Recommended Reading for CES Instructors, in light of Elder Ballard’s recent remarks

If you follow any Mormon topics on any form of social media, it’s likely you’ve heard about Elder Ballard’s recent remarks:

“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and the teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”

What I hope to do in this post is list a few resources that a seminary/institute (or even a really dedicated Sunday School teacher) could read to help them get the knowledge to either give good answers to these questions or to know where to look and find the answers.Now, I am going to provide a list of 15 works (3 for each year of the 4-year rotation of Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Church History/D&C of seminary, plus three bonus items).

However, I intend to this to be the start of a discussion, rather than an end.  What I really hope is that the comments to this post will become something of a database of information on good sources for instructors.

A few ideas behind my recommendation of sources:

  1. Many CES instructors are not scholars of Near Eastern languages, or archaeology, or 19th century America, or other fields related to the scriptures.  The works should be accessible to non-specialists, though they do not have to be “popular” texts.
  2.  CES instructors are often busy, so I want the lists to be short – something an instructor could reasonably read through over a summer break.  The works don’t have to be short themselves, but that might help.
  3. A “conservative/orthodox friendly” orientation.  The authors and even the conclusions of the work don’t have to be conservative/orthodox (as far as church doctrine/culture go), but they should at least be friendly to it, in the sense of either not attacking or even accommodating to that orientation.  Mainly, this is because if it isn’t, very few actual CES instructors are going to read it or even consider it.
  4. The work should deal with the kinds of tough questions the instructors might hear. Very general works that only deal with surface issues are often useful starting places, but the works should have some depth to them.
  5. The texts should act as bridges to other texts.  This is so the instructors, if they can’t find the answers they need here, the texts will point them to where they can go.
  6. I’m trying for texts that wouldn’t be immediately obvious.  So, for example, the excellent books Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, Jesus and the World of the New Testament, and Rough Stone Rolling aren’t on the lists below, mainly because I would hope any CES instructors worth their salt would already have read them (or have plans to do so soon).

So, here’s my list.  As said above, I welcome corrections, additions, alternative lists, etc.  By its nature, this is going to be limited.  However, any suggestions in the comments below should be accompanied with some commentary, as I do with my list.

Old Testament:

  1. Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliot Friedman.  Yes, it has the Hebrew text, but don’t let that scare you off.  The translation is clear and accessible, and the commentary is excellent.  It’s from a somewhat theologically liberal (at least, compared to the LDS church), but 90% of the commentary shouldn’t upset even the most conservative instructor. Friedman also did something I thought impossible: he made the book of Leviticus not just interesting, but fascinating.
  2. Authoring the Old Testament by David Bokovy.  Even if you don’t buy into the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Old Testament, especially the Torah, were written and edited by multiple authors often with different agendas), you should at least understand it.  I find some of Bokovy’s conclusions a bit off base (especially his views on the Book of Abraham) and find him too willing to trust academia over prophets, but overall this is a worthy book that, if read critically and carefully, will help any instructor deal with questions about the DH. (Alternative possibility – Who Wrote the Bible? by the same author as the Commentary in item 1 above is a bit more general and 100% less Mormon, but also good if you decide Bokovy’s more extreme speculations don’t appeal to your tastes).
  3. Great are the Words of Isaiah by Monte S. Nyman.  I find Nyman a bit too willing to take the word of LeGrande Richards (or others) over the plain sense of Isaiah’s meaning (for example, Isaiah 5:26-29 is not about missionary work or airplanes, sorry), but he consults other translations and includes some scholarly insights (even if he’s too dismissive of some, at least he mentions them – and thus makes instructors aware of questions students might have).  Overall, it’s a good starting place (but it’s really just a start) for getting through the book many say they can’t understand.  A Bonus is that it works for the Isaiah portion of 2 Nephi in the Book of Mormon.

New Testament:

  1. Christian Origins and the Question of God by N.T Wright.  (amazon link here). This is somewhat cheating, as it’s actually 4 rather thick volumes.  Any one would work, as he treads a lot of the same ground in each one (mostly for readers who skip any of the previous volumes), and they can be quite heavy.  But Wright’s writing style is accessible and he covers so much information that reading through any one (or all four) of these volumes will help any instructor become prepared for lots of tough questions.
  2. An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown.  If you read just one book on the NT, this should be it.  Though becoming a little dated every year (Brown died and so it hasn’t been updated since it was published), it covers the NT from many angles, and while generally “moderate to conservative” in general orientation (the author was a Catholic priest), he fairly describes all sides of various NT issues from the very liberal to the fundamentalist.
  3. Jesus the Christ Study Guide by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel andThomas A. Wayment.  Given that Jesus The Christ is THE New Testament book most Mormons will have read, this helps update the text.  Talmage did an amazing job, but a lot of the research and texts he based his masterwork on have dated somewhat badly.  The spiritual insights are still worthy, but this text (while not perfect and skipping over some issues I would like to see addressed) does a good job of updating the scholarly work without undermining (indeed, actually strengthening) Talmage’s work.

