Teaching Like The Prophets

I think the recently announced changes to the CES and BYU Religious Education requirements could be really great. Far from paying less attention to the scriptures, as some have worried, I suggest the new model pays more attention to the scriptures, in what might be the most important way. In the scriptures, Christ and the prophets focus their teaching on true doctrine above all, and refer to prior accounts to support this goal. The scriptures are designed to teach us spiritual truths, and these should be the primary focus of teaching today. The scriptural texts are one of the main ways we learn these truths, but they are the vehicle through which we learn, the lens through which we see, not the focus themselves.

The point of the Book of Mormon, as described on its title page, is “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” D&C 1 and Luke 1 announce similar purposes. When we read the scriptures, understanding God and his plan for our salvation should be our primary concern. Think of the great passages we remember most from the scriptures. Alma 32 is a discourse on the nature of faith. 1 Corinthians 13 is a discourse on the pure love of Christ. Romans 6 explains the symbolism and the meaning of baptism. Matthew 5 is a set of simple and beautiful moral teachings, correcting false traditions to underscore the centrality of love in Christ’s message. The larger historical narratives within which these discourses appear are records of God’s love and guidance of his people. There are some places like 2 Nephi 12-25 that present extended commentary on other passages of scripture, but these are the exception, and at the conclusion Nephi is happy to return to the plain, direct style he loves.

Now, I had a wonderful experience in several Religious Education courses at BYU that were focused on particular books of scripture. My Book of Mormon series, taught by Hugh Nibley, was particularly transformative. I learned to read the book in a totally new way. I think the ability to go to the scriptures for further light and knowledge and find what we need is an essential skill for successful discipleship. Like Joseph Smith in the grove, like the sincere reader in Moroni 10, we need to be able to receive guidance that no one around us can necessarily give us. Sometimes this will be directly from the Spirit; other times it will come as the Spirit illuminates our reading of the scriptures. We Mormons need to be better readers of scripture.

Ultimately, though, the point of reading the scriptures is to understand spiritual truths. Hence a curriculum whose core is organized around such truths makes perfect sense.

Indeed, it is quite natural to read the first three of the four courses as essentially courses on the Gospels, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants, but taught in a way that, rather than being driven by the mere sequence of chapters, is driven by the goal of appreciating the message of these books in a more comprehensive way. The sequence of words and chapters then becomes a window into understanding their teachings, rather than occupying the foreground itself.

Objections to the change seem to presuppose that BYU students already have a firm grasp of the central teachings of the Restoration before they arrive. Much as I would like this to be true, I’m not sure it is. It is fundamentally an empirical question, and I don’t see who would be in a better position to know the answer than the Religious Education faculty, who teach these students daily. Teaching throughout the church is a mixed bag. We are a bunch of human beings, mostly amateurs and volunteers, and we are only so good. Students in early morning seminary have spend a lot of hours in class, but much of this time is spent fighting to stay awake. And no matter how good the teaching is, the students are only ready to learn so much at a given age.

Students in college are ready to learn things at a new level. The doctrines and events and people of the Restoration are eminently worth studying at the level of a good college course, a level of height and depth that realistically is just not feasible prior to college.

A set of educational requirements is designed to identify (a) what is most vital, and (b) what is needed as a foundation for further learning. If we ask whether an understanding of doctrine or skill in interpreting scripture is more vital for Christian discipleship, I think the answer is obvious. Skill in reading scripture is a key means for maintaining and advancing our understanding of doctrine over a lifetime, but the goal is this understanding.

Now, one might argue that an essential element of college-level learning is precisely the ability to go to the sources to expand and deepen one’s understanding. Hence an ability to read the scriptures intelligently is essential to a college-level understanding of doctrine. I will readily agree with this point. Yet this does not imply that the required core of Religious Education should be organized by books of scripture. What it implies is that for college-level learning, doctrines must be taught in close engagement with their scriptural sources, and in a manner that allows the scriptural sources to speak in their own voice. Students must gain experience in mining scriptural sources to develop, extend, and complicate their understanding of doctrines (Keith’s example assignment is a great example of how this can be done).

In fact, I suggest that a course organized around key themes and doctrines is a particularly effective way to develop this active relationship with the scriptures. Let me say why.

When reading a text, it is important to understand its meaning in context. This context typically has several aspects. First, individual passages, chapters, discourses, etc., have the larger work in which they appear as context, in the most literal sense. The rest of the text, the text they appear in and with, is the context in this sense. Second, the events and people described in scripture, and scripture’s authors, exist in a historical context, a place and time and circumstances. Both of these kinds of context can be extremely helpful in drawing the full meaning out of the scriptures. These are the two kinds of context that tend to be emphasized in a course focused on particular books of scripture, and continue to receive attention in the descriptions of the new courses, particularly those on the Book of Mormon and the Restoration.

However, there is a third, quite different kind of context that is crucial for understanding any religious text, and that is the conceptual and doxastic context—that is to say, the context of ideas and beliefs. The prophetic authors of scripture are writing on the basis of their understanding of God and his plan for humanity. In any given passage, they can only describe so much of it, but all of them had a more or less comprehensive spiritual perspective, of which their words convey a piece. Since we have only very limited excerpts from the teachings of each individual prophet, to piece together the whole picture requires us to range over the whole of our scriptures, drawing the elements into a whole. This construction of a larger whole out of the complementary pieces laid out through the scriptures is a task that fits most naturally with a course that is thematically organized around particular subjects and doctrines.

