Defending Our Foundations

There's a sad story about a Nauvoo temple guard accidentally shooting someone. I hope that person didn't die, the record doesn't say. However, the "defend at all costs" mentality fits what I'm trying to get at here.

There’s a sad story about a Nauvoo temple guard accidentally shooting someone. I hope that person didn’t die, the record doesn’t say. However, the “defend at all costs” mentality fits what I’m trying to get at here.

There is a note at the front of the new Institute manual “Foundations of the Restoration” that says “Comments and corrections are appreciated.” I’m going to take that seriously here. There are some things to recommend this new Institute manual, namely the frequent use of the Gospel Topics Essays and the question “How can we improve what we say about women in the Church to reflect the true significance of their contributions?” within the Relief Society chapter.  And this good reminder after the question “What does it mean to you that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is  ‘the only true and living church’ on the earth? (Before students respond, you may  want to remind them that this doctrine is not intended to mean we should feel superior to others.)”

However there are a few things that stand out of which I will take umbrage. Besides the aforementioned Relief Society chapter, there is so little, too little, practically nothing that I saw wherein women were mentioned or quoted until page 39 (first mention of a woman by name is the infamous Mrs. Hubble story). And then after that, few and far between. Ironically, this manual does not take  that “how can we improve what we say about women” question seriously. This lack of women’s voices should not happen in a 2015 manual of the church.

But more to the point of this post. I found the framework of many of the chapters, especially the ones dealing with the more “controversial” aspects of church history to be roundly negative in tone. Almost like the writers felt like they needed to over-defend aspects of church history before bringing up the issue.

Our college students deserve so much better. This framework teaches them to be afraid of our church history in a brace-yourself-fashion that is not going to be helpful in the long run. Let me show you what I’m talking about with cherry-picked examples from the new manual (note: all bolding is directly from the manual):

Lesson 2: The First Vision

“Explain that today there continue to be individuals and groups who spread false or  misleading information about the Church with the intent to destroy faith.”

“Why is it important that “inquirers after truth” about the Restoration rely on Joseph  Smith’s firsthand account? (Students may use different words, but be sure it is clear  that relying on the Prophet’s account can help individuals avoid being  deceived by false or misleading information.”

“Elder Anderson: ‘There have always been a few who want to discredit the Church and to destroy faith. Today they use the Internet.  Some of the information about the Church, no matter how convincing, is just not true’  (“Trial of Your Faith,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2012, 41).”

“What sources should we seek out and trust in our personal search to know the truth  regarding the First Vision, the Restoration of the gospel, and other events in  Church history? Why? (Help students understand the following principle: To avoid  being deceived by false or misleading information, those who seek the truth  should search out credible sources of information about the Church and its  history rather than simply accepting any information they hear or read,  including information that comes from an Internet search.)  Explain that critics of the Church argue against the reality of the First Vision by saying  that Joseph Smith did not record his experience with the vision until many years after it  occurred. Explain that 14-year-old Joseph Smith became reluctant to speak about his  vision following the reaction of those he initially told (see Joseph Smith—History  1:21–26).”

And with these as the framework, now the differing accounts of the First Vision are brought up. It feels sleight of hand.

Lesson 4: The Book of Mormon: Keystone of our Religion:

“Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the  Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:  “For [more than 180] years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and  deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious  history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these  frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other  answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator.”

“• Why is it important to remember that modern enemies of the Church frequently  attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon? ”

“[Y]ou may want to explain that one way modern enemies of the Church  attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon is by using DNA evidence to try to discredit  any link between Book of Mormon peoples and Native Americans. If students have  questions about this issue, encourage them to read the Gospel Topics article “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” which can be found at lds.org/topics. ”

“Ask students to imagine that a friend has said that he or she has heard something that seems to contradict the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
• What counsel would you give to your friend?
• How can your witness that the Book of Mormon is true help you when you are  confronted by criticisms of the Book of Mormon?

“How has regularly studying the Book of Mormon protected you against those who want to destroy your faith?”

And then the entirety of Chapter 10: Seek Truth is a negative framing:

Here is one example: “Provide each student a copy of the handout “Discerning Truth from Error,” which  includes counsel from Church leaders for those who have questions or doubts. Invite students to read the statements on the handout silently and identify principles that  would help someone approach questions or doubts in a faithful manner. After sufficient time, invite students to explain how something they read on the handout could help someone who has a question or doubt about the Church’s doctrine, history, or position on social issues.”

