Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

35 Responses to “Teaching Seminary, Early Morning or Otherwise: Seven “Hints” and Hopefully a Discussion”

  1. Ben S said

    This is an excellent discussion that captures several of the tensions in teaching. I’ll have to read it again before making any substantive comments.

  2. Robert C. said

    AVery nice post, Joe. I hope you’ll turn this into a published article at some point. To that end, I think you do a great job explaining emancipation, the importance of asking serious questions, and the problems with students and teachers who have stultifying answers. I think some other points could use more our better clarification. What do you mean by truth if not knowledge? What are you getting at with

  3. Jacob B. said

    Excellent thoughts Joe. Wish I could respond in more detail, but I’ll just say one thing for now.

    Understanding that you likely have a pretty nuanced understanding of J. Reuben Clark’s talk (implied by your wanting to do a series of posts on the talk), I see the talk, or more accurately the reception of the talk, as a major factor in the stultifying anti-intellectual nature of CES in general, despite also seeing overall value and insight in the vision Clark expresses in the talk. I had an institute instructor who referred me directly to the talk in reference to studying philosophy and theology (both in college and personally) as evidence that such a pursuit was the high road to apostasy and ruin. In my experience many CES employees have the same opinion. Add Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie to the mix and the anti-intellectual trifecta is complete.

    The talk decries the “philosophies of men” and any “secular” approach to the gospel, insisting we focus exclusively on the scriptures and the words of living prophets. Hear Hear! But CES has so often “wrested” the wisdom of this injunction to set up a good/evil dualism between the scriptures and non-LDS (I hesitate to say secular which is a too-loaded, often misunderstood term) philosophies and theologies. I don’t think this was Clark’s intent, but it became the result. (This coincides, of course, with the seemingly disastrous “Chicago Divinity School experiment,” which Clark’s address seems to be a partial response to). Now, philosophy and theology have less than practical value in assisting one in understanding one’s religion and sacred texts (as if there is such a thing as a non-contextual, singular, “pure” interpretation of scripture); philosophy and theology are instead seen as inherently oppositional, totally uninspired, and to be avoided like a disease.

    I don’t think Clark’s address actually goes this far. I believe there was a tendency during that time to use outside materials to supplement scriptural instruction. John Widtsoe’s priesthood manuals for example, while referring to scripture, were largely speculative. Clark (rightfully) wanted to return to the texts which LDS did, in fact, hold as sacred, not merely useful or insightful. But (and he does, admittedly, use fairly strong language along these lines) he insists that the philosophies of men cannot be the primary focus and replace scriptures and prophets. I couldn’t agree more. But the oppositional dualism that has risen up with regard to intellectual learning has gone to extremes. I can’t say how many times I’ve commented in a church class or as an instructor using philosophy and theology covertly–and strategically!–to make a particular point, almost always received positively. My “secular” learning has enhanced, not replaced, my scriptural understanding of the gospel. I see the reception of Clark’s address by future religious instructors in the church as contributing to to this sort of anti-intellectualism, though not so much the address itself.

  4. Robert C. said

    (Whoops, I posted this prematurely, obviously….)

    What are you getting at with this idea of repentance?

    If you can clarify a few of these tougher-to-interpret parts, I think you’ll have a very nice essay for publication somewhere. Also, I’d like to see you publish this article for a general Sunday School type of audience, using CES as a special case that you briefly discuss specifically in one section, or something.

    This is a hugely important topic, and you’ve nicely laid out the main issues here. Thanks!

  5. Shawn Tucker said

    If I were to give advice to a new seminary teacher, this would be my advice:
    1. Talk with the Lord about each of your students specifically every day. As you try to do the Lord’s work in connecting students with God’s blessings, you will need specific guidance to do it.
    2. Sometimes the Lord may tell you to be a coach, and sometimes He may tell you to be a farmer. Let me explain. A coach knows players, sets up exercises to help players develop specific skills, and then does whatever can be done to help players be successful. Coaches give very clear, specific instructions as well as proper encouragement. Coaches blend love with expertise to help players. Coaches are like shepherds who seek out the flock (Ezekiel 34:12). A farmer, in contrast, creates the right conditions, but has little direct influence on the seeds. Mark 4:26-28 talks about a seed that grows in secret. Sometimes, as we work with youth, they grow but we do not know how, or we are not privy to what is between the student and the Lord. When I would pray about my seminary students, sometimes I would not get any answers. Sometimes that answer seemed to me that the Lord was saying that I was to be a farmer, that I would not be privy to some information, and that I needed to respect that opacity. Sometimes, in contrast, I got specific guidance so that I, like a coach, could combine some insight or expertise with love to help persuade that student to come unto Christ.

  6. Shawn Tucker said

    And now that I have given advice, let me recant, in a way. It does not seem like anyone can give another advice about a stewardship. Each stewardship is different, as is each steward. At best, we encourage others to be good stewards. At worst, our advice is answers to our prayers for us and our stewardship in ways that get in the way of others getting answers to their prayers. If our answers are pronounced strongly, that voice may ring stronger than the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. And if the Holy Ghost, quietly, whispered to you the value of slowing down, taking time, enjoying the company of your students, and playing games with them… :)

    Luckily, what most of us do is only get advice before we actually start to do the Lord’s work. Then we get involved and find that we don’t have time for other voices, as what the Lord is telling us is so much, so vast, and is plenty for us to learn from and to try to understand and implement.

