Tips for Teachers: “Confronting Manual Balrogs”

You, brave teacher, are like unto Gandalf the Grey, Mithrandir, gatekeeper of the manual. Suddenly, just as you and your Hobbits are enjoying the recitation of a quality quote, a Balrog rears its head.  The most recent manual has a fair number of one particular Balrog I’ve come to fear on my journey to Mount Doom: “The World.”

Yes, that mystical and mythical entity we’ve heard much about but never seen. “The World” is everything we’re not. When we say “potato,” the world says “deadly napalm sandwich with a side of war on religion.” In chapter one alone I encountered five references to “The World,” about one every other page (TPC:GAS, 3, 5, 6, 7). What to do?


Certainly it might do some good to discuss the term with our Fellowship. How it came to be a part of our Church rhetoric, etc., how it seems to wax and wane in popularity. In George Albert Smith’s case, we’re still only a generation removed from a lot of hard feelings with the eastern United States, what with the whole “exiled” thing and the martyrdom of our prophet, etc. We’re coming around to assimilation so “The World” only works to a limited extent in terms of self-image crafting. Plus sometimes it just seems nicer not to name names. But if you’re not up to the task presently, it might do well to eat around such parts.

The nameless forgers of that sacred ring, even the manual itself, have extended some help in our direction. In the manual’s Introduction they include a three-fold invocation of “prayerfully”:

1. “As you study…prayerfully seek the inspiration of the Spirit” (v).

2. “Seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost as you prepare to teach. Prayerfully study the chapter to become confident in your understanding” (v).

These extend a good deal of license to thee, Gandalf Greybeard (or Greyhair, for the women and the clean-shaven). But the third “prayerfully” is the most important “prayerfully” in the manual.

3. “Prayerfully select from the chapter those teachings that you feel will be most helpful to those you teach. Some chapters contain more material than you will be able to discuss during class time” (vi).

Gandalf, this is your privilege, this is your sacred duty. As the teacher, you’re the ultimate gatekeeper of that lesson at that time. The manual itself practically begs you not to use every last word in these lessons. At the end of each chapter is a “Teaching help,” usually excerpts from the actually-quite-decent manual, Teaching, No Greater Call, like this one:

“Be careful not to end good discussions too soon in an attempt to present all the material you have prepared” (TPC:GAS, 245).

Or these quotes from Elder Holland:

“It’s better to take just a few good ideas and get good discussion—and good learning—than to be frenzied, trying to teach every word in the manual” (TPC:GAS, 133).

“[Avoid] the temptation to cover too much material…. We are teaching people, not subject matter per se; and … every lesson outline that I have ever seen will inevitably have more in it than we can possibly cover in the allotted time” (TPC:GAS, 31).

So, brave Gandalf, when facing a mighty Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, remember your power. With limited time to spare you decide what becomes central to the lesson. But, as with the Balrog’s fiery whip, beware of a potential though unlikely snag. We return to the manual’s intro:

“Encourage participants to study the chapter before the lesson and to bring the book with them. When they do so, they will be better prepared to participate in a discussion and edify one another” (vi).

You’ll need to be fully familiar with the chapter because class members might point to a Balrog. Be ready with possible explanations or re-directs as need be. You might employ the tactics you use when a member of the class begins exhorting everyone to stock up the old food storage because so-and-so saw President Monson in an elevator someplace.

But,” you might ask, “what if the Balrog is situated in the middle of an otherwise most excellent quote?” This is a tough one, but you have multiple options here. One, you could read the paragraph yourself and verbally trim where need be. Two, you could print out a few quotes for people to read and include some ellipses in the particular quote where need be. Or simply explain, you are avoiding the temptation to cover too much material.

On to Mount Doom!


  1. How does the manual’s depiction of President Smith’s use of “The World” differ from John’s gospel’s depiction of Jesus’ use?

  2. Hi John. I’ve been working on a post on “the World,” some of the problems I see in our rhetorical use of the term, so keep your eye out. My brief response would be to point out, for instance that God so loved “the world” that he gave his son to save all therein. The world, then, would include each church member, and would fail in that instance as a category by which we could generate an “us-versus-unnamed-them” holier-than-thou mentality. All we like sheep.

    But this post is about manual Balrogs, though—suggestions about how to prepare a lesson under the guidance of the Spirit, and what teachers might do if they encounter something they don’t feel comfortable teaching at the moment, something in the manuals which doesn’t resonate with them or invoke the inspiration of the Spirit. (“The World” is just an interchangeable example for this tip for teachers. I actually think an in-depth lesson on “the World” and its rhetorical usage in scripture, sermon, and manual would make for a great lesson!)

