Teaching Seminary, Early Morning or Otherwise: Seven “Hints” and Hopefully a Discussion
Posted by joespencer on January 2, 2011
My sister was called over the Christmas holiday to teach early morning seminary in her East Coast ward. When I responded on her personal blog by just saying “Yay!” I got an e-mail telling me I couldn’t get off the hook so easily, since I’ve had experience. :) She asked, without directing any specific questions to me, what advice I would have about teaching seminary. Having done some thinking over the holiday about the question, I’ve decided to put together a post here at Feast detailing eight points about teaching seminary that have been culled from my (ultimately rather limited) experience.
My hope is that the seven points I work through below will encourage others to contribute additional thoughts, that this can be the beginning of a discussion rather than a summary of my thoughts alone. So please feel free—indeed, obliged—to pitch in a few thoughts about teaching seminary, early morning or otherwise.
I should add this last caveat. Everything I say here is obviously my own—deeply held—opinion. I’m quite happy to be disagreed with, but I do believe what I say here quite strongly. Enjoy!
Emancipate; Do Not Stultify
I draw the language of this first point from Jacques Ranciere, whose book The Ignorant Schoolmaster I highly, highly recommend to anyone serious about teaching. (We’ve discussed Ranciere’s book here on the blog in a series of posts to be found here, here, here, here, and here. An electronic version of the book, which is unfortunately missing a few pages at the beginning of one of the chapters, can be downloaded for free here.) What I mean—or rather, what Ranciere means—by this opposition between emancipation and stultification is this: there are two distinct forms of social hierarchy, and only one of them, namely, the intellectual, is genuinely oppressive; the other, namely, the hierarchy of will, is necessary to emancipation as such. To emancipate, one must enact within the classroom a genuine intellectual equality between student and teacher, while nonetheless deploying a real and uncompromised hierarchy of will. The task of the teacher, according to Ranciere, is to have the social authority necessary to set students to work, but to do so without at the same time enacting a hierarchy of intelligence.
How does that cash out in the classroom (without all the philosophical and even political jargon)? Quite simply, teaching is no longer a question of communicating information, being instead a question of setting students to work. Another way to put this: a focus on the task of summoning students to repentance replaces a focus on the task of gathering and disseminating responsible information (illustrations, object lessons, etc., etc., etc.). Of course, this question of repentance is one I will tackle in my third point below (“Teach Nothing But Repentance”), so let me turn to other, perhaps more immediately practical aspects of this emancipation business.
What guides my interest in Ranciere, importantly, is not Ranciere, but J. Reuben Clark. In a 1938 address to Church educators, which I read for the first time when I first began to think about teaching seminary, he provides the vision for which Ranciere merely provides, in a (richly articulated) secular vein, the philosophical bearings. The address is titled “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” and I think it should be required reading for every instructor in the Church. (It can be found here, at the CES website.) Ultimately, this talk centers on two points. On the one hand, President Clark identified what he called the “latitude and longitude of the actual position of the Church,” namely, our confession that Jesus is the Christ, and our testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. This is, I think, absolutely vital. But it is what is on the other hand that matters much more to me in this context: President Clark had a great deal to say about the maturity and preparation of the youth. For instance:
You do not have to sneak up behind this spiritually experienced youth and whisper religion in his ears; you can come right out, face to face, and talk with him. You do not need to disguise religious truths with a cloak of worldly things; you can bring these truths to him openly, in their natural guise. Youth may prove to be not more fearful of them than you are. There is no need for gradual approaches, for “bedtime” stories, for coddling, for patronizing, or for any of the other childish devices used in efforts to reach those spiritually inexperienced and all but spiritually dead.
This is exactly what Ranciere is after, I believe, though President Clark says all this in the context of the gospel and religious instruction. And I think it may be the most important thing ever said about education in the Church. (Let me add, parenthetically, that the context and historical consequences of President Clark’s talk are quite complex. I’m thinking, as I reflect on this here, that there may be reason to do a series of posts on that talk in order to situate my interpretation of it. For now, let me just leave this promissory note.)
