One thought I had recently

I think some people want to turn weekly Church into the equivalent of a graduate level seminar (or at least a senior capstone course).

Even though I have a PhD and love intellectual discussions, I can’t think of anything worse.  The gospel needs to stay “small and simple.”

(I’ve seen a few mainstream Protestant denominations that do treat Sunday school like a graduate seminar; That’s one reason those denominations are dying off, though it’s more a symptom than the cause).

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About Ivan W.

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was just shy of 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has five kids and four stepkids.

22 thoughts on “One thought I had recently

  1. I think there can be a balance. We have a Gospel Principles class for the very basics. I do not think that high priests need to be taught that tithing means one dime out of every dollar.
    “Small and Simple” doe not need to mean “reduced to the lowest common denominator”
    We do not need to teach speculative things in Church. However, we have a habit of teaching doctrine in the same way one skims stones off the surface of a lake. You cover a lot of ground, but only touch briefly on topics along the way. In a world of information, we risk losing our teens by dumbing things down too much, which is why the Church has seriously revamped their program. Spending a month on a theme means we do not just skim stones off the surface, but delve under the water on occasion to see what is there of great value. Without doing so, we miss the coral, the fish, and many beauties and treasures that one just cannot get by staying on the surface.

  2. I basically agree with 90% of what you just wrote, Rame. My worry, though, isn’t about speculation. I think there needs to be a somewhat standard baseline, and that the place for really intensive study of church history is outside the Sunday school classroom.

  3. I agree with the sentiment expressed by the post. Keep the doctrines simple and pure.

    I will add that one reason why the mainline churches are going the way of the dodo is due to watering down their doctrines until there is no real difference between their church doctrines and the doctrines espoused by secular humanists. At that point, why bother going into a church building? Stay home, and read Joanna Brooks.

  4. There’s a wide spectrum from graduate-level seminar to what we have now. I don’t really think most people are looking for that level of discourse. Just something a little more thought-provoking than “Why it good to help others?”-type questions.

    When I put a lot of effort into thought-provoking lessons, I get compliments from people all along the spectrum of intellect.

  5. Gospel Doctrine SS lessons assume the class members already have a thorough grasp of the 47 lessons in the book Gospel Principles. If one doesn’t have those 47 down pat , he should spend another year, or as long as it takes, in the Gospel Essentials (Investigators) class.

    Beyond Gospel Doctrine, we have Institute classes as the next level. If you dont have time to attend classes in person, get the books from store.lds.org and do self study. Or maybe BYU has online Institute?

    Beyond Institute, and even before and through, we have the Holy Ghost as a personal instructor with an individualized lesson plan, whose calling, and whose desire is to “teach us ALL things”. His lesson material is the scriptures, all “good books”, the temple ceremonies, and most instances of being “engaged in a good cause”. His classes consist of prayer, scripture reading, pondering, singing hymns, sermons, general conference,temple ceremonies, service, etc.

    As an example, I think the Holy Ghost can teach us what’s “written between the lines” of the scriptures.

    Much of what the Holy Ghost teaches us directly ( ie, not the things He’s merely confirming when basics are taught openly from the Brethren and others) is not to be shared with others; because, mainly, if that other person isn’t getting that lesson directly from the Holy Ghost themselves, that means they aren’t ready for it.

    I think the scriptures are clear that the Holy Ghost is not merely a confirmer of what others teach, but is a teacher himself.

    I would suppose that if one isn’t being “taught from on high” that he is not ready for the graduate level of spiritual learning. (And that’s not to say that all higher truths can _only_ come from the Holy Ghost.)

  6. I simply wish I could attend institute classes. I joined the church at 32YO. Now after 13 years, I find it difficult to sit through yet another GD lesson. I am not saying I have mastered everything. I am saying that actual discussion and learning is hampered. I have asked if I could attend institute classes, since I never had the opportunity to attend seminary (or even primary) and have simply been told I am too old.

    As far as learning by the sprit, I think I need to learn how to do that, how does it work? Seriously, how do you start?

  7. Craig, re: how does it work and how do you start? The answer is the Sunday school answers. Read scriptures daily, pray daily, have weekly fhe , regular temple, ponder/pray/listen, serve, share gospel, etc.

    Following one’s conscience is practice because the Holy Ghost comes in on the same frequency. It’s hard to impossible to follow one and not the other.