Let me pause for a moment to consider Chapter 12: Additional Scriptures in Our Day.

Did I say every chapter that brought up “controversial” issues? *Checking quickly, ok, nope, phew!*

This chapter is quite well done. It brings up the issues without the negative framework, in fact it feels almost normal in the way these are explained and described. It was like a breath of fresh air. This is how the whole manual should have been written.

Chapter 15: Strength amid Opposition is similar to Chapter 10. It’s handout is titled “Remaining Strong amid Times of Opposition: Apostasy in Kirtland: The Need to Faithfully Follow Church Leaders.” And here are a few examples from the chapter: “Those who accuse the Lord’s servants are servants of sin.” and the Brigham Young quote of “I knew it, and they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God and sink themselves to  hell.”

*I will note that there is a mention of Sidney Rigdon beginning the “extermination” rhetoric therein, so yay.

Chapter 20: Plural Marriage

“You may want to remind students that as they study about plural marriage, they should  remember the pattern that the Prophet Joseph Smith followed in his gospel learning.  He studied, pondered, and prayed to gain knowledge. They should also remember that much unreliable information about plural marriage exists on the Internet and in many print sources. Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context, or they include partial truths that can be misleading. The intent of some of these writings is to destroy faith.”

Chapter 21: The Prophetic Mission of Joseph Smith

The placement of this chapter following the Plural Marriage chapter is misguided. I’d probably stick in the Redemption for the Dead chapter in between the two to talk more about the theological underpinnings of sealings. But back to the topic at hand. This chapter has way too many quotes defending Joseph Smith that comes across as trying too hard, for example: “Why do you think the Prophet Joseph Smith has so many critics and enemies, even  though many years have passed since his death? (A testimony of the Restoration hinges on whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet who performed God’s work.  Therefore, Satan continues to strive to discredit Joseph Smith.)” and “Why is it helpful to be aware that even though many years have passed since the death of Joseph Smith, enemies of the Church continue to attack his reputation?”

Chapter 22 on the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith continues this defense, with detailed explanations about why and how Joseph Smith was innocent. Does he need this defense in a faithful college student setting?

And then we come to Chapter 25.

Chapter 25: The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre is probably the worst example. When you begin the lesson with the handout “Preparing to Defend the Territory” and ask the question “If you had been a Latter-day Saint in 1857 and had heard that a large army was approaching your city, what concerns might you have had? (Students might  mention that the Saints had been violently driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois;  many had lost valued possessions and land; and some had been killed or had died  during these persecutions. News of the approaching army caused some Saints to  worry that such events might also occur in Utah)” you are going to set a negative tone.

Then turning the Mountain Meadows Massacre part of the lesson into an “applicable for our day” pithy moment is just not appropriate: “What principles can we learn from this tragedy? (Students may identify various  principles, including the following: Choosing to hide our sins can lead us to commit further sins. Choosing to hide our sins can bring regret and suffering.) Assure students that if they have started down a path of mistakes and sin, they can prevent future heartache and regret by turning to the Lord and repenting of their sins.”

And then “Explain that because a number of local Latter-day Saints were responsible for planning and carrying out the Mountain Meadows Massacre, some people have allowed this event to negatively affect their view of the entire Church.
• Why is it important to realize that the wrong actions of some Church members do not determine the truthfulness of the gospel”

I just don’t even know. This, however, is the wrong approach.

Lesson 26: The Revelation on the Priesthood felt more to me like along the lines of Chapter 12 in that it doesn’t feel too apologetic, sets out the history and even says “Emphasize that today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past on this  issue: black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse; black skin reflects unrighteous  actions in a premortal life; mixed-race marriages are a sin; or blacks or people of any  other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today  unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form. (See “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics.)”

Which can’t be stated often enough.

In conclusion, when church members rely upon a near-perfect model of the church’s past to reinforce their testimonies of the church (i.e. the old manuals), the natural outcome of learning challenging issues can be a fragile testimony. The undertone of much of this lesson manual, on the other hand, is that we fear our past and we must protect those fragile testimonies at all costs. Instead of warning students of complicated history, we should warn them against testimonies based upon simple narratives that are easily disproved and expect them to find truth and testimony in the beautiful, diverse, and albeit messy, narratives.

