I hope you have seen the recent public announcement of the initiative to use the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org to essentially do what we have been calling “inoculation” for the last ten years (see here for a list of links to Bloggernacle posts on the topic). The three short video interviews of General Authorities listed at the top of the Gospel Topics page (identified with titles like “How will Gospel Topics be enhanced?” rather than identified as GA interviews) give additional details about the initiative. While there is a lot of ground to cover, this is a very promising development. We should nominate whoever championed this initiative for Mormon of the Year.
So now that it’s happening, what else can we say about inoculation that hasn’t already been said? For one thing, it is not just an LDS problem. Youth of all denominations face faith challenges when they leave the supporting environment of home, family, and church to enter college. Perhaps that has always been true, but it seems like more of a general issue today than it has in the past. Here is Bart Ehrman’s short description of the challenges he sees undergraduates (largely Evangelical students) encounter when they eagerly take his Intro to the New Testament course at UNC Chapel Hill, as related in his most recent book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012):
Every spring semester at Chapel Hill I teach my undergraduate course Introduction to the New Testament. My students are smart, interesting, and interested: the majority of them are Bible-believing Christians. We spend a good portion of the semester — over half of it — studying the early Christian Gospels and then the life of the historical Jesus. To most of the students almost everything in the class is a complete revelation. Even though most of them were raised in the church and attended Sunday school for a good portion of their lives, they have never heard anything like what they learn in this class. That is because rather than teaching about the Bible from a theological, confessional, or devotional perspective, I teach the class — as is only appropriate in a state-supported, secular, research university — from a historical point of view.
What do his students hear, and how do they react?
Many of my students are surprised, dismayed, and sometimes even depressed (or, alternatively, liberated!) as they acquire historical knowledge about the New Testament. They hear, often for the first time, that we do not know who the authors of the Gospels actually were other than that they were almost certainly not the Aramaic-speaking lower-class peasants who made up the earthly disciples of Jesus. They learn that the different Gospels present very different portrayals of who Jesus was, what he stood for, and what he preached and that the New Testament tales of Jesus are full of discrepancies in matters both large and small. Many students are especially taken aback when they realize that even though the Gospels appear to be presenting historical accounts of Jesus’s life, much of the material in the Gospels in fact is not historically reliable.
So here are a few general comments on this evolving topic.
- It appears that Evangelical students are likely to “hit the wall,” so to speak, when they start college, from their biology class that covers evolution if not from an undergraduate Bible class. LDS students will likely encounter the same sort of issues (the Bible issues, plus our own unique Mormon issues, but not evolution, which isn’t an issue for most LDS) later, in graduate school or through personal study years later. And the older you are, the tougher those delayed childhood diseases will hit you.
- The enhanced articles being posted in the Gospel Topics section at LDS.org give LDS parents a resource for discussing troubling issues with their kids (the video interviews specifically state this as a purpose of the new articles), essentially inoculation-in-the-home. They may also be a way to introduce discussion of these topics into the LDS curriculum, but it is unclear whether the folks who write manuals will incorporate this material into their lessons. I don’t know if they follow current events at LDS.org or in Mormon Studies. I don’t know if they read Bloggernacle posts about inoculation. I don’t know if they read books. Who really knows what guides LDS curriculum writers?
- Where’s the LDS Newsroom on this? Not a peep from them on this seemingly big development, even though the media is running with the story of the new Race and the Priesthood page.
- For an initiative like this, there are intended consequences and there are unintended consequences. I wonder how this will play out over the next couple of years?