How do we do what President Clark calls for? How do we, that is, recognize the spiritual maturity of the youth, instead of coddling or patronizing them? I think there are a few obvious practical things (an example: “I,” “you,” and “they” can all be replaced by “we,” such that those criticized and praised in the Church are all of us). But I think it is the vision of this that inflects every practical thing we do, and that needs to be nurtured above all. If we slide too far in the direction of equality with our students—such that we double intellectual equality with an equality of wills—we cheat our students. (This is, I believe, what is usually criticized as trying to be the friend of the students.) And if we slide too far in the direction of hierarchy with our students—such that we double the hierarchy of will with an intellectual hierarchy—we cheat our students. (This is, in turn, what is usually criticized as intellectual snobbery in the classroom, though I think it is easy to achieve without being academic or scholarly.) In a word, our task is to be consistently demanding, but always and only by issuing the demand that the student get seriously to work. We must never demand (or even request) that our students approach the scriptures as we do; instead, our task is simply to get them working on scripture, and we are to do that, as it were, mercilessly.
That, I think, is the vision. But I will say something about three quick practical consequences of that vision. First, it follows from President Clark’s approach to teaching that misbehavior on the part of most students is a consequence, first and foremost, of boredom, that is, of their being coddled and patronized. (A quick story. My first year teaching early morning seminary, I was assigned to teach a class that I was quickly informed was the class from hell. They were all beginning their senior year, and in the three previous years, they had run out more than a dozen teachers, because of their disobedience, etc. It was Book of Mormon year, so we spent the first three days of class working word by word by word through the first verse of the Book of Mormon, me requesting that they do the thinking, come up with questions and answers about the text, etc., and all of us learning a great deal. The result? I never had a discipline issue in that class—not once!—and all those students did excellent work the whole year.) Second, I think it also follows from President Clark’s approach that the teacher’s task is more focused on listening to and learning from the students than on talking or explaining. (Another quick story, though this comes from my stint as first counselor in the young men program. While we were talking about the ten commandments, a student who was always disruptive during class burst out with what seemed an entirely sarcastic comment: “That’s right! The Ten Commandments say we’re supposed to be slaves to our parents!” I responded as if the comment were genuine, and I soon learned that it actually was. I responded simply by asking, without any hint of sarcasm or criticism, what made him interpret the passage that way. It got him thinking, and a discussion ensued. We came as a group to a set of questions we didn’t really have answers to, and I suggested we all study those questions in detail over the next week. When we met again, that student opened up a great deal, expressed real concerns about what was happening at home, and what followed was a close friendship between him and myself, one through which I was able to do a great deal to help him.) Third, I think it follows from President Clark’s approach that our students should be teaching as often as possible, whether each other, the class as a whole, or us as teachers. (This last one is difficult to deploy, but I think it is crucial.)
I need to move on to the second point, but I won’t do so without emphasizing that this first point is first for a reason. In the end, I think that this is the very beating heart of teaching. Without it, I’m not sure we can ever accomplish anything of real significance.
Believe and Teaching the Scriptures
If there’s a second beating heart in teaching, it is, without question, the scriptures—and that is especially true in seminary. Indeed, seminary is an even better setting for taking scripture seriously than Sunday School because there is so much more time to cover the material, and so much less expectation that manuals will be scrupulously followed. Unfortunately, however, in seminary as much as in other teaching settings in the Church, it is far, far too common for scripture to be largely left out of account. Whatever reasons or justifications for deemphasizing scripture—most of which take the shape of arguing that students have to learn certain extra- or non-scriptural “basics” before they can maturely handle the scriptures—they should be dismissed, in my opinion, and we should get seriously to work on scripture.
Why, though? Is such an emphasis on scripture not ultimately grounded in an almost fundamentalist belief in a kind of scriptural inerrancy? No, though I’m not entirely certain a belief in inerrancy wouldn’t be a step forward from our usual casualness with scripture (but only a single—and very small—step forward). What guides my conviction that scripture should be both the substance and form of all teaching in the Church is because it is canonical. Whatever the scriptures say—even where they may err!—we are communally bound to them. And as teachers, we ought to recognize the importance of that: different students may have different opinions about the relative merit of sayings of nineteenth-century Church leaders, and different students may have different opinions about the relative merit of an insight drawn from a BYU religion professor, but the scriptures are the common denominator in the Church.
Let me be perfectly clear here, also, what I mean when I say “scripture”: I mean, and I only mean, the canonical Standard Works. I do not mean the teachings of modern prophets, though I’m willing to concede that these teachings have some kind of scriptural status. I do not mean First Presidency statements, messages, or official declarations, though I’m even more willing to concede that these have some kind of scriptural status. And I do not even mean the study apparatuses attached to the scriptures, that is, footnotes, the Joseph Smith Translation, the Bible Dictionary, and the like. (The JST is a complex issue I don’t want to take up in detail at the moment. Suffice it for the moment to say that I think we should always—and I do mean always—avoid allowing a JST rendering to “get us out of” a theological difficulty.) What I mean by “scripture” is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We have, as a people, collectively bound ourselves to those texts, and we are, I believe, bound to take them seriously. (I should add, though just parenthetically, that I think we should feel free to consult earlier versions of scriptural texts, or to look at alternate readings or even translations of biblical texts, but I think we should always do so as part of an effort at making sense of the canonical text to which we are bound.)