For a church so closely tied to the marvelous stories of pioneers and prophets who lived a hundred years ago, we should not be afraid.

Comments

  1. trevorprice924 says:

    I immediately noticed this aggressively defensive tone as well. Holy poisoning the well, Batman!

    While I agree that it’s very important to get discussions of these events into curricula, this seems like a very unfortunate way to do so.

  2. Actually, I guess I’m OK with most of that stuff.

  3. I’m in the middle of a two-week course on the Old Testament introducing seminary and institute teachers to historical criticism. During the first few days I was more than a little shocked by the attitudes of these professional religious educators: they fought new ideas, they were antagonistic to readings that challenged their anachronistic interpretations, they reported that they didn’t feel the Spirit and thought they were being instructed to teach something that would destroy teenagers’ faith in the reliability of scripture.

    Funny thing happened over the weekend, when they had had time to let these new ideas sink in. There’s been a lot less resistance, a lot more willingness to apply new methods to familiar stories.

    My point is that there is a longstanding mindset in our view of history and scripture throughout the Church. You and I and most BCC readers have a different mindset. These new lessons show a guarded willingness to entertain new understanding, new materials and outlooks in teaching Church history. It’s a huge step, the exercise of an unfamiliar trust and stepping into the unknown by those who develop the curriculum. This doesn’t mean that things won’t get better, and quickly. They may need only a brief experiment to be sure students and their teachers can handle the new ideas, and feel confident enough to approach them more positively very, very soon. These new lessons incorporating the essays have been produced quickly. The next ones could follow just as quickly. These may be only transitional.

  4. Personally, I think all the defensiveness makes us sound cult-y. As a college student, I would have been much more alarmed by that than the information they were trying to frame for me.

  5. “These may be only transitional.” That’s my hope and in a world of digital curriculum, it can be changed quickly. I started thinking about this as maybe this is the normal arc of these types of things (ignore, fear, accept). But then I thought “we’ve already been through the afraid of our history phase” but maybe curriculum has not.

    Also there is a secondary (or maybe firstly) theme of preparing for the second coming and defending against the world in many of the chapters I did not highlight. You could argue that that’s a negative framing, but a teacher does need to discuss these themes with the modern reader as it parallels much of the theme in the D&C.

  6. phbrown says:

    This manual seems too devotional to pass as a college-level academic text. More appropriate for a Sunday School curriculum. Any critical thinking encouraged?

  7. “Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context, or they include partial truths that can be misleading.”

    Yeah, some authors do that.

  8. Is this irony, or do I misunderstand irony? In one quote from this Institute manual it is stated: “Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context, or they include partial truths that can be misleading. The intent of some of these writings is to destroy faith.” The irony is that the exact same words (replacing “destroy” with “promote”) could be used to comment on every official Church History publication, and GC talk, and all the unofficial history-of-the-church books written so as to conform to Elder Packer’s “faithful history” mandate.

    And, I had an insight while reading the OP. Not a great revelation (pun intended), but our perception, judgement of, feeling towards, belief in (especially value-laden, such as religion-oriented) things we read/hear are strongly affected by our initial assumptions, psychologically. This natural, but not insurmountable proclivity is termed “selective perception.” So, this Institute manual teaches the student to start with a “faithful” premise or mindset…”Invite students to read the statements on the handout silently and identify principles that would help someone approach questions or doubts in a faithful manner.”

    As in “doubt your doubts before your faith.”

    Obviously, one can be biased with the opposite mindset (especially when in the throes of a strong sense of betrayal arising from discovering all the lies and half-truths one grew up on). Both mindsets get in the way of objectively attempting to learn the truth. In the case of this manual, objectivity is not what is promoted or delivered–but then someone has to advocate for the “defense.” ;-)

  9. gst said it much better than I, and finished while I was wordsmithing my wordy comment

  10. ProvoCenterStreet says:

    long time members… is this approach new? it feels new. to acknowledge problems

  11. Where would we be if Joseph Smith had ‘doubted his doubts’ about the religious climate he was raised in? We would never tell an investigator to doubt her/his doubts about their church of origin. We tell them that their doubts are the Spirit speaking to them that something is amiss.

