“You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive”

2000px-BYU_Medallion_Logo.svgPretty much immediately after changes in BYU’s Religious Education curriculum were leaked yesterday a lot of people busted out their sackcloth and ashes. I confess that in looking over the four core classes I was less than enthused. I think Julie Smith made some great points about the way we study our scriptures, too. But before we sound the requiem bell let’s take a second, breathe, and think about a few things. 

First: I think most people can agree that CES is facing big challenges right now. The folks in charge clearly recognize that the old way hasn’t been sufficient to the challenges facing the Church’s youth and young adults. The recognition that change is needed, overdue in fact, can be seen as a net positive. We should be cautious not to lionize the status quo in lamenting proposed changes.

Second: Aside from a basic outline, none of us have any idea what the course content will actually be. As conceived, the new courses will be designed specifically to meet the challenges of the rising generation of Latter-day Saints. Creating core classes hopefully won’t happen in a vacuum. If Dean Top’s letter is correct, faculty have been invited to help in the process of course development. While their descriptions tend toward a proof-texting approach, the courses as developed need not take that route. Perhaps the faculty will be unshackled enough to develop new courses focusing on the exact things you or I think are already missing or will be lost.

Third: The core classes aren’t all there is. It looks as though the BYU faculty will be leading out in laying out the course content for the core four, but they are also supposed to be empowered to develop new courses besides. This opens the door to a host of new approaches within Religious Education. There have been a number of exciting new faculty hires there in the past year or so, and we should look to them to develop interesting classes, and hopefully to see other Church schools follow suit.

I work at BYU but I’m not in the Religious Education department. As with all my posts at BCC, I’m speaking only for myself here. I do know that BYU has been asking the Maxwell Institute to raise its academic game. I hope that same encouragement is being given to RelEd. At the risk of sounding a bit Pollyannaish, I want to support them and hope for the best. Instead of complaining about what we think is happening, it might be better to use our blogging time to discuss specific ideas and options which faculty might draw on as they begin the process of revamping a clearly outdated curriculum badly in need of an overhaul. In the immortal words of 2Pac (censored version of course), “You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive.”


  1. For those of us outside of Provo (who didn’t realize there had been an announcement) could you link to the announcement of changes? Thanks!

  2. Very good. I’ve been teaching the youth using the new curriculum, and it looks like this is what they’re doing for the adults. It’s a very engaging approach. I think we can rightfully bemoan the death of in depth scripture study, but maybe we’re better off doing that on our own.

  3. Thanks, Blair. As someone who values in-depth scriptural knowledge, I’m worried about the proposed changes and their effects. That said, I welcome the invitation to be optimistic.

  4. Does anyone else wonder if part of the reason for going away from scripture is the possibility of eminently diverse (potentially diverging), sometimes contradictory interpretations of said scripture? Moving away from close study of scripture might be one way to keep more (seemingly) monolithic concepts like “the family” front and center. I wonder if part of this, in other words, is a move away from subtlety and towards simplicity? Of course, this could all just be me. I’ve been reading a lot of Orwell lately.

  5. To Steve’s comment, which appeared as I was typing mine: maybe we would be better off doing in-depth study on our own, but I think there’s a real value-add to doing it in community. Jewish education includes the idea of chavruta, or reading with a partner, and many synagogues host Torah study groups that move through the text at a snail’s pace, pausing over each passage until its depths have been plumbed. I’m a firm believer in democratizing knowledge like this. Sure, some of us (like me) will buy study bibles, read commentaries, and so on, but I went on for years before I became aware that such tools even existed, and I bless the names of the friends who showed me the way. It’s kind of a missionary 101 thing: I find that this stuff has blessed my life, so I want others to have it. If we individualize in-depth scripture study, I fear that we’ll end up following the same course that has attended other forms of privatization/individualism, which is the transfer of in-depth knowledge to an educated elite. I consider such a course absolutely counter to the idea of Zion, which should be about the empowerment (and ultimately the theosis) of all. “No poor among them” includes poverty in knowledge of our sacred texts–otherwise why are we under condemnation for neglecting the Book of Mormon?

