Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

A Borderline Offensive Word About Lesson Plans…

Posted by joespencer on October 31, 2007

I ought to begin by saying that I mean here only to clarify my own position.

I just finished reading this remarkable paper on the idea of planning for a library management class. I had such diabolical fun reading it, and especially in thinking about how nicely it states my own concerns about planning one’s lessons in advance, that I decided I had to link to it here.

I’ll make just one point about the article for now. If it is taken quite radically, and I’m taking it that way, it suggests that planning as such is usually if not always one of two things: it is either (1) a neurotic tic or (2) a deliberate attempt at fraud for public relations purposes. Ouch, but I think it is an argument that deserves some attention.


84 Responses to “A Borderline Offensive Word About Lesson Plans…”

  1. cherylem said

    Very interesting article. somehow this article is linked to chaos theory (what little I know of it) in my mind . . . I did have some experience with chaos theory when I enrolled my kids in a charter school some years ago that began with what its founders called chaos theory (whether it was or wasn’t, I don’t know). That is, on opening day there were no plans, and for a month or more the students sat around with the teachers and decided what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it.

    Many parents were extremely uncomfortable with this, but I found the whole experiment fascinating and my kids loved that school from day one. They were entirely vested. But now, years later, the charter school looks like most other schools, I think.

    Still, in terms of church teaching, I am entirely comfortable with planning my lesson in advance. You’ve started this discussion before on the blog, and I think I know where your comfort level is . . . that is, lots of preparation and no planning. I am happy with lots of preparation, and some good plans.

    I think (for myself only – teaching is such a personal thing) that the secret is not being a control freak . . . not believing in one’s plans as one believes in a god. But still, I like a good plan. I appreciate sitting in a church classroom where an excellent teacher has prepared an excellent plan. As long as there is flexibility within that plan . . . as long as true discussion can occur.

    In other words, we are not in turbulance, but from minute one, in an attitude of joy of learning, and joy of discovery. We are not controlling chaos (or turbulance), but providing an atmosphere where people can think and talk about ideas, and feel spiritual – and the spirit – without embarassment.

    That’s the best situation for me. And I have always felt that I would love your classes also. That is, I don’t feel my way of teaching is everyone’s best way, only where I feel relaxed and comfortable. Very seriously, I would be delighted to enjoy and learn from your best way of teaching . . . which without doubt would be without plans.

  2. cherylem said

    In other words, I really don’t think planning is a neurotic tic or a fraud. But such is interesting to think about, nevertheless.

  3. brianj said

    Sorry Joe, I won’t have time to read the whole article. I’m very skeptical of the claim that planning is always or even usually a neurotic tic or deliberate fraud. Maybe there are some key paragraphs you could highlight? I think I’ve stated my position on making lesson plans before, so I don’t see what I can add to this discussion.

  4. NathanG said

    The thought about planning to gain control (or a false sense of control) is interesting. I wonder though, if that’s completely applicable to the gospel teaching situation. Most teaching positions in the church come as callings. How much control is the teacher expected to retain.

    We have examples within the scriptures of planning: creation and atonement come to mind. Does foreordination fit the planning definition? We could say, “Well God has the right to be in control.” But, we are also learning to become like God. The trick comes in learning what method of gaining or maintaining control is appropriate. D&C 121 comes to mind (particularly the last several verses).

    I have two contrasts that come to mind when I think about planning in the teaching sense.

    A new mission president I know hosted his area seventy for a mission tour. One point of feedback/counsel he received was that he should work on giving more talks/lessons/zone conferences without any planning. He and the mission president’s wife have taken that to heart and have enjoyed seeing the results.

    On the other hand, I took the seminary preparation courses through institute several years back. A large portion of the course was how to prepare a lesson. It was very detailed, but it focused on some interesting principles. When preparing we were told to think about what the students will be thinking during class. We should think about what they will be doing during class. We should think about what they will be feeling during class. Even with this principles which I think are good to consider, it was a very detailed lesson plan structure.

    When I teach (which is very rare these days) I prefer to focus on a large preparation phase with a small loosely organizing phase that mimicks a plan. With that approach I’ve had some great lessons/talks, and I’ve had some flops and awkward moments. Saying this I wonder how consistently we define “preparation” and “planning” and how independent the two concepts really are.

  5. Joe Spencer said

    Interesting discussion thus far. A couple of responses.

    Cheryl: If you’d like to hear me teaching, I’m actually podcasting my whole year of early morning seminary this year: http://othonors.mypodcast.com

    Brian: I added my opening caveat precisely because of my respect for you. You’re right we’ve had this discussion again and again, and I’m quite aware that we have taken remarkably close but ultimately incommensurable positions on this; more than anything, I see this article as nicely articulating some of my greatest concerns about planning things out. That is, as I said, I see it as a clarification of my own position, not as an argument against anyone else’s. That said, I think Mintzberg’s argument is quite radical, but there is something to think about there: is there some “natural man” behind our desire to plan, to control the classroom? On the other hand, is there some “natural man” behind my own desire for complete openness? It’s a counter-question I have got to face.

    Nathan: Interesting, your experience with CES. Mine was somewhat different, at least so it sounds: less focus on detail, at the least. And that you mention mission presidents: it was my mission president who taught me to teach without a plan at all, though I don’t think he ever articulated it that way (his wife did, in one conversation with me, but I don’t remember him ever making the point explicitly).

  6. brianj said

    Joe, fair enough. I admit that I have to battle the natural man as a prepare a lesson plan, and even more so as I teach.

    One little point about something you wrote (#5): “is there some “natural man” behind our desire to plan, to control the classroom?” I don’t think it’s right to equate “planning” with “controlling”, since a planner is not necessarily a control-freak. One could argue that a “surprise teacher” (one who does not make plans) also exerts control over his classroom: the students have no idea what to expect each week, so they have little hope of preparing to address, discuss, and most importantly challenge the teacher’s teachings—when and if the teacher strays from the Spirit. I think this is what you are getting at when you say you have to face the “counter-question”.

  7. Jim F. said

    I think I feel about this much as Cheryl does, and I agree with something that brianj says: Some planning can be beneficial, though I plan less than most teachers I know, but the important point is not to equate “planning” and “controlling.” If I think of a plan as a way of controlling the discussion, then I’m doomed. But I seldom go to class without at least an idea of where I hope the discussion will go, things I’d like to help students see in the text we are reading.

  8. robf said

    OK, first off, on reading that article my first thoughts didn’t immediately go to teaching at Church but to how I should send this to my boss and co-workers charged with strategic planning at work. So perhaps I’m not thinking about my Church work enough!

    That said, I see a distinction between preparation and planning. I think its good to be prepared (I was an Eagle Scout, by gum!), and think contingency planning can be good, but the article was good in listing a couple problems with planning: since you can’t control everything, it can be a neurotic exercise to try and control the uncontrollable and b) since there is so much we can’t really control, planning is often more for show than actually effective.

    So while I’m not sure the issue of strategic planning is as relevant to a discussion of lesson planning, I think it does raise some interesting issues that might be relevant to lesson planning:

    a) is our lesson preparation or planning an attempt in any way to control the discussion, and if so what is the reason, need, or appropriateness of that in a gospel teaching situation?

    b) how much of our preparation or lesson planning is done for us to show off our preparation or scriptural knowledge or superior wisdom?

    c) do these attempts to control discussion or show off limit our ability to address what really needs to be addressed during the class period or does it shut us off from more important issues (Joe has brought this up as a potential danger over and over again)?

    While I think I come down on the prepare, prepare, prepare but don’t plan side of things here, I do wonder if extensive preparation results in an even greater potential to slip into either controlling the discussion or showing off with some favorite thoughts (“interesting question, but let me show you what these scriptures can really show us if you spend as much time thinking about them as I do”).

  9. Robert C. said

    I found the article a bit frustrating, perhaps because in financial planning and valuation (valuation in particular), the name of the game is to “plan” for a wide variety of different outcomes, whereas the article seemed to talk about planning as though it were an inflexible, one-dimensional process. This may indeed be the way some companies and firms plan but I do not think it is the way that people in finance think about planning. At the heart of the idea of risk management, for example, is the idea of better preparing for a whole distribution of different future outcomes, and it is this kind of planning that the article did not seem to really address. In fact, it is a well-known fact that the value of the financial options increases with the level of underlying volatility, and this is precisely because flexibility is most valuable when the distribution of expected future outcomes is the most diffuse.

    Notwithstanding this complaint, there were some interesting ideas in the article, and I think it makes some good points, like the dangers of being inflexible or of taking any set of forecasts or plans too seriously or uncritically.

    Oh one more complaint about the article: it also seemed to ignore the sense in which planning can effect preparation. Although I’d be inclined to agree that planning in government and non-profit circles is often unreliable, I am much more suspicious about this being a ruse among corporations. The reason is, quite simply, because there are large amounts of money to be made for those who can see through the shallowness of such plans. The simplistic discussion in the article suggests that a winning trading strategy would be to buy stock in non-planning firms and sell stock in non-planning firms, and I highly doubt this would prove to be a profitable strategy (but I’m not about to test this hypothesis myself!).

    Hmmm, I actually agree with the critique in the article about the dangers of planning, esp. in a one-dimensional, inflexible way, and how these dangers can manifest themselves in the classroom, but something in the article somehow rubbed me wrong—perhaps simply that I care about the issue enough to think that the critique should not be so simplistic—anyway, sorry for my rant here….

  10. NathanG said

    I think robf brings up a good point about the dangers of showing off superior planning or knowledge. This, of course, is not limited to those who plan. Everyone who teaches is in danger of getting puffed up in their knowledge and we all need to check ourselves to remain humble in our knowledge.

    Several people have brought up inflexibility. If lesson planning = inflexibility, then I agree planning should be abandoned (or at least balanced as the article suggested). Inflexible planning seems to fit the article. However, I don’t think planning is equal to inflexibility. A plan should simply be another tool that can, and often does, accompany the tool of preparation.

    I also wonder as people approach lessons, what is the desired endpoint? I don’t think the method of teaching (or the method of planning for that matter) is as important as the lessons learned by the students (including the teacher), and that’s not as important as the principles applied.

    From my CES prep course
    “You can not apply what you do not understand.”
    “If it doesn’t apply, why try?”

  11. Joe Spencer said

    I’ll force myself not to address the question of application…

    Brian, I think you have nicely put this, and I think Rob has fleshed this out quite nicely as well, in terms of three questions to ask ourselves.

    What strikes me is Rob’s last (fourth) question, about whether preparation can all too easily become a form of control… and it makes me think that the link in this article between planning and control is indeed oversimplistic (perhaps even when it is addressing the more limited “one-dimensional” version of planning that finance folks avoid). In the end, it all comes down—as it always does in these conversations: I should have planned on this :) —to humility, real vs. feigned. And that is something that outstrips every method or style.

    So, back to my other hobby horse, right? The Spirit….

  12. Robert C. said

    One thought that occurred to me was the following way of improving the article (I have a similar problem with movies: I get more frustrated with good movies or books than bad ones because I can’t help thinking about all the ways the good movie could’ve been great, whereas the bad movie seems hopeless from the beginning…): I think the article made a strong case that bad planning can be worse than no planning because of the wasted resources. What I think is more challenging, more interesting, but still possible, is the argument that good planning can be worse than no planning, in at least some cases.