    I should add, I think there’s a fine line to be drawn between just reiterating things the teacher already believes versus allowing oneself and thus the class to be challenged by a particular quote in a manual. Where rubber meets road, though, teachers can find a lot of other material to work with in the manuals if they don’t have the time or inclination to fully flesh out a particularly fraught problem.

  3. Sorry to have wandered off track; I look forward to the future treatment on “The World.” I like your Balrog advice. I suppose all teachers in the church encounter something in a manual that they think is poor teaching or which they can’t teach with conviction, and have to work that out without pursuing their own agenda.

  4. No, it’s an interesting question, in fact, and one that I think could produce a really interesting class discussion! How is “the World” thing used in various sermons versus various places in the scriptures? If we assume a univocal sermon/scripture relationship it might not be as fruitful, but if we tease out some of the distinctions and talk about them I think it would be a fun part of a lesson. What do we mean by “the World”? What are the different senses in which it is used? etc.

    Re: agendas, I don’t really see it as a matter of pursuing either my agenda as a teacher, or some other agenda, be it God’s, Correlation’s, the GA’s, etc. I see it as an ongoing negotiation of agendas. I’m more concerned about a teacher who feels they have no agenda than a teacher who recognizes agendas and seeks to navigate them according to faith and reason.

  5. Ugh. This freedom (license?) is the greatest joy and the greatest terror of my calling. As a natural talker, it is an incredible boon to be able to teach whatever I feel “led” to teach and to blithely ignore what I don’t. Everyone here probably raised eyebrows at that “natural talker” thing just as I would had someone else written it. Nobody else has a stage as lengthy or frequent as a GD teacher. In my ward we have two classes and each teach every week because we have a very defined couple of groups who like to be taught in specific ways and they’ve self-selected the class they wish to attend. My class is the challenge-ready, discuss-life-by-likening crowd, but I am constantly in fear that we discuss only the things I think are noteworthy. That “prayerfully” bit is understatement. I tend to lean toward the “fear and trembling” outlook. Ugh.

  6. Ha, fear and tremble. The teacher-to-student talk ratio is tough to navigate sometimes. Maybe a future Tip for Teachers post should address that. I’ll give it some more thought.

  7. Ummm… didn’t Gandalf sort of end up… you know… DYING fighting the balrog? I mean, he was eventually transfigured/resurrected/translated/whatever, but still. The imagery (as I recall from the book – correct me if I’m wrong) of him falling down a bottomless pit encircled by the balrog’s flames isn’t terribly soothing.

    OTOH, I guess it did lead to him adding to his power/righteousness. So maybe we should seek out the balrogs and confront them more often?

  8. It’s also imperitive to remember the gospel doctrine teacher’s obligation to sacrifice themselves should the Balrog try to latch on to something. So, if a class member expresses a desire to go into forbidden depths, the teacher should invite them to discuss the topic together in the foyer and then, when they have passed through the chapel doors, look back at the class and yell “Run You Fools !!!” The teacher will thereby earn a gleaming white robe of celestial glory.

  9. Rick, you’re catching the gist…

    Dave, brilliant.

  10. I thought it was “Fly, you fools!” but sometimes I get the books and movies mixed. The movie definitely said Fly. That has heavenly significance.

  11. Also, I never trust quotes that contain ellipses. I want to know what is missing. I would probably tackle the teacher and make them tell me.

  12. My wife teaches the Young Women, and every now and then she’ll read some excerpt from the manual to me and say, No way am i reading that to them. The one that sticks in my mind is the one where the woman loses her husband and must put her faith in the Lord to persevere. Dreadfully depressing story.

  13. annegb5298 says:

    What I do is tie something from the lesson from whatever lesson I really want to teach. It’s really easy to do. I just did it with the VT lesson, I taught something from “Why I Stay” and said it’s like the lesson. Nobody ever objects.

  14. BHodges (2) – I would have thought John Mansfield was referring to verses like the following from John 15:

    18 If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.
    19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

    In the sense used here, it certainly does seem like an “us-versus-them” use. While I think I understand what you are saying with regard to the undefined use of the term “The World,” the use of it by the scriptures and modern prophets has given me pause before labeling its use foolish or Balrog-esque.

    I do, however, like your reminder regarding flexibility in teaching from the manual. Still, I see a called and set-apart teacher as an agent of the church and ultimately the Lord. As such, I see the flexibity allowed as something that is to come from spritual guidance rather than personal views or pet topics/peeves. While it is certainly possible that the Spirit could inform a teacher that a certain concept taught in both the NT and by modern prophets is foolish nonsense, I would think it would be quite a rare occurence. That said, if a teacher feels that they can’t teach something properly because they simply don’t believe it, then it may be best to focus on other parts of the lesson that they feel they can teach well.