Now, as I’ve hinted, I think that part of taking them seriously is to recognize that they are in part human productions. But I want to emphasize even more strongly that we do not therefore have any excuse for dismissing parts of scripture as uninspired simply because they conflict with our own—generally strongly Western—ideologies. To take scripture seriously is to allow everything we think we know—even what we hold most deeply to be true—to be questioned radically by scripture. If we don’t do that, I’m not at all sure scripture remains scripture. If the scriptures contradict what I’ve always believed or always been told or have come through careful reflection to understand about God, tithing, death, sexuality, war, love, faith, academicism, or whatever else, I believe I am bound to allow the scriptures to fracture what I take to be true. At the same time, we have to recognize, I think, how difficult it is to read scripture, and so not to run off to fanatical excess on the basis of a passing interpretation. Good readings of scripture are the result of years of painstaking study.
That probably makes basically clear what I have in mind with scripture and its centrality. What about teaching it?
First, I think the centrality of scripture suggests that we should spend all—and I do mean all—our preparation time at work in the scriptures, not in coming up with brilliant ways to teach a lesson, etc. The more we learn about a text, the better prepared we are to handle whatever direction the Spirit or the class might lead; the less we know about it, the less we can respond to the subtle redirections of either source of inspiration. There is so much more happening in any given scriptural text that we can cover in deep study in even a week of preparation, of course. But that is precisely why we should spend our time getting our bearings in a text, rather than attempting to control the text by coming up with activities and presentations that will ultimately only distract students from the text.
A second point is the importance of never, never wresting scripture. The word “to wrest” means literally “to twist.” If any wresting should go on, it should be that of the scriptures wresting us, never of us wresting the scriptures. In fact, it is perhaps important that the word “to wrest” is related to the word “to wrestle”: our task is to wrestle with an opponent who is far stronger than we are; and the result will always be that we lose, though it is in the process of wrestling with scripture—of trying, as it were, to wrest the scriptures while being honest enough never to be able actually to do so—that we see the richness and the depth of the texts we’re grappling with. If at any point in the course of a lesson we feel a twinge of guilt, a slight hint of remorse that we might be getting the text to say what we want it to say, or what we wish it would say for the benefit of these kids, etc., we would do well to stop, to repent, and then to let the scriptures change our beliefs and actions. The scriptures are not tools in our hands; we are tools in the hands of the text. (It is actually because of all this business that I get a bit nervous about the phrase “scripture mastery,” so obviously present in the seminary setting. Our task is not to master this or that scripture, but to allow ourselves to be mastered by this or that scripture. Perhaps we should hear in “scripture mastery” the absolute position of mastery that the scriptures hold over us….)
A third point: because, as I hope we all would agree, we should only teach what we actually believe, we should feel free to let the students know that we too wrestle with scripture. If I believe that the Godhead works in a certain way, and then I find that I can’t make sense of Mosiah 15 in the classroom, I think I should feel quite free to let my students know that this text seems to call into question things I feel strongly about. It is, I think, very good for the students to see someone “in authority” struggling with a scriptural text, feeling the responsibility to be changed by the canonical text, and being honest enough to explain that s/he is, in essence, waiting for further light and knowledge. I don’t think that we have to deal only with scriptures we believe in, nor do I think that we ought to leave the scriptures aside when we come across texts that we struggle personally with. Instead, I think we ought to make clear that the scriptures, even where we find ourselves baffled by them, remain our masters.
A fourth point follows from the third. We should, I think, do all we can to open up possibilities of interpretation in reading scripture with students. Our task is not to find the one right interpretation and so to dismiss all “apostate” readings. The task is to open up all possible readings, to do them all justice, and so to help students to experience the ambiguity of the scriptures. It is of course possible that 1 Nephi 11 teaches us that the Holy Ghost looks like a man; but it is also possible that “the Spirit of the Lord” there has other meanings, and that the text is not at all about the Holy Ghost. Our task is not to decide on meaning, and certainly not to do so by making appeals to authority or authorities, but to get the students to wrestle with the scriptures, and to feel themselves bound by them.
