Mormon apostle urges teachers to address controversial topics like polygamy and seer stones in class

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I have some cool news to share. But first . . .

Elder Bednar’s comments on homosexual members of the LDS Church have gotten a good deal of attention this week, almost all of it negative. I’m not going to add to that here because everything I would have said has already been discussed very well by others:

  • Hemant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist” blogger, pointed out here that Raw Story unfairly misconstrued Elder Bednar’s comments. Hemant doesn’t agree with the church’s position on LGBT persons and neither do I, but it’s unfair to put words into Elder Bednar’s mouth, or compare him to former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
  • Boyd Petersen gives a hopeful and charitable reading of Elder Bednar’s comments here.
  • And Judy Dushku, writing before this whole fracas occurred, offers what I see as prescient thoughts here about Mormons’ changing relations with LDS church leaders. Since “the policy” in November, there has been an erosion of trust as increasing numbers of rank-and-file church members no longer default to the position that the prophet is always right. Many, in fact, are suspicious and bracing themselves for further pain—which may explain why it was so easy to believe that Elder Bednar was flat-out denying the very existence of gay Mormons.

One sad consequence of this week’s focus on Elder Bednar’s remarks was that almost all of us missed something else a general authority said that was of good report.

M Russell BallardLast Friday, Elder M. Russell Ballard, speaking to church educators, laid out a new paradigm for teaching Mormon youth. (A video is available here; Elder Ballard’s comments begin around the 25-minute mark.)

He celebrated the accomplishments of the first hundred years of the Church Educational System, but added, “I’m more interested in the next one hundred years.” Teaching is a whole different ball game now, he suggested:

Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and the teacher responded, “Don’t worry about it.”

Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.

Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the church. . . .

Hearing a teacher’s true testimony is important, “but it may not always be enough” to persuade students in the Internet age. And our existing curriculum is not going to cut it:

It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine, and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the Church. Few students came in contact with alternative interpretations. Mostly our young people lived a sheltered life. Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today, a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the church from every possible point of view.

To meet these challenges, he announced a new initiative for high school seminary students: “Doctrinal Mastery.”

Based on the model students use for “Scripture Mastery” (see here), the new effort will “focus on building and strengthening our students’ faith in Jesus Christ and fortifying them with increased ability to live and apply the gospel in their lives,” he said. While he didn’t go into details, he said it would teach students “how to apply the doctrines and gospel principles to the questions and challenges they hear and see every day among their peers and on social media.”

Elder Ballard encouraged teachers to continue to bear “pure testimony” to their students, but to augment that foundation with further study “from the best books, as the Lord directed. The best books include the scriptures, the teaching of modern prophets, the apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available.”

Wise people seek out experts, he told the teachers, whether they’re consulting a physician for help with a bodily ailment or a scholar “with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help” with questions about the church’s beliefs or history.

“You should be among the first outside your students’ families to introduce authoritative sources on topics that will be less well-known or controversial,” he urged the teachers.

Then he got quite specific.

To name a few such topics that are less known or controversial, I’m talking about polygamy. Of seer stones. Different accounts of the First Vision. The process of translation of the Book of Mormon. Of the Book of Abraham. Gender issues. Race and the priesthood. Or a Heavenly Mother.

The efforts to inoculate our young people will often fall to you CES teachers. With those thoughts in mind, find time to think about your opportunities and your responsibilities.

He highlighted the church’s eleven Gospel Topics essays as sources that provide “balanced and reliable interpretations of the facts” about these topics.

“It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand,” he said. (I was cheering at this directive.)

Elder Ballard said teachers should not shame students for having sincere and difficult questions. “It is often the ‘why’ questions that lead to inspiration and revelation,” he pointed out.

And they should also not overreach their knowledge and authority by faking certainty about questions they haven’t studied in depth:

It is perfectly all right to say, “I do not know.” However, once that is said, you have the responsibility to find the best answers to the thoughtful questions your students ask.