Book of Mormon:

  1. Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History by Brant A. Gardner. If questions of historicity don’t come up, something is wrong (maybe you need to be more approachable as a teacher?).  While I am hesitant to agree with some of Gardner’s conclusions about the possible Meso-American setting and would hesitate to make any devotional points based on the history proposed here, this is a good overview of how to deal with the BoM as history.
  2.  Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide 1st Edition by Grant Hardy.  I have some issues with “bracketing” faith claims from a discussion of scripture (tl;dr – it’s oddly one sided how bracketed claims are allowed to feed back into your faith, but your faith must be exiled from the bracketed area, and the bracketed area tends to grow and grow – but that’s another post, moving on. . . ) and think he’s too hard on Nephi, but this works as a nice way to open up the text to new and productive readings, with connections and insights many instructors may have overlooked.
  3. By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl L. Givens. I could  pretty much cut and paste my response to Hardy’s book in 2 above (expect for the part about Nephi).  Some of this gets a little too “academic” for some readers (I find the term “dialogic revelation” opaque and not really necessary, but that may just be me), but overall this is, I think, an excellent book that will help any instructor increase their knowledge of the Book of Mormon text, but more especially the controversies that swirl around the text (both academic and theological).

Church History/Doctrine and Covenants:

  1.  Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Glen M. Leonard.  The Mountain Meadows Massacre is bound to come up.  While Juanitia Brooks’s book is also a must read, a lot of research and information has come out and these authors were given unprecedented access to church files.
  2.  Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard L. Anderson.  Some tend to dismiss this book as “mere apologetics” but it’s much more than that – it’s seriously and professionally researched history.
  3. Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness by W. Paul Reeve. Racial issues will come up, and if you don’t know who Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James are, or what actual racial rhetoric Saints were using at any given time frame, you will likely find yourself somewhat stymied with these questions.  Here’s a good place to start.

Bonus Books:

  1.  Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath. Too many instructors are unaware of what other Christian religions actually believe,  how they worship, or even interact with the wider world (it would do no good to say “this is what other Christians believe, only to have your students find out you’re wrong when they have a discussion with their friends).  While this book is, at times, simplified to the point of almost becoming inaccurate, it’s a good general overview of Protestantism.
  2. Almost any parallel Bible. Here’s a good one to start with, since it has the KJV and the translations are fairly conservative in nature.  However, don’t fear other translations – they can help you explain the difficult KJV text to your students.
  3.  The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy by Roger Finke & Rodney Stark. This helps explain how religions “work” and gives a good overview of American religious history.  Mormons aren’t mentioned very often, but it will help with the overall context of early church history and even explain the relevance of many current controversies.

Bonus Blog:  Benjamin the Scribe. Ben Spackman knows way more about all of this stuff than I do, and each of his posts is an amazing wealth of information.  It’s aimed at Gospel Doctrine teaching, mostly, but it’s easily applicable to Seminary, Institute, and any other Sunday School class.

Okay – have away in the comments.  One up me, correct me, whatever (just try to stick to the guidelines above.  Long lists of 20 or so books a teacher of the New Testament *must* read are outside the spirit of this post.  Again, review the guidelines above before posting, but if you do go outside them, at least give a good defense/explanation of why).

70 thoughts on “Recommended Reading for CES Instructors, in light of Elder Ballard’s recent remarks

  1. Good choice. I would also recommend Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, Poet by Victor Ludlow.

  2. Thanks for this. I’m not a CES instructor but I hope that these resources will help should tough questions come up in church or from my own children as they get older.

  3. Patrick Mason, “Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt.”

    Boyd Peterson, program coordinator for Mormon studies at UVU and new editor of Dialogue had this to say about it:

    “In an age where the Internet has made all things present, confronting questions about church history and theology is the new norm. How we respond to those who doubt is, according to Mason, our generation’s test of true discipleship. He provides compassionate, wise, and reassuring advice for both those confronting doubt and those who minister to them. To find peace in the church one must find Christ there, for only there can we find fertile soil to plant our faith.”

    BYU religion professor Eric Huntsman said this:

    “In Planted, Patrick Mason successfully navigates the often challenging shoals between faith and reason that many Latter-day Saints encounter in this generation. He deftly combines historical accuracy, intellectual honesty, and genuine personal faith. While he provides useful strategies for dealing with major issues regarding the history of the church and its place in modern society, his greatest contribution is helping us distinguish between the host of secondary issues and focusing on what is truly, salvifically important: being firmly planted in the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ.”

  4. I’d add ‘The Book of Mormon – The Earliest Text’ by Royal Skousen to both Church History (Doctrine and Covenants) study and Book of Mormon study. It contains insights and information I found valuable.

  5. So as not to go outside the boundaries Ivan has set but also to direct any readers to (many) more resources, Ben has published lists of recommended resources for OT, NT, and BoM at Times and Seasons. If you feel like you have a handle on the resources Ivan posted, check those posts out. They will give you PLENTY to chew on.

  6. Someone said that Isaiah 5:26–29 was about missionaries and airplanes? Good grief, it’s not even a prophecy of salvation or even positive things! (Reading the rest of the chapter for context is kind of important here….)

  7. BHodges: I haven’t read “Planted” yet, but you know, if someone were to send me a review copy, I would post a review here at M* (hint, hint).

    Jack of Hearts: I know there are lots of lists out there with lots to chew on. My main idea was something like “I have to teach X classes a day with XXX number of students, I have a church calling and six kids, I don’t have time to read 20 books on the NT, no matter how worthy. Can you give me a short list of what would be the best to read over this summer before classes start up again?”

    I figure if they start here, that will lead them to lots more (I hope it would, anyway), but if time doesn’t permit, at least they will be ready for some of the tougher questions.