Finally, I think we must be careful, in all this dealing with scripture, never to let the classroom become merely academic. The reason to study scripture, to feel ourselves profoundly bound by it, to open up the possibilities of its meaning, is not—is a million times not—to come to a deeper “understanding,” or simply to have a wider “knowledge” of scriptural things. We’re not aiming here at making “scriptorians” out of our students or ourselves. We are instead, I believe, making clear that the task of reading scripture is the task of coming before God, of dealing with the word of God (and “the Word of God” is, of course, one of the names of Christ). We’re not after knowledge, but truth, and pursuing truth is an infinite, essentially unending task. We are not, even in the seminary classroom, trying to amass a greater bank of knowledge, as if we could eventually fill up a tank. We are instead staging over and over again our wrestle with God, a wrestle that takes the shape of tackling scriptural texts. That incessant wrestle inevitably producing knowledge, but it is not for knowledge that we do it, and so we should, I believe, never measure success by how much we or they learn. We are after truth, truth that always outstrips us and sets us to work—indeed, according to Brigham Young, truth outstrips even God, sets even God to work eternally—and so we can only measure success by asking whether we were at work, whether we really wrestled with something today. Even if no answer came out of the discussion, or even if we could write a book out of what we learned that day. What we are after is a textually mediated encounter with God.
So I believe, at any rate.
Teach Nothing But Repentance
I draw this language, obviously, from Mosiah 18:20 (it is repeated a few times in the Doctrine and Covenants). There Alma, immediately after forming his church on the outskirts of Noah’s apostate kingdom, instructs his newly ordained priesthood “that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people.” This is a scriptural text that I think all teachers should wrestle with a good deal. What could Alma have meant? That they were to do nothing but talk about faith and repentance every time they teach? That they were to give the same sermon over and over and over again? That they were to “keep to basics” and avoid mysteries? Or what? In the end, I don’t know what Alma himself had in mind—if he used these words at all (he was not the author of the account we have). But I think I have a way of making sense of his injunction, and I believe that we would do well to follow it: we should teaching nothing but repentance and faith. So what does that mean?
The problem with this text as we usually read it is that we assume Alma’s statement has something to say about content, that he is providing the priesthood with topics for their sermonizing. What, though, if we assumed that he was actually saying something about the form of teaching, about the way that someone tackles the topic they choose or assigned to take up? What if, in a word, Alma is saying that, whatever we teach, its sole aim must be to lead to repentance and faith? To some extent, this reading of the passage follows from the Clarkian/Rancierean business of the first “hint” I’ve offered above. It matters far less what we talk about in the classroom than how we go about the task; far less what we talk about than what is enacted in the classroom.
I couldn’t be more convinced that (whether Alma meant exactly this or not) this is how we ought to teach. Our focus in teaching is not on communicating knowledge, but on staging a pursuit of truth—is not on goals towards which we strive, but on beginnings which we set in motion. We are not, to put it in other words, after some distant standard, some point we are, through the course of our work in the classroom, to reach. We are instead trying just to get started. We must, in a word, replace our belief that conversion is a long process at the end of which we will have completed an enormous task to which every moment, however inane, contributed with a belief that conversion is an instantaneous experience that must take place over and over and over again. Every lesson, every reading, every discussion, every question, every answer or lack thereof—everything in the classroom must be a conversion experience, not a conversion to this or that principle or piece of knowledge, but a conversion to God, a repentance of our unbelief and a return to faith and full fidelity. We are, then, I think, even in seminary, to teach nothing but repentance and faith.
Let me turn that into a few practical points so that its meaning is not lost here.
First, I think the above implies that we lose games and activities almost entirely, if not entirely. Games and activities came into seminary because people believed that students needed babysitting, and because teachers who bored their students found that their students got excited about playing games (simply because it was an ounce more interesting than the monotony of a stultifying seminary teacher). The games and activities, though, are no real help to learning. I can, of course, remember some of the games we played in seminary, but I do not remember learning anything from them, and I don’t treasure the experiences of playing those games. But what I do treasure from my own seminary experience are the things I learned, and I learned a great deal from seminary. It was when we grappled with texts that I determined to change things, that I felt strongly the truth of the Church, that I desired to be with the Saints. In playing games and doing activities, I all too often felt like a loner, like I could never be what I wanted to be. The same goes, I believe, for object lessons, which we should use very, very sparingly—not the way we eat meet sparingly, but the way we approve abortion sparingly. Object lessons are generally more distracting than helpful. They can get students thinking, but they seldom get students thinking about the scriptural texts themselves. The scriptures are not a set of objects, but a set of texts—and they use images, not objects, to teach. All these frills and gimmicks give students the sense that we have to sell them the gospel, when our task—their task—is actually to repent before the gospel.
