Gospel Topics at LDS.org, A Change of Direction?

December 16, 2013 | 27 comments
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2013-12-16 Going Rogue

That’s what happens when you run out of lesson manual…

I told my Gospel Doctrine class yesterday afternoon that since we had run out of lesson manual for the year we were going to go rogue. Then I proceeded to give the first lesson I’ve ever given (I think) in which I exclusively used officially-approved Church materials[1].  I could pick anything I wanted to teach about, and I choose to cite three videos and four articles from the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org. And yet I did feel like there was something quietly revolutionary about the material we covered in the lesson.

The article that has riveted the Bloggernaccle and even the world beyond this week is the article Race and the Priesthood [2], and that’s where I got started. I’d heard vague mentions about efforts on the part of the Church to revise the curriculum and/or to start addressing difficult issues head on. I even think I’d heard something about the article on the First Vision accounts, but I sort of figured that if there was a major policy shift I’d hear about it in General Conference or some other official outlet. I hadn’t heard anything definitive, but I went to the Gospel Topics section of lds.org (where Race and the Priesthood is posted) and started poking around in preparation for my lesson.

2013-12-16 Gospel Topics Videos

Still under the impression that if anything significant was afoot I would have heard about it elsewhere, I started watching the three videos posted there. The first one, featuring Elder Anthony D. Perkins talking about how the Gospel Topics section was going to be pared down to have fewer, longer articles and about how the site was being optimized for mobile devices, didn’t make a very strong impression. I’m not a veteran Church-watcher, and I’d be hard-pressed to name all the 12 Apostles from memory[3], let alone any of the General Authorities below that, so I’d never heard of him and was mildly surprised to realize that we had a general authority who had responsibility for lds.org.

But the second and third videos had a much greater impact. In the second Elder Paul D. Pieper (the GA responsible for Church Curriculum) stated that the new and improved Gospel Topics site is specifically designed to empower parents to be able to address the questions that “come to [their children] from modern society.” He went on to state that the Church was rolling back Correlation to some extent (without using the name) by saying that they would be retreating from the model where the same lesson is taught on the same day in every congregation on the globe. To address the growing diversity of the Church, there would be a pared down set of core concepts and then latitude for more local decisions around those concepts.

In the third Elder Steven E. Snow (Church Historian) described the process for crafting the new Gospel Topics (like, I assume Race and the Priesthood). The general pattern is that an external scholar–someone outside the Church History department–is asked to write about a selected topic. Their article is first edited by a Church History committee, which makes changes with the consent of the author, and then the article is screened by the Apostles before being posted to the site.

2013-12-16 Gospel Topics Featured

After watching the videos, I dug into the articles on the front page. There are six of them. Two are the old style, one on Christ and one on Christmas, and are generic and short. But the other four were interesting. In addition to Race and the Priesthood, there was First Vision Accounts, Are Mormons Christian?, and Gospel Learning.

The one on gospel learning may sound tame, but the central thesis is an elevation of intellectualism as a necessary (but subordinate) aspect of the injunction to “seek ye diligently.” I was only 12 when September Six went down, so I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but growing up with a father who was an English professor and increasingly wrote on Mormon themes meant that I was always aware of the tension between Mormon culture and intellectualism. If it wasn’t my mother being scolded for her political activism, it was folks who went out of their way to ensure that we all knew my dad’s PhD didn’t give him any kind of special dispensation, a statement all the more memorable for being so unnecessary. Sure, he wasn’t one of those liberal Mormons as far as anyone could tell, but you can never really be sure, right? And besides, you don’t earn that many points for faithful scholarship in a Church where even apologists have a kind of ghetto at fairlds.org rather than lds.org. [4]  To see reason, analysis, and reading outside the canon all emphasized this way seems like a seismic shift in cultural attitudes if nothing else. Is the ground shifting beneath our feet?

I was equally excited to read about the differing First Vision accounts straight from lds.org (and not buried under 8 levels of hierarchy, either!). My favorite part was that they included links to the full text of every single one of the differing versions. Here we’ve got an article written by a scholar addressing a primary criticism of the Church head-on with links to all the source material. This is something new. The article on whether or not Mormons were Christian was a lot of fun for different reasons. Rather than addressing concerned Mormons, the article seemed addressed to non-Mormons who make the claim that we aren’t Christian, and responded with arguments that could have been lifted nearly verbatim from online debates I’ve had in years past (and many other Mormons too, I’m sure). I was tickled by the no-compromise tone that it took.[5]

As I said: I’m not a veteran Church-watcher. I haven’t studied the history of Correlation and I don’t really have a firm grasp of which General Authorities are in charge of what. But to me, Race and the Priesthood now feels like the spearhead of a much larger campaign. The strong–and welcome–disavowal of past theories comes in conjunction with a new approach to history and intellectualism.