    That said, I still welcome Blair’s invitation to be cautious in passing judgment on these new changes.

  6. Most S&I materials and teachers take their cue from BYU. If in-depth scripture study is not modeled there, where will that tradition and model come from? I think we’re seeing a burgeoning and wonderful increase in output of quality scriptural scholarship from a variety of sources… but most LDS don’t know about them, don’t necessarily trust the publisher(s), and likely won’t/don’t read them.
    I think we’re very good at teaching dogma, but we also need to teach the survival skill of dealing with unknown, contradictory, uncorrelated information and issues, whether historical, scriptural, cultural or other. As Bruce Hafen said in the Ensign ,

    We need to develop the capacity to form judgments of our own about the value of ideas, opportunities, or people who may come into our lives. We won’t always have the security of knowing whether a certain idea is “Church approved,” because new ideas don’t always come along with little tags attached to them saying whether they have been reviewed at Church headquarters. Whether in the form of music, books, friends, or opportunities to serve, there is much that is lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy that is not the subject of detailed discussion in Church manuals or courses of instruction. Those who will not risk exposure to experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program will, I believe, live less abundant and meaningful lives than the Lord intends.

    We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction that may come to us. When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear-cut labels others may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear. Our encounters with reality and disappointment are, actually, vital stages in the development of our maturity and understanding.

    Focusing on making sure the dogma is well-understood (“bearing down in pure doctrine”?) can’t teach that skill.

  7. Well said, Blair! I was very worried at first but am cautiously optimistic after having thought it over, having come to similar conclusions as you have in the post.

    But that is also a good summary of the major concern, Ben, with which I agree. This is precisely what our teaching in the Church has already been suffering from for a few decades at least — the notion that (1) scripture is internally consistent and delivers a unified message that happens to support what we are currently doing and how we are currently living and (2) that the principle value in scripture is the extent to which it can function as a proof-text for any given teaching of a current General Authority. Outside of those parameters, the weirdness, mystery, power, and depth of scripture simply make us uncomfortable, to say nothing of understanding the actual context in which scripture was written and the meanings it might have originally had (as opposed to the meanings read into them through our proof-texting approach).

    Still, I think it’s more valuable to remain optimistic — for one thing, religion faculty will be able to create their own non-required courses that, I would surmise, can now be as rigorous as religion/scripture courses at any of the best universities (because the required classes needed for the purposes of proof-texting current teachings will fill that need and so the elective courses created by faculty using the full skill and knowledge of their respective Ph.D.s can model robust academic inquiry into scripture, history, context, meaning, and theology).

  8. Bryce Spencer says:

    As a current BYU student, I can concur that some changes are needed to seminary/CES classes, but after reading the letter, I am slightly concerned that these classes which are proposed will cause the youth/ young adults to not study in depth each of the standard works. While I am certain many of my fellow students will be grateful for the changes that will occur, I am one who likes to understand the nuances in the Standard Works and how they help us know who God is. Granted, I am certain that the Brethren were inspired to make this change, but I am worried about the potential consequences that will affect my classmates.

  9. This is really the trajectory we have been on for some time, witness the move from chapter-based studies to topical studies in Sunday School a decade or more back. I don’t think the scriptures are seen as value added except as they may be polled to support emphases in policy or practice (pure doctrine). That itself is also nothing new. That said, it would be great if we could all have Julie Smith, Kevin Barney, Ben Spackman, Ronan Head, John Crawford, etc., etc. in our classrooms on Sundays. The only way I can see how that might occur is through the blogs themselves. A competing, or if you like, a complementary curriculum. The “do it yourself” model is fine on paper. But most of us will fail to be consistent there, and feedback is a necessary part of learning. BCC has been a platform for this sort of thing before. Why not the whole 4 year cycle?

  10. John Harrison says:

    Everybody is focusing on BYU. These are not just changes for BYU. They are changes for all the BYUs, all institutes, and all seminaries.

    In my (less inspired I suppose) mind the solution to the current (and foreseeable future) issues the Church faces and that SIR (or CES or what have you) can address is to actually study the relevant book of scriptures in a serious way. Devote some effort in seminary to reading the New Testament in the same way an English class might read The Great Gatsby. Make the courses less of a joke and give the students an opportunity to really engage with the text on multiple levels. Get the students to appreciate the complexities, the difficulties, massive inconsistencies, and the beauty of scripture.