Second, I think we should be extremely careful about the possibility of reinforcing hypocrisy and arrogance in the classroom. There is a kind of student on whom seminary teachers generally heap a great deal of praise, but whom I find to be the most difficult and detestable student in the classroom. It is too easy in teaching to assume that the kids who would fit nicely on the cover of the New Era are exemplary kids, that they need no repentance: they keep all the standards, they know all the answers to the textbook questions, they know how to sound quite spiritual in bearing a testimony. (To boot, they usually are decent at sports, dress quite nicely, and seem to have a good many friends….) But we have, I believe, to be careful to recognize that all our students are in desperate need of repentance, every minute—and that these kinds of students usually suffer from a most dangerous sin in particular: arrogance and hypocrisy. These are the students who, I have found, become frustrated when you deal with texts that don’t sound like the family home evening lessons they’re used to; who become exasperated when what is being said does not reinforce their own self image; and who become downright angry when it is suggested that there is something more they need to learn or to do if they’re serious about the gospel. These self-esteem-abundant students, I find, are those who resist repentance the strongest, who are prepared—pharisaically—to defend their own holiness to the death, rather than to recognize that there is more to the gospel than assuming an image. (Unfortunately, our general reinforcement of this attitude, etc., means that we drive a lot of other kids out of activity or out of the Church entirely, and that we have a tendency to fill our missions with arrogant, self-satisfied image-mongers. But I digress….)
Finally, I think that we as teachers must come, in light of the above, to believe that every lesson—indeed, every moment of every lesson—is absolutely crucial. There is no wasted time in seminary. Every moment means everything, because in that moment either conversion (that is, faith and repentance) is taking place or it is not—either repentance and faith is being preached, or nothing takes place. We can’t throw away any lesson, taking the day off and letting the kids play some scripture mastery games, etc., because this might be the day that that one student comes ready at last to be changed by the scriptures. We must, in a word, preach nothing but repentance and faith.
Testify in Your Person of the Gospel
I’ll open this point with a story. Up through junior high school, I never really had any doubts about the Church’s truth. But while I assumed its truth, I also assumed—or even felt I had good read to believe—that its truth wasn’t worth much or didn’t matter much. One didn’t have to go far in the Church to see how often everything one was taught in primary was consistently ignored in the everyday life of the Saints. Because I saw and heard enough to know that the “standards” were dismissed by people who were regarded as fine, upstanding members of the Church, I came—more or less unconsciously—to the conclusion that no one really believed that the gospel was to be lived, and so I didn’t question the Church’s truth, but just assumed that no one genuinely cared about that truth. (I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s saying, in response to the question “What religion are you?”: “You know, that religion with all the well-meaning rules that don’t really work out in life. Christianity.”)
And then I found myself for the first time in a seminary classroom. It wasn’t at first what was taught or even how it was taught that floored me. What shocked me in seminary was the unerring clarity that my teacher actually believed that the gospel should be lived, and that he wasn’t, for all that, some kind of a social freak. I hadn’t been in seminary two weeks before I had changed my entire outlook on the gospel: it was no longer something that was just to be taken for granted but basically ignored; it was now a radical call to repentance, indeed, to a life of militant fidelity. Whatever faithfulness I sustain now began then, and I found that I no longer took the truth of the gospel for granted, but pursued it doggedly. Another few weeks in seminary saw me gain the conviction that it was in scripture first and foremost that the weight of the gospel is to be found. And that conviction has never left me.
The lesson of this story in my own teaching experiences has been clear: it is necessary to testify in one’s person, and not simply in word, that the gospel is unwaveringly true. Testimony in word is, of course, crucial, but it means little if it is not backed up by the living testimony represented in the teacher.
But let me clear about what I do not mean here. I do not have reference, with this business of testimony in person, to “being an example.” I suppose one could say that my seminary teacher was “an example,” but the truth is that I didn’t get to know him in any kind of personal way for years after that first shock. And when I did get to know him, I never got to know him well enough to know what happens behind closed doors. I still have to assume the best. His testimony in person was not, at least for me, a question of his being a good example of righteous works. Instead, it was a question of his whole bearing, of how clearly he was—by everything he said—committed through and through to the gospel of repentance. He never had to explain that he was a good example, and he never even had to be that good example to me; the gospel seemed to me simply to inform everything he said. He took the gospel so seriously in the way he taught that I could not doubt that he believed it thoroughly, and that it informed everything he did.
