In October 2014, Elder Ballard delivered his “Stay in the Boat” talk at General Conference, highlighting “faith crisis” as an emerging problem for members of the Church and likening it to white-water rapids. In October 2015, he followed up with “God Is at the Helm,” extending his metaphor and providing sage advice for how to stay in the Old Ship Zion. Most recently, he delivered a talk to CES religious educators on February 26, 2016, now posted at LDS.org under the rather bland title “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.” I think he should have stuck with his winning theme and called it: “Building a Better Boat.”
Everyone ought to read it. Twice. He announced that business as usual in CES just isn’t working anymore: “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.” The problem is the Internet, which gives students [and all Church members] “instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.” In a rather dramatic departure from business as usual, Elder Ballard directed CES teachers to “understand the doctrinal and historical content and context of the scriptures and our history” by accessing “the best LDS scholarship available.” He specifically told CES teachers to get familiar with the Gospel Topics Essays at LDS.org: “It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand.” Elder Ballard also counseled CES teachers “not to pass along faith-promoting or unsubstantiated rumors or outdated understandings and explanations of our doctrine and practices from the past.” He embraced inoculation and directed CES teachers to make it happen for their students:
The effort for gospel transparency and spiritual inoculation through a thoughtful study of doctrine and history, coupled with a burning testimony, is the best antidote we have to help students avoid and/or deal with questions, doubt, or faith crises they may face in this information age.
Reading the talk carefully, it is clear the problem is not the Internet. And to be fair, it’s not really CES teachers that are the problem either. The problem is forty years of a dumbed-down correlated LDS curriculum, which has pushed doctrinal and historical scholarship, even “the best LDS scholarship available,” to the margins of LDS discourse if not completely outside it. But since most would agree that the changes directed by Elder Ballard are the right direction to go, let’s not dwell on the question of who created the problem. I will briefly note what I like and what I worry about before inviting readers to weigh in. And please read the transcript of Elder Ballard’s talk before commenting!
Many good things: Elder Ballard highlighted the Gospel Topics Essays and told CES teachers to go read them and learn them. [I sure hope it’s not the first time these teachers have heard about the essays.] He embraced inoculation, which is a green light to address difficult issues with students despite the pushback most teachers (particularly early morning seminary teachers) will inevitably receive from a few parents. And he endorsed LDS scholarship as a solution to the problem rather than as the problem itself, which is how a good number of General Authorities seemed to view LDS doctrinal and historical scholarship in the past. If an earlier generation of leaders had supported The Story of the Latter-day Saints as a worthy successor volume to Essentials in Church History, the Church would not be in such a deep hole at the present moment. But Elder Ballard is pointing us in the right direction, and arguably the up and coming generation is the right place to start with a revised curriculum and CES teachers are the right people to make the change.
What’s Still a Problem
Elder Ballard’s remarks are not a solution — they are the first step towards a solution. Just the first step. It is promising that the talk and a transcript were posted at LDS.org. This suggests that what we might call “the Ballard Initiative” will be taken up and supported by other LDS leaders in coming years. Just one talk does not a policy change make. If the Ballard Initiative receives only passing notice or is ignored entirely at the upcoming General Conference, then you will know it is DOA. Furthermore, the Ballard Initiative needs to be expanded to the Church as a whole: local leaders and the general membership need to get the word directly from senior LDS leaders that LDS scholars are the good guys, not the bad guys, and that our curriculum ought to incorporate LDS scholarship rather than folk doctrine and faith-promoting stories. I’ll believe this when I see it. Personally, I’d give the Ballard Initiative one chance in three of succeeding.
Let’s get some feedback. Has anyone heard any response from actual CES teachers? And if CES does faithfully implement the directive given by Elder Ballard, is that enough to meet the challenge? Is this the right blueprint for building a better boat, the New Ship Zion?