I Really Do Love the Book of Mormon

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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  • http://bethandherspinrad.blogspot.com Beth

    I wish you were the Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward! Generally, I have never particularly liked that class. I have been known to volunteer to sub in the nursery on purpose in order to get out of it gracefully.

    • danpeterson

      Beth:

      Thanks. I have such fun with Gospel Doctrine, but, I have to admit, I’ve sat through some really awful lessons during my life.

      We’re a church of lay men and lay women, amateurs, and that has a lot of strengths but . . . well, sometimes some weaknesses, too. (Not that all professionals are any good, either.)

  • Karen Lyons

    Some people are great Gospel Doctrine teachers, some are just….not. Sounds like you are one of the best! Thanks for sharing your feelings about this calling and dealing with the resources you helped create!

    • danpeterson

      You’re very kind. I hope I’m not TOO bad, at least. But I do love the calling.

  • http://www.mormonbaseball.com Kent Larsen

    I personally would love it, Dan, if you would explain why the manuals are the way that they are. Is it truly just a matter of providing what the lowest common denominator needs?

    • danpeterson

      That’s a large part of it, I think. But I don’t think that they do that so very well in all cases, either. I remember, once, when we were working on an Old Testament manual and some of us wanted to put in some very, very basic historical-background information that, we thought, would help the students and the teachers make sense of things. We were told by one of the bureaucrats in Salt Lake — not a General Authority — that we were trying to show off, to strut how much we knew. But we were entirely ANONYMOUS! Nobody out there knows who writes these manuals! I thought the objection completely silly. But we weren’t allowed to provide any historical information.

      I shouldn’t say that the manuals are completely without value. They sometimes suggest very good questions, for example, and — I don’t mean this to come across as arrogant or elitist, though it probably will — they especially help inexperienced teachers and weak students of the scriptures to navigate occasionally quite difficult texts. And some people like them, and can teach from them. I can’t, though. My mind just works differently.

      • http://mormon.org Tracy Hall Jr

        You would have loved how our ward mission leader applied scripture during priesthood meeting as we prepared for our ward mission day last Saturday in Klagenfurt, Austria. Ten members agreed to go on “splits” (some could only go morning or afternoon) with eight full-time missionaries who would come here from throughout the district. He asked the bishop to ask the Lord where we should go, and the day was a great success.

        Can you guess which scripture he used? Yes, Alma 43:23, http://bit.ly/PTNh9f, where Captain Moroni asked Alma to “inquire of the Lord whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves against the Lamanites!”

        • danpeterson

          That’s wonderful!

  • http://www.TempleStudy.com Bryce Haymond

    You mean-spirited person you! It’s interesting that you should mention the manuals. Just a couple days ago I too was chided for believing that the Temple Preparation manual was perhaps insufficient or inadequate to prepare members for their first visit to the temple, and that it might be better based upon my past experiences teaching the course. Indeed, it was suggested that I may be going apostate and leading others astray. Unfortunately there seems to be this belief that the manuals are revealed canon, and that nothing may be “added to or taken away from” them:
    http://www.templestudy.com/2012/08/07/reflections-temple-discussion/comment-page-1/#comment-7286

    I perceive that the manuals should be followed, particularly when teaching from the Teachings of Presidents of the Church, but there is more that can be added, and the material can be adjusted, particularly when impressed upon by the Spirit.

  • danpeterson

    I’ve long thought that the Temple Preparation manual was especially inadequate. I realize that we can’t talk with full openness about the temple outside of its walls, but I think we could do a much better job preparing people to receive their endowment than we currently do.