In teaching your students and in responding to their questions, let me warn you not to pass along faith-promoting or unsubstantiated rumors, or outdated understandings and explanations of our doctrine and practices from the past.

I think this is great news. I’ll look forward to seeing this new “Doctrinal Mastery” program in action.


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  • So I wonder if folk will still be in danger of disciplinary council if they ask a bunch of questions like the fellow who wrote “Letter to a CES Director?”

  • Good question, John. I certainly hope not. There should never be a price to pay when people raise questions or doubts about the church. We need to talk about them, not try to hide them away or punish those who ask them.

  • Ricardo

    “Elder Ballard encouraged teachers to continue to bear ‘pure testimony’ to their students, but to augment that foundation with further study ‘from the best books, as the Lord directed. The best books include the scriptures, the teaching of modern prophets, the apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available.’”

    As long as the brethren limit the definition of “best books” to solely LDS scholarship, LDS apostles, and LDS teachings, this too will fail.

    To address the critical issues Elder Ballard lists begs for rethinking what defines current truth. It is nothing short of arrogance to suggest that LDS leadership, LDS scholars, or the LDS church has a monopoly on the truth regarding even these issues.

    The LDS church needs to learn to admit it has been and is wrong about some historical things and some doctrinal things. And, contrary to Dallin Oaks’ assertion (“The Church doesn’t seek apologies and we don’t give them”) the church needs to learn to apologize when…

  • Larry J

    I was one of the obedient members, who did as I was told by LDS Church leaders. If I had been given “permission” to question in this manner and if Mormon leaders had been given “permission” answer my questions honestly, I would have discovered reality and disassociated myself from the church in my 20s, rather than my 60’s. I suspect that, if implemented broadly, Ballard’s idea of more openness and honesty from church teachers and leaders will reduce the growth and size of the church dramatically. When approached with rational, objective scrutiny, LDS Church history and doctrine will be rejected openly by almost everyone.

  • Elder Anderson

    I listened to Elder Bednar’s comments and read Mehta’s comments. My conclusion is that, if you are going to hold yourself out as a General Authority, Apostle, Prophet, Seer, Revelator, etc. then it’s a good idea not to say stupid or inflammatory things.

    Regardless of Bednar’s intent, he ought to have known better. It’s (simplistically) similar to holding yourself out as an “expert” in a commercial sense, as discussed here: http://www.americanbar.org/newsletter/publications/youraba/201303article11.html
    Whenever a Church authority says something boneheaded, it damages the Church’s credibility and makes any future statements suspect.

    As to Bednar’s comments on teaching controversial subjects, I think this is a positive move. However, given Bednar’s previous record, I can’t help but be suspicious. Somebody above mentioned Jeremy Runnell’s CES Leffer kerfuffel. He’s asking the same questions. Is his court of love cancelled now?

  • Josh Smith

    I’ve parted with the LDS faith, but I like to think of myself as a gentle disbeliever. My children and my wife still participate in church, and I hope to maintain a positive relationship with the faith.

    That being said, I have some serious misgivings about the idea of “inoculation.” My concern is that “inoculation” is another way to say “rationalization” or “justification.” I’m worried that my teenage daughters will be sitting in a seminary class hearing how Joseph Smith was commanded by God to marry a 14-year old girl. In other words, “inoculation” means that seminary teachers will be explicitly teaching my children that God commands grown men who are married to dozens of other women to marry girls my daughters’ ages. That type of “inoculation” offends my conscience.

    The more I think about it, the more I seriously doubt that a male-dominant culture like Mormonism should be trusted to teach teenage Mormon girls about polygamy. Am I the only one who thinks that’s…

  • hoffbegone

    I’ve never heard of members being in danger of a disciplinary council for asking questions. I know of people who have been to a disciplinary council and their side of the story is because they asked questions but in reality there is always more than one side.

