Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon seminary teacher responds to blogger’s 6 ideas for helping teens

Tetons 2015This post was written in response to Mette Harrison’s “Letter to My Daughter’s Seminary Teacher” from last week, with its six suggestions for ways to make seminary a more hospitable place for her teenage daughter. Read it here to understand the context of today’s response.

Note that author Doug Christensen is not Mette’s daughter’s particular seminary teacher, though he has spent a career teaching full-time in the Church Educational System. — JKR


By Doug Christensen

Dear Mette,

I have been teaching seminary full time since 1992. Like your daughter’s teacher, I have been out of high school for a long time—and yes, there is dissonance between me and “kids these days,” but not just the Mormon ones. I am not a gamer, I very rarely take pictures of myself, and I don’t snap-chat. These facts put me at variance with my students and other youth.

The seminary teacher caricatures I hear about (often in popular LDS podcasts) are only sometimes true. Teachers can be insulated, zealous, and perhaps even clueless about layers of bigotry, jingoism, xenophobia, and chauvinism that develop subtly in conservative faiths. Some are earnest, guileless believers who, if they offend people while defending the church, are quick to apologize.

Most are also thoughtful, genuine, and open in mind and heart. They are pragmatic, with a sense of humor about themselves and about church. Your daughter might have to put up with teachers who offend her sensibilities, but isn’t this true at the high school too?

There is a good chance after four years of seminary that she will be instructed by someone who gets her, who appreciates her world-wise perspective, who challenges her biases, who inspires her to be good, who helps her to find her own space inside the church and to spread love around on her terms.

As to your six suggestions:

  1. I believe everyone in the church is trying to figure out how to feel and talk about LGBT issues in our climate of politics, church policy, and loyalty to genuine Christian goodness. Seminary teachers are no different. Some of them will be defensive, some will be commendably sensitive, some will avoid the topic at all costs . . . and some will probably really blow it.
  1. Some of your daughter’s teachers will invite her to think critically about her faith and about her identity within the faith. Elder Ballard has officially welcomed more rigorous, socially aware, critically thinking teachers. As you suggest, we are officially on notice to know and teach the Gospel Topics essays, which will help. Nevertheless, the anti-intellectual element in American culture sometimes gets magnified in the church, and nowhere more than in seminary and institute. During my first 15 years I pushed constantly against the EFY seminary teacher stereotype, imposing my adult agenda onto students who were not there yet, students without my qualms. While that approach may have provided an olive branch for students like your daughter, it was unnecessary for most. Of course I remain open to controversy and I try to offer nuanced answers. I also try to give students rational reasons to choose faith over doubt and hope over skepticism.
  1. Yes, there is a chance that your daughter will have teachers who close down conversations with orthodoxy. Mikhail Bakhtin wrote “that both relativism and dogmatism equally exclude all argumentation, all authentic dialogue, making it either unnecessary (relativism) or impossible (dogmatism).” Unfortunately too many of your daughter’s college professors will kill conversation with relativism, and some of her religion instructors may do the same with dogmatism. I believe that some will see her for who she is, hearing her genuine voice and encouraging her to use it with confidence.
  1. I hear you about pressuring the youth. My stake has recently labeled a visiting initiative a “harvest.” My previous stake followed an outreach program framed as “rescuing.” These terms, probably innocent enough, gesture to language that regards people as other. How can we “preach the gospel” and “perfect the saints” without othering people? These missions are in tension with each other because it is difficult to treat people outside your faith tradition as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end.
  1. As with your first suggestion, you face an uphill battle as the church clarifies its doctrine on family in the context of the varieties of families in the broader culture. The church has a right to imagine and encourage an ideal family circumstance. Church members will usually find their actual family doesn’t measure up in one or one hundred different ways. We can hope that some of your daughter’s teachers will discuss with compassion and grace our responsibilities to all family members.
  1. I like this suggestion about reaching out to people in other religions. There is an institute course called Religions of the World, but sadly seminary teachers lack the time to include too much outside their curriculum. However, they have ample opportunity to talk about Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism (even Islam) while teaching the canon. How they discuss these other faiths is cause for concern. Some will do so with actual information and dignity, others perhaps defensively.