  • http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com Gerald Smith

    Maybe what we need is to have some independent people offer up sample lessons for correlation to consider replacing the current lessons with.
    My view is, if the people are beginners, place them in the Investigator’s class for a year to learn the basics of the gospel. Then let them actually learn more than what is offered in the manuals now. The manuals are like skimming rocks across an ocean, when we should be diving deep into its waters on occasion to explore what is really below the surface.
    I think part of the problem is correlation may be too correlated. They worry about the lowest common denominator, rather than teaching the doctrines in a way that inspire and excite the members about the gospel. Elder Holland noted at a stake meeting I was in years ago that we need to set our pulpits afire as our pioneer ancestors once did. In his talk, “a Teacher Called of God” he said that if we teach in such a way, the new converts will not be kept away from coming. I can tell you, if we follow the correlated teaching manuals, there won’t be hardly a spark to heat the room with.
    I personally am afraid that we allow such poorly written manuals to damn much of the membership to never really know the doctrines of the Church, except on a casual basis.

    • danpeterson

      I can’t say I really disagree. Church is too often boring these days, and it absolutely shouldn’t be. The Gospel is thrilling.

      We were often told, on our committee, never to forget the Bolivian peasant. And I couldn’t agree more. But I sometimes wondered if, in remembering the Bolivian peasant, we’re not forgetting the California engineer and the Boston neurosurgeon, and, for that matter, just the well-read, reflective, average member.

  • Michael Towns

    Please count me in among the “bored” members. I crave substantive Gospel conversations at church. Instead, I’m just served up a plate of kitsch.

  • Lemar Luke

    I got to sub in Gospel Doctrine the week before the FAIR Conference. I taught Alma 36 through 39. I enhanced the lesson with information from Jack Welch’s article on chiasmus from “Book of Mormon Authorship” and gave everyone an outline of Alma 36. I also used John Gee’s article on the phrase “cross yourself” that I found on the Maxwell Institute website. (What a treat to meet and hear from both of them at the Conference.) I feel that including such resources is like adding seasonings to our feasting on the word and “…it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. “

    • danpeterson

      I used Jack’s analysis of Alma 36 when I taught that lesson, too. I think it adds enormously to the appreciation of Alma’s message in that chapter to understand that it’s literally Christ-centered.

  • sam

    I also teach in a style similar to what you described – focus on a few passages, develop some questions, get the class thinking and acting on their thoughts (through discussion, writing, groups, etc.).

    For the most part I use the manual as a launch pad, rather than a strict script. There are many times however that I follow the script if it works well with the needs of the class. I wish the manuals would be structure more with the topics, scriptures, and quotes and let the teacher use it as the basis for a discussion.

    But I also sympathize with someone who isn’t a very good teacher at first and needs the guidance and structure of the manual. And quite frankly, some of the most eye opening ways of looking at the world and certain scriptures have come from direct quotes from the manual. So it’s a mixed bag.

    I’d rather have it than not, that’s for sure.

  • Alece

    Wow — would I love to be in your Gospel Doctrine class, Brother Peterson — or in any class you teach for that matter.

    Interestingly, the best Institute class I ever sat in was one taught by a Sister in Minneapolis who — for the eight years she taught this informal class on the Book of Mormon — did exactly what you like to do the most. We read from the book (as few as a few verses to perhaps a chapter at a sitting) and discussed it. Occasionally she brought in extraneous material from other gospel sources, but mostly, the class was directed as much by the spirit as possible. Each of us was taught by personal revelation nearly every time we sat in that class. It was simply a spiritual feast to be there; and we tried our best never to miss it.

    • danpeterson

      I love that kind of teaching.

  • christine

    Deeeeeep deeeeeeep Doctrineee ? I was given insane amounts of class member study guides because i always ask those severely uncomfortable questions all the time. Alma 43-52 are boring if you are not a warrior. someone on another blog was worried that young people would indulge in conflicts which are not there in order to emulate Moroni. In other words, they would be too stupid to indentify a real conflict worth fighting for,,,arguably,,, sometimes no one will help you even if you have identified a conflict ! everyone will say it is a lost cause..nonetheless,, the conflict is identified as such and only pursued by one person !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! it is still real


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