

  82. Turin Turambar says:

    For me, the historical omissions were not the biggest challenge to my faith…it was the implicit teaching that if I kept all the commandments and did all the right things (prayer, scriptures, mission, temple, etc.) nothing bad would happen to me. This is a teaching that is dangerous, and our youth get it ad nauseum, only to be horribly disappointed later and question whether God really loves them when life inevitably “happens”

  83. All of the deep, profound stuff was covered in Primary. Even Christ’s instruction to “Be Ye Perfect” was co-opted by the Cub Scouts and renamed “Do Your Best. It’s very hard for adults to “become as a little child”, and that’s where we fall down.

  84. “Become as a little child” doesn’t mean to be content with milk. It means to be teachable, which is where CES either does or doesn’t help us approach the God who wants to teach us all truth.

  85. We need a few things: more space for ambiguity, greater room for disagreement, and encouragement to seek further light and knowledge generally (and not merely in ways that will buy houses and boats). All with proper doses of love and service.

  86. To the seminary teacher: these are the things I see lacking in your model.

  87. One more thing: we’re told to seek learning by study *and* by faith. I see a lot of emphasis on “the Spirit” and whatnot, not so much emphasis on regular old study. And I don’t mean simply reading scriptures and church manuals. We spend more time telling people what to think rather than showing them ways to think, including the ways of inspiration, revelation, and good old fashioned reason.

  88. I think there’s a vital distinction here between teaching the Gospel and teaching an academic subject. A class in D&C in institute or BYU is and should have a different focus than a class in LDS church history. I’m sympathetic to the view that, while a little context is required for understanding D&C, the point of seminary or institute is not to give a survey of early folk practices in early 19th-century New England, whereas such material might be more appropriate for a specific church history class. It’s not that these issues should be avoided or whitewashed if they do come up, but simply that there is limited time and decisions have to be made according to what the focus of the class is, and a CES D&C class should not become a slightly modified version of a church history class.

    I’ve read a lot of the similar exit stories. I think that, with the internet, there are less and less excuses to go through half a century of your life without doing some basic historical research into the church that you affiliate with. I think that the “bowdlerized” version that we get at CES is for the most part sufficient, covering the major aspects that directly pertain to the doctrine and scripture. If people are interested in the more sensational issues there are definitely fora for discussing and analyzing such issues, but we shouldn’t blow their importance out of perspective and make the Gospel all about Fanny Alger and Elijah Abel, fetishizing faith crises and the sensational in the process.

  89. “We spend more time telling people what to think rather than showing them ways to think, including the ways of inspiration, revelation, and good old fashioned reason.” It’s true. We talk about studying a good bit, but don’t model it very well *at all*, at least in our semi-official books and magazines.

  90. Kimberly White says:

    It is one thing to look around at how things work in our own culture, under no pressure but the pressure to make up your own mind, and develop an opinion about how CES or the Brethren should do things. It’s an entirely different matter to be one of the few who’s responsible if things go wrong, and to have to do it not just for your own culture but for cultures, races, languages, and groups whose history you don’t know well and whose reactions you are less able to anticipate. I’ve chosen a open approach in my family, where we casually discuss otherwise difficult issues so our children won’t be faced with an unpleasant surprise later. That is our right and our responsibility, and I would hope that those who disagree also recognize that we made our decision prayerfully and respect that, since it is our calling and not theirs, there is probably something we know that they don’t.

    I hope that I would be as prayerful, and even more cautious, if I had a responsibility that affected the spiritual welfare of millions of people. I might well make a different decision in that case than I have in my family. Because it may well be that the spiritual needs of first-generation-convert subsistence farmers in Kenya outweigh the needs of educated Americans with full bellies, a vast social network for support, and easy access to extensive Mormon apologetic scholarship. I rather hope it does! And I think it unlikely in the extreme that in all cases their needs are the same as ours. I’m not talking about “some people leave the church no matter what”; I’m talking about people whose cultural context makes some things (and the thing is likely to be different in different places) impossible, or exponentially more difficult, to come to terms with. Places where a totally open, we-discuss-it-all approach will simply shut off the blessings of the gospel from those who surely need it and long for it. The practical consequence of belonging to a worldwide church is that sometimes, our culture’s spiritual needs are not going to be met because someone else’s need IS.