There’s no way to tell if this is a direct reaction to the alleged mass exodus of young, educated Mormons from the Church as they encounter faith-challenging history and a sense of betrayal that they weren’t better informed by CES. It makes sense that if the Church did take that issue seriously, however, the last thing that they would want to do would be to hit the fire alarm and make things worse. On the other hand, revising the entire curriculum takes time–especially at the glacial pace of all large institutions–so if a faster reaction was required it’s hard to think of a better way than quietly re-purposing some existing program or asset to fill the role. If that’s true, then it may not be unwarranted to speculate from a few brief interviews and some new articles to a possible future direction for the institution as a whole.

I have always loved the that the Church has no corollary to the counter-cult movement within evangelical Christianity, and I’m deeply suspicious of anything that looks like formal, official theology. With those two models ruled out (I hope), the Church will be moving in a new direction on this one. I’m not sure what we’ll see in the future, but I’m optimistic.

Edit: Since writing and posting this post, a new article has been posted: Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah. They seem to be rolling them out pretty quickly.

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[1] OK, I did cite Men in Black and God’s Army, but that was extemporaneous. It’s still the first lesson I went into with only Church materials and nothing else.

[2] And deservedly so, but I’m not going to focus on that because I simply don’t think I have the expertise to match many of those who have already weighed in.

[3] Then again, I forgot my best friend’s name in high school once (true story), so maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.

[4] So it’s fairmormmon.org now. When did that happen?

[5] “But Mormons don’t accept the Creeds!” “… and?”

27 Responses to Gospel Topics at LDS.org, A Change of Direction?

  1. Ben S. on December 16, 2013 at 8:28 am

    “He went on to state that the Church was rolling back Correlation to some extent (without using the name) by saying that they would be retreating from the model where the same lesson is taught on the same day in every congregation on the globe.”

    Wow!

    “it’s fairmormmon.org now.” Happened in the last few months, I believe.

    Thanks for this. Haven’t had time to look at those videos yet.

  2. Amira on December 16, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I’m hopeful that Paul Pieper will have a positive influence on this since his official church background isn’t typical of the standard white America GA. He spent many years overseas where he learned Spanish and Russian well and was a branch president in places where many members are very unique. He also spent one year as a mission president in St. Petersburg where he initiated a project to record the histories of members who had survived the Siege of Leningrad. After that small amount of leadership (branch president and one year as MP), he was called as a GA and served in the East Europe Area Presidency. He went on to be one of the presidents of the Middle East and North Africa area. He also has personal experience serving those with special needs. He has had a huge amount of experience with members whose needs are very different from what they were even twenty years ago.

  3. David T on December 16, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Elder Pieper was the presiding authority at our last Stake Conference. He specifically noted that we needed to expand our reading of the Oath and Covenant to include to women, and that he noticed it to be interesting that the text spoke of ‘obtaining’ priesthood, not being ‘ordained’ to priesthood, suggesting that we might think of the Temple as a profitable solution to our reading of this. Also noted the brethren are very aware of the problems that come by referring to groups of men as “The Priesthood”, and suggested the Church would be taking steps to discourage the perpetuation of this. I didn’t know he was in charge of overseeing Curriculum at that time. Points to some fascinating directions.

  4. Dave on December 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Let’s not forget it was Leonard Arrington who professionalized the Church History Dept. (he hired historians) and turned it into an organization that could handle projects like the Joseph Smith Papers Project and now coordinating the upgrading of the doctrinal and historical positions and statements of the Church.

    Nathaniel, I understand that you are against formal, official theology. But you do seem to support the new Race and the Priesthood effort to repudiate the informal, unofficial theology of race that has caused so much trouble. How else can we discard flawed informal, unofficial theology (that is, get most Mormons to actually abandon it) other than by some measure of official doctrine, such as the Race and the Priesthood statement?

  5. Cameron N on December 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Leaders already have, including Elder Ballard’s explicit denunciation of it this year in general conference. But how many listened?

  6. SteveDensleyJr on December 16, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Nathaniel: Nice overview.

    And with respect to your question regarding when FAIR changed to FairMormon, that happened at the conference in August. It is discussed in these two articles:

    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865585280/Mormon-apologetics-group-announces-new-name.html?pg=all

    http://www.ldsmag.com/article/1/13165

  7. Not So Fast on December 16, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    As cold as it may be to say this, Dave in comment #4 is wrong to give credit to Arrington for anything having to do with the current state of the Department. If anything, we seek in virtually every way to distance ourselves from the Arrington era. His era is viewed as a time when priorities were backwards: While no one doubts his sincerity and professionalism, or his faith, he is remembered as one who thought the Church and is resources were there to serve his professional goals, and that he should be free to research/write what he pleased, when and how he pleased, and to push Church priorities so far into the background that he never quite got around to addressing them. The attitude today is that we bring our professional training and skills to serve the Kingdom, putting Church assignments and priorities over our personal and professional preferences. This doesn’t mean that our professionalism is compromised; it means that if the Church wants two volumes of Papers this year, or wants any other writing completed or project researched, that is what we do, instead of investigating our personal hobby topics.

