Virtues of a Thematically Structured D&C Manual
Posted by Robert C. on January 10, 2013
A couple Bloggernacle posts (here and here) have recently criticized the thematic structure of the Sunday School manual for the D&C this year. I think these posts make astute and insightful observations, and I am in agreement with most if not all of the points that are made, even though I disagree with their conclusion that a historical approach would have been better.
I worry this grumbling about the implicit slight to history made by the thematic structure of the manual will undermine efforts to charitably understand the virtues of this thematic structure. So, I’d like to offer some rather modest countervailing thoughts, mostly in a spirit of:
- making the most of what our leaders have provided us (i.e., we’re stuck with this thematic manual for now, so let’s try to think not only about the vices and pitfalls of the structure we’ve been provided, though I think that’s important exercise, but also about the virtues, strengths and possibilities);
- improving our understanding of the relation and relative significance of history vs. doctrine.
Some advantages of a thematic approach
First, a disclosure: I’ve been teaching in our elders quorum from the George Albert Smith manual this past year, and I have to say I’ve grown quite fond of the way the manual works in practice. Part of my affinity is rooted simply in the fact that I am lucky to belong to an exceptional quorum where reading a few quotes and asking a few thought-provoking questions almost ensures an engaging, thought-provoking and interesting discussion, regardless of whether I have much of interest to say about the lesson topic. But in addition to just having a good quorum, I think there’s an interesting and important dynamic at work here that is related to the thematic structure of the manual.
One major pitfall of a historical approach is that knowledge of historical issues effectively comprises a barrier to participation in classroom discussion. When historical matters become a significant part of the lesson material, many class members often feel quite ignorant about these issues—and, for the remainder of the lesson become shy about taking part in further class discussion. I am not saying this pitfall is unavoidable, but I do think it creates some non-trivial challenges for teachers, and I can think of many Sunday school classes using chronologically structured manuals that have become derailed by teachers failing to navigate this pitfall and(/or) devolved into discussions of rather arcane historico-critical matters. These lesssons failed to provide much spiritual edification for the majority of class members.
I had a Gospel Doctrine teacher in one of my mission branches in Moscow Russia, back in 1992 or so, that I loved. He offered erudite scriptural insights and background knowledge every week. It was a highlight of my mission. But, when the President of this young branch eventually counseled with us about some concerns regarding this teacher, it was clear that other class members didn’t share my enthusiasm and most class members weren’t getting much benefit from his lessons. Although I enjoyed the deeply intellectual nature of the lessons, other class members didn’t.
I wonder to what extent the grumblings about the thematic instead of historical manual structure are rooted in a kind of insensitivity to the interests of the majority of Church members. After all, let’s face it, most people in modern culture think history is pretty boring, and Church members are no exception, unfortunately. Because of this, I believe thematic lessons are more conducive to engaged and interested participation from a wider cross-section of church members. And this is important.
Now, I agree that improving Church members’ understanding of Church history, and understanding the development of doctrine and historical contexts of revelations would greatly enhance members’ understanding of Church doctrines, and the Gospel more generally. However, these desiderata need to be understood in relation to other competing goods. (Although I say “competing,” I maintain a great teacher could teach nuanced history and nuanced thematic doctrine, regardless of the way the manual is structured—but I take the manuals to be aimed at the weakest teachers, not the strongest, and rightly so….)
What are the competing goods at work in the thematic vs. historical decision of structuring a lesson manual? One way to think about these trade-offs is in terms of doctrinal practice versus theoretical knowledge.
The importance of doctrinal practice
If the essence and goal of Sunday school is conceived primarily in terms of transmitting (or even exploring) intellectual(/propositional) knowledge about history or historical doctrinal development, then much of the value and significance of the above-sketched virtues of a thematic manual will be missed.
An alternative conception of Sunday school might be sketched drawing on a “community of practice” framework (see here for a nice introduction to communities of practice, with a pedagogical and theological bent). An important theme that emerges from the literature on communities of practice is the importance of engagement and participation in the learning community.
I mentioned Jim Faulconer’s conception of scripture and theology in a comment at BCC, and I strongly recommend Jim Faulconer’s “Scripture as Incarnation” in his book Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (2010: Maxwell Institute). In it, Jim contrasts a pre-modern understanding of history to our modern understanding, and Jim explores the implications of how we understand the relationship between history and scripture. For my purposes, what is important about Jim’s article is the sense in which scripture functions “typologically, figurally, anagogically, allegorically,” and figurally (p. 198). In this sense, the incarnation of scripture that Jim is talking about is largely what I have in mind in thinking about doctrinal practice, contrasted with a more modern conception of theoretical knowledge (i.e., propositional knowledge in contrast to, say, the ancient Hebrew conception of experiential knowledge or practical skill).
(I should note that Jim is careful to distinguish his understanding of scripture from a merely mythological approach that effectively ignores history. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that we ignore history. Rather, I am advocating that we take care not to fall into the trap of letting a modern historical approach to scripture—or knowledge and learning, more generally—crowd out the more important role and function of scripture in our religious community.)