  7. joespencer said

    Shawn says: “Luckily, what most of us do is only get advice before we actually start to do the Lord’s work. Then we get involved and find that we don’t have time for other voices, as what the Lord is telling us is so much, so vast, and is plenty for us to learn from and to try to understand and implement.”

    Amen and amen!

  8. Early Moring Seminary and loving it said

    I teach early morning Seminary. My #1 guide is “Teach with the Spirit”.

    Before I was called, I was asked to sub in Sunday School. The kids walked out of the class raving about the lesson. They went up to the SS Pres and asked if I could be their teacher. The difference? Their regular teacher’s goal was just to survive the hour. Mine was to teach with the spirit. Which includes Shawn’s recommendation indivitualize instruction.

  9. Rameumptom said

    Great concepts, Joe.

    I think that what the scriptures mean by teaching only repentance, is that we should not spend our time on trivial speculations, but on teaching core doctrine. Imagine what classes would be like if instead of only spending a few minutes discussing faith in Christ, so we can rush on to the next topic, we spent several weeks discussing the various facets of it.

    It is like comparing Japanese and American math classes. We teach an inch deep and a mile wide, while they teach a mile deep. Their students have a more profound understanding of the foundations and fundamentals of math. Our students don’t.

    In the Church, we flit about so quickly from topic to topic, we don’t stand still long enough to really think and drink deeply of the waters available. The gospel of repentance, an Aaronic Priesthood key, should be deeply studied by us. And we should challenge our students to also study and ponder deeply what faith, repentance, ordinances, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end all mean.

    I think I would also add that we need to seek to inspire the students. They do need to seek to become Gospel scholars by first being gospel students. And the best teachers challenge us to look at things from more than one perspective.

    I would hope that each gospel teacher would read and re-read Teaching, No Greater Calling. This contains many of the key concepts you mention here.

    Again, great job.

  10. joespencer said

    A few responses, now:

    Robert #s 2 and 4 — I hadn’t even begun to think about the possibility of turning this for publication. I might do that. In the meanwhile, I think I’d do best to ask for a bit more probing call for clarification. Can you say a bit more about what seems difficult to interpret in the knowledge/truth distinction, as well as in the concept of repentance I’m working with? I want to be sure to spell out what you’re actually after.

    Early Morning #8 (and in part Shawn #s 5 and 6) — I entirely agree that teaching by the Spirit is the absolute key to teaching anything in the Church. The difficulty, of course, is nailing down exactly what that means. In large part, this post is an attempt to begin to spell out the meaning of that idea. To teach by the Spirit is, in many ways, to put forth the enormous effort it requires to pare back everything but the Spirit, and that’s what I’ve focused on here. For a good starting point on teaching by the Spirit, I recommend Elder Cook’s Teaching by the Spirit, a wonderful little book.

    Rameumptom #9 — Here again I entirely agree: I think we should spend our time on core doctrine. The difficulty is yet again to nail down exactly what that means. I’ve heard a lot of long, boring, and entirely unproductive—not to mention wildly speculative—lessons that attempt to sort out core doctrines. In the end, what convinces me that we ought to spend the bulk of our time on core doctrines is precisely the fact that the scriptures spend the bulk of their time on core doctrines. But because the scriptures also deal in what we don’t usually consider core doctrines, I think we ought to spend our time elsewhere as well (or, really, we ought to recognize that whatever scripture talks about is core doctrine!). The key, then, is learning how to probe the scriptures so that core doctrines (popularly recognized as such or not) exposit themselves in real depth. And this is done best, I’m convinced, by sticking to a single text and working it to death, rather than trying to skim through the scriptures in order to draw a variety of aspects of a single “doctrine” together. I think.

  11. Robert C. said

    Joe #10, this is great: “[T]his is done best . . . by sticking to a single text and working it to death, rather than trying to skim through the scriptures in order to draw a variety of aspects of a single “doctrine” together.”

    I probably won’t have time to elaborate in any depth on what I meant, but here are some brief thoughts.

    Regarding truth, you contrast this with knowledge. I think most people fail to see the distinction you have in mind. That is, I think a representational/propositional notion of truth is very common, and if your comments are read with this understanding of truth in mind, I think your comments are hard to understand.

    This is related, I think, to what isn’t that clear in the first few sections of your next section on repentance—the 3rd paragraph of that section in particular. I think you nicely describe what conversion is not, and why it shouldn’t be viewed as something continually deferred. But then you talk about the actual process of engaging in scripture as though it were a continually-repeating act of repentance. I think you are right about this, and I think I have a decent sense of what you mean here, but I think it could use a lot more unpacking.

    As very minor point, I think you could also elaborate (with the luxury of a full-lenght article) on why politics should have no place in the classroom. I’m inclined to think this of this as a subpoint of your point on application: political impliciations of the text are best left up to individual interpretation. However, I wonder if you don’t mean something stronger, that the scriptures cannot be properly appropriated into politics. If you mean something like that, then I think it warrants more clarification and elaboration/justification.

    (Also, I noticed you say “eight” points in the intro, not “seven” as in the title….)