  12. Angela C says:

    Ardis’ comment makes me more hopeful than I might otherwise be. It’s true that you can’t turn the Titanic on a dime. Moving the CES instructors is vital to moving the whole thing.

    These do sound very defensive to me, ironic (in the ways already observed), and generally frustrating. But I’m not where the CES instructors are in my acceptance of messy narratives.

  13. Ardis, I’m an early morning seminary teacher curious about the course you referred to. Can you describe it a little more? Who’s teaching it, where is it, what does it cover, etc.?

  14. A Happy Hubby says:

    I agree with you on chapter 25 on what should we learn from the mountain meadows massacre? I like the following:

    Marlin Jensen, Church Historian, talked about how when he read the book on MMM that was commissioned by the church and written by 3 BYU professors – “the main lesson that he learned is that all latter day saints should know is that there is nothing virtuous to blind obedience.”

  15. Grant, it’s being taught at an institute building in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, sponsored by the three area directors (I think that’s their title; I’m not CES so am weak on their lingo) for teachers in this area. I have no idea how widely it was advertised. I’m sitting in on it (completely unofficially) because I know the teacher, David Bokovoy, and have been trying for a few years to improve my gospel scholarship because I teach Gospel Doctrine, and I admire David’s scholarship and teaching style.

    He’s taking us on a whirlwind tour through the Old Testament, introducing us to dozens of aspects of modern Biblucal scholarship — documentary hypothesis, deuteronomic history, Leitvort, and just plain interesting insights into familiar stories — showing us that they are no threat to testimony, as long as testimony is built on “knowledge of things as they were” and not on an imaginary past constructed to conform strictly to modern teachings (e.g., Biblical wine was alcoholic; stop teaching that it was grape juice!) today we talked about Ruth, and about Chronicles (which was not just a watered down repeat of Kings: we talked about who wrote it, and why, and the teacher showed us some things that the chronicler both added to and omitted from Kings, which supported the scholarly conclusions about who wrote Chronicles, and when and why and for whom). The class ends this Friday — 10 days, a little under 20 hours, and, trite as the phrase is, a paradigm shift for most of us, in the direction that EmJen would like to see the entire program go.

    If I’ve misrepresented anything, it’s because I’m a stowaway in the classroom and don’t have any idea how the class was pitched to teachers.

  16. That sounds marvelous Ardis. It reminds me of the time when I was asked to give a retelling of the Esther story by the Sunday School teacher and I said “would you like the biblical version or the Veggietales version?” There was a smattering of laughter so I launched into the biblical version and afterwards the teacher, looking a bit shellshocked hurried and went on, but was shaken enough to say about five minutes later out of the blue “You know, I like the VeggieTales version much better.”

  17. Thanks, Ardis. I wish something like that were available out in the hinterlands.

  18. I keep telling myself, “baby steps, baby steps, baby steps” and keep hoping this is not some kind of retrenchment in disguise. The fact that our LDS women’s historians were not folded into this project sooner and more completely flashes: “we say we get it, but really? we really, really don’t and are just pulling the bare minimum along to claim progress.”

  19. Then there’s this one:

    Before concluding the lesson, it may be wise to tell students that some people who have apostatized from the Church are practicing plural marriage today. They urge people to pray and ponder about whether it is right to practice plural marriage today. We should not seek to receive revelation that is contrary to what the Lord has revealed through His prophets.

    I am all for telling kids not to get into polygamy, but telling them not to ask God about things except what the prophets tell us to is a very dangerous mindset to be promoting.

  20. Rottencabbage says:

    How else should one teach a history that clearly doesn’t jibe with what the P.R. department has lead everyone to believe? Should the church simply rip off the band-aid and confess to the youth that it got a little carried away with this one and only true church stuff which lead to the denials and cover-up of history?

  21. Left Field says:

    It all seems so unnecessarily (and counterproductively) defensive. The first time I specifically remember hearing about the [cue scary music] “alternate first vision accounts” was in an October 1977 New Era article about the then-new film of the first vision. They forgot to warn me that the various accounts were controversial or alarming or that I should watch out for evil people trying to mislead me about the first vision. The historical accounts were just mentioned in an appropriate context. I saw the first vision film hundreds of time on my mission and later, and always thought about how elements from three separate accounts were incorporated into the film.

