Educating People about the Gospel
John C had an interesting post over at By Common Consent a few days ago about the purposes of the Church Educational System (CES). It’s very popular to denounce Sunday School, seminary, and institute lessons as too boring or too shallow to prepare members for the complexities of The Full Story (TM), but John’s post attempted to defend the CES and question the biases of people who prefer a more inoculative style. As he writes:
…Some people would argue that we won’t lose that many people if we start teaching history using the Richard Bushman model (or some such). What they are actually saying is we won’t lose many of the right people if we change our teaching model. Remember, we have all heard stories of people losing the church when the priesthood ban ended (but that was okay, because they were racists) or when polygamy ended (but that was okay because they were polygamists). I’ve even heard stories of people leaving the church over misspellings or over the introduction of the three hour block (those silly, silly apostates). That people will leave the church over just about any reason is a truism; the question we should be asking ourselves is “what sort of people are we trying to retain?”
I ask because, for all that I dislike the Church Education System model of teaching, I understand its purpose and I think it is a noble purpose. It strives to provide an inoffensive, generally palatable spiritual product for the masses. We are actually interested in retaining everyone in the church, even the people who think that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy or that Jesus drank grape juice because the Word of Wisdom is eternal in scope. So thinking that improving the rigor of our historical narrative or our exegesis isn’t really about our struggle for truth; it’s about our desire to reshape the church in our own image (at least partly).
As could probably be expected, there was a lot of push-back in the comments.
Some questioned whether an inoculation strategy would lead to loss of members at all, while others challenged that if one isn’t learning the truth, warts and all, from church sources (or, to put it in a more Mormon way…the “meat” of the Gospel), then where can one learn it? In response to that was an interesting response: one should be studying that independently…one shouldn’t rely upon the church for information about church history and controversy. For example, Faith-Promoting Rumor’s Mogget writes:
I have a lot of sympathy with this idea. Lots. But there is one more facet to consider: age and maturity. We all learn to handle ambiguity and deal with punctured narratives better as we age. Indeed, we come to expect it and even, if you’re me, be amused by it.
What I’m saying is this: my association with the church is no longer strongly linked to its narratives because I’ve come to a point in my life that such things are almost immaterial. My relationship with God is what it is, and church is the place I go to work out certain parts of the obligations so incurred. But church is not where I go to learn much, nor is church history a significant aspect of my relationship with God. And that would not have been the case when I was younger.
A few other thoughts. First if your primary knowledge about the gospel comes from what you hear in seminary and Sunday School you’re doing it wrong. You should be studying on your own. There are tons and tons of resources out there if you want them. If you only do the absolute minimum then sorry. It’s sad you leave but don’t blame the Church.
I think there’s a vital distinction here between teaching the Gospel and teaching an academic subject. A class in D&C in institute or BYU is and should have a different focus than a class in LDS church history. I’m sympathetic to the view that, while a little context is required for understanding D&C, the point of seminary or institute is not to give a survey of early folk practices in early 19th-century New England, whereas such material might be more appropriate for a specific church history class. It’s not that these issues should be avoided or whitewashed if they do come up, but simply that there is limited time and decisions have to be made according to what the focus of the class is, and a CES D&C class should not become a slightly modified version of a church history class.
I’ve read a lot of the similar exit stories. I think that, with the internet, there are less and less excuses to go through half a century of your life without doing some basic historical research into the church that you affiliate with. I think that the “bowdlerized” version that we get at CES is for the most part sufficient, covering the major aspects that directly pertain to the doctrine and scripture. If people are interested in the more sensational issues there are definitely fora for discussing and analyzing such issues, but we shouldn’t blow their importance out of perspective and make the Gospel all about Fanny Alger and Elijah Abel, fetishizing faith crises and the sensational in the process.
And finally, most succinctly from Blain:
You can have meat. You just have to find it on your own. Choking on it is a common initial experience, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.
Notice a trend?
With the exception of Blain, of whose background I’m not entirely sure, the commenters I’ve quoted are from relatively academically, theologically, or philosophically rigorous backgrounds. Maybe there’s something to be said that these individuals are “self-starters” when it comes to navigating “nuance” in the church.
