Organizing the Doctrine and Covenants Lessons: Or, Why the Topical Approach Doesn’t Work

Being an early Mormon history nerd, I was really excited for this year’s sunday school curriculum. However, two things have derailed my excitement: first, a calling as primary teacher will keep me out of the adult sunday school class. (Which is a shame, because we have two great Gospel Doctrine teachers—a rarity, in my experience.) Second, glancing over the manual for the year, I was reminded of how horribly the revelations are organized, and how that organization hinders our understanding of the revelations and their context.

Just like the sunday school manual for the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants manual is organized topically. For instance, next week’s lesson, titled “Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World” (see Tracy’s wonderful post here), includes verses from sections 18, 19, 20, 58, 76, 88, and 93. Lesson 4, on the Book of Mormon, includes verses from sections 3, 5, 10, 17, 20, and 84.

This approach is not isolated to the sunday school manuals. The same piecemial organization is apparent in the priesthood/relief society manuals as well as in the Daughters in My Kingdom volume (which makes the book anything but a “history”). The basic assumption behind this organizational structure, in which topics are prioritized over context, is that the canon of truth is consistent and self-referential, the language and doctrine remain unvarying, and the particular verses comprised in the Doctrine and Covenants are best understood in a vacuum. In this sunday’s lesson, two verses are plucked out of section 18, one out of 58, and one out of 93; all of these verses, this reasoning allows, can and should be understood in relation to each other, perhaps even moreso than the verses that surround them, because they are speaking to the precise same topic (Christ), are basically teaching the same thing (Christ’s divinity), and emphasize the same lesson (Christ’s atonement).

The problem is that this format often—if not always—leads to superficial prooftexting in support of manufactured messages; they produce more of a catechism than a scriptural study. Most importantly, it overlooks the dynamic nature of the revelations themselves—a nature which makes it impossible to be captured in a static snapshot. The revelations contained in the D&C are a collection of revelatory answers received in response to specific questions, and a careful reading shows that they capture the developing nature of LDS doctrine: “priesthood,” for example, means something different in section 20 than it does in 84 and 107. Ideas of temples, covenants, consecration, salvation, heaven, prophecy, even the Godhead evolved over Joseph Smith’s revelatory career, and specific portions of revelations can only be understood within the context of both 1) the complete revelatory text, and 2) the historical setting and specific questions that led to the revelation.

This dynamic nature of the revelations was captured in a great article found in this month’s Ensign (surprise!), written by JSP editor Gerrit Dirkmaat:

While many members today may look at the revelations as being static and unchanging, the Prophet Joseph Smith saw the revelations as living and subject to change as the Lord revealed more of His will. Members of the Church relied upon Joseph to receive continued revelations for the Church. As former Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy has explained: “Joseph seemed to regard the manuscript revelations as his best efforts to capture the voice of the Lord condescending to communicate in what Joseph called the ‘crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language’ of men” (see also D&C 1:24).

I hope future sunday school curriculum will reflect this shifted attitude.*

Now, I’m not saying that we should have an in-depth historical lesson with lots of context for each revelation. Because of the general quality of our volunteer teachers, who are generally not trained in history, this would probably be a disaster. But even through the act of just reading the revelations in order, as complete revelatory texts, readers gain a much better understanding of what is going on. Most of these revelations were received in one sitting in an experience that resembles a stream-of-consciousness, often in response to one specific question. Thus, they are best understood when read as a composite whole.

And then there’s the even bigger issue: context. Unlike the Book of Mormon or the Bible, which can contain large portions of narrative, the Doctrine and Covenants presents a scattered format that can appear like a mish-mash of answers glued together. The D&C is basically one-half of a two-way conversation between the saints and God, yet we only one side of that dialogue. This can make it more difficult to read, but the answer is not to compound the problem by further disruption, but to provide the contextual foundation that makes the material more comprehensible. The revelations must be read within the context of what was being asked in order for them to make any sense.

But we have a history of de-contextualizing our history and doctrine. Tragically, this approach has, in part, led to our modern-day crisis of saints being unable to process historical issues that do not conform to our compartmentalized historical approach. We wish for the doctrine of the church—and, by extension, the church in general—to be a static set of answers set apart from, and independent of, the world in which we live. But it is only through the acknowledgement, and analysis, of the complex relationship between the eternal, divine Word and the banal, human experience that the gospel can be fully understood.

Also, don’t get me started on Our Heritage.