  91. Kimberly: We need a few things: more space for ambiguity, greater room for disagreement, and encouragement to seek further light and knowledge generally (and not merely in ways that will buy houses and boats). All with proper doses of love and service.

  92. Kimberly: Or hey, how about a really good church lesson on Kenya?

  93. My daughter is attending early morning seminary this year. After I finish grilling her in the car on the way home, it seems that the stake-called instructors in our stake have been given some leeway to go off-topic as the need progresses. And parents at least the ability to go to priesthood leaders when early morning seminary is involved — not something you get with the professional ministry.

  94. (Mirroring #37) IMHO, talking openly about historical or doctrinal issues, and having an environment where speculation can exist and questions don’t always have answers, would keep more people in the faith than we currently are able to do. I know of too many people who have left the church over matters like polygamy, in part because they had nowhere they could talk about it so it just itched in the back of their minds until they gave up and left the faith. Not to mention, if we don’t make room to talk about these things in our classrooms and church buildings, where we can feel safe and comfortable about it, we will find that plenty of people on the internet are willing to talk, but with uneven temper and unfairness.

    I nominate #44 as BCotW.

    (a la part of #70) #53 John C., “I would say that there are a lot of people in the church who pride themselves on it offering clear answers to life’s questions and on it supporting and being supported by a non-nuanced approach to the gospel and the world around them.” I would say that there are a lot of people in the world with varying religious worldviews that pride themselves for the same things… only those people tend to be prideful, misunderstanding and intolerant of others, and the sources of much conflict and stress within their communities and the nation at large, with a strong unwillingness to hear others out and defend their points of view.

    #70 makes very good points. My parents were one of my biggest factors in how I lived the Gospel and remain true to it. That being said, I was very positively influenced by a few church teachers / leaders. One that stands out is a younger brother whose wife had died of cancer, and yet she and he had lived the word of wisdom to a ‘T’. He had a discussion with us about the promises the Lord makes in the scriptures, and how we respond when things don’t happen like they’re “supposed” to. I was only 14, but the lesson I learned about having faith despite hard and unanswered questions is one of the best I’ve ever had. And it’s a shame we don’t have more teachers that engage their students at such a level that sticks to them in that way. Most of what I was taught in Seminary / Institute wasn’t worth a lick when the going got tough. From reading the manuals and teachers guides it is pretty easy to see why.

    #72 Marie, I believe the CES in most locales has failed to live up to Brother Peterson’s vision.

    #74, it would be great if we could all be involved in dialectical learning! I think what’s holding people back in our church, sadly, is some kind of fear (among, at least, quite a few CES folk) that questioning in OUR faith will somehow destroy, rather than enrich it. It is easier to justify hiding or obscuring seemingly harmful information, because a person losing their faith over a more nuanced view of things won’t make you feel like it was your fault, whereas discussing such information can you make it feel like it was absolutely your fault that someone lost faith over something. The CES folk just don’t want to feel guilty, although IMO they incur just as much, or even more guilt through their inaction, than they would otherwise. It just doesn’t feel that way, and it’s nice to follow the path of least-guilty-feelings,

    One feeling I get out of this conversation is that the CES needs a better way to prepare students for trials to their faith. Whereas for some people it means focusing only on the basics of the gospel, for others it means inoculating them against future information overload. In both cases, the teacher, rather than the lessons, might be where to place the focus. A teacher who, by example and conversation, can demonstrate open-mindedness and a willingness to ask questions, admit ignorance, and seek answers along with the students, while demonstrating a firmness in faith in spite (or rather, because) of those characteristics, would be the starting place for my solution to the perceived CES problem(s). Personally, I’d be spending the CES budget creating a culture in the church and CES training sessions that produce teachers more like #81.

