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Educating People about the Gospel

January 15, 2012

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.

Emphasis added.

Or, more strongly, from Clark Goble of Mormon Metaphysics:

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.

Or from Kant66 of BYU Academics:

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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16 Comments
  1. 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?

    I think this is really the key point. What is the purpose of having a meeting that takes the format of a teacher teaching a lesson if there is no intention or expectation that the students will be learning something new? I’m willing to believe that many people are edified by the 101 course , so to speak (at least for a while), but the problem is not being encouraged (or even allowed) to have a 102-level (not to mention a 201-level or 501-level) church history or doctrine class on church property and church time.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    I think that the responses on BCC are inadequate for convincing a reader that there is no problem with the way the LDS Church is handling instruction. For the reasons you note Andrew.

    However, they do seem to be good enough to me from the standpoint of simply pointing out that there isn’t a faith-shattering crisis going on in the way CES operates. That yes, the LDS Church is flawed, but what it’s doing isn’t criminally irresponsible or particularly horrible. These explanations don’t work in neutralizing valid criticism of the CES. However, I think they are more meant as responses to the sort of hysterical ex-Mormon narrative we get all the time about how “the LDS Church lied to me, betrayed me, and abused me.”

    For that purpose, the responses serve well enough.

    But yes, they don’t solve existing problems.

  3. I don’t think dismissing them as “hysterical” is a terribly constructive response. I think one of the best comments was Ben P @30:

    As maddening some of those exit narratives can by, I sincerely offer that until you can sympathize with them you won’t figure out a better way to deal with them.

    Responding to exit stories with “It’s their own fault, good riddance,” is a great way of ensuring that if there is a problem it’s sure as hell never going to get addressed, much less solved. It’s no skin off my nose, though — I’m happy to welcome more folks onto my side of the tracks. 😀

  4. Seth R. permalink

    I’m a bit conflicted on that score.

    A certain part of me would like to see fundamentalist thinking marginalized in our church. And since the “hysterical” narratives almost always come from fundamentalists, a part of me does say “good riddance – the church definitely is better off without you.”

    But another part of me does want to nurture these people gradually to a better view of the gospel. Which certainly calls for Ben’s approach.

    I guess it depends on how much stamina you have for beating your head against walls.

  5. Like Seth, I agree that the pro-CES curriculum responders did have a point… The Church curriculum is designed with a much different agenda than an academic curriculum.

    However, like Seth, I agree that your criticisms are spot-on.

    Last summer, a close friend of mine in my ward had a faith melt-down, when I casually mentioned a few facts about the biography of Joseph Smith. I didn’t think they were any big deal, partly because I’ve had time to work through the “issues” these facts raised. My friend went straight to the Internet… And he found all sorts of sites that, for lack of a better term, were less than “faith-promoting.” The Internet is full of anti-Mormon sites that will put the worst possible twist on these kinds of “facts,” so, at the very least I would say the Internet is a satisfactory place of researching Church history only if you are willing to “drink deep from the Pyrean spring,” and wade through a lot of different perspectives, both positive and negative.

    My friend made it through his faith melt-down… Thanks to me. I spent a lot of time talking through stuff with him, including plenty of time where he was literally crying on my shoulder. (My t-shirt was very wet after that conversation.) We met for lunch earlier this week. He had born his testimony in Church on Sunday, and he asked me what I thought of his testimony. I reminded him of his melt-down last summer, and said, “I guess you’ve gotten through that.” I said I was grateful for his testimony, and felt it should that he had matured a lot in his faith since then. He then proceeded to discuss some of the issues we had discussed earlier in a way that showed he had, in fact, done a lot of research on his on, and processed stuff on his own, and come to a resolution that was satisfying to him.

    I can’t really speculate what would have happened if I hadn’t been there for him… Of course (A) I was the one to blame for him learning stuff that troubled the waters in the first place. So of course I felt obligated to go a bit further with him. (Apart from the fact that I would go that road with anybody… regardless of where they got the information.) And (B) he clearly has a great love for the Church that might have sustained a journey back to faith even if I hadn’t been there for him. But, still… I can’t help but wonder if he might have fallen away without my friendship and testimony.

    In a sense, that’s what the Church is supposed to be there for. We are supposed to be a community who sustain each other — in this and many other ways.

    I guess if I had my druthers, we would have more wide-ranging discussions in Sunday School and similar forums. We would have a curriculum that was more inclusive and more informed by the great breadth and depth of scholarship that is out there. If I were President of the Church (HA!) I might try to mandate something like that. (Good luck if even President Monson could easily override the correlation infrastructure and bureaucracy that are currently in place.) I prefer a faith that is both more down to earth and more nitty-gritty. More “real,” if that’s the term for it.

