Feast upon the Word Blog

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Virtues of a Thematically Structured D&C Manual

Posted by Robert C. on January 10, 2013

A couple Bloggernacle posts (here and here) have recently criticized the thematic structure of the Sunday School manual for the D&C this year. I think these posts make astute and insightful observations, and I am in agreement with most if not all of the points that are made, even though I disagree with their conclusion that a historical approach would have been better.

I worry this grumbling about the implicit slight to history made by the thematic structure of the manual will undermine efforts to charitably understand the virtues of this thematic structure. So, I’d like to offer some rather modest countervailing thoughts, mostly in a spirit of:

  1. making the most of what our leaders have provided us (i.e., we’re stuck with this thematic manual for now, so let’s try to think not only about the vices and pitfalls of the structure we’ve been provided, though I think that’s important exercise, but also about the virtues, strengths and possibilities);
  2. improving our understanding of the relation and relative significance of history vs. doctrine.

Some advantages of a thematic approach

First, a disclosure: I’ve been teaching in our elders quorum from the George Albert Smith manual this past year, and I have to say I’ve grown quite fond of the way the manual works in practice. Part of my affinity is rooted simply in the fact that I am lucky to belong to an exceptional quorum where reading a few quotes and asking a few thought-provoking questions almost ensures an engaging, thought-provoking and interesting discussion, regardless of whether I have much of interest to say about the lesson topic.[1] But in addition to just having a good quorum, I think there’s an interesting and important dynamic at work here that is related to the thematic structure of the manual.

One major pitfall of a historical approach is that knowledge of historical issues effectively comprises a barrier to participation in classroom discussion. When historical matters become a significant part of the lesson material, many class members often feel quite ignorant about these issues—and, for the remainder of the lesson become shy about taking part in further class discussion. I am not saying this pitfall is unavoidable, but I do think it creates some non-trivial challenges for teachers, and I can think of many Sunday school classes using chronologically structured manuals that have become derailed by teachers failing to navigate this pitfall and(/or) devolved into discussions of rather arcane historico-critical matters. These lesssons failed to provide much spiritual edification for the majority of class members.

I had a Gospel Doctrine teacher in one of my mission branches in Moscow Russia, back in 1992 or so, that I loved. He offered erudite scriptural insights and background knowledge every week. It was a highlight of my mission. But, when the President of this young branch eventually counseled with us about some concerns regarding this teacher, it was clear that other class members didn’t share my enthusiasm and most class members weren’t getting much benefit from his lessons. Although I enjoyed the deeply intellectual nature of the lessons, other class members didn’t.

I wonder to what extent the grumblings about the thematic instead of historical manual structure are rooted in a kind of insensitivity to the interests of the majority of Church members. After all, let’s face it, most people in modern culture think history is pretty boring, and Church members are no exception, unfortunately. Because of this, I believe thematic lessons are more conducive to engaged and interested participation from a wider cross-section of church members. And this is important.

Now, I agree that improving Church members’ understanding of Church history, and understanding the development of doctrine and historical contexts of revelations would greatly enhance members’ understanding of Church doctrines, and the Gospel more generally. However, these desiderata need to be understood in relation to other competing goods. (Although I say “competing,” I maintain a great teacher could teach nuanced history and nuanced thematic doctrine, regardless of the way the manual is structured—but I take the manuals to be aimed at the weakest teachers, not the strongest, and rightly so….)

What are the competing goods at work in the thematic vs. historical decision of structuring a lesson manual? One way to think about these trade-offs is in terms of doctrinal practice versus theoretical knowledge.

The importance of doctrinal practice

If the essence and goal of Sunday school is conceived primarily in terms of transmitting (or even exploring) intellectual(/propositional) knowledge about history or historical doctrinal development, then much of the value and significance of the above-sketched virtues of a thematic manual will be missed.

An alternative conception of Sunday school might be sketched drawing on a “community of practice” framework (see here for a nice introduction to communities of practice, with a pedagogical and theological bent). An important theme that emerges from the literature on communities of practice is the importance of engagement and participation in the learning community.

I mentioned Jim Faulconer’s conception of scripture and theology in a comment at BCC, and I strongly recommend Jim Faulconer’s “Scripture as Incarnation” in his book Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (2010: Maxwell Institute). In it, Jim contrasts a pre-modern understanding of history to our modern understanding, and Jim explores the implications of how we understand the relationship between history and scripture. For my purposes, what is important about Jim’s article is the sense in which scripture functions “typologically, figurally, anagogically, allegorically,” and figurally (p. 198). In this sense, the incarnation of scripture that Jim is talking about is largely what I have in mind in thinking about doctrinal practice, contrasted with a more modern conception of theoretical knowledge (i.e., propositional knowledge in contrast to, say, the ancient Hebrew conception of experiential knowledge or practical skill).

