Hello, readers! Today we have a newsworthy guest post by Matthew:
Last month, in the 2023 S&I [Seminary & Institute] Annual Training Broadcast (in which CES Commissioner Clark Gilbert cited scripture twice and President Nelson twelve times), it was announced that the requirements for seminary graduation would change.[i] S&I Administrator Chad Webb explained that “moving forward, in order to receive course credit toward graduation, seminary students will be required to read selected passages from the book of scripture in each term.”[ii]It used to be that in order to graduate, seminary students had to read the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and generous portions of the Old Testament (300+ chapters). That apparently was much too much to ask, so in 2021 S&I changed the reading requirement to “read in the book of scripture for the course of study 75 percent of semester calendar days.”[iii] Technically, a student could read a chapter a day, or even a verse a day, to meet the new standard.
I was happy to hear that they were going back to specified readings, but in a recent seminary training meeting I finally saw the “Seminary Required Reading Blocks” that students must complete in order to graduate (reproduced below from a screenshot).
Students are encouraged to set goals to read more, but the bottom line is that they can graduate from seminary having spent only two or three hours per semester actually reading the scriptures on their own. And then we send these scripturally illiterate 18-19 year-olds into the world as missionaries. Don’t these same high school students have to take real math classes? Or science or English or history? But as far as religious education goes, we’re treating them like 10 year-olds.
The list is rather odd. Three chapters from the Torah is all students need to read from the OT in the first half of that year? (Not even Exodus 20?) We keep insisting that we are “The Church of Christ! The Church of Christ!” but we don’t care enough about Jesus to require our teenagers to read even a single gospel? Students don’t need to read D&C 20? For the Book of Mormon, no Alma 36? Not even the entirety of 2 Nephi 9? Who approved this?
Sadly, it’s all of a piece with our continuing insistence on the King James Version (with similar archaic English in our Restoration scriptures and the sacred language of prayer), which is genuinely difficult for modern Americans to understand and enjoy. It sometimes seems as if our leaders don’t really want the Saints to read the scriptures—much like how we used to caricature the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages—or they would at least let young people read the New International Version, which has been widely adopted by other conservative Christians.[iv] We talk about the scriptures, we bear testimony of the scriptures, we carry them around religiously, and we listen to podcasts, but we don’t actually read the scriptures in careful, sustained, serious ways.
In the 20th century, Latter-day Saints turned away from biblical scholarship, and in the 21st century, we are turning away from scripture itself. Sunday school is now every other week instead of every week; the Come Follow Me manuals focus on just a few verses and include almost no information about biblical languages, history, or literary features; the scripture reading required in BYU Religion classes and elsewhere in Institute classes is less than it was before 2015. In the push for simplicity and unity with Come Follow Me, much has been lost. Seminary students do not receive any instruction on the CFM readings that come in the summer months. Primary used to be a place where children could spend the entire year learning the parables and other stories about Jesus and the Old Testament prophets (as is age appropriate for developing scriptural literacy), but this year, in 2023, 3-7 year-olds will be marched through the Pauline Epistles, General Epistles, and Revelation from August through December. How much will they get out of those lessons?
It’s possible to think of oneself as a child of God with only the knowledge one gains in Primary, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers little for people who have served missions, married in the temple, and now want to become adults of God—apart from opportunities for local service (which are not inconsiderable). A religion that has no path or models for continuing intellectual/spiritual development faces an uncertain future, and serious scripture study is one of the main avenues for that sort of spiritual maturation.[v]Without a solid foundation in the word of God, and continuing guidance and encouragement for a deeper study of scripture, it will be difficult to keep young people engaged and committed through the course of their lives.
[i] Clark G. Gilbert, “A Prophet in the Land: Current Prophetic Emphases to Young Adults.” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/broadcasts/s-and-i-training/2022/01/13gilbert?lang=eng
[ii] Chad H. Webb, “Messengers of the Good News.”
