Religion Courses at BYU: embrace the change!

The Mormon blog sphere (I’ve decided there’s no real “Bloggernacle” anymore, it’s too divided and Balkanized to have such a unifying name anymore) has been abuzz about the recent changes at BYU for the religious class requirements. Generally, the consensus has been that this is a bad thing – even those not totally shocked have only offered a very qualified “wait and see” approach.

I, however, think the changes are (probably, likely) a good thing.

For those who came in late:

BYU has made some changes to the required religion courses. Instead of the current focus on taking classes on books of scripture (Book of Mormon, New Testament, etc.), there are new thematic classes:

  1. Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel: A study of the Savior and His roles in Heavenly Father’s plan as taught across all the standard works
  2. Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon: A study of the teachings and doctrine of the Book of Mormon with emphasis on the Savior’s ministry
  3. Foundations of the Restoration: A study of the key revelations, doctrine, people, and events of the Restoration
  4. The Eternal Family: A study of the central role of the family in the plan of salvation as taught in the scriptures and the words of modem prophets

The other classes will remain, but likely won’t have as many sections offered. William Hamblin at Enigmatic Mirror has the official letter and a few more details.

The general response, covering both right and left, has been that the youth need deep sustained engagement with the scriptures. Often, when they describe their ideal religion class, it sounds like a graduate seminar.

Now, when I was at BYU, I considered the religion classes more devotional than academic in nature, even when I had teachers with a slightly more academic focus. That, I think, is the right approach for BYU, and this new focus on four new classes just makes this devotional aspect clearer.

Turning religion classes into graduate seminars instead of devotional classes is, I think, a recipe for disaster in the church, and may explain why TPTB (the powers that be) in administration felt the need for more transparently devotional classes.

So, why do I think a more devotional focus is appropriate, and I don’t really agree with the intellectuals (hey – I have a PhD in English from a top-tier University; I’m “one of them” when it comes to intellectuals) who decry this change?

First, let me state I don’t believe in the so called “youth crisis” in the church. I believe the church can do more to retain youth, but the idea we have unprecedented numbers leaving the church is basically false, and it’s a club used by certain groups with the church who want the church to modernize – of course, their progressive solutions will actually cause more youth to leave the church, which leads into my reasons for why the curriculum change might be justified. [For more on this, see the footnote after the main post]

“The Churching of America” by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark is the best book I’ve read on American religious history. In it, they focus on what makes a religion successful – what churches increase “market share” and what churches lose it. Mormons are pretty successful at increasing market share (even if we’ve dropped a little in recent years). What makes a church successful? Here are two quotes from the book:

“The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to a vivid otherworldliness” (2).

“Humans want their religion to be sufficiently potent, vivid, and compelling so that it can offer them rewards of great magnitude. People seek a religion that is capable of miracles and that imparts order and sanity to the human condition. The religious organizations that maximize these aspects of religion, however, also demand the highest price in terms of what the individual must do to qualify for these rewards” (282).

What causes churches to decline? Generally liberalization and secularization, which is often related to turning religious instruction into graduate level type study. A few more quotes:

“Theological refinement is the kind of progress that results in organizational bankruptcy” (8).

“Doctrine often seems to become accommodated and secularized whenever it is delivered into the control of intellectuals” (168).

[A quote from Bishop Richard B. Wilke:] “Seminaries must fuel the faith . . . If they are only graduate schools, their graduates will be able to write term papers, but not to save souls . . . Some wag has said that students enter seminary inspired to be evangelists and graduate aspiring to be seminary professors” (182).

BYU’s focus on making religious instruction more devotional seems tailor made to buck the trend of turning BYU religion classes into something with a too intellectual focus (i.e., of too many people entering BYU with a desire to serve and spread the gospel and graduating with a desire to be graduate students in religious studies). I’m an intellectual of sorts (see above), but I think that one of the great strengths of the church is that the intellectuals aren’t in control and don’t get to determine what counts as doctrine. We intellectuals have our roles in the kingdom, but turning religious instruction into graduate seminars is not one of them; the church needs to maintain its devotional focus in order to thrive.

Now, don’t get me wrong – this does not mean that I think serious scripture study and engagement with the cultural/historical/social/etc. contexts of scripture is a bad thing and we should never do it. I do agree Sunday School and Institute classes could often use a little more intellectual rigor. However, I think it can become something of a myopic focus, and I think the church does well to err on the side of devotion.

What the current and upcoming generations need is more devotion, not the ability to debate about the dividing line between 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, or whether a passage in Genesis was written by J or E, or have a knowledge of the Byzantine vs. Alexandrian text tradition. That has so little to do with the lives of people who are just trying to support their families while trying to eke out some time to do various types of service. I’d rather my bishop had taken a class on the importance of family and the importance of a living prophet – those will help him minister to a wide range of people and help succor the poor more than if he understands the current scholarly consensus on how to correctly interpret Amos or whether Paul actually wrote 1st and 2nd Timothy. If someone really does have an intellectual issue with the church, there are plenty of people like me that leaders can call on to handle those issues.

Of course, I may be wrong and the classes at BYU could become the worst sort of spiritual twinkies, but I doubt it. The tension between the faculty who want graduate seminars and the institutional demand for devotional classes will likely result in some mixture of the two, and that’s just fine.

 

———

[Footnote]:

Here are two sources on the supposed “youth problem.” The first deals with “Mormon Envy” on how good we are at retaining youth compared to other denominations:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2010/07/20/almost-christian-morman-envy/

“By intentionally reinforcing the significance of Mormonism’s particular God-story, by immersing young people in a community of belonging, by preparing them for a vocation and by modeling a forward-looking hope, Mormons intentionally and consistently create the conditions for consequential faith.”