    An analogy in finance is the way in which active portfolio management tends not to produce excess returns—this is because stock prices tend to follow a random walk (not exactly, but as a first approximation…). More related to planning/preparing lessons, however, is perhaps an analogy with “the fundamentals” in sports—if you’re always working on, say, specific basketball plays, but you never learn to dribble, pass and shoot well, you’ll never become a good player and be able to meaningfully contribute to a winning team. So, by concentrating on developing basic skills (i.e., studying the scriptures daily, without a specific lesson plan in mind) rather than winning specific games (i.e., preparing a specific lesson), you will likely, in the long-run, win more games (i.e., teach better lessons).

  13. NathanG said

    I figured you had some deep thoughts on application. Since I’m relatively new here, I had to search the blog archives. I found the “can of worms” (posted January 2007). It doesn’t need to be reopened, but it was a fun read. Here’s a link for those who want to read. (If my link didn’t work, can someone fix it?)

  14. nhilton said

    Joe, what is “Honors Seminary?” Does that mean you, or some other teacher, offers a non-honors seminary? My experience is that seminary is seminary whereas an honors class implies a higher capacity of student (stanines 7-9), a more qualified teacher & a more rigorous curriculum. Is this a seminary class offered to all students or selective students? Is this a church-sponsored seminary group with you as a called & sustained instructor for CES?

  15. Joe Spencer said


    Of the three things you mentioned about honors courses, at least (and likely only) two are true of this “honors” course: “a higher capacity of student” and “a more rigorous curriculum.” I was asked (“called,” I suppose, but it doesn’t quite work that way with early morning seminary: a volunteer teacher is not set apart) to teach early morning seminary this year, and I received permission from the bishop to teach only three books the whole year (it is OT, of course) in a kind of “honors” format. So we are studying Genesis, Isaiah, and Job, and we are doing it in a far more rigorous way than most seminary classes: no games, no self-study time in class, etc., etc., etc. We just come together and think the texts, and let things go wherever they will. The students are all going to write research papers at the conclusion, which we’ll publish for the ward.

    It is enormous fun, and I have four absolutely amazing students. I’ll have a fifth at semester—and she’s also absolutely amazing: I taught her yesterday as a substitute at the high school in town for the first time, and I’m quite excited to have her join us.

    So… pretentious? Sure. But it’s a kind of experiment, right? What do serious seminary students get out of a course that is taught at a college level (and I don’t mean BYU religion courses, many or most of which are taught at a high school or lower level!)? The result has been amazing.

  16. nhilton said

    joe, I think your experiment is grand. I wish my children had equally enthusiastic seminary teachers. My kids are usually bored to death in seminary and only go because it’s “the thing to do” to get into BYU. And, once they’re at the Y, they’re heartily disappointed in their religion classes there to the point that they’ve begun taking them Independent Study. Maybe you can be a model for the rest of the CES program?

  17. nhilton said

    Joe, BTW, the way it works in our stake is that seminary teachers are formally called by the Stake Presidency. I don’t know if they’re set apart or not.

  18. brianj said

    Joe— that sounds fantastic! My own experience as an early morning seminary teacher was not a good one. I taught for only one semester (the regular teacher was on sabbatical). I put so much into the class, tried to run it essentially like you are, but it just didn’t work. I won’t get into the details here; there were mistakes/shortcomings on my part, the parents, the students. I could say that I’d like another shot at it, because I think I could do so much better, but I really don’t want to go through that again. It was a real low point for me, and I don’t think anyone but me and my wife knows that. Now I’m somewhat sour to the whole idea of my own kids going to early morning seminary.

    Sorry, that’s maybe more info than needed to preface a question, but here are my questions: You have four students. Do you think this would work in a class of 10 students? 20 students? What if their ages were spread (14-18 yr olds instead of all 16 yr olds)? Did the parents know that this was the kind of course being offered before they registered their kids for it? Was there any discussion/debate with them? Have some students opted out of your course?

  19. Brianj, I feel your pain. We tried, not to long ago, to withdraw our children from the local seminary program & homeschool them. Reasons: too early & messing with our own family scripture study time/program. Until they hit high school & are gone at 6 a.m., our children participate in daily family scripture reading & prayer & discussion. It’s like they’re yanked out of this warm, spiritually strengthening nest just at the time they need it most. In seminary my kids weren’t learning anything, except apathy and fatigue. There are many days when they don’t even open the scriptures, I’m told.

    So, I was told on the church level that homeschooling in seminary (we homeschool our kids till highschool) this was up to our bishop but then I learned that where ever a functioning seminary is offered homeschool seminary is denied. So, my kids are FORCED to attend at 6 a.m. in their school building (not very spiritual a location) a seminary that is not very edifying. They’re grouped by the local CES director (who is an impersonal as it gets! & assigned teachers. They have had the same teacher for more than one year & he just tells stories & doesn’t really get into the thinking of the scriptures–very laid back. I would love a more intellectually challenging and spiritually fortifying experience for them! In the end, seminary ends up being a joke which I think is so sad, actually countering the goals of seminary in the first place.

    Joe, are you having your students memorize scriptures? I know it’s hard to require & do, but when our kids have done that these scriptures stick with them & become an armor to them during times of need. I have one daughter for whom this was the only thing she yielded from attending seminary, besides obedience & self discipline (worthy goals in themselves). I never before placed much value in memorizing those 100 seminary scriptures, but now I see their importance. Pres. Benson once said our children should leave home having memorized hundreds of scriptures–that’s at least those 100 in seminary. :) –nanette

  20. Robert C. said

    I strongly recommend listening to Joe’s seminary lessons, they are simply fascinating. The seminary problems listed above are closely related to my motivation for working so hard to contribute to this blog project and the wiki project. A year or two ago, I would’ve been terrified to teach seminary every single day, b/c I don’t feel I really “get” the scriptures well enough to have enough interesting material to teach. But, over the last 6 months, I would say, I’ve really learned a lot about what it means to really read and think about the scriptures, and not just rely on the presuppositions I bring to the text. Joe’s lessons are, I think, an excellent place to learn how to study scriptures in a spiritual and yet engrossing way—far better than anything I’ve learned from any particular book on or about scripture study.

  21. brianj said

    nanette—the policy you were “informed of” is not my understanding. In your shoes, I would ask to see clarification (in writing). “Strongly discouraged” maybe, but “denied”?! I don’t think so.

  22. Cherylem said

    Denied seems very harsh. I taught my own kids seminary at one point because we lived far from the ward building. I was set up as a regular volunteer teacher and attended all training. At the same time, someone who lived very close to the building and the teacher’s home (where the lessons were held) also had their own early morning seminary simply because they preferred it. This all happened in the last decade, so it is fairly recent.

  23. Joe Spencer said

    Much to respond to!

    Nanette #16: If you only knew how much baggage there really is behind the question you conclude this comment with!!! I refrain, for the most part, from talking about CES here because of my long history—especially for someone so young—with them. I would very much love to see CES move in this kind of a direction (I think, to be quite honest, that it would save thousands of souls that we are now losing), but I’m not very optimistic about it.

    Nanette #17: Volunteer seminary teachers are always formally called by the stake, but they are never set apart. That’s the instructions right in the handbook. So it is a kind of a call without a call: you are a volunteer for an official corporation (CES), and that is why you are not set apart.

    Brian #18: Thanks for sharing your story, actually. I absolutely think this would work in a bigger class, because I’ve done it there too. I am something of a regular (paid… whether that is fortunate or unfortunate, I’ve yet to decide) substitute for seminary, and I teach the same way when I substitute (this is always for the big released time programs, classes of anywhere from ten to thirty-five). And I have exactly the same response from larger groups of kids: absolute ecstasy. I taught yesterday in town, in fact, on the Akedah (if you’d like to hear the classroom dynamics, I’ll be posting that to http://teachyediligently.mypodcast.com as soon as the site is allowing it again… they’re working on it, I hope). The response was phenomenal, and I heard the usual responses and questions (“I’ve never learned so much in my life!” “This is what I’ve always wanted to do in seminary!” “Why don’t you teach seminary full-time?” “Why does my regular seminary teacher think we’re so unspiritual that he won’t teach us the scriptures themselves?” “What you teach actually [isn’t this ironic, but I love it when it is said for so many selfish reasons!] applies to life!” “I had heard you were a good teacher from a friend, but I was completely shocked today!” etc.).

    As for the spread of ages: the same (my early morning class, by the way, is a spread: two sophomores, one junior, and one senior). I did not let the parents know what we were going to do, primarily because the idea as outlined can be much messier than the idea in reality. I’ve always taken this tack because I first started doing this as a substitute rather than as an early morning teacher (though this is the second time I’ve done early morning), and I obviously didn’t warn parents in advance as a substitute. But I always had the same result. Not only the comments and questions from the kids after class, but the comments and questions as I run into parents of the kids, parents I usually do not at all know (at stake events, etc.): “Whatever you did when you substituted at the seminary, thank you. My kid is still talking about it,” “We noticed a sharp increase in the spirituality of our kid during the week you were teaching. What did you do?” “My daughter talks incessantly about how she is learning how to read the scriptures when you teach. Can we get together sometime so you can give me some pointers?” and on and on.

    Let me be quite careful about the above comments from parents and students: I don’t cite these (everyone of them is representative of dozens of comments) to show that I’m a good teacher because I don’t think I’m a good teacher. That is: I care nothing for pedagogy, for how I ought to handle the teaching situation (methodology means nothing). All I do is get into the scriptures: we just go through them together, working through the verses bit by bit, digging into the theology, looking at the history, amplifying the ambiguities, whatever. I think if there is anything I do right, it is just this: because I’m in love with the text, and the kids have always been told that they should be and so they have always wanted to be, they praise the high heavens when they are finally given the opportunity to do it.

    ponderpaths (Nanette as well, right?) #19: I’ve struggled with what to do with “scripture mastery” (oh, how that very phrase sets my teeth on edge!). I encourage the kids to do with scripture mastery whatever they choose (in an honors class, I’m hardly going to spend time helping them memorize a tiny set of scriptures). And we dig into the text. When I did Book of Mormon a couple years ago, since we did the whole text and not just three books as I’m doing this year, we always spent plenty of time on each of the scripture mastery scriptures when we arrived at them, because they are all so theologically rich. So I did them without doing them, and most of the kids got them memorized.

    Robert #20: Thanks for your overly kind comments. But I do hope my class has precisely the effect you’re describing. I suppose, in the end, it is all I can hope to get done in a classroom situation, right?

    And the work goes on.

  24. nhilton said

    I wonder just who is “in charge” of CES. It seems to me that there are so many common complaints that it’s a no-brainer that something needs shaking up. Who is it that addresses such complaints and has the power to make a test case such as Joe’s class?

  25. RuthS said

    Basically I teach and prepare much the way Cheryl and Jim do, but I put in a fair amount of time trying to learn as much as I can about the material. At the same time I have to tailor the lesson to the needs of the class and to the time constraints in a ward that has sacrament meeting before Sunday school and often runs overtime. So I try to have at least one thing that I want the class to get out of our time together. But, ideally I never go into a class without a plan. A teacher who has everything typed out and stands up there and reads has a plan as well. She can talk about a lot more things and cover a lot of material, but there will be little discussion. If you have a class that won’t talk, I guess that is a good way to do it. If you have one that will talk they practically teach themselves.

    My experience with CES (a close relative works for CES) is that their goal is to work with the individual Stakes and that the local people have a fair amount of autonomy. My kids went to Seminary in a Stake where it was openly said that students who didn’t graduate from Seminary would not be accepted at BYU. The specific impression was that Seminary graduation is an entrance requirement. Imagine my surprise when my relative told me this was not so. The notian that it was so didn’t come from CES. Yet, what our kids were told gave that impression. The Ward leadership does this because they think it will encourage students to attend Seminary. It doesn’t. In fact it has just the opposite effect. The students in my Ward do not make Seminary a pleasant experience for anyone. Some very good teachers have been totally frustrated and discouraged. While it is best not to take anything teens do personally, it is really difficult not to.

