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:
- 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
- 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
- Foundations of the Restoration: A study of the key revelations, doctrine, people, and events of the Restoration
- 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.
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:
“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:
“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.