This 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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.