In my comment on Aaron’s BCC post, I suggested that “the practical significance of our doctrines really hasn’t changed very much over time.” I should clarify that I had our core doctrines in mind. Consider, for example, the themes of the first several lessons in the thematically structured D&C manual (skipping the introductory Lesson #1): atonement (#2), the restoration (#3), the Book of Mormon (#4), revelation (#5), the Holy Ghost (#6). Our understanding of each of these themes/doctrines has clearly changed over time, but I would argue that the historical changes in the practical import of our understanding of these doctrines has changed relatively little over time, especially from the time of the first revelation in the D&C to the time of the last revelation in the D&C. (More significant and interesting, at least to me, are the changes in the way the practical significance of these doctrines have changed since the time of the last revelation given in the D&C.) I’m personally fascinated by the insights that a careful historical study of the contexts and developments of doctrines in the D&C. However, I doubt it would have a first-order effect in how I enact(/incarnate) these doctrines in practice. Also, I doubt most members in my ward would share my enthusiasm and appreciation for a more historically nuanced approach.
Another issue at work in our understanding of the practical significance of our core doctrines is that of canon. In a sense, I think the tension I have labeled doctrinal practice vs. theoretical knowledge can be recast in a similar manner as the tension between canon vs. history. This is a tricky issue, however, since the thematic approach is itself a kind of structural move away from the current canonical shape of the D&C. However, I would argue that the Mormon canon is more important than Mormon history, and that, similarly, direct practical and thematic engagement with our doctrines and canonical texts is more important than knowledge of the historical contexts of—or development of doctrines within—these texts.
Some specific responses
Although I think I have, in effect, addressed the key themes, comments and questions raised in the other blog posts and discussions regarding the structure of the manual, there are a few miscellaneous comments I still want to address. In reverse chronological order (keeping with my anti-chronological theme herein…), Aquinas writes in a comment on Aaron’s BCC post:
A theologian who explores doctrine through the lens of inaccurate history runs the risks of accommodating or creating doctrines that end up not having the support one might think that they do. It’s problematic to say that the most important thing is to teach doctrine and teaching the history is a luxury on the side for those who are interested or so inclined.
I find this comment intriguing because I think it unwittingly suggests the need to take a more canonical approach to doctrine rather than a more historical approach. Our understanding of history is constantly changing. Our understanding (individually and collectively) of the practical significance of our doctrines is also constantly changing. However, the nature of these changes differs in significant ways from changes in our understanding of history, and it’s important to differentiate these changes. To root doctrinal understanding primarily in our understanding of history instead of our canon itself is to put the cart before the horse.
Ben writes in his post:
[W]e have a history of de-contextualizing our history and doctrine. Tragically, this approach has, in part, led to our modern-day crisis of saints being unable to process historical issues that do not conform to our compartmentalized historical approach.
I agree that there is a “modern-day crisis of saints being unable to process historical issues.” But I think there’s a bigger and more general crisis with members feeling disinterested and disengaged with respect to the Gospel, and I think a more historically structured manual would risk exacerbating that problem (again, my sense is that most members get pretty bored with history, sorry to say…).
Aaron writes in his post:
I would suggest that organizing the material topically actually obscures the ‘unfolding doctrinal drama’ because it is not at all clear how or where a particular doctrine was unfurled.
Isn’t this problem of historically contextualized understanding an even deeper problem with our other canonical texts? According to the logic of this argument, the Book of Mormon would have to be deemed the least valuable of our texts since we know the least about the historical context in which it was written (at least according to the text itself). But surely the Book of Mormon is the most rather than least valuable of our scriptural texts. Now, of course it is possible to study the “unfolding doctrinal drama” in the Book of Mormon itself. But, ironically, I think this could be better accomplished using a thematically/doctrinally structured manual rather than the current manual (so, for example, if atonement or covenant were the topic of one lesson in the BoM manual, I think it would be easier to discuss the contrasts of the sort that Joe Spencer’s book An Other Testament articulates, rather than using the currently structured BoM manual).
Well, in conclusion I want to reiterate that I think teachers should try to be sensitive to historical issues, and avoid proof-texting, as much as possible. And I hope that the Bloggernacle will provide supplementary material that help the rest of us in our efforts to gain a more historically informed understanding of the doctrines revealed in the D&C. I am also very sympathetic to historians and other scholars who are dismayed that the thematic structure of the manual will hinder efforts to increase our understanding of Mormon history. But I hope I do not have to read a year worth of D&C lesson posts repeatedly griping about the non-historical structure of the lesson manual. Perhaps this post will help open ways of thinking about the thematic structure so it can be used in more productive ways.
 I must apologize here for the rather low quality and tardiness of the notes I’ve been posting here—it’s been a very busy year for me. Part of my affinity for the manuals is also based on relative success in class despite my somewhat obvious lack of serious preparation.