Missing the Forest

In my home ward, my Dad is the SP, and my Mom has taught Institute, Seminary, and Continuing Ed. for adults for many years. The GD class tends to be made up of those actually interested in original setting and scholarly interpretations, as well as the usual kinds of discussion and application. Consequently, the class tends to be happy when all three of us end up in GD, twice yearly or so.

I happened to be home once last year during a lesson on some chapters from Isaiah. The teacher did a decent job, but the comments all tended in one direction. By typical GD standards, it was probably quite good. But afterwards, as I walked out, one man I know well asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything about Isaiah?”

“We didn’t talk about Isaiah.” I replied. “We selected some phrases that evoked familiar LDS principles, discussed those, and then decided that’s what Isaiah was really talking about in the first place. I don’t have anything special or above and beyond to contribute to that kind of discussion.”

That largely satisfied him, since he’s done some amateur research in scholarly sources and used to teach the class himself.

As we move into Paul, I think most GD classes will replay this. Can one really understand Paul’s teachings and the larger thrust of his letters without drawing on tools beyond the KJV and GD manual? As long as LDS don’t understand the larger and main ideas, our communal “study” of Paul will be limited to discussion of LDS topics launched off key phrases and familiar terminology scattered throughout his letters. We end up so focused on one particular tree that we fail to notice the very large forest, and often, consequently, don’t even identify the tree correctly.

I should point out that this is not criticism, so much as it is a lament. To the extent that LDS only read that which is familiar and comfortable (the Book of Mormon and the Gospels?), much that is good, instructive, comforting, edifying, and inspired is lost. And the Church and its members are lesser because of that.

19 Replies to “Missing the Forest”

  1. I have lamented the same thing many times. And this is at my BYU ward. I’ve been warned that if I think that things are bad here then I’m reeeeeeealy going to be bored when I move into a family ward next month.

  2. But there are so many of us who _do_ read more, and want more. Is it really necessary that GD teachers teach to the lowest common denominator? Wouldn’t it be better for all to stretch ourselves in these classes?

  3. Probably because some of the books that actually talk about Paul’s ministry detail the split in early Christianity between Peter, James, and John and the Torah-following Christians in Jerusalem and the much more “liberal” gentile Christians in Antioch. Much of Acts has to be read in light of Paul’s letters and it speaks of quite a bit of confrontation between Paul and the Antioch bunch, and the Jerusalem crowd. Paul was actually rather close to being regarded as a heretic by the Jerusalem church. Skillful bit of political maneuvering he pulled off to win concessions for the gentile ministry and prevent circumcision from being universally demanded.

    Now, that kind of stuff is just messy.

    Wouldn’t we much rather just imagine a unified Quorum of the Twelve and a happily unified Church and get back to discussing how these scriptures apply to us personally?

  4. Lxxluthor,
    It really depends on where you end up. I’ve had some spectacular GD teachers—way better than anything I had anywhere near BYU—when I went got married and went to a family ward; conversely, after that ward split, I had classes that made me thrilled to have a fussy newborn at naptime, who would draw me out of class.

    The flip side is, chances are you’ll be teaching the youth or primary or something else. But two of my last three wards have had great GD teachers (which made me sad to leave to teach Sunbeams and youth SS, although I loved those callings).

  5. “We took some phrases that sounded like familiar LDS principles, discussed those, and then decided that’s what Isaiah was really talking about in the first place.”

    Yep, that pretty much sums it up.

  6. I have had many of the same questions about what the proper orientation of a SS class is and ought to be. At different points in my life, I have come up with different answers. Fresh off my mission and right after I got married, I did feel that SS should teach to the least common denominator “to the weakest who could be called saints.” Now, as I am growing weary of the typical LDS topics that come up no matter what actual scripture we seem to be discussing, I wish that we could talk more about what the scriptures actually say and mean(t) rather than why this helps me want to hold FHE every week. My wife and I don’t have any children so my Sabbath afternoons are full of reading the scriptures and several non-LDS commentaries on them in order to satisfy my own personal desire for knowledge in a way that SS no longer fulfills. Whenever we add children to our family, I am afraid that this time for intense personal interaction with the scriptures will be shortened if not ended entirely. Then I’ll really be in trouble.

  7. I’m not suggesting that GD lessons should be a purely academic discussion focused on issues of authorship, for example. Rather, I think that we don’t often talk about what they actually say, since we don’t know what they say, because of the KJV and other self-imposed limitations.

    Bored: I don’t think the GD teacher should teach to the lowest common denominator, but the teacher sets the tone and tempo. If the teacher doesn’t really know what’s going on in the reading, the class won’t be pushed or moved at all out of the usual zone of comments. The only circumstance where that doesn’t obtain is when the class has a few knowledgeable people who ask good questions and others who engage them, essentially cutting the teacher out. I sometimes just keep my mouth shut, simply because I feel bad about completely usurping the teacher and I doubt others in the class can engage the questions. Arrogant perhaps, buts that how I feel.

  8. Seriously, how can a GD teacher pack a lesson with someone for everyone in 45-50 minutes? There are a lot of people who only want the same old, same old, happy Scripture-related chat with testimony-affirming goodness. Throwing a heavy dose of scholarship and academics at those people will alienate them. I have only been in a couple of wards who really addressed this issue by having two concurrent GD classes, one that was more practical testimony stuff and one that more academic. This works well if you have a decent ward size with a good mix of people.