    For example, there is “asking questions” for the purpose of learning and then there is “asking questions” to be antagonistic. I ask questions to learn and that opens up a lot of inspirational and revelational experiences.

  • Larry J

    I absolutely agree on your wording and opinion on “inoculation”. Ballard’s use of that word in this context confirmed to me that this so-called openness appears to be another layer of manipulation.

  • Laura

    Thank you, hoffbegone. We need to bear in mind that when we only hear one side of the story, we are getting a very skewed perspective. I guarantee there was more to that disciplinary council than just “asking questions.” But, as the church does not publicly discuss these things, we are only ever going to hear the one side. All of that needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Or maybe several.

  • Rachel

    So hopeful. Thanks for this recap/commentary.

  • Eric Facer

    I have always felt the “inoculation” metaphor inappropriate. Is reading an essay on LDS.org really going to “immunize” me from the inconvenient truths about the church’s history and the messy evolution of its doctrine? Is the “vaccine” we are administering simply a watered down version of the whole truth? And do vaccines work on those already infected?

    A more apt analogy is, perhaps, the Rocky Mountains.

    The early saints thought the Wasatch Front would protect them from their enemies, primarily the U.S. Government. But those mountains have gaps (valleys) that made penetration relatively easy.

    The Correlation Program, however, perpetuated the mountain metaphor by attempting to strictly regulate what members are permitted to read and discouraging them from expressing contrary opinions. Regrettably, that effort was more successful than the first—it took the Internet to change the church’s mindset.

    Barriers still remain and the process of dismantling them will take…

  • Mike

    As I see it, the church is being more open because as Elder Ballard admitted, they have to be. As I see it, the church is not so much interested in good answers but as others pointed out here, in “inoculation”. That implies there are no good answers for many of these questions and the brethren know that. Members will be encouraged to seek “faith promoting sources” for answers. Truth will stay beyond the reach of the church until they realize they have to admit things and give up some power.

  • Elder Anderson

    @hoffbegone, @laura

    There’s no need to speculate about “the other side of the story” or the nature of the questions. All of the questions are published in the letter, and the entire story is available on Mr. Runnell’s website, including communications from the LDS Church. There’s no mystery at all.

    And, since you bring it up, what’s the wrong way to ask a question? What exactly makes an “antagonistic question” versus a “learning question” anyway? I keep hearing this, but regardless of the reason for the question, why not just answer it honestly?

    Please give some examples of questions that you think should *not* be asked and explain why. Also, give some examples of questions Mr. Runnells has asked that you feel are not “learning” questions.

  • Lewis McCorvey

    I laugh now when i was told by my mission president back in 1977 to buy the book Story Of The Latter Day Saints , wrote under the direction of the big 15 by two church called BYU faulty .

    On page 602 it reads ” since the early days of the church blacks never held the priesthood ”

    In 2011 i found out about Elijah Abel , not in church material and i will just say I learned more about the churches history in 4 years than I did in 36 years .

    I am grateful for the journey in and OUT of the Mormon mental steel trap church .

  • Porter

    It saddens me that there have been so many negative reports of talks and statements made by general authorities recently, particularly with respect to their remarks about LGBTs. But it saddens me even more that the criticism is totally well founded. I wish they would focus on messages of love and compassion and leave the social issues (and the Utah legislature) alone, but I fear they cannot help themselves.

  • Porter

    If you haven’t heard of people being disciplined for asking questions then you haven’t been paying attention.

  • Porter

    The sad reality is that the internet and social media are literally forcing the church to come clean on these issues. If it wasn’t for those things I’m pretty sure they would not be publishing essays or teaching these things in seminary. The 20-somethings are leaving the church in droves overt these issues, and for many of them its not the issues themselves – its the feeling that they have been deceived by the church.