[iii] Sydney Walker, “Updates to Seminary Graduation Requirements Encourage Daily Scripture Study,”Church News (March 4, 2021). The article quoted S&I Associate Administrator Adam N. Smith as saying (somewhat inaccurately for the OT), “In previous years a seminary student would need to report that he or she had read the entire Standard Works—Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price—throughout their four-year seminary experience in order to graduate.”
[iv] Note also that these students have continuous, immediate, free access to the NIV on their phones at biblestudytools.com or biblegateway.com.
[v]In Kirtland, even after remarkable outpourings of revelation and new scripture, Joseph Smith and other early Saints put forth great effort to find and hire a qualified teacher so they could study Hebrew in a regular academic, laborious way. I would like to be proven wrong, but I doubt there is anyone among the current First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, or General Authority Seventies—all of whom have had much more education than the Prophet Joseph—who has studied even a semester of Hebrew or Greek.
Thanks to Matthew for this post. Speaking as an inactive member of the Church, it is interesting to get views like this of current educational offerings and guidelines. I was a graduate of early morning seminary in the early 90s. Graduation from my home stake’s program was essentially a matter of attendance. As I remember it, since I attended at least 80% of the time, I graduated at the end of the 4 years. There were incentives to read and study at home. Certainly, many of us studied to the degree needed to avoid embarrassing ourselves in scripture chase competitions. But yes, graduation was merely a matter of showing up (itself a feat given the early hour).
At Weber State University, I attended a bunch of classes at the Ogden LDS Institute. As I was a practicing member at the time, I generally liked the course offerings and instructors. Again though, graduation was solely a matter of attendance. That said, if we wanted our Ogden Institute class credit to be transferrable to a BYU campus, there were some additional homework requirements. I never did them, but don’t remember them being described as anything rigorous.
From outside the bubble now, I do not see any evidence of the Church sponsoring or even encouraging serious religious scholarship to rival anything available at mainstream Christian seminaries. Tell me if I’m wrong, people who still attend every Sunday. It all seems to be relatively light, devotional content. Nothing wrong with devotional content to feed the soul, unless people try to pass it off as equivalent to peer-reviewed religious scholarship… which it isn’t.
That seminary students are not even asked to read one gospel (not even the shortest, Mark) reflects a long-standing anti-Christ position that I cannot understand. We call ourselves, and are, the Church of Jesus Christ, but our people know almost nothing of Jesus’ life, words, and deeds. We can tell you all about Nephi and Captain Moroni, and all about members of the FP and Q12, whose church we aren’t, but we can tell almost nothing about Jesus. I am a convert, and people in my former Church love Jesus and know His words and deeds, and can recall them and apply them in their own lives. Scriptural illiteracy, and particularly illiteracy of the four gospels, is mind-numbingly thick and pervasive in our Church, and it should not be, not among people who call ourselves His Church and people.
Case in point: the story recounted in the first verses of Mark 14. At the end of that story about a woman who did not give unto the poor as some of Jesus’ disciples thought that she should, and Jesus rebuked His disciples and praised the woman, the Lord said: “Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.” How many of us have ever heard this story taught in our churches? If it was taught, was it taught simply that the woman was anointing Jesus for His burial, like she was acting by presdestination? or was it taught like it should have been taught, that although Jesus had encouraged giving to the poor, no where did he say that others should tell another how or when they should give to the poor, and this woman was free to do as she wished, and her choice was honorable? This story is simply not taught, notwithstanding the Lord’s direction that it be taught “wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world.” Matthew 26 also tells the story and includes the Lord’s direction that the story be taught “wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world.”
The version issue is problematic. I understand (perhaps not correctly) that J Reuben Clark pre-empted any move to a more modern translation by publishing his book Why the King James Version in 1956. Frankly, I agree with much of Clark’s position, but I grew up on the King James Bible. When I was sick, my dad would ask me “What aileth thee, Hagar?” and I knew exactly what he meant. I also studied Shakespeare in college. Not everyone has the same background. Many other translations have some editorial biases, but that is unavoidable and I still own almost every serious English translation, and I use many of them when I’m trying to understand a passage. One can do this on-line, too. I haven’t found a translation that I can fully endorse yet, though I would move to the ESV or NASB before the NIV.