* This Ensign article is, I hope, a prescient sign of the relationship between the Church History Library (which houses the history department) and the Church Office Building (which houses the curriculum and correlation committees). The brief article, besides talking about the dynamic nature of early revelations (which would have been unheard of in the Ensign just a few years ago), also mentions seer stones and the evolving nature of early LDS belief. As great as the JSP is in doing phenomenal research and producing fantastic volumes, the true change will only come when their findings spread into church curriculum.


  1. Wow, I didn’t realize this hop-scotching was going to be the norm when I put together my post- it seemed like perhaps an anomaly in setting the stage for the year being about Christ. It was difficult to find cohesion even studying for a post; that kind of flightiness is going to increase the likelihood of train-wreck lessons and missed opportunities. It’s dismaying to realize this is how the whole year will proceed.

  2. Christopher J. says:

    Thanks for the post, Ben. I has similar thoughts yesterday during GD, as the class discussed what made the Doctrine and Covenants unique within the Mormon canon of scripture (it’s not a translation of ancient records, it’s a series of individual and often unique revelations instead of a narrative story with theology and sermons embedded within, those revelations came as a response to specific questions at specific moments, etc). It’s unfortunate that the topical lesson format almost entirely erases what could be learned from embracing that uniqueness and understanding the DC for what it is.

  3. Christopher J. says:

    Also, I’ve heard rumors that the lesson materials and study guides are currently being reworked. Does anyone know if there is any truth to these rumors and if so, that the problem you outline here might be remedied moving forward?

  4. Grant Hardy says:

    My thoughts exactly, Ben. It might also be worth pointing out that the topical approach leaves nearly three dozen sections of the D&C never assigned as reading or even referenced in the scripture chains of the current class study guide.

    Since the “Explanatory Introduction” in the official edition of the Doctrine and Covenants makes the crucial observation that “These sacred revelations were received in answer to prayer, in times of need, and came out of real-life situations involving real people,” it would follow that the best way to read and teach the D&C would be in chronological order (with the obvious exception of Sec. 1), supplemented by a detailed history such as Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, and, for those of a more academic bent, the two volumes from the Joseph Smith Papers Revelations and Translations series.

    On the positive side, though, is not only the article you mentioned from the current issue of the Ensign, but also the fact that it is accompanied by a Minerva Teichert illustration showing King Mosiah peering through the spectacle-like Nephite interpreters to translate the large stone of Omni 1:20 (p. 47). Perhaps an official illustration of Joseph Smith using either the interpreters or a seer stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon is not far off. Young Latter-day Saints should be first encountering historically accurate representations of the translation process in Primary rather than on South Park.

  5. rosalyndewelch says:

    The GD Book of Mormon manual proceeds more or less straightforwardly through the text. And while I’m not a huge fan of the D&C manual (and scarcely use it, frankly, in preparing my lessons), each lesson usually has a core of one or two sections, with other verses from different sections added as supplementary material. For example, lesson two takes most of its material from sections 18 and 19. An historically-minded teacher can set the context and do close reading on the core section(s), while bringing in the other verses as counterpoint — which isn’t so different from how I teach a chapter of the BoM, or whatever, occasionally bringing in material from other texts. It won’t amount to a chronological procession through church history, but a good teacher can still do contextual, historicized teaching if she wishes.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Well said, Ben. Compared to other Mormon scripture, context for the D&C is extremely abundant and accessible. That is what makes it so interesting to me and translatable to my life as I engage it, I think.

  7. rosalyndewelch says:

    By the way, thanks so much for the reference to the article in the Ensign, which I was not aware of. I plan to cite it regularly in class this year.

  8. Brant Gardner says:

    I distinctly remember wishing that the lessons on the Doctrine and Covenants would be just the kind that we have this year. Of course, I get to be one of the teachers this year, and I have finally learned enough over the years that I was excited to look at historical context–only to find that now I have to go to the topical examination.

    I think there really are two approaches to the text, and although I am a convert to context, I understand the idea that current understanding is in many way contextless and assembled out of history without needing to understand that history. For those who want to understand concepts, the topical method is just what is needed. It allows for breadth of approach to a more narrow concept.

    In a Sunday School lesson there is so little time that you have to choose. Yesterday I introduced the Doctrine and Covenants and the background for understanding it took all of the time. I never got to the actual text of the first section. I don’t regret that decision, but I do think it highlights the choice we have to make with the D&C. It is very hard to go into depth on two levels simultaneously in the 40 minutes (and less) that we realistically get for instruction.