    “Who is it that addresses such complaints and has the power to make a test case such as Joe’s class?” I would think the answer to this question is talk to your Bishop.

  26. Ruth #25, Bishops really have no say over a CES led seminary–I know this because my husband was the high councilman over seminary for the stake & is now in the bishopric. It’s the local CES director who calls the shots. Even our stake presidencies don’t do much, except try to locate teachers. Perhaps it works differently for wards with fewer, more scattered students. We have early morning seminary at the highschool with about 30 total students which are divided into 3 classes, per the CES director. I, personally, think the kids would thrive if they were combined with one stellar teacher or two great team teachers. Our CES director insists on two teachers per classroom, requiring 6 total teachers.

  27. Joe Spencer said

    For any interested, I have now got the audio file of my substitute teaching experience the other day (on the Akedah) uploaded. You can access it here: http://teachyediligently.mypodcast.com/2007/11/A_Seminary_Class_Discusses_the_Akedah-54126.html

    I’d be interested to see what kinds of responses any of you has to the discussion, topics covered, teaching style, way of handling the kids, etc.

  28. robf said

    Joe, I liked the class discussion/lesson, thanks for posting it. Very inspiring. I hope the kids were able to groove on that and that the Spirit was able to sink it deep into their souls. I felt that listening to it. My biggest fear in teaching youth the last few years is that they just don’t get how rich and real this all is. I agree that we often go too fast, and that our “touching lightly” on these things becomes “treating lightly” or “taking lightly”. Nice to see you and the class digging in. And getting to Christ, the central part of it all. And making it personal. Every lesson we give should do that, IMNSHO.

    BTW, I’d be interested to hear your after lesson response about Brigham Young’s teachings about Christs in future worlds. I like how you put it off to after the lesson. Want to comment on why you did that and how you handled it?

  29. Joe Spencer said


    Thanks, seriously, for your kind words.

    As for how I handled Brigham. The kid who asked about it is one of those kids who is sincerely looking for more and is constantly denied the opportunity to learn more. When he came up after class, I told him that Brigham had taught a few “semi-controversial” things that might open up the question. I told him just a little bit about the idea of already exalted beings being able to mortalize themselves in order to have children, etc., and said I would look up in some reference material to find more. I’ve since found a bit more, but I haven’t had a chance to get it to him.

  30. K Cryder said

    Joe Spencer,

    I could not possibly take the time to read the article from which you pose your concerns regarding preparation vs planning, however, I did take the time to listen to your Akedah podcast and do have a few thoughts on the topics at hand.

    First, I feel the need to express my concern regarding forums such as this as it is extremely easy to fall into the trap of “idle chatter,” which, I feel this series of dialog came pretty close to crossing the line. To the credit of several “responders” it moved on. To be perfectly frank, I was a little annoyed by the initial topic as I felt it to really be a waste of time. I did get pulled back in by the change of dialog and was intrigued by the announcement of your podcast. Please understand that I’m not trying to be disrespectful. you’re probably now asking yourself, “If it’s such a waste of time, why is she responding?” The answer is because of what I heard in your podcast.

    Your lesson was enjoyable and engaging. I agree with you and others that the children (and all students)really do need to be engaged in the lesson. It’s important to help them see that the scriptures are delightful, wonderful and worth diving into—a treasure of most valuable worth. I teach in a simimlar manner as you. i have found myself exclaiming after we’ve read a passage in class, “Wow, Isn’t that beautiful?” or “amazing” or “awesome” or whatever. (Needless to say noone can sleep in my class, if not because of content, then because of volume).

    After hearing your lesson, my reply to you is that you did indeed “plan” your lesson. You planned to analyze each verse from Genesis 22: 1-14 and Jacob 4:5. You previously planned to shed light on various translations of different words and pose thought provoking questions to your students. I propose to you that you planned to do this from the very beginning, even as you prepared.

    When I served my mission (from 1987-89) we had to use the 6 “discussions.” We were instructed from the beginning to memorize them and then teach them in our own words. At one point my mission president made us all “re-memorize” them as he found that too many missionaries were going off on too many tangents OR not teaching thoroughly enough. There can be no arguing that those lessons were very well-planned (prepared as well). Being well-plannned helped us as missionaries to teach what needed to be taught (content). But I also needed to be prepared with a wealth of information, that was probably only used 5% of the time, and spiritually. Knowing those discussions inside and out, backward and forward, and in two languages didn’t minimize the effect or quality of the lesson, but rather added to it. The missionary lessons, have been “changed” (not really, the content is still the same) in an effort to get the missionaries to teach more by the spirit. I take exception to this idea somewhat because I feel that I (and my companions) did teach by the spirit. It’s a lttle insulting—the implication that we didn’t teach by the spirit because we taught memorized discussions. (In fact, we’re seeing now, (I just got released from being a ward missionary) that missionaries are not teaching all the content required and are leaving the investigators with so many questions that should have been answered).

    I now teach Gospel Doctrine class. Some classes, I’ve had to have extremely well-planned–because it was way too much information to process, or because the spirit directed me there. Other clases (with less material to cover) the extent of the plan was to dive into one, or two paricular chapters.

    I know you planned your podcast lesson. You could not have taught such a good class without planning of some sort.

    Regarding your class,I have a few questions and/or comments.
    1.How do you know that Moriah was the same mount as Golgotha? I didn’t think we knew exactly where it was. I quote Jim falcounerin his 2/18/2006 comments on Genesis 22,

    “We don’t know for sure where the “land of Moriah” was.” and the suggests the temple mount Moriah (or region there about) could be the place.

    Also, when you talked about (paraphrasing here)all of us needing to sacrifice as Abraham did in order to be worthy of exaltation, I think that this would have been a place that could have benefitted with more careful planning. Clearly one student was concerned about this “new” idea and when he questioned you about it, I felt, you brushed over the explanation. I pretty sure that student will not go home thinking he’s going to have to sacrifice a child on an altar someday, but what will he think? Will he go through his life “needlessly” looking for ways in which his sacrifice can be equal to Abraham’s? What is a sacrifice to one is not a sacrifice to another. In addition, the scripture to which i think you were referring D&C 104:4 also says “chastened and tried.” That does not necessarily mean “sacrifice” as typically thought of in Abraham’s situation. I say typically, because most likely, it was a typical understanding that student had.

    My point is that you need to be careful when “illuminating” or giving meat to a group of people that is really just beginning to eat solids, lest they should choke. i think in your case, a little more planning would have helped.

    Now having said that, please don’t lose your enthusiasm and excitement for teaching and expounding the scriptures you are a fun teacher and enjoyable and interesting to listen to.

    and thanks for indulging the lengthy reply.


  31. NathanG said

    K Cryder,
    I’m glad someone else sees the change in missionary discussions the same way I do. I definitely tried to teach by the Spirit.

    I don’t think the church intends to say that teaching the discussions was not teaching by the Spirit (although it kind of comes across that way). Rather, I think it was our abuse of the application or tool of teaching by the Spirit: The Commitment Pattern. The commitment pattern was based on teaching and receiving by the Spirit (the Missionary Handbook connects it to D&C 50). By the time I was a missionary, the commitment pattern was a set of “will you” questions that were appropriate after “building a relationship of trust” and “finding out” with appropriate “follow-up”. When done without the Spirit, I think it was manipulative. When done with the Spirit it was powerful. I think the understanding of the Commitment Pattern was lost and abused, so the church needed to re-emphasize teaching by the Spirit without the tool, and why not update the lessons at the same time.

    I guess this goes in line with the whole discussion. If we get too focused on the tool (lesson plans, preparation, Commitment Pattern, etc.) that we loose the Spirit, then our approach is wrong. If, however, the Spirit directs us to use a certain tool (lesson plans, preparation, Commitment Pattern etc.) how can we be wrong?

  32. K Cryder said


    Thanks. I think you’re dead on. It really is all about the spirit.

  33. mjberkey said

    “I know you planned your podcast lesson. You could not have taught such a good class without planning of some sort.”

    But you pre-suppose that a good lesson requires some previous planning on the part of the teacher. It’s a circular argument. Don’t you neglect the possibility of revelation?

  34. Joe Spencer said


    I actually had nothing planned at all. In my (own) early morning class, I went in several completely different directions as well as this one (over several days). I had no idea what of those, if any of those, would come out. To be quite honest, I didn’t plan at all. Of course, anyone can decide that I simply must have done so, but such an assumption will always be, as Mssr. Berkey points out, circular.

    As far as your concerns about particular points in the lesson go, I couldn’t agree more: more planning on that point would have been wise. But I had no idea things were going to go in that direction, and I can’t bring my entire library to class (by the way, I did not have any scripture in mind when I mentioned Joseph’s words about the sacrifice of Abraham being universal, but several comments that can be found here and there in his discourses, etc.). (Actually, I wish I could have class in my library at home! But there’s little I can do about that for now!) As far as the content of the idea of a universalized sacrifice of Abraham goes: I personally—and here my preferences are laid quite bare—would rather have students wondering what on earth that entails and whether they will be called on to do something so radical than to have them leave the class thinking “Wow! Abraham was really cool! But this has nothing to do with me.” Personal preference. But one I think I’d stand by.

    As far as the silliness of the post in general: (1) You expected more from a blog? (2) This post is predicated on a number of far more involved (and interesting) conversations and comes as a further, thought-provoking (I hope!) word, not as an opening for a new conversation. (3) What isn’t silly, anyway? I can’t even begin to count the silly things I sit through in a given three-hour church block…

    But the work goes on.

  35. Joe Spencer said

    Hmmm, let me clarify one thing I meant by this last comment here. In my second paragraph I say that I’d rather have students think, etc. What I mean, I suppose, is this: I think I’m suggesting that it is better to give students a bit more than they can handle than it is to give them less than they can handle. Students—like babies—can never begin to chew on meat unless it has been given to them, and there is some point where a leap has to be made. I worry far more about how often we starve our students than I worry about how often we tell them more than they are quite ready for.

  36. K Cryder said

    Mj and joe

    My point exactly is that planning and preparing are connected. Let me make a correction. Great planning doesn’t always make a great or good lesson. But most great lessons are a combo of great prep and planning. Regardless, the moment you make a choice about the hows, whats, wheres, whens, whys of a lesson, even if its to be “organic” or “shooting from the hip,” you’ve made a plan. As Mj said its really a circular argument.

    As for the spirit, of course, it’s paramount. But just because I’m teaching with it, doesn’t mean you’re learning with it.
    Chances are much better that I’ll teach with the spirit if I’ve made my plans and preparations with a singleness of heart and desire to serve the Lord asking for the spirit to guide me in such. But that really wasn’t the issue at hand.

    regarding #35

    I don’t ever remember anyone losing a testimony because they were given a little here and a little there. But I have seen people leave the church and consequently lose their testimonies because they were given too much and didn’t know how to process it.—given meat that they choked on.

    You taught a great lesson. It was great because it was fun and exciting. The kids really need that, especially at that age.
    But, a little thoughtful planning could have brought out the idea of acceptible sacrifice such as Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) and taught the students application. Doesn’t CES training teach teachers to

    Moving on…

    regarding 2nd paragraph #34

    I didn’t say silly. I said idle chatter. There’s a huge difference. One which the leaders of the church have warned about.