    To me this looks (initially anyhow) like all of our worst Mormon scripture habits on steroids. Taking things out of their original context and abusing their meaning. Reading bits and pieces rather than a whole. Reading the scriptures as if they were written from a 21st century LDS perspective.

    Should the scriptures make us comfortable that we are right? Should we pick and choose to justify current practice and understanding? Or should the scriptures make us uncomfortable yet yearn to be better?

    What path does the curriculum put us on? Things are broken, and I don’t think these changes line up with my understanding of how they are broken. Quite the opposite.

  11. 8th-grade Reading Level says:

    I think the idea that scripture study is being abandoned is a false narrative. My experience with BYU Religion classes were quite the opposite of in-depth. Much too much time was spent focusing on minutia, and the pace was so fast that things were only treated at a very surface level.

    The best religion class I took at BYU wasn’t in the Religion Department. It was “The Bible as Literature” taught by Steven Walker in the English Department. That class was full of depth and insight. It made know pretext of trying to cover all the text, but that didn’t mean it simplified the Bible. It embraced it as it is.

    I believe the changes BYU/CES are undertaking will open doors to classes that utilize the expertise of the professors/instructors that teach them, and allow for more time to study the complexity of the scriptures. The LDS student population is changing. Very soon, a large portion of incoming Freshmen will be returned missionaries with a few years of intense scripture study already under their belts. These classes hope to meet the challenges they are creating, not dumb things down.

  12. DeepThink says:

    What Jason K said!!!!

  13. 8th-grade Reading Level: “The best religion class I took at BYU wasn’t in the Religion Department. It was “The Bible as Literature” taught by Steven Walker in the English Department.” Me too! I loved that class, and Steven Walker was an amazing professor.

    Honestly, I never had a religion class at BYU that didn’t feel like total fluff. As someone who did home study seminary rather than CES-led seminary, it was a big downgrade. But it also seems very unlikely that most members will or do study the scriptures on their own or will even know how to approach them to understand the context. The Gospel Doctrine manuals as presently written already don’t provide accurate context or interpretation as any close reading reveals.

  14. Even though he’s dead (or so they want us to believe), 2Pac still has something relevant to say about CES.

  15. Serious topic, but the generational divide is in full display here. If I had been looking for a lyric to use as a title for this, I would have been looking for maybe a Bob Dylan lyric. 2pac? I would never have recognized that on my own, so thanks to Google for making it relevant.

    Mixed feelings about the changes, as I suspect that they will resonate through all levels of church teaching, for good or ill. Or as Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

  16. The letter tells us that institutional latitude is tolerated rather than embraced. “[A]pproved ‘institutional options’ should be ‘limited and transitional.'” I doubt any of us that attend seminary or institute will have other options.

    Where am I to go, when I want to study the scriptures in a community? When I want to look closely at the text, and hear the points of view and insights of my fellow saints? Institute is already shallow and piecemeal-ish, and I really wish I could be more hopeful about this change. I thought it was just that I’ve had exceptionally bad luck in teachers, but 3 continents later, and now with this change, it seems that it’s a systemic goal to simplify rather than demand deep study.

  17. “the old way hasn’t been sufficient to the challenges facing the Church’s youth and young adults.”
    Based on what??

  18. Angela C, I took some very good religion classes from Ludlow, Holtzapfel, Muhlstein, Flake, and Madsen, that were very well done, intellectually stimulating, and far from being devotional fluff. There were, however, some that were bead, and poorly taught fluff. I’m holding off judgement on the changes until they are finalized, but I do have some of the reservations already articulated. We do need to be better gospel scholars. Where are the Sperrys, the Nibleys, and even the Madsens? We need to engage in scripture study. The hard thing comes in the whole “milk before meat” issue. We are all on such a large continuum of spiritual and scriptural knowledge, that we might chase away those that are yet tender in the faith if we start launching into genuine criticisms of the authorship of the Bible, or historical context and such in a general class. I am not saying we should not engage intellectually with the scriptures. We should engage in it. I learned that at BYU from many of those professors that I had, scholars who were experts in their fields.

