Anatomy of a GD Lesson

Yesterday I taught lesson 29 on Alma 36-39. I thought I would try to break down for you how I approach teaching a class like that and how in fact this particular class went. When you stand up in that room and begin the class, you really don’t have any idea how things are going to go or what direction the class might take the lesson which, especially if you’re an introvert, could be (in Alma’s words) an “inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14), but more often (for me at least) is simply exhilirating.

Preparation. I begin by printing out[1] the lesson from the manual and reading it. From this I get the material we are supposed to cover (here Alma 36-39), a synopsis of the reading, and lesson development ideas. I usually convey the manual’s synopsis of the reading, because realistically I know no one has actually prepared for the class by reading the material and so I want people to have a sense of what we’ll be covering (in this case, Alma’s words of counsel to his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon and Corianton). I do not follow the manual slavishly at all, as it takes a catechism approach to the material that might be appropriate for 12-year olds or new converts,[2] but not my particular class of experienced adults. I do usually get a teaching idea or two from the manual, but that is about it. Instead, I usually focus more on long form reading and encouraging commentary from the class (and giving some of my own), rather then the typical prooftexting approach.

Next I print out the assigned reading and read it, marking the text up liberally with potential teaching ideas as I go. I put key words in the right margin as a sort of index so I can later easily find something that I want to raise with the class, and I’ll use asterisks to highlight passages that look like promising avenues of discussion.

Then I google Book of Mormon Central Lesson X and review the resources they have there; if I think I might want to use something I’ll print it out.[3] (I keep a folder of weekly GD materials in my book bag I carry on the commuting train.)

Ice Breakers. I like to give the class an opportunity to share with us important developments in their families (mission calls, marriages, college acceptances, etc.). Usually no one has anything to share, but sometimes they do, and I like to encourage a familial vibe in the class.

Since we were going to spend most of our time in Alma 36, which is sort of the standard example of chiasmus in the BoM, I gave the class a quick overview of what chiasmus is and how Jack Welch discovered the phenomenon of Chiasmus in the BoM as a missionary in Gemany in the 1960s, based on my blog post on the subject.[4]

Then I went to an ice breaker that I liked from the manual: “What is the best advice or counsel your parents ever gave you? Why was it valuable?” A couple of class members responded. One response from a sister was to the effect that her parents taught her always to leave a place better than it was before her presence there, a principle she has tried to apply all of her life in lots of different contexts.

Lesson Proper. Then we opened it up to Alma 36 and started reading the text together, starting at the beginning with verse 1, and people commenting on the reading as we went. For instance, verse 1 begins “My son, give ear to my words. . . .” I noticed that Alma begins each of his talks with his sons with “my son,” but we don’t learn the actual name of the son until later, and the name Corianton doesn’t appear at all in chapter 39. This might suggest that these are very personal messages from a father to his sons.

At the end of the verse we have “inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall propser in the land.” I wrote “properity Gospel” on the board and asked whether this  is always true. Isn’t there a risk that we might judge people who do not “prosper in the land”? Where the class went with that was that “prosper” can mean all kinds of things, not just material advantages. I was happy with that insight, but cautioned that our first understanding of “prosper” tends to be a financial one so we need to be cautious about that.

At abut this point a class member had a question, to the effect that the structure of Alma 36 (I had passed out a chart showing the chiastic structure) looked pretty involved, and wondering how Alma could keep all of that in his head in talking to his son. Good question! If this were more of an academic class we would have first looked at whether in fact it was an oral or written composition, but for this SS class I just assumed it was oral in the first instance as the text porrtrays it. I pointed out that long and complex texts can indeed be orally composed, citing as an illustration the Homeric epics. There are tricks to it, such as formulae that are like little Lego blocks that can easily fill in the poetic line, like “Achaia the land of fair women” or “horse pasturing Argos.” In the chiasm in Alma 36, the basic approach is clear: he’s going to talk about the pain of his awareness of his sin, being born again, and then his great joy thereafter. So the chiastic approach gives the author a structure to build that on; he goes up the ladder to get to Jesus Christ, and then he goes down the same ladder. Such structures can actually facilitate oral compostion.

So we continued in this vein, reading each verse slowly and commenting on it, when we got to verse 14, which begins “Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction. . . .” So I asked the class whether Alma was a mass child killer, and I got a lot of deer in the headlights kind of looks. But then they noticed the clarification, “or rather led them away unto destruction,” which suggests Alma wasn’t talking about actual murder. At this point there were only ten minutes left, so we used this passage to transition to Alma 39:5: “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the sheedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?” We have just read about Corianton going after the harlot Isabel (a variant of Jezebel), and so of course we tend to read this as a direct reference to sexual sin being the sin next to murder. But as Mike Ash suggested in his “The Sin ‘Next to Murder’: An Alternative Interpretation,” that doesn’t actually seem to be Alma’s intent from the discourse that follows.

Consider 39:11: “Behond, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.”

And 39:12: “Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction. . . :”

And 39:13: “That ye turn to the Lord with all your mind, might, and strength; that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly. . . .”