    Yes. I guess I did expect more, not just from any blog, but from a gospel related blog that has some well-respected individuals commenting on it.
    my bad, I guess

  37. mjberkey88 said

    “I don’t ever remember anyone losing a testimony because they were given a little here and a little there. But I have seen people leave the church and consequently lose their testimonies because they were given too much and didn’t know how to process it.—given meat that they choked on.”

    I really disagree. Every person I’ve seen drift into inactivity has done so not because they heard something that shook their faith, but because they never heard anything to shake their thinking. Church becomes pointless repetition, void of learning. Meager meals in the place of a feast.

  38. robf said

    Choking on meat and gagging on milkified meat substitutes are both potential dangers that a teacher needs the spirit to help his students avoid. And with other things, perhaps there are skills that can be learned to help a teacher deal with both of these potential hazards. Paying close attention to the students, and how they are handling the lesson is probably key. Asking questions to gauge that should help.

    Being humble enough to recognize when you as a teacher may be getting carried away in your own excitement is another skill which needs to be developed–and I’m speaking from the experience of my own prideful excitement as something that has had an extremely negative effect at times. I wish I had better answers to this. Perhaps a couple painful examples to spark more discussion:

    1) After my mission I came home with a lot of new and exciting scriptural thoughts based on some conversations with one of our Area Presidency. I shared some of those with a close family member who I thought was mature in the gospel–only to have that person quote some of that stuff back to me as part of an excuse when they left the church a few years later. I don’t think my sharing of new insights was the main factor for their leaving, but in retrospect I sure wish I hadn’t shared what I did.

    2) I had a young man in a priesthood quorum once who I cared a lot about, but had trouble engaging. He would read classic literature during Sacrament meeting, and there were lots of other signs that he wasn’t really engaging. Several times I gave lessons in the hope that by sharing deeper understandings of the scriptures he would see more than the normal meat substitutes that he had grown tired of long ago. To my shame and embarrassment, looking back now, I can see that I didn’t do enough to really engage him, to ask him how he felt about things. So, I’m still left with a mystery as to the exact reasons why he stopped going to church as soon as he went off to college.

    I could go on and on with examples of people I’ve known who have left the Church for lots of reasons. I think mostly people leave for emotional or other reasons, and it is still just a hypothesis for me that perhaps some leave because they get tired of milk substitutes or don’t really catch the vision of what the gospel involves. Whether that has to do with inadequate teaching or lack of personal dedication to following the Spirit or some other factor I think is hard to decide.

    That makes me wonder what the real role teaching plays in our spiritual development. Perhaps teaching is just one small part of the larger spiritual work of ministering, and that the real wisdom is not about how to share, but when and where and how much to share within a context of nurturing and ministering. That would put discussions of gospel teaching within a very different context and require a very different kind of discussion than we might have with, say, debates about lecturing vs. collaborative learning in a university setting.

  39. brianj said

    K Cryder: you are welcome to state your opinion that this topic was/is “idle chatter,” but be careful about stating that as an undisputed fact.

    Joe: I still have not been able to listen to the podcast, but K Cryder does have a point I can still agree with: there is necessarily some degree of planning before any lesson—even if it’s just “we’re going to meet at X time in Y place and discuss Z chapters.” So whether it’s you planning to cover Genesis, Isaiah, and Job this year, or it’s me planning to discuss Romans 1:16-17, Hebrews 10:36-39, and Romans 5:1-12 this week, it really seems like a matter of degree.

  40. brianj said

    All: I think it is almost always a bad idea to speculate on why a person has left the Church.

  41. Kim M. said

    A clarification on “planning”–

    K, I see you taking “plan” to mean any conscious decision. Joe “chose” to not prepare a lesson, and therefore “planned” something–namely, to not prepare a lesson.

    Having the background of previous blog posts and conversations, both Joe and Mjberkey take “planning” to mean a specific outline of what the teacher is going to say in class–the questions they will raise, (even the anticipated answers in parenthesis!) the scriptures they will reference, the points they will highlight. In this sense, Joe has not planned his lessons at all. He has made a decision (so to speak) not to do so in order to be open to the Spirit and revelation.

    This is also how I teach, and I find it to be a much more engaging method–certainly more open to the Spirit!

    Perhaps my clarification was needless, but I wanted to forestall any further confusion over the idea of “planning” until it was clear what is meant by it.

  42. Kim M. said

    (Which clarity I may not have afforded in the slightest. My regards to these blog members for humoring my comments! ^_^)

  43. K Cryder said

    Please be clear that I am not against higher, more detailed, in depth learning. Indeed, are we not counseled to feast on the word and diligently search the scriptures? Of course.

    What I question is, the wisdom, or lack thereof, in giving a student more information than that student is ready for. And if you feel to tread that ground then you’d better be able to explain, expound, resolve concerns, and help facilitate with application.

    Why do the Apostles almost always stick to the basics of the gospel—teaching the basics over and over again?

  44. K Cryder said

    Thanks. It did clarify.

    38 and 39,
    I agree with you. To clarify, I didn’t say that this topic was idle chatter. I said it came close to crossing the line. Joe, in #34 implied that blogs are “silly” and that I should not expect more.
    I really felt that the topic was moot from the beginning as stated in # 30 but took the time to respond because I was prompted by what I heard in a podcast link.

    In general, I think everyone is in agreement that we have to teach always through the spirit regardless of the preparations and planning involved. My secondary point was that careful or even detailed planning, does not mean that you won’t be receptive to the spirit and unable to impart the message with it.

    Thanks for your indulgence.

  45. mjberkey said

    On this issue of giving a student more than they are ready for, I want to quote from the biography of Hugh Nibley. The situation is this – Nibley had been asked to write a lesson manual for the Book of Mormon, but it had gotten stuck in committee for a while until every lesson was rejected because the reviewers felt that it was too much for sunday school students to handle. Nibley was very upset, and vowed never to write for the church again. Now I quote from the biography…

    “As Hugh tells it: ‘Then one night a Very Important Person could not sleep and decided in sheer desperation to look at the mountain of type that had been so long and so gingerly bandied about. After an hour he was having fits, calling me up long distance from the end of the world at an unearthly time to shout hosannah over the wire.’ Hugh rejoiced in the excited President McKay’s reasoning, based on his career as an educator: ‘Well, if you think it’s over their heads, let them reach for it. We have to give them something more than pat answers.'”

  46. brianj said

    K Cryder: “My secondary point was that careful or even detailed planning, does not mean that you won’t be receptive to the spirit and unable to impart the message with it.” Something I have also argued on this site.

  47. Joe Spencer said

    Kim, thanks for clarifying that; I think your point shows how much we are in agreement here.

    K’s second point, which Brian echoes in #46, is one I would agree with as well: were I to suggest otherwise, I would most certainly be out of line (who am I to decide that the Spirit can’t do that as well?)!

    As far as the silliness/idle-chatterness of the blog goes: I can only hope that the blog is not silly or idle, but I think the relative popularity of the blog and the relative inactivity (though not so much as of late) of the wiki is evidence that the blog is something to grapple with.

    Finally, as to this question of whether or not to give students more than they can handle…. Two points. First, I wrote last night after a simply miserable experience, so I was less than my normal self (which is why I tried to write my clarification), so take some of what I said with a grain of salt. Second, and more importantly, I suppose what I think in general is that it is far, far better to do good in teaching than not to do bad. But let’s not lose the context here: I’d be pretty shocked at someone leaving the Church over a comment like “Everyone will have to offer a sacrifice as great as Abraham’s to enter into the celestial kingdom.” I would obviously be much more careful, explanatory, and follow-up-ish were I to be introducing, say, the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  48. s james said

    Joe, at the risk of being labelled a ‘threadjacker’ forgive me for coming in here on the Abraham question as I have not listened to your lesson but only picked up on some of the threads above.

    In particular I’m not sure of the status of your statement: “Everyone will have to offer a sacrifice as great as Abraham’s to enter into the celestial kingdom.” which is not my understanding as evidenced in the doctrines set out in D&C 137. Perhaps I have read you too literally, and out of context.

    In relation to that sacrifice I quote Elder Hugh B Brown’s alleged answer to the question: “Why… was Abraham commanded to go to Mount Moriah and offer his only hope of posterity?” To which he replied: “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham”. Among other things, if we are generalizing from the case, this suggests that perhaps for us the Lord has specific lessons of differing magnitude that we each must learn.

    Apologies if I have misinterpreted the intent of that statement.

  49. Joe Spencer said


    I too am not sure of the status of that statement: what we do in the course of the class that has been podcasted is raise questions about its meaning. And we look at Jacob 4 to make sense of it, the argument being that the test and sacrifice in question—which every saint must perform—is not a question of radical obedience but of radical faith, of living by faith/grace. Cf. the podcast.

    As for the statement, Joseph Smith said it, in a number of ways on a number of occasions, over the course of his ministry. A couple of examples:

    “3d That of Melchisedec [Joseph is speaking of the three priesthoods here] who had still greater power even power of an endless life of which was our Lord Jesus Christ which also Abraham obtained by the offering of his son Isaac which was not the power of a Prophet nor apostle nor Patriarch only but of King & Priest.”

    “He could not organize His kingdom with twelve men to open the Gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless He took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.”

    “The sacrifice required of Abraham in the offering up of Isaac, shows that if a man would attain to the keys of the kingdom of an endless life, he must sacrifice all things.”

    From the D&C:

    “Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified.” (D&C 101:4-5)

    “Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord, and hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne…. Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved. But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham.” (D&C 132:29, 32-33)

    “For I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even unto the end of the world, and through all eternity; for verily I seal upon you your exaltation, and prepare a throne for you in the kingdom of my Father, with Abraham your father. Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac. Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.” (D&C 132:49-51)

    Now, let me be very clear here: I’m not trying to suggest that all of the above statements are to be univocally interpreted. Not at all! I don’t think that is at all implied by the lesson I taught either, nor do I think any of the students left with that understanding. What I’m suggesting is that the general tenor of these kinds of statements seem to suggest that this sacrifice of Isaac business is something that is not merely past, not merely ancient, and that it has something to with our own entrance into the Celestial Kingdom. And I’m suggesting that if this is really the case, we had better start thinking about what on earth that means, since it is not at all clear.

    What I am issuing is a call to think, to ponder, to pray, to read, to reread, etc. I am not at all trying to establish some kind of doctrine, universal law, or anything of the kind (those who know me will know better than that! :) ).

    Does that help clarify things here?

  50. KCryder said


    Do you think that if you would have had some forethought and/or taken a little time to plan your lesson, that the intent you express in your last 2 paragraphs (#49) would have rung out loud and clear in your Akedah class? (Please take this as a sincere question–I don’t want it be read sarcastically or derrogatorally in any way). I think it would have been great if you could have expressed it that very way to your class—because, yes, now it is pretty clear what your intent was and in my opinion (for what it’s worth at this point) is that suggestion, (last 2 paragraphs of #49) is much more of a “proper feast.”

    ***I’d still be interested in the evidence of Moriah being the same place as Golgotha. Even if its just an opinion.

  51. s james said

    Joe, thanks for your extended response, and yes this does clarify your teaching approach and intent, and gives me an idea of how you use the sources you draw upon to stimulate deeper consideration and interpretation. Please allow me to address the issue and make some observations.

