Scattered thoughts on CES, nuance, gray areas, and teaching Institute

This post is a response of sorts to posts and comments here, here, and here.

Since much of this is anecdotal and based on my own experiences, I need to explain what those experiences are. I grew up outside Utah, attended early-morning seminary, and then Institute, but only during my freshman year (not at BYU.) I’m currently a Bible-oriented graduate student and a volunteer Institute teacher with several years of varied teaching experience. The students I’ve had are probably atypical in that they have always been college students or graduate students (mostly the latter) and returned missionaries (very often).

  1. We can either decide that the goals of CES need to be changed or we can constructively critique the means by which those goals are accomplished on an institutional or individual (teacher) level.
  2. CES’ goals are largely focused on facilitating spiritual experiences and making sure basic doctrine is understood. “Keeping the doctrine pure.” Studies done internally by the Church have shown that the largest factor in people remaining active committed members through out their lives is having spiritual experiences. Thus, if you want to help people stay active and lead Christ-like lives, facilitate those experiences. I have no criticism of this, per se.
  3. Teachers
    1. Two kinds of people teaching Institute and Seminary- CES professionals (the minority) and volunteer/called teachers, like me.
    2. Volunteer teachers receive no training or pedagogy, or anything more than a schedule of dates to teach on and perhaps a class assignment. Volunteer teachers will vary greatly in their depth and breadth of knowledge of history, doctrine, and scripture, as well as in their approach to dealing with grey areas. (Follow manual slavishly? Chuck manual completely? No grey exists? Everything is grey? Shoot from the hip and insert their own thoughts as “Church Doctrine”?) It’s inevitably a mixed bag of people and inaccurate therefore to stereotype Institute/Seminary teachers. After all, I teach, Julie Smith teaches, some of these folks teach, and I know other LDS grad students who teach.
    3. In my own teaching, I’ve tried hard to follow BYU’s Religious Education dept. instructions to teachers.

      Teaching in Religious Education is to be substantive and inspirational. Students should become familiar with the text studied in each course taken and learn the implications of the text for daily living. They should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same time they should see in their instructors certitude and unwavering commitment to those things that have been clearly revealed and do represent the position of the Church. Teachers should be models of the fact that one can be well trained in a discipline, intellectually vigorous, honest, critical, and articulate, and at the same time be knowledgeable and fully committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Church and Kingdom, and His appointed servants.

      If students seem terribly rigid, or aren’t aware of the grayness of a particular topic, I introduce it to them, often with this statement from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under “Doctrine, Meaning, Source, and History.”

      There are many subjects about which the scriptures are not clear and about which the Church has made no official pronouncements. In such matters, one can find differences of opinion among Church members and leaders. Until the truth of these matters is made known by revelation, there is room for different levels of understanding and interpretation of unsettled issues.