The accepted doctrine of the Church is that the words of today’s Prophet supersede prophets before him including those found in the scriptures. Brigham Young said it, and many (if not all) subsequent LDS presidents have said it. The quotes are easy to find. This, coupled with the “the prophet will never lead the Church astray” doctrine assures that members’ allegiance is to the current prophet. And of course, personalities like Russel M Nelson thrive on this mentality. THEREFORE, it is very understandable that scriptures and scripture reading might be minimized in this kind of environment. I’ll go so far as to say that if you were stuck alone on a deserted island, the Brethren would prefer that you read the latest General Conference edition of the Ensign/Liahona than the BOM.
My own kids have recently gone through the release time seminary program at a heavily Mormon community in the Mormon Corridor. If the Church does things as it has in the past, the reading will all be on the honor system–students just login to the seminary app and check off whether they’ve done certain readings or not. This may be a reasonable approach, but I know that many kids (my guess is well in excess of 50%) simply login to the seminary app and check off their scripture reading even if they haven’t done it. It’s basically what would happen if a high school English teacher used the honor system and allowed students to login to an app to say that they’d read the assigned book instead of quizzing them on the content of the book, requiring they write a book report, etc. So yeah, from that perspective, for most seminary students, seminary graduation is still just based on attendance, If you show up–and fudge your reading in the seminary app–you graduate. This change in the scripture reading requirements will have absolutely no effect on those students–they were fudging their scripture reading on the app before, and they will fudge it again with this new standard (of course there will be some students who actually do the reading, but I think the percentage is pretty low).
I can’t say I blame the Church too much. Seminary is, and always has been, filled with many students who don’t want to be there. Furthermore, and I don’t have numbers just my own anecdotal observations, it appears that seminary registration percentages are down from when I was in high school. It seems like it used to be that pretty much all the kids from active Mormon families attended seminary, but it appears to me that this is no longer the case–a lot of kids from active families in my community are opting out of seminary. I think the Church would love to “raise the bar” with seminary standards, but they know if they do that that even more kids will likely drop out. As a result, the Church is just going with a “maximize butts in seats” approach to seminary–if you show up enough of the time (I think it’s now 75% of the time at our local seminary?), you graduate. I think the Church is hoping if they can just get butts in seats that seminary teachers will be able to help teens feel the Spirit and “get a testimony”.
I wonder to what extent the church has a seminary program to enable 19 year old missionaries to teach in some countries. Im pretty sure Brazil requires a seminary-type of certification for missionaries, and there are probably others.
My wife is an early morning seminary teacher, and like others have said, she acknowledges that if a kid shows up enough they will graduate.
The irony is that for 3/4 of my kids early morning seminary has only strengthened their resolve to distance themselves from the church.
I’m with Toad. “…seminary has only strengthened their resolve to distance themselves from the church.” Seminary is tough—it reinforces for my kid day after day after day that there are things in the Church that are disturbing to him. Another nudge out the door, and another, and another, multiple times a week, every week. It’s hard to do damage control for something so regular.
@Toad, I can confirm that the Church uses seminary as the basis for applying for missionary visas to other countries besides Brazil (and outside of South America). I have a child who is in the process of getting a missionary visa, and the missionary travel office required us to go down to our local seminary, have them print and sign our child’s high school seminary transcript, and mail it in to the missionary travel office as part of the visa application process.
I have 2 kids, and neither of them liked seminary for vastly different reasons. One kid just progressively lost interest in the Church throughout their high school years. My spouse finally relented and allowed this kid to opt of of seminary during their senior year of high school. My sense is that the seminary experience only pushed this kid away from the Church faster. I think, given another chance, that my spouse would allow this kid to opt out of seminary sophomore year (they were fine with trying it out freshman year).