    Nitsav, I too rarely open my mouth in GD class, except when things get ugly or go off track. Lately, I dont even get to class because I have been subbing in senior primary a lot, which is always a lesson (more like a beat-down) in humility. The same frustration you feel is the reason I started up my GD website, and it consistently turns over unique 2000+ viewers per week, but the reality is a lot what people go to are the same old, same old lesson plans, not the more scholarly-oriented material.

    Aside from that, at what point is the individual member’s responsibility to hit the books themselves? Even if you had the most amazing GD teacher on the planet who could fill eveyones needs in the class, its still only 45-50 min once per week. There is no way that is going to get anyone anywhere into serious scripture study. If people dont make the investment themselves, then how is that the Church’s responsibility? If people would rather sit on their lard and watch tv, play video games, hey, that is their choice.

  9. I think it’s the scholars’ responsibility, should she or he be teaching Sunday School, to translate academic thinking and jargon into a form that’s more easily accessible to the average church member. There are lots of ways to get people reading and thinking about complicated issues in scripture without pulling out the scholarly stick and beating people over the head with it. I’ve seen friends do this with great success.

  10. “We didn’t talk about Isaiah.” I replied. “We took some phrases that sounded like familiar LDS principles, discussed those, and then decided that’s what Isaiah was really talking about in the first place.”

    Bingo. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  11. Some of the best comments I’ve heard in GD classes — and here I’m thinking of people like Charles Inouye in the Boston area — have been when someone with much deeper knowledge / insights into the passage ostensibly under discussion manage to make a comment that engages at the current level of discussion, but at the same time advances the discussion just enough forward that it doesn’t feel threatening to the non-scholars. It’s a joy to watch in action.

    On the other hand, it can be off-putting or intimidating to see intellectual fireworks displayed in GD class, and can have the unintendend consequence of making those less familiar with the scholarship resign with despair and less interested in further exploration.

    One of the things that consistently surprises me about Jesus’ teaching methods is his ability to entice. Not too far ahead, but just far enough to make his listeners stretch their minds/hearts in an engaged, provocative but not necessarily intimidating way.

    Wish I could do that.

  12. If church leaders were interested in having us understand Isaiah and Paul, we wouldn’t be using the KJV. So I guess it’s just not that important.

  13. This is something I am really interested in learning more about. I would like to develop a more deeper understanding of the historical and cultural background of the scriptures. Can some of you please recommend some reading material for those of us that are still at the “lowest common denominator.”

  14. Karen,
    To start, I would recommend the recent LDS publication Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament. It is a very good introduction to the basic issues in NT studies and takes the LDS perspective into account.

  15. As a GD teacher, I have to sympathize with my poor (but wonderful) teachers. It is very hard to find the right balance between intellectual inquiry and spiritual inquiry. Sometimes we can go to far on the intellectual in class, and lose the spirit. However, I do think it’s called Gospel Doctrine, not Essentials for a reason, and that we don’t need to always spoonfeed the students milktoast feelgoodyness.

  16. Karen- A good Bible would also be very helpful and basic tool, something like the NIV Study Bible (conservative Evangelical), Oxford Annotated Bible (more ecumenical, but fewer notes), or the Jewish Study Bible (Jewish scholarship, and OT only, of course). If you’re reluctant to use another version because of concerns about how the GA’s feel about that, see my post here.

    All- Again, I’m not advocating an academic approach in this post, so much as I wish that people would at least read the whole chapter. I’m asking for a contextual reading in GD, something that tries to take these little phrases and understand them in terms of the rest of the Isaiah chapter. That doesn’t require anything but a little work and reading of the whole chapter, and perhaps a better Bible. I’m not sure I want *academic* discussion in GD so much as I want *informed and contextual* discussion.

  17. We are blessed to have a very good Gospel Doctrine teacher, but I know that she feels somewhat “restricted” in the material that she covers. She picks out the points that she feels that she needs to make and uses every minute of class time to get those points across.

    If she allowed herself be pulled off on a tangent, I suspect that the total class would be pulled off into a ditch when they need to stay on the road. I manage to keep my comments “on the road” so as not to lead the discussion toward the ditch, but I do take the opportunity to talk with her briefly after class.

    Her answer is typically something like, “there is so much that we could get more into details about, but I just don’t have the time. What we need is some kind of an advanced class, but for now we have to do the best we can for everyone”.

    As far as recommending some reading that will go a little deeper that the regular Sunday class, I can recommend some books I read some forty five years ago when I came into the Church. Granted, some of it is speculation, but it does stimulate the grey matter.

    Since some other translation of the bible has been mentioned, I’ll mention some other works that will help round one out.

    The First Two thousand Years by Cleon Skousen.

    The Third Thousand Years by Cleon Skousen.

    The Forth Thousand Years by Cleon Skousen.

    Jesus the Christ by James Talmadge

    A Marvelous Work and a Wonder by LeGrand Richards.

    Everything “written by” Brighan Young.

    Everything “written by” Joseph Feilding Smith.

    The History of the Church.

    These books should give one a pretty good background from Adam and Eve to the present day.

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