Faulconer, Sorenson, Welch, and Others on Scripture Study and Teaching

Some borrowed thoughts I’ve found provoking recently.

It continues to strike me how incurious many of our [LDS] people are, how they want to hear the same thing over and over again. Too much of our scripture ‘study’ is like a bedtime story where, if we get one syllable wrong, the child says, ‘Oh, that’s not the way it goes.’ I am convinced that we have a long way to go in uncovering the stone box of meaning where the scriptures lie passively for too many of us. The first thing we need is an opening up of curiosity, a willingness to accept that it is okay to be curious, it is okay to try to learn something new. If we merely accept the status quo in our studies, we find ourselves playing the tape over and over again instead of grasping the riches of light for ourselves. I am convinced that we have a long way to go in uncovering the stone box of meaning where the scriptures lie passively for too many of us. The first thing we need is an opening up of curiosity, a willingness to accept that it is okay to be curious, it is okay to try to learn something new. If we merely accept the status quo in our studies, we find our- selves playing the tape over and over again instead of grasping the riches of light for ourselves.

“An Interview with John L. Sorenson,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002): 85.

One of the problems that we have in the Church is that we have the idea that unless you are with CES or the BYU Religious Education faculty, on the one hand, or a General Authority, on the other, you really do not have what it takes to talk about the scriptures. There are, at least in our unspoken assumptions, two groups of authorities who have the qualifications, and no one else. The rest of us just sit around and wait for them to say something. I think that is appropriate for the General Authorities, but I think that we put too much trust in the scholars of our culture, and we do not realize that each of us has the ability to be a scholar of the scriptures. It is important to remember that the word scholar means “a person of leisure”—someone who has the time. Given today’s society, most of us have the time, if we want to, to spend reading the scriptures carefully…. This is something that any member of the Church can do. You do not have to have a PhD to do it; you just have to take the time. If you have that time you can be a scholar, but it does mean reading a lot and think carefully about what you read. It means studying, but you do not have to have formal training. Of course, that is not to say that I do not appreciate what those with formal training can do. We need more people in the Church with formal training in Hebrew and Greek and in biblical scholarship, church history, and so on. I just don’t want to cede all thinking and discussion to them.

“Outreach: A Conversation with James E. Faulconer” Religious Educator 10:3 (2009)

Knowledge is bought with time and study, that’s the harsh truth. Give it what you can. Make it a priority.

if anyone is looking for a quick fix in becoming a gospel scholar, think again. How does one become a great musician? How does one become a scratch golfer? Doing anything well in life requires lots of love, work, dedication, and consistent attention to the task. It helps to have some native talents, but more important is a love for the subject matter. It is always this way in life. No one will ever do really well at something that they do not love doing.

John Welch, “Towards Becoming a Gospel Scholar” This People Magazine (Summer 1998, 42-56) PDF.

Devotional reading and scripture study are two quite different things. In spite of its packaging or authorship, much of the material at Deseret Book is the first, and I cynically think much of their offerings are style over substance. (I grudgingly admit that this is changing slowly, DB prints what the market wants, and legit LDS scholars have few other places to engage lay folks and raise the level of conversation. Props to those making those steps.) We print leather-bound, shiny, decorative coffee-table scripture books we can show off, expensive Heirloom Editions that look great on the shelf and show our devotion, instead of poring over our scriptures closely and delving into them. We treat our scriptures like whited sepulchers, paying attention to the outside, but ignoring the actual contents on the inside. I cannot help but think of the Standard Works Made Easy series, which avoids hard questions and original context by steering people into thinking the scriptures say what exactly they already think the scriptures say, that all scripture is really just current Mormonism in a slightly different idiom.

Even if all we want is personal application, we still have to gain some grasp of original context, or our personal application will be somewhat skewed. (This is true, unless our inspired personal application is completely disconnected from the passage we’re reading, in which case, the particular passage doesn’t matter. It could be Matthew, it could be Numbers or Leviticus. It could be the phone book.) But most of the time, our personal application will be related in some way to the passage, and that should affect what questions we ask first.

I am all for applying the Bible. Don’t get me wrong.  But a better understanding of the Bible will lead us in another direction.  The first question we should ask about what we are reading is not “How does this apply to me?” Rather, it is “What is this passage saying in the context of the book I am reading, and how would it have been heard in the ancient world?”

Peter Enns, Telling God’s Story: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Bible. 

Our own deep study of scripture should be our primary source, though of course this will have to be informed by historical/cultural/language sources at times.

