Seminary Series: Just how long IS three millennia?

Author’s note: This is the fourth post in a series about my experiences with and reflections on teaching seminary on a volunteer basis this past year. Its observations and opinions do not necessarily represent the teachings or policies of the Seminaries & Institutes program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is natural for modern readers of ancient religious literature to read their own lives into the text. This is fine. That’s why we read the texts we read instead of ancient account statements. However, as tempting as it is to think of ancient “wards” and “stakes” when we read about ancient assemblies, we ought to realize the essential differences between our culture and theirs, separated by dozens of centuries of intellectual change and economic change. To do otherwise is to miss out on essential interpretive insights at best. At worst, we do violence to the text.

One of my favorite activities came at the first of the year, as, while introducing the Old Testament as a whole to my students, I wanted to teach them just how far removed the people of the OT were from us. I believed this would help them understand our differences in culture and worldview. For instance, notions like “all people are created equal” and “women deserve the same rights as men” would not be thought of for thousands of years. As closely aligned as religion and politics are today, they were even more inextricably connected then. Though also an ancient concept, it had not yet occurred to many that their deities presided over all humanity and not just their given tribe or land. Even money was yet to be invented for many OT peoples. Continue reading “Seminary Series: Just how long IS three millennia?”

Seminary Series: Scripture Mastery

Author’s note: This is the third post in a series about my experiences with and reflections on teaching seminary on a volunteer basis this past year. Its observations and opinions do not necessarily represent the teachings or policies of the Seminaries & Institutes program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I was a bad seminary student; out of the nearly 100 scripture mastery verses in all 4 years of seminary, I memorized three of them. Back then, I thought it was a waste of time, but it could not have been more of a time-waster than flipping and fumbling through my scriptures — later, while teaching as a missionary — for passages I knew I should have had memorized. Besides that, memorization is an underrated pedagogical tool. I learned my mission language in large part by memorizing the discussions in it. Classically educated people memorized large works of literature for centuries before the modern age, and we usually consider them pretty smart.

So I’m strongly in favor of rote memorization. But memorizing little scripture packets also has its downsides: 1) It’s boring. I don’t really care about this one. Work is hard. Suck it up. Besides, the Church develops thoughtful, innovative tools for the students to memorize and the Sons of Ammon have even composed some fun, albeit corny songs, without which I don’t think I could have memorized them myself this year. I realize that some students will still be better at memorizing than others, but since Scripture Mastery does not count as part of their grade anyway … Continue reading “Seminary Series: Scripture Mastery”

Seminary Series: What Is Seminary For?

(update:) Author’s note: This is the second post in a series dealing with my experiences teaching seminary on a volunteer basis over this past year. The thoughts and observations contained therein do not necessarily represent those of the Seminaries and Institutes program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The introductory post can be found here.

I support and deeply value the seminary program and its role in the lives of LDS youth. That’s why I accepted the call. But as I began to contemplate the coming year, I struggled to come to terms with the difference between how I would teach the Old Testament in seminary and how I had been taught it in graduate school. I had many questions. How much should these students know? Should I tell them that Moses did not write the “Five Books of Moses?” Should I tell them that he did? Should I acquaint them with ancient literary concepts of fiction and satire, and point them out in the ahistorical books of Job, Jonah, Esther, and even Ruth? Can the Old Testament be properly understood without doing so?

Continue reading “Seminary Series: What Is Seminary For?”

Seminary Series: Introducing the Class

(update) Author’s note: This post is first in a series about my experiences and reflections on teaching seminary on a volunteer basis over the past year. No statement therein necessarily represents the positions of the Seminaries & Institutes Program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Most universities are already out, but high school students are still wrapping up their year (poor kids). Our seminary class is no different; we’ve basically got Jonah and Malachi ahead of us and then we’re done.

I’ve spent the past year teaching seminary on a volunteer basis (a calling from the stake), and, per curriculum, we’ve focused on the Old Testament. I’d like to post a series (of to-be-determined length) on my experiences as a teacher coming from a graduate religious studies background outside of the CES training environment. This first post is about me and my students as a way of setting the stage.