But here’s the thing…it seems like this reasoning is flawed. I can’t really speak for every disaffected person, but if I am meant to find out the truth about history, doctrine, x or y practice, on my own time, and furthermore if I have to come to realize that what the church teaches on any particular issue will not only be shallow but probably inaccurate as well, then the question for me is: why am I even attending? It’s like people who say that students get out of college what they want, so it’s really the student’s fault if he or she doesn’t learn the material. To an extent I understand that students have to put in their effort, but the reason they are going to college (and paying for the privilege) is because they think there is some value-add above just buying textbooks or surfing websites and reading on their own. If that isn’t the case, then paying all the tuition is really worthless (EDIT: well, I guess you’re paying for a very expensive piece of paper, regardless).
I am intrigued by the position that some take that church isn’t really about learning and studying complex doctrinal or historical issues…As Mogget says, “church is the place I go to work out certain parts of the obligations so incurred” from a relationship with God. Nevertheless, to me, when I’m going to something called Sunday School, or if I’m going to attend something provided by the Church Educational System, then I feel like I should be learning something. Now, the church doesn’t have to air its dirty laundry, but at the very least it should teach things in a way that preclude the dirty laundry from existing in the framework. In other words, maybe we don’t need to focus on (insert sensitive issue), but if and when I find out about said issue, I should be able to say, “Oh, yeah, I guess that could work like that,” rather than saying, “Impossible! That goes against everything I’ve learned!”
…The Internet was the problem for many…
Once again, I don’t speak for every disaffected person (and not even really for myself, since my problem wasn’t finding something unsavory but never being convinced of any of it to begin with), but it’s interesting to hear people saying that people should do more independent research of their church…Because many disaffection stories I read or hear came about when one did independent research. They were going smoothly, found something questionable, did some research on it, and then that loose thread unraveled the entire sweater. Even more damning, they did the research and tried to turn to people in the church, but didn’t get satisfactory answers. If you can’t go to the CES or Sunday School, then there should be someone institutionally supported whom you can go to.
It seems to me that some of the commenters at By Common Consent are blind to this because for them, they found tough issues and didn’t have a problem with them (or maybe they did, but were resilient enough to get over those problems). Perhaps they had people in their lives who were able to “address” those issues on a satisfactory basis. But the issue is: what about those who find tough issues and do have major problems from them? Can we just assume that everyone is robust enough to just “figure things out” on their own? Should we assume that someone will informally have a contact who helps him navigate the issue? OR wouldn’t it be appropriate for the church to have some sort of institutional mechanism whereby people could be helped on these issues?
If that’s not the CES or Sunday School, then fine, but then where?
While I would love to say “the Bloggernacle” or “Sunstone” or “Mormon Stories,” I have a feeling that it can’t be By Common Consent or any other unofficial blog. It can’t be Sunstone or any other un-condoned symposia. It’s got to be something institutional to the church so that people can feel assured that the church hierarchy or leadership or whomever official has a handle on it, rather than feeling (at best) that they have to sneak around or go against the official party line.
Why do people react the way they do, anyway?
The underlying question to this whole mess is…why do people react the way they do to various pieces of information, anyway? It’s not a foregone conclusion that if you find x fact about the church, then you will fall away, after all. Some people are unfazed by the new information, while other people have major hangups.
Some of the commenters tried to address this. As one summarized the popular expression: “It’s not the crime but the cover-up.” In other words, what causes disaffection is the loss in institutional credibility that comes NOT when people learn x fact, but when they feel that the church either hid or omitted that fact from them. If this hypothesis is true, then an inoculative style won’t lead to people leaving because it’s not the facts that are problematic after all, but the church’s lack of forthrightness with respect to the fact.
I’m not so sure about this hypothesis, however…It seems to me that there are some concepts that, if presented, would be dealbreakers no matter if they were presented forthrightly. I will decline to mention any concepts in particular. Needless to say, I often don’t understand many “nuanced” testimonies…They just don’t seem compelling to me, and I wonder why they don’t seem so to me, but they do seem so to others.
I know Fowler’s Stages of Faith are a pretty popular buzz concept as well, but I have to wonder…what is it that causes one person to move between stages? Is it repeatable? Can it be taught and trained and guided?
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