  19. fuddyduddy says:

    I wonder if some of the outrage on Julie’s post at T&S reflects confusion about what is currently required. The current requirements:

    – 2 courses on the Book of Mormon, with a course for 1 ne – Alma and a course for the rest.
    – 1 course on D&C (choose from a course on sections 1-76 or sections 77-138).
    – 1 course on the NT (choose from a course on the gospels or on the rest).
    – Electives, for a total of 7 courses.

    The new proposal:

    – 1 course on the BofM
    – 1 course on the restoration (rather than taking a course on half the D&C)
    – 1 course on Christ and the gospel (to replace a course on half the NT)
    – 1 course on the eternal family
    – Electives, presumably still for a total of 7 courses.

    This isn’t abandoning the scriptures. In fact, it looks like this shift will lead most students to have better understanding of D&C and of the NT, since they get a survey of the whole work rather than a course on half of it. And moving from a course on D&C to a course on the restoration will hopefully mean students get a bit more church history than is currently the norm.

  20. “The folks in charge clearly recognize that the old way hasn’t been sufficient to the challenges facing the Church’s youth and young adults.”

    I’m with Erik. If we’re going to discuss solutions, we should probably first diagnose the problem. How is the current system failing the youth? Lower activity levels? Less understanding of scripture? Less understanding of doctrine? Something else?

    If I put on my cynic’s hat, it seems the concern is not so much that our youth are not being adequately taught doctrine, but that they are not accepting and adhering to the doctrine. If that is correct, I’m doubtful that devoting an entire semester to The Family will have any measurable effect on the youth’s embrace of church teachings (gender roles, gay marriage, etc.) or desired practices (marry young, have big families, etc.) But at the same time I can’t fault the church because I can’t think of a better approach.

  21. Dave K,

    Speaking from my own experience the problem is obvious: seminary (and often times institute) is a joke, which teaches the youth that the material in question is a joke, which leads to the conclusion that the Church isn’t worth the effort, especially when faced with challenging information. I can’t imagine any of my seminary teachers coming up with decent answers to serious questions. In fact I experienced them coming up with some pretty poor ones.

    To go deeper, when a seminary class is primarily devotional, it is difficult to have any academic rigor, and difficult to have any sense that it should be taken seriously as a class or a realm of thought.

    I have long argued that seminary should take a less devotional and more academic approach. Not to eliminate devotional content, but to make the course demonstrate to the students that there is value in rigorous study (high school level for seminary) of the text, that the text is complex, and that people actually think about these things rather than simply feel about these things.

    My approach might not help with the goals that you list, but I think that it will at least lead to a more thoughtful approach to the scriptures by those youth that choose to stay as adults and a more respectful attitude towards the Church from those that choose to leave.

  22. The course on the Eternal Family seems curious to me. Is it just a rehashing of the Marriage and Family class that’s centered on the Family Proclamation? In that case, I could understand how some would see it as political, but when I was at BYU over a decade ago, most students saw it as a type of marriage prep course. I feel like I should expect to hear about Heavenly Parents in a course on the Eternal Family, but I’m hesitant to expect too much.

    The Restoration course honestly sounds like an upgrade from the D&C courses. You could address things chronologically, and also have the freedom to explore critical topics that aren’t covered all that well in the D&C sections. This is where the essays in LDS.org’s Gospel Topics sections could really come into play. I could see this one as being especially valuable for younger RMs who may have encountered tough topics on their missions.

    As long as quality electives are offered, I think students will get a taste of what proper individual study should look like. Ludlow’s Isaiah course wasn’t fluff, and I had some quality BofM, OT, and NT instructors. I really appreciated the World Religions class, so I don’t see a departure from scripture-based courses as necessarily detrimental.

  23. I lived in a ward that had two adult Sunday school classes. The more popular (well attended) class followed the curriculum. The less popular class was taught by none other than William Hamblin. Bro. Hamblin got permission from the bishop to take the lessons at a slower pace. We were studying the OT at the time–and bro. Hamblin would bring in his own translation of the Hebrew text. It was, by far, the greatest experience I’ve ever had in Sunday school. I think we spent at least a month on the creation alone.

