A friend asked me about teaching youth about scripture study recently. I happened to have some notes I’d collected, so I wrote it up here. These are things I think LDS adults should know and model to the youth. I’ve grouped them under three logical, progressive headings. Now, I think the Church does a great job getting us to read scripture, and to apply scripture in spiritual and practical ways, but not always how to understand or interpret scripture very well.
Do not misunderstand me, what I propose below in these three headings is not some arcane Master’s Degree in Advanced Trivia, but a basic approach to trying to understand what scripture meant to those who wrote it and those who heard it.
First, learn how to ask good questions
- John Welch talks about this in “Towards Becoming a Gospel Scholar” reposted by permission here and in .doc format here. (That’s a BYUI link, and I haven’t checked the text.)
- Eric Huntsman has an entire article about it, “Teaching Through Exegesis: Helping Students Ask Questions of the Text,” in Religious Educator 6:1 (2005).
- James Faulconer’s book, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions has a section just on Asking Questions. (Amazon link for paperback.)
- Faulconer has also written several books just full of good study questions. This is the Made Harder series, e.g. The Book of Mormon Made Harder. These are wonderful. Don’t be put off by the title; these are “harder” because they’re genuinely thoughtful and thought-provoking questions which don’t necessarily have easy or obvious answers.
- Julie Smith has a similar book just on the gospels, Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels.
- As a historian, whenever a topic comes up, my questions are nearly always variants of “How do we know that? What are the sources it is based on? How has this been approached in the past?”
Second, learn how to research and evaluate potential answers to those questions
- Look to context!
- See my Sperry Symposium paper here, and Huntsman’s article above.
- Recently, Elder Ballard made a statement about questions, answers, and expertise. (My italicized emphases)
it is important to remember that I am a General Authority, but that does not make me an authority in general! My calling and life experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in a specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions: I seek help from others, including those with degrees and expertise in such fields. I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers—expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite others to come unto Christ—not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions we may have about scriptures, history, and the Church. Our primary duty is to build up the Church, teach the doctrine of Christ, and help those in need of help…. If you have a question that requires an expert, please take the time to find a thoughtful and qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.
- So, where do you find these experts that Elder Ballard might himself seek, beyond the BYU campuses? The Church recently published a list of resources which are approved (but not necesssarily endorsed, depending on the resource) for usage in Seminary and Institute. It’s an interesting list, and I see the Church here trying to expand the average Mormon’s repertoire of “approved” or “safe” sources. (Notably, these sources sometimes disagree with each other, in form, style, and sometimes content and conclusions.) The list includes things like
- The Gospel Topics Essays
- BYU Studies
- The Maxwell Institute
- Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language
- Religious Educator
- Book of Mormon Central
- Studies in Mormon History
- The Interpreter
- Now, for many Mormons those sources may not be sufficient when it comes to studying the Bible. If that’s the case, I suggest you find a Mormon scholar who is trustworthy and respected, and look at their footnotes, the non-LDS sources they use. I have, of course, listed many of these for the Old Testament (four posts, scroll down) and New Testament (three posts, linked from first one), especially introductory books and mainstream reference works. I also discuss a number of them in my Sperry piece above, and the follow-up online. Welch’s article above also has some suggestions about how to find good authors, publishers, and books.
- Once you’re reading, you have to be evaluating what you read, even if they are LDS sources; This can be particularly difficult if you’re new to what you’re reading. Here are some suggestive questions to think about in evaluating. Now, none of these questions is any kind of absolutist litmus test, but they’re good questions to think about.
- Is the author writing in their field of expertise? What are their credentials? (Amateurs and non-specialists can do good work, but they’re more likely to make common mistakes than specialists.) What kind of sources do they cite? Do their arguments make sense? What do LDS experts think about their work in general or specific? Are there LDS reviews of the book or author in question? (The Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies, FAIR, and the Interpreter all do book reviews and book notes.)
- Similarly, I suggest an introduction to critical thinking from criticalthinking.org, Universal Intellectual Standards and A Checklist for Reasoning in one pdf here. (See my background for using these here.)
Third, learn how to retain your thoughts, questions, and answers for future growth
- Take notes
- I wrote a three-part post on note-taking way back but you can read an improved draft of it turned into a book chapter here.
- If you’re talking to youth, I suggest using the LDS app to take notes, because when you get a tablet or smartphone on your mission, all your notes will be there when you log in.
- Me, on Faulconer, Sorenson, Welch, and Others on Scripture Study and Teaching
- Critical Scholarship and Faith at BYU
- Julie Smith, How to Teach a Scripture Passage
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