Continue reading “Seminary Series: Introducing the Class”

Rethinking Mormon Christianity

When I first entered divinity school I met a friend who described his home denomination as “Methodist but with more of an emphasis on Holiness.” I was befuddled. I had assumed that it was common practice even among the most liberal denominations to at least make a gesture at avoiding profaneness. I was embarrassed to ask him what he meant by “holiness.” His response was a diplomatic, “Oh. Wow,” and then an awkward attempt to explain something he had assumed was a fundamental principle. The man in question is a great friend, but has hinted before that while he absolutely respects and values my faith in Christ (indeed, we’ve had many uplifting, edifying theological conversations about Christology), that doesn’t necessarily deserve a “Christian” appellation. Continue reading “Rethinking Mormon Christianity”

“Stop Complaining and Sustain Them All”

I served on my mission with one of the grandsons of emeritus Seventy Elder F. Enzio Busche, whose autohagiography has been on Mormon bookshelves for a few years. My wife and I recently completed reading it a chapter a week for FHE. Among the often incredible and always uplifting stories he tells is one about Sister Neuberg, an elderly German sister with unique spiritual gifts. The two became acquainted while Edler Busche was working in Salt Lake around 1983. He gives one vignette in which Sister Neuberg is bothered by something she heard from the church’s leadership:

One day, she was unsettled by a talk at general conference by one of the Brethren. I do not remember who it was, because I did not listen too closely to her complaints. Then she said to me, “Yes, I went to the Lord and complained about the talk and that brother, but,” she said, “the Lord told me, ‘They are all different, but they are all acceptable unto me, even the least among them is acceptable unto me.’” Then she said, “So what can I do? I have to live with that and stop complaining and sustain them all.” (Yearning for the Living God 189)

There have been some controversial, well-publicized, and much-discussed statements from church Ieadership as of late, and I hope to relate the above selection to TT’s post last year on inerrancy and criticizing church leaders. My own interest is not necessarily in Sister Neuberg’s proposed solution to “stop complaining and sustain them all,” but rather in the answer to her prayer: “They are all different, but they are all acceptable unto me.” No statement of consistency or unanimity. No insistence that the Brethren really do agree on everything or even that they are of equal merit. Rather it is a frank acknowledgement of dissonance and a blanket statement of support. It may be an actualization of TT’s ideal spiritual practice of silence, i.e. holding competing or hard sentiments from church leadership in tension with one another as part of an interpretive strategy. To me this declaration focuses not on the leader’s position at the head of the body, but on his position before the Lord. Emphasis is not on his vested authority or special placement but rather on whether the Lord “accepts” him or not. It looks like a clemency to church leaders in spite of their disunity and imperfection.

Textual Criticism

Recent comments around the blogosphere on the publication of the new NIV reminded me of my first encounter with biblical textual criticism at age 14. Curt Bench,1 my youth Sunday school teacher at the time, took me aside as Ammaron of old and gave me a bible. “Son,” he said, “You are a sober youth of sound mind and so I give you this.” It was a hardbound NIV. “This is not the King James version, but it is a new translation made by believing Christians and not godless heathens.” My sentiments must have been something akin to what Tom Sawyer felt as he claimed his own prize Bible. I was grateful to have been so favored and entrusted. So much so that I’m presently wondering if sending a thank-you note 14 years late might not be too tacky.

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Book of Mormon Ethics Revisited

Hi, everybody it’s my first post. Newbie that I am, I’m still becoming acquainted with everyone’s positions on various and sundry topics. Sometimes you’re really bright, and sometimes you’re godless heathens; I’m confident my final conclusion will come to rest somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. In short, though, I appreciate that questions and concerns are being discussed in the open free from fear of stoning, burning, and/or excommunication.

I mention this feeler-extending process to explain my initial reaction to TT’s post about Book of Mormon ethics which contains a harsh criticism of the Book of Mormon concept that the righteous prosper. I assume its a given here that one’s opinions of a text or its theological articulations are not to be slighted, so I’m not calling TT a heretic. Frankly, I don’t know who he is or the status of his testimony—he says he keeps his faith, and I’m cool with that. So I hope I’m not misunderstood when I say that his criticism of this aspect of Book of Mormon theodicy is at least somewhat unfair. Continue reading “Book of Mormon Ethics Revisited”