  95. I’m sympathetic to some of what I have read, but it seems to me that it is most important that CES teachers teach faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. History certainly has its place, but CES teachers aren’t history teachers.

  96. I think Institute teachers have a hard job. They’re trying to keep young single adults active in a church that doesn’t know what to do with that population. It’s hard to preach against what is viewed as common sense elsewhere (evolution, gay rights, etc.), and it certainly doesn’t help that temple marriage is crammed into as many lessons as possible.

    Personally, I found some of the Institute lessons and teachers insulting to my intelligence, especially in a university ward where the majority of attendees were seeking higher degrees of learning. Why would I go to a boring Sunday school class in the middle of the week when I already had to endure one on Sunday? Why is a place of learning turned into a place to endure boredom to the end? At least there were refreshments for evening classes.

  97. My problem with CES is they don’t organize the lessons in a manner fit for learning. In my MA in teaching, we read a study that compared US and Japanese methodologies for teaching math. The USA then (and still today) teaches math as if it is a very wide, but shallow ocean. They skip rocks across the surface, expecting students to pick up some stuff along the way. We quickly teach them formulas, and expect them to memorize them, just because.
    The Japanese method was to take time to study in a smaller, but much deeper ocean of knowledge. They would take the time necessary to learn the concepts behind math theory, etc. These students may find several methods to the correct answer, and then they discuss the best methods to learn.
    Guess which country leads in math?

    Our lesson plans for the Church (including seminary and Institute) tend to skip across the surface, throwing all kinds of stuff at people. In blogging the New Testament this past year, I was aghast at some of the sections and the “lessons” to be taught in them, particularly in Acts.

    Much better to take key themes and spend time studying them. For example, one of the most important topics throughout the Book of Mormon has to do with being in the Presence of God (Shekinah), or cut off from His presence. Yet, there isn’t a single lesson on it. The second lesson discusses Nephi having good parents, but ignores Lehi’s visions completely. Really? Is CES so afraid of doctrine that they quickly jump past the truly important teachings? Imagine spending several weeks discussing how the Book of Mormon prepares us to be in God’s presence, then discuss Lehi’s visions in 1 Nephi 1, the Vision of the Tree of Life, Jacob’s sermon at the temple, King Benjamin’s sermon, Bro of Jared seeing God’s finger, Moroni’s call to come to Christ, etc. Or how about discussing faith for several weeks? Or perhaps the atonement? THEN you would have a truly doctrinal lesson that a teacher could teach on an easy or difficult level, and really help the saints to understand the gospel. As it is, the Gospel Essentials class is designed to deliver the initial pablum or milk to new members. The Gospel Doctrine and other “advanced” classes should be helping members drink deeply from the waters of doctrine.

  98. “those people tend to be prideful, misunderstanding and intolerant of others, and the sources of much conflict and stress within their communities and the nation at large, with a strong unwillingness to hear others out and defend their points of view.”

    I doubt those people have more of a tendency than anyone else. We’re all pretty screwed up.

  99. That last was me.

  100. I’m guessing that this post was partially inspired by the recent interview with a CES instructor who left the church (, or, if not, it is at least inspired by similar exist stories. That interview (6 hours worth!) is worth watching, by the way, if you have any interest in this whole “to inoculate or not to inoculate” debate. Their story is told with obvious love toward members of the church, mixed with obvious frustration at the church’s misleading CES curriculum.

    My take on the whole matter is that honesty ought to be the first principle of teaching truth.

    Once you establish that starting ground, then you can talk about how much to teach to whom and when. Remember that it is possible to be dishonest by excluding facts. Unfortunately, the church does a lot of that, and very consistently.