    Mike Parker: LeGrande Richards made both claims several times (the lions that roar and carry their prey unharmed – clearly the roar of airplane engines!) and, unfortunately Nyman repeats it, and the lesson manual for Sunday School hints at the idea that all the nations being gathered are there for missionary work, when in context it’s clear it’s an army come to wipe God’s people off the map (I tend to be more charitable toward the correlated lesson manuals than most on the Bloggernacle, but on this one, the manual really needs fixing).

  8. Looks like a good list. If you do another blog post, I’d be interested in seeing a list of specifically apologetic material (a la Nibley), which is up to date, with strong scholastic credentials. I don’t know if non-apologetic books like these are specifically helpful for dealing with doubt-inducing questions. Of course they contain information that is very important to be aware of, but they aren’t necessarily answers or solutions to the core questions.

    Ultimately, you either have to answer the doubt with a satisfactory apologetic response, or you have to teach the student how to become comfortable with unanswered questions and doubts, because there will always be those by design. So also a list of “doubt-response” books like Planted, or The Crucible of Doubt would also be helpful for educators.

  9. Nice list. However, it is a lengthy (and expensive) list of books. It would take many teachers months or years to read and actually understand what they are reading. Also, there’s a lot of information that does not deal with Elder Ballard’s concerns, or the issues that most affect our youth today. In about a month, I’ll be releasing a review of a new book, coming out in April, that deals with the top issues that cause doubts and concerns for young (and older) people. Stay tuned….

  10. It is a long list, but each section is fairly short – the idea was a seminary/institute teacher could read them over the summer before that particular unit’s year (that’s why I limited it to three books for each section).

  11. I’m of a growing opinion that maybe the tools of scholarship and of faith might be incompatible for the most part. By that I really just mean, if you want to use the tools of scholarship to a full extent, you do have to first assume there are no religious events or revelations that would throw them off. This sounds innocuous at first — a natural and small incompatibility that is easy to compensate for — but I think the end result is that you end up having to cling to one or the other and can’t really have both simultaneously in a consistent manner. I doubt my view will be very popular, but I think it might be right anyhow. I don’t have time or ability to present my necessary case to show what I have in mind. But I suspect that two worlds will forever remaining somewhat incompatible, at least during mortality.

  12. Ivan,

    This is a great list and it would revolutionize CES classroom instruction. I think that the only thing I would add would be the Harper Collins NRSV for the HB/OT/NT. And if I could only suggest one book, it would be that. I taught GD a couple of weeks back and integrated Elder Ballard’s talk and people really responded well to it, though approximately 90% of the 70 or so class members had never heard of the Gospel Topic essays or where to find them. Lots of work to be done at the grassroots level.

  13. Ivan
    Not to detract, but I disagree with your, and apparently the scholarly consensus, view of those verses and chapter of Isaiah

  14. My approach to Isaiah 5 would probably be different than what Ivan and Mike Parker say above. I would discourage the viewpoint we definitely know what it about and what it is not about. I think that chapter and all of the chapters quoted in the BoM especially must be read with a spiritual eye to the latter days. When I was Gospel Doctrine teacher, I encouraged people to read it and pray about it and see what it means for them. I encouraged people to find out their own interpretations and to be open that their interpretations could change over multiple readings.

    Note: I am NOT saying that the manual’s approach is correct, not am I saying that it should not be read in context. I am saying that there are many layers of meaning in Isaiah and that it is *possible* the manual may be correct for some people. I think it is especially useful to get readers to begin to see how Isaiah deals with time in a nonlinear fashion, i.e., the text talks about one time frame, jumps to the future and then jumps to the past and then back to the present or future. I would simply disagree with the statement that the manual is definitely not correct.

  15. Geoff,

    Several times, Nephi tells us that he takes Isaiah’s writings and “likens them” unto himself and his people. This is a legitimate way to read the scriptures, and it’s the way that many Christians and most Latter-day Saints approach the text: from a devotional, “what does this mean to me”-style.

    As personally useful as it is, however, it is not good exegesis. Isaiah was speaking to a specific people at a specific time (as was Deutero-Isaiah), not to people living thousands of years in the future. (Imagine if President Monson got up in General Conference and prophesied about an event that was going to take place in AD 4750. What benefit would that provide us today?)

    The notion that Isaiah was “bouncing all over the place,” chronologically, is popular among Latter-day Saints, but it isn’t accurate. Isaiah wrote in a very specific context, and important that we read him in that context.

  16. This is a problem hardly specific to those specific Isaiah verses guys. I mean almost every quote of the OT by NT authors suffers from the same problem. The NT authors could have cared less about original context and good exegesis. So I sort of have to agree with Geoff on this one. (And good example of how scholarship and religion may not be truly compatible.)

  17. Bruce is correct: The way Matthew and Paul treat the OT is abysmal by modern standards. And Nephi and Joseph Smith did exactly the same thing. (Obadiah 1:21, in context, has nothing to do with temple work for the dead.)

    I’m not saying abandon eisegesis or personalized-context readings altogether. I’m simply saying teach the difference between Isaiah’s original context and Nephi’s “likening” of Isaiah to himself and his people, the difference between Isaiah’s Immanuel Child prophecy to Ahaz and how Matthew recontextualizes it to apply to Jesus Christ, etc.