Granted, the perspectives of the various prophets are not identical. One cannot treat comments on various doctrines scattered throughout the scriptures as though they were pieces of one seamless account that simply needs to be reassembled. Textual and historical contexts differ for the various voices, and these need to be considered as we interpret them. Moreover, partly due to differences of time, place, and dispensation, different scriptural authors may have significant differences in theological perspective, though what they share is more important than their differences. Hence there is a significant amount of work required to appropriately interpret the various elements and construct a larger, synthetic perspective from them. Indeed, there is more than one reasonable way to construct such a larger synthesis.

However, if we read the words of past prophets without a strong sense of the doctrinal context for their remarks, we run a serious risk of failing to understand them. A weak understanding of this third type of context is at least as risky as a weak understanding of the others, and in my view, actually more risky. The prophets are engaged in a conversation across millennia. The authors of scripture are constantly referring to one another, not as historical figures, but as complementary and reinforcing voices in the prophetic symphony. The reference frame of the prophets is higher than mere history or culture, and this reference frame of the gospel is the most important for understanding them.

Ultimately, our task as readers of the scriptures is to build for ourselves a spiritual perspective that integrates insights from the whole body of scripture that we have received. The reason why it is important to read the scriptures with sensitivity and insight is to build our own spiritual perspective, and to discern how to orient our own lives. If BYU and CES students are going to learn to do this well, they need to see this process modeled by their teachers, and to gain practice in doing it in their coursework.

The point of studying the scriptures is to understand God, his Son, and their plan for us. Making them the explicit focus around which religious education is organized makes all kinds of sense, and may have substantial advantages over the earlier requirements.

8 comments for “Teaching Like The Prophets

  1. November 29, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Interesting analysis, Ben — another installment in the ongoing discussion about the changes in the CES curriculum. You said, “Objections to the change seem to presuppose that BYU students already have a firm grasp of the central teachings of the Restoration before they arrive.” My reading is that the new curriculum presupposes familiarity with the scriptures in their narrative chapter-by-chapter (or section-by-section) form — there is more reliance on seminary to provide that familiarity. The new curriculum can then build on that foundation instead of providing it.

    It remains to be seen how accurate that assumption is, but like you say, BYU religion teachers ought to know.

    Context. I’m not sure whether you are proposing to read each speaker/writer in their own historical context or whether you are proposing reading the standard set of LDS doctrines into those earlier contexts. LDS treatments typically understate or simply ignore scriptural diversity (option 1) in favor of a harmonized and homogenized reading that conforms to current LDS views (option 2). Any “college-level understanding of doctrine” has to move toward the first approach.

  2. Ben H
    November 29, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Certainly we need to be mindful of differences in what each scriptural author/speaker may or may not have known, Dave. Alma openly states that some significant details about the resurrection have not been revealed to him, for example, even though he speaks powerfully on others. We don’t always know just what each person knows or doesn’t know, so we can only go so far in this direction. Many of these prophets knew quite a bit about the whole story, though, having seen the whole history of the world in vision at some level, like Moses and Nephi on the mountain. So, we shouldn’t exaggerate the differences.

  3. comet
    December 1, 2014 at 2:03 am

    Not sure if I agree. You haven’t really made the case, in my opinion, for elevating doctrinal considerations above reading(=focusing) on the scriptural text itself and learning its historical context, certainly at the college level. We are already awash in doctrinal/dogmatic thinking in the church that tends to reify presentist understandings of the scriptural past. To make this kind of move is like tossing a can of lighter fluid on a blazing fire.

  4. Ben H
    December 3, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    comet, if we want students to come away with a more complete sense of how the doctrine and theology of Gods people have varied over time, a course that puts doctrine at the center will actually have more opportunities to develop that understanding than one that treats doctrine as one of many things that will come up along the way (along with geography, linguistics, dynastic succession, poetic style, etc.). If we want the degree of fine grained understanding that is required to appreciate these differences over time, it will take a focused treatment of the doctrine itself. As much as anything, my point is that doctrine is a critical piece of the historical context, arguably even more important than other aspects, and organizing the courses around doctrine therefore will allow a more satisfactory treatment of the historical context for scripture.

  5. RickH
    December 9, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Ben, you said “a course that puts doctrine at the center will actually have more opportunities to develop that understanding than one that treats doctrine as one of many things that will come up along the way (along with geography, linguistics, dynastic succession, poetic style, etc.).” Yes, it will have *more opportunities*, but I think the concern is that those opportunities will be skipped in favor of our tendency to just assume that the Church as it is now is exactly the same as it was in Peter’s, Alma’s, Nephi’s, Moses’s, Enoch’s, and Adam’s respective days, and that any differences we may see in the actual scriptures are simply a result of either translation errors or corrupt scribes. I would love to be proven wrong on this one, but I guess only time will tell.

  6. Cameron N.
    December 9, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    Rick, do you know anyone who made that assumption when they were seminary age? I don’t.

  7. ABM
    December 10, 2014 at 12:30 am

    Yeah, is that really “our tendency”? How could we sit in Seminary and study scriptures and come away with the illusion that everything in the church has always been 100% the same?

  8. comet
    December 10, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Ben: If by doctrine you mean an idea, theme, or teaching imminent within the text itself, understood primarily within the narrative or other structure of the text, and not imposed from our side of the horizon, then there should be utility to such an approach. But it seems to me the problem is when we say doctrine we all too often are not referring to the doctrine as it is ordered within the text under study but to a projection of some official or unofficial idea circulating among us now. Let the otherness of the text speak.

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