  12. Keith said

    No time to say all I want. Maybe later. Some of this is going to sound much more conservative, perhaps, than I intend, but I’ll throw it out anyway rather than say nothing

    In connection with doctrine, don’t forget that THE key doctrine is the doctrine of Christ. This ties very well with the notion of saying nothing but repentance. (Christ actually says this is the only doctrine.)

    Remember as a Seminary Teacher (and this doubly so as a called teacher, and not a hired CES teacher), yours is a calling and you represent the Church. You aren’t a detached thinker looking at scripture.

    I like what is pushed for here with respect to scripture–go in depth, but perhaps unlike what I seem to see Joe doing, I think it is important to bring in official position of the Church on things–official statements, etc. as well as to appropriately tie what you’re studying to the latest teachings of the Brethren. Scriptures are only scriptures here within the context of a people and Church for whom they are canonized and it’s important, I think, that they be brought into that context.

  13. David G. said


    I might add to Robert’s that you clarify a bit more what you mean by “canonical” and along those lines why the written word deserves such a place of prominence in your epistemology over the spoken.

    As for Robert’s point that you expand the section on politics, you might find these blog entries by Stanley Fish helpful in thinking more about what you’re probably driving at:



  14. Robert C. said

    I think Keith raises a crucial issue here regarding the authority of the Church, official positions, etc. I say this b/c this seems to be a central idea underlying much of the teaching in CES (including much of BYU’s religion department, incl. BYU-Hawaii where I think Keith works—so I’m esp. anxious to hear his thoughts on this!). Many scriptural commentaries by Mormons, for example, consist primarily of quotes by past presidents and other General Authorities.

    But these statements by General Authorities are usually not stated in terms of official doctrine. My own sense is that there is very little that can be considered official doctrine–and I think this is a good thing b/c it forces us to seek further light and understanding on our own. I’m thinking official doctrines include what is implicit in temple recommend questions, and some other official declarations (e.g., on the family)—but what else is there? Most of the usage of scriptures in General Conference talks, for example, seems to consist of illustrative appropriations of scripture, which I think is interesting and useful, but a far cry from official declarations of doctrine.

    My own view is that this effort to respect official Church doctrines has had a very deadening effect in CES classes, and it has been frequently used somewhat perversely to actually avoid reading the scriptures themselves, contrary to the spirit of the General Authoities’ own statements.

    It’s hard for me not to see the importance of individual “seeking” (to harken back to an old conversation with Keith…!) after truth as one of the most central doctrines of the Restoration—we study, seek, and pray in our closets (and with our families) in an effort to come unto Christ as individuals and families (incl. ward families), with our own individual testimony, relationship and understanding of(/with) God. Inasmuch as official Church doctrines, callings, leaders and institutions are used to avoid this central goal, then I think they are obstructive. This is not to say that official Church doctrines, etc. don’t frequently help, and more often than not, because I deeply believe that they do! But I do think there is important room for improvement, esp. in CES, and also in our Sunday school classes, etc.: if we become so distracted by General Authority statements that we fail to personally “wrestle” with God’s word, then I think this is a misuse of Church infrastructure.

    (If I’m starting to sound shrill in my zeal, here, it is not b/c I think Keith is suggesting the kind of misappropriation of General Authority statements; rather, my zeal is based on my own experience in many classrooms where I think this never-getting-to-the-scriptures-themselves has frequently occurred….)

  15. Keith said

    “My own view is that this effort to respect official Church doctrines has had a very deadening effect in CES classes, and it has been frequently used somewhat perversely to actually avoid reading the scriptures themselves, contrary to the spirit of the General Authoities’ own statements.”

    And most of what gets used as official statements are not. A noted BYU religion professor one day said to me “The only thing I count as doctrine [official, binding doctrine–can’t remember the exact phrase] are the Standard Works and the Official Statements of the FP and Q of 12.” (He then added: “So does that make me liberal or conservative?”) I take much the same view. I think it’s healthy and actually gets us away from dependence on ‘well, so and so said this–end of story’. I use other statements by brethren as ways to understand, apply, etc. Not as binding. I agree that so much is used to avoid the real work in the Scriptures themselves.

    Individuals and families must come to Christ. Agreed fully. So must we as a people. I’ve nothing at all against the ‘wrestling’ that you talk about–I hope that’s clear. The coming to Him as individuals and even more especially as a people (the creation of Zion) needs a Church, structure, authority, etc. That’s what I’m wanting us not to leave out of all this. The text in a Seminary Class is the text for the year–the particular book of Scripture and we should learn these inside and out and wear out our hearts and minds in coming to understand them and know the (voice of the) Lord through them. But they are seen and read and worked through in the context of individual lives and lives in a world and in a Church (which administers ordinances, does much of the work of Zion, building the kingdom of God, doing good in the world, etc.). So we study God’s word, including the word in context of the other Standard works, in the the context of the word given by the Lord’s living revelators, and in context of the ordinances that the scriptures point to and which are an inherent part of of coming to Christ and knowing God.

    The students’ (and our) lives are not isolated with the text of scripture alone. They will have the words and counsel of their leaders (and parents) both local and Church-wide. The word will come from many sources. Help them hear it in that context and from all those sources. My experience has been that (when done rightly) the word of the Lord and the page and over the pulpit (as the D&C says of the Book of Mormon and the Bible) confirm each other and enlighten each other.