It seems clear to me that the hierarchy of sins Alma gives is first, denying the Holy Ghost; second, murder by shedding innocent blood; and third, leading others to destruction by your own sins and actions.

And with that we ran out of time. I confess, it’s always a bit of a relief to get through the lesson unscathed, and when there is a fair bit of class participation, as there was for this one, I count that as a win.


[1] I don’t have a physical manual like I used to. These days I rely on the electronic copy at exclusively.

[2] Here is my caricature of the catechism approach the manual generally takes: “Can someone please read this verse?” “Jesus wept.” “Thank you. Now, what does that verse say Jesus did on this occasion?” [Crickets.] “Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?” “Uh, he wept?” “Yes, yes, excellent!”

[3] I also review Benjamin the Scribe, but for quite a while I’ve been ahead of Ben in the schedule so that hasn’t been helpful to me, but I see that next week’s lesson is now up so I will definitely read that for ideas.

[4] I enouraged people to look at the actual JBMS article on their tablets so they could see the pictures, but it looked like no one happened to have a tablet, which I was not expecting. I had printed out a pdf of the article to pass around, but a high priest on the front row was bogarting it and not passing it around, so I don’t think people got to see the pictures. So I sort of messed that up.


  1. Sigh… This makes me miss my SS teaching days. Few things are as rewarding for teacher and student as a well-crafted, inquisitive lesson.

  2. Ben the scribe is the best.

  3. Its too bad that many members do not appreciate the amount of work produced by Jack Welch. Chiasmus, as one example, is almost taken for granted now in Gospel Doctrine classes across the globe.

  4. Kevin,

    It was a typically well presented class that balanced the intellectual with the spiritual. Afterward Jonathan asked me why I was visiting the Ward figuring I was there on Stake business and I declared, “To attend Kevin Barney’s Gospel Doctrine class.” The girls are still out of town so I took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy what used to be a regular experience.

    I thought you did a nice job summarizing Welch’s discovery and what it represented for Book of Mormon literature especially for those who might be unfamiliar with chiasmus. But in your write-up here you left out your discussion of the strange structure of the angel’s message in Alma 36:9 and whether that was due to a dictation error or some other issue to which you referred everyone to your treatment of the verse on this site:

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Ah, thanks, Alain, your kind words mean the world to me. I just assumed you were on some stake assignment.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    Regardless of the significance of chiasmus in terms of apologetics it certainly does change how we read the Book of Mormon as literature. (As does just looking for poetry in general) It’s a complex work. Personally I’d never say chiasmus is apologetically determinate. All you have to do is find examples in 19th century writing or speech (which people have found). While I’m skeptical Joseph would have figured all that out, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. But in terms of showing the text to be pretty complex it’s very significant. As are other literary features like untrustworthy narrators (in the technical sense) and how the stories undermine the simple ways people read them. If Joseph had composed the text and intended such complexities it’s odd he never draws attention to them. He seems to read it only slightly better than his contemporaries. But these complexities are such that I think they go well, well beyond reading into the text complexities. Rather they seem to be there even on surface readings. That’s amazing when you stop and think about it.

  7. I really enjoyed this. It was fun to see your thought-process. Thanks, Kevin!

  8. Just unalloyed appreciation for this. I think Kevin is terrific.

  9. Do you pray for the guidance of the Spirit?

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    jared91, yes, of course. That’s why it’s kind of scary, because when I first stand up there I don’t have a fully preconceived notion of where wer’e going to go with things (although most often I do like to start at the beginning of the reading). Such a practice underscores the need for preparation, as the Holy Ghost can’t very well bring things to your remembrance that you never learned in the first place. Also, to a great extent the class will flow from the questions and comments of the class members themselves, which are obviously unpredictable, and sometimes even extensive preparation doesn’t help with that. But I find usually the class members themselves are a great resource, both for responding to the questions of others and for suggesting productive lines of inquiry in the lesson itself.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s an example of the kind of great commentary that comes from the students themselves. Alma 36:3 reads:

    3 And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.

    A sister pointed out that we are supported IN our trials, not necessarily FROM our trials. I had completely missed that nuance in my reading, and thought that was a terrific observation. I note now that Benjamin the Scribe makes the same point, quoting this from Eliza R. Snow:

    “Think not when you gather to Zion, Your troubles and trials are through, That nothing but comfort and pleasure Are waiting in Zion for you: No, no, `tis designed as a furnace, All substance all textures to try, To burn all the wood, hay, and stubble The gold from the dross purify.” Hymn written by Eliza Snow, old Hymnbook #21.

  12. Can I ask how your class received the suggestion that the sin next to murder is leading others to spiritual destruction? I don’t think such a suggestion would be well received in my ward by the members or the leaders. I really am just interested in how it was received. I don’t care to threadjack and discuss the possible interpretations of that scripture.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    That was right at the end of the lesson. So far as I could tell no one had a problem with it, since we read several verses in a row that seemed to be saying just that. But there was no comment either way because we were out of time at that point.

  14. Ben The Scribe says:

    Am I caught up now?

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