The second deals with the general idea of youth disaffection and the supposed rise in atheists:

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424053111903480904576510692691734916

“The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation—even though it was a false alarm.

“Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

“Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.”

Additionally, in “The Churching of America” Finke and Stark actually demonstrate that many of the calls for a return to a more conservative faith are actually coming from younger leaders in several denominations.

Also, since marrying and having kids is one reason people start going back to church – well, it make a lot of the current debates over marriage and the family mean a lot more.

 

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About Ivan Wolfe

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 over 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has six kids and four stepkids.

49 thoughts on “Religion Courses at BYU: embrace the change!

  1. I like to study scripture fairly closely, but I can see the danger of forgetting its ultimately devotional purpose. Good article.

  2. So, your confidence about the LDS Church not losing youth relies on the analysis of Rodney Stark, who predicted that there would be 50 million Mormons by now?
    Hmmmmmm.

  3. Well, Stark’s analysis is supported by a lot more research than just the one book and the one author, but I didn’t want to turn this into some heavily footnoted research paper.

    However, the correctness of his thesis does not depend on the correctness of other theories. That comes across more as a cheap shot than a serious comment, honestly. Finke and Stark’s work is backed by serious statistical historical data, whereas his other prediction was based on misdone extrapolation.

  4. Kristine – I wonder if we’re looking at different projections that Stark has made…would you mind pointing me to your source? Here’s a link to an article with different numbers (scroll down to the bottom of the page). Stark doesn’t project 50 million until after 2040 and that’s in his “high estimate” column and not until sometime after 2060 in his “low estimate” column.

    http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/latter-day-saint-social-life-social-research-lds-church-and-its-members/1-rise-new-world

  5. Your post may give the impression that these changes are coming from the university itself, but they are not. They are not specifically directed at BYU-Provo at all. The new curriculum is coming from CES and is being implemented across all three church colleges and LDS institutes of religion. You say, “BYU’s focus on making religious instruction more devotional seems tailor made to buck the trend of turning BYU religion classes into something with a too intellectual focus,” but there is has never been any suggestion anywhere that this curriculum is being implemented as a devotional corrective to overzealous academic or secularizing tendencies at BYU-Provo. Bill Hamblin is correct that the faculty voted overwhelmingly against this curriculum, and that includes faculty members with unimpeachable “devotional” credentials who are teaching the CC pilot classes and will be participating in the curriculum design. This has nothing to do with some fictional conflict over values between graduate-seminarists and devotionalists on the BYU religion faculty, or with intra-college politics. It’s a global change in university-level church curriculum that extends to Rel. Ed. at BYU-Provo.

  6. Alex G. –

    I doubt very much that those behind the change were thinking in the same terms I am. That doesn’t change much, though. The motivations can be different if the end results are the same; my focus is more on end results.

    I’m very unclear on what exactly the meaning of your comment is – I’d like a little more explanation on your part, if you’re willing to explain it. The fact the faculty voted against it only really helps proves my point (and I implicitly refer to that fact in my final paragraph before the footnote).

  7. Kristine S. –

    Thanks. I didn’t recall exactly when Stark made the prediction for – I guess if we get to 2060 and we have over 50 million, will Kristine #1 decide Stark might be on to something after all?

  8. You say that bishops can call on people like you for those having an intellectual crisis, but that is just not true. People like you do not live in most stakes. Even when people like you are available, it is not clear that a significant number of bishops will call on them to help in such a situation.
    I am not sure how the new curriculum will work out. It will hopefully be good in spite of faculty concerns. I do wish for some source of faithful scholarship that is actively promoted by the Church. Yes, I am aware of the Maxwell Institute and BYU Studies and the rest, but bringing some of that scholarship up in Sunday School can get you accused of apostasy where I live.

  9. I am sorry for the threadjack. Does anyone have any projections for church membership that include data more recent than 1998? Stark’s book is pretty old.

  10. DD –

    I’m not sure what to say to that. Apparently your experience in the church is very, very different than mine. In my experience, there are always some faithful intellectual types and bishops are willing to call on them.

    Also, I’ve never. ever seen anyone called apostate for citing FARMS or BYU Studies – although, given the Maxwell’s current direction, that may change (that was a joke). In fact, I cite them sometimes and people usually thank me – and I don’t live in a particularly “intellectual” ward or stake.

    I’m reminded of the story about the two men who asked a old man if this was a good town to move into. The old man asked them what their old towns were like. The first man replied his old town was full of self-righteous, selfish people. The old man told that man that’s what people were like in this town. The second man stated that the people in his town were helpful and loving. The old man told the second man that the people in this town were the same way.
    When his grandson asked the old man why he gave two different answers, the old man replied that people will see what they look for; each man would only find the same things.

  11. Ivan, thanks for the info. I will look for the updated edition.

    Also, our experiences seem to be very different. I do not think it is just my attitude though.

  12. Ivan,

    Several fairly random thoughts.

    1) I agree with you that at BYU these changes won’t result in spiritual twinkies because of the composition of the faculty. The problem is more serious, IMO, for Institute. I say more about this here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2014/10/religious-educations-new-curriculum-a-tale-of-two-authorities/

    2a) I think you’re straw-manning those you disagree with by framing the discussion in terms of “graduate seminars” vs. “devotional approaches.” If members have to choose between the two in determining which is better for educating our young adults, of course they’re going to go with the later.

