Observing the setup of my priesthood quorum and Sunday school classes, I've started to draw some conclusions about their pedagogical leanings. At first glance, it looks like learning about the gospel consists of hearing the good word from someone authoritative and then applying it during the course of our normal lives.
But wait. This is preaching, and preaching takes place during our seventy minutes in the chapel, a time and place specifically designed for one-way communication: from pulpit to audience. So maybe our Sunday classroom time is meant for something else. Since we're usually sitting in a small room, perhaps it's meant for a more personable style of communication. Maybe more of a small group discussion. A time where the Saints get together to talk about how the principles of the gospel have (or have not) been applicable to their lives recently.
This scenario sounds about like what I experience each week. And it seems to be effective in some ways. The teacher never seems to have a hard time eliciting comments from the group. People are always willing to hold forth or tell a story. So I suppose the question is, in what ways is this time of personable, two-way communication put to use? And how useful is it?
So far I've identified three basic approaches to Sunday class lessons. The first I call the Pep Rally. In this setup, the teacher comes with a topic at the ready. At the beginning of the meeting, he tells us what the principle up for cheers is, reads a quotation or two, and everyone happily joins in singing the praises of faith, sacrifice, the Word of Wisdom, whatever.
Second is the Tips ‘n' Trix Seminar. In this model, the teacher reveals the topic, acknowledges that following the particular principle is sometimes difficult, and enjoins the crowd to cite scriptures and examples to help the theoretical wayfarer keep the commandment in question. When conducting a Tips ‘n' Trix seminar, Relief Society sisters usually have the foresight to create a good acronym or list to paste onto refrigerator magnets.
The third strategy is the Whack-a-Moral Game, in which the teacher brings in stories, reads them aloud, and then leads the class in extracting a moral from them, no matter what those stories may be. These lessons are most fun during the Old Testament years.
All of these structures seem to work just fine. But what do these three approaches say about the kind of teaching we, as Latter-day Saints, are content with? As far as I can surmise, these three structures assert that values are essentially black and white. Faith is good; sacrifice is good; the Word of Wisdom is good. The world is bad; disobedient children are bad; drugs are bad. Humans are split into the forces of good and evil, but, lo, a principle has come to us shining from the heights, a principle that can heal ills, answer life's difficult questions, fold your socks, and provide the answer to that all-perplexing question, "What do you say if your wife asks you how she looks in her newly purchased dress, and she looks frumpy?"
Essentially, when a teacher stands up and starts a lesson as a Pep Rally, Tips ‘n' Trix seminar, or Whack-a-Moral game, he or she has, consciously or not, limited the playing field. He or she has constructed an atmosphere that accepts only polarities. "Faith is good because of such and such." "We need to work harder." "We need to reject the evils of the world, and here are ways I have done that."
At first, such structures don't look so bad. And I believe there are good times and places for them. However, from time to time, these approaches are taken to absurd extremes. For example, the Sunday school lesson I attended that, by the teacher's innocent oversight, blundered into Judah's seduction by his daughter-in-law. (Judah thought he was rattling the bushes with a mere whore; little did he realize . . .) Discovering the moral can of worms she had just opened up, the teacher blithely tied the story shut by saying, "This shows us that we should teach our children the law of chastity." A direct bulls-eye in a Whack-a-Moral game.
Another time, a member of my quorum recounted an experience when a skeptic had told him that although his argument for obeying the Word of Wisdom had been a good one, he was obviously "programmed" to say that. My quorum brother said he was disturbed by this accusation, but after thinking about it had decided that, indeed, he had been programmed. And what good programming it was, too! In fact, he was programming his own children to the same ends. I figured this comment was an anomaly and let it slide, despite its frightening implications about the human soul. But then a second brother took up the ball, grandly stating, "Some people call it brainwashing; I call it indoctrination." The Pep Rally was in full swing, much to the delight of our good-hearted teacher.
As far as I can tell, the unsettling implications of Judah's story were pushed aside so easily because, when in the clutches of these pedagogies, which I have chosen to call the Three Sedating Sins, we feel that we must have answers to quickly put sticky questions to rest. When in the grip of the Pep Rally, Tips ‘n' Trix Seminar, or Whack-a-Moral Game, no question can come up that can't be dealt with promptly. The programming incident is an example of the Pep Rally gone wrong: a bizarre idea was brought up, but since it supported the original premise of the lesson, no one challenged it. If any statement supports the principle du jour, it must be on the level.