    4. For example, I primarily teach Bible and Book of Mormon classes, but when relevant, I bring up potentially touchy issues. With regards to the Book of Mormon, we talk seerstone, geography, polygamy, textual changes and translation/expansion issues, skin color (or not) and cursing. With the Bible, we talk authorship/editorial issues (including Documentary hypothesis, etc.), grace/works, evolution, textual issues, flood, creation, temple, history/myth/genre, gender issues, worldview differences, and cultural context. I encourage or require a second Bible translation to be used along with the KJV.
    5. With a given issue, my SOP is to bring up a couple points of view, perhaps argue briefly for one POV while pointing out it’s my opinion, and hand out a one-page bibliography for interested/struggling people who want more information. I don’t play devil’s advocate, but I do sometimes bring up outside perspectives/criticisms (most often Evangelical) and point out why they see things that way and why I don’t find it problematic. Sometimes when I raise a perspective, I’ll say something like “I disagree with this and here’s why, but you need to know that some people approach it that way.”
    6. I don’t think this approach would work well for Seminary, because a) there’s not the basis of knowledge or basic familiarity to work with and b) rare indeed, in my experience, is the Seminary student who actually cares. Most of them are simply trying to stay awake.
    7. The Church explicitly discourages CES teachers from proof-texting and from teaching from old out-of-print books. (The implication with the latter is that the Church has been more than happy to let some things go out-of-print and not reprint them.) I also have the impression from things I’ve seen that the Church wants teachers to avoid spurious teaching materials, doctrinal topics upon which there are no official Church statements or clear-cut answers (lest the teacher dogmatically present their own), to stick with Gospel basics, and to stick with Church materials. This has been emphasized recently, and I’m of two minds.
      1. One can see it as a reaction against professional CES who spend time playing games, telling 3 Nephite stories or spreading other space doctrine or mythology. (We’ve all heard horror stories of such things.) This, I can heartily approve of. If this is the reason, my teaching is perfectly in harmony with what CES wants.
      2. One can see it as an attempt to keep outside scholarship, grey areas, difficult questions or other such things out of the classroom, presumably because such things are inconsistent with promoting spiritual experiences or because teachers in the past have put forth opinion or rumor as Doctrine or Truth. If this is the motivation, I’m disheartened. I simply disagree that such things are incompatible with building faith and promoting spiritual experiences.  If this is the reason, I’m not in tune with what CES wants me to be doing. However, I’ve had good feedback from students and from the member of the Stake Presidency, so I’ll continue doing what I’m doing until I hear good authoritative reason otherwise.
  4. Students/Learners
    1. Some students want only a spiritual experience and don’t find any value in classroom time spent in pursuit of other goals. Other students, whether more intellectually curious, troubled by historical/doctrinal tidbits or what have you, find that kind of course completely inadequate. Ideally, we could match students to the kind of teachers they want or need. In reality, one can rarely choose their Seminary or Institute teacher, unless within a very large program or LDS population. While everyone needs spiritual nourishment and I try (struggle, sometimes) to provide that, it’s not the primary reason my students come to my class.
    2. Some LDS do not want to be challenged in any way. Whether because such things bore them, frighten them, “needlessly” complicate their lives, they just don’t want to know any of it. If such a student ends up in a class that touches on these things, they a) won’t like it and b) may complain to someone higher up. This is not limited to youth or young adults.
    3. My parents are well-read and have served in leadership and teaching positions in the Church (all outside of Utah, I might add.) They got together with several other similar couples to watch the PBS special on Mormons. (Among this group was the current and past Stake Presidency, bishops, Relief Society Presidents, and volunteer Institute and Seminary teachers- all active, educated, thoughtful people.) What surprised my Mom most was not anything on the program, but the responses of a few of the people they watched it with, who had not known any of those issues, didn’t want to know, and thought everyone should just leave it alone. I find that kind of attitude counter-productive and somewhat disturbing, but I also wonder if there is any good to be gained by imposing on people with this attitude.

I think the Church is in a difficult position. The people in the pews and in the classrooms have very different backgrounds, needs, and expectations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, except to have good leaders and teachers who understand the needs of their students and have the mental flexibility, authority, and materials to adapt accordingly to their students need. I do, or at least, I think I do. But I have no way to make sure everyone else does. Only CES can do that.

13 Replies to “Scattered thoughts on CES, nuance, gray areas, and teaching Institute”

  1. I just want to say that I really appreciated your comments on this over at BCC, as well as this post. People build faith in their own unique ways, so I think that no one, strict teaching program is going to work for everyone, and some people are going to come away with lingering doubts. Good teachers really do mean so much. I can appreciate that the church casts the biggest net possible by focusing on simple core doctrines and spiritual experiences. Despite all the complaining I have done about not being “inoculated” growing up, I’m beginning to realize that my spiritual experiences grown out of church activities helped my faith far more than any talk of Adam-God or polyandry in Sunday school.

