As early as July 2009, news of a revised and updated version of the classic 1978 Gospel Principles manual hit the Mormon blogs, causing no small commotion. There were questions about how much it was really revised (it wasn’t revised much). Some observed that Bruce R. McConkie citations were eliminated (in reality only about 4 citations were removed but the material remained, and frankly never needed a citation to back it up anyway as it was rather standard and uncontroversial). Some were excited about “getting back to basics” (as if we hadn’t been studying “the basics” since introducing the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series in 1998).
But aside from all of that, the most interesting phenomena I observed was an extremely large amount of hope that this new and improved Gospel Principles manual was going to solve one of the most deeply problematic issues facing church membership today: the quality of Gospel instruction in Church meetings. News of the arrival of the new manual became an opportunity (or outlet) for Mormon bloggers to reflect on the fruits of Correlation and the failures of Church Sunday School classes to challenge, engage, and inspire.
After the dust had settled, it seemed to me that the general consensus was that the anonymous and faceless generic Church manual was the culprit. “The Manual”—that relic of correlation was the cause of all of our problems.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m very sympathetic to those who loath horrible Church manuals. But seriously? The manual became “the Ring” forged by the Dark Lord Sauron himself in the fires of Mount Doom “into this ring he poured all his hate, his malice, his will to dominate” church classrooms with boredom and infinite frustration. Members carried this burden around their necks into the classroom, hoping one day for freedom from it, when it could be thrown into the fire and be “unmade.” Some members even expressed desires that one day we could return to the Golden Age of pre-correlation Church manuals written by real and named individuals, manuals that were engaging and exciting, with cutting edge scholarship, and where a good time was had by all (does anyone really believe this age existed?).
My observation as an amateur sociologist-anthropologist was that targeting the manual was the most cost-effective and convenient way for Latter-day Saints to offer critical opinions about the Church without appearing to be apostates or without being accused of “steadying the ark.” No one was criticizing the Church, the prophets, or any of the Lord’s Anointed. Members were merely pointing out that these mass-produced and generic manuals were an impediment to real Gospel learning. To be sure, a handful of lone gunmen argued that criticizing any manual published by the Church was tantamount, logically equivalent, to directly criticizing the First Presidency since they put their stamp of approval on it—it was produced with no less than the Prophet’s imprimatur, so went the argument. Suffice it to say, the “correlated manual” became the boogeyman, the scapegoat, the Lee Harvey Oswald of gospel instruction.
During this time of great excitement, I argued that the teacher is really the determining factor for the quality of gospel lessons. Naturally, the make-up of the classroom is also a determining factor. Ultimately, I believe there is no substitute for artful and committed teachers. Even the most carefully constructed and well-written manual does not teach itself. No one has to wait for some utopian future when the world will be united in peace, where children sing, and nations and mankind live in harmony and when we will be provided with stellar manuals that are all things to everyone and can save the world from all that is wrong and evil.
So, with that in mind, I thought I would take some time to reflect on the past two years with the Gospel Principles manual. I write with full disclosure that I actually did teach during the last two years and was assigned to teach lessons from the Gospel Principles manual. Was it a bane or a blessing? Was it the salvation that everyone hoped it would be? Was it the worst manual on the planet as many people believed it to be?
To be honest, my teaching method and style did not change much between lessons I taught before the manual and lessons I taught after. For me, the manual is merely a tool. It set general parameters or the domain of Gospel inquiry, but it did not replace me as the instructor. All teaching is an act of selection. We have a limited amount of time and an almost unlimited amount of scriptures related to the subject matter. Therefore, as an instructor, I still performed the task of determining the needs of my class and being selective in the focus of our lessons.
What about the manual? Was it really horrible? Probably yes. I know full well what it feels like to fight against the manual. I rarely wanted to ask the questions it suggested I ask. The scriptures cited for certain propositions were wrong in my opinion. Some scriptures that need to be used weren’t there at all. The focus of some lessons seemed to be all wrong. I disagreed that some topics rose to the level of being considered “a gospel principle.” I admit that I even switched lessons with other instructors that I simply could not teach in good conscience. I never teach anything that I am not passionate about.
Like Jacob wrestling and struggling with God during the night, I wrestled and struggled with the manual. Preparation for teaching is a struggle. But it was good to struggle with the manual. It was good to dispute, to argue, and question it. As I wrestled, insights and ideas came to me. Sometimes ideas took their time but they did come.
As I reflect over every experience I had as an instructor, I feel good about each teaching moment. Each lesson was my proverbial baby. I nurtured, cared for, and watched over it. I know I could say that the Spirit was the teacher or the Holy Ghost was the teacher in order to score more points with the orthodox and conservative Latter-day Saints. After all, this is the part where, according to the traditional script of Mormon cultural etiquette, I’m supposed to give all credit to the Spirit as the “real” teacher or else risk being misunderstood as someone who is prideful and who fails to acknowledge God’s hand. While I agree theologically and doctrinally that the Holy Ghost is the teacher of truth, this doesn’t explain why the Holy Ghost is wholly inconsistent from classroom to classroom, or why the Holy Ghost sometimes chooses not to attend our meetings. How do we explain that?
I prefer Jeffrey R. Holland’s perspective that:
“[W]e must revitalize and reenthrone superior teaching in the Church–at home, from the pulpit, in our administrative meetings, and surely in the classroom. Inspired teaching must never become a lost art in the Church, and we must make certain our quest for it does not become a lost tradition.”
Our salvation is not in manuals. Our salvation, in the soteriological sense, is in Jesus Christ. But the quality of our lessons and the quality of our “revelatory experiences” is irrevocably and inescapably dependent on real people who serve as instructors and who create (yes, create) the environment of Gospel learning. As difficult as it is to teach, as scary and frustrating as it can be to teach, regardless of how many times we crash and burn as teachers, the teacher makes the class. It is easier, and certainly safer, to blame an inanimate object as the cause of poor lessons, than it is to blame our brothers and sisters who have full-time jobs and families, and their own problems, but who simply fail to deliver when the bell rings. It seems mean, it seems uncharitable, and it seems un-Christlike. Who are we to judge another? So we hide. We pretend we are being kind and nice by hating the manual when in fact we simply prize getting-along with other people over honesty.
As I look back over the last years, I’m pleased with every lesson that I’ve taught. I’ve been edified by those in my classroom who have shared their experiences and testimonies. I’ve been taught by them. I’ve tried to create an environment where people could share those experiences and feel they were heard and appreciated. I also strive to be really honest about what I say. I don’t walk on eggshells or avoid difficult topics. I try to use diplomacy and tact as much as possible, but always honesty. Honesty in teaching has done more to improve gospel learning than anything else.
As this year comes to an end, we will be finishing with the Gospel Principles manual. We will return to the “not the basics” lessons from the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith. We will continue with a series of quotations taken out of context and grouped thematically into twenty-four lessons. I predict that once again, people will blog about the deplorable state of affairs of our manuals. I will probably agree with them as I did before. But I want to send the message that people shouldn’t feel like they are held hostage by correlation or that they must wait for some time that will never come when some magical manual will change their experience. Don’t misplace your trust and hope in manuals to change what you experience when you walk through the Church doors. It doesn’t matter what manual is used in the Church. The manual will never be a substitute for real teachers. When you are not the one teaching, I encourage you to make comments, say what you really believe and really think (unless you are one of those people who shouldn’t say anything during lessons and you know who you are).