  9. Agreed on all the dangers, as well as on what would be a better approach. That said….

    Isn’t the D&C itself a part of the “problem”? The revelations were given and recorded in an originating context; they were subsequently edited for non-chronological (i.e., less-than-historical) inclusion in what was basically an institutional handbook (the 1835, first edition of the D&C); finally, they were rearranged, but without undoing the institutionally-motivated edits, in chronological order (1876, by Orson Pratt and at the behest of Brigham Young). What we have in the D&C, then, is a set of de-historicized historical dots that remain to be connected. To what would such a volume lend itself but quasi-historicized institutional use or thoroughly-de-historicized doctrinal exposition?

    Frankly, it seems to me that the D&C is more proto-canonical than canonical. It’s only on the way to scripture. The narrative that weaves the revelations together into a coherent text, or the theological framework that decides what belongs and what doesn’t as well as where everything belongs, has yet to be produced. What we have in the D&C is not yet either “The Acts of Joseph Smith” or “The Book of Joseph Smith.” It’s more like Q than Matthew or Luke, more like the orally-transmitted catalog of Isaiah’s pronouncements than the Book of Isaiah, more like the plates of Nephi than the Book of Mormon.

    One of the difficulties of the entire Mormon historical enterprises, it seems to me, is determining whether it helps or hinders our study of the D&C. Although I’m absolutely buried in Mormon history, I have my suspicions that we only get further from a fully canonical D&C the more academic history we produce….

  10. Yesterday in High Priest’s Group, the focus was on D&C 4 (based on an article in the Church News geared towards the new youth curriculum). While the instructor went on about our call to the mission field, I couldn’t help but remind them that this was a revelation given to Joseph Smith Sr., and that the council for him to remember “temperance” was encouraging him to lay off the whiskey. Context matters, and that is one thing we don’t get from the curriculum department’s insistence on making all of their instructional manuals topically driven. While there are advantages to that format, increasing the “Saint’s understanding” is underserved.

  11. #5 Rosalynd, thanks for your comment — this was my view, as well. I wondered if this year’s approach is new and different (I honestly can’t remember from four years ago — I thought I remembered there being more “history” in prior years, and found the topic approach preferrable to dwelling on Our Heritage).

    I wondered if the topic approach is more complementary to the new youth lessons (though the topics are different), trying to teach doctrines and principles. That said, it seems there is little to keep an eterprising teacher from introducing the history into any of the discussions.

  12. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Rosalynde and Brant: I wish I shared your rosy outlooks and charitable readings of the lessons. Perhaps I was just especially bitter as I looked over the manual yesterday. But the problematic topical approach that plagues so many of our manuals was already on my mind.

    Joe: good thoughts. I’ll I have to chew on those for a while.

    Also, I have no idea why I originally had “topographical” in the title. I swear I know the difference between “topical” and “topographical.” That’s what I get for finishing a post at 1am.

  13. Brant Gardner says:

    Ben P:
    I’m not so rosy as resigned. I see the place for this approach and agree that it could be better. I would love for better contextual teaching in all manuals (my favorite being the Book of Mormon, of course, but it is sadly needed in the NT and OT).

    The topical method is a different approach and frankly better mirrors the way most members read the text. In that context it has the ability to dip a little deeper than normal. I’m not sure there is any way to combine the two effectively without adding another year to the SS curriculum. Then we could look at the interaction of history and layering of doctrinal understanding and still have a year to try to understand what we think we understand of today’s teachings.

  14. Couldn’t agree more with the dismay over fragmentation of the Doctrine & Covenants and “Church History” into topics. It has potential advantages as a technique for deeper discussion of doctrines than in, say, Gospel Essentials, but zero value as a way to engage with genuine church history. This is also the approach of the Teaching of Presidents manuals, of course. I busied myself with adding in Lorenzo Snow’s other wives to the timeline of his life during RS yesterday in my brand-new copy, which begged to be so annotated. BTW, the approach you mention in the quoted Ensign article sounds a LOT like (even nearly word for word) the opening essays in Stephen Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants & it’s refreshing to see this recognition beginning to trickle into general church thinking, if not into the lessons themselves. Yet. There’s always the millennium, I guess.

    Also, your Primary is now very lucky.

  15. A topical approach “has potential advantages as a technique for deeper discussion of doctrines than in, say, Gospel Essentials, but zero value as a way to engage with genuine church history.” I agree Tona, and with Ben

    I wonder whether this might be one of the intended benefits of the topical approach to the D&C. By dehistoricizing and decontextualizing the revelations it serves to avoid church history – with all its problems – and instead focus on its status as scripture (to borrow Joe’s insight). Of course, it may just be an elective affinity.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    The BoM manual is not topical; it is based on readings of chapters moving sequentially from 1 Nephi through Moroni 10, much like the OT and NT manuals. That makes the D&C manual alone in its heavy reliance on a topical approach.