I share your concern for the way the gospel will be taught in seminary. At worst your daughter’s teachers might be a foil against which you generate great conversation. At best she will have some who help her want to stick around and make church a better place.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • This fellow sounds like 75% of the teachers I had in Seminary (there was the element that drove me batty, condemning people and things they did not understand, but I chocked it up to their own personalities, not the Church Itself). Encouragement and intellectual curiosity alongside spiritual growth was exactly what I needed from ages 14-18, and I am thankful to the hardworking men and women of the Seminary program who provided it to me.

  • I came out of the Seminary program in the 1970s and genuinely loved it. It was ok with me if we were #1 because it felt like it then. Hmm…well, things have changed and I believe the Lord is orchestrating our discomfort and yes, even our debates at present. It’s up to us how we channel the energy either to good or evil; restoration or destruction. It’s up to the Church (the members) to take what was actually true then, and find more while discarding false traditions of our fathers, because we aren’t special in that way. We are “chosen” to perform specific duties in the Latter-days, but do we even know what those duties and responsibilities are and can we think of them without aggrandizing ourselves. I am grateful women like Matte and Janna are now helping with our necessary debate, because with them and other mothers and sisters we will not go too far off track.

  • Very nice post. I do want to make a point about number 2 when he mentions Elder Ballard.I would like to be wrong, but I think he is giving Ballard to much credit for the comments he made recently. I seriously doubt Ballard is taking about events such as Joseph engaging in polyandry, racism as the reason for priesthood ban, anti semitism in certain apostles, errors in BOM from 1769 King James version, and so on.

  • False traditions come not only from what we once thought to be right, but also from our developing anger and contempt toward those long-standing paradigms. I see it constantly as once-content members start searching. While it may be chic and modern to find fault, there isn’t anything new about disloyalty nor with the malcontent. Our outrage from pain during our discovery will only be withstood for a while before it starts doing for us as it did for the Nephites. Charity toward one another as our only bastion of hope in these confusing latter days.

  • From Elder Ballard’s statement:

    “To name a few such topics that are less known or controversial, I’m talking about polygamy, seer stones, different accounts of the First Vision, the process of translation of the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, gender issues, race and the priesthood, or a Heavenly Mother.”

    That’s going to be pretty groundbreaking for most seminary teachers. Though to be fair, the 1769 KJV isn’t highlighted here… 😉

  • Doug – I really appreciate the civil dialog you have put forth. The comment thread on Mette’s post moved to where there was just stating “my side/argument is right” replying to “No, my side is right”. Not very fruitful.

    I hope more positive interaction comes on the thread.

  • Usually if you want to become a preacher, priest, etc. you go to seminary or sometimes divinity school. These are accredited institutions where you get a 4 year degree to prepare you for your job. Presumably, if you sign up for seminary, you’ve already decided you want to be a preacher or priest and, presumably, you are already devoted to your religious faith. (Though, of course, some may change their minds.)

    I don’t know how LDS seminary works. My impression is that students take classes there and that seminary buildings are next to schools. So it’s religious instruction, but not a 4 year degree.

    The key thing for me is that, unlike a preacher or priest, most kids attending the LDS seminary don’t already have a desire to become a preacher or priest, and some might not even be religious at all. I expect this creates a different atmosphere from what you’d have in a conventional seminary where the students don’t need convincing, so to speak.


  • I feel like this really represents what we can hope for when sending our youth off to seminary and engaging in church. Thank you very much for sharing. Sometimes, we (the crazy doubters) think that the non-crazy members are just ignoring the facts. But the truth is, but it appears to me that most of the active people in church have no desire nor have ever put in the effort to challenge controversial claims made by the church. The church is a place of peace. We should feel at peace when we worship. A steady voice such as this is an example of the leadership that we will need going forward. And of course, we will need other voices too.