  18. The Isaiah thing is a bit of a side track, and I believe in likening the scriptures to ourselves, but really, that’s no excuse to read radically out of context. Those verses have nothing, at all, no way whatsoever, in any form or context, anything to do with missionary work or airplanes.

    Some of it comes from conflating the ensign in Isaiah 5:26 (which summons foregin nations to attack God’s people due to their wickedness) with the ensign in Isaiah 11:12 (which can be likened unto missionary work). But the lions carrying away their prey refers to God’s people being carried away captive and not being rescued (“and none shall deliver”), not airplanes.

  19. Mike, I gotta say that when I read Isaiah and ask to be guided by the Spirit I read him completely differently than you do above. And I think there is room within the Church for people who have different interpretations.

  20. As far as who Isaiah was writing to – well, when Christ said (3 Nephi 23:3) “all things that [Isaiah] spake have been and shall be” settles that issue for me. It’s more likely, to use Mike Parker’s example above, that Monson would give a prophecy that applies to us now AND to the saints in 4750, which is entirely possible.

    However, even in the NT when they somewhat “wrested” Isaiah’s words, they at least were sticking to something that could reasonably be seen in the words. I don’t see how “You are such vile sinners, so God is going to send armies from all foreign nations to carry you away captive and you won’t be rescued” somehow equals “feel good about missionary work” and “ohh – airplanes!” It’s a terrible misreading that comes only from how KJV language is often way too opaque to modern ears and eyes.

  21. And I gotta say that the pseudo-intellectual approach that tells people how they MUST interpret scriptures is dangerous and counter-productive. There is never any evidence that this is how the Savior or the prophets ask us to interpret scriptures. They tell us to read the scriptures regularly and to be guided by the spirit. I find that when I do this I sometimes agree with what some intellectuals say about the scriptures, and other times I marvel at how completely different our interpretations can be. I don’t like the idea we need to bludgeon people into submission to accept one interpretation or another of scriptures, which is what modern-day pseudo-intellectuals love to do. (I am not calling Ivan or Mike pseudo-intellectuals, but unfortunately they are using some of their tactics above).

  22. Sorry you feel that way Geoff. I’m just trying to get people to actually read what the scriptures actually say, rather than look at the words and make other stuff up based on serious misreadings.

    There’s a role for the spirit in interpretation – it even has the main roll. But as the D&C says, we must study it out first.

    I could just as easily attack the anti-intellectualism that borrows more from Protestantism than Mormonism, that says all personal interpretations of scripture are equally valid; as Elder Ballard says, if this question were to come up, you can’t just bear testimony that the spirit testifies to you it’s really about airplanes – you have to be aware and educated.

  23. People can read the exact same scriptures, especially Isaiah, and come up with completely different interpretations. And there is no reason for the Isaiah chapters to be in the BoM without us modern-day people wondering how they apply to us and the latter-day work.

  24. I do see the problem, Ivan. After all, if we teach it the traditional way, we open up to later attack based on “what it really means” (i.e. its original intent) which is certainly not the way its traditionally taught.

  25. Here is my point, which I am probably not getting across very well: I have been teaching in the Church on and off for the last 15 years. My goal has always been, and will continue to be, to get people to read the scriptures regularly. If feel that the more people read the scriptures the more able they are to understand the teachings of modern-day prophets and to apply the scriptures to their lives. I have taught classes in several different kinds of wards, in Brazil and in the United States. Here is what will often happen in a class:

    Excited student: “I was reading Isaiah last night, and I came to chapter 5, and I remembered it was also in the Book of Mormon. I thought it was so cool that Isaiah talks about airplanes and modern-day missionary work. I could really see that in my mind — it was like a movie I was watching.”

    My response: “Yeah, Isaiah is really exciting. The more you read the more you can begin to understand. A lot of people read that differently, but I think it is great that you are reading it and trying to understand it. Isaiah is difficult to understand sometimes.”

    I just don’t see any value in telling this person who may be excitedly reading the scriptures for the first time in his/her life that no, they are an idiot and the scripture definitely is NOT about airplanes and missionary work. Best case, the person is going to think you are an annoying pedant. Worst case, the person is turned off from reading the scriptures altogether.

    I hope that is clearer.

  26. Most of the difficulty Latter-day Saints have with Isaiah is because we read him in the King James Bible, which is loaded with anachronistic English and is, quite often, a very poor English translation to begin with. Isaiah is much, much easier when read in a trustworthy modern English translation. (I’d recommend reading the NSRV, ESV, NSAB, and NET, in parallel with one another. You can set this up in BibleGateway . com.)

    Some of our problem also comes from words and phrases that appear in LDS scriptures and have specific meaning to us, but have a different meaning in Isaiah’s original context. (Ivan has already give us the example of “ensign,” which is not always a good thing in Isaiah.)

  27. Found this in the 2nd Chapter of Mormon Doctrine of Deity – justifying the printing of a Catholic Priest’s response to BH Roberts.