  2. I’m fascinated by this post because I came verrrrry near to teaching in CES professionally. I wondered where that line was many times, particularly when it came to teaching release time seminary. Personally, I felt that if I was going to be paid for spending time with my students I was obligated to instruct them in a way that was not only spiritually enlightening, but also intellectually stimulating. These kids were studying great works of literature in their English classes, cutting-edge hypotheses and theories in their science classes, complex equations and formulas in their math classes; so why not learn to think critically in seminary as well? It seemed to me that in matters of salvation we ought to be anxiously engaged in serious, thoughtful study.

    I didn’t get hired full-time.

  3. I’ve been told that Revelation comes from asking questions. If Joseph Smith never asked about Smoking and Such we wouldn’t have the Word of Wisdom. If Joseph Smith didn’t ask about the truth in the garden we wouldn’t have a church today. I believe that people who don’t question their beliefs are denying themselves spiritual progression. Of course, I think that Institute is supposed to be a college level course so it should involve heavy thinking. Those that don’t want that can go to primary. At least, that’s my opinion. It seems that the only place to talk about the church in an intellectual way is in the foyer.

  4. Wonderful post, Nitsav.

    How could this translate to the general church curriculum, particularly for adult Sunday School? I recognize that the purpose of Gospel Doctrine is to teach Gospel Doctrine, but surely there should be room in talking about the scriptures to learn about the scriptures; when talking about church history to learn church history?

  5. Thanks for the comment on my blog. I thought I’d just respond in kind. The video I referred to probably isn’t available through the Church Materials Catalog, and I don’t have a ready reference to it right now. I suppose that saying the seer stone was “featured prominently” in Elder Maxwell’s video may have been overstating it, but it was definitely mentioned. I believe Elder Maxwell’s presentation was adapted for this Ensign article later on. Let me know what else you’d like to discuss. If you would like a copy of the video, I have my ways of finding a copy, I believe.

    Here’s a question for you. Does CES require all of the volunteer teachers to read President J. Reuben Clark’s The Charted Course of the Church in Education each year like it does all of the professional teachers?

  6. Great stuff, Nitsav. So much in being a good teacher depends on personalizing to the students. I teach a 14 year old SS class and even by this age there is a clear division among my kids (all 7 of them) between those who want to learn and those who need basic spiritual nourishing. Sometimes I think that even at Church that it might be more useful to split the youth classes by some other way than age. I feel even more strongly about it at the adult level and where the Church has classes outside of Church meetings I think the need is greatest. I appreciate your approach and how well thought out it is.

  7. I was converted by a release time seminary teacher. He was the only teacher to ever challenge me to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. My family was inactive part-member.

    The year after my conversion, I read the Bible, D&C, and PoGP. Continued and read A Marvelous Work and A Wonder, the Lectures on Faith, Jesus the Christ, and the Articles of Faith.

    Since my conversion I have become a spirtual omniverbavore (word coined by Oliver Wendel Holmes Sr.). I read anything I can put my hands on.

    I’ve never worried about Mark Hoffman’s shocking(!) revealed manuscripts, DNA and American Indians, seer stones in hats v. Urim and Thummim. My testimony was firmly founded when I read and prayed about the Book of Mormon. That would have not happened if a Seminary teacher hadn’t taken 5 minutes to talk with a roudy teen one-on-one.

    I have no trouble discussing grey areas myself, but it does bother me when my children are taught in seminary by a release time amateur that the sign of Christ birth in the New World was due to space aliens in UFO’s. I want my kids to have a firm foundation in the gospel, not the sandy foundation of folk religion that many teach. Milk before meat, but no spiritual twinkies.

  8. Nitsav — just saw this. Thanks so much for this more comprehensive post. This takes a much more effective approach than I was able to do in either of my two previous attempts, at Mormon Mentality and then at By Common Consent.

