Elder Ballard recently spoke to seminary and institute teachers in what I expect will be regarded as a landmark address. He said that in the past, most youth in the church led “a sheltered life” and that “our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.” He explained that preparation for today requires CES teachers “to study from the ‘best books,’ as the Lord directed. The ‘best books’ include the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available. Through your diligent efforts to learn by study and faith, you will be able to help your students learn the skills and attitudes necessary to distinguish between reliable information that will lift them up and the half-truths and incorrect interpretations of doctrine, history, and practices that will bring them down.” So this is the first in what I plan to be an occasional series of posts that explores how to help the youth of the church learn those skills and attributes.
I teach the Young Women in my ward. And while I didn’t set out to do so, I realized that several lessons which I have recently taught might suggest one way in which teachers can help the youth to learn the skills which help them distinguish between reliable information and half-truths, as Elder Ballard suggested was necessary. Here’s what I did:
- For a lesson about the Plan of Salvation, I went to Google images and I searched for “Plan of Salvation.” I selected about a dozen images (I only used specifically Mormon ones, including the fifties-tastic one pictured below), enlarged them when necessary (so that each one would take an entire sheet of paper), and printed them out. During class, we looked at each one and I asked the girls to tell me what they thought each one got right and what each one might have overlooked. We had a fantastic discussion. They were quick to recognize that many models underplay (often entirely omitting) reference to Jesus and the atonement. One excellent observation one of the girls made was that the models usually show earth life taking up as much space as pre-mortal life and the post-mortal realms, but if we were to correlate space and time, earth life would be teeny tiny while pre-mortal life and post-mortal life should extend off the edges of the paper.
- For a lesson about the atonement, I shared with them the classic theories of the atonement (substitution, ransom, satisfaction, and moral example). For each one, we talked about how thinking about the atonement in those terms could bless your life. But we also talked about the limitations of each one. Then, I shared with them some analogies for the atonement (including the Drawbridge Keeper and the Piano Lessons). We had a great discussion about which aspects of these analogies help us better understand the atonement and in which respects they might be confusing or limited.
It occurred to me later that these activities conveyed the following message to my girls: you need to have your brain engaged when you are learning about the gospel so that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. And the presence of chaff is not an indication that the gospel is bad or that the church is wrong; it is an indication that we are all human and doing the best we can to teach each other. But you aren’t supposed to sit there acquiescently and accept everything written on the chalkboard in Primary as if it came from the finger of God or every analogy from a teary sacrament meeting speaker as infallible truth. Your job is to put your mind and soul to work and identify which parts of what they are teaching comport with the gospel and help you understand it better and which parts to set aside. Your job is to rejoice in the good parts and thank the teacher for them; your job is to think of even better ways to teach which can minimize the less helpful parts.
As a side benefit, I think my students appreciated the invitation to apply the critical (or even, sometimes, cynical) abilities with which teenagers are normally blessed. And I hope I modeled for them that there is no need to toss the baby out with the bathwater: we can appreciate the good bits even when we find problems.
This entire topic is a tad sensitive to me right now as I watch people I care about struggle to answer the question: How can the church be true if parts of it (history, doctrine, practice, policy) are so flawed? I’m very willing to help them frame this issue in a way which will allow them to remain faithful, but I am also aware that when this question first hits someone in middle-age, it is extremely difficult to reconcile. I hope, by contrast, that suggesting to the youth that things which are flawed can nonetheless be very valuable, can nonetheless carry the inspiration of God within them. My hope is that in the future, that question will not flay them because they never assumed that everything they were taught was perfect to begin with; rather, they learned how to evaluate what they were taught so that they might rejoice in the good and set aside the rest. To, as Elder Ballard said, “distinguish between reliable information that will lift them up and the half-truths and incorrect interpretations of doctrine, history, and practices that will bring them down.”