  16. joespencer said

    Keith #12 — I agree with every point you make here (especially when your last point is clarified through the further exchange between you and Robert). I don’t at all intend to suggest that everything outside the scriptures be simply dismissed, but rather that nothing outside of the canonized scriptures be taken as our text or as a too-easily-(mis)interpreted guide to making sense of the scriptures. I think we should be very attentive—for obvious reasons—to things like First Presidency statements, official declarations, etc., and these kinds of things heavily orient my own interpretations of scripture, etc. My point was only to say that I think it’s a distraction to give a whole lesson to the First Presidency statement on the origin of man, or to dismiss a real tension in a text because of the way a certain line in the Family Proclamation is usually understood by the Saints.

    In short, for what it’s worth, I’m quite as conservative as you are, though apparently I sometimes fail to seem so! :) I tend to find that I do as much battle against “liberals” (not only have I defended J. Reuben Clark’s talk here, I consistently defend the Family Proclamation, and even go so far as to defend President Monson’s response to the Proposition 8 situation, etc.!) as against “conservatives.”

    So, yes, scripture is thoroughly enmeshed in the community, the tradition, and even the institution. No question. But all I am calling for on this point, in the end, is that we recognize the importance of that point from both sides.

  17. joespencer said

    Robert and David, I’m hoping to engage the points of clarification you mention tomorrow!

  18. Mike B. said

    Joe I definitely agree with your second point about teaching the scriptures. In ch. 10 of PMG, one of the teaching skills is labeled “Use the Scriptures”. On my mission I crossed this out and re-wrote “Teach from the Scriptures”.

  19. Shawn Tucker said

    Perhaps there should be a special space for talking about how we get answers to prayers about how to do the Lord’s work, especially when that work is teaching. I’m currently teaching institute in the Greensboro Stake here in North Carolina. I love this calling, and I have felt very, very inspired as I have prepared lessons. I have started to write some of the great things that have happened, but every time I do I feel stopped short. I don’t really feel comfortable sharing any of that inspiration, and I don’t exactly know why. On one side it seems unfortunate that I don’t feel comfortable talking about it because then I cannot get the insights and critical evaluation of others. Maybe my shyness is a lack of faith or humility or fear of having my foolishness or vanity revealed. Perhaps I just don’t feel comfortable with this particular venue. It could be that there is something special and specific for me about how I’m trying to come to grips with what I’m doing that makes the sharing less than appropriate. Could it be that we only have the best discussions of teaching with the right environment and with sufficient faith, humility, and assurance (from the Holy Ghost?) that the sharing is appropriate and will be properly heard? Could this explain why some discussions of teaching or teacher training meeting seems so bland—because it is a lot of work on everyone’s part to have just the right confluence of graces to enjoy inspiration’s full flow?

  20. Robert C. said

    Thanks for your additional thoughts, Keith (#15).

    Joe, in trying to think about the distinction between truth and knowledge as the terms are used in common Mormon parlance, I’m wondering now if a notion of truth as “true principles” works—perhaps that’s what you even had in mind. If I read your use of truth as meaning the Gospel set of true principles, or something, then I think what you say makes pretty good sense. For some reason I couldn’t get past thinking in terms of either a representational/propositional notion of truth or a full on Badiouian notion of truth (the former is not distinguishable from knowledge and you don’t elaborate sufficiently on the latter, on my view). But that’s largely my fault as an idiosyncratic reader. If truth is conceived as a principle(/axiom), then I think much (perhaps all?) of the problem I was referring to goes away….

  21. kirkcaudle said

    Joe, very nice work here, and I am not just saying that. I agree with Robert, this could be a very nice published article. In fact, this is one of the best articles on teaching that I have read before. As I am an Institute teacher here in Portland this is all extremely helpful.

    With that said, I want to second two things that you said.

    1. I whole heartedly agree that questions are crucial. I find that the most important part of my classes are the questions. One rule I have as a teacher is never to ask a question to which I already fully know the full answer. For example, I will never ask, “what is Nephi saying in this verse,” while waiting for a student to give the “right” answer. I try to never come out of a class without more of an understanding of the text than I went in with. That is almost impossible to do if you are talking the entire time and/or think you already have a significant grasp on understanding the scriptures.

    2. You hit on a key point in teaching with the idea of boredom. It is impossible to have an effective teaching/learning experience when half of the class is sleeping. This goes for 8 year olds and 80 year olds. I have found that the only way to cure boredom is by making the text exciting by being excited myself while teaching. However, this only works if you actually are excited about the scriptures. I know many people that I believe genuinely “love” the scriptures but find them “unexciting” or “boring” to read/study/teach.

    Now, I feel I have already been doing the things mentioned above on an ok level. But when I got to your section on application I must admit I felt a bit sheepish. I never realized how closely I myself follow those four steps you laid out. I like the phrase you used,”Rather than actually getting to the question of application, we should always be almost there.” I think I have often been too quick to pick out the eternal principle and run with it.

    With all that said, I do not think one can have a good grasp of the meaning of the text without a good understanding of the historical nature of the text. For example, I think it is essential to understand the Old Testament in order to fully understand the meaning of the New Testament. Nothing leads one to wrest the scriptures like taking a verse out of context.