    I think that some of the comments on Kaimi’s follow-on post at T&S are cogent — I was particularly impressed with commenter Melinda’s view in comment # 89 on the T&S post:

    I teach Gospel Doctrine. I would hate to teach a nuanced history lesson in Gospel Doctrine. I know the history – I’m not an expert, but I’ve read more history books than the average member. But for Pete’s sake, I can’t even get through a lesson on something as cut and dried as the Word of Wisdom without Sister Psycho and Brother Bonkers weighing in with their weird theories. There is no way I would breathe a word about anything actually controversial. Can you imagine the “discussion”? My teaching is held prisoner by members at the grassroots level, not by any conspiracy of silence higher up.

    One reason nuances don’t get taught is because of the format of Church lessons. They are supposed to be discussions. The directive to lead a discussion is contained in just about every source for teacher training. A bad lesson is one in which the teacher does most of the talking. You can only have a discussion if everyone knows something about what is being discussed. That means you stick to tried and true topics. If there was a place in the Church for the lecture format, then you might be able to teach nuances. But even seminary and institute classes are more discussion than lecture (at least in my experience, with a few exceptions.)

    The Church’s teaching metholodology is not set up to pour new information into people. It’s set up to have discussions about topics we are mostly familiar with. You have to find out the new information on your own – as many people on this thread have pointed out. Teaching nuance would not only require a new curriculum, it require an entirely new approach to teaching. (For one thing, you’d have to have teachers who could say, “I’m not calling on you again because you say weird things that are totally wrong and I have to waste class time doing damage control rather than teaching real stuff.”)

    This captures the problem very well, and echoes what commenter SmallAxe noted in comment # 13 to Kaimi’s post: Most members don’t feel like more information about church history is going to help them in our “daily lives”. The predominant paradigm is that a certain kind of applicability in “daily life” is the standard by which the attainment of more knowledge predicated.

    On the substance of being disillusioned by discovery of difficult historical material relating to the founding events of the Church or the personalities of individuals who were instrumental in the founding of the Church, I think that Stephen Marsh made an insightful observation with his characteristically truncated quip that Gee, I got the seamy underbelly of the Church reading the Old Testament. Nothing recent is anywhere near as bad.

    East Coast did a good job of fleshing that out in comment # 27:

    I seriously believe that being acquainted with the scriptures can solve a multitude of concerns. If the Mormonism you believe in is some sort of new-age, everyone’s-happy, pretty-Christmas-lights religion that would be unrecognizable to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, yeah, reading the history of the church could be a little disturbing.

    Having read the Bible a couple of times as a child, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything shocking in our church history. Hey, life is messy. Religion is too. That (in and of itself) doesn’t mean it’s not true.

    The Old Testament is profoundly disturbing if judged on the same criteria that is used to judge Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, including Brigham Young and the course he took and doctrines he taught after Joseph Smith’s death. Stephen Marsh gave some color to this idea in comment # 76, as did I (or at least I attempted to) in a post over at ABEV.

    Sorry for the long comment and round-up from other posts and comments but I think you have taken a very good approach here in discussing this issue. Thanks.

  9. “I’m beginning to realize that my spiritual experiences grown out of church activities helped my faith far more than any talk of Adam-God or polyandry in Sunday school.”

    It’s a good realization. I tend to distinguish in my mind between teaching and preaching, with the distinction being that preaching helps people make changes in their lives.

    BJH, I suspect, contrary to my experiences I might add, that if I were teaching in Utah or were more closely monitored, someone would come down on me (rightly or wrongly). It seems that both BYU and CES places a lot of trust in their teachers, since I have only rarely been observed by someone there to make a report or recommendation. Again, perhaps it’s different for full-time or professional people. The other aspect, perhaps, is the emphasis placed upon formal student feedback at BYU and to a lesser extent in Institute. As long as the students are happy, the teacher is accepted. This cuts two directions. If I’m teaching grey or critical thinking skills to students there primarily for the spiritual experience AND they rate me low, well, I’m toast.)

