(update:) Author’s note: This is the second post in a series dealing with my experiences teaching seminary on a volunteer basis over this past year. The thoughts and observations contained therein do not necessarily represent those of the Seminaries and Institutes program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The introductory post can be found here.
I support and deeply value the seminary program and its role in the lives of LDS youth. That’s why I accepted the call. But as I began to contemplate the coming year, I struggled to come to terms with the difference between how I would teach the Old Testament in seminary and how I had been taught it in graduate school. I had many questions. How much should these students know? Should I tell them that Moses did not write the “Five Books of Moses?” Should I tell them that he did? Should I acquaint them with ancient literary concepts of fiction and satire, and point them out in the ahistorical books of Job, Jonah, Esther, and even Ruth? Can the Old Testament be properly understood without doing so?
Seminary is not about the Old Testament.
Then came the revelation: Seminary is not actually about teaching the Old Testament. I apologize to those who thought that scriptures were the primary purpose of seminary; disabuse yourself of the notion posthaste. Sure, the standard works are an important part, but they’re not really the focus. This should come as a surprise to neither the church’s most cynical critics nor its devout members. Rather seminary is about teaching the doctrines of the Gospel and building testimonies. The Old Testament is used as an aid to this goal, but it is not actually the goal. If it were, Seminary would be a very different class.
This is not my own estimation either. The Church itself makes this purpose very clear on all its released material both publicly and directly to educators. The new mission statement for seminaries and institutes, “The Teaching and Learning Emphasis,” reads thus:
Our purpose is to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, qualify for the blessings of the temple, and prepare themselves, their families, and others for eternal life with their Father in Heaven.
So what is the role of the Old Testament for this year?
We teach students the doctrines and principles of the gospel as found in the scriptures and the words of the prophets. These doctrines and principles are taught in a way that leads to understanding and edification. We help students fulfill their role in the learning process and prepare them to teach the gospel to others.
Although published years earlier, the OT Seminary Teachers’ manual contains a statement from which this stated purpose appears to be drawn. I interpret it to mean that the scriptures are taught only insofar as they assist in teaching the doctrines of the Gospel.
At an inservice I attended, teachers were instructed that the principles of the Gospel were to occupy center stage and that historical details should take up only about 20% of the class time. I believe this is an extreme ratio, and not one I’ve taken in class. After all, one of the supplementary goals of the teaching and learning emphasis states that students are to “understand the context and content of the scriptures and the words of the prophets,” and I don’t think that can adequately be accomplished with so little time allotted. But it’s clear in what direction the Church wants to take S&I.
This is a good thing.
The separation of doctrine from text is liberating, focusing, and honest. But more importantly, it responds to the most pressing needs of the youth of the church. I’ll elaborate:
A) Prioritizing doctrine over text is intellectually honest. It would be far worse if we claimed, as do some other churches, that our doctrine is derived from a simple, unfiltered reading of the Bible and that our doctrine and the scriptures were one and the same. All scripture, in whatever tradition (even academe), is interpreted for that community, and teaching scripture from a devotional perspective must be self-consciously done.
B) Prioritizing doctrine over text provides focus. The Old Testament is an enormous body of literature; to do it all in one year is overly ambitious. We will cover some things well, or everything not-so-well. So if sacrifices must be made for the sake of time constraints alone, it is helpful to have a guiding curriculum which emphasizes those parts of the Old Testament most helpful in fulfilling the mission of Seminary.
C) Prioritizing doctrine over text is liberating. I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing: How will I teach Judah and Tamar? Or Lot’s daughters? Or the (at least) two narratives in the flood story? Or second Isaiah? Or [fill in the blank with your own difficult OT passage/issue]? In my view, it’s not worth getting stressed out about. Your students do not need to exit seminary for the year having mastered the historical-critical method. They need to know about God’s covenants with his people, his prophetic witnesses, and the Great Plan of Happiness.
I get that this approach will raise concerns with some, so I’ve tried to anticipate some of them:
Aren’t you basically agreeing with Elder Packer that “some things that are true are not always useful?”
In a limited sense, yes. I’ve long admired Elder Packer for admitting that facts are never just facts, nor truth just truth — that facts and truth communicate with reality in the way that people respond to them. But many who are not big fans of this quote criticize the church for its hiding of potentially embarrassing aspects of our history and doctrine. Let there be no doubt: prioritizing doctrine over text need not mean dissembling, avoidance of controversy, or irresponsible exegesis. I respect my students as young adults and I trust them to speak about difficult issues with maturity and intelligence (the success of this trust will be a topic of a later post). I have no intention of hiding the truth from them or answering their questions in ways that will hinder further spiritual and intellectual growth.
I guess this gets to the root of my contention: I think holding back certain uncomfortable aspects of the OT is wrong as a general policy, and I think S&I could definitely do a better job of teaching scripture. I hope this post is not read as a defense of the status quo. It would be unfortunate if my students are never again in their lives exposed to a more academic introduction to the Old Testament. They ought to have one. But now is not that time. I want to give students the clearest possible view of the Old Testament and church history, but I do not intend to let it displace doctrine in their spiritual formation, and I disagree with those who believe these are mutually exclusive goals.
Won’t the students leave with a distorted understanding of the contents, structure, and history of the Old Testament, i.e. is this not an irresponsible way to teach it?
Perhaps. It is quite likely that they will acquire a sense of the OT colored by an LDS perspective. We all have assumptions we bring to the text, and if we’re teaching seminary, those assumptions are even prescribed. There’s no escaping it . But the OT itself is not the subject of seminary; the Gospel is.
You do not regard your theological education very highly, do you?
On the contrary! The things I’ve learned about the OT have broadened my view of the scriptures and have changed my understanding of how God deals with his children. In fact, I hold my theological training in such high regard, that I think any approach to the OT that doesn’t follow that basic model is not really an approach to the OT at all. Rather its an approach to ourselves using the OT as a platform. And that’s what seminary is all about: the children of God trying to become more like him.
So what do you propose to do in the classroom?
Not every teacher has the following problem, but for those that do here’s what I did: whenever I was worried that my lessons were getting off track, or engaging in a level of intertextuality inappropriate for an exegesis class, or perhaps I was propagating an interpretation made by prophets and apostles but not necessarily relevant to Isaiah’s immediate context, I reoriented myself to what I was there to do: teach the Gospel.
Finally, I admit that this approach is not for everyone. Perhaps you disagree with me that the OT and the Doctrine of the restored Church are two separate, although related things. Or, on the other hand, perhaps you would present the scriptures, warts and all, to young minds as tabulae rasae, hoping that spiritual truth will independently descend on them “as the dew from heaven distilling” (Hymns 149). Whatever your approach, you must accept accountability for how you will manage the tension that often comes from a diligent study of the OT and a faithful celebration of the truths restored through the prophet Joseph Smith.