    2b) Your defense of a devotional approach is based off of the previous distinction such that “intellectualizing” the curriculum is done simply for the sake of intellectualization (which then weakens the church, according to Stark). Instead, is it possible that something quite significant (from a devotional perspective) is at stake in something like the documentary hypothesis? In other words, I agree that BYU should maintain its devotional focus, but is there a legitimate fear that the new curriculum increases the likelihood that something will be lost? Why would the RelEd faculty vote overwhelming against this new curriculum (36-1 in Ancient Scripture, from what I hear)? Given that the majority of the faculty came to BYU via CES, why wouldn’t they be more supportive of “the need for more transparently devotional classes”?

    2c) Take a look at RelEd’s student learning outcomes (I discuss them here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2014/11/religious-education-for-the-modern-world/). As they currently stand, is there anything insufficiently devotional about them?

    2d) When you say “What the current and upcoming generations need is more devotion” I have no idea what you mean. It sounds nice, but given your OP, “more devotion” simply means less intellectualization. Perhaps you can say more.

    2e) Your argument against intellectualization (i.e., that it weakens the church, via Stark) is a kind of consequentialist argument that seems at odds with the way we (i.e., LDSs) tend to conceptualize religion. In other words, the search for truth/meaning as a religious pursuit is usually something done because it’s the right thing to do. We shouldn’t not do X because X will lead to a decline in benefit, but rather because X is wrong. If you want to make an argument against intellectualization it should be on the grounds that intellectualization is wrong, not because we won’t benefit from it. Otherwise, arguments for doing away with the Word of Wisdom (which decreases the number of people able to join the church) would be valid as well.

    3) If we’re going to look to these courses as a means of training leaders in the church (which you suggest by saying “I’d rather my bishop had taken a class on the importance of family and the importance of a living prophet – those will help him minister to a wide range of people and help succor the poor more than if he understands the current scholarly consensus on how to correctly interpret Amos or whether Paul actually wrote 1st and 2nd Timothy.”), perhaps we should have a class on pastoral counseling. I’d rather have a bishop that had taken a class on counseling (in the context of the gospel) than either of the options you lay out (perhaps the class on the family could include this, although I doubt it will).

  13. The devotional vs. academic debate is interesting; but I confess I find it a bit of a red herring. My take is that easily 80% of the angst being circulated in the bloggernacle is because of one change: the new “Eternal Family” course.

    Many of the protestations seem to revolve around the allegation that Mormon teachings on the family have “changed dramatically” over the Church’s history (apparently once upon a time Mormons all practiced free love, aborted their firstborn children, and pushed the elderly off of cliffs, or something). At any rate: I think all participants in this discussion understand that the course is very likely to further institutionalize teachings that liberal Mormons been hoping to de-emphasize in the short-term and wholly abandon in the long run.

  14. But I should say that in fairness there are more “conservative” Mormons, like Hamblin mentioned in the OP, who worry that courses based on themes rather than deep study of the scriptures will involve a lot of proof-texting that takes the scriptures out of context. As a Sunday school teacher, this seems a valid concern to me, although it is much too early to be certain that this will happen.

  15. “Also, I’ve never. ever seen anyone called apostate for citing FARMS or BYU Studies – although, given the Maxwell’s current direction, that may change (that was a joke).”

    Like most good jokes, there is a sting of truth at the heart of it.

  16. Well, SmallAxe, given that you engage in a bit of straw-manning yourself, and you are clearly too committed to the idea intellectuals should run things – well, there’s not much I could say that I haven’t already said – at least, that would help you see things any differently.

    Besides, claiming that claiming that I’m saying “more devotion” equals “less intellectualization” is such a gross misreading of what I said, it’s clear you’re not going to really understand what I say anyway. More devotion means too many things (it’s a very “thick” concept) to explain in just a few sentences, but it includes such things as commitment to the church, service to fellow humans, greater desire to fulfill and magnify church callings – and hundreds of other things. This, however, does not mean “less intellectualism” – but it might mean, in some cases, “less reliance on worldy/secular expertise.”

    You, however, seem quite “devoted” to the idea worldly learning and expertise should trump religous authority. In your post you discuss Expert authority vs. representational authority. I’m pretty solidly on the side that representational authority in the gospel trumps expert authority conferred by university degrees – you clearly favor expert authority. The gap between the two is wide and real, and I see no real problems with that. You stated “In short, expert authority is not needed in the classroom, nor is it to be regarded as truly authoritative” like it was a “bad thing” – I don’t see it as so bad, so again – I’m not sure there’s much common ground here, or that anything else I say would help you see outside your own particular intellectual sphere.

    As far as the student learning outcomes being “insufficiently devotional” or not – that’s something of a non-sequitur. The guidelines are just fine – perhaps these new classes are a way to fulfill those guidelines more fully.

    As for the “consequentialist” – that’s also a pretty severe misreading of my point. More importantly, your point about the Word of Wisdom is wrong. Getting rid of the WoW would actually, under Finke and Stark’s thesis, lead to a decline. It may theoretically open up more people to join the church, but recall: “The religious organizations that maximize these aspects of religion, however, also demand the highest price in terms of what the individual must do to qualify for these rewards” – the WoW is one of those high prices. Getting rid of the high price for membership will actually lead to a decline in “market share” over time.

  17. GeoffB, I can see Hamblin’s concerns; but I think there’s a bigger picture to be perceived.

    The core issue here revolves around three key questions: First, what kind of instruction should the Church membership be getting; second, to what degree the content of a particular class or discussion depends on the environment in which the discussion will be held; and third, is the environment of your average seminary/institute class more conducive to certain types of discussions or lessons than the environment of your average Sunday school class.