My other child (the one going on a mission soon), has always really liked their Church experience. This child is also a super motivated student. The reasons this child didn’t like seminary were:
1. Seminary is filled with so many kids that don’t want to be there that it really degrades the experience for those that do.
2. This child wasn’t really learning anything in seminary. They pretty much already knew all of the content. If the Church offered real deep and substantive religion classes, then this child might have benefited from that, but seminary is really just warmed up Sunday School lessons. That’s probably exactly what some students need, but not this kid.
3. This child is a motivated student, and release-time seminary caused them not to be able to take a few high school classes they really wanted to take. Yes, our seminary does offer an early morning option, and my kid did do this one year, but they found that early mornings were too much of a price to pay compared with missing out on a high school class.
The only reason this kid stuck with seminary throughout high school was because they wanted to go to BYU, and BYU considers seminary graduation as part of the application process. That said, my kid and I both recently came to the realization that they may not have been called to serve in the country they were called to (that they are very excited about) without graduating from seminary because of the visa application requirements, so now there is a second reason they are happy they stuck it out.
Interestingly, this child is now a freshman at BYU, and they feel the same way about their first BYU religion class–the required “Eternal Families” class–as they did about seminary. They don’t feel like they are really learning anything from this class. They feel like it’s just a waste of time (and, as many of the people in their generation, they disagree with the Church’s LGBTQ stance, and no amount of “Eternal Families” lectures or GC talks is going to persuade them that the Church’s position is correct).
I’m not the first to observe that the point of church education, including Sunday School, is the almost the opposite of having anybody learn anything. The idea is that we sit around reinforcing our pre-existing perspectives and using the scriptures occasionally as proof texts to back up the church’s teachings and words of the current leaders.
As one who no longer attends, it’s a little tragic to think of the hours wasted which could have been full of rich and challenging historical, theological and philosophical discussion.
I think we could solve this problem by using Sunday School time for seminary. Make it less time consuming and create success and opt in for those who attend church. Our youth and their parents are under far too much pressure already.
Those who wish to deal with these subjects from an academic perspective can do so at tertiary level education.
NIV for a New Testament class? Heavens, no. There are several other translations in modern English that do a much better job translating the Pauline Epistles than the NIV. N.T. Wright gave a thumbs down to the NIV.
This is belated angst about CES courses. CES has been trainwreck for at least two decades now. The best seminary teachers I know are volunteer early morning teachers with a passion for learning and the backbone to ignore Salt Lake I feel sorry for the professional teachers teaching along the Mormon corridor. As has been stated, the product they are forced to deliver is pablum. Heaven help the teen who tries to navigate the real world or serve a mission with that experience alone.
As I’ve been reading the Bible more frequently especially in my NRSV translation (but also Jewish Annotated version, Robert Alter, Robert Hart’s translation), learning about biblical studies and history (thanks Bible for Normal People, Faithful Feminists, Beyond the Block, Rev. Wil Gafney, Dan McClellan, etc), and reading less “church approved” literature, my testimony of God and Jesus have grown tremendously. But my trust in the encouraged “church approved” stuff has diminished. I think the move to pull students out of scripture and quote Nelson more is calculated to control the narrative.
I’m going to have to do a deeper dive on this list, but skimming it suggests it’s heavily focused on (1) scriptures that are used to support the idea of a restoration / prophets, and (2) scriptures that address behaviors that we want to teach. Not surprising, but nevertheless ridiculous.
The purpose of seminary seems much less about beginning people to Christ and more about bringing people to The Church. My high schooler didn’t want to take it and I didn’t push it one bit.
I was in high school seminary in the 80s, and passing was based entirely on attendance. Every day the teacher passed out some sort of tracking sheet on which you could put an X for that day if you’d read your scriptures. There was no grade or anything tied to reading scriptures, so no motive to lie. My card was filled in perfectly (I *loved* reading scriptures), but most were checkerboards.
In the MTC, I remember a testimony meeting in which an elder got up and tearfully bore his testimony about how great the BOM was — he’d never read it before he got to the MTC.