    [Footnote A: The following note preceded Rev. Van Der Donckt’s reply, when published in the Improvement Era: “In the first two numbers of the present volume of the Era, an article on the Characteristics of the Deity from a ‘Mormon’ View Point, appeared from the pen of Elder B. H. Roberts. It was natural that ministers of the Christian denominations should differ from the views there expressed. Shortly after its appearance, a communication was received from Reverend Van Der Donckt, of the Catholic church, of Pocatello, Idaho, asking that a reply which he had written might be printed in the Era. His article is a splendid exposition of the generally accepted Christian views of God, well written and to the point, and which we think will be read with pleasure by all who are interested in the subject. We must, of course, dissent from many of the deductions with which we cannot at all agree, but we think the presentation of the argument from the other side will be of value to the Elders who go forth to preach the Gospel, as showing them what they must meet on this subject. It is therefore presented in full; the Era, of course, reserving the right to print any reply that may be deemed necessary.—Editors.”]

  28. I encouraged people in my class to read other versions of the scriptures, and more than one person told me that the Church discourages that. I assured these people this was not true, but only got doubtful looks.

    This is one of the reasons I am extremely cautious about how I teach. But again, it does me no good to come across as a know-it-all.

    By the way, this is one reason I am excited to see Elder Ballard’s talk. We have a lot of work to do to get people beyond folklore and rumor and customs that have nothing to do with true Church doctrine.

  29. Geoff:

    “People can read the exact same scriptures, especially Isaiah, and come up with completely different interpretations. And there is no reason for the Isaiah chapters to be in the BoM without us modern-day people wondering how they apply to us and the latter-day work.”

    Oh, I totally agree with that, and I am not saying there is only one right way to read any particular Isaiah passage. However, I am saying there are wrong ways to read Isaiah, and that as we grow and learn, we should base our interpretations (always guided by the Spirit, of course) based on what they actually say. The actual text is a starting point, but we should understand what the actual text really says before venturing out.

    “I just don’t see any value in telling this person who may be excitedly reading the scriptures for the first time in his/her life that no, they are an idiot and the scripture definitely is NOT about airplanes and missionary work. Best case, the person is going to think you are an annoying pedant. Worst case, the person is turned off from reading the scriptures altogether.”

    Well, I would never call anyone an idiot, and in fact my response would likely be something similar to the one you give. However, if I ever do teach Isaiah, I am not going to “prove” the scriptures true by showing how Isaiah saw airplanes or whatever (something that was done a lot when I was a seminary student), because it’s an easy way to make sure testimonies are lost later in life.

  30. There is no Church policy or teaching against using other Bible translations in our study. In fact, non-English-speaking Saints do not use the King James Bible, and all of them use translations done much more recently than the King James. And BYU Bible classes beyond the 100-level require students to use a modern English translation.

    What we may not do is replace the KJV with another Bible as the official Bible of the Church.

    I regularly refer to modern Bibles when I teach, especially when the KJV reading is difficult or wrong.

  31. If I might be forgiven for mentioning my own text, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, the reviews often include “must read” in the description. Matthew Roper at the Maxwell Institute said my research always contains “fresh ideas … worth reading.” The reviewer on Amazon (David Spencer, a National Security Affairs specialist on insurgency) called it “well written, thought provoking, and required reading.” Michael Collins called it, “insightful and enlightening.” And award winning author David West called it a “brilliant tutorial for those who aren’t quite at that ‘Hugh Nibley understudy’ level.” After reading Brandt Gardner’s new book it sure seems like he adopted many of my ideas about warfare in his discussion of the text. The book is fairly short, inexpensive, and directly relates to modern challenges so I think it fits Ivan’s requirements as well. Thanks!

  32. I think Ivan is saying proof-texting can sometimes be OK, but not always. When Jesus, Paul or Joseph Smith took scriptures out of context, they generally used them to support some spiritual truth which transcends the historical origins. (Or they were genuinely ignorant of the original intent.)

    But seeing airplanes in Isaiah is not spiritual. It is a simple apologetic reading that seeks to bolster someone’s testimony that Isaiah was a prophet because he “saw our day.” If a proof-text is apologetic, it is sloppy apologetics. Apologetics is the process of taking spiritual claims and grounding them in rationalism. Therefore it must conform to the rational standards of historical scrutiny in today’s culture.

    But if a scripture is used as a bridge to the spiritual, it doesn’t matter what its original intent was. It is simply a spiritual tool to connect with God. God doesn’t seem to care that His people have sometimes understood things in less than perfect ways, as long as the focus was on coming to Him.

  33. A lot of the LDS bible footnotes labeled IE, HEB, and OR match up exactly or very close to words used by the NIV translation.

    One CES teacher suggesting highlighting the superscript letters in the body text of all footnotes that had IE, HEB, OR and JST. i used the Gospel Doctrine read-through schedule to do that to my OT and NT. Now on subsequent read-throughs of my LDS bible, those highlights quickly send me to the footnotes for the clarification.

    I second the idea of using alternate translations and parallel Bibles for passages that leave you confused. I like the NIV, RSV, Amplified Bible, NASB, and the Jerusalem Bible.

    The Jerusalem Bible is a paraphrase, but is actually pretty good. Try to get a used copy of the 1968 edition. It has been revised several times since then, but at some point started getting too far afield.

    When 3 or 4 of the alternate translations agree, I feel confident that that is likely a better rendering than the KJV passage which sent me seeking the others in the first place.

  34. Back to the topic, I am very thankful for Elder Ballard’s remarks, because he validates what a lot of online apologists have been doing for around or almost 20 years, FAIR, FARMS, Shields Research, Terry Shirts, Jeff Lindsay, and many more. I suppose it goes back even further to Usenet newsgroups and mail-lists.