    I’m in agreement that Abraham’s life and offering are used as a ‘type’ reflecting the kind of faith we might be required to demonstrate in the midst of trials. (I have avoided the word ‘sacrifice’ because technically none was made, and at least Paul suggests that Abraham had the knowledge that Issac would be raised (Heb 11:19)).
    It is clear that some have been called (chosen) to make comparable offerings and demonstrate comparable faithfulness. But as you suggest, the implication that a person’s exaltation might be contingent on an equivalent offering and life, is worthy of further investigation. And I would concur, particularly in light of revelations which suggest this is not a universal requirement.

    Consider this reading of Jacob 4:3, for example, where Jacob reveals that keeping the law of Moses ‘(i)(was) sanctified unto (them) for righteousness, even as it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son’(/i), thus, those of Jacob, are sanctified for faithfulness, as was Abraham. (I would not consider theirs to be a ‘radical’ faithfulness, but perhaps, given the overall tenor of Jacob, a solemn, abiding, faithfulness, cf Jacob 7:26).

    You may think this pedantic, but I would treat your references less in terms of references to Abraham (who I don’t think is the primary focus) and more in terms of them being situated responses to particular matters that required revelation, hence, understandable/interpretable in the contexts of their primary utterance or production, and likely not complementary.
    I appreciate that much teaching seeks to widen the interpretative frame and I do this regularly, however, I also note the all too common practice of collapsing themes across contexts (re-contextualisation), in order to draw wider inferences or make ‘personal’ applications, (an artefact of the topicalization or lexical chaining of scriptures) which in my view risks misconstruing the revelations/scriptures.

    Somewhere we are encouraged to seek out the question(s) which gives rise to a revelation (Joseph Smith’s advice, I think) if we do this we find that there is a contingent, situated, aspect to all revelation/scripture, ie a grounding, where the work of the Spirit was manifest. If we go here then we find a qualitatively different expression of the scriptures. Interestingly, JS’s strongest statement quoted above on the matter in question is made at the School of the Prophets and perhaps applies most directly to the twelve.

    This is not a criticism of your work or your objectives as I appreciate your generosity in sharing your thoughts and lessons. I’m sure that those who know you are like those who know me.

  52. NathanG said

    s james,
    I hope you don’t mind an intrusion into your discussion. I just wanted to add that the context of why the Law of Moses was sanctified unto them for righteousness was because of their faith in Christ. This is true for Abraham as well. In this sense, I think their faithfulness was radical since the scriptural evidence suggests that many, if not most, of those following the law of Moses missed out on Christ.
    This leads to another way of considering the “sacrifice of comparable magnitude” as an inward sacrafice rather than the outward action. It may require just as much sacrifice of me to change my focus of obedience from the understanding that I think I have gained of the gospel and the scriptures to a focus of faith in Christ. So whether or not the specific action I am called to do is a great thing or a small thing, the sacrifice of myself may require the same faith that Abraham had.

    I just looked back at the beginning of Joe’s comment #49 and think this is what he was saying (radical faith rather than radical obedience).

  53. Joe Spencer said

    K #50,

    Forethought might have helped this to be clear… but I didn’t know what I was going to do: again, I do not plan at all about what to teach. I went into the classroom that day knowing only that the full-time teacher had assigned us “Genesis 22” as what was to be covered. I didn’t know we would visit Joseph, and I didn’t know we would visit Jacob 4, and on and on. And I think this is why the Spirit is such a frightful thing, no? When we go into the classroom trusting entirely that the Spirit will send us wherever it would have us go, we can’t come in deciding that we are going to communicate this, that, and the other. I had no idea what would come. But part of that same trust in the Spirit is a trust that students, feeling that same Spirit, will understand the Spirit’s intentions. I can’t lose sleep over whether this or that phrase might have been misunderstood, because I need to be losing sleep while the Spirit wakes me to teach me… right?

    As for Moriah: oh, I don’t know. I remember hedging a bit when I taught that, but perhaps I didn’t. It is, of course, an ancient tradition merely (one I imagine is likely incorrect), but its longstanding place in the tradition means that it deserves attention. But I’m hardly committed to the (any?) idea.

    s #51,

    Not pedantic, at all. But what I think is important interpretively here is that the universalizing as well as the particularizing approach is grounded in a very real wager. That is, neither is absolute; both require one to bear one’s presuppositions. What I think you will find, if you listen to the podcast, is that I’ve woven these two presuppositions together, allowed these two wagers to intermingle: this general theme may be something we can think about in a universalistic way, but a very direct consideration of the story in Genesis 22 will force us to return to every one of these texts with new eyes, with a new understanding, and with an ability to approach these things quite differently. This is especially accomplished, I think, through the foray we made as a class into Jacob 4. Nathan is right that I was offering roughly the reading he offers in #52: for a full explanation, I can only recommend the podcast itself (we spend a good little while on that single verse).

    In short: scripture is at once radically situated and radically disrupted from all situation, at once to be interpreted only in the light of its immediate context and to be interpreted with an eye to every other passage of interest. If we give ourselves completely to context, we become modern exegetes, essentially historians, unable to do anything like meaningful theology. If we give ourselves completely to universalization, we become fundamentalists, reading every passage in light of some already determined doctrine or understanding. As Paul Ricoeur perhaps best explains (again and again in his work), there is a dialectic between these two ways of interpreting that make reading an actual engagement. If we ignore that play, we are not engaging the text (two italicized elements).

    I think.

  54. Robert C. said

    I think this last point that Joe brings up in #53, in response to s james, is very important and interesting. That is, this seems to capture what is most important in approaching scripture: being as true as possible to the particular context, and yet, at the same time, being as true as possible to the universal theological, hermeneutic, and personal/typological implications. To focus on either of these poles at the exclusion of the other tends to make scripture study rather unproductive, IMHO….

  55. s james said

    NathanG, you are right, both groups had faith in Christ and it was counted unto them as righteousness, yet not all were required to make the offering expected of Abraham. While I note you likening their levels of faith (and yours with Abraham), I’ll bring it back to the statement by Elder Brown that ‘Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham’, which suggests that ultimately the plan of salvation is tailored to us as individuals of varying capacity or ‘intelligence’ (cf Abraham 3:19), but perhaps you are right that Jacob 4:3 demonstrates comparable faith, which is a considerable observation.

    Joe, for me the basis of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics is that ‘human actions’, ‘conversations’, ‘oral traditions’ etc. are the presuppositions for understanding the written text, which is a secondary phenomena, hence my interest in Joseph Smith’s (?) insightful direction to seek the question or circumstance that the revelation/scripture ‘answers’. So hermeneutics under Riceour is more than the interpretation of texts or the study of their interpretation, it is to locate that which presupposes the text. For me this is where theology lies (not in the text, but mediated by the text).

    Generally I see a lot more generalisation (from practice to principle) than hermeneutic rigour in classes. In the move to universalise or generalise the caution I suggest is that scriptures, scriptural themes and scriptural lives are not incongruently conflated creating the error where, for example, distinct concepts, experiences or conditions are regarded as the same. There seems to be a strong interest in reducing practices to universal principles minus the defining contexts in which such practices emerged. (You have heard the saying: ‘A text without a context is a pretext’)

    RobertC , yes there are hazards and how the play between the particular and the universal is worked out is an important issue. But to face the facts we must acknowledge that except for occasional glimpses, hints and insightful digressions we labour at filling in the particulars of what it means to know and feel and live as Abraham, Jacob or others, and might this not have an impact on the quality of our applications, nevertheless we trust we have been given sufficient.

  56. Joe Spencer said


    I entirely agree that we “see a lot more generalisation (from practice to principle) than hermeneutic rigour in classes” (are you British, by the way?). And I entirely agree that this is a problem. But I’ll confess that I am equally exasperated by a Sunday School lesson, for example, that only gets into exegetical questions, that is so given to the historical context that the text is ultimately meaningless.

    Which is why I find Ricoeur so fascinating. I’m not sure what you’ve read by him, but I suppose I’m thinking primarily of the way he formulates things in his books on Freud and Husserl, as well as in his more recent Time and Narrative. The double vow of interpretation—vow of rigor, vow of obedience—is the idea that the “responsible” interpreter of a text at once gives herself to the text entirely and yet questions the text according to her own horizons. It is this clash of horizons (the “world of the text” and the “world of the reader”) that is the act of interpretation. And this is why Ricoeur so constantly, particularly in his more recent, theological works, speaks on behalf of theological readings, of readings that to some degree or another do violence to the text. Here I’m thinking of Thinking Biblically: responsible exegesis is necessary for hermeneutics, but a text reduced to the historical framework is ultimately the product of modernistic reduction, not a text. And this means that there is a dialectic between the universal and the particular in the very act of reading.

    So, yes, “text without context is pretext.” But just as true: “text entirely reduced to context is no longer text.”

    Now, let me express my hope that I am being quite clear: I do not at all condone readings of the scriptures that effectively wrest the text, nor do I condone ignorant half-study, nor do I condone “application” as such (you can see my post on that subject!). I am suggesting that if we are given only to a hermeneutic of suspicion, we are reading the scriptures with a kind of atheistic presupposition, one that is at odds with so much of especially Joseph Smith’s revelations (where he is constantly appealing to a kind of sacerdotal writing… something like that, anyway). So let’s do our homework, yes! Let’s be buried—as I hope you expect me to be—in the work of the best exegetes! But let’s recognize that that modernistic take on scriptural texts is a (fortunate) fall from the creation of the text itself and thus only a step on the way to something like “atoned” reading, if I might put it somewhat poetically.

  57. s james said


    I’m not unacquainted with the general position you put on hermeneutical analysis and reading, but am not well acquainted with Riceour in the context of his theological hermeneutics.

    Essentially, I’m not suggesting that teaching be reduced to the analysis or exposition of historical context, but that in addition to being informed by it, that the text, and what it presupposes, be studied in pursuit of an ‘authoritative’ understanding of the scriptural narrative.

    I use the term ‘narrative’ to highlight an alternative to the view that meaning is forged in the clash of horizons, ie between the world of the text, and the world of the reader, to maintain that it is located in the ‘dynamic interactions between characters, actions, and circumstances’ of the scriptural narrative. As the quintessential scriptural genre, narrative form is the arbiter of meaning.
    As such, I’m unsettled by (let’s say wary of) practices which abstract discourse from its textual environment paving the way for a myriad of interpretations, particularly, as one of the main functions of religious texts is to provide fundamental accounts. Notwithstanding those accounts are revelatory and present ‘possibilities’ and orientations for life.

    I am making a fine distinction between understanding scripture and interpreting scripture (though they need not be always opposed), eg how we might understand Abraham’s offering as an individual who manifests a certain way of being in the world, in comparison to, how Abraham’s offering might be interpreted; how the literal study of the text narrative (the conditions of its truth and its milieu) might provide additional clarity, which may in itself lead to the internalising or testimony work that we seek. We see a lot of important contributions to this end on this blog.

    When we move into the domain of the interpretive it does open up scope for more symbolic, poetic or sacerdotal readings, more ‘transposing’ work, and you make your position quite clear on this, though I see you’re an exegete at heart – no, not from Britain – is context important?

    Overall, however, I see these issues as more a matter of thoughtfully distributing their weight, not necessarily throwing anything away.

  58. Joe Spencer said

    I would highly recommend Ricoeur’s “The Bible and the Imagination,” in Figuring the Sacred. I think I agree entirely with his take on narrative there: essentially he argues that while a narrative imposes certain limitations on interpretation (that is, it imposes a horizon on its reader), it does not at foreclose the world of the reader.