I’m not sure the good ol’ days had very rigorous teaching standards for teenagers either. As mentioned above by other commenters, the goal was to get butts in seats and hope they felt the spirit during the class. I loved my seminary teachers. They were charismatic and kind and I wanted to be a seminary teacher someday. I even took the Institute class that was the intro for becoming a high school seminary teacher, but dropped it when the teachers made it very clear that I would lose my job if I got married and had a baby.
The biggest problem with reading the scriptures is that people may start to ask questions about why we treat this group of people different than that group or why we have to pay a full 10% on tithing instead of 10% of our increase. People may start to questions the prosperity gospel when they read that Christ didn’t even have enough money to pay his tax and had to get it out of fish or that he actually hung out with tax collectors and other “evil” types of people. They. might have to figure out why he forgave the woman at the well after she had been married seven times and the man she was living with at the time wasn’t her husband. Maybe after reading the scriptures people will start to question why we follow the gospel of Republicanism without question and vote for a scoundrel who constantly lies because he’s God’s anointed to change the Supreme Court take away a woman’s right to choose, or to suppress BIPOC votes, or protect us from socialism which can’t be anything like the United Order. Yeah, if people read the scriptures, ponder them, apply them to today’s problems, they might actually disrupt the status quo and demand an accounting.
Growing outside the Mormon corridor, I attended once a week early morning seminary. We were given “home study” material which was supposed to be worked on throughout the week, but of course everyone rushed through it all the night before it was due. I went every week due to parent/peer pressure (plus the donuts) and “graduated” but those credits of course never counted for anything. For my kids (we live in Mormon corridor adjacent), seminary represents a small quiet building they can go to every day to escape the chaos on a huge overcrowded highschool. After class, they are allowed to stay there and eat their lunch in peace, which I am grateful for. Beyond to that, I have zero expectations for seminary in terms of education, scriptural literacy, or spiritual development
Yes!!! “Without a solid foundation in the word of God, and continuing guidance and encouragement for a deeper study of scripture, it will be difficult to keep young people engaged and committed through the course of their lives.”
Thank you for articulating this. I was fortunate to spend a semester at BYU Jerusalem Center back when any member who was a college student and met the academic requirements could apply. The religion classes – taught by people with PhDs in subjects like ancient history – and what I learned are why I am still in the church.
@mountainclimber – the watered down version of seminary is why my teens do not attend. They only have so much class time in the school day and aren’t going to waste it in a class where they aren’t going to learn anything. CES could create ‘honors’ seminary. Or they could ‘raise the bar’ on making all classes more rigorous, while keeping the paltry graduation requirements, and they just might be surprised that kids show up when there is something worth showing up for.
I read Alder and a Jewish study Bible last year and https://netbible.com/ this year.
I’m really enjoying them.
But I’m amazed to think of the de minimus reading of the scriptures approach.
According to my memory, in the nineties the reading was “required” to get an ‘A’ but if you didn’t do it you would get a B and still graduate seminary. I didn’t read the Old Testament and got a b in seminar that year, I think. And yes, I “graduated” seminary. The grade in seminary doesn’t matter in real life of course, although BYU admissions my consider it.
I thought I learned a ton in seminary. I did the reading each year and memorized the scripture mastery
proof textsscriptures. I felt well prepared for missionary work.
And yet, when I got out of seminary, I didn’t know very much. I understand the origin of the Bible, or any version of the documentary hypothesis. I had never read any translation other than king James. I couldn’t tell biblical poetry from prose. And I had a lot of wrong ideas about who wrote which book of the New Testament.
When I look back at then my seminary classes like they were motivational, not educational. The whole point of seminary was to make you want to do the church things (read, pray, mission, get married). It was not permanently educational.
I should also note that the new New Testament translation sold by Deseret Book is well worth reading.
I even quote from it in my posts.
Discusses the update to it.
Thanks to everyone who has commented. The discussion has focused a lot of attention on seminary—which is not surprising given the title of the post—but my main point was that scripture study is being devalued and deemphasized in the LDS Church, with the changes in seminary graduation requirements as only the most recent example. (The original title for my post was “A Post-Scriptural Church.”)