  • Doug, you sound like a good teacher. I had a good teacher in seminary in the early 70’s. He taught us well but also challenged us to think and ask questions.i went to early morning seminary in Calif., so we had the same teacher for all 4 years. I don’t remember talking about seer stones, but we talked about the blacks not being able to hold the priesthood on a regular basis. And he openly admitted to not knowing why they couldn’t. He was one of the first adults I knew who freely stated that he didn’t know all the answers. As a teen, I thought that was very cool.

  • When my children were in seminary, what they really wanted was not to be bored to death. Teenagers are tired of the same old same old. I like what this teacher had to say. Going back to Elder Ballard. He said truth is not found on google in so many words when he mentioned James1:5. That is very telling, that he does not want an honest discussion over difficult topics the church struggles with. In addition, he said the youth need to have an “inocluation” I was stunned he even used that word even though it has been thrown about in blogs that is what the church wants to do.

  • This was a pleasant and well thought out response–hat tip, Brother Christensen.

    However I balk at your point about LGBT members: “I believe everyone in the church is trying to figure out how to feel and talk about LGBT issues in our climate of politics, church policy, and loyalty to genuine Christian goodness.”

    If we really had loyalty to Christian goodness (and to Christ Himself) we wouldn’t have to think very long *at all* about how to feel and talk about our LGBT brothers and sisters.

  • What a refreshing perspective that I believes coincides with the inclusive tolerant gospel of the Saviour.

    The institutional Church will become more tolerant and loving when we members become more tolerant and loving in word and in deed.

    I do not agree with the statement about the “ideal” family. The Church’s current view of the ideal family is not the same as it was in the past. And the ideal family that is preached today may not in fact be ideal in all circumstances. The very use of the word “ideal” casts as “not ideal” many of the other families, some of which are working far better than the “ideal” ones. What is ideal to some may not be ideal to others.

    The Proclamation on the Family is not scripture and is very thin on scriptural support for some of its propositions.

    If the Church leaders came from a more diverse background, they might start to separate cultural preferences common to the current leadership from principles that are firmly grounded in…

  • In Mormonism, even LDS Mormonism, “doctrine” is the Standard works. For the LDS branch of our faith, this includes the Articles of Faith and the two Official Declarations. The LDS branch makes it VERY clear on their website that unless voted on by members, neither policy nor conference talks are doctrine. In the LDS faith, orthodoxy would be ultra-orthodoxy in other faiths, as they see policy as doctrine. Policy should be discussed so that it can match doctrine. One thing I love about the Fellowship, a more liberal branch of Mormonism, is that revelation can come from the Relief Society President as well as the First Elder (President of the Church), as both are a part of the first presidency, and we actually receive revelation. I truly feel sorry for my LDS brothers and sisters. They are lead by men with the same keys we have, yet they will not use them and thus are struggling in the dark to make man-made policies rather than finding God’s will.

  • The Church of Jesus Christ in Christian Fellowship, I will note that on one of the last few talks that Elder Packer talked about the family proclamation as “scripture” and the transcribed copy of the talk adjusted that where it was not calling the proclamation scripture.

    The more I have studied the fuzzier I find the difference between doctrine, teachings, beliefs, policies, culture, etc.

  • I appreciate your response. The only qualm I have is with your use of the word relativism. Relativism is the recognition that morality and ethics are cultural constructions and can therefore differ between groups and societies. This doesn’t mean that a relativist must accept all ideas as valid thus shutting down conversation. It means that all moral and ethical systems must be argued and reasonably justified, and even then, doesn’t require acceptance. This is the opposite of a conversation or thought stopping. What you describe is more akin to the rise of “regressive liberalism” which stops speech through the use of shaming, safe zones, and trigger words. I’ve become sensitive to this because LDS culture consistently uses the word “relativism” to mean “anything goes”, and that’s not what it means. A person who actually holds the philosophy of “anything goes” isn’t a relativist, they are amoral, holding no moral system at all.