This is what I’m after here: we have to be so committed to the gospel that our students, without either seeing our out-of-the-classroom example or hearing our spoken testimony, will know that we take the gospel seriously, so seriously that it is the very center of gravity.
Can this be articulated more clearly? Well, there are certain shapes I think this sort of thing takes. One is excitement. As anyone who has been to school well knows, it is often the excitement of the teacher or professor that makes a subject dull or interesting. An excited professor can convince most any student that even the dullest topic is of infinite interest: the student becomes convinced that there is something to the topic, since someone is so deeply committed to it. Another shape this takes, I think, is honesty, something teenage students can detect very well. An honest teacher, unwilling to sugarcoat things, does a great deal of good for students. Whenever testimony, conviction, or even excitement is affected, students will gain the conviction that the Church is a place for hypocrites. Only honest investment in the gospel is worth anything in the classroom.
This takes other shapes as well, I’m sure. But I think the point is likely clear.
Questions Are Crucial
Here I am coming, at last, to a more practical point. But it is one I feel strongly about. Questions are the very form of great teaching. And by that I mean both the teacher’s questions to the students and the students’ questions to the teacher. Where genuinely probing questions are not coming from both teacher and student, something is not working right.
I should note from the start here that this point is not aimed at quantity. To be able to pose a single real question in the course of a lesson is a real success. I do not have reference here to the passing questions we have to ask again and again like “What does this word mean?” or “What does that text imply?” Those aren’t so much questions as prompts, reminders to the students that they have the task of working through a text. When I speak here of questions, I mean the question that takes shape over the course of the first twenty or thirty minutes of a lesson. All of the work being undertaken together in the classroom is building toward one question, likely unanswerable, that will effectively summon the students into a direct relationship with God. But that does not mean that the questions are “existential.” That is, I don’t have in mind here questions like “Will you live worthy of a celestial resurrection?” or “Do you really believe this gospel?” The questions will be, at least on the surface, more deeply interpretive, but questions that nonetheless orient the individual to God. Possible examples: “Why does Nephi ground his entire record on this vision of the book and the remnant?” “How does Alma’s discussion of angels recast the very meaning of the Book of Mormon?” “Why does this faith/hope/charity business emerge only so late in this book?” And so on. On the surface, these questions look like mere interpretive questions, one’s likely to invite speculation at best. But my experience is that, if they emerge in the wake of serious study of the text, they tend to make an enormous difference. It is a question like this that forces the student to realize that their basic assumptions might be entirely misguided, to see that they have always had answers to these questions that they have never actually asked, but that those answers are uninformed and misguided. Questions like these help students to realize that commitment to the gospel requires deep thought, that, as Joseph Smith says, taking the gospel seriously requires the mind to expand as wide as eternity.
The implication of this emphasis on questions is that our usual way of treating lessons has to be reversed. While we usually tend to think of questions as preliminary and of answers as building toward a conclusion, we have instead to think of prompts and their immediate responses as building toward an open question. The process of learning—and so the process of teaching—is the process of moving from immediate answers to unanswerable questions, from supposed knowledge to recognized ignorance. And that ignorance, fully recognized, is what leads one to stand before God.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, the questions the students pose are quite as important as the questions the teacher poses. There is perhaps little one can do to make the students pose genuine or productive questions, because they have to issue from the student’s own position before God. Questions, that is, tend to come out of students’ mouths precisely when they begin to realize that they have work to do, when they are converted. And that is something we can only prepare for, not manipulate or control. But there is something quite crucial we can do when the questions are asked: we must take questions from students as seriously as possible. I’ve already told the story about the student (in a teachers quorum) who asked what seemed a flippant question, but which turned out to be vital for the student. Every time a student ventures a question, we should take it as seriously as possible. To take it seriously, of course, seldom means immediately to answer it. Usually, it calls for a counter-question: “What do you mean by this or that word?” “Explain what’s behind your question a bit more?” “What thoughts do you have in response to your own question?” And sometimes it calls for a word of encouragement: “That is a crucial question, one we ought as Latter-day Saints all to be asking.” “If I had an answer to that question, I’d be impressed with myself. But we’ve all got to get to work on it.” And so on. The short of it is that we can’t overlook those crucial moments when students forget themselves and begin to seek truth right in our presence. That suddenly emergent quest on the student’s part (in the form of a quest-ion) must be encouraged in every way possible.