    That is so far from Arrington’s modus operandi that he cannot be said to be our inspiration in any practical way, unless it is his service as an example of how not to be a component of the Church that sponsors us.

    For obvious reasons, I must remain anonymous.

  8. Amy T on December 16, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Thank you, Not So Fast. I think it’s a mistake to see Arrington as a great mythical hero. He left a fairly complicated legacy, and he was very much a product of his time.

    For example, he had major blind spots in regards to women and minorities, and it can be difficult to work through the legacy of some of his blind spots. He wrote an entire book about Charles C. Rich — almost 400 pages — without spending any time on the fact that Rich was a Southern slaveholder, apparently taking half a dozen slaves into Utah Territory. How is it even possible to ignore that part of Rich’s experience? And Arrington treated women as some sort of novelty, not a vital part of the history of the Church. See his work on Brigham Young or his comments on the book The Winds of Doctrine for examples.

    He did create some valuable and groundbreaking history for the time and you cannot overlook or dismiss the things he was able to do, but his was not a simple and heroic legacy, either in the history he created, or in the History Department he did not manage to hold together.

    I think if we want to look at people who have made this amazing new development possible, we should think in terms of people like Marlin Jensen and Richard Turley. It takes some real talent to be able to create professional-quality history and do it within the framework of working for the Church.

  9. Dave on December 16, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    No So Fast, I don’t suppose you have considered the fact that in the pre-Arrington department, you wouldn’t even have been hired. There was nothing in particular for a historian to do there. Certainly others deserve some credit for how the department has evolved since Arrington’s departure (obviously).

  10. Amy T on December 16, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    You may be thinking about Joseph Fielding Smith, Dave, and forgetting the contributions of those like Andrew Jenson.

    Also, the field of professional history is a fairly recent innovation. See works like The Modern Researcher (Barzun, Graff, 1992) or That Noble Dream (Novick, 1988) for more about our understanding and expectations of modern historiography.

  11. Not So Fast on December 16, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    I think we were lucky to be invited back in. That invitation could not be taken for granted post-Arrington.

  12. Julie M. Smith on December 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    And, now there is a page on polygamy.

  13. NSF's Colleague on December 16, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    We all respect Arrington’s work and as a man. The church was burned however. I opine that it was Larry H. Miller’s standing of the financial risk that opened the door to us and Marlin Jensen’s personality that wedged that door open.

  14. Nathaniel Givens on December 16, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks, Julie. I added a link to the new article at the end of the post.

  15. Nathaniel Givens on December 16, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    Dave,

    Nathaniel, I understand that you are against formal, official theology. But you do seem to support the new Race and the Priesthood effort to repudiate the informal, unofficial theology of race that has caused so much trouble. How else can we discard flawed informal, unofficial theology (that is, get most Mormons to actually abandon it) other than by some measure of official doctrine, such as the Race and the Priesthood statement?

    Sure. I’m against “formal official theology,” and that’s one reason I liked the statement. It explicitly pruned rather than added to the theology of the Church. That’s a move in the right direction.

    I believe that the Church’s atheological nature is not accidental, and is a feature rather than a bug. It seems to me that the role of the Church is to provide a sparse but unyielding framework of core doctrine that functions as a unifying framework for communal religious experience and a kind of safety-rail for individual theological construction, but at the same time to deliberately and carefully refrain from attempting to explain those doctrines or work them into some particular finished theology.

    To erect an official theology would be to ossify the Church’s intellectual and spiritual growth by putting additional and unnecessary constraints on future revelation, and it would also exacerbate the problem we already have (as to all organized religions) of individual members defaulting to the official theology instead of seeking out their own answers.

    In fact, the entire episode with the racial ban illustrates my misgivings: even the appearance of formal theology is an extremely dangerous and altogether unnecessary appendage to the vital functions of the Church. We barely have any theology at all, and look where it got us! It’s hardly an isolated example either: Adam-God, blood atonement… one wonders if Brigham Young’s errors were a divine blessing to illustrate the dangers of depending on prophets for theological interpretation. If only we’d fully understood the warning!