  22. Sharon said

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights. I am a youngish, early morning seminary teacher teaching my first year. I have a degree in secondary ed and have taught in high school and LOVE teaching/working with the youth!

    That being said, reading your article was helpful but also made me feel completely unqualified to teach seminary! I love the ideas you give of trying to approach teaching the scriptures in a non-watered-down way, and the whole concept of approaching “application” was new to me and something I will ponder as I continue to teach. In a semester of teaching, I have realized how vast the scriptures are and how much can be gained as we discuss and edify each other (not just me reading from the manual). I have recognized that I fall short on so many levels.

    I was called two weeks before seminary started, and wasn’t finished with my responsibilities as YW president until a week before. Needless to say, as much as I love teaching and really do feel excited about the scriptures, I feel like I am sort of still treading water when it comes to the daily ins and outs.
    I thought it would be similar to teaching school, but it is kind of the opposite! The guidelines, rules, tests, grades, and assessment are kind of laid out for you as a high school teacher; there are expectations of attendance and performance that can be calculated. With few exceptions, it is pretty much cut and dry (for better or worse). Now I teach 25 youth at 5:45am. To be honest, I would love feel like I could have a curriculum that required a certain level of responsibility for learning like I had as a high school teacher. But it’s so much more than that! It’s spiritual, eternal welfare of the youth that I worry about now!

    We are doing well – the attendance is good, parent feedback is positive, the youth tell me they like to be there. But I want to give them more. Does that make sense? The hardest part for me (suggestions would be great!) is finding a balance. A balance in a variety of teaching methods (not to entertain them, but to appeal to students on various levels of gospel understanding and maturity). A balance of asking them to raise the bar in their seminary participation but not scaring them off. A way to help them understand that learning about the scriptures isn’t always completely quiet and reverent, but that the spirit can testify as we are excited and even a bit loud as we are involved in meaningful discussions. I love the focus you put on the scriptures – I love to read the scriptures and then have them pull out their own ideas from there – but some of my students think we spend too much time “in the scriptures”. How do I, without taking away from what they’ve done with other seminary teachers, help them realize that I’m not here to fluff with them, I want to help them discover and use tools that will help them for a lifetime? That it’s about essential truths (the “primary” answers) but through continued study our understanding of those doctrines can be enhanced?

    Anyway, I could go on, but this comment is already long enough. As I ponder and prepare, I do feel guided by the Spirit, and I know everyone’s class/situation is unique, but your thoughts would be helpful too! Thanks!

  23. Rameumptom said


    One thing I would suggest for all of us, is that we don’t just feed them information or truth, but we inspire them. Many kids and adults in the Church do not have frequent inspirational moments. Many wander around, occasionally accidentally bumping into a spiritual experience. I’d like to see members experience weekly, if not daily, spiritual experiences. Seminary is one place where the high school kids can possibly have several per week.

    Elder Holland once stated that we need to do as they once did in the Church: set the pulpits ablaze. Too many Sacrament, Sunday School, and seminary class is found to be just rote statements without any Spirit, thunder, or inspiration behind them.

  24. joespencer said


    I want to respond carefully to this: “That being said, reading your article was helpful but also made me feel completely unqualified to teach seminary!” Isn’t it the case that any and every feeling of inadequacy comes only from our resentment towards emancipation and our love for stultification? That is, the very idea that one could be qualified or unqualified to teach is bound up with the idea that our task as teachers is to communicate information to the students, not to set them to work. To set them to work, I need only be, as Ranciere so beautifully titled his book, an ignorant schoolmaster. I need no qualifications, and indeed need know nothing about the subject. I have only to set the students to work on it.

    So let us fall short! Indeed, let us fall much shorter than we have before!

    But now to your actual question/comment: “The hardest part for me (suggestions would be great!) is finding a balance. A balance in a variety of teaching methods (not to entertain them, but to appeal to students on various levels of gospel understanding and maturity). A balance of asking them to raise the bar in their seminary participation but not scaring them off.”

    Had you seen me in the classroom, you’d be asking someone else about balance and variety! As anyone who has been in my classroom can tell you, I use no variety at all, and there is nothing like a balance in the classroom for me. I don’t see anything wrong with such things, but I don’t aim for them at all. We begin with the first verse in our pathway, and we get to work. When appropriate, we move to the next verse, and so on. And because I make the students do the work of grappling with the text, “various levels of gospel understanding and maturity” are not an issue at all. Indeed, I’m not sure there are different levels of gospel understanding or maturity, only different levels of conversion and commitment. I take as my task to call them to the work of reading scripture; I call them to maturity.

    For what it’s worth….

  25. joespencer said

    Okay, three things I still need to clarify: truth/knowledge, repentance, and canon.

    Truth and Knowledge

    Let me say that I’m actually working with a simple distinction here, though it isn’t entirely unconnected with more complex philosophical issues. (In other words: yes, Robert, Badiou is lurking somewhere here as well. :) The distinction I’ve got in mind is simply between the idea, on the one hand, that scripture study is a cognitive affair, a merely cerebral and abstract work that then requires application as a separable practical affiar, and the idea, on the other hand, that scripture study is an existential affair, a practical way of being true and hoping that the scriptures will constantly call me to a recognition of my weakness before God. What I want to ward off, in short, is any reading of my comments on placing scripture at the center of things that would see me as suggesting that seminary is a place for mere academicism. Encyclopedic knowledge is cheap, and anyone can read a commentary; but the pursuit of truth requires genuine commitment and conversion.


