It’ll only hurt for a second…

Elder M. Russell Ballard addressed Church Educational System (CES) employees and their spouses Friday evening for the annual “Evening with a General Authority.” He urged instructors to take more seriously their responsibility to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century.

We give medical inoculations to our precious missionaries before sending them into the mission field so they will be protected against diseases that can harm or even kill them. In a similar fashion, please, before you send them into the world, inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.

Elder Ballard introduced a new initiative for seminary students called “doctrinal mastery,” a variation of the existing scripture mastery program. Elder Ballard described the goals of the new initiative:

Drawing on the scriptures and the words of the prophets, they will learn how to act with faith in Christ to acquire spiritual knowledge and understanding of His gospel. And they will have opportunities to learn how to apply the doctrine of Christ and gospel principles to the questions and challenges they hear and see every day among their peers and on social media.[1]

Most noteworthy was Elder Ballard’s charge to CES instructors to increase proficiency with controversial historical and doctrinal topics. Concerning the Gospel Topics essays, he said, “know the content of these essays like you know the back of your hand.”

Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, “Don’t worry about it!” Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.

In the past teaching by pure testimony was sufficient due to the sheltered rearing of Mormon youth, he explained. Today, however, some youth are coming into seminary already “infected by pornography and worldliness.” In addition to pure testimony they need to learn doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith. Teachers must be equipped to provide this education through study from the best books, including scriptures, teachings of modern leaders, and “the best LDS scholarship available.”

Elder Ballard’s looking at you, Cliff.

Elder Ballard warned teachers not to become overconfident:

Now a word of caution, please recognize you may come to believe, like many of your students do, that you are a scriptural, doctrinal, history expert.[2] A recent study revealed that the more people think they know about a topic, the more likely they are to allege understanding beyond what they know. Even to the point of feigning knowledge of false facts, and fabricated information. Identified as overclaiming, this temptation must be avoided by you CES teachers. It is perfectly all right to say, “I do not know.” However, once that is said, you have a responsibility to find the best answers to the thoughtful questions your students ask.

He also cautioned teachers against feeding bad information to their students:

In teaching your students or in responding to their questions let me warn you not to pass along faith-promoting or unsubstantiated rumors, or outdated understandings and explanations of our doctrine and practices from the past. It is always wise to make a practice to study the words of the living prophets and apostles, keep updated on current Church issues, policies and statements through mormonnewsroom.org and lds.org, and consult the works of recognized, thoughtful and faithful LDS scholars to ensure you do not teach things that are untrue, out-of-date, or odd and quirky.[3]

Elder Ballard repeatedly warned against the risk of student exposure to difficult topics on the internet. “Teach them about the challenges they face when relying upon the Internet to answer questions of eternal significance. Remind them that James did not say, ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him Google!’” Like President Uchtdorf, Ballard used the example of unwisely seeking medical advice from the internet before consulting a medical expert. If experts should be consulted when facing mental, emotional, and physical challenges, he said, experts should also be consulted when facing spiritual challenges.

Throughout the address Elder Ballard referenced his “old ship Zion” metaphor. Predictably, there was a strong emphasis at the end on the importance of students understanding the doctrine on the family. A correct understanding of their roles as sons and daughters of God gives students appropriate context to face the challenges of life.[4]

  • What do you think about the new inititative on “doctrinal mastery”?
  • Do you think inoculation will ultimately build or break down testimonies? I’ve seen speculation that CES instructors might themselves risk faith crises dealing with the controversial material. Do you believe that likely or unlikely?
  • Some of the gospel topics essays are already incorporated into seminary lessons. How do you see incorporation of essays only loosely connected to traditional scripture lesson materials? (Heavenly Mother, Race & the Priesthood, etc.).
  • Will bringing up these issues in institute and seminary decrease the traditional stigma against discussion of controversial topics in Sunday classes? Or should Sunday classes keep to “pure testimony”?

[1] Incorporating teachings of current prophets and application of doctrine to today’s challenges sounds similar to the new “cornerstone” classes required of institute students.

[2] A lot of us have seen religion instructors with massive student followings. When I was at BYU, Randy Bott’s classes were always filled to the brim (he wasn’t even my professor, I just tagged along with my roommate sometimes to see what all the fuss was about).

[3] Does this mean dinosaurs aren’t from matter drawn from other worlds?

[4] I’m guessing disagreement with the gender essentialist portion is a symptom of the “worldliness” infection Elder Ballard laments.