    Seen in that light, I like the concept of having the CES classes tackle thornier issues like church history and politically-charged issues like the family–because without the threat of being foreverafter labeled as the ward apostate, CES classes actually provide a “safer” environment for participants to air and resolve their concerns.

    The catch to all this is that as a Church, the quality of our gospel doctrine and senior primary classes (whose curriculum remains the standard works) needs to increase dramatically, and quickly. There needs to be careful coordination between the CES and the Sunday Schools and Primary to make this work–including, perhaps, a complete overhaul of the latter two auxiliaries’ curricula as well–and I frankly I wonder whether the leak of the new curriculum has forced the CES’ hand a bit and made them feel they must implement the new curriculum sooner than they otherwise would have.

  18. For real, Ivan? I’ve had interactions with those on M* for years, and this is how you want to treat me? I think you’re concluding that we’re talking past each other way too quickly.

    More devotion means too many things (it’s a very “thick” concept) to explain in just a few sentences, but it includes such things as commitment to the church, service to fellow humans, greater desire to fulfill and magnify church callings – and hundreds of other things.

    If devotion means an increased commitment to live the principles of the gospel, I’d actually agree with you that this is an issue for young adults. I’m not sure that the new curriculum will necessarily achieve that any better than old though. And if increased devotion is too strongly equated with commitment to the institution of the church, I question how appropriate these classes are for a university environment.

    I’m pretty solidly on the side that representational authority in the gospel trumps expert authority conferred by university degrees – you clearly favor expert authority.

    Huh? I clearly stated that in the context of RelEd, represenational authority is expected to trump expert authority. What I favor is a smaller gap between the two _in a university context_. To have two departments of educators, comprised of a mixture of experts on education, Near Eastern studies, American history, etc., and to then impose on them a curriculum that they did not agree with seems like something’s not quite right.

    You stated “In short, expert authority is not needed in the classroom, nor is it to be regarded as truly authoritative” like it was a “bad thing” – I don’t see it as so bad

    So you wouldn’t mind my uncle, who happens to sell insurance but loves Plato, teach your rhetoric classes? While ASU and BYU are two different systems, it still seems like _some_ degree of expert authority is necessary in the latter case, no? We might disgree about the degree of optimal expert authority for RelEd classrooms, but do you really want to make the argument that no expert authority is needed?

    As for the “consequentialist” – that’s also a pretty severe misreading of my point.

    Then what is your point? I hear you saying, “We shouldn’t intellectualize because it will decrease the number of people in our church.” My point is that such an argument sounds odd, given that we ought to “do the right; let the consequence follow.” You’re side-stepping what seems to be a major part of your argument, and that allows you not to engage my point 2b above–that intellectual efforts are often related to devotion.

  19. SmallAxe:

    You have one thing right: ASU and BYU are two totally different systems.

    I personally think one of BYU’s biggest problems is that it aims too much to be like other universities. So the comaprison there is faulty – especially when it comes to religion classes. BYU’s religion department isn’t and shouldn’t aim to be a typical religious studies place; it’s main aim should be devotion, not scholarship. I don’t favor the smaller gap because of that reasoning.

    You also come from a paradigm where the church does not equal the gospel. Note how you treat “an increased commitment to live the principles of the gospel” as a good thing, but seem to balk at the idea of “commitment to the institution of the church.” To me, those are the same things, full stop. The church is as true as the gospel (to borrow Eugene England’s phrase) because they are the same thing.

    Intellectual efforts can be related to devotion – otherwise, I wouldn’t have pursued the intellectual path myself. However, they are not as important as we intellectuals like to think. I didn’t sidestep your point; Intellectualism is part of the body of Christ, but what I’m saying is that we shouldn’t allow intellectuals to have as much control over the teaching of the gospel and they often think they should; it’s pretty clear that’s a recipe for demographic disaster for the church.

    You may say “do what is right, let the consequence follow” – but my problem with that is giving expert authority too much say (not “no say”) is not what is right in the first place, and second – if the “consequence” is that fewer people partake of the goodness of the gospel and the saving ordinances of the church, well that’s a bad consequence, and not one we should desire.

  20. Ivan,

    Our disagreement may not be as big as you think. IMO, the church ought to encourage devotion to the gospel, and ought to see itself as largely representing the gospel (I do think we disagree as to how close the church does this; but I don’t think this disagreement is all that relevant for the discussion at hand). I also agree with the notion that BYU is a different environment from a state school. That said, if BYU wants to be an accredited university, it should play by most of the rules of the game; and as such I don’t think student learning outcomes should primarily be measured by increased devotion to any particular institution. If that’s what BYU wants to do, it should detach RelEd from the university and make it an Institute. In some respects I would be fine with that, although that doesn’t answer the larger question about the best way to educate young adult members. Personally I would love it if the church treated Seminary and Institute faculty as something akin to youth ministers, and trained them accordingly. As it stands, however, there is the pretense to scholarship in RelEd (and to a much lesser degree in the Institutes); and what seems to be going on is the creation of experts in religious education, to only ignore them when they disagree with non-experts that have representational authority.

    IMO, what ought to happen at a place like BYU is a stronger attempt to combine the two inasmuch as the goals of the academy and the goals of the gospel align with each other.