  • James

    It seems as if the church leaders are stumbling reluctantly, and in fits and starts, towards an,openness that is being forced upon them by the Information Age. Admitting, however guardedly, that they have engaged in hiding of and from the truth must be done slowly, carefully; they cannot turn on all the lights at once or they will lose all semblance of authority with the membership. That members are more openly challenging their pronouncements indicates that the process has a life of its own and the leaders will be hard pressed to control it. Reminds me of the “Perestroika” or openness initated by Gorbachev at the end of the Soviet era. It didn’t happen by his choice, it was forced upon him, and did nothing to slow the fall of the authoritarian communist state. Parallels.

  • Elder Anderson: How about loaded questions being the wrong way to ask a question. Wikipedia will help clarify that for you. Straight up answering a loaded question makes you the “bad guy” because of the load: whether or not you are the “bad guy.”

  • jeremy gibbons

    No, you’re safe to ask any questions, as long as you use an alias.

    I got negative feedback from this question I asked recently -“If Joseph Smith were alive today, he would be on the National Sex Offender watch list. Having said that, if the 37 year old prophet asked to have your 14 year old child as one of his brides, which song would best fit the mood, “Praise to the Man” or “Follow the Prophet”?- I was told this is snarky. I don’t think it’s snarky. A little irreverent maybe, but how can a guy type with his arms folded?

    All and all, church hierarchy has no problem answering tough questions. Like with the unanswered “Letter to a CES Director”, it might just take them a long time to get back to you. So be patient. Really patient.

  • Elder Anderson

    @dean
    Everybody understands what a loaded question is, but the original poster said “antagonistic” versus “learning”. Please give some examples of questions about the LDS Church that should not be asked because they are “antagonistic” or “loaded”. Do you consider any of Runnells’s questions “antagonistic” or “loaded”? If so, which questions? Please show for your examples how answering truthfully makes you a “bad guy”.

  • Emily

    I actually share your concern regarding polygamy. In all honesty, I was hoping they would “disavow” using your ecclesiastical authority to coerce girls into marriage and plural marriage as a whole. As it reads, priesthood holders are sometimes commanded by God to do this. Adding to the problem is a complete lack of any current leaders addressing it formally. I honestly couldn’t tell you if plural marriage or polygamy is doctrine. Currently D&C 132 is still scripture and my understanding is temple policy reinforces the idea of eternal plural marriage. Unfortunately I only see it addressed officially in two places, the policy in the handbook (which women don’t have access to) and buried in the Nauvoo Polygamy essay which hasn’t been discussed at all in my ward. I thought it was fascinating that the church developed an entire year of study on the family and didn’t really address it at all. I sincerely feel that if it is doctrine, it should be included in our lessons and general…

  • Beth

    The youth don’t need inoculation on things like polygamy. They don’t need to hear testimony from a trusted seminary teacher that sometimes a church leader will come to you coercively and tell you that they have received revelation on your behalf, taking away your free agency, and you will do what they say.

  • Joshua Smith

    Exactly. “Inoculation” looks like it’s using the teacher-student relationship and resurrecting a morally reprehensible practice.

    #notmeormyhouse

  • Joshua Smith

    “Disavow” is what I’ll be teaching my children. I intend to tell them that the Warren Jeffs of the world are dead wrong. Religion should never be used to coerce and manipulate.

    I’m going to teach my children that feelings of repulsion and anger for abuse are natural and that those feelings are given to them to help protect them from those situations. There’s no way I’m going to “inoculate” my kids or soften their repulsion against abuse, regardless of the abuser’s claims about God.

  • Scheherazade

    Using the term “inoculation” to describe the function of the Gospel Topics essays is revealing. It assumes that the primary reason people leave the church is a sense that they were deceived about church history while they were in their formative years, and feel betrayed when they discover the truth, and lose confidence in the church as a result.

    While this scenario has happened frequently (especially for Gen X Latter-day Saints who came of age during the birth of the Internet), and telling the truth about church history from the beginning may prevent the anger that comes from having been deliberately deceived, it will not prevent disaffiliation because it doesn’t change the facts. Indeed, being honest about church history may result in disaffiliation at earlier ages.