  35. I attended Brother Thomas Wayment’s course at BYU Education Week in 2015. After the last class, at the podium, I briefly thumbed through a rough copy of what BYU’s RSC will be putting out to assist CES Instructors with the topics being discussed here. It was anticipated that it will be published by the RSC sometime this year.

  36. Great, great post. Thank you. I often disagree with Bokovoy and other scholars’ conclusions, but I think it’s important to have some familiarity with their tools and approaches.

    I would also recommend Robert Hutchinson’s “Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth”. It is often apologetic in tone and I know that is often frowned upon by critical scholars, but I think it is a fair-minded survey of New Testament scholarship all over the spectrum, and it presents textual analysis in a very accessible way.

    I have really benefited from my forays into Biblical scholarship in so many other instances, but when it comes to Isaiah, critical scholarship is a zoo. It’s astounding the mental gymnastics scholars go through to support the various theories that arise from the conclusion that Isaiah could not have engaged in predictive prophecy. The more I read, the more I am convinced that the Church’s devotional approach to Isaiah is just as valid as any other.

  37. It may be worth noting that if you do a scripture citation search on Isaiah 5:26 over at the LDS Scripture Citation Index (, it appears that the idea of this verse referring to the gathering (not the destruction) of Israel goes all the way back to Orson Pratt–who repeatedly invoked (then) modern steamships into Isaiah’s imagery of “coming swiftly”.

  38. JimD, just for fun I re-read some other translations of Isaiah 5 last night, and it is true that other translations make the gathering interpretation appear less likely (but not impossible). In any case, my point remains, which is that it is unseemly to bludgeon into submission people with unconventional interpretations of the scriptures, no matter how many scholars want to try to make you feel like an idiot for reading the scriptures differently than they do.

  39. Couldn’t disagree more strongly with the Hutchinson recommendation. The author severely misrepresents the work of most of the scholars he tries to summarize. His description of John Meier in particular is terrible, similar to if I said “Bernie Sanders is one of the foremost republican politicians of our time. He favors extremely limited government and loathes socialism.”

    Seriously, it’s that bad. I’ve rarely seen such egregiously shoddy work. Two thumbs all the way down.

  40. No offense taken, Blair. I searched for reviews of the book online before I took it for a spin on Audible, but didn’t see any reviews that threw up red flags. I appreciate your perspective.

    I wonder if there is a book that attempts to do the same thing as Seeking Jesus, without making similar mistakes. There was a book that emerged from a Sperry Symposium on the New Testament:

    I’ve been through several of the articles, and I found it useful.

  41. What are the issues that will cause modern Mormons to question? I think the cited resources are likely awesome, but how do they assist with the burning issues?

    It seems to me that the biggest issues for those losing the faith are:

    1) Joseph Smith did what?!?!?

    2) Other Mormon leaders/members did what?!?!?!

    3) Mormonism is so not consistent with my burning issue (feminism, marriage equality, environmental activism, freedom from other people telling me what to do with my time and money).

    I don’t see many people straining at gnats they find in books of scripture. They would have had to read the books of scripture to lose their faith over a passage.

  42. Meg,

    I think you’ve nailed the main reasons for contemporary doubting among members of the faith. Those who I know who have either recently left the faith or are currently struggling are because of the reasons listed above.

    Another commonality I’ve noted is that those leaving and/or struggling spend lots of time reading blogs, news, and interacting with social media with messages that could be considered by some as critical of the church, its teachings, or its leaders and very little or almost no time with regular scripture reading, prayer, etc. It makes me wonder what would happen to their testimonies, faith, etc. if they swapped blog/news/social media time with scriptures/prayer.

  43. When I was young and sometimes struggling, I came up with a short list of things. If I was struggling and wasn’t doing something on my short list, I started doing things on my short list.

    I think my short list was:

    1) keeping a journal
    2) praying daily
    3) paying tithing

    I’m not sure I ever had a time when I needed to add to the short list.

    Now, that didn’t preclude me from saying in my heart “Joseph did what?!?!?!?” But since God was the one who told me to stay in the wagon (aka the Good Ship Zion), it didn’t matter that I had major heartburn with Joseph. And then I found out to my satisfaction what really happened in Nauvoo, and I adore Joseph.

  44. I agree with Meg that those are probably the main kinds of issues where people stumble. But I recently had dinner with a friend who came back to Church after years of inactivity, and he told me one of his first goals after returning was to read the Standard works. He started into the Bible, and the stories of genocide, rape, incest, deceitfulness, etc. really rattled his already-shaky faith. His exact words to me were “I didn’t sign up for this kind of stuff when I came back to Church.”
    I know of several other stalwart, faithful individuals and couples who won’t go near the Old Testament; the Church’s curriculum — to paraphrase Elder Ballard — simply has not equipped people to work through issues that arise. And their teachers and leaders don’t have good answers, so they turn to Google or other online sources.

  45. Our modern society is so far removed from the culture of the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, and even the 19th century LDS Church that we, as readers, need some good grounding in the context of what we’re reading if we’re to understand and appreciate it.

    Unfortunately, modern Church class manuals provide nearly zero context to help teachers and students. So it’s no wonder that people are bothered when they start reading outside of the passages the manuals include in their assigned readings.

    Hoist by our own petard.