  • Good insight Matt. I think we agree with each other but your refining of relativism is helpful. I was certainly using relativism in reference to Bakhtin’s succinct binary without providing the context for his utterance (unfair to him). As I understand it, his a-prioris for ethical dialogue require context, time, and open ended creativity (surprise of the other(‘s ideas). In context of my response to Hette’s concerns about dialogic religion classes, (opposing monological ones) can we pit dogmatism–fixed laws for any and all contexts, i.e. the essentialized self, against culturally constructed self–taken to its logical extreme, which may amount to an amorality or regressive liberalism? I think Bakhtin sees “moral and ethical systems argued and reasonably justified” developing into what he refers to as relative skepticism because they are systems, or language divorced of sufficient context, time, and anticipation of the other. Thanks–
    See Bakhtin, Genres, and Temporality, Morson

  • Now that’s what I call dazzling ’em with science! 🙂

    P.S. I didn’t understand a word of it.

  • Come on, that’s not necessary. I know that you can communicate more clearly than that. I’m not attacking your credibility, just questioning your use of the word relativism. A relativistic perspective is not a moral system, but a description of what moral systems are and where they come from. You could say that a system like stoicism is a morality created apriori, but not something more general like western morality, eastern morality, or tribal morality. These more general terms for moral systems are absolutely rooted in culture, language, place, and practice. They each consider themselves absolute, but when we step back and study them, especially within a classroom setting where they are compared, a relativistic approach is completely appropriate. It treats a culture’s norms and mores with dignity and respect, as opposed to elevating one as the only true moral system while the others are something less than. The act of comparing these systems on equal footing encourages discussion.

  • Elder, from what all have read about LDS Seminary, it is perhaps most like the Confirmation/ Catechism classes that most other Christian denominations offer. I dont’ know what the ending ceremony/process is, but instead of two years, during 7th and 8th grades, LDS seminary is during the high school years. Whereas Confirmation or Catechism classes prepare youth to publicly affirm their faith, and reaffirm their baptism, can someone in the LDS world let us know what the conclusion/goal of LDS seminary program is?

    Seminary in the Catholic, and Mainline Churches, is a post bachelor’s degree program, after 4 years of College. It is either 3-4 years of full time education and a year of internship in a parish setting. Upon completion of Seminary, students are eligible for ordination in their denomination as full time clergy. It awards the MDiv Degree (Master of divinity), In this, the LDS and other churches have different ages involved and different goals in the term seminary.

  • Mikhail Bahktin is a Russion Orthodox Philosopher, one of the more accessible introductions to Orthodox thought for westerners, esp. college students being introduced to Orthodoxy. (in my case, I’m not sure it took so well, but I still have my books of his….)

    Pr Chris

  • LDS Seminary is basically a deeper study of the scriptures than a traditional church Sunday school. It is prepare to become preachers/priests.

  • @Matt
    Maybe like the code of the samurai… absolute loyalty to a master and hara kiri if you fail. It seems crazy to us now, but we can discuss how and why the code evolved and was necessary in its time and place.

  • Matt,
    You are right I was not communicating clearly in that post. Let me start again: my use of the Bakhtin quotation was to try to suggest that dogmatism represents a universal without accounting for particulars and that relativism represents the particulars with little use for a universal explanation. The goal of reasoned discourse meets somewhere in the middle where we acknowledge the unforced force of the better argument (or the most practical outcome in a given context).

    I have always liked the description of fallibalism as a philosophy where one holds beliefs strongly, but chief among those beliefs is the belief that I might be wrong. Does that map onto your account of relativism?

    @Elder Anderson you have cracked me up more than once

  • Yep. I suppose my main thought that a Mormon child entering seminary would not necessarily be commited to the Mormon faith. I mentioned a Catholic seminary only by way of contrast.

    I am not sure whether all Mormon kids are expected to go. I expect, since the seminaries are located next to schools, there would be substantial peer pressure to attend.

    Therefore, I’d expect the majority of kids to have little, if any, real commitment to their faith and lots of critical questions. I know I was a real smart aleck at that age and asked all kinds of tough questions. My dad was my Sunday school teacher, so, unlike seminary teachers, he could tell me to put my hand down and shut up. 🙂