    My displacement of the usual model of conversion is meant to do away first and foremost with the idea that conversion marks a pathway from A to B. Conversion is not an end we aim at, but a beginning incessantly renewed. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is this: what is wrong with the usual model is that it distinguishes conversion from repentance, making repentance the means to the end that is conversion; instead, though, we should equate conversion and repentance, recognizing that every moment is what has to be converted, has to be repented of….


    I don’t know that I have a great justification for my emphasis on canon. I can point to the scriptural themes of writing that make writing remarkably central to everything in the gospel, but that’s to use writings to justify an emphasis on the written. Call it an axiomatic decision for the moment. :)

  26. Keith said

    Some quick comments. My wife and I taught (team-taught) early morning seminary for three years. Here are some things we did that I’d do again:

    We started each day with group recitation and repetition of Scripture mastery passages. There’s a rote learning with some of this that’s valuable. Hearing it time and time again–getting used to it. The ear/body gets accustomed to things. The students had to pass things off word for word (with some help with the initial letters of words, though some didn’t need this). While all don’t remember everything, some of it has stuck–the words, the phrasing, the music of the language. I can still recall everyone reciting “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows . . .” and a kind of quiet, humble, but electric atmosphere that filled the room.

    My wife and I are both university teachers of religion. We don’t like silly games. But we did, now and then, use games for Seminary. And we liked them and so did the students. We made them challenging and fun and used them to help with some of the rote learning that is actually helpful–to remember people, places, the order of books, where key things are found. They honestly helped in all of this, and the students enjoyed working together (sometimes in competition with each other, sometimes in competition against a certain amount they had to know collectively to win something or other). And it served as an occasional loosening of the bow-string that was strung fairly tight most of the time.

    While I believe the scriptures are clearly the main focus of attention, I found that sometimes a lesson with a specific structure and point to be made helped students. This wasn’t to ignore scripture, but to use them carefully and properly (and often coupled with some of the basic, profound stories we have in our Mormon consciousness [no folklore, thank you] and our own experiences or those of folks we know) to make particular points students needed. Following the Spirit was crucial to this. Sometimes the teaching manuals have some tremendous ideas and plans, so it’s not always about the scriptural text alone.

    We’re called to teach and given right to guidance and help and to use our gifts and insights to the best possible advantage. But that guidance and help also mean it’s not mine to do with as I want. It’s not my show. Whenever I try to force the way we do things into my way of doing things (however insightful and true the reasons for why I’m doing what I am), the Spirit does not work well with our efforts. The idea being taught, the method being used, the thing being sought may all be true or good, but the forcing, the self-assertion of my pet doctrine or method offends the Spirit. (If I get time, I’ll try to return to this last idea tomorrow. I’m too tired to lay out more specifically what I’m getting at here. Hopefully you’ll catch some of what I mean anyway.)

  27. joespencer said

    All excellent advice, Keith. I hope it’s clear that my intentions here aren’t to crowd out any of these possibilities, but to get the principles clear. I’ve occasionally used a lesson with a specific structure and point. I’m less personally inclined towards games, but I entirely agree that they can be used to very good purpose.

    In a word, the point here isn’t to preclude approaches or possibilities. Indeed, all things are lawful, but only once the scriptures, on which the Spirit works most deeply, have been freed from our too-common insistence on banishing them.

    I might put it this way: a game is no longer a “game” once it is actually aimed at getting work on scripture done; a structured lessons is no longer a “structured lesson” once it is actually a part of helping scripture to become clear; etc. The point here is to see everything through the scriptures, not to blind us to everything but the scriptures.

    In short, I think we’re in complete agreement, though my rhetoric is aimed to correct the tendency to ignore the centrality of the scriptures and your rhetoric is aimed to correct the tendency to dismiss everything but the scriptures….

  28. Dean said

    I like much of what you say, but I completely disagree with your definition of CES. Of course, like any organization, there are problems. But, I don’t agree with your systemic charges. First, let me summarize your definition CES:

    not run by revelation; not an authority on scripture; not informed; arrogant; not a devastating cancer; is paid; is interested in normalizing youth into our culture; is less interested in scripture; has many informed readers; is a haven for conservatives who hate liberals; is an enormous and ineffective church asset; not in harmony with God or even the Brethren.

    Did you see anything nice? Did I misunderstand? Or was it all negative? Was the cancer comment supposed to be nice? (cause its not a “devastating” one). Thanks, for that. I must say, to me this seemed mostly name calling, over generalizations and straw man attacks. I think your definitions were stultifying. I am pretty sure the Church Board of Education would not define CES anywhere close to how you have.

    Your final comment also surprised me.

    “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.”

    I am pretty sure the Church views stake seminary teachers as part of CES. Would you say the same thing to teachers in the Relief Society about their organization? How a Bishop should feel about his Stake Presidency? Why is this an appropriate view for a seminary teacher to have about CES? They should trust you, but not CES? Surely that isn’t what you mean.

    The bloggernacle as a whole seems to me to be pretty hostile to CES. Do you strongly feel this way about CES or are the disparaging comments said to be accepted by the peer group? Perhaps only Jesus could ever love Publicans or CES.