    With regard to your specific argument, what does it mean to give intellectuals too much say? Holland has a PhD from Yale in American Studies. Does he already have too much say? Also, I’m going to continue to push you on the consequentialist argument. If mandating that only men can cook food would increase the number of people coming into the church, although it has no scriptural or revelatory basis, should we do it? Alternatively, if Stark’s analysis was shown to be deficient such that loosening some restriction like giving women the priesthood would actually increase membership, would you support it? In the latter case, I imagine not, because what is “right” (in this case who has authority to make these decisions) trumps what is “good” (more people experiencing the blessings of the church). Your argument against intellectualism trumpets the good without regard for the right.

  21. Jacob taught that to be learned was good as long as you hearkened to the counsel of God. So it seems that intellectualism itself isn’t bad, as long as it’s balanced with a devotional perspective. The move by the CES administration feels like they are increasing the emphasis on the devotional perspective out of concern that the intellectual perspective has become too dominant. For those of us who’ve been through many rigorous education classes at BYU that clearly put the devotional emphasis above all else, we are left scratching our heads. What did we experience that the CES administration decided was too intellectual and possibly damaging to our testimonies?

    You are correct that most wards and stakes have people who have a more intellectual bent towards the scriptures, but you are not correct that bishops and stake presidents will necessarily use those resources. When someone confides in a church leader that they have intellectual questions about the church, it is highly unlikely the response will be, “Hey, you know Bro. Smith knows a lot about this subject, why don’t you ask him?” In this church, priesthood authority (and allegiance to that authority) trumps all. When my stake president fumbles through biblical stories and quotes from the “apostle Luke” at the pulpit, no-one is allowed to correct him (unless a visiting area seventy happens to be in the audience). Is it possible that the emphasis on the devotional approach can become so anti-intellectual that it creates a handicap?

  22. JimD said, “Seen in that light, I like the concept of having the CES classes tackle thornier issues like church history and politically-charged issues like the family–because without the threat of being foreverafter labeled as the ward apostate, CES classes actually provide a “safer” environment for participants to air and resolve their concerns.”

    I agree. I should clarify that I like having Sunday School classes that are largely devotional. I think all Sunday meetings should be about building faith rather than hashing out post-manifesto polygamy or the status of Asherah. That said, I would like someplace in the Church where thorny questions or obscure issues can be brought up. Blogs such as this give some opportunity, but the medium is rather impersonal. I am ok with being responsible for my own learning, but it would be nice to be able to talk face-to-face about some of the issues with others. That is hard to do where I live.

  23. I’m in the “wait and see” category. I believe the new program will be a gain, but am uncertain as to what we’ll lose in the process. Will we gain more than we lose?
    I think it is very important that we teach members how to deeply search the scriptures and use critical thinking in understanding them. I’m not certain how well the current curriculum manages this, versus being just a litany of rote information.
    I recall the time I was subbing as Institute instructor for D&C 20. I noted that while April 6 may be the day Jesus was born, archaeology shows that Jesus was probably born in 4 BC. Some of the young bucks stepped up and quoted out of the manual that Jesus was born in 1AD. My focus was that it doesn’t matter when he was born, but that he was born. Since then, the JSPP has shown that DC 20:1 was not part of the original revelation, but added by the scribe as an introduction – meaning the April 6, 1AD date for Jesus’ birth is NOT doctrinal, but assumption made by over-interpreting the verse.
    IF we move to a more devotional or thematic courses, I hope they focus on actual doctrine and not just on distractions. There is power in studying by theme, if done correctly. Rather than a quick skimming through books of the Bible, one can spend time discussing something in-depth. I would hope that is what comes from this.

  24. SmallAxe – you’re attempting to turn me into a straw man, and I don’t appreciate it. Anytime you paraphrase me, you get me almost exactly wrong.

    You asked: “With regard to your specific argument, what does it mean to give intellectuals too much say?”
    Well, one just needs to read your and TT’s posts at FPR to see what I mean. That would give you a basic idea of what giving intellectuals too much say would look like. The article “Toward a post-heterosexual Mormon theology” is also a good idea of what letting intellectualism override devotion looks like.

    You also ask: “Holland has a PhD from Yale in American Studies. Does he already have too much say? ”
    Well, considering Holland’s speeches and ministry have a clear devotional focus, I think he’s achieved a nice balance between the intellectual and devotional life. I wish I could be more like him.

    Your next few questions about the conventionalist arguments are rather silly, and I see no need to answer them (I see no benefit in arguing about forced hypotheticals that are clearly phrased in a way to benefit your side of the argument).
    In Finke and Stark’s analysis, institutions that succeed maintain some tension between being super strict and too secular and free (and churches that give women official ordination, pretty much without exception, lose market share and membership), so random strictness doesn’t help anything (the strictness has to be tied to the benefits one receives from membership); while some loosening of standards can be helpful during times of too high tension, most churches, by their analysis, tend to loosen up too much and head for inevitable decline (the ones that survive the decline tend to retrench).

    You conclude: “Your argument against intellectualism trumpets the good without regard for the right.”
    Here, you really are trying to turn me into a straw man. My argument is not against intellectualism per se, it’s against giving intellectualism too much weight (see above). As for the good vs. the right, I fail to see your distinction. You appear to straining out a gnat (some too-nuanced distinction between “good” and “right”) while swallowing a camel (your particular intellectual agenda, which would basically push the church toward secularization).

  25. Mary Ann: “In this church, priesthood authority (and allegiance to that authority) trumps all. When my stake president fumbles through biblical stories and quotes from the “apostle Luke” at the pulpit, no-one is allowed to correct him (unless a visiting area seventy happens to be in the audience). Is it possible that the emphasis on the devotional approach can become so anti-intellectual that it creates a handicap?”