    If the new approach at BYU facilitates that kind of learning then I’m all for it.

  24. Since Religious Education is an uncredited minor at BYU, none of these changes will have much impact on anyone’s transcript or job prospects.

  25. By the way, what is that logo in the original post? Isn’t BYU’s logo a poorly drawn, assymmetric Y that looks like a cousin of Yahoo’s?

  26. John Harrison says:


    It appears that your Subday School teacher leaked the information regarding this change and is staunchly opposed to it.

  27. This reminds me of Thomas Jefferson who was so troubled by certain portions of the Four Gospels (primarily the miraculous stuff) that he deleted them—literally with a razor blade and scissors. By cutting and pasting what remained, he was able to create a pleasing, unified scriptural account of the Savior’s life. If he pretended that the inconsistencies and implausibilities in the New Testament really weren’t there after all, then all of the pieces would fit together nicely and Christ would appear just the way Jefferson thought He should.

    BYU seems to be saying: “If we simply ignore the sources of our cognitive dissonance—like higher criticism, anachronisms, contrary archaeological evidence, doctrinal inconsistencies, and contextualized study—and simply focus on the feel-good, homiletic stuff, then everything will be okay.” I suppose the next logical step would be to canonize the General Handbook of Instructions. Or has that been done already?

  28. Whoa, since when don’t “The Brethren”do not want scriptures studied in class at BYU?? They don’t want a OT class, NT class, D&C class, B of M class, P of GP class??

  29. To be clear, those classes are not going away, but the requirements are changing. These other 4 classes will be required instead of 2 Book of Mormon 1 NT and 1 DC. This will have significant changes (contra queno) on the department and hiring there, at least.

  30. 8thGradeReadingLevel says: returned missionaries with a few years of intense scripture study already under their belts

    Are missionaries doing something different these days? 20-some years ago, I didn’t notice many of us doing much “intense scripture study.” We learned the scriptures we needed to pull out to prove various doctrinal points, and I note that many of the ones in the old 6 discussions are still found today in “Preach My Gospel.” We learned the ones that undercut the JWs, of course, and (since I served in Italy) the Roman Catholics. But “intense study” ? I learned that on my own, much later.

  31. I read this article simply because I recognized the title. Props (as they say).

  32. I *love* the idea of new curriculum. The whole Church should have new curriculum every four years.

    That said, I wonder about the de-emphasis on the Standard Works as a way of organizing the course of study. Many people have already commented on the increasing proof texting as the primary approach to the use of scripture. But I am left to wonder if the move away from an emphasis on the standard works is more motivated by our increasing uneasiness with the ambiguity of scripture itself. It’s clearly not verbatim text falling from the Lord’s lips. It’s full of inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and exaggerations. I think there’s is plenty of evidence by now that there was no global flood, that Moses didn’t write the books of Moses, that the BoA probably wasn’t a direct translation of the papyri, etc., etc. Finding value in scripture in spite of these things won’t come easy to many who have approached the scriptures in a more literal way most of their lives, and the closer we study the scriptures, the more danger there is the realization of its true nature.

    I’m thinking the move away from a four year rotation of standard works in CES is an attempt to step away from those questions. Maybe I’m just a cynic? I don’t know…

  33. Neal Kramer says:

    There’s a pretty big gorilla in the room here. It’s the KJV itself. The Church needs to consider the possibility of using new translations. My students can’t even understand the KJV. In the meantime, we are probably as well served by by recent conference talks kids can understand as by “scripture study.”

  34. Certainly Not Ben S says:

    The KJV is a problem, agreed. But things have changed enough that you get “conservative” LDS publications aimed at CES at least examining the utility of the KJV and encouraging other translations with e.g. Gaye Strathearn, “Modern English Bible Translations,” in The King James Bible and the Restoration, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 234–59 available online and that Times&Seasons yahoo Spackman on “Why Translations Differ” in The Religious Educator (which is a long argument advocating study of modern translations,a nd also talks about the role of the JST and Book of Mormon.)

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