I’m currently a Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward — which is my absolute favorite calling in the Church — and, today, I taught a lesson on Alma 43-52.
Those are, basically, chapters about war.
I know some people who hate them. Because they’re boring. Or because they’re irrelevant to doctrine. (I know one or two people who almost seem to regard the scriptures as failed doctrinal handbooks — unfortunately not well organized like, say, Mormon Doctrine.) Some think that they’re there only because Mormon, the compiler of most of the record as we’ve received it, was a military commander for most of his life, and because he plainly admires the Nephite commander, Moroni, enormously — to the extent that he names his own son after his hero.
I don’t think these chapters are boring at all. I love them. And I’m absolutely convinced that they have a great deal to teach us.
My frustration today was that I had to deal with fully ten chapters in, at most, about forty minutes.
Years ago, when I was called to serve on the Church’s Gospel Doctrine writing committee, I told the General Authority extending the call that, candidly, I hated the Church’s Sunday school manuals and found them, personally, impossible to teach from.
“You’re just the kind of person we’re looking for!” he responded.
And, truly, I loved serving on the committee, and did so for something on the order of eight years. But I still don’t much like the Sunday school manuals.
Once, during that period, though I was actually not supposed to have any local calling, I was teaching Gospel Doctrine in my ward. (I certainly wasn’t going to complain to anybody about being overloaded, because I loved doing it; I would only have trotted my “exemption” letter out if somebody had tried to call me as, oh. say, scoutmaster.) Unbeknownst to me, the stake Sunday school president sat in on my class. Afterwards, he chided me, not quite severely but almost so, for not following the manual. “Don’t you know,” he said, “that those manuals are given to us by revelation?” I felt bad telling them that, as it happened, I was on the committee that had written the manual, and that I still didn’t like it. But I told him anyhow. I am, yes, that mean-spirited.
While I’m sure that they’re very helpful to many, I just don’t think or teach the way the Sunday school manuals do. I prefer to simply read the assigned scriptural text, pick out significant or particularly interesting passages, and discuss them.
Ideally, I would like to cover no more than one or two chapters in the time that we’re allotted. I rarely have that chance, of course. But situations like today, where we have to “cover” ten chapters or so, strain my personal method or approach to the breaking point.
Still, I have to say that, in considering Alma 43-52 today, I was deeply impressed all over again, for the umpteenth time, with the Book of Mormon. To me, even if only in terms of my background as a kind of historian, such chapters as these read persuasively as real chronicles of real people, behaving in plausible ways. As I re-read them, I found myself thinking of all sorts of historical parallels to such people as poor King Harald II, racing his weary troops from his victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge down to pivotal defeat near Hastings in 1066; to the feints and ambushes of the Muslim soldiers during the Crusades; and to modern principles of force multiplication and psychological warfare.
Rich, rich stuff. But far too little time.
And I’m convinced that the stories are enormously important. We learn at least as much from historical narratives — even more basically, from stories (including accounts of Church history and those in family journals) — as we do from abstract theological propositions. And maybe much more.
As Kathleen Flake says in her fine recent article for The Christian Century, “Mormons are not theologians or even particularly doctrinaire; they are primarily narrativists.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I love the stories we have to tell, and I love teaching them.