It is far better for us to gain our answers from the scriptures than from something someone else says about them. It is true that we oftentimes need an inspired interpreter to help us understand what Apostles and prophets have written for us in the standard works. But….We are in a far better position if we are able to drink directly from the scriptural fountain without having the waters muddled by others whose insights are not as great as were those of the prophetic writers who first penned the passages found in the accepted canon of holy writ. I am not rejecting proper scriptural commentaries; I know and appreciate their value and have written volumes of them myself; I am simply saying that people with the ability to do it would be far better off to create their own commentaries. There is something sacred and solemn and saving about studying the scriptures themselves.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “Guidelines to Gospel Study,” in Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 229.
Perhaps we ought to be taking notes or something. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

And when we do teach, (teaching being a complicated subject), we should teach those principals we’re passionate about and believe in, and not be so concerned about slavishly covering the manual. In my ward, at least, the majority of the class consists of adults who have been LDS for years. I’m not going to teach them like they are recently baptized 16-yr olds. Your class may be different. How it plays out should be different with every class, teacher, setting, SS President, and Bishopric, because you’re adapting to their needs.

  It’s better to take just a few good ideas and get good discussion–and good learning–than to be frenzied, trying to teach every word in the manual. … An unrushed atmosphere is absolutely essential if you are to have the Spirit of the Lord present in your class

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Teaching and Learning in the Church,” (Ensign, June 2007): 91

you must stand as an independent witness of the things you teach and not just be an echo of the words in a manual or the thoughts of others.
Most of us are not lucky enough to be the teacher, but if the teacher is struggling, Teaching:No Greater Call suggests hijacking the class with a good informed question or two. Seriously.

(If you *are* teaching, this is one good model of preparation.)

So get out there, study your scriptures, get some other fun reading to supplement, and make this the best darn Old Testament year we’ve had since the last one. It’s your church experience, take responsibility for it and lift those around you.

5 comments for “Faulconer, Sorenson, Welch, and Others on Scripture Study and Teaching

  1. Steve Smith
    December 28, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    “but if the teacher is struggling, Teaching:No Greater Call suggests hijacking the class with a good informed question or two. Seriously”

    That’s good to know

  2. sterflu
    December 29, 2013 at 12:49 am

    These are some great quotes on being curious, becoming scholars, learning what the scriptures actually say and then taking the time to feast on them. But how should a teacher properly model these qualities and inspire average church members to develop them as well?

    I’m glad you mentioned Teaching: No Greater Call and cited one of its surprising suggestions. But I want to raise some of the more radical points put forward within its pages, because they speak to the scholarly lament so central to your post.

    This book says LDS teachers who become too involved in their classrooms will “interfere” with the learning of their students, rather than “invite diligent learning.” It further says a “skilled teacher does not want students who leave the class talking about how magnificent and unusual the teacher is. This teacher wants students who leave talking about how magnificent the gospel is.”

    Some might read these instructions as a warning to teachers. Surely we want to avoid becoming or being perceived as those who “think they are wise.” And yet many of us have valiant intentions in putting forth the effort to thoroughly prepare for a lesson. Where should we draw the line between providing an example of gospel study and helping members become more self-reliant?

    If you turn to page 61 of this manual on teaching, you will find something CES instructors were taught a decade ago: “A skilled teacher doesn’t think, ‘What shall I do in class today?’ but asks, ‘What will my students do in class today?’; not, ‘What will I teach today?’ but rather, ‘How will I help my students discover what they need to know?’”

    I suspect our lessons will become more memorable and meaningful as we cultivate within our students the very qualities we strive for as gospel scholars. I don’t know about you, but I have some regrets for lessons I taught that yielded compliments from students but did little to spark curiosity or turn them into lifelong learners.

  3. December 29, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Sterflu raises a great point — too often “teachers” insist on dominating a class rather than facilitating one. I think we will make a great deal of progress once the concept of facilitated classes is finally listened to and learned by those who would teach.

    I wish that more of us would hear that point when it is taught.

  4. Ben S.
    December 29, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Perhaps we should start calling people as Gospel Doctrine Students.

    Those are some good questions, Sterflu. I’m not sure I have ready responses, other than to suggest a downplaying of SuperTeachers. That is, you don’t have to be brilliant, or multilingual, or armed with graduate degrees to teach a good involving Gospel Doctrine class; all you have to do is commit some time and thought. Some of the people with the best insights I know have little to recommend them on paper, but they have put in the time and thought to study the scriptures, and reaped the rewards.

  5. Christian J
    January 3, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Ben, I don’t mean to make you blush, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone in the ward say, “where’s Ben S.?” when a class is looking for an answer from the scriptures. Your post is a great answer to that mentality.

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