(I should note that Jim is careful to distinguish his understanding of scripture from a merely mythological approach that effectively ignores history. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that we ignore history. Rather, I am advocating that we take care not to fall into the trap of letting a modern historical approach to scripture—or knowledge and learning, more generally—crowd out the more important role and function of scripture in our religious community.)

In my comment on Aaron’s BCC post, I suggested that “the practical significance of our doctrines really hasn’t changed very much over time.” I should clarify that I had our core doctrines in mind. Consider, for example, the themes of the first several lessons in the thematically structured D&C manual (skipping the introductory Lesson #1): atonement (#2), the restoration (#3), the Book of Mormon (#4), revelation (#5), the Holy Ghost (#6). Our understanding of each of these themes/doctrines has clearly changed over time, but I would argue that the historical changes in the practical import of our understanding of these doctrines has changed relatively little over time, especially from the time of the first revelation in the D&C to the time of the last revelation in the D&C. (More significant and interesting, at least to me, are the changes in the way the practical significance of these doctrines have changed since the time of the last revelation given in the D&C.) I’m personally fascinated by the insights that a careful historical study of the contexts and developments of doctrines in the D&C. However, I doubt it would have a first-order effect in how I enact(/incarnate) these doctrines in practice. Also, I doubt most members in my ward would share my enthusiasm and appreciation for a more historically nuanced approach.

Another issue at work in our understanding of the practical significance of our core doctrines is that of canon. In a sense, I think the tension I have labeled doctrinal practice vs. theoretical knowledge can be recast in a similar manner as the tension between canon vs. history. This is a tricky issue, however, since the thematic approach is itself a kind of structural move away from the current canonical shape of the D&C. However, I would argue that the Mormon canon is more important than Mormon history, and that, similarly, direct practical and thematic engagement with our doctrines and canonical texts is more important than knowledge of the historical contexts of—or development of doctrines within—these texts.

Some specific responses

Although I think I have, in effect, addressed the key themes, comments and questions raised in the other blog posts and discussions regarding the structure of the manual, there are a few miscellaneous comments I still want to address. In reverse chronological order (keeping with my anti-chronological theme herein…), Aquinas writes in a comment on Aaron’s BCC post:

A theologian who explores doctrine through the lens of inaccurate history runs the risks of accommodating or creating doctrines that end up not having the support one might think that they do. It’s problematic to say that the most important thing is to teach doctrine and teaching the history is a luxury on the side for those who are interested or so inclined.

I find this comment intriguing because I think it unwittingly suggests the need to take a more canonical approach to doctrine rather than a more historical approach. Our understanding of history is constantly changing. Our understanding (individually and collectively) of the practical significance of our doctrines is also constantly changing. However, the nature of these changes differs in significant ways from changes in our understanding of history, and it’s important to differentiate these changes. To root doctrinal understanding primarily in our understanding of history instead of our canon itself is to put the cart before the horse.

Ben writes in his post:

[W]e have a history of de-contextualizing our history and doctrine. Tragically, this approach has, in part, led to our modern-day crisis of saints being unable to process historical issues that do not conform to our compartmentalized historical approach.

I agree that there is a “modern-day crisis of saints being unable to process historical issues.” But I think there’s a bigger and more general crisis with members feeling disinterested and disengaged with respect to the Gospel, and I think a more historically structured manual would risk exacerbating that problem (again, my sense is that most members get pretty bored with history, sorry to say…).

Aaron writes in his post:

I would suggest that organizing the material topically actually obscures the ‘unfolding doctrinal drama’ because it is not at all clear how or where a particular doctrine was unfurled.

Isn’t this problem of historically contextualized understanding an even deeper problem with our other canonical texts? According to the logic of this argument, the Book of Mormon would have to be deemed the least valuable of our texts since we know the least about the historical context in which it was written (at least according to the text itself). But surely the Book of Mormon is the most rather than least valuable of our scriptural texts. Now, of course it is possible to study the “unfolding doctrinal drama” in the Book of Mormon itself. But, ironically, I think this could be better accomplished using a thematically/doctrinally structured manual rather than the current manual (so, for example, if atonement or covenant were the topic of one lesson in the BoM manual, I think it would be easier to discuss the contrasts of the sort that Joe Spencer’s book An Other Testament articulates, rather than using the currently structured BoM manual).