    I do think that an approach of more complete honesty will prevent some people from leaving the church who would otherwise be shocked at learning less savory details about church history later in life, but I don’t think it will prevent people from leaving who will decide that the less savory details make the church untrue or not worth attending. In other words, the inoculation will work for many–maybe even a majority–but some will leave anyway.

    Regardless, I firmly believe that the church needs to teach its own story much more truthfully, and let the consequence follow.

  101. Dumb question here – other than providing a set of lessons, what role does CES play in early morning seminary managed by the stakes?

  102. There is usually a local/regional CES employee who offers some very basic training and guidance, and who receives whatever attendance or other reports there are. And who also probably receives complaints about the teacher, if there are any. So, formal contact between the called teacher is infrequent. Beyond that, I don’t know.

  103. It’s interesting to read this post and the comments that follow from a recently post-Mormon view. The truth is (at least for myself and other that I know that have left the Mormon church), the history, or offense, or the coverups, or whatever may have *sparked* the leaving process, but we leave because it’s the right choice for us. It’s not a sad choice, and we are happier on the outside than on the inside. A change in CES policies, or Sunday School lesson manuals may have changed when I left, but not that this church is not a good fit for me.

    I wonder if the Mormon church might do better simply not worrying so much about people leaving. Teach what your truth is, don’t cover it up, and those people that will benefit from it will stay. Those that won’t, will seek truth elsewhere.

  104. So when my kid says “my seminary teacher doesn’t teach all of the lesson, and often adds his own thoughts”, should I be worried that CES is going to sweep in and remove them? Or is that the stake’s decision?

  105. #104 – The Stake calls and releases Seminary teachers, with suggestion from the Bishop or Branch President in each case. Complaints are discussed, and egregious stuff can get a teacher released, but not teaching all of the lesson and adding personal thoughts doesn’t even begin to reach that level.

    I’ve done exactly that extensively every time I’ve taught, and I do it all the time this year with the Old Testament (in Institute and in Seminary, which I team-teach with my wife). There is no way to teach all of the lesson in the time available (never), and I don’t read a lot of the OT as literal, so I present the benefits of BOTH perspectives to my students [the literal and the figurative/allegorical/symbolic.] They’re old enough to handle it, and they need to know it’s OK for people to see things differently, even wth regard to the scriptures. I think that lesson is much more important than going over every possible detail in every chapter assigned. (For example, we recently discussed Joshua 1-5 – and pretty much the only part we read in detail was the Scripture Mastery verse in Joshua 1. There is a TON of stuff to discuss about what occurs in those chapters, but the kids already had read them, so we sat and talked about the concepts the entire time. How, I have the luxury of a small class and knowing the students really had read the chapters, but the general concept is the same and can be done in a larger class, as well. Of course, I also am a former school teacher, so I some training many don’t have. As I said in my first comment in this thread, that’s a real issue outside the released-time areas.)

    Now, if “adding his own thoughts” means “teaching some really wacky things as Gospel truth” . . . yeah, that could get someone released.

  106. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I taught a weekly Home Study Seminary class in Omaha back in the 1980s when the kids were asked to read a workbook five days a week and then have a lesson reviewing that material on Saturdays. I tried to give the kids the benefit (?) Of my own insights from my own reading over the years, including the original research I did in the Church Archives during law school. One of the other Seminary teachers in our stake was and is a law professor who coauthored a book on Mormon legal history. But most seminary teachers outside the released time haves of Utah and Idaho are members of their stake who have no particular academic training in Church history or Greek or Hebrew. For the curriculum to be teachable it has to be something that is manageable for members with no particular independent familiarity with historical questions. Andbthat is not something that can come out of any lesson manual. It has to be taught in person. The Church would need to invest more in training early morning Seminary teachers to be aware of controversies, not so much to teach about them, but to ensure that what they DO teach is not distorted by an assertion that there are no controversies. The most impirtant thing to teachninstructors to pass on to the kids is the confidence that they can maintain their testimonues of the Gospel as they search out more information for themselves, and giving them the tools to find reliable guides that address controversy while not attacking testimony. How solid is the instruction you get in four years if seminary if it all tumbles in the face of the typical half truths put out by professional anti-Mormons? It is nit just the curriculum materials we should be concerned with, we need to teach the kids to approach any assertions about religious topucs with a more mature technique of appraisal, including destroying the assumption that their own ignorance is a sufficent basis to accept or reject statements about the church’s history and the meaning of its doctrines. They need to taught how to taste the flavor of truth, and trained how to hunt it down for themselves.

