Once upon a time, there was Sunday School, an independent auxiliary whose officers were appointed by senior LDS leaders and whose primary task was to develop a Sunday School curriculum, and commission and supervise the writing of lesson manuals. They did a nice job. Then came Correlation.
Obviously, manuals are still being written and lessons are being taught. No, strike that — manuals are not being written. We are using Sunday School manuals written in the last century, recycled every four years. It is as if Correlation, having successfully shrunk the gospel of Jesus Christ down to a list of a few dozen gospel keywords, has now narrowed the LDS curriculum to a fixed set of lessons linked to the LDS standard works but driven and directed by the Correlation topic list. There is nothing new under the sun.
The Correlation approach also reflects a policy of simplifying (I won’t say dumbing down) the curriculum as apparently deemed appropriate for use by LDS units worldwide. But shrinking, narrowing, and simplifying has costs as well as benefits. Alternate views and broad discussions are dropped. The use of supplementary sources is strongly discouraged. There is surprisingly little care given to actually understanding the context, detail, or range of meanings of a given book or passage. Maximal literalism is the method of interpretation implicitly but invariably applied to every verse or narrative; most prompts for discussion in the manual are designed to encourage class members to talk about cheerfully and energetically fulfilling their church and family responsibilities.
Improvement Is Possible
I’m not complaining, or course, just offering ideas for improvement. You don’t have to look far. Rather than simply blather in generalities, let’s take a specific example that has received some attention lately (see here and here), the book of Jonah. Lesson 33 in the manual (titled “Sharing the Gospel with the World”) launches right into a discussion of the events depicted by the narrative; nowhere is there any discussion of the book itself. Who wrote it? The book is a third-person narrative, not pronouncements by Jonah. What genre is this? Unlike other prophetic books, there are no oracles or pronouncements apart from 3:4 (“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” apparently the entirety of Jonah’s message to the citizens of Nineveh). None of this is discussed, even in passing.
Here’s what a few LDS scholars have to say. Sydney B. Sperry, in The Spirit of the Old Testament (2d ed., revised and enlarged, Deseret Book, 1980, p. 167) discusses “the character of the book of Jonah,” summarizing the view that it is historical, then the view that it is allegorical:
The allegorical or parabolic view holds the following: (a) The stay of Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days and nights is sufficiently extraordinary to warrant the suspicion of allegory. (b) The account of Ninehah’s conversion is very general and no attempt is made to describe precise events. The absence of precise data is very conspicuous throughout the Book of Jonah. (c) The abrupt close of the story when its moral becomes obvious very strongly points to symptoms of the parable.
Here’s from a more recent book, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Deseret Book, 2009, sidebar on p. 278), by Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely:
There are various interpretations of Jonah among modern scholars. Most are content to read this story as a parable or allegory, arguing that the exaggerations in the text seem more like satire than history. Nineveh has been excavated and its ruins are at most three miles across, hardly the three days’ journey described by Jonah (Jonah 3:3). Jonah’s description of the Ninevites as well as their beasts fasting and repenting in sackcloth and ashes seems to be hyperbole and is not attested to anywhere outside the Bible. Some people, including most Latter-day Saints, continue to believe in the historical interpretation — that Jonah was a real prophet who made a journey to Nineveh and preached repentence there.
Even a more conservative LDS scholar (they’re all conservative; this one is more conservative) notes alternative interpretations while affirming the traditional view: “Many Bible critics consider the story of Jonah to be an allegory or a parable. However, Jesus said that Jonah preached repentance to Nineveh (Luke 11:29-32) and that the episode in the whale was a sign of Christ’s own death and resurrection.”
The Time Has Come
I think the bottom line is that, whatever the approach, technique, or agenda used by Correlation, the resulting Sunday School manuals need rewriting. A lesson on the book of Jonah … should talk about the book of Jonah, and likewise for other books. How else are Latter-day Saints going to learn how to read and understand the Bible? If LDS scholars publishing through Deseret Book (!!!) can give a discussion of genre (a preliminary topic for the discussion of any scriptural text), so can the manual. I know the LDS employees and volunteers who work in Correlation have good intentions, etc., but it’s time to tap some of the plentiful LDS scholarship out there to produce a better set of manuals. Better lessons equals better students of the scriptures equals better Latter-day Saints.