    It is the disturbing facts of LDS history that drives people from the church, not just that they were lied to about the facts.

  • Larry J

    Key Red Flag to seekers of truth as the examine the truth claims of the LDS Church: “Adding to the problem is a complete lack of any current leaders addressing it formally”. The modern Mormon church leaders do not provide answers to problems of history and doctrine. Tortured attempts at answers come from unofficial propagandists with advanced degrees in mental gymnastics. Remember, the so-called witnesses of the Book of Mormon did not actually sign their own witness signatures. Following form, the modern so called prophets, seers and regulators will not sign their names to verifiable, honest answers to member’s inconvenient questions. For example, find ONE Apostle who will give a comprehensive, detailed, public explanation, on the record about how the LDS church now concludes that Emma’s housemaid, 16 year old Fanny Alger was Joseph Smith’s first plural wife. Aint gonna happen.

  • John Lambert

    If you disagree with the Church’s position, especially on family related issues, than you should leave.

  • Memba

    It is refreshing to have an apostle move in this direction. It is probably the first time one of them has publicly acknowledged and encouraged the reading and teaching of the “essays” and using the best Mormon scholarship (which may not be by Mormon scholars).

    I also agree that the most disturbing thing to many who have learned about hard-to-explain historical facts is that they feel betrayed by the highest leaders of the church. And then, they no longer trust them. I have many friends who love their wards and local leaders, but have a deep distrust of the big corporate church. They feel like the GA level of the church and the bureaucracy, including the PR department, are often disingenuous and even downright deceptive. As stated above, “inoculation” sounds like more of the same. Let’s spin the facts to make them less damaging. But the “spinning” is what has caused the problem in the first place.

  • Elder Anderson

    Or you can just stick around until the Church changes or is forced to change. You can also ignore what you consider morally repugnant and focus on aspects you find acceptable. Worship as you see fit, and continue to lobby for change. In short, do what keeps you and your family happy and spiritually fulfilled. That’s what matters.

    “Love one another.” -Jesus

    “All you need is love.” -Beatles

  • Doug B.

    I’m glad the church is moving away from BKP’s anti-intellectual attitude. The kids need to read non-biased sources. LDS historians should be suspect since they have lots to lose. Their jobs (if they work for BYU), their friends, and maybe their families. The problem with Uchdorf’s talk is that he seems to feel that equal treatment should be given to conclusions made by both sides of an issue.

    For example–“Teach the Controversy”–the idea that evolution by natural selection and creationism both have strong and weak points. Read them both, and then side with your church.

    Reading science and history from non-BYU scientists and historians will show people that the church is not true. The LDS leaders are stuck because the church founders have been exposed quite inconveniently by historians and broadcasted on the internet.

    If you read peer-reviewed stuff from investigators with nothing to lose either way, you’ll find the BoM, BoA, JS, are all chicanery.

  • Doug B.

    I completely agree. So many educated Mormons don’t really know the facts. They have heard of the ideas a little, so they don’t feel they need to keep reading, for example, Under the Banner of Heaven.

    “Oh yeah. I know about that. We read a couple of chapters in class”. That’s what a BYU grad (majored in philosophy! How they can have philosophy at BYU seems like having wine tasting at a mosque). Well, the teacher chooses a couple of benign chapters, then the student can say she has “read” the book and her faith was not shaken.

    But she didn’t read the book. She was inoculated against non-LDS data and conclusions. This approach won’t work. If people take Dieter at his word and read Simon Southerton, Jerry Coyne, or any scientist, they’ll continue to leave the church as fast as they currently are leaving. That’s why they’re re-structuring. Scrambling to keep the tithing flowing into SLC. It won’t work.

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  • 1 of Dixie’s daughters

    I guess I was inoculated to protect me from a disease of misunderstanding. I trust God knows all, & will deal with our choices as He sees fit. I don’t need perfection in people. I can relish the experiences I have that teach me who to listen to & learn from. So far, Joseph, Brigham, and their successors are approved sufficiently. Not perfect, but designated as spokesmen. I can live with that.