    I personally refuse to do scripture chains. I anticipatte doing what Rosalynde suggests, focusing on the key readings. But I really wish this manual were set up like the others, with the focus being on whole Sections in at least something of a chronological order.

  17. If history = the study of past events, I fail to see how D&C or Daughters in my Kingdom could not be a history.

    In both cases past events are being studied, but they are most certainly being studied with an agenda. The church manuals are upfront about that agenda, in the sense that they arrange the history in the form of principles and lessons that we can derive from those events.

    I think history for history’s sake is educational, informative, and not necessarily what’s important in life. There are billions of people who will never learn a certain type of chronological history or story — and who is to say what’s presented is even correct or complete. But the principles we can glean from those stories are what is important to me.

    I think there are rightly a lot of world wide Saints who would wonder about why they need to learn such an in depth version of church history as a part of Sunday school curriculum. But learning about church history and the revelations in the context of individual themes makes the lessons more relevant.

    You want church history, you have REL 324 and 325

    I actually think it would be an awesome thing if the church opened up these classes to all who wanted to take them as part of a group/classroom “bible study” type approach outside of gospel doctrine.

  18. Latter-day Guy says:

    But, kaphor, divorced from its context, the possibility of gleaning valid principles from the text is seriously compromised. We’re not talking about “history for history’s sake.” Not even remotely. We’re talking about history for reality’s sake.

    The current approach is an example of “history” only in the same sense that taking a perfectly cooked filet mignon with a side of asparagus and liquefying them in a blender is an example of haute cuisine.

    As Lindsay Fünke would remind us: “It’s hot ham-water!”

  19. To play devil’s advocate, I think that this approach reveals something very important about Mormonism: despite Joe, Grant, and Brant’s laudable efforts (which I thoroughly in am sympathy with, because I read Biblical commentary for fun) Mormonism is not a scriptural religion. It’s a priestly religion, wherein the most important (though not the only) source of authority about what Mormons should believe is the fifteen guys at the top. They regularly prooftext scripture to make their points about charity, not wearing more than two earrings, and being reverent in sacrament meeting; we regularly prooftext scripture as we repeat their points to each other. In our church, scripture primarily exists as a source of authority for whatever points the General Authorities want to make. That’s why the manuals are organized as they are – and even the NT, OT, and BoM manuals, despite their superficial chronological organization, are primarily geared toward topical rather than deep textual analysis. Frankly, I think this is the way most Mormons are used to thinking about scripture, and we here on this blog are uncomfortable with that because most of us are coming at this from the perspective of people interested in reading books by Richard Bushman, Grant Hardy, and Brant Gardner.

  20. Kaphor: mostly what LdG said. I don’t think the principles *can* be separated from the history. I am not arguing that people are missing out on the history, but that they are getting a distorted reading of the revelations, and thus a misrepresentation of the principles contained therein.

    Matt: you, of course, bring up a very important point that is perhaps the larger issue. Sadly, I don’t really have much of a response because I agree. Further, perhaps exercises like this by those of us who do want a more scriptural religion—and, more importantly, don’t agree with the interpretations by those currently in charge—are necessary in order to carve out our own niche within the tradition.

  21. I think the biggest drawback to topic based lessons is that they all become the same no matter what source they are based on. If I’m studying tithing in Priesthood/RS or in SS and one lesson is based on the teachings of Lorenzo Snow and one is based on the D&C the practical result is still the same, the same comments will be made by class members and the majority of teachers will present them the same. Not the best way to make church more engaging.

  22. Really an excellent post Ben. One interesting thing- “The basic assumption behind this organizational structure, in which topics are prioritized over context, is that the canon of truth is consistent and self-referential” This assumption of consistency or harmonization runs so counter to one of the basic LDS axioms, of line-upon-line, and continuing revelation. Though LUL gets play from these two, McConkie and JFieldingS both felt compelled to argue for the utter and complete consistency of scripture, probably from their high view of scripture.