    Our local CES director lets older adults attend Institute. So ask your CES director, not ecclesiastical leaders

    We also have a separate Inst class specifically for older adults taught by a volunteer teacher outside of CES auspices.

  8. Good discussion so far, which is what I was hoping for.

    To expand a little bit – the few Mainline Protestant churches I have attended really did treat Sunday School like a graduate seminar. Higher Criticism was discussed as much, if not more, than the actual text of scriptures. Everyone was aware of issues around the authorship of the Pauline letters (of course, even the ones they accepted as genuine, they didn’t feel a need to be bound by, as Paul was a crotchety old misogynist anyway, don’cha’know).

    It seems like a similar dynamic plays out in the Bloggernacle (where, to be honest, many of the permabloggers are or were graduate students of some sort at some point). People say things like “don’t throw Paul at me unless you understand the cultural context of his statements, the ambiguities of translation” and insist that topics like early church polyandry should be discussed in Gospel Doctrine.

    Sorry. I can see a place for that in Institute classes (Ben Spackman, for instance, seems to have a good approach to this), but not on Sundays in church.

  9. MC – why is it good to help others? :-)

    There’s a lot there that can be connected to the atonement, consecration, exaltation.

    Or “we” can complain that too many questions elicit seminary answers and forget that we’re the ones giving the answers.

  10. Chris,

    I get it, I do. Absolutely every complaint about meetings/Sunday School can be countered with, “Well, why don’t you word harder to get something out of it? If you don’t, then it’s all your fault.”

    And that’s fine, so far as it goes; I personally am responsible for working out my own salvation. But riddle me this: If the quality of teaching is so unimportant to the Lord’s work, why do missionaries take up so much of the precious time on their mission, 3-9 weeks at the beginning of their mission and then at least 2 hours a day every day thereafter, along with zone conferences, just to learn how to teach better? If a missionary wastes all that time, and just reads from the preach my gospel manual in discussions, do we shrug our shoulders and say, “so be it. People should do their own part to learn by the Spirit.”?

    Of course not. Now, you may be thinking, “But those are investigators. We are baptized members, and shouldn’t demand as much.” But then why have Sunday School at all? To show our dedication and unity? I tend to think that when the Lord “calls” someone to be a “teacher”, that they aren’t just a prop in a passion play of unity, but ought to treat it like a solemn duty. Which can be done with the manuals we have now, by the way.

    P.S. “Why is it good to help others?” is just a very realistic example I came up with, and I refuse to concede that it’s anything but a lame question. Everyone knows why it’s good to help others. If that isn’t a lame question, then no question is lame, and we have no standards at all. You can only make your answer thought-provoking by inserting your own thoughts about the general topic without any necessary reference to the question. Look at how Jesus taught. He either asked questions without obvious answers (“Whom say ye that I am?”) or purely rhetorical questions designed to expose the errors of opposing arguments (“Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?”). He didn’t ask obvious questions that are merely an invitation for someone other than the teacher to fill up the time.

  11. I admit that I don’t pay attention much to Sunday School lessons. My approach to Elder’s Q that I teach is read and then ask soul searching questions that make it personal related to the quotes. How can we, why must we, what are examples from your own experience? The key when someone gives the typical Sunday School answers is follow up questions, how have you seen or used that? For the most part I have had only a few clunky lessons where participation was low or my questions not well thought out. Most of the times I have been thanked. Context and scholarship are ninety percent of the time less necessary than a good question or comment that illuminates the here and now.

  12. You’ve summed up Sunday School in my ward, which has 80% rate of PhD’s in the congregation. Everyone is always trying to out do and out comment each other. It makes Sunday School a painful experience.

  13. MC – I’m just saying that could actually be an interesting question and the “deepness” of it could depend on the degree to how much mental thought we pit into the gospel in our spare time.

    Generally, it seems to me that what passes for an interesting lesson in most peoples minds is a lesson that they just show up for, and get quasi-passively enlightened.

    I do know in the times in my life where I’ve studied and intently marked up my BoM and really pondered on the verses, narrative or doctrine, and also doing my best to be a disciple of Christ I’ve been able to bring a lot to the table that edified myself and (hopefully) the occasional interesting comment as well.

    I get the point that perhaps it would be nice to have home run lessons where we aren’t all fulfilling our potential, so to speak. But I’m not sure how that fits into how the Lord would like his members to use their agency in progress.