  • Beth
  • ljensen

    That’s exactly my mindset for 60 years. Then, the pure weight of the flaws and errors made by Joseph, Brigham and their successors was too much for my soul to bear. Once I allowed myself to honestly and objectively (and prayerfully) examine the facts, it became perfectly clear I had been demonstrably, dead wrong about the authenticity of my church. At that point it became insufficient to just pretend not to see truth.

  • Ricardo

    Porter,

    They could easily “help themselves” and practice openness. But that would require the courage to admit they have been wrong about things and to apologize. That will never happen.

  • Beth

    I think I see how this goes. Kid learns something from essay in seminary and talks about it outside of seminary. Parents can’t find essays easily on lds.org and when they do see that they are unsourced, unauthored and don’t have an official endorsement from the Q15 on them. Kid is told that until that happens a press release is not sufficient endorsement and this is anti material. Option 2. Kid asks Sunday school teacher if Joseph Smith was sealed to other women before Emma Smith and is immediately called into Bishops office and is told that Bishop has heard of essays but has no intention of reading them. Kid is told to pray about something that can be verified by factual information and to not ever bring it up again publicly as it is not faith promoting. Sunday school teacher hasn’t read the essays either. Seminary teacher and lds.org is only source and kid wants outside confirmation so they open up Google because adults are not strong enough in their testimony.

  • Elder Anderson

    Not long ago, before this directive, an LDS teacher, Brian Dawson, was dismissed for referencing the race essay in class. His Bishop felt the information was “too much” for the teenage kids.

    http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle/faith/2475803-155/mormon-bishop-dismisses-teacher-for-using

    I have a feeling this directive exists so the LDS Church can say “see, we even teach these controversial topics in Sunday school”. But, in reality, no teacher will dare do it and risk being dismissed, reprimanded, or reported by a parent of one of the students.

  • “Wise people seek out experts, he told the teachers, whether they’re consulting a physician for help with a bodily ailment or a scholar “with appropriate academic training, experience, and expertise for help” with questions about the church’s beliefs or history.”

    Or the students can do their own research. I remember a few years ago a friend of mine telling me how important it is for a person to take charge of their own medical needs, and not leave it solely in the hands of a doctor. It is also important for a person to take charge of their own spiritual destiny, investigating to make sure they are being told the truth.

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  • Sheryl

    It’s a little confusing that the Tribune used the word “dismissed” in this story. That sounds like the Sunday School teacher lost his job, but in fact, Sunday School teachers aren’t paid. Obviously feelings can be hurt over differences of opinion, but no one’s livelihood is at stake here.

    Given the challenges of finding teachers who are willing to work with the youth without pay, I imagine quite a few teachers will feel secure enough to run their classes exactly as they see fit.

  • Elder Anderson

    I wasn’t confused. I took it as “dismissed” from his post as a teacher or “released from his calling”. You sometimes hear “dismissed” from a paid job, but if the Trib had meant that they’d have said “fired”. I think they used dismissed because “released” would confuse non-Mormons.

    I doubt teachers are worried about “job security” for a voluntary post. I think they are worried about loss of standing and prestige within the church, loss of opportunities for future callings, etc. if they are accused–rightly or wrongly–of teaching unapproved information to kids.

    Thus, as I said, most teachers will likely play it safe and avoid controversy, rather than actually address difficult questions. I doubt teachers will be as forthright in class as they’d like to be.

    I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out. It will be interesting to see if there’s any fallout in the next few months.

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  • Steve Warren

    I, too, was an obedient member who felt it was bad to question. Although I now believe much of what prophets have taught and do teach is incorrect, I would like to recommend that you check out my essays “Falling short, staying out” and “Obedience gone awry” at ldsplace.blogspot.com It’s a place where believing and questioning hang out together.