    I would suggest two things:

    1. Be more charitable toward your stake presidents and other leaders. In my experience, coming up, after the meeting, chatting briefly with the stake president/bishop/whatever, and then gently offering a suggestion about how Luke wasn’t really an apostle (or whatever) is a very successful strategy. Your comment seems condescending toward your leaders, though I hope I’m misreading you there.
    Priesthood authority does really trump all, but a kind word and being a friend to those in charge will get a lot more changes than snarky, condescending complaints on blogs.

    2. Yes, excessive, over-zealous devotion can become a handicap. I have no disagreements there. I have often defended intellectuals against anti-intellectual comments in church. However, I also understand where these comments come from – generally the church members who make them have been talked down to or insulted by people who were too full of their intellectual pride. However, instead of telling people they are wrong, I respond with comments about the body of Christ and how we all have different roles to fulfill, and that we all sin differently (as Uctdorf put it), and people tend to respond positively to that. I’ve even had people come up to me after lessons (I can think of at least two times in the last year or two – I really should keep a better journal) and say something like “thanks for those comments. You’ve made me realize I was being too judgmental toward smart guys like you.”

    So, overall, I suggest rather than complaining on blogs, you try to make friends with the leaders and you might be surprised what changes and corrections you can make, even if they are “under the radar.”

  26. Ivan W., luckily I was comfortable enough with my bishop (the local CES instructor) to voice my concerns. And, luckily, he understood me well enough to know how much it bothered me to see an authoritative religious figure display unfamiliarity with the scriptures. I apologize if the remarks came off as snarky.

  27. Mary Ann — “When my stake president fumbles through biblical stories and quotes from the “apostle Luke” at the pulpit, no-one is allowed to correct him (unless a visiting area seventy happens to be in the audience). Is it possible that the emphasis on the devotional approach can become so anti-intellectual that it creates a handicap?”

    The answer to that is clearly “yes”. I’m pretty concerned with the curriculum change. I’m concerned that so few sacrament speakers even use scriptures these days, and when they do, they often use them badly (out of context). Devotion is supposed to be the result of regular scripture study, but the scriptures aren’t all that easy to understand in a vacuum. I really valued my scripture classes at BYU 25 years ago – they helped a lot.

  28. My take is that this internet tempest over scripture study is an attempt to neuter the current prophet and apostles. It’s a clever one because scripture study is a good thing that is easy to neglect, and being against it is like being against motherhood. Nonetheless, what many seek is a return to Joseph Smith’s problem of not being able to settle issues by recurring to the scriptures, for them a feature and not a bug of the scriptures; they don’t like things LDS leaders say, and seek an alternative authority from scholarly understanding of written texts. Specifically, and very weirdly, they have some problem with church teachings on the family.

  29. Ivan: As a matter of preference, I would have distinguished between being an intellectual (which requires education, but not a [secular] degree or even “formal” training) and being an intellectualist (which seems more appropriate to identify a person who ascribes to a philosophy of intellectualism).

    I notice that those who consider faith a handicap rather than an intellectual and spiritual pursuit (it’s necessarily both, in my view), tend to label themselves as “intellectuals” in an effort to suggest rational rather than non/irrational intellectual processes, which they usually ascribe to faith/religion. I have never understood the suggestion (by friends and others) that faith is not rational (or worse, irrational). Faith is (not necessarily) blind and disregarding my own faith, anyway, would require irrational thinking on my part.

  30. Ivan, it seems like we agree on quite a bit, so I suggest you put our major area of misunderstanding/disagreement in that context. IOW, I don’t think it’s fair to say that _anytime_ I paraphrase you, I get you almost exactly wrong. Further, there’s a difference between asking questions for clarification and paraphrasing. You seem bent on treating me as hostile. Given your last interaction with FPR, that is understandable. But IIRC, your plea there was to judge you on your own merit. This is your opportunity to show me that same courtesy.

    My argument is not against intellectualism per se, it’s against giving intellectualism too much weight (see above). As for the good vs. the right, I fail to see your distinction.

    Phrased in that language, no one can disagree with you. Of course intellectualism shouldn’t be given too much weight. I recognized from the beginning that you’re not against intellectualism period, but against a certain kind or certain degree of intellectualism; which is why I asked you to explain what it means “to give intellectuals too much say.”

    Further, we should continue to keep in mind the differing contexts–BYU, CES, and the Church. My argument has been specificly about BYU; and I haven’t seen you disgree with much of what I’ve said in that regard.

    What I’ve tried to show you, though, is that your argument against intellectualizing the curriculum is not valid because your appeal is to the consequences of intellectualization and not that intellectualization is wrong in itself. The distinction between right and good may seem like straining at gnats to you, but this is ethics 101 (literally, read almost any ethics textbook). It is indeed good that more people’s lives be blessed by the church, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to do that which attracts most people to the church. Similarly, keeping more people in the church is good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to do that which keeps more people in the church. If X is the right thing to do, we ought to do it even if it means that there will be bad consequences. So if intellectualizing is the right thing to do, we ought to do it even if it will decrease the number of people in the church.

    Because of this, Stark’s analysis is irrelevant unless you want to argue that we ought to prioritize the good over the right. I imagine you don’t want to do that, so I’ve been trying to get you to clarify what you see as being so wrong with intellectualizing (keeping in mind that you mean some specific kind of intellectualizing and not intellectualizing period).

    Now, to this point all you’ve done is provide examples (BTW, you cite what I’ve done on FPR; I’d like you challenge you to find 2 specific instances of this among my ~200 posts over 10 years). Is it possible for you to extract a definition from those examples?