    “Every truth, in every field, in all the earth, and in all eternity, is in complete and total harmony with every other truth. Truth is always in harmony with itself. The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of any other person. Paul and James did not have differing views on faith and works, and everything that Alma said about the Resurrection accords with section 76 in the Doctrine and Covenants. When we find seeming conflicts, it means we have not as yet caught the full vision of whatever points are involved.
    The Lord expects us to seek for harmony and agreement in the scriptures and among the Brethren rather than for seeming divergences of views. Those who have faith and understanding always seek to harmonize into one perfect whole all the statements of the scriptures and all the pronouncements of the Brethren. The unfortunate complex in some quarters to pounce upon this bit of information or that[,] and conclude that it is at variance with what someone else has said[,] is not of God. Over the years I have received thousands of letters saying, “So-and-So said one thing, but Someone-Else said the reverse—who is right?” My experience is that in most instances—nay, in almost all instances—the seeming divergencies can be harmonized, and when they cannot be it is of no moment anyway. The Spirit of the Lord leads to harmony and unity and agreement and oneness. The spirit of the devil champions division and debate and contention and disunity (3 Ne. 11:29). ”

    Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “Guidelines to Gospel Study” in Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie 230-231

    “It is true that a divine revelation admits of no change, but it may admit of additional knowledge or development and information. It may, in fact, for cause, be revoked. The Lord does not always reveal the fulness of a principle at first and he certainly has the right to reserve to himself other and greater knowledge. His word to man comes in steps, peacemeal, as his servants are prepared to receive it. But there will be no conflict between the part first revealed, and the latter part revealed, they will harmonize.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny, 470.

  23. To what degree is the design of the lessons an attempt to basically correlate the D&C, as the Presidents books have done with the writings of the prophets otherwise? I suppose this is another way of saying what matt b pointed out already, and I like the concept of making Mormonism more ‘scriptural,’ especially since that’s what JSJ clearly intended.

    In other news, I have looked at the Institute Manual for the D&C, and its reliance on Joseph Fielding Smith as an interpreter makes for dreary reading.

  24. “But … divorced from its context, the possibility of gleaning valid principles from the text is seriously compromised. We’re not talking about ‘history for history’s sake.’ Not even remotely. We’re talking about history for reality’s sake.” (Latter-day Guy)

    “I am not arguing that people are missing out on the history, but that they are getting a distorted reading of the revelations, and thus a misrepresentation of the principles contained therein.” (Ben P)

    These sentiments need contesting, I think. Given the complex history of the texts involved, to read the D&C as it stands is to get a distorted reading of the revelations—arguably less distorted, but not much less. For that reason, it’s hard not to hear in this conversation a plea less for a sequential study of the D&C than for a year of Sunday School dedicated to the academic study of Church history. Further, if it’s true that “divorced from its context, the possibility of gleaning valid principles from the text is seriously compromised,” then heaven help us in reading the Bible! We’ve only begun to unearth the context of some of the texts of the Bible, and much of what has been unearthed is subject to intense debate. And if the only valid way to read scripture is through the lens of history, then we’re condemned to endless debates about the historicity of the Book of Mormon—something I can’t accept.

    The historical is one of many ways to approach scripture, and there’s no obvious reason it should be privileged above others. I read scripture that way, among others, and I find it helpful—even necessary—for what I want to do with the text. And I think others should be granted the privilege of reading scripture historically as well. But there are reasons to be wary of trapping the text within history. Non-historical readings of scripture may or even tend to misrepresent the principles contained therein, but no one non-historical reading necessarily does so—and no historical reading escapes the danger of misrepresenting the same principles, whether because of the methodology it employs, the provisional scope it brings to the text, or the kinds of questions it constitutively fails to ask.

    Now, in response to matt b — Yes, you’ve told me before that Mormonism isn’t a scriptural religion, but I can’t convince myself on that point. I can grant that Mormonism isn’t scriptural enough to be non-hierarchical, but it’s just as clear, I think, that Mormonism isn’t hierarchical enough to be non-scriptural. Scripture serves as a kind of indeterminate space of possibility within an otherwise fully determinate phenomenon—and that’s precisely why it deserves closer attention. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

  25. Joe: I actually disagree with you here, which makes me worried for my own sake. Sure, there is a risk to move too far toward an academic study of Mormon history that would replace scriptural study–but it is a ridiculously long spectrum, and we’d have a to go a long way to get there.I will gladly stand by the belief that historical context is *necessary* to understand scripture. Of course we will never have a perfect reconstruction, but that shouldn’t curtail our efforts. I’m in no way saying that other approaches aren’t welcome—indeed, you know I am very open and eager for other approaches–but I’ll always maintain that a strong sense of historical context will be foundational.

    But then, I’m a historian.