Georgis, it is true that J. Reuben Clark’s 1956 “Why the King James Version” stopped any movement by Latter-day Saints towards adopting modern translations. His book was a condemnation of the Revised Standard Version, which had appeared in 1952 and was the first English translation to make use of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Clark had studied neither Hebrew nor Greek, and had no idea what he was talking about. He simply cut and pasted passages from scholars who had been opposed to the Revised Version of 1885, so his arguments were out of date by more than 60 years. When Clark’s book was republished by Deseret Book in 1979 to support the new LDS edition of the Bible, it was even more irrelevant. The real reason the Church continues to insist on the KJV is that the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are written in a similar archaic idiom that sounds “scriptural” to some ears. But there’s no reason these Restoration scriptures couldn’t be translated into modern English, just as they are translated into Spanish, French, Japanese, and Samoan.
Josh, I think it is pretty clear that the Brethren want their words to supersede scripture. The seminary, institute, and Come Follow Me manuals all give a lot of space and deference to conference talks that may relate to the verses under discussion. It seems as if our leaders do not want us to read scripture with an open heart and mind, and certainly not with reference to any scholarly expertise in languages or historical background; they would rather tell us what Jesus said, rather than encouraging us to contemplate his words on our own. This has recently been seen in several talks that explain exactly what the First and Second Great Commandants mean–how they don’t mean what most people think, and can sometimes be in conflict with each other.
Old Man and Laura, I mentioned the NIV because it is aimed at a high school reading level, and it’s what the religious peers of our LDS youth will be reading in most of the country. I do not care for NIV myself, which is slanted toward evangelical perspectives. I much prefer the NRSV, an ecumenical translation that is most broadly used version in academia. I find the NASB (Catholic) and the NJPS (Jewish) very helpful, as well as the Hebrew Bible translation by Robert Alter (Jewish) and the New Testament of David Bentley Hart (Orthodox)—but at this point we’re far beyond the capabilities of most high school students.
Elisa, I couldn’t figure out the intentions behind the 30 or so pages of required reading per semester, but your hypothesis that the selections emphasize the idea of a restoration/prophets and certain approved behaviors is certainly true of the Doctrinal Mastery scriptures. I agree that “the purpose of seminary seems much less about bringing people to Christ and more about bringing people to The Church.” I suspect that the Brethren would not see a difference between those goals, but independent scripture study (along with personal revelation) might start to show some differences between the two—as Instereo has noted.
The seminary program, is a program.
However since they treat it as if revealed by God himself it becomes a radicalized madrasa type instuition .
The LDS early morning seminary program was my final shelf breaker for disengaging with the church.
Matthew thank you for this post and for pointing out concerns that the church is decreasing its emphasis on scripture. I was recently put in my place after quoting a scripture in a second hour meeting. I was astounded. It was a well-loved scripture, but the lesson had gone in a direction of anti intellectualism at an extreme level. I guess it was too much for class members.
It’s a valid concern that we are pulling back from teaching and learning foundational scriptures that can work to keep perspectives centered and bring people to Christlike actions.
Stephen, my copy of the revised edition of the Wayment translation is definitely published by Greg Kofford books, though I believe the first edition was published by Deseret book. I admit to being intrigued by the change of publisher.
I am thoroughly disappointed with the very shallow understanding and abuses of scripture in current curricula materials. I am long disillusioned by CES..
@Tina, I totally agree with you that my one child (the one who is at BYU) would have benefited greatly from an “honors” seminary where the scriptures were taught in depth. This child would have loved this. I’m also sure that you are correct that there is some percentage of seminary students, like your kids, who would feel much better about seminary if they taught at a deeper level.
