As we roll over into 2023, we also roll over into a new curriculum year for adult LDS Sunday School. With the new Come Follow Me series of manuals, this is more than just the LDS Gospel Doctrine class that most readers are familiar with. LDS leadership has broadened the new curriculum and manuals into a family study program, more than just a Sunday School manual or course of study. I’ll comment on a few short topics, then list a few books that might enhance your study.
Come Follow Me, Round 3
The Internet tells me the newish Come Follow Me (“CFM”) curriculum started in January 2013. That means this is the third time around already for CFM New Testament. I imagine the Church will be following the traditional four-year-cycle for the foreseeable future, which is both good and bad. Good: at least the curriculum focuses on the scriptures and members are encouraged to actually *read* the relevant chapters. Bad: nothing new under the sun. You’ve had this lesson before, maybe twice.
What’s the verdict on the new CFM curriculum and manuals? Compared to the prior manuals, some improvement. Having all lessons available online (although you can get a hard copy manual if you want) means they can update material on the fly — although it is always frustrating that the Church updates online content with little notice of what has been updated and no access to earlier versions of the lesson or essay that is being updated. But compared to the ideal rather than the prior manuals, I think CFM is disappointing. This was a big opportunity to provide teachers and students with additional context and commentary. It was an opportunity to move towards a fact-based curriculum. Nope, didn’t happen. The manual is filled with GA quotes but with almost zero scholarly quotes or even references. If you’ve read it once, even laboring through the KJV New Testament, it’s unlikely you’ll actually learn anything about the New Testament in an LDS New Testament class.
What’s a Teacher to Do?
That’s a serious question, largely an ethics question. How is an LDS teacher supposed to approach and present one of these lessons? What is a person attending the class supposed to do? Here’s my personal view. If I attend a class, I will raise my hand an offer a comment in only two circumstances. First, as a class member, if I actually have something to say that adds to what the teacher said in a positive way. Second, if a commenter (or even the teacher) makes a claim or statement that misrepresents the LDS position or misrepresents facts about history in such a way as to harm or offend other class members who don’t know any better. That means I don’t raise a hand to correct every single misstatement or misinterpretation — there are simply too many. Just the serious ones merit a correcting response. And I don’t say, “Bro. Jones is completely wrong in his statement that X.” I’ll say something like, “More recent LDS leaders have not endorsed that view. In fact, …” Or, “there’s another way to look at that scripture. …”
Second, as a teacher I take the approach that I’ll teach what’s relevant to the scriptural material for that week’s lesson, but I won’t teach false or misleading material. So there is a lot of stuff in the manual I simply will not teach. I’ll have a hard copy of the manual prominently displayed on the table and make a reference or two to it — “in the manual it notes that …” — but I will just teach from the scriptural material and discreetly use scholarly reference material (LDS or non-LDS) when needed. I won’t use false or misleading material from the manual. Any teacher who would knowingly do so shouldn’t be teaching.
Courses of Study, Ranked
The worst LDS course of study is the Old Testament, given how badly the LDS treatment mangles the text. If the Hebrew Bible doesn’t say what LDS leadership wants it to say, they either just create their own scripture with a different or expanded treatment (hello, Pearl of Great Price and JST) or just speculatively make stuff up. The LDS approach is to pile LDS misreadings on top of Christian misreadings of the Hebrew Bible.
Book of Mormon and D&C/Church history are tied for next worst. The Book of Mormon year never really recovers from the early lesson about Nephi (our hero) killing the unconscious Laban in cold blood and all the justifications teacher, class, and manual offer for how this was a good thing, a righteous thing, a wonderful thing. And the Korihor lesson halfway through the year is always a clusterf*ck. I used to like the D&C/Church history year, but the more you read LDS history, the less you like the LDS curriculum treatment.
So that leaves the New Testament year as the least worst set of lessons and material of the four-year LDS curriculum cycle. Slow clap.
You Are Responsible for Your Own Learning
Remarkably, that’s the title for the first lesson in the New Testament curriculum: “We Are Responsible for Our Own Learning.” It’s almost like they are acknowledging, right up front, “don’t expect us to teach you anything,” mingled with encouragement to the student to go learn on their own. Strange intro for a class with a teacher and students. The lesson presents a feelings-based approach to learning, not a fact-based approach. In the section with the subtitle “What should I do when I have questions?” the most obvious response — go read relevant books and articles by scholars and experts in the field, including LDS scholars — is of course omitted. Instead, you are told to pray, act in faith, and keep an eternal perspective. Fine, but what about my questions?
A Few Books
Santa brought me a few new books. First, the revised edition (blue cover) of Thomas A. Wayment’s The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints (Greg Kofford Books, 2022, rev. ed.). I used Wayment’s first edition (green cover) four years ago. I also use the New Oxford Annotated Bible in Kindle for reading and reference.
Second, Santa brought me Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints (Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2022). There are lots of images and illustrations in the book, so it is printed on heavy glossy paper. It’s just a beautiful book. You know that new car smell you get with a new car? Just riff this book’s pages close to your face and you’ll get a new book smell. It smells like … victory.
Along the same lines, you really must get a copy of Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (OUP, 2014). That’s easily the best book I’ve ever found on the LDS concept of the Great Apostasy. The key thing you need to know: “the Great Apostasy” is a doctrine, not a historical conclusion. It rests on the LDS conviction that if there is a Restoration, there must have been an Apostasy. It does not rest on historical fact. Not surprisingly (as presented clearly in the book) the LDS attempt to backfill facts into the Great Apostasy narrative has constantly shifted over the years. And while we’re at it, gird up your loins (it’s about a thousand pages long) and read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity.
If you’re into (or want to be into) the Historical Jesus scholarship, here are a few titles. The Historical Figure of Jesus, by E. P. Sanders. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, by Bart D. Ehrman. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crosson. Each reviews the field but each also presents a different view of the historical Jesus.
Enough about me. Let’s hear from you.
- What do you think of the CFM series or the CFM New Testament in particular?
- What’s your approach to teaching LDS lessons or commenting in an LDS class?
- What’s your least favorite or most favorite LDS course of study, of the four?
- What New Testament translations and scholarly books do you use or find helpful for anyone who intends to follow the admonition of the manual and be responsible for their own learning about the New Testament?