    But I can’t help thinking that I’m missing something in the distinction you’re drawing between understanding and interpretation here. So far as I do understand it, I think I would have to say that I’m relatively uninterested in anything like an “authoritative” understanding: though there are certainly better and worse approaches to any given text (and there are certainly flat out wrong approaches), I’m hesitant to concede the point that there is a “best” one (or at least that we can know we’ve found such a “best” one if there is one).

    As such, I think we part ways on this issue of narrative being “the quintessential scriptural genre.” While it is obviously of massive importance (and I’m just as excited by Hans Frei’s work as I imagine you are), I’m not sure what grounds the decision to exalt it above the other, equally scriptural genres: prayer, psalm, public discourse, reflective writing, wisdom literature, apocalypse, etc. A particularly compelling example for me here is Nephi’s two books: he explicitly calls the non-narrative part of his text the “more sacred things,” and even seems to apologize for the narrative portions (1 Nephi 19:1-6). Though I’m not at all suggesting that we understand Nephi to be claiming that narrative is always a lesser form (I hardly believe that!), I do think Nephi gives us reason to wonder about placing too great a weight on narrative alone. As important a development as narratology is, I think it is precisely Ricoeur (in Time and Narrative) who has shown us its limitations.

    Finally, I asked whether you were British because of your spelling. Perhaps in part to get context :) , but also simply because I am myself British, and it is always good to run into fellow subjects, seldom as that happens.

  59. s james said

    Joe, you did make me smile, I would have never picked you for being British (except perhaps for a certain doggedness), and perhaps I should pursue Ricoeur more closely.

    As for Frei and his commentators, their work puts somewhat of a spotlight on Ricouer’s theology which if considered a product of his method, fails in its conclusions. For me, a consideration when assessing how far I might travel with a particular theorist.

    As to your rendering of the expression ‘authoritative’,(not authoritative), it does not denote a single view or a best view, but a carefully considered and defensible view. (You can see how much trouble we can get into across this cultural divide).

    I will however, do a Ricoeur and multiply its meaning here to include statements by church ‘authorities’, which may rouse your interest. In our theological world we do regard some statements as ‘authoritative’, and this is an issue (for some) of how acceptance of such statements is reconciled with the affordances of interpretive method.

    Perhaps I have overstated the status of narrative in the scriptures, but it is difficult not to acknowledge that it is the genre of choice in critical moments of scriptural history, despite arguments about its limitations.

    As for my spelling, that’s the way we spell down here, when I can get my computer to behave.

  60. Joe Spencer said

    Doggedness, yes. But you should meet my mother! I’m a pushover next to her! :)

    If you need to read more Ricoeur, it sounds as if I need to read more of Frei’s commentators: is there anything you suggest that is particularly clear in revealing the shortcomings of Ricoeur’s theology?

    In the sense you are using the word “authoritative,” I think I would concur. Although I wonder whether I’ve read too much Foucault to agree that the word means anything like that!

    I’ll agree also that the question of church “authorities” is an important one—and a difficult one. One way of describing the relatively short history of this blog: one long discussion about what it means to interpret scripture in the shadow of church “authorities.” My own… radicalism?… is perhaps a unique position here: rather than suggesting that we have authoritative statements to deal with on the one hand, and rather than suggesting that we have some kind of duty to forge our own path on the other hand, I’ve walked the rather lonely road of suggesting that authority always and in every circumstance is a function of the Spirit… though even this is a “statement” that deserves quite a bit of explanation. Perhaps it would be worth writing up a post that engages this idea rather directly….

    And I’ll certainly agree that narrative is the genre of choice in critical moments of scriptural history. I think there is no question about that. But at the same time, I think we all have to recognize that it is not the standard by which other genres, present at other critical moments of scriptural history, must be measured.

    Finally, “down here”? Where is it, down there, if I might ask again—with all the doggedness my British blood can muster—that you refuse to generalise with such rigour, while so many on this blog (myself included, ironically) generalize or refuse to generalize with whatever relative degree of rigor?

  61. Robert C. said

    I didn’t hear this, but I noticed that Elder Perry talked about planning in his recent BYU devotional address. I imagine a transcript or recording can be obtained somewhere, but for now here is a news writeup. I’d be interested in hearing a response from Joe, esp. in light of this recent turn in the discussion to authoritative statements.

    Somewhat more tangentially, I was thinking about a similar question regarding authority yesterday, esp. in light of the discussion above about how much to challenge students, when I came across the following statement by Elder Wirthlin in the SS lesson manual (on the pastoral epistles, see here):

    God has revealed everything necessary for our salvation. We should teach and dwell on the things that have been revealed and avoid delving into so-called mysteries. My counsel to teachers in the Church, whether they instruct in wards and stakes, Church institutions of higher learning, institutes of religion, seminaries, or even as parents in their homes, is to base their teachings on the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets. [Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 101; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 77]

    The way this quote is generally interpreted sort of rubs me wrong because I think the usual interpretation is not very reconcilable with the plethora of scriptural examples that talk about seeking after and even expounding the mysteries of God (see, for example, these passages).

    By the way, I find this discussion of hermeneutics very interesting, and I would welcome a few posts dealing with these questions more directly. In fact, would anyone else be interested in reading and discussing the article/chapter by Ricoeur that Joe mentioned above?

  62. Joe Spencer said

    I’m quite unsure how to respond to your petition in regards to Elder Perry’s talk, so I’ll “ignore” that for now (if others are allowed—even encouraged!—to put things said by Brigham and Joseph on the shelf until they can make sense of them, I think I can elect to do the same with Elder Perry’s talk here :) ).

    I would be very interested in a collective discussion of the paper by Ricoeur, however. Anyone else?

  63. s james said

    You might be interested in the article Houston, S (2007) Possibility and Identity Ricoeur and Frei on the Resurrection, Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, Vol 4 Issue 2.

    There are a number of reasons why I favour Frei’s orientation presented here, most notably his sensitivity to giving primacy to the categories that are born in the text that become the lens through which the text’s truth claims are viewed and weighed up. As with all theorists I find there are limits to how far I can go with them, Frei included. But this much at least sits comfortably with other areas of interest I pursue.

    As I expressed sometime ago I’m a tourist in matters of formal scriptural scholarship and while I tend to borrow-in my thinking from other academic work, for the most part I resist bringing their (mostly tentative) ‘authorities’ to bear in LDS arenas, because I concur with your view Joe that the Holy Ghost is a greater authority.

    My concern is that without sufficient support, say in understanding the tentativeness of textual theory and analysis, students’ capacities for managing ambiguities (counter and potentially contradictory perspectives) may be confounded, and more importantly, the prophetic authority of scripture, its truth claims, and its claims to truth, may be held to lack authority, may be displaced.

    One of the challenges is to bridge the work of philosophers, theorists and commentators in advancing scriptural scholarship. However, as suggested by the creation of FUTW, it is a different kind of scriptural scholarship one potentially not patterned after the manner of this world.

    As the ‘textual turn’ turned its back on the dogmatisms of ‘priestly castes’ and ‘metaphysicians’ and turned to the relationship between the text and the world, much work in textual analysis is now about displacement ie reading the gaps in texts, and reading between the lines (oh for the days of scriptura continua when there were no spaces between words!).
    In the spirit of the Restoration we may read and ponder our texts with our gaze set not by this world, but, after the manner of the prophets, with a view to worlds to come. In my view, the Restoration offers us the potential for a different way of reading that is both a corrective to the dogmatisms of the past and the dogmatisms of the present.

    Here is terra australis, the antipodes.

  64. Joe Spencer said

    I will definitely take a look at that paper, thanks.

    And I think that, generally, we see much of this in the same way. One way I’ve put much of this recently in a conversation is that I see philosophy—and especially Continental philosophy—as a kind of fortunate fall: it establishes the profoundly necessary opposition that must precede the total reorientation that is the atonement (here: reading by the Spirit). Much the same can be said for, say, the New Mormon History: it is a fortunate and necessary fall from the unfortunately naive approach that preceded it. But neither its fortunateness nor its necessity make anything other than a fall! Doing Mormon history in the Spirit requires profound attention to both the naive and the modernistic though it will cut a different way through the mess of details.

    I suppose the reason I feel so comfortable, then, imposing the ambiguity of the text on students is because I worry that leaving them to think the creation and the atonement are one and the same thing might be more problematic still, perhaps most especially because they are eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge every day while being told they are not. Letting them see how rich that fruit really is by making sure they recognize what they’re looking at, I hope to point them beyond it, to help them to see how it is all recast, struck dumb, and distracted by the Christ that speaks in the scriptures. I hope…

  65. Robert C. said

    I actually managed to read the Ricoeur article in some spare moments yesterday and this morning, I’ll try to post something about it later this week. I’ll probably work through the article somewhat carefully in several posts, since it seemed quite dense and rich—that is, I think I missed a lot reading it, listening to a computer voice read it to me actually, with two kids hanging off me!

    I’ve queued up the Sam Houston’s article (it’s available to download here), and will try to tackle that next, perhaps this weekend.

    Joe, I’m not quite sure I follow your tree of knowledge imagery here, though I like it. I’m guessing you’re equating secular/temporal learning (esp. regarding the scriptures and other spiritually-dressed learning) with the tree of knowledge and juxtaposing that to a more spiritual kind of learning symbolized by the tree of life—am I close?

  66. Joe Spencer said

    I suppose I’m doing something like that. More than anything I think I’m saying that the traditionally trite lessons we feed the youth on assume that they can’t handle secular learning, even though they are being taught secular learning on the other side of the parking lot all day long, being tested on it, etc. It is as if we are pretending that they are still innocent, still have not fallen, still have not eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Or perhaps we pretend, quite foolishly, that the knowledge of good and evil is entirely a question of experience? Either way, I think we would do better to make quite clear what the place of the secular is in the gospel while we’ve got them with us. (How many stories can I tell about a student telling me something like, “But Freud’s just a nutcase, right? I don’t have to pay attention to him? That’s what Brother so-and-so told me,” all the while employing all the language—learned at school, but only in a roundabout way—of Freudian psychoanalysis? I think we had better be better Freudians, etc., than the secularists out there….)

  67. Robert C. said

    I had a chance to read about 3/4 of the Houston article on Frei and Ricoeur, and I must say that so far it sort of rubs me wrong. I don’t know Ricoeur all that well, and I know almost nothing about Frei, nevertheless, I suspect that either Houston is misreading Frei or Frei is misreading Ricoeur somewhat—the article makes Ricoeur sound much more anti-historical than my understanding of his position is. Part of my negative reaction, however, is probably because of the rather absolutist language that Houston uses:

    Respecting the integrity of the text is something which both Ricoeur and Frei hope to accomplish; nevertheless, only Frei truly achieves this goal. . . . After providing an account of Ricoeur’s interpretation of the resurrection, I will then bring Frei’s critique of his position to bear, demonstrating the ways in which Ricoeur fails to take the integrity of scripture satisfactorily into account. [p. 2]

    I think the article does, however, raise interesting issues, and the last part of the artice looks to be quite interesting and informative, esp. regarding Frei’s views. I’ll try writing a separate post on this later if it doesn’t disappoint….

  68. Clark said

    And, once they’re at the Y, they’re heartily disappointed in their religion classes there to the point that they’ve begun taking them Independent Study.

    While it’s been a few years since I was at BYU, it used to be that the regular religion classes basically were seminary. They assumed no familiarity with the scripture and no desire to really delve into the text. Rather they were focused around silly fill in the blank and multiple choice tests focused on forcing students to actually read the text and get a modicum of superficial understanding. Which is probably not a bad thing for many students. Occasionally you’d then get added a kind of motivational speech.

