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.