  26. J. Madson says:

    Not to state the obvious but teachers can simply teach D&C chronologically with context and ignore the manual entirely. Create your own program. Im not guaranteeing you won’t get released after a month but it will be a good month

  27. Norbert, isn’t that what the other SS manuals are doing too? They don’t jump in chapters like D&C do, but the verses selected and the purposes for a lesson given in the beginning are making it so that we have same lessons every year, just like in the Teachings of Presidents.
    Some time the choice of a topic might be interesting, like in the case of Ruth. The way she seduced Boaz tells that she hadn’t read the For the Strength of the Youth, yet virtue is big part of the lesson (even in the name of the lesson).

  28. Mr. Smithers says:

    To Christopher J. in regards to comment #3 — Yes, changes are being made to church study guides and manuals. The scriptures will be released with various changes some in 2013. However, the corrleation department doesn’t specify release dates for new manuals because at the same time many American Saints are clamoring for more efficient study guides there are many, many more members who speak other languages that are catching up to the available materials.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    J. Madson, my practice generally is to do what you suggest. But the structure of the D&C manual makes it considerably harder than in the other curriculum years. When a BoM lesson is on Moroni 7-8 and 10, that gives me considerable latitude to craft a lesson from that material. When a D&C lesson is a scripture chain of individual verses, yes I can just ignore the scripture chain, but in that instance it is more likely to become a problem for me as it becomes clearer to class members that I’m off the ranch. Maybe I should be released for not prooftexting a scriipture chain as the manual wishes me to do; if so, so be it. I simply refuse to teach based on a prooftexting scrpture chain.

  30. Ben – I’d say that what you (and what Joe) want is a _scholar’s_ tradition. Conservative evangelicalism, for instance, is a pretty good example of a scriptural tradition, but I doubt many of us would be running toward the warm embrace of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Joe – I think we’re plenty hierarchical enough. And, at the same time, I may be (as Ben says) a historian, pointing to how the tradition works on the ground, while you’re positing how you think Mormonism should work. I might settle this by counting (as Kristine suggested to me) the number of scriptural quotations in any given publication of the church to the number of General Authority quotations.

  31. Ben (P) – Be worried. Be very worried. :)

    I’m happy to grant that historical work is necessary to understand scripture in a certain way, and I very much prefer that way for all kinds of reasons. And it may, furthermore, be that that way or something very like it is the best possible way on offer in our own era (“era” meaning here something like what Foucault calls “episteme”). But I’m nervous about any absolute claim about the necessity of history to understanding of scripture, given that it was functionally impossible to study scripture historically for most of the history of Christianity (for the few, that is, who had access to scripture and were literate).

    Also, while you’re unmistakably right about how far we’d have to go to reduce scripture study to the academic study of history entirely, it has to be said that theological study of scripture has so far suffered more than it has benefited from the rise of academic history. Luckily, that seems to be changing, but from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, and still in most of the English-speaking world, theological reflection on scripture almost entirely disappeared from the academy. And this, frankly, plagues Mormonism, where scriptural theology can’t even be recognized for what it is when it is undertaken.

    But then, I’m a theologian. :)

  32. matt (b) –

    I don’t think that I want a scholar’s tradition, though I’ve been told that enough that I probably ought to think it. Of course, I’m not claiming that I want a scriptural tradition either, and precisely for the reasons you state (I’m no fan of conservative evangelicalism!). In fact, I don’t know that I’m interested in any sort of tradition. Instead, I’m interested just in the equivocal position scripture inhabits in Mormonism at any given moment—not, I might add, the position scripture should inhabit (I’ve no normative claims to make here!).

    So, my point is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but it’s nonetheless more structural than historical. Long after every policy currently in place has been changed, and long after every currently quoted general authority statement has been forgotten, the canon will most likely continue to play a role in Mormonism. Even if the role it plays at every point in the future is the role it has played most of the time in the history of the Church (that is, as a nominal source of authority for less-than-scriptural policies, etc.), the history between now and then will have been a history of missed potentiality. In Mallarmean terms, even if nothing will have taken place but the place, the place will have taken place, and that’s more than an unbroken history of irresistible hierarchy.

    And now I realize that my comment has proven that I probably do want a scholar’s tradition. :)

  33. Can’t we all just get along?

    Actually, this is a great discussion, though it is becoming somewhat rarified. Within the context of a typical gospel doctrine class, what are we really after? We are supposed to be fostering a discussion (first and foremost) about what these God-words indicate for us in our own days and lives. How are we to live, and informed by what principles?