Such, at any rate, is my conviction.
Think Carefully about “Application”
Here I come to the really sticky one. Years ago, when we launched this blog, I wrote a post on application that generated a bit of discussion, and that has been referred to now and again since. I stand behind my conviction there: we have to be infinitely careful about how we go about “applying” scripture. Indeed, as I will suggest, “applying scripture to our everyday lives” may be one of the worst things we can do in teaching, at least if we do so in the way it is usually done.
What is implied in the idea of “application”? The very word implies a gap between the thing to be applied and the thing to which it is applied. Is that gap real? I think so: our lives are, more or less without question, at some distance from the worlds both described and prescribed by the scriptures. But the question is how that gap is to be overcome or canceled. The usual method—and this is what goes by the name of “application” in most of our teaching—is a kind of demythologization of scripture. It unfolds in several steps: (1) one must understand the text in its actual historical setting, etc., though usually only in a very basic fashion; (2) one must then abstract from the text in question a non-historical (because “eternal”) principle; (3) one then re-historicizes that non-historical principle by incarnating it in our own historical setting; (4) finally, one commits oneself to living the re-historicized principle in the form of the several maxims constructed through steps 1-3. The idea in this process is that the gap to be overcome is ultimately the gap between one historical setting (that of the scriptures) and another (that of our own time), and that this gap is to be overcome by finding a non-historical principle that can be incarnated on either side of the historical gap.
There are, I think, several problems here. The major problem with the first step: when do we know that we’ve grasped enough of the historical setting of a given text to be able to proceed with the other steps? How much do we need to know about Abraham’s childhood and upbringing, about child sacrifice in the ancient world, about the actual location of Mount Moriah, about the redactional details of the Book of Genesis, and so on before we have got a real handle on Genesis 22? How much do we need to understand about Nephi’s relationship to his brothers, about the law of Moses and what it has to say about murder, about the actual political climate of Jerusalem at the dawn of the sixth century before Christ, about the military and police structure in that place in time, about the status of writing on metal, etc., before we can say something by way of application about 1 Nephi 4? How much do we need to know about nineteenth-century experiments in communatarianism, about the economic situation in Kirtland in 1831, about the status of revelation among the New York Saints, about Campbellite approaches to religion, and what not, before we can genuinely apply D&C 42? There is always further historical critical work to do on any given scriptural text, and that further work may radically call into question every abstraction we make from that text. We have to offer a sacrifice like Abraham’s. Sure, but what was his sacrifice like? Did fathers relate to children in anything like the way we do today? How would Abraham have thought about that experience in a world rife with child sacrifice? How would Abraham’s own relationship to his father have altered his response to things? What of the possibility that Genesis 22 is woven together from two rather distinct versions of the story? Are we anything like prepared to abstract a principle from a story we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of?
The major problem with step two: how are we to abstract a principle from a historical situation unless we already know that principle? If the process of abstraction is actually the process of separating out something obscured by the historical situation itself, then how are we to know the abstract principle? And how are we to guarantee that it isn’t actually historical, a consequence of our own modern inclinations? How are we to be sure, that is, that we are dealing with something eternal? Let’s say that the abstracted principle in 1 Nephi 4 is that the Lord occasionally slays the wicked in order to further His purposes. But what guarantees that that is the message of the text? Is our interpretation not perhaps connected to our own political commitments, to our modern sensibilities, or to our having grown up in the West? Or let’s say, as some have, that the principle in 1 Nephi 4 is that even a prophet can be misguided about what the Spirit says (this is not my conviction, but there are those who have suggested it). What is to say that this interpretation is not guided by our own political commitments, to our modern sensibilities, or to our having grown up in the West? We can call our abstracted principles “eternal” if we want, but I suspect that they are most likely mere symptoms of our own presuppositions and assumptions, rather than discoveries of some truly eternal principle. And if the principles are coming from anywhere else than the scriptural text itself, we are working with the philosophies of men (albeit unacknowledged), only mingled with scripture.