    Of course I’ve got no complaints with a goal to raise the bar with our lessons. To return to my original point, an extremely good discussion could be had over “why service” if all were prepared and consciously loving the gospel the way the Lord would have us do.

  14. MC – is it lame to discuss the connection between the atonement and service? That’s where that question leads in my mind. I think its practically the essence of what we must “do” and “be” in the gospel.

  15. “MC – is it lame to discuss the connection between the atonement and service?”

    It can be if it’s lamely phrased. Surely one can come up with a more penetrating question than that. The topic of the question isn’t the problem…

  16. I remember reading something President Kimball said in reference to dietary habits, saying that we are often “overfed and undernourished.” No it doesn’t make sense to talk about Kolob when you’ve got people who haven’t even read the Book of Mormon sitting in class. There’s your “overfed.”

    But there is plenty of stuff to talk about in the scriptures without ever going beyond the “pure doctrines” of the Gospel. And the shallowness of so many lessons leaves us with missionaries who oftentimes go into the field with nary an answer for investigators with genuine doubts or scriptural questions. Two weeks in the MTC won’t solve that problem. There’s your “undernourished.”

    That’s my own experience anyway. YMMV.

  17. “Keep the doctrines simple and pure.”

    “Unfortunately, I haven’t been seeing that in Sunday School in the USA.”

    Interesting. Have you attended Sunday School down in the Sunshine State of Florida? I have fond memories of fantastic lessons, filled with the Spirit. We didn’t talk about Kolob, but we did talk about the plan of happiness. Testimonies were expressed, faith strengthened.

    I spent a year in Utah several years ago, my first time living there. I don’t remember the Sunday School lessons, but I do remember our Elders Quorum lessons being interesting, relevant, and inspiring to a certain degree.

    I suppose it all depends on a variety of factors. But I would hesitate to suggest that Sunday School standards are poor in the USA generally.

  18. ‘ But there is plenty of stuff to talk about in the scriptures without ever going beyond the “pure doctrines” of the Gospel.’

    Reminds me of the following, “let thy bowels be full of charity toward all men…, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly, then shall… the doctrines of the priesthood distill upon thy soul…”

    Before we can have confidence before God to have pure knowledge of true doctrines, we must be exemplars of charity and virtue. God is not telling us to get better teachers or better manuals, or more insightful questions but to become better disciples.

    Naturally, I support good teachers and manuals that help us teach more effectively.

  19. “Naturally, I support good teachers and manuals that help us teach more effectively.”

    Do you believe there is any room for improvement in this area generally? Do you think there’s any problem at all with discussing how to improve in this area? Do you believe that anyone who does discuss how to improve in this area lacks for charity or virtue?

    I happen to be in a Sunday School presidency, so I’m required to think about how to improve teaching long before I have achieved perfect discipleship.

  20. Elder Holland noted in his Gen Conference talk, “A Teacher Come From God” the importance of teaching. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1998/05/a-teacher-come-from-god

    He noted that our sermons and lessons must be inspiring enough to have people want to come back. Sadly, there is little effort involved beyond skimming stones across the surface in most instances. We do not need discussions on the Documentary Hypothesis, but we do need discussion that is going to make the members think, ponder, reach down deep, and be inspired to be more than are today.
    We DO need to have a discussion on Faith in Christ that lasts more than 45 minutes. And the teachers need to do more than read the scriptures and pray. They need to seek out of the “best books”, which include some scholarly works. Why? Because often the Spirit is waiting for us to do the research, before we can expand our spiritual wisdom/knowledge. If I only know how to read Isaiah in one fashion, then I can never pick up the many facets that are hidden therein. Even the lesson manual briefly notes that he uses poetry and other mechanisms to teach/write. Yet, we spend only a few minutes in looking at the whole picture. Why not spend 45 minutes just looking at his poetry and another 45 minutes at just what he taught Israel (then Judah, Babylon, etc, in other lessons)?

    LDS are not gospel scholars, even though we read the scriptures. The Church teaches us to skim, and so that is what most members do. They read and re-read the BoM, but never study it in context of other scripture, or via themes. So, when a member learns that the earth evolved over billions of years, but the scriptures (and Creationists) seem to say only 6000 years, many end up having a spiritual crisis. Should we not discuss some of those things, as well?

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