  31. President Kimball said,

    “I bear witness to the world today that more than a century and a half ago the iron ceiling was shattered; the heavens were once again opened, and since that time revelations have been continuous. …
    “Since that momentous day in 1820, additional scripture has continued to come, including the numerous and vital revelations flowing in a never-ending stream from God to his prophets on the earth. …
    “… We testify to the world that revelation continues and that the vaults and files of the Church contain these revelations which come month to month and day to day. We testify also that there is, since 1830 when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized, and will continue to be, so long as time shall last, a prophet, recognized of God and his people, who will continue to interpret the mind and will of the Lord.
    “Now, a word of warning: Let us not make the error of the ancients. Numerous modern sectarians believe in the Abrahams, the Moseses, and the Pauls, but resist believing in today’s prophets. The ancients also could accept the prophets of an earlier day, but denounced and cursed the ones who were their contemporaries.
    “In our day, as in times past, many people expect that if there be revelation it will come with awe-inspiring, earth-shaking display. For many it is hard to accept as revelation those numerous ones in Moses’ time, in Joseph’s time, and in our own year—those revelations which come to prophets as deep, unassailable impressions settling down on the prophet’s mind and heart as dew from heaven or as the dawn dissipates the darkness of night.
    “Expecting the spectacular, one may not be fully alerted to the constant flow of revealed communication. I say, in the deepest of humility, but also by the power and force of a burning testimony in my soul, that from the prophet of the Restoration to the prophet of our own year, the communication line is unbroken, the authority is continuous, a light, brilliant and penetrating, continues to shine. The sound of the voice of the Lord is a continuous melody and a thunderous appeal. For nearly a century and a half there has been no interruption.”(“Revelation: The Word of the Lord to His Prophets”, Spencer W. Kimball, Apr 1977) https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1977/04/revelation-the-word-of-the-lord-to-his-prophets?lang=eng

    It seems that the error of the ancients was to believe the previous prophets over the living ones we have today. We must be cautious and prudent. We know that our living prophets are men. But they are 15 men that have been prepared for decades in a path they have not chosen. They were called of God. When the united voice of the brethren speak, it is up to us to seek the Lords confirmation of such statements. I can hardly consider the likelihood that I am correct and they have erred.

  32. Richard, you seem to believe that this decision originated with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — it didn’t. Two apostles approved the course changes desired by CES Administrators, overriding concerns by many in the BYU Religious Education department. In a recent BYU article explaining the backstory, one of the professors (who supports the changes) admits that there are risks with the new courses (http://news.byu.edu/archive14-nov-religious_education.aspx). One risk is that young adults will have less familiarity with the scriptures overall, as the only required CES-level sequential study of the standard works (reading and studying the Book of Mormon from 1 Nephi to Moroni, for example) will be in Seminary. The church has already moved away from sequential study in youth Sunday School to topical study. Topical study can indeed be tremendously useful and spiritually uplifting, which is a major plus for the course changes, but it limits understanding of context for scriptural passages. Another risk in these course changes is that it leaves very little room for students to study the complexities of the scriptures themselves (especially the Bible under the new curriculum), making them even more susceptible to intellectual attacks from unfaithful perspectives later in their lives. I actually think that the Foundations of the Restoration class sounds like a better forum than the regular D&C classes as far as discussion of the complexities of church history. For myself anyway, being able to tackle the thornier issues of the scriptures and doctrine from BYU Religion Professors (and other BYU Professors) who had dealt with many of these arguments head-on was immensely helpful. Once you’re out of BYU or the CES system, the likelihood that you’re gonna have access to the same caliber of these faithful, temple-recommend-holding resources drops. The CES Administration is confident that individuals are taking charge of their own scripture study at home, but based on how many people actually read the Gospel Doctrine scripture passages ahead of time in my class (zero for this last Sunday when I asked), I’m a little skeptical. Like JimD said, we really are going to have to up our game in the only places left that that allow sequential study: senior Primary, Seminary and Gospel Doctrine. Please understand that no-one is upset with a greater emphasis on Christ, or bringing in teachings of the current leaders. It’s the concept of members becoming even less familiar with the standard works that is the concern.

  33. I should amend those last sentences — *I’m* not upset with the greater emphasis on Christ, or bringing in the teachings of the current leaders (and I doubt anyone in the Religion Dept had a problem with these). My concerns are people not being exposed as much to the standard works, not understanding the importance of context in understanding scriptures, and not knowing how to deal with secularist ideas undermining the authority of the Bible and, by extension, the Book of Mormon.

  34. I have a friend who is a seminary teacher. She said that this change will not affect seminary. For those of you who did not know, there is already changes that have taken place in seminary this year.

    “What are the new requirements for seminary graduation?

    For each course, students will now be required to do the following in order to receive credit toward graduation:

    • Attend 75% of classes each term (and in Released-time Programs no unexcused absences)
    • Read the assigned book of scripture
    • Pass a learning assessment with a score of 75% or higher
    • Receive a priesthood leadership endorsement from their bishop or branch president”
    http://seminary.lds.org/about/elevate-learning/questions-and-answers?lang=eng

    This is a substantial increase of requirements. They are to read the whole assigned book of scripture.

    I was a seminary principle (hall monitor) a couple of years ago. Every day in class, they would ask the class who read the day before or the weekend before. In addition, they marked a log of when they read and when they did not.

    This university and institute change seems to be in response to this. That they expect that high school graduates are going to have a much higher degree of fluency in the scriptures.