Well, in conclusion I want to reiterate that I think teachers should try to be sensitive to historical issues, and avoid proof-texting, as much as possible. And I hope that the Bloggernacle will provide supplementary material that help the rest of us in our efforts to gain a more historically informed understanding of the doctrines revealed in the D&C. I am also very sympathetic to historians and other scholars who are dismayed that the thematic structure of the manual will hinder efforts to increase our understanding of Mormon history. But I hope I do not have to read a year worth of D&C lesson posts repeatedly griping about the non-historical structure of the lesson manual. Perhaps this post will help open ways of thinking about the thematic structure so it can be used in more productive ways.


[1] I must apologize here for the rather low quality and tardiness of the notes I’ve been posting here—it’s been a very busy year for me. Part of my affinity for the manuals is also based on relative success in class despite my somewhat obvious lack of serious preparation.

8 Responses to “Virtues of a Thematically Structured D&C Manual”

  1. Brandon Brooks said

    I agree. I am a Sunday School teacher who greatly values class participation. I have always tried to focus on the basic doctrines being taught instead of trying to extract all of the details that could be mentioned (because there is never time to give the details justice). If you have a class of scholars, an historical may be better, but I have a class with a wide range of gospel understanding from the professional religious scholars (literally) to the new converts, to the recently reactivated, and sometimes investigators. Many of the members of my class do not/cannot yet appreciate the context of early church history. I am very relieved that it will not be done with a strong historical focus, but rather with a focus on the basic doctrines clarified by the revelations of the Prophet.

  2. Aaron R. said

    Robert C., I am sure Ben will have some far more cogent thoughts on this topic than I, but I appreciate your response here. There is very little that I disagree with.

    I should note that my criticisms of the topical approach were more specifically directed to the particular defence offered by Jeffrey Marsh rather than the topical approach in general. With that said, I think my particular bias is toward a form of pedagogy that makes room for context.

    Your first reason for writing this post is very important. I am wholly sympathetic to that kind of discussion and I think Ben P’s post was not guilty of creating unnecessary grumbling (although mine may have been).

    Both posts at BCC (I hope I am not judging Ben’s post incorrectly) seem primarily concerned with the practical implications of our manuals and how the organizing principles of these materials might influence these implications. Hence, part of my concern with the thematic approach – in contrast to yourself – is that it has a tendency to focus on the propositional rather than the practical. This is evident in the way that our manuals are frequently structured around a series of isolated texts which are read as something akin to logical propositions. The narrative context of our revelations make the practical implications more immediately accessible than a series of scriptures which highlight the doctrine of faith in the D&C. For example, scriptural assertions that Jesus is the Christ do not get us off the ground when we are trying to discuss the implications for Christs atonement today. Similarly, discussing baptism for dead through the lens of death conquest in JS could enrich our personal spiritual lives as well as also our ritual practice in those settings.

    At the same time, it is true, that there are some lessons currently in the manual which do a better job of this than others.

    You also wrote: “Isn’t this problem of historically contextualized understanding an even deeper problem with our other canonical texts?” There is no question that this is true. That challenge raises particular difficulties which I think are surmountable. However, this question of the unfolding drama is not at the heart of your take of this question and highlighting distracts from the other good points that you make. If it is important to demonstrate the unfolding doctrinal drama of the restoration (and it may not be) then I think a thematic approach will always do that badly – even the one you have described here – whereas if our priority is to teach the doctrines of the church as they are currently understood then a thematic approach may serve us best.

    Finally, people are certainly not all interested in history nor the details and complexities of the church. However, my experience of teaching in the church is that people do respond and enjoy new ideas, stories, examples, and context. A thematic approach, in my view, can (it may not always) stifle this novelty by focusing on what is already known – the propositional content of the gospel.

  3. Robert C. said

    (My apologies for those of you who read the first draft of this post which was posted prematurely, with several typos and infelicitous sentences. It’s now been edited and improved.)

    Thanks, Brandon (#1). I have to confess, I think Gospel Doctrine would be much, much harder to teach than teaching elders quorum, and the D&C strikes me as esp. challenging. Good luck!

    Aaron (#2), thanks for taking the ribbing of my post in a good-natured way, as it was intended — I am very sincere in my expressed appreciation of the posts you and Ben wrote. I think the point you make in your comment about “focusing on what is already known” is a very, very important one. I want to write a separate post focusing explicitly on this danger, of how a thematically structured manual can easily be abused in this way.