    If you wanted real religion classes you had to take classes not taught by religion teachers. Typically those offered by the honors department were ideal. Interestingly even though arguably more work was demanded they ended up being easier. Simply because you weren’t trying to guess what fill in the blank question the professor would ask and memorize for it. I enjoyed every non-religion offered religion class I took at BYU. If possible I’d advise trying to get professors who also write for FARMS or similar organizations. I’d note that several philosophy classes were simultaneously religion classes and were excellent.

  69. s james said

    Robert while you’re commenting on the cutlery I am interested to know what you think of the meal … :)

    Being that far in, I’m interested if you have any thoughts on the way Ricoeur’s hermeneutics work ‘in front of the text’, as metaphoric discourse in the absence of a literal reading of the referent (object) ‘behind’ the text. And how this approach reportedly leads Ricoeur to an eschatological-metaphorical view, in this case, of the resurrection, putting under ‘suspicion’ (I’m being generous, Houston says abolition) a literal reading of the resurrection as an event.

    Houston argues that

    Frei succeeds in demonstrating that Ricoeur’s project fails in interpreting the biblical narratives on their own terms, and that such faulty interpretations lead to a misconstrual of the meaning of the resurrection. Frei also reveals the fact that, in bringing a complex and extensive theoretical system to bear on the biblical text, Ricoeur ends up attempting to find a place for the biblical world in his own ideational creation rather than locating a place for his conceptual reality within the world explicated by scripture. This has drastic effects for a literal reading of the biblical narratives. Moreover, the large and dense conceptual apparatus which Ricoeur has constructed has problems of its own.

    This points to a fundamental issue in interpretive work, which I think will emerge even more strongly in the post you are starting on Ricoeur, ie the nature and place of metaphor as the currency of the day in interpretive work. I will be interested in following and hopefully contributing to those discussions.

  70. Clark said

    Frei succeeds in demonstrating that Ricoeur’s project fails in interpreting the biblical narratives on their own terms

    I’ve not read the texts in question yet. But isn’t the problem what “own terms” entails? In one sense of course Ricoeur doesn’t read texts on their own terms. The problem is the problem of textual objectivity and what that means. Our act of reading is an appropriation of the text.

  71. s james said

    The Freian argument put by Houston is that Ricoeur puts his interpretation system in front of the text ie his principles of hermeneutics mediate his understanding of the text and the ‘literalness’ of the text is displaced.

    Hermeneutics, like any other ‘system’ or ‘philosophy’ or way of analysis carries its own ideological baggage. The important thing is to be able to detect that and not just to be colonised by it.

    In this case the issue is not about ‘textual objectivity’ it is about examining two different ways of reading narrative accounts in the bible (interpretive and literal), and in this case the resurrection is the ground upon which these positions are played out.
    The argument is that Frei not only shows that Ricoeur front loads his theology to the point of removing the historicity of the event, but also by using Derridean analysis shows that the meaning derived from putting meaning in front of the text (Ricoeur: “the ‘referent’ basically manifests the meaning ‘in front’ of the text.”), derives from its contrast (reading behind the text) which as the deconstruction argument goes is essentially non-referential (cannot provide a link between the text and the world), and so the claims of Ricoeur’s method to provide coherent interpretive referents breaks down through the logic of deconstruction.

    I sense that Frei is a little sheepish in employing this analysis which is why Houston refers to Frei as ‘…engaging in a sort of ad hoc apologetic’. It’s one of those things you do to win an argument but know that you risk having it turned on yourself.

    You should have a look at the text, Robert has kindly put a link in an earlier post.

  72. Clark said

    Note that what you say here seems similar to some of the interactions between Derrida and Ricoeur on matters like metaphor. I think their differences are pretty subtle. (Lawlor has convinced me in this matter)

    I’ll try and check out the article in question so I can (hopefully) make some more intelligible comments.

    I would say that deconstruction doesn’t entail non-referentiality but rather makes it more complex. So having not read the article I’d probably say that what you describe Frei as saying is correct but is only half the story. I do agree that Ricoeur tries to avoid this but also agree that he is unable to avoid it. (In this I favor Derrida over Ricoeur or Gadamer) However I think this ends up being a fairly subtle difference.

    The big debate is always Heidegger’s authentic/inauthentic modes. That is one can put oneself in front of the text in an inauthentic mode. But one can also do it in an authentic mode. (I recognize all the authors in question move beyond this earlier approach to the issue – but I find that traditional middle Heidegger taxonomy rather helpful) The deconstructive move can show the manifestation of the inauthentic but I strongly believe it can also simultaneously show the manifestation of the authentic. There is always that point of undecidability where the critic must decide (or more accurately be decided). I think Derrida himself demonstrates this in many texts. Sometimes he makes one move and sometimes an other. There are two Nietzsches, two Heideggers, two Hegels, and presumably two Ricouers.

    Once again, I’m speaking from ignorance here. But I’d lay really good odds that we have a double move with the traditional senses of “interpretive” and “literal” both being misguided. We end up in a double move where both are both present and absent. We end up with an Event (with a capital E) that is both historical (and calling the historicity of the text) but also beyond this. (Or perhaps not yet present)

  73. Robert C. said

    s james, I really want to read Frei for myself, but it seems to me that Houston is presenting something of a false dichotomy by discussing an interpretive reading as though such a reading would make a literal reading impossible. Even with the resurrection, my sense is that Ricoeur would argue that although we might think about a literal, historical resurrection, such a concept is still a concept that we the readers hold in the here and now—and so, a literal, historical reading is an interpretive reading. Now, if Ricouer is arguing explicitly against a literal reading, then I’d like to see exactly where he argues this (I still need to go back and look carefully at Houston’s footnotes) because my sense is that Ricoeur is usually just trying to point to this idea that history isn’t something that is directly accessible to us, and so reading entails interpretation. Thus, the meaning of the resurrection is determined by how we the readers presently think about it, because the historical fact alone has no meaning in an of itself.

    I’m pretty much sidestepping Houston’s main argument because I don’t know enough about Frei, or about Ricoeur’s writings on the resurrection to say more. I do agree with Houston that there is a difference between reading about the resurrection with or without a belief that a literal, historical event is being described, and I read scripture with a belief that a literal resurrection is being described. But I also believe that the meaning of the resurrection is something that is more than just literal fact of history, it is something that affects me in the here and now—and from my (quite limited!) acquaintance with Ricoeur, it seems this latter point is the main point of his work.

    (By the way, if anyone hasn’t read Jim Faulconer’s “Scripture as Incarnation” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, it provides an excellent discussion of many of these issues. I think that would also be an excellent article to discuss—I really need to carefully reread it. Also, for those who are quite interested in these more philosophical hermeneutical issues, the lds-herm listserv might be of interest since that is the express purpose of that list, though I’m happy to continue this discussion here.)

  74. Michele Mitchell said

    Sorry to be off topic, Joe, but I very much appreciate your recording your Honors Seminary class. Thank you. I was just listening to Genesis 22 part 2 where you say it’s nonsense for us to talk about all the prophets in the OT knowing of Christ. Do you not think their words about Christ have been lost? Do you read Mosiah 13:33-34 as hyperbole, or in some other way? I thought the Deuteronomists or someone had obscured plain and precious parts of the OT???

  75. Joe Spencer said


    I will be reading Houston’s article tonight at last (while my wife is away at the temple with the youth). So I should have more to say here, though, without reading, I think Robert’s point is essentially right: Ricoeur seems to me to be right in asserting that a “literal” reading is as given to a conceptual framework that intervenes between the reader and the text as is any other hermeneutical approach. But I’m very interested to see how Mssr. Houston works his argument out.

    I’ll second Robert’s plug for Jim’s paper. At times—if I can get away with flattering Jim here—I wonder if it isn’t the most important philosophical piece written as yet in Mormonism (thank you, thank you, thank you, Jim, for calling the saints back to the text… and more seriously).


    Hmmm. I don’t recall exactly what I said. I would probably take my own words as hyperbole over the words of Abinadi! More than anything, I imagine, I was trying to dispel the ungrounded Mormon tradition that we can read Isaiah and Jeremiah, etc., and find the plainest references to Christ that the Jews only missed because they were so determined not to believe, etc. I would hope that I said it this way (though I’m not sure… what comes in the moment comes, unfortunately… or perhaps fortunately): “Let’s be honest: the Old Testament prophets are not telling us quite plainly about Christ. We can only read Christian details into them because we stand at the end of two thousand years of traditional readings of the prophets that way. Though I wholeheartedly believe that the prophets knew of Christ [I do by the way!], I don’t believe that they revealed much or any of this to the people. If and when they did, they did it only poetically, obscurely, in hints and double meanings, etc. But let us never get so sure about our own retrojective readings of the Old Testament that we can’t recognize what they might or even must have meant to the people to whom they were spoken.”

    Much of this will become clearer when we get to Isaiah here in a few weeks (yay!!!). Isaiah is not directly a book about Christ. We can of course read Christ into it—there is no question about that. But I think we have to be careful not to move too quickly to the Christian reading, because we will miss what Isaiah is actually doing. The prophets knew of Christ and worshipped the Father in His name (Jacob 4:4-5 states that quite clearly). But the people generally did not: the Book of Mormon, with its radical approach to the Law of Moses, etc., makes no sense otherwise (the Lehites do not leave with a full-blown Christianity; they gain it on the road).

    So were there alterations to the text? No question. Is Margaret Barker’s picture of the Deuteronomists accurate? I don’t know the answer to that, but I am really intrigued by her work. Did the prophets ever speak clear and unmistakable words about Christ? It is quite possible, but there seems to be reason to see even these readings as retrojected onto the texts by the already believing Nephites. Did the prophets know of Christ? Absolutely. But I think we have as yet not really begun to think about what that means, about who Christ is, and about what it means to worship the Father in His name.

    I think.

  76. Clark said

    To add to the suggestion about Jim’s paper might I also suggest Elder Oaks “Scripture Reading and Revelation” which is much the same ideas that we’ve been discussing in these two threads but in the Ensign by a GA of all things.

  77. s james said

    Robert, I agree that it’s not easy (or probably advisable) to read Frei or Ricoeur through Houston and I’m not familiar enough with the writings of either, however, there is enough in the article to suggest that Ricoeur’s hermenuetics not be uncritically accepted (as Joe has already demonstrated by bringing into question the place of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion #56: the place of the ‘willingness to suspect’). Yet I would expect that Ricoeur is happy to play by the same rules that he argues for, and be subjected to some ‘suspicion’ for the purpose of advancing our understanding of how scripture might be better understood.

    (Joe please excuse me for using your name, but its one way to get you back on the court)

    I can see people getting caught up on what the ‘literal’ means. In this context it has a ‘technical’ meaning ie closely related to ‘literary’ in that for Frei the site of meaning is the realistic narrative. One needs to have an appreciation of narrative or literary theory and the work of narrative form to better see where he is coming from:

    Frei appeals first to a genus of text called “literary” and then to a distinct species, “realistic narrative,” in order to adequately understand the biblical narratives. In realistic narratives, “meaning is in large part a function of the interaction of characters and circumstances.” The meaning, rather than being discovered in the interaction between the text and the reader, is found in the dynamic interaction between characters, actions, and circumstances.

    This is a quite plausible reading position to take – it does not exclude figurative meaning as might be expected from a literal reading.

    Joe, the argument that it’s ‘interpretation’ all the way down, that Frei’s approach does not also mediate, is not in my view the consideration. For me, the issue is plausibility, (is the position credible, acceptable, believable) not that one approach holds the keys to understanding and the other doesn’t.