  35. Mary Ann, I wasn’t thinking that the brethren originated this decision. They certainly deliberated, prayed and fasted over it and approved it. I trust them. As I see how this fits in with the higher scripture literacy requirements of seminary, it seems to fall into place for me.

    We certainly do not want less scholarship. We want more. We want to increase our learning by study and by faith.

  36. Ivan, I’m late to the discussion, but I enjoyed your argument, and I agree in general. These are my observations:

    Someone, I can’t remember who, said in General Conference that modern prophets set “prophetic priorities.” This new curriculum says some important things about what the prophets believe our priorities should be in studying the scriptures. Rather than all the Standard Works being equal, with one year dedicated to each one, now we see that all scriptures are NOT equal. Let’s compare the old and new curriculum:

    1. Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel = The New Testament
    2. Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon = The Book of Mormon
    3. Foundations of the Restoration = D&C
    4. The Eternal Family = ?

    It’s clear which standard work got the shaft: The Old Testament. “The Eternal Family” is a non-Standard Work subject (other than a brief treatment in D&C). It is one of the favorite topics of our modern, post-scriptural prophets however. “The Eternal Family” will be the discussion of modern, post-scriptural prophets. The Old Testament has been effectively replaced with “Modern Prophets.”

    This is already an approach of many Christians to the Old Testament, a book which has the word “kill” over a thousand times. Mormons already have their own version of the Old Testament in the Book of Mormon and the D&C, which reworks the tribal themes in Isaiah from a clearly Christian perspective. And the new curriculum will no doubt study a little of the Old Testament to find “Christ” in it. But the proof-texting of Christianity into the pre-Christian dispensation is already the raison d’etre of the Book of Mormon, so there really is not much need for the Old Testament in LDS theology and understanding.

    I’m happy with the change, inasmuch as the Old Testament is a violent and foreign document which is not well understood by Mormons, and would probably hurt our faith to understand it from its own perspective, out of the Book of Mormon’s Christianized paradigm.

  37. “This new curriculum says some important things about what the prophets believe our priorities should be in studying the scriptures. Rather than all the Standard Works being equal, with one year dedicated to each one, now we see that all scriptures are NOT equal. Let’s compare the old and new curriculum:

    1. Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel = The New Testament
    2. Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon = The Book of Mormon
    3. Foundations of the Restoration = D&C
    4. The Eternal Family = ?”

    Good point

  38. I admit that the Old Testament isn’t my favorite book of scripture. So if we’re going to de-emphasize one of the five canonical books, I’m completely OK with the OT being the book that gets slightly de-emphasized. I presume the Pearl of Great Price gets covered in Foundations of the Restoration.

    My husband started working on a mnemonic song for the D&C:

    The Doctrine and Covenants has more of God’s word
    Section 1 is the preface,
    The 4th calls to serve.
    18, souls are worth much,
    19, please repent,
    the church formed in 20,
    27 sacrament.

    I’ll work with him to finish it off. When he first told me about a D&C mnemonic song, similar to what we have for the other volumes of scripture to remember the order of the books each contains, I joked that the song would go “1, 2, 3 and 4 and 5, 6 and 7…”

    The eternal family, as a topic, should actually lead to significant study of the Old Testament, as this is where we find the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Ruth, Dinah, and Rebecca. It is priesthood power used to seal individuals as families that will bring to pass the hoped-for salvation of all mankind, through proxy ordinance work performed in temples.

    Done right, these new courses are much more likely to lead to intellectual study of the actual doctrine of the LDS Church, as well as a true appreciation of the distinction between Mormonism and modern mainstream Christianity.

    For what it’s worth, I expect that we will find these new courses pulling from all volumes of our canonized scriptures. I think this change is facilitated by the fact that most college students will be using electronic scriptures, making it trivially easy to follow a lesson plan that flits all over the scriptural landscape.

    Lastly, this new curriculum will make it easier to include discussion of women in these courses, in my opinion. Shaking the curriculum up in this manner allows us to break away from the traditional approaches developed during a time of unconscious patriarchy without the result seeming like a forced attempt to “pander” to females.

    Kind of makes me wish I were back in college again…

  39. One of these BYU (H) students weighing in–

    Bloggernacle is full bookish, left-leaning intellectuals.

    No BYU school is filled with those people.

    I had a New Testament class that was these folk’s dream – lots of contextual reading of epistles, long discussions of which were Pauline, Deutero-Pauline, and so forth. I loved it.

    Most didn’t.

    Students hate the kind of classes all of these bloggers are pressing for. They spend those classes texting, sleeping, or on facebook.

    The vast majority of students prefer the devotional model. They simply like it better. They tell me all the time – “I don’t know what I would do without a spiritual pick up like that.”

    This is frustrating to the intellectual, like myself and every other person in the blogosphere ‘cuz we already know that crap and like to complain about how boring the correlation committee is.

    Newsflash: no one else in the Church feels that way. Moreover, for a lot of the folks at a Church college, foundations are necessary. 60% of this school is international, many converts of just a few years. The spiritual needs they have when they go into an Old Testament class are simply not the same as the intellectual needs most people in the bloggernacle have.

    That is worth remembering.

  40. “I had a New Testament class that was these folk’s dream – lots of contextual reading of epistles, long discussions of which were Pauline, Deutero-Pauline, and so forth. I loved it. ”

    That’s the same with me – I had a class like that (although it was in NT Greek, in the Classics department, not in the religion department), and I loved it – I could not get enough,

    But I recognize that’s not how the vast majority of people in the church want it – or need it, really. The world (and the church) needs more devotion way more than it needs more intellectual debate about Pauline authorship.

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