    And, as we hopefully all agree, the richest possibilities for exploring the meanings of God’s words, and the best hope we have of seeing how they might pertain to us arise not from deriving bare aphorisms or rules from the revelations, but from communally exploring the stories that enfold the meanings that we are after, and then reading ourselves into those same stories. The best books of scriptures for teaching from are the ones that are stories. That is why the Book of Mormon can be read so profitably without any special attention to its context in the Americas. It is its own narrative, and it can do just fine without a study guide correlating it to external history. Most of the books of the Bible, likewise. Most of the P of GP, too. That is not to say that unearthing the historical underpinnings of the Bible isn’t desirable. But it is to say that an ethic for living and a sense of God’s call to covenant are entirely possible without archaeology’s contributions to framing the text.

    But, as Joe says, the D&C has been denuded of its stories, except a few inadequate points at the beginning of each section. As such, it is simply a less serviceable text for what we are typically trying to do with it in the particular context of Gospel Doctrine. Most teachers who instinctively want to work with stories to make their points feel challenged by the D&C for this reason. Nearly everyone senses the need to go beyond the text of to figure out the story that will finally help us fit these words into our own frames of reference and patterns of life. The question then becomes, where do you go to get the story? And how much effort do you throw into that quest?

    On the other hand, there is a sense in which the framers of the D&C seemed to be seeking to compile a tome of “pure doctrine”—a collection of commandments and expositions that have not been but readily could be systematized into an intellectually coherent, logically consistent edifice of eternal, unchanging truth, which truth to know, is life eternal. We see them already starting to do this with the Lectures on Faith, which, of course, was originally published with the D&C. No story needed, just solid, smooth dovetailings of precept to precept until all is logically tight like unto a dish. The resulting perfect, all-encompassing truth, rightly understood, could then be plugged into any mundane human circumstance you like and yield proper guidance to blessed outcomes. I really think that something like this was the intent, and we find ourselves working against the grain of the D&C when we insist that we still want to have story time with it. But, I’m a product of the narrative theology approach that is favored by this Church as much as anyone, so I don’t hold it against me or anyone else for wanting more narrative.

  34. There is a high cost to the lack of context. Just this Sunday I listened as the conversation revolved around reinforcing simple quotes from D&C. I was thinking about how those “truths” reflected a point in time, a particular audience, and their particular needs.

    I thought of things I might say (though I knew I wouldn’t.) Perhaps subtly suggesting that we remind ourselves that we often have “milk” and not “meat” — and the implications for greater truths that may be revealed. Or perhaps discussing humility or how truths can coexist with other truths. Instead, we simply restated oversimplifications that we’ve all heard hundreds of times.

    Like others reading this blog, I’ve had my own spiritual experiences. As a result, I can no longer see God and Jesus through such a simplistic lens. I find myself lonely in the Church. When I’ve been asked to describe my experiences I know that I can’t — who would understand? A real experience of God is only sometimes like scripture. It is far more complex than simple “doctrine” and “covenants” would suggest. Is it possible to outgrow Mormonism?

  35. Seems the historical approach is ‘what then?’, the normative is ‘what now?’, and the theological ‘what if?’ Certainly the eclipse of any risks making the rest sterile.

  36. Niklas, most of the other curricula allow me to ignore the manual and focus on the text and basically do as I wish with it. With the scripture-chain approach, that becomes impossible. The textbook becomes the text, an atrocious pedagogical proposition.

  37. I’m not sure how many BCC readers also stop in regularly at Meridian, but there is an essay there today explaining how the current Sunday School study guide for the Doctrine and Covenants originated and why it takes a topical rather than a historical read-the-entire-book-from-cover-to-cover approach.

  38. Not Impressed says:

    Typical Meridian glurge, with the last three quarters of the article having nothing to do with the question at hand. So the author basically says this is Gospel Principles with content limited to the D and C.

    Never trust an author who claims something is “very unique.”

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    Norbert no. 36, you have articulated exactly the problem I have with this as a GD teacher in the trenches.

    Grant No. 37, thanks for pointing us to that Meridian article. The background on the origins of the format was interesting. I remain unconvinced that the committee was successful with what they were trying to do. If we’re going to study D&C, let’s study D&C; if we’re going to study modern LDS Church history, let’s study that; if we’re going to study the doctrines of the restoration, let’s study that. This mishmash approach results in the manual itself becoming the text we are to study. I’m trying fo figure out how I’m going to teach lesson 2 on Jesus Christ, and the manual is such a florilegium of isolated scriptural passages I’m having a devil of a time figuring out how to teach it well.