    But in the meantime, life is life… The faith process is messy. I’m not sure there’s any way it could be neat and tidy… And “my” way of doing things might quite possibly not be the best. So my shoulder is here for people to cry on during that dark night of the soul that we all eventually go through, for one reason or another…

  6. Clark permalink

    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?

    (Just saw your post)

    My problem with this response is the idea that we go to Church primarily to get intellectual learning. I think we go to Church (1) to fellowship with each other and create a community, to (2) get called to repentance so we change our lives, so (3) we have the opportunity to serve one another, and (4) to be spiritually uplifted so we are in harmony with the Holy Ghost. While I don’t mind intellectual learning it’s really low down in what Church is for. (Further let’s be honest – most people just aren’t interested in it and were glad to get out of school)

    My biggest problem with this view is that we’re constantly told to study our scriptures and to study and pray. But a lot of what shocks people is pretty clearly in the scriptures. (And let’s be honest – much that is in the scriptures is far more controversial and shocking than anything in 19th century Church history – it just oddly seems less disturbing because it is in the distant past) That people are ignorant of it suggests that they aren’t even doing the absolute minimum I mentioned (i.e. doing the reading assignments)

    I don’t think this is an intellectual thing. Lots and lots of people who aren’t intellectual have some Bible commentaries, some books about the history of the OT and NT eras, a few church history books and the like. It’s really not being intellectual to have read a few prominent biographies like Rough Stone Rolling. And honestly reading maybe 10 books on the Church over years on your own isn’t expecting a whole lot. I bet most active members have read far more than that.

    I don’t want to demand this. But if religion is a big part of your life then it just seems odd to me to really not engage with it in even this minimal level.

    Further once the “shock” pops up there really are a lot of resources out there. Will they all be good for everyone? No. I’m under no illusions of that. A lot of people are turned off by apologetics. But if you find the anti-Mormon sites which can be shocking shouldn’t one turn to the pro-Mormon sites who often have responses to all this? If nothing else it’s not hard to find lots and lots of Mormons who are very well aware of all the negative stuff. (I bet most regular readers of the main LDS blogs know most of the controversial stuff and are unbothered by it)

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the Church teaching shouldn’t improve. It most definitely should. And I’m not saying the inoculation model is bad. I think we should engage with the controversial topics in a faithful and spiritual way more. I think leaving warts out have negative effects even ignoring the “shock” phase people go through. I think it’s strengthening to know great people had weaknesses but that many people still worked through it. But let’s not kid ourselves that there isn’t personal responsibility in much of this.

  7. Clark,

    I guess the issue for me is that when I look at things like Sunday *School* and what is covered in these things, it’s mostly NOT fellowshipping and community-building. It’s not even calling me to repentance, giving me the opportunity to serve others, or spiritually edifying.

    Rather, it’s presenting me with things that I should consider facts about history: facts about the history of the Americas, facts about the history of the church’s coming up.

    If not, why do we have Sunday School? Why do we have Seminary and Institute? Are the way they are conducted now best designed to fellowship, build community, call people to repentance, give opportunity to serve, or be spiritually edifying?

    My biggest problem with this view is that we’re constantly told to study our scriptures and to study and pray. But a lot of what shocks people is pretty clearly in the scriptures. (And let’s be honest – much that is in the scriptures is far more controversial and shocking than anything in 19th century Church history – it just oddly seems less disturbing because it is in the distant past) That people are ignorant of it suggests that they aren’t even doing the absolute minimum I mentioned (i.e. doing the reading assignments)

    I see things in another way. When people look in the scriptures, they get shocked, because it opposes what they learned in church. (I think the church presents certain scriptures above other scriptures, and it also privileges certain interpretations of scriptures over others.) When people “find out” about stuff, if they weren’t reading scriptures before, they certainly start there. But even if they were, they might have to come to terms with disagreeing with the church’s standard interpretation of one scripture or another. The scriptures don’t help them.

    The issue that they get caught up on then was, ‘Why didn’t I hear about this in church?” Or they go to someone at church and ask about it but the people at church don’t have any good answers for it.

    So, the scriptures are part of the problem. It’s not, “If they read their scriptures they’d be ok.” It’s more like, “When they read their scriptures, that highlights the problems.”