    The problem with the first vision accounts is that critics present them in some bizarre context suggesting that historical events should be called into question if there is more than one account, or if the accounts are not identical. This of course, is the opposite of how historical documents are actually used to discover history. The authors of the manual should do as did Jeane Woolfenden in the October 1977 New Era, and just mention what we learn from the various accounts. Instead, they make it all about how we shouldn’t listen to critics. And in the process, the authors themselves provide the same weird context which leads people to be unnecessarily alarmed about multiple varying accounts.

  22. I’d love a follow up article on how this manual should have been written. There are a lot of “this sucks” and “that is wrong” expressed here. I’d like to better understand how it “should” have been written.

  23. It certainly has a creepy, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” vibe to it. If our ‘truth’ is the real thing, then it can stand up to serious study and criticism.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Reese, I understood her to say that the whole thing should have been written the way chapters 12 and 26 were, without the extensive, over-the-top defensive framing.

  25. Ryan Mullen says:

    EmJen, your anecdote about VeggieTales is hilarious. I wish I’d been there.

    Ardis, If I’d heard about that course I gladly would have flown to SLC. I’ve been mulling over how acceptable it would be to teach insights from documentary hypothesis in seminary this fall. David Bokovoy mentioned on facebook that the sessions have been “recorded for teachers on vacation.” Has there been any mention if those recordings will be made available online?

  26. Ryan, they will be available to class members who may have missed a session. I have no idea whether they will be more widely available, or whether they will be accessible only through the Salt Lake Area offices. If I hear anything either way, I’ll say something here.

  27. At least more topics are being addressed in this manual than in the past. I feel like that’s a good thing. Way too many people my age (I’m in college) find out stuff online for the first time and wonder why they’ve never even heard of it in church/seminary/institute. This is what shocks us the most – much more than the history itself. The tone may be a little defensive, but I think it’s a move in the right direction.

  28. What? A defensive manual? Next thing you’re going to tell me is there’s a church owned newspaper with a long running column entitled “Defending The Faith”.

  29. “Instead of warning students of complicated history, we should warn them against testimonies based upon simple narratives that are easily disproved and expect them to find truth and testimony in the beautiful, diverse, and albeit messy, narratives.”

    Amen.

  30. These chapters are just beyond disturbing. I am so sad and sorry to know that LDS youth are to be indoctrinated with these utterly indefensible approaches to justifying the church’s past mistakes. I am so grateful that my children are now adults who are no longer in church education and will not have to be subjected to these convoluted justifications of sin. Like me, if they do their own research, they’ll have to figure it out on their own.

  31. I actually enjoy and am impressed with the new Institute manual. I am surprised by the negative reaction of some of the comments. Church history will stand on its own. No need to analyze spiritual a spiritual history in a traditional manner. Church history proves that odedience brings blessing. Simply truths.

  32. The way I see it, there are two main problems with church history: (a) the church has been pretty dishonest in the way it has covered it in the past (dishonest as in completely whitewashing out all the bad parts), the whole effort toward “inoculation” seems to have the hope of fixing this; and (2) the bad parts are…well…really bad. One of the most testimony-shattering parts of polygamy for me was the fact that Joseph/the church told bold faced lies about polygamy (“carefully worded denials” as the essays call them). One of these was published in the Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842. This means that the church members at the time (and mostly to this day) never had a clue about 14-year-old girls, polyandry, etc. In my opinion, inoculation will never work because the true facts are in fact indefensible, they describe felony behavior. Therefore, there is a good reason why the church has covered it up all these years, why Joseph Smith went to the grave trying to keep a lid on it, and why this poisonous material will continue to destroy testimonies. This new manual does not contain anything about these “carefully worded denials.”

  33. New teacher says:

    I missed this post when it was new. I just got a calling as an institute teacher and read through the first ten or so chapters last night. I found the tone of the manual incredibly depressing and overly defensive, too. I popped in on the blogs here today to see if I could find anything to help me figure out how to approach these lessons in a more positive way since my class starts in a few weeks. I didn’t make it to lesson 12 before my angst pulled me under and I had to stop reading, but it sounds like that one might give me some ideas for how to change the tone of the rest of the manual. Yikes. I do very much hope Ardis is right about this being transitional. Las happy as I am about increased historical awareness, I’m not convinced the narrative as this manual frames it is an improvement in message.