  40. Sharee Hughes says:

    After reading this discussion, I got out the little study guide they handed out in Sunday School. It carried a copyright date of 1999. I also looked at a teacher’s manual I had, also with a 1999 copyright date (and the same lesson titles as my little student guide). So unless the teacher’s manual has changed somehow to suggest a different teaching method of the same lessons from previous years, this is not a new way of studying the D&C in Sunday School. So did everyone on BCC have the same problems with it four years go? Not that I’m in favor of the scripture chain, topical way of teaching. The revelations in the D&C were given, for the most part, in answer to specific questions and I think we would be better served if we studied those revelations in context.

  41. Sharee, your comment is not entirely clear to me. In particular, I am not sure what you are implying by this part:

    “So did everyone on BCC have the same problems with it four years go?”

  42. Sharee Hughes says:

    If the manual is the same as it was the last time the D&C was studied, and the time before that (copyright date of 1999), why all the fuss this year? Or has the teacher’s manual changed but the class member study guide remained the same? I’m just a little confused. Did our ward get the wrong manuals or what? The manuals I have are not any different.

  43. Sharee, your are right that nothing has changed in the manual. I can only apologise on behalf of all the BCC permas for the lack of consistency in our righteous indignation. We will try to be better in the future.

  44. Sharee: personally, I had a calling that kept me out of sunday school in 2008. And I was on my mission in 2004. And I was a teenager in 2000, thus didn’t pay attention. So I can sincerely say that this is the first time I’ve considered the manual.

  45. I was just called as gospel doctrine teacher and I am looking forward to teaching next week’s lesson which focuses solely on the first vision. I’ve read the chapter on the first visions in RSR and purchased Harper’s ‘Joseph Smith’s First Vision’ that contains each of the first vision accounts! Looking forward to an in depth contextual discussion….

  46. Ben, thanks for the post. (If you get a chance to respond to my counterpoint post, I’m very anxious to hear your thoughts!)

    Joe #32, what do you mean by “tradition”? I don’t expect you to respond in full here, or any time soon, but since you know I’m interested in Alasdair MacIntyre, and he has a rich account of tradition (with the Catholic tradition obviously in mind, and I think his views have been fairly influential in Catholic thought), I’d be very curious whether MacIntyre’s conception of tradition would withstand your criticism, or push you to alter your criticism of tradition (I suspect it would, either way…).

  47. We looked at the LDS historical chronology in the D&C study guide last week and noted it ended around 1999/2000. Wondering when/if this will be updated.

    ‘A text without a context is a pretext’ Truman Madsen.

    While historical context certainly provides a meaningful frame, it is not the only context. The doctrinal context of the Restoration is an important framing element and an opportunity to explore this is opened up in lesson two. This is the teaching tack I will be taking including looking at various textual conventions that emerge in the nominated scriptures to provide an early snapshot of how D&C revelations are constructed.
    Discussion may also focus on how these scriptures are typically Restorationist by exploring what they bring back doctrinally about the Saviour (as well as where and when).
    There are also other contexts at work here. There is the internal ordering of scriptural passages where typically meaning proceeds sequentially (or locally) each verse providing a context for adjacent verses. The scripture chaining teaching approach noted by Kevin above, however, disrupts this sense-making process by ‘dropping in’ unexpectedly on larger sections of scripture, so we will read around the selected verses. I see part of my role as assisting class members to develop their scripture reading strategies. Lesson two will provide a good beginning.

  48. Olde Skool says:

    I’m late to this discussion, but I too am teaching Primary kids this year, and I find myself approaching each week’s lesson with a clench in my guts. The topical focus and the prooftexting: just not the way I engage with the principles of Mormonism, and the manual isn’t helping, what with the weird historical reduction/whitewash/hagiography that it’s got going on. I want to make sure that I model engaging with this strange bit of quasiscripture in a productive way for my own kids, who are in the class. I’ve been sneaking around the bloggernacle trying to see if anyone has come up with a different approach than I have, which is, in the absence of any narrative unity, often to elaborate some textual point into utility (this week: four years of angelic visits : patience and learning to see with an eternal perspective rather than needing immediate gratification), because early Mormonism is not my playground. (Too late in the theological tradition for my interest.) Anyway, if anyone out there has a way in, I’d be interested to hear it week by week. And I’ll just breathe deeply and wait, patiently and with an eternal perspective :), for the OT next year.

  49. I’m realizing today, again, just how badly this fails. Sitting in class, lesson 8, realized that one could remove the scripture references, and it could be a lesson from any other class. No scripture necessary at all.

  50. In other words, here we are studying the D&C without ever having to even crack it open.

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