The major problem with step three: assuming that we have done a thorough job with our historical interpretation of the text, and that we have actually extracted a fully eternal principle, how is that principle to be historicized without compromising the principle? Let’s say, for instance, that we’ve extracted an eternal principle from D&C 42, something about consecration but that breaks with any historical instance of establishing the United Order, etc. How are we to historicize that principle without screwing things up? Indeed, isn’t the lesson we usually draw from the history surrounding D&C 42 precisely that the true, eternal principle always ends up not working out when it is historically set to work, because we’re just not prepared to live that way? Of course, I think we instinctively recognize this problem, and so we respond in advance by doing a trifling job with historicization. We don’t actually give ourselves genuinely to historicizing an eternal principle, but instead we come up with a few quick maxims that can be loosely connected to the principle so that we can commit ourselves to following out those maxims “this week”: “What can you do this week in order to give more of your means to the Lord?” or “What will you do today in order to prepare to live the law of consecration?” But notice that here we’ve only kept a safe distance from the supposedly eternal principle, deciding on something little and passing that we can do—once! just this week and never again!—in order to give ourselves a good conscience about a principle that demands drastic repentance and conversion. What we usually end up with as we near the end of the process of “application” is a set of cheesy “goals” that can be got out of the way so that we don’t have to face up to the demand of the gospel.
The major problem with the last step: commitment to a few cheap maxims is clearly meant to take the place of actual repentance or change. Put another way: we replace repentance with busyness; we replace faith with works.
Okay, so much for criticism. What do I suggest should be put in its place. In my post of a few years ago, I suggested that we should replace “application of scripture to our everyday lives” with “application of our lives to scripture.” That is, I suggested that our task is to take Nephi’s talk of “likening” seriously: we are to reshape our history in accordance with the structures and patterns laid out in scripture. This is, I think, still right, though I would want to clarify the idea of “likening” quite a bit. (I’ve just finished writing a whole book on what Nephi means by “likening”!) But I think I’d actually like here to take a somewhat different tack. It might be best just to recognize that any attempt to “apply” the scriptures in the classroom actually amounts to a softening of the blow of the gospel, to a kind of apology for the Lord’s uncompromising call to repentance. And I’m not sure we should be doing that at all.
In short, it is the student’s infinitely private affair how the scriptures will change her or his life, how he or she will alter everything in order to come in full fidelity before God in light of the scriptures. The worst thing I could do would be to relieve the burden of the scriptures by turning that infinite weight into a few light dumbbells to be lifted once or twice and then forgotten. Application is too often simply an indication to the students that the scriptures are anything but to be taken seriously. And that we can’t afford.
So perhaps every lesson we teach should end on the cusp of coming to the question of application. Rather than actually getting to the question of application, we should always be almost there, so that the student has the task of sorting out the “practical” meaning of the texts. That, at any rate, is what I believe today.
A word, now, about employing examples and illustrations in the classroom. These are, in some ways, mini-applications of things. We tell stories that illustrate what is happening in this or that text, and that serves as a kind of application. Or we identify similar situations today, parallel to what we are looking at in the text. All of that, I think, is quite okay, so long as we don’t go on to suggest that such parallels exhaust the meaning of the scriptures. Such stories, in fact, serve best to open up possible interpretations that have not yet been identified in the course of discussion.
Finally, a warning: keep politics out of the classroom! The worst kind of application is political polemic. Captain Moroni does not give us to understand the virtues of the Republican Party, and Christ’s compassion does not give us to understand the virtues of the Democratic Party! Glenn Beck is no interpreter of scripture, and he has no place—in his public persona—in a seminary classroom. The scriptures call us to God’s work, not to any silly human debate. Every political position can be found in the scriptures in one way or another. Whenever we get political, we wrest the scriptures.
Recognize What CES Is and Is Not
The last point, finally, is to have a clear understanding of what CES (the Church Educational System) is and is not. I want to make this point briefly. First, what it is not: it is not an organization run by revelation; it is not an authority on the meaning of scripture; it is not a gathering of the most informed scriptorians in the Church; it is not entirely free of arrogant “protectors” of the supposed “purity” of the gospel; and it is not (for those inclined against CES) a devastating cancer on the truth of the gospel either. Second, the, what it is: it is an organization of paid people who are interested in the youth and in a kind of general normalization of “gospel culture”; it is somewhat interested in the meaning of some scripture; it is a gathering of some of the most informed readers of modern-day prophets in the Church; it is sometimes a haven for people who feel that there are liberal destroyers in the Church who are out to cloud the gospel truth with wild ideas; and it is an enormous—though too often ineffectively employed—asset to the kingdom of God.
In a word, in all our work in teaching seminary, we have to be quite careful to realize that CES is anything but God or even the Brethren. It is an organization of paid, professional teachers who do a good job at normalization. As an early morning seminary teacher especially, CES should be a distant satellite, in my opinion, something we draw on when helpful or necessary, but nothing to be too much concerned about.
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