  46. Good suggestions but the volume of reading and study is enormous. A few things:

    1. One needs to understand the purpose and function of paradox, ambiguity, incoherence, and humanity in the plan of salvation.
    2. We need to quit making heros out everyone in the scriptures and make them humans. The same goes for the prophets ancient and modern.
    3. There are absolutes but we achieve them by degrees (I.e relatively). Good, better, and best but recognizing that we at one one moment are looking for the better.
    4. We need to have a testimony of the uniqueness of the revelations of the restoration. The redemption of the dead and the efforts that work requires in redeeming future generations is our profound mission. The moles and warts on our history are trivial compared to the revelation that came through moles and warts.

    When we get that we will truly have context for the rest of the scholarship and study.

  47. “the volume of reading and study is enormous.”

    Only if you plan on buying and reading them all at once. I’ve already addressed this in comments above, but I’ll clarify once more – this is meant to be spread out over a period of 4-5 years (so, read the three NT books in the months before teaching NT in seminary). It’s actually meant to be a very short list. There are plenty of enormous lists with dozens or hundreds of books on them. This was meant to be something manageable, that a seminary or institute instructor could read three books to help with one year’s worth of classes.

    Seen that way, the list is meant to be quite small and easily manageable. It’s only enormous if taken all at once, to be read ASAP, which is not my intent.

  48. Ivan,

    The problem is we don’t have 4-5 years to get parents and seminary teachers up to speed. The kids have a need for answers now. So while it may help some in the long run, we are losing kids now. Second, most seminary teachers are not church employees, but are called and only serve 2-3 years.

    We need articles or short books that deal specifically with common issues without going too far into the weeds. In a couple weeks, I will release a review on a new book that perfectly fits the bill.

  49. Well, I was thinking along the lines of the four year seminary rotation of OT, NT, etc. – so that concern seems a little outside the parameters of my suggestions. Questions about the OT are more likely to come up during the year dealing with the OT, after all.

    Frankly, any list longer than 1 book would be too much if we must have it all – RIGHT NOW – which is an unrealistic standard. So, I honestly don’t see the merits in these complaints, since they seem to be attacking something I’m not trying to do.

  50. to me this is an inflection point in church education. Clearly there is a need for more scholarship and more training. But I who am untrained in this material consider myself well armed. Why? Because I recognize that Joseph Smith brought us the exalting message of all that it means to be a proxy. This trumps his humanity. This overrides any ambiguity about the Book of Mormon, or The Book of Abraham. Etc. etc. This is the context for evaluating all else.

    Yes read all the scholarship and understand it well but if you are confused about the meaning of Saint in the church’s name then the scholarship won’t help much.

  51. Kids who grow up swimming in the waters of Babylon will be more immersed in its ways and philosophies.

    The problems start not when the kids are wondering about polygamy or gay marriage, but much earlier than that when they are taught to study iniquity more than the words of God. It’s it any wonder we lose them?

    Does a child spend more time with typical TV, video games, movies, social media, etc.
    than with The Friend, Conference, Motab, the Scriptures, hard work, chores, service, music, sewing, art, cooking, and spending time in the outdoors?

    Seriously, when Abinidi stood before the priests of Noah and accused them of spending their lives “studying iniquity”, it’s pretty much how most children are raised these days. The world of iniquity becomes engrained in their philosophical upbringing with how they experience the world.

    Asking the a teacher to become more educated to fix these answers might indeed help at the margins, but the problem is how we raise our kids; or more to the point, who we are essentially abdicating responsibility to and letting raise our kids.

  52. Isn’t the response for “right now” answers just “That’s been answered at” ?

    Is there anything that FAIR or FARMS (Maxwell Inst) hasn’t already addressed?

    Are there any other online systemized formal repositories of issues/responses besides those two? I know there are plenty of amateur or less formal apologists.

    Hasn’t FAIR been trying to keep the “master list” of all the issues and making faithful responses to them? I thought that was why Runnells’ letter was so hum-drum. All that stuff had been asked and answered; he just decided to ignore or discount the already published answers.

    As I understand it, church leaders basically took BYU’s FARMS/Maxwell Inst out of the apologetics business. And I’m not disagreeing with that decision. Now Elder Ballard seems to say that CES needs to be in the apologetics business. Sounds good to me. And it seems like that would require a rewrite of the curriculum if the Seminary/Institute teacher is to deal with those issues during scheduled class time as opposed to an informal after class discussion.

    Should CES use FAIR, and previously published FARMS articles, as sources for newly crafted sound-bites, or just outright refer people to FAIR/FARMS?

    Will Elder Ballard’s call require a new official department, or office within an existing department, to craft official and correlated responses to the issues that some find challenging? Or can the unofficial and amateur/lay FAIR be used directly or referred/pointed to directly by the CES teachers?

    As far as OT and even NT issues go, Christian apologists have been writing on those for centuries. Some of them, such as CS Lewis, even come pretty close to LDS teachings.

    I also remember picking up various BIble-related apologetic teachings in Kimball’s “Faith Precedes the Miracle”, and Talmage’s “Jesus the Christ”, and various writings by McConkie.

  53. Bookslinger, FairMormon is a great resource. So is MI. However sometimes their resources are too scholarly (MI has Hugh Nibley books), when most teachers and students need simplified versions. I have read and edited several Fair articles, which are great, but still may be too much for teens, who are used to writing in 140 characters.