    I think you (Aaron) also get at a couple very important though difficult issues when you write, “If it is important to demonstrate the unfolding doctrinal drama of the restoration (and it may not be) then I think a thematic approach will always do that badly – even the one you have described here – whereas if our priority is to teach the doctrines of the church as they are currently understood then a thematic approach may serve us best.”

    To your first point, about a thematic approach not being able to deal with “the unfolding doctrinal drama” very well, I’d like to explain my view a little better, in an effort to better trace out and explore our disagreements. Perhaps the easiest way to elaborate on what I have in mind with a “thematic approach” might be in terms of a contrast between biblical theology versus systematic theology. I agree with you inasmuch as you are warning against the dangers of systematic theology (see here for a briefly described distinction, but I will, also cite, again, Jim Faulconer here, since I think he gives a nice account of these dangers in his article “Rethinking Theology“—and I forgot he claims there explicitly that, for Mormons, “practice is more important than belief”). However, if you are claiming that a historical approach is better than a biblical(/narratival) theological approach, at dealing with the unfolding doctrinal drama, then I genuinely disagree (though we’d have to work further to more carefully see what these differences amount to).

    To your second point, where you write “if our priority is to teach the doctrines of the church as they are currently understood,” your phrasing and framing of the issue here has me intrigued, and deeply ambivalent. The question I’m intrigued and puzzled by is what “currently understood” really means. If it means “what is already known,” then I eschew making that a priority. But, then, this expression deconstructs itself: how can actual teaching place if what is being taught is already known? But if “currently understood” has a more modest meaning, having to do with what I have a hunch about, and a commitment to, but without having complete knowledge of or a very robust understanding of the implications and/or nuances of what I already understand, then I think I’d be willing to defend the pursuit of a better understanding of what I already somewhat understand as a worthy goal of Sunday school. Anyway, this comment is already way too long, so I’ll stop writing now, but I’ll continue thinking about this since I think it’s a fascinating issue and question (thanks!)….

  4. Kim Berkey said

    I knew I liked you, Robert.

  5. cesc101 said

    thanks! a really interesting post indeed!!

  6. rameumptom said

    I have no problem with the thematic pattern of the lessons. I DO have a problem with its attempt to cover too much material in too short a time. One 45 minute period to discuss Jesus the Christ (lesson 2)? Really? That only gives time to cover just a few things, and then conclude: yes, Jesus is the Christ, and if you realy want to know about the atonement, his premortal works, etc, then you’ll just have to study it all on your own.

    Why not do as we are now doing with the youth, and give a whole month over one concept. Imagine what the members could learn about the atonement over 4 weeks of study, rather than just one quick weak week.

    We have an ocean of doctrine and teachings available to us. We spend all out time sailing upon the waters, but never stopping and plumbing the depths. It is a wonder that any LDS member ever gains a strong testimony, when we only serve them the same things we’ve taught them since Primary. And I’m not talking about delving into mysteries or speculation. I’m talking about actual doctrine we could study from many angles and see how it applies in our own lives.

  7. CJ Douglass said

    According to the logic of this argument, the Book of Mormon would have to be deemed the least valuable of our texts since we know the least about the historical context in which it was written (at least according to the text itself). But surely the Book of Mormon is the most rather than least valuable of our scriptural texts.

    Robert, I say this as a believing Mormon: After years of study, the BoM IS in fact looking to me like the least valuable of our texts because of its lack of context. In fact, Its astounding to consider how dependent the BoM is on the Bible (not the other way around). A great example is Brigham Young’s use of the BoM to support his views about Africans – with no context to challenge him! In a related instance, I once attended an institute class where a Semitic language/Hebrew Bible specialist made a great argument for the race verses in the BoM having nothing to do with skin color – because of the way in which the Bible uses the same “blackness” references. I really appreciated hearing it, but at the end of the lesson, he had to admit that it was mostly speculation because of all the things we really *don’t * know about the BoM. Ultimately, it can’t stand on its own.

    In other words, without context, people (including prophets) can arrive at false conclusions about what the scriptures are saying to us – much easier.

    Which is why I love the D&C. In fact, the contextual information is leaps and bounds better than any other book of scripture we have and I see it as a tragedy that we don’t value it.

    One final note: Our GD instructor yesterday pointed out some specific punctuation that was used in Section 19 and wondered aloud what deeper meaning Jesus was trying to communicate with it. Oh how much better our study of the scriptures can become when we understand their context and background and why and where and how they came to us.

    All this being said, considering that we are stuck with the lesson plans for this year, I really appreciate your suggestions and will be making an effort to stay positive.

  8. forex said

    Felix Homogratus, Dimitri Chavkerov Rules! You pay us we post good about us!!

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