    P.S. Actually, it has been called S&I (Seminaries and Institutes) for a couple of years now, not CES.

    • NathanG said

      This post must have made you quite upset. I had to reread what was said in the original post because I didn’t remember it containing such hostile language. Sure, the words are there, but you have taken them out the context (eg you summarized CES as “Arrogant”, when the original post said “it is not entirely free of arrogant “protectors” of the supposed “purity” of the gospel”, quite different in my mind).

      My own experience with released time seminary, the CES training courses (though I’m not a seminary teacher), and attempts at setting up institute and home school seminary with subsequent CES involvement reflects both the good and bad Joe wrote about.

      • Dean said


        I wasn’t really upset, more surprised and a little hurt. But only about the seventh hint. I liked a lot of other parts. I was probably too confrontational. But I thought the last part needed to be challenged, or perhaps defended better.

        I guess I missed the “good” you say Joe wrote about. Was that the “not entirely free of arrogant …” part. Humm. BTW, what organization isn’t entirely free of the arrogant? How is that even a fair assessment? All of us have displayed arrogance to some degree or another, and need repentance.

        I was pretty stunned by the “not run by revelation” and the not with “God or even the Brethren” parts. Does Joe feel this way about other Church auxiliaries or just CES? Is the Church Board of Education the problem (First Presidency, three apostles, three auxiliary presidents) for Joe? Is is some administrator somewhere down the line? He doesn’t say. I am not averse to criticism. It isn’t usually pleasant, but it usually challenges us to think better. I still think Joe’s final point was pretty harsh and dismissive of the whole church auxiliary.

        BTW, I have been reading things posted by Joe for years now, and generally like him and his way of looking at things. Point 7 was a glaring exception to me of his usually well reasoned thoughts.

      • NathanG said

        So, a thought. There are no other callings in the church where someone is called by their local priesthood leader, but is then supervised by someone who has a paid position in the church. Someone who applies for a position as a seminary teacher or institute teacher knows they are putting themselves into a hierarchy that is filled with people in paid positions, but if I were to accept a calling as an early morning seminary teacher, it could come as a surprise that there are people paid to do the same job. In my part of the country the supervisors are often unknown (institute directors in a college in another stake) until you have the calling. They were not sustained by anyone in the local ward. They are perfect strangers. The faith that I am called by revelation to a calling may not be automatically transferred to putting trust in someone who is paid to supervise me in my calling. I imagine most people are terrified of being called as an early morning seminary teacher or institute teacher and they welcome the guidance that is offered, but that may not always be the case.

        Not necessarily relevant to seminary teachers, but many in my family work/worked at BYU-Idaho and describe a difficult culture to wade through of supervisors expecting the same dutiful obedience that would be given to a priesthood leader in a church situation. Disagreeing with your supervisor at a church school really is the same as any person disagreeing with their supervisor in any occupation (do it with caution), but the church employee may feel sleighted because they feel they do their job by revelation and any disagreement must mean the beginnings of apostasy.

  29. joespencer said

    Hi Dean,

    My apologies (1) for any offense and (2) for not being able to respond sooner (I’ve been traveling the past week).

    First, I should say that my seventh hint is written to and for early morning seminary teachers, not to people dealing with CES (or S&I) in any other way. I wrestled long and hard with whether to say anything about CES in the original post, but I felt I had to. Let me copy below my original words with a few bracketed insertions to clarify what I was trying to say:

    The last point, finally, is to have a clear understanding of what CES (the Church Educational System) is and is not. [The point here is just to forestall problematic entanglements with CES, something that can be a real problem.] I want to make this point briefly. [Perhaps I should have made it in more detail?] First, what it is not: it is not an organization run by revelation [I think it is important to recognize that CES is separate from the revelatory hierarchy of the Church; I don’t doubt that there is inspiration involved, but I do think it is dangerous to assume that whatever word comes down from CES is on a level with revelation; it is that attitude that I am trying to forestall]; it is not an authority on the meaning of scripture [I should hope there’s no real disagreement here]; it is not a gathering of the most informed scriptorians in the Church [unfortunately, CES is often treated this way, especially in the shape it takes in the BYU Religion department; I think it is important to recognize that what is said in a publication from someone in CES is not to be taken as gospel, and as much as I want to assume that people know that, I don’t think there is enough recognition of this point at the popular level in the Church]; it is not entirely free of arrogant “protectors” of the supposed “purity” of the gospel [I’m saying here just that one should recognize that CES has people in it who believe that their sole task is to keep the doctrine pure, and that means to assert the irreparable truth of ideas that actually are unrepresented in scripture; that may be a harsh reality, but it is one that the volunteer seminary teacher needs to recognize]; and it is not (for those inclined against CES) a devastating cancer on the truth of the gospel either [I added this last point to make clear that all these points of implicit criticism do not add up to an accusation but to a clarification; I’m not trying to be negative, but clear; I want to make clear that CES has certain aims and prerogatives that must be recognized and not misunderstood]. 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” [I’m not sure you really had a problem with this; at any rate, I think it is obviously true]; it is somewhat interested in the meaning of some scripture [I think this is also obviously true]; it is a gathering of some of the most informed readers of modern-day prophets in the Church [I meant this as a sincere compliment; I know of no other gathering in the Church that is as informed on what has been said in the past fifty years by prophets and apostles than CES]; 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 [note that this is not for me a question of conservative vs. liberal as you cast it; indeed, it’s not a political question for me, but a question of doctrine and interpretation; my concern—and I think it is important—is that CES easily lends itself to those who are concerned about (perceived) apostasy and little else; I wish it weren’t that way, and I don’t think CES need be that way, but it is a reality that those teaching seminary should, I think, know about]; and it is an enormous—though too often ineffectively employed—asset to the kingdom of God [again, I hope this makes clear how much good I think CES does; my point is not to dismiss, but to clarify].