    Ann, I fully agree. I think teachers shouldn’t be treating the scriptures like books that simply fell out of the sky (ie. without authors, provenance, historical context, etc.) But I see the Church having a very difficult time providing a manual that could be used all over the world that would satisfy me in that regard, so once again we’re left with hoping that each unit has an individual who knows and is capable of good, inspiring and knowledgeable teaching.

    MormonMag, reading that talk is strongly encouraged.(If it’s required, I missed the memo.) I have several paper copies, I believe, that have been given to me over the years. It’s actually something that I believe I’d read on my own from time to time anyway.

    Floyd, as with other things in the Church, it seems we often hear the horror stories and rarely the positive examplars, even if there are in reality more of the latter than the former. Thanks for sharing.

    John, excellent comment. Thanks for pulling it together.

  10. This captures the problem very well, and echoes what commenter SmallAxe noted in comment # 13 to Kaimi’s post:

    Whoo hoo! Someone out there actually reads what I post!

    On a more serious note, any claim (or implication) that what is needed in the church is for the membership to be more scholarly (having a “deeper” understanding of church history, etc.) is going to be outright rejected unless somehow it can be substantiated that such a program will increase or maintain activity. In other words, the view seems to be that more knowledge is nice, but is necessary only in as much as it means retention and conversion.

  11. Hi,

    Great post. I really like it. First a bit of background on me.
    I currently teach early morning Seminary. This is my 4th year. I love it and will probably do 2 more years.

    I have found the following interesting notes. First, in response to this question above:
    Here’s a question for you. Does CES require all of the volunteer teachers to read President J. Reuben Clark’s The Charted Course of the Church in Education each year like it does all of the professional teachers?

    The simple answer is: NO! They really don’t require anything. I get visited by a member of the stake possibly once every 4 months. That works out to twice during the year. So I could be teaching something totally crazy and I would never be checked upon.

    Other interesting tidbits.
    1. The BoM and the D&C are the most boring to teach. The BoM is just about pride, over and over and over. How many times can that be taught a different way. Ditto on the D&C. How many times can I teach about missionary work in a new an interesting manner.

    2. NT and OT… WOW!!! Those are a blast to teach. In my mind, that is where the true spiritual conversion can occur. The NT is just awesome to teach. The OT is wonderful with all the great stories.

    3. Doctrine. The CES material includes 100% doctrine and virtually zero history. In the OT, I’m left on my own to discover the stories and try and associate names/places and then try to tie the stories to doctrine.
    Also, in the CES material, if they ever have something that seems out of place, they just stick in a lesson about always following and never questioning your church leaders.

    4. Missing stuff. I’ve found section after section of OT or NT great stuff that just gets left out of the CES material. If it doesn’t 100% support current church doctrines, it is left out all the way.

    I could easily provide examples and show where these things are just hard to explain but honestly, there are many.

    I 100% agree with the comments above. The comment about not allowing outside material gets left outside with me. I go to every source I can because the material provided by the church is virtually non-existent. Christian web sites, the NIV, Wiki, have all been very helpful in providing answers to the questions the kids have.

    Great thread. Thanks for posting.

  12. Smallaxe #10 said (yes, I read what you said!):

    “On a more serious note, any claim (or implication) that what is needed in the church is for the membership to be more scholarly (having a “deeper” understanding of church history, etc.) is going to be outright rejected unless somehow it can be substantiated that such a program will increase or maintain activity. In other words, the view seems to be that more knowledge is nice, but is necessary only in as much as it means retention and conversion.”

    We might need to consider its usefulness for PR purposes and also missionary activities to/for those who are not yet members of our faith in addition to retention and conversion of those who are already members as well. Just a thought. It seems like it would certainly be useful in these areas.

  13. We might need to consider its usefulness for PR purposes and also missionary activities to/for those who are not yet members of our faith in addition to retention and conversion of those who are already members as well. Just a thought. It seems like it would certainly be useful in these areas.

    I started a post last night that elaborates more fully what I’ve been thinking. I should have time today or tomorrow to finish it.

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