    Clark, thank you for the article it brings to mind Nibley’s opening question in World and the Prophets: “How will it be when none more saith ‘I saw’?” that to be ‘reliably informed’ requires revelation, as in Joseph Smith’s untutored experience with James 1:5.

  78. Joe Spencer said

    I had time last night at last to get to the Houston article. Very interesting read. Thanks, s, for suggesting it. Now, for a rather lengthy response.

    First of all, let me be quite clear that I read Ricoeur quite differently from the way Herr Houston does. As I look through the sources he’s used, I wonder if I’ve already got the reason for this: we have read different “halves” of Ricoeur. While Houston is basing his interpretation on The Symbolism of Evil and Essays in Biblical Interpretation, I’m far more familiar with Figuring the Sacred, Thinking Biblically, Freud and Philosophy, Husserl, The Conflict of Interpretations, and Time and Narrative (as well as a smattering of other papers published here and there). I’m tempted to use this comparison of lists (and Houston’s dependence on interpreters of Ricoeur as often as Ricoeur himself) as an argument that I read Ricoeur more correctly than does Houston, but because I’ve read neither of the two books he cites, and because I’d rather have at the meal than the cutlery, as s so nicely puts it, I had better be a bit more responsible than that!

    Let me begin my critique of Houston’s paper by saying this: if Houston’s Ricoeur is the real Ricoeur, then I think I share Houston’s concerns about his project. Of course, this is just another way of saying that I think Houston fundamentally misunderstands Ricoeur. Part of this misunderstanding, I think, is visible in Houston’s not-quite-fully-honest intimations that Frei is critiquing Ricoeur in his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, when, in fact, Frei never mentions Ricoeur in the text. While Frei does critique something like the position Houston attributes to Ricoeur, he does not criticize Ricoeur directly… I would suggest not at all.

    Ironically, Ricoeur refers twice to Frei’s book in Figuring the Sacred, in two articles quite tellingly titled “Interpretive Narrative” and “Toward a Narrative Theology,” in both of which he fundamentally agrees with Frei’s project (“his magisterial book” he calls it). Or rather, he fundamentally agrees with the project, but he does offer some qualifications in his adoption of it: “To my mind the project of a narrative theology is not identical to that of a theology of history—if we mean by a theology of history an attempt to construe world-history in a Hegelian sense under the guidance of a Heilsgeschichte, proceeding from Genesis to Revelation, and punctuated by such saving events as the exodus and the resurrection. In this regard, I should argue that the ‘eclipse of biblical narrative,’ which Hans Frei describes in his magisterial book, applies to a pattern of thought arising from the confusion between a theology that takes into account the narrative dimension of the biblical faith and a more or less sophisticated theology of history…. The biblical narrative that collapsed is, in fact, this flat linear account that amounts to a world-history and that competed with newly conceived world-histories from the Renaissance time down to Hegel.” (p. 237)

    Thus, in Ricoeur’s understanding, what Frei releases in his study is the possibility of reading narrative in some way other than as some kind of reductive Heilsgeschichte: the narrative is given to itself at last, as something to be studied as a narrative.

    Now, I bring all of this up because it seems to me that Houston does understand Frei’s project. This important point should not be missed: “The Anselmian perspective is one that seeks to respect the literal sense which does not seek meaning ‘behind,’ ‘above,’ or ‘in front’ of the text, but rather locates that meaning in the world created by the text. There is no separate subject matter apart from the story itself.” (Houston, p. 28) But the problem is this: though this is an appropriate understanding of Frei, it ultimately cannot be taken as a justified critique of Ricoeur, and precisely because it just as well describes Ricoeur as it describes Frei. Perhaps it was this point of Houston’s paper, in fact, that most shocked me: his alternative to Ricoeur here is stated in terms used by none other than Ricoeur: “In effect, what is to be interpreted in a text is a proposed world, a world that I might inhabit and wherein I might project my ownmost possibilities. This is what I call the world of the text, the world probably belonging to this unique text.” (Ricoeur, “Philosophy and Religious Language,” in Figuring the Sacred, p. 43) That Houston goes on, on the same page as the above, to say thta, for Frei, “This is not simply a literary exercise, however, for interpreting this narrative entails theological consequences as well,” is still more revealing: this sentence, combined with the one preceding it, is a perfect summary, I think, of Ricoeur’s position.

    And this means, I think, that Houston has profoundly misunderstood Ricoeur’s project. Ricoeur is, like Freud, concerned about interpretations that are “a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.” (Houston citing Frei, p. 24)

    So what, then, of Houston’s rather lengthy treatment of Ricoeur in the first part of the paper?

    First, Houston argues that for Ricoeur, “At the level of textuality, there is nothing special about the Bible. As far as its literary forms are concerned, it is just like any other text. Ricoeur affirms the fact that all religious (poetic) texts, whether sacred or secular, have the potential to reveal human speaking and doing in its final significance.” (Houston, p. 18) Now, I’m not sure who would really take issue with the last claim here, that “all religious (poetic) texts, whether sacred or secular, have the potential to reveal human speaking and doing in its final significance.” But even more importantly, I think we have got to recognize that even the first part of the position attributed here to Ricoeur is something we would agree with: there is nothing special about the Bible at the level of textuality; it could or would only be in the Spirit that there would be something different about the text. Indeed, Frei would entirely agree with this point: if the Biblical narrative is somehow unique in and of itself—that is, at the level of textuality—then narratology could never have anything to say about the Bible, but would only be able to stand mute before it. That we can speak of the Bible’s narratives at all means that the Bible is, in the end, only a text, though it is true. Hence, if “Ricoeur has not shown us that theological hermeneutics is significantly different from his philosophical hermeneutics” (Houston again, p. 18), this is because it ultimately isn’t significantly different from philosophical hermeneutics at the level of method, at the level of textuality. The difference comes in the theological engagement, which, as Houston affirms along with Frei, is consequential but not exactly methodological.

    Hence, what Ricoeur was up to, I think, is essentially this: because he saw, following Heidegger and Gadamer, that interpretation is (1) always necessary in the act of reading and (2) always determined to some extent by historical circumstances, he was trying to articulate (3) the curious relation between the text and the reader, between this apparent history of past events and this historicity that I as the reader am (Ricoeur incessantly points to the two senses of history and their interplay in the event of reading). Ricoeur does not impose some kind of hermeneutical apparatus on the reader of scripture. He has no prescriptive project so far as the how of reading should be (he is far too much of an apologist for traditional interpretations to be relegated to that kind of a position). Rather, he was describing what is happening in the act of reading, and consequently pleading with us as readers to recognize to what extent there is a play of history in the act of reading. Because this can be set in parallel to revelation (here he plays into the broader scope of the theological turn of French phenomenology), he worked out projects like Oneself As Another, a relatively disengaged description of religious revelation. But these projects should be taken as works engaging phenomenologists, existentialists, and deconstructionists, rather than as works meant to prescribe someting for readers of texts.

    So, there’s my long response…

  79. Joe Spencer said

    One further point: I should hope it is clear from this discussion of Houston’s paper that Ricoeur is not at all suggesting that the “historical reality” behind a given narrative does not matter. Rather, he thinks that it is precisely the engagement of that history with the historicity that Heidegger uncovered in the person who reads that is in question. The “reality” is just as important to Ricoeur as is the reader. Interestingly, I think Houston’s (accurate) description of Frei suggests that this is not nearly so much the case for Frei: “Such an approach holds that Gospel stories and even large portions of the Old Testament narrative are ‘realistic,’ but that the issue of their making factual truth claims is not part of the scope of hermeneutical inquiry.” (p. 27) For Frei, there seems to be nothing but the text itself, and the exegete is a kind of invisible explicator; for Ricoeur, the historical reality and the historicity of the reader enter into a dialectical play in what is the narrative or text. Hence, it seems to me that it is Ricoeur, not Frei, who takes the “reality” of the event more seriously.

    We, as Latter-day Saints, are in much the same position: we can’t prove anything by our apologetics, but only appeal to the possibility that what we claim is true. It is, in the end, as it is for Ricoeur, our (wagered) testimony that makes all the difference: the historical reality matters for us, and that—our explicit and faithful engagement—is what makes the text something other than “mere text.”

  80. Jim F. said

    Joe, I read Ricoeur (and Frie) exactly as you do. Thanks very much for such an excellent review of Houston’s paper.

  81. Robert C. said

    Joe, thanks for this critique of Houston’s paper, it was fun working through the paper with my own tentative thoughts in response, and then to see your more informed response.

    I’m intrigued by this project you describe that Ricoeur takes up in Oneself as Another, and hope to tackle that book someday in the not too distant future (though it probably won’t be for at least several months, depending on how things go at work for me…). Is there another chapter from Figuring the Sacred or elsewhere you would recommend taking up next? I’m still planning at least a second post on his “Bible and Imagination,” and I plan to read the intro to Figuring the Sacred this week or so, but after that?

  82. Joe Spencer said

    I think it would be very helpful to consider the first paper in Figuring the Sacred as well. It addresses some of the more theoretical questions we’ve danced about quite directly. I think we ought to plan to take up Oneself as Another on the lds-herm blog after The Scapegoat, personally. I’d really like to work through that text in a group format.

  83. s james said

    I’ve just started reading Figuring the Sacred and will get to B&I soon, I hope. I enjoyed Joe’s response and have some observations. I’m not so suspicious of Houston, and am prepared to accept that he portrays Ricoeur fairly from the texts that he references.
    Also, in my view, it is not possible to be looking for the ‘real’ Ricouer because initially, as the legend goes, he camped with the phenomenologists before shifting to hermeneutics. Houston acknowledges the shift and tracks Ricouer’s new trajectory.

    I do agree, however, on taking another look, that Houston does appear to infer that Frei is critiquing Ricouer which is not the case. However, I do not agree that we are dealing with a unitary Ricoeur in a sedimented state, equally I think Houston is pointing to a fundamental difference between a reading ‘…which does not seek meaning ‘behind,’ ‘above,’ or ‘in front’ of the text’ and a reading ‘…that I might inhabit and wherein I might project my own most possibilities’. These are two distinct worlds, the former (Frei’s position) does not involve the projection of possibilities (Ricoeur ‘s position), but seeks to remain with the identity/ies of the text. Hence the title of Houston’s paper.

    I’m not about sure about using Figuring the Sacred, written 15 or so years later than the Ricoeur references Houston draws on (and 20 years after Frei’s Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative ), as evidence that Houston’s rendering of Frei is somehow describing Ricoeur, or whether this later text should be invoked at all.

    Houston’s reference to ‘theological consequences’ is of course revealing because that is his interest: ‘R&F on the Resurrection’. One of the consequences that Houston reveals is that Ricoeur’s interpretive approach leads Ricoeur to deny the resurrection as a literal event, which he (Houston) produces evidence for. The weakness in the argument is that he(Houston) provides no corresponding theological evidence to show that Frei or Frei’s system of analysis does not reach the same conclusion, this is just inferred.

    I mostly agree with your summary of Houston and liked the statements on what Ricoeur is really trying to say.

  84. Clark said

    I don’t think Ricoeur’s method entails denying the resurrection as a literal event. I think it much too high level to decide (regardless of Ricoeur’s own views) Rather he’s making a much more abstract point about hermeneutics. But to say that entails the denial of the resurrection seems about as likely as denying the existence of a Matthew.

    I’ll have to read Houston closer on this matter.

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