However, I’m pretty sure that a deeper study of the scriptures would have been a turn off for my other child. This child often complained about having to read and discuss scriptures in seminary class, so I think they would have just shut down even faster with a deeper study of scripture. Even watered down seminary didn’t work for this kid, and I really doubt that watering it down any further would have made a difference for them. From speaking with my kids, I get the sense that there are quite a few kids in this category as well. They are just at a point in their lives where they don’t want a 4 hour per week commitment to scripture/Church study in a classroom (and that doesn’t include the scripture reading requirements), and forcing them to do it against their will can be counterproductive.
I had an amazing seminary teacher who brought the scriptures to life and dealt with the difficult stuff – Mountain Meadows, polygamy, etc. I can trace my testimony directly to powerful lessons in seminary. Sadly, I increasingly think he was the exception.
I live in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Mormon corridor and my kids both hated seminary because the quality of materials/instruction was so poor (and this was paid CES staff; not volunteer local teachers.) My son graduated from seminary, but seminary only accelerated his departure from the church. He found lessons formulaic, predictable, and dull. My daughter did not graduate because of serious illness and her teacher was ridiculously inflexible about makeup work. (She read the entire Book of Mormon twice and he didn’t think that was good enough for that year’s credits.) I will point out that she has since served a mission, remained active, and loves reading and teaching the scriptures. As far as I can see, seminary had absolutely no positive impact on either of my kids.
I think the problem is deeper than just seminary but encompasses all of CES. My daughter spent one year at BYU-I and said that the religion classes were awful; just reheated seminary curriculum.
For those of us outside of church universities, even Sunday instruction is flat. I teach teen Sunday School and have completely abandoned the curriculum. I teach the scriptures – the context, the main actors, the doctrines taught therein. I promised my class that I would turn up prepared and would not teach them the same stuff they’ve heard before. It took a couple of months, but now they think and speak out in class and I believe they are finally learning something.
We have a curriculum that recycles bromides and platitudes and uses scriptures as shorthand but nothing is ever discussed in depth. We are so terrified of doubt that we avoid questions – when questions are the only way anyone will ever find answers. We need to have church instruction that motivates people to ask questions, dig deeply into their own beliefs, and question their own cultures. (Too often we act like it’s converts in other countries who need to give up un-Christlike customs when what we really need is a mirror.) Until we start asking the hard questions, we won’t change individually or collectively.
Where is the source of utmost, unadulterated, pure, reliable truth and doctrine? I could never nail that down and I still can’t to this day. 1) Is is revelation? 1a) Is it personal revelation? Well, personal revelation is only stressed when it is confirms what the leaders are already saying or what they determine to be true, right, moral, etc. If you claim personal revelation to make claims that run counter to what the leaders say, then it will be declared that you didn’t receive true revelation. 1b) Is it the leaders’ claimed revelations? Then, that’s tricky, because so much of what has been claimed to be words based on revelation in the past are now declared to be “speaking as men.”
2) Is it the scriptures? Well, a lot of what is in the scriptures does not square with what the leaders say and has been declared as the ancients “speaking as men.” A lot of the Book of Mormon has been suggested to be Joseph Smith interpolating the ancients and using his own words and thoughts to convey what the ancient American Christians and Jews probably said. Plus people arrive at all sorts of different interpretations through the scriptures that often don’t square with what the leaders say. Search the scriptures, yes, but you best search using caution.
3) Is it the manuals? Something that the leaders have confirmed to be true by unanimous vote? Well, even those keep changing. Consult old manuals and someone could well come along telling you you’re doing the wrong thing. Burn those old manuals. They contain misleading information.
And these are the same people who shout from the rooftops that science manuals are always changing and that pure doctrine is not, and that therefore that makes the pure doctrine even more reliable than science. OK, what is this so-called pure doctrine? It’s like nailing jelly to a wall.
I just got home from church, where I was reminded of another key indicator of our recent LDS retreat from scripture that I should have mentioned in the OP—sacrament meeting talks. Today, as happens nearly every Sunday, we heard two talks that were assigned on the same General Conference talk. It used to be that speakers were assigned to speak on a particular scripture story, or on a gospel principle that they were expected to research in the