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

Race? Seer stones? Polygamy? Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard says the church's seminary teachers should address controversies openly to "inoculate" students.

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.