    Further once the “shock” pops up there really are a lot of resources out there. Will they all be good for everyone? No. I’m under no illusions of that. A lot of people are turned off by apologetics. But if you find the anti-Mormon sites which can be shocking shouldn’t one turn to the pro-Mormon sites who often have responses to all this? If nothing else it’s not hard to find lots and lots of Mormons who are very well aware of all the negative stuff. (I bet most regular readers of the main LDS blogs know most of the controversial stuff and are unbothered by it)

    Firstly, one issue is that many apologetics sites don’t help. Whereas the member going through crisis wants someone to say, “Say it isn’t so!” the apologists say something like, “Well, it is so, but that doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. Here’s a different way to look at it.”

    It comes too late, is all. When the person undergoing faith crisis’s response is that he or she is only comfortable if it turns out that the event in question didn’t happen, then that’s too late.

    I think it’s a credibility gap. If the pro-Mormon sites’ information were available more immediately to the crisis, then it would be of a lot more help. For example, if these things were taught growing up, that would be most immediate. It stems the crisis before it even happens. Secondly, I think that people who grow up in families or have fellow ward members who are familiar with these things grow in an environment that helps a lot.

    But I think that the people who really get beat up and bruised over things like this end up seeing the “pro-Mormon” sites as institutionally illegitimate. Even if they buy into the apologetics, they are going to have to go to church every Sunday to hear people saying things counter to the apologetics, or ignorant of those issues, etc.,

    I think that LDS blogs could be helpful, IF they had institutional legitimacy and authority. If people understood, “This fits with the official church position or is sanctioned by the church,” that would help. But LDS blogs simply don’t have that blessing.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, as a weekly church-goer who is actively interested in the historical trivia and information in the Book of Mormon and aggressively tries to bring it up in class discussion every chance he can get –

    I can tell you it’s a struggle to do so. People in the standard Sunday School class do NOT seem really interested in discussing the “historical fact” aspect of the Book of Mormon. They pretty-much just take it for granted that it is historical. What they are really interested is how Nephi’s experiences tie into the troubles they are facing at work, how he shows that prayer helps people. All that kind of stuff.

    They really are NOT primarily interested in the history. I have to fight to get any data out there I can. They’d much rather do what Nephi himself called “likening the scriptures unto ourselves.”

    So I guess I’m just going to have to disagree with you there.

    It actually is more about community building than historical study.

  9. Seth

    I can definitely see what you’re saying. I mean, I guess I always have to remember that I’m probably speaking about a minority of people anyway (although I think that some of the same people you speak of who are not interested in learning the historicity of the BoM are going to be the same ones who have problems later on when they come to s point where they can’t just ASSUME historicity anymore. And these will probably also end up being some of the same people whom Clark has mentioned have done less than bare minimum.)

    But when I read through what you say they are interested instead in…that doesn’t really look like community building either. Self help? Maybe.

    Maybe its because I don’t often find the scriptures as likening all that much to me or of being that relevant to me at all, so maybe I discounted that aspect of all the classes?

  10. Seth R. permalink

    Reinforcement of shared values and approaches to life experiences is at the very heart of community building.

    And the fact that these same people get upset at the history often indicates a point where they disconnected from the community aspect and turned toward more self-centered concerns (like vain questions about “am I deluded?” and other image-conscious concerns).

  11. Seth

    I guess all that community building wasn’t enough to keep people from disconnecting from said community.

  12. Seth R. permalink

    That’s true of any community, isn’t it?

  13. That’s true. Yet I tend not to see the hard crashed disconnect in a whole lot of other communities.

    Then again, maybe it’s because I’m not as involved in those other communities to see if it’s as rough there as it so often is here.

  14. Great article and great thoughts. Thanks!

    I grew up Mormon and I studied more than almost all of my friends. I read the scriptures for hours after school, I read through study guides, publications by the prophets, church manuals, My Heritage, Preach My Gospel . . . yada yada. I didn’t read things that weren’t published by the Church because I had a basic assumption that the Church would give me the most accurate information. It wasn’t so much a decision to NOT read other things as it was a decision to spend my time would be the most valuable: official Church material and books published by General Authorities.

    The LDS Church’s approach to teaching their own history is deplorable and it is the main reason of doubt for many who leave. The Church can choose to deny they’re doing anything wrong or they can confront a very real problem and change the way they teach things. I lost trust for my Church leaders and then it was only a matter of time until I left. And by the way it isn’t just NOT teaching history and “meaty” doctrines that is a problem – it is teaching the WRONG history: replacing unpopular history with mushy stuff that sounds better in an interview.

    I brought this up on my blog while focusing on one aspect of our history and how it has been presented by CES, PR, and Church leadership – you can check it out here if you’d like! http://accidentalatheist.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/mormonism-and-polygamy-a-call-to-honesty/

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