  107. it's a series of tubes says:

    the implicit teaching that if I kept all the commandments and did all the right things (prayer, scriptures, mission, temple, etc.) nothing bad would happen to me

    Recognizing that all personal experiences are at best anecdotal, my CES / Institute experience was exactly the opposite – I came away with the distinct impression that life here in a fallen world was hard, and suffering was inevitable; for me, that perspective served to point me to Christ as the only source of peace.

    Love the moniker, by the way!

  108. I think milk before meat makes sense, but we need to get to meat, or there’s no point. If we don’t get it in seminary, and we don’t get it in GD, and we don’t get it at Institute, where are we supposed to get it? Paul became a man and gave up childish things, but we keep getting the pablumized version through official channels.

    Way more people leave because their spiritual needs aren’t being met than leave over hairy doctrine/history. If we spent the energy we currently spend on “keeping the doctrine pure” on serving those who stand in need of our service, we’d have a better understanding of the doctrine because we’d be living it more.

  109. Er, #98 or #99… I guess the difference here is those people (in any religion) don’t seem to realize that they’re a big part of the problem. To them, the world would be oh so much better if everyone just understood things the way they do. And they’re right, of course… only it’s impossible that the rest of us follow their examples. I once thought I had all the answers, too, when I was younger… but I can’t ever go back to being like that. That dooms at least part of me and many others to be marginalized by the self-righteous sureness of their POVs.

    It makes me think of how the Prophet Joseph once pointed out that in (one of) the parable(s) of the 100 sheep, the Lord goes out to visit the one, the marginalized, and leaves the 99 on their own. Those 99 were likened unto the Pharisees, so certain of their own righteousness, and the correctness of their doctrines, that they missed out on the Lord Himself.

  110. Regarding Sunday School vs. Seminary / Institute and the whole milk vs. meat issue:

  111. Mommie Dearest says:

    I have a minor threadjack I wonder if you’d indulge. I very clearly remember being startled by hearing (probably) Elder Holland in conference refer to the seerstone-in-the-hat process used by Joseph Smith to translate the BoM. He specifically mentioned the use of a stone in his hat. It startled me because I thought it was a bit provocative of him to speak openly about that over the pulpit in conference, and I tried to find the address in conference archives and couldn’t, even though I made a pretty thorough search. I concluded that it has probably been scrubbed and rewritten. Anybody else know anything about this?

  112. Thanks, Ray. So I should continue to be grateful I don’t live in Utah, so that my kid can attend stake-run seminary?

  113. The interesting thing about this conversation is that I can’t imagine Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, W. W. Phelps, the Pratts, or George A. Smith sitting around in the School of the Prophets, trying to plan out a lesson to make sure they didn’t bring up anything that might offend or alienate anyone, or challenge their spirituality. What is the difference between now and then? What have we gained since then, and what have we lost? Sure, those men offended and alienated pretty much everybody (including their own friends) at some point or another, but there was a fire in them that I wonder if the institutional Church will ever see again. Though for the record, I do love teaching my Institute class.

  114. 110 — Thanks for the link. What you say there makes sense, and extrapolating it to Institute makes as much sense.

    (BTW, I think I met your son when he was in Ferndale. It was a great conversation.)

  115. Blain, that would have been my oldest son. Is there anything I can tell him about you, the setting or the conversation that would trigger a memory for him? He reads BCC occasionally, and he will get a kick out of being remembered by a commenter.

