According to this letter posted on William Hamblin’s blog, big changes are afoot.
There is no perfect way to teach the gospel, but the way in which it is taught makes an enormous difference. It looks like this new approach basically jettisons teaching the Old Testament (see update below), except for instances where it is interpreted to teach about Jesus Christ, and replaces it with a course called “The Eternal Family.” Because the courses have not yet been developed, it remains to be seen how this will all play out, so while I reserve judgement to an extent, I have the following concerns:
1. The family might be eternal, but teachings about it are not. Compare this article about the family published in the Ensign with this article. You’ll see that they are virtually opposite in content while identical in form. (More analysis of them here.) That’s only a forty-year difference in correlated church teachings, but they present inverse views of family structure. My concern with a BYU/CES class called “The Eternal Family” is that it will permanently bake in current views of family–views that are, in some cases, more reflective of the culture than of eternal principles.
2. The scriptures are not univocal or completely consistent. They record different opinions, concerns, viewpoints, and even different theologies. The theology of Job pushes back against Deuteronomy. Jonah pushes against Joshua. Luke and Matthew push against Mark. To teach them topically ignores this, which means that it ignores parts of the scriptures. If, for example, we just mine the Book of Mormon for what it has to say about the resurrection, we might miss the fact that one of the things that it says is that knowledge of the resurrection has not been universal or complete (see Alma 40). Other topics developed and changed throughout history, and it would be a shame to miss that development, partially because it would train us not to expect that development in our own day and thus leave us less prepared to cope with, for example, changed church teachings about the role of persons of African descent.
In an example near and dear to my heart, we have not one canonized account of the life of Jesus Christ, but four, and they are very, very different. To mash them up is horrible–I teach this by asking students to imagine their four favorite foods, and then to imagine them blended together. Still appetizing? I don’t think so! It is no exaggeration to say that when we slice and dice and blend the scriptures, we lose the scriptures. The distinct voices in which they speak to us are gone, replaced by a homogenized voice that can easily tell us more about the viewpoint of those who did the homogenizing than the scripture itself.
3. One real challenge facing the church right now is that easy access to information leaves young (and, sometimes, not so young) LDS in a faith crisis when they learn, for example, that the rest of the world, including most of the Bible-believing world, believes that most of Isaiah was written after Lehi left for the New World. These issues require careful thought and consideration and, at the very least, LDS need to be aware of them from a friendly source before encountering them from a hostile source. It seems to me that this new curriculum, by moving away from the study of whole texts and towards the study of topics, will leave students even less prepared for encountering these sticky issues. So at this point, this isn’t a silly pedantic argument among the bible dorks, but an issue with implications for keeping people within the fold.
4. The Old Testament is a rich treasure house of spiritual wisdom–in many cases having absolutely nothing to do with Jesus Christ in any direct sense. It pretty much breaks my heart that someone could go through four years of BYU or CES without encountering this material. There is an important talk from President Packer where he explores how the demands of life and leadership are such that, if a church leader doesn’t learn the doctrine before he is 30ish, he won’t ever learn it. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we just pretty much decanonized the Old Testament for all practical purposes. This loss makes me want to weep.
Update: I didn’t realize that OT is not currently required, so I should have phrased the above differently: I still have major concerns regarding the use of the OT solely as a sourcebook for prophecies about Jesus (and thus my concern about, in effect, decanonizing it), but apparently I should have been weeping long before today! In comparing the old requirements with the new ones (per the letter linked above), it looks like only one Book of Mormon class will be required, so that the new “Eternal Family” class replaces the second Book of Mormon class.
5. It just isn’t possible to really understand the scriptures without understanding their background and context. Each individual book has a different historical setting, author, audience, cultural setting, etc. You can’t understand any particular verse without understanding this background. So to survey isolated verses without a firm grounding in the background means you are only looking at the tip of the iceberg–which means you have no idea of the depth of what you are looking at, no sense of its true dimensions.
6. Scripture study is a skill. It requires certain tools. If these are not taught at BYU/CES, where will they be taught?
7. We’re currently dealing with the fall-out from a generation raised on sanitized history and the impact of their (usually Internet-related) encounters with “warts and all” history. The church has wisely realized that this collision does no one any good and that the sense of betrayal and deception that it creates can do more damage than whatever the underlying issue was. I suspect that someone who passes “The Eternal Family” and then reads Genesis on her own will have precisely the same feelings of betrayal and deception (see: Genesis 38). Have we not learned our lesson?
It sounds like, from that letter, that there was significant opposition to this move by some of the professors in the BYU-Provo Religious Education department (“the concerns and important issues that had been articulated by the Religious Education faculty at BYU-Provo” and “the opposition by many of the Rel Ed faculty at BYU”). It also sounds like these concerns, from those who know the field best, were shut down in the name of “supporting the brethren.” It gives me comfort to know that some in Religious Ed do not support this move and will hopefully continue to provide their students with the context and background necessary for them to really understand the scriptures. And perhaps they can work in contextualized readings into the new courses. And it looks like the “institutional options” part of the letter indicates that teaching contextual courses will still be possible in some circumstances, and that they will do their best to make the courses as contextual as possible under the circumstances. Nonetheless, this is a great loss to the church and I mourn it.