    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 [note that I didn’t say, as you intimated, “in harmony with”; I didn’t mean that at all; I meant, as I say here, that CES is not God or the Brethren; it is independent of God and the Brethren, struggling to make sense of the Brethren; I don’t believe that CES is out of harmony with God or the Brethren; indeed, I think that’s very clear; I mean just to make clear that one shouldn’t take what comes down from CES as the word of God, or even as representative of what the Brethren are saying; one should go directly to the source]. 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.

    Hopefully my insertions will clarify a thing or two. My apologies again for any offense or misunderstanding.

    In the meanwhile, let me say also that I think any comparison with, say, bishops or the like is a complete misanalogy. Bishops are called of God, ordained to an office in the priesthood, and given real authority and keys over a particular part of the vineyard. Bishops are not nor should they ever be distant satellites. CES is not a priesthood organization. It is not a revelation-driven organization. It has no authority and holds no keys. It is loosely guided by the Church Board of Education, but it is run and deployed by people without any authority. That is not a problem. Indeed, I think it is wonderful, and I believe CES is a crucial, divinely inspired organization. But it must be understood, lest one believe that CES is something more than it is.

    At any rate, I should hope it’s clear that nothing I’ve said here is a question of “fitting into the bloggernacle crowd.” Indeed, I write at Feast precisely because I don’t care to fit into that crowd. I don’t read much at all on other blogs, but it doesn’t surprise me to know that CES is harshly criticized elsewhere in the ‘nacle. But I would be, right along with you, critical of their criticisms. I think CES is wonderful and should not be criticized. But I think it must be understood for what it is. It is a reality that anyone teaching seminary as a volunteer will deal with and must recognize. My discussion was meant to make clear what its limits are without suggesting, at all, that it is simply to be dismissed.

    A satellite. Satellites beam down information that we can put to good use. They orbit around us, but not we around them. They make much possible that would otherwise be impossible. But though they careen through the heavens above, they are not God—who communicates with us in different ways and with different messages, most of the time.

    That is all I meant to suggest.

    My best.

    • Dean said


      Thanks for the clarification. I would say that I see CES as an auxiliary like every other — Relief Society, Sunday School, YW / YM, Primary, etc. They all operate under the direction of Priesthood. The fact that CES has both a professional part as well as a stake calling part, makes little difference in my opinion to the issues you raise. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying the other organizations were not run by revelation. Professional S&I (seminary & Institute teachers) are only there because a full time person is needed. They have to have a general authority interview / clearance. They have to yearly have an ecclesiastical clearance, signed by both their bishop and stake president. In some sense, it is very much a calling. The Priesthood oversight is in my opinion the same in CES as it is in other auxiliaries. In fact it may be more, due to the large number of full-time employees to manage. I don’t really know the exact numbers, but I am quite sure the stake called teachers outnumber the employees 10 to 1. Anyway, my point is I wouldn’t feel comfortable making other auxiliaries, do you? or is CES the only one where those called should look at their supervisors as nothing too much to be concerned about.

      I also think some of the points are overstated. Who claims CES is God or the Brethren? I have never heard such an idea. It surprises me that this is something you think needs to be addressed. I would think the proper response would be uncontrollable laughter. You think this is something early morning seminary teachers need to be reminded of? Like I said, this surprises me (quite a bit).

      Anyway, thanks for the points you clarified though (even if a few still confuse me).

  30. Dean said

    I agree with your observations. Although, I imagine what you say of Church employees is equally true outside of CES as well as within. Yet, I think it is only a problem for new employees. Once they have some experience, this usually melts away. Example: Years ago I was in a meeting where an HR representative said that to disagree with a decision from DMBA (the insurance provider for the Church) was to disagree with the First Presidency. His comment was followed by a profound and polite silence, followed by very enjoyable mockery. He admitted his comment was over the top, and we all happily moved on. In my experience, attempts to portray the slightest disagreement as apostasy tend to be short lived among experienced members. I think this is more a problem for the new or inexperienced.

  31. […] I found the following seminary teaching advice from Joe Spencer to be quite valuable and wanted to post a piece of it here.  I agree that “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.”  I have found the most rewarding classroom experiences to be when the students check in and start digging into the text in new and exciting ways.  They start asking questions that demonstrate that they are wrestling with the text, seeking ways to change their lives and viewpoints to match the inspired principles taught by the prophets who have left us this rich scriptural text.  From my own personal experience, I have found that the more answers I find in the scriptures, the more questions I have.  This causes me to come before the Lord seeking His guidance in my life as well as in my understanding of His word.  You can read all of Joe’s post here. […]

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