  116. Blain, he remembers you and the conversation and says, “Hi!”

  117. Meldrum the Less says:

    I have followed this discussion with great interest. I agree with some points and not others. I didn’t have anything to add (that doesn’t alway stop me from firing off a comment) until this morning.

    There is something small each of us can do about this problem. I call it Teaching From the Back Row.” I have found that just about every bowdlerized, boring over-correlated lesson can be “flipped” by one comment. It helps if it is a humorus comment.

    Let me give an example. We Elders of Israel were suffering through yet another boring, boiler-plate lesson on family home evening. All eyes were on the floor and the guilt was as thick as a London fog. (It helped that my children were then misbehaving at church on a regular basis). I raised my hand and asked “How do we keep family home evening from turning into family home screaming?”

    This one comment changed the entire course of the lesson from a correlated lecture already given a thousand times into a productive, spontaneous, authentic discussion about a challenge we all face. It also gave added credibility to my next suggestion that might otherwise have fallen on deaf ears.

    Family home evening doesn’t have to be more church. If your chlidren love to sit through church meetings then another one on Monday night might be just what they need. But as a father, in consultation with your wife, you are to determine the content and even the very structure of these events. I related that our family holds informal family home evening every night possible. I encourage my children to do their homework at my feet in the family room while I read and help them when needed. The television sits there but no body even wants to be distracted by turning it on. After they are done we might work on scouting or listen to family concerts from the musical child while she practices. We eat dinner late. I ask the kid lots of questions so that they speak 90% of the time. Lectures are given numbers and only the numbers and titles are given by parents, not the entire lecture.

    It is easiler to teach from the back row if the class is small. In order for that to happen we need more teachers. That won’t happen unless people volunteer to teach and request smaller clases. If you don’t think your class is working the way it should, ask the SS President to split it and agree to teach the second class. Get your friends to do the same thing at the same time.

    My own batting record for successfully flipping a class (if it was even possible to measure it) probably is below .300. Most of the time it doesn’t work and I make an ass out of myself. But that might not be the case for everyone. After you do this about 5 times, you will have burned up most of your social capilal and have developed a reputation. The bad lessons we tolerate is one of the prices we pay for using a social economy of popularity and reputation instead of unconditional love and inspiration to run our wards.

    This might be asking too much.but it is theoretically possible to take advantage of the correlation structure and prepare to teach from the back row by looking at the lesson before going to the meeting and thinking of what important points need to be made. It could improve a batting record beyond about .300 and increase social capital instead of burn it up. I don’t know, I have never tried it.

  118. The problem is that milk doesn’t actually prepare one to digest the meat. If we can’t have the meat, can we at least get some strained vegetables!

  119. 115-116 — Thanks. I was impressed with him, and Hi back.

    117 — Yes, very much so. I’ve played that role a fair amount over the years, and I think it can work. But it does require some foundation work — you need to be a known quantity, at least to the point that people know that you know what you’re talking about, generally, that your information is accurate, and that you’re not trying to tear the Church down. So associating yourself with the portions of the more orthodox things you agree with helps a lot.

    And so does picking your battles. These classes are not there as a showcase of all the esoteric Mormonia you have collected over the years. If you know some additional context about something that’s relevant to its meaning, and is short, then that’s not bad. Generally, a “we’re not really perfect” comment is appropriate, so long as it doesn’t submarine the whole point of the lesson (just throw in a “how we can get better, if not perfect” usually). Bringing it back to the personal can work a lot. Last night my HTs came (one is the EQP) and he was sharing the FP message with me. It had to do with three keys to an abundant life (Attitude, believing in yourself and courage, as I recall). When he got through the second point, I reacted to it a bit, and said “Well, strike two, keep going,” and I think that brought across the “I’m not going to pretend everything is perfect” pretty well.

    118 — You can have meat. You just have to find it on your own. Choking on it is a common initial experience, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.

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