    I also realize that the doctrine/theology dichotomy is simplistic. In practice we can’t easily and perfectly categorize statements into one bucket or the other. But as a general rule I think the distinction is clear even if application can get tricky: doctrine establishes core propositions but neither perfectly defines them nor attempts to construct a medium in which to situate them. Those activities–the precise definition and the synthesis–are theological. That’s up to the members, I believe, and not formal Church authority nor intellectual experts.

  16. Mark D. on December 16, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    The risk of formal official theology is the Protestant-ification of the church, and anyone familiar with the theological history behind the Westminster Confession and other similar documents – i.e. roughly how Protestantism got to be so obsessed and so wrong about salvation causation issues – ought to have a healthy appreciation of that.

    The creedalization of such theology is rightly considered an abomination for some reason or another. Perhaps it is because what has been revealed is not necessarily accurate or complete enough to make any systematic theology reliable enough to reduce to de facto articles of faith.

    To take one example, how much of what we know about Adam and Eve is a placeholder for a series of events much more complicated and subtle than the account we have? Brigham Young said it was a nursery school story. Can anyone with the evidence of Pre-Adamites staring them in the face take it at face value? Should they?

  17. Old Man on December 16, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Thank heavens I carry an iPad io church! These brief articles are excellent.

  18. Cameron on December 16, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Well said, Nathaniel. I appreciate that you share current church leaders’ wisdom on this matter.

  19. John Taber on December 17, 2013 at 9:25 am

    In a way, we are starting to get away from “same lesson every week, everywhere”. Young Men and Young Women do “theme of the month” for Sunday School and third hour. Yes, we have Teachings of the Presidents of the Church for adults in third hour, but that’s only twice a month. Teachings for Our Time is chosen from a recent General Conference address and not the same address everywhere.

    I could see Gospel Doctrine going to monthly books/sections to cover, with local discretion on how to break it into four or five lessons. Maybe Primary could go to that as well someday.

  20. Naismith on December 17, 2013 at 10:58 am

    The primary lessons already allow a great deal of latitude. The manuals are written for a 4-year age span, with various activities (not all of which will ever be used, both for time and because they are too easy/too hard).

    For any Gospel Doctrine teachers who ran out of manual this year, one of the amazing “rogue” experiences we had was a pre-Christmas lesson on the writing of Handel’s Messiah. He truly felt inspired to write it. We read from the scriptures that he quoted, read historical stuff (I did a powerpoint), and played parts of the music. I had prepared the lesson, but could not anticipate the spirit that would be in the room.

  21. Nathaniel Givens on December 17, 2013 at 11:42 am

    For any Gospel Doctrine teachers who ran out of manual this year, one of the amazing “rogue” experiences we had was a pre-Christmas lesson on the writing of Handel’s Messiah. He truly felt inspired to write it. We read from the scriptures that he quoted, read historical stuff (I did a powerpoint), and played parts of the music. I had prepared the lesson, but could not anticipate the spirit that would be in the room.

    That sounds way more awesome than anything I have even thought of attempting for my next rogue lesson (Dec 29).

  22. EditorJack on December 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I once gave a “rogue” Christmas lesson in Gospel Doctrine class using a PowerPoint presentation of the stained-glass Nativity windows at Chartres Cathedral. I read the relevant scripture passages aloud, with background music from Handel’s Messiah. One of the most memorable, Spirit-filled experiences I’ve had while teaching.

  23. Ben S. on December 17, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    I got asked to teach the youth kinda last minute, and was just going to show them Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. (None of them had heard of the priesthood ban, here in Brooklyn.)
    But they solved the problem by not showing up.

    Whenever I go rogue, it’s usually Old Testament. Great time for an introduction, before we actually start.

  24. charlene on December 17, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    I once gave a “rogue” RS lesson about veterans’ day, and the next week was called to nursery. Bishopric claimed it was unrelated, but I still wonder.

  25. Abu Casey on December 17, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    I just taught about the priesthood-temple ban last Sunday, which felt pretty “rogue”, since the lesson doesn’t deal with the ban’s history or much of the background for the revelation. Sadly, we are WAY behind because we’ve had pretty much every kind of conference you can have recently, plus an extra regional conference. So I don’t think we’re actually going to finish the manual, which is sad, because I’d love to go rogue and do an OT introduction.

  26. Nathaniel Givens on December 17, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    I once gave a “rogue” RS lesson about veterans’ day, and the next week was called to nursery. Bishopric claimed it was unrelated, but I still wonder.

    The first time I taught GD was as a guest / substitute / temp two wards ago. I quoted Yellowcard, Pink Floyd, and Thrice. It was several years (and two moves) before I was asked to teach again.

  27. EFF on December 18, 2013 at 7:24 am

    Charlene (#24) and Nathaniel (#26), we may not have a formal theology, but we sure as heck have orthodoxy!

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