    In short, I agree with the general principle of flexibility in teaching, not cramming in too much, and avoiding Balrogs, but I would hope that a teacher who represents the church and the Lord to his/her class would be cautious about what they consider a Balrog from teachings of a president of the church.

  15. My issue with discussing “the world” has little to do with what prophets have taught, and more with what most members think when confronted with that term. The “members of the church v. everyone else” dichotomy is a false but common misperception, and if I bring up “the world” in passing in class, that dichotomy will be perpetuated.

  16. JT- see my comments # 2, 4.

  17. Should have read those comments all the way through. Thanks for the heads-up.

  18. Meldrum the Less says:

    I think this concept of ‘The World” is far more important that we typically think.

    My kids went to public schools where the number of LDS kids was in the single digits. Their cousins in Utah went to public schools where the number of non-LDS might have been in the single digits. Both sets of siblings struggle with the same challenge, how much time and effort do they put into friendships with the church kids in contrast to the non-LDS kids at school? On the one hand we are supposed to be a missionary oriented people and we can imagine being in the middle of a vast network of non-LDS friends, setting a good example and bringing handfuls of them into the faith. On the other hand we have standards that might be as simple as a glass of ice tea (hot drink?) or a couple of inches on a skirt. But they might also be the subtle beginnings down the road to sexual immorality, alcoholism and drug abuse.

    Most of the LDS kids lean strongly towards what my kids call Fortress Mormon. Their parents even moreso. They are not rude to non-LDS youth, but superficial and really don’t allow themselves to be included in their inner circle. There is always a social distance with the good non-LDS kids they see every day, while major effort is made to sustain distant and dysfunctional friendships with other LDS youth. Two examples suffice.

    1. My daughter played in a youth orchestra that practiced on Sunday afternoons and when we had the afternoon block we attended another ward rather than putting church first, last and always. We were reprimanded by Priesthood leaders and not many LDS families would have made that choice. All through school she was surrounded with dozens of classic musicians, who also tend to be high achieving students. The only other LDS youth among them she helped reactivate. My daughter now has a music scholarship at an ivy league school worth $60K a year. She is not in college in Utah where she might be dating LDS guys. The girls her age in the ward are getting married, not all necesarily in completely desirable circumstances.

    2. My son did boy scouts in a well-run large (80 scouts) non-LDS troop that camped on Sundays. Of course this was forbidden by our Priesthood leaders who then did very little to make the crappy ward troop even a little bit better. (For the record we were willing to do, even lead out in both but if both planned a campout at the same time we chose the better of the them). After several years people told us that the non-LDS troop previously had negative experiences with LDS youth and as an unofficial practice they tried to make it as miserable for Mormon boys as possible in hopes they would leave. But my son’s dedication to excellence, his emerging leadership abilities, his help with younger scouts and his efforts to live and breath the scout oath and law and his tireless commitment to attending every camping trip, service project, and meeting changed that negative perception. Over a hundred boys will never forget the iron character of one Mormon boy in their scout troop. My son also has developed complete distain for LDS scouting and will not allow an LDS award to sully his sash. He is skeptical of other poor quality church activities, which in my ward are pretty much most of them. He now says he is going on a mission this summer, to the surprize of the ward leaders, who had long ago written him off. BTW, his thick long golden curly hair hangs down on his shoulders, a “sure sign” of apostasy of youth.

    Life in Fortress Mormon might appear to be safer, although I have my doubts. Several of the church leaders in the center of Fortress Mormon around here have 100% failure rates with keeping their children in the church into adulthood. Life outside Fortress Mormon is far more rich and rewarding in my expeerience. The best people I personally know and admire are not Mormons. My fondest memories are not connected to the LDS church or any of its activities.

    My kids were greatly enriched for their efforts to forage far outside the walls of Fortress Mormon and so far have suffered no obvious negative consequences. Most of their LDS friends have generally stayed inside of Fortress Mormon and their lives have not been as greatly enriched and too many have had trouble with rebellion and abandonment of the faith.

  19. Interesting stuff, MtL. When I get some time I’ll put that WORLD post together, some day!

  20. I teach the youth the GD class. Because we are a small Branch, ages range from 12 to 16. I weed out a lot of Balrogs (and wouldn’t the kids love to hear them called that!) just because of the age group. Mostly I try to teach them how the doctrine of Christ applies in their lives including the the ‘judge not’ part.

  21. Well done, Gandalf.

  22. MtL
    “Life outside Fortress Mormon is far more rich and rewarding in my expeerience. The best people I personally know and admire are not Mormons. My fondest memories are not connected to the LDS church or any of its activities.”
    I agree whole-heartedly.

    (Could I possibly persuade one you blogging bods to do a post on CES and their abominable use and interpretation of statistics…, particularly in regard to seminary… I would just love to discuss that one!).

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