    I would suppose we need options to fit the needs of teachers and students

  54. So we need a “Tweet Apology for God…”

    As for my house, we read scriptures regularly, which comes with it discussion of the points in whatever chapter we are reading. One of the lovely things about my husband is that he is well-versed in the sorts of scholarly treatments listed in the OP. And I’m not a complete chump when it comes to the gospel. So that works for us. So far it appears to be working for our children as they’ve launched into adulthood.

    As I mentioned when I first started posting here at M*, my youngest (hearing that people at M* might not be fully versed in the early Church history I discuss with everyone standing), said, “What, they don’t know about Bennett, the slime ball?”

    What I see Elder Ballard saying is that CES instructors need to meet the honest seeker in their seeking, helping to guide them towards the light. In order to do that, the CES instructors need to be grounded in the truth rather than taking the short cut of merely bearing testimony and telling people to trust against all seen facts.

    I do see in this a strong shift from the 1970s-1980s, when I was a young person. In that earlier day the questions were not so viral and the answers were not necessarily known. So the landscape for the eternal warfare between God and those fighting against God was different.

    Now that questions can fly like light with global reach, and now that knowledge is available with breathtaking ease, the tactics must adjust.

    By the way, much as I have enjoyed reading the OT for a planned year of reading all the standard words, I don’t know why anyone fragile in the faith would attack that book first. At the very least, they would have benefited from a guide to how the doctrine of the restored gospel differs from a strict traditional reading of the Bible, along with a guide to Mormon Easter Eggs in the text (most useful if the reader has attended the Temple).

    In my experience, God is willing to give me bespoke guidance on demand to respond to honest questions. That guidance is able to pull from a vast wealth of book learning and practice. But He is Omnipotent, and thus I trust He can guide any honest individual to truth.

    Christ said of two simple tenets, “On these rest all the Laws and Prophets.”

    Love the Lord, Thy God, with all thy might, mind, and strength.

    Love thy neighbor as thyself.

    To these I might dare to add the two additional tenets God emphasized to Joseph Smith:

    All are children of God. (c.f., John 10:34, Hosea 1:10, see references to these verses)

    I, God, have prepared a way to save all my children if they will hearken, even after death (c.f., John 5: 19-29, 2 Peter 4: 6, Malachi 4: 6)

  55. Full disclosure: I’m a fire-breathing apostate. 😉

    I think this article is wonderful with a lot of helpful suggestions. I think the list of suggested books is also excellent and highly recommended. I only have a couple of minor quibbles.

    First, the requirement that the book be convervative/orthodox friendly. I see this limitation leading to an unlevel playing field. Rest assured, the students who ask these tough questions aren’t limiting themselves to friendly resources. They’re reading everything they can get their hands on, and if a CES instructor limits themselves in this way, they won’t be able to adequately answer many of the questions that are raised. I understand the desire to protect faith, but I believe Ballard’s talk explicitly encouraged some risk-taking, and I don’t think limiting one’s self in this way will be helpful or productive.

    Second, the section on church history had no references to polygamy/polyandry. This is guaranteed to be a hot-button issue among many students, especially women. I realize Brian Hales’ stuff is too lengthy for a busy CES instructor to read in a short time, but his website does a good job of condensing down many of the issues. Plus, there’s Todd Compton’s excellent book on the wives of Joseph Smith that doesn’t stray from widely accepted facts, is shorter than Hales’ trilogy, but still covers all the bases.

    Finally, a lot of Mormon doctrine touches on things that can be scientifically proven, such as the age of the earth, migratory patterns among early Americans, language and technology. I would think Guns, Germs and Steel would be required reading. There’s also an excellent documentary currently available on Netflix called “Breaking the Maya Code” that talks about early Americans from a scholarly and scientific perspective that shouldn’t be threatening to anyone.

  56. Steve:

    1. there’s no need for LDS apologist’s, especially CES instructors, to carry water for the other side. I can’t imagine any CES instructor referring to any author who tries to make points for an “inspired but not historical” BoM, or any pro-ssm author, or any “taming the prophets” author.

    2. Compton’s work is not all that great for apologetics. He makes some assumptions that go against church positions, and puts forth some events and interpretations of events that are at odds with more faithful historians and apologists. One cannot take his work as 100% believing/faithful, or 100% accurate.

    3. i tried reading Guns, Germs, and Steel but found the author such a pointy headed progressive, such an atheist, and so ignorant of human nature that I couldn’t finish. That book is a progressive screed, not a history, nor an analysis of history.

  57. Steve,
    I chuckled at the image in my head which developed regarding your view of the educational level and abilities of CES employees. Ivan’s description is much friendlier. In my experience, mature CES educators are actually more well-read than the average educated Latter-Day Saint. Some few are scholars, but then many younger seminary teachers are greener than grass. Disclosure: I teach AP history classes at a Utah high school.

    Most seminary teachers I know have already read Brian Hales’ works. They are quite popular in my area, which is quite close to Brian and Laura’s home.

    Regarding “Guns, Germs and Steel,” this is hardly the best introduction to the topics you address. While readily accessible, it is already dated. Most seminary teachers are aware of scholarly perspectives regarding the history of the Americas.

    IMO, Ivan’s list is excellent, especially for those early morning seminary teachers looking for a summer reading list to prep for the job and the “greenies” I mentioned.

  58. Steve,

    I can’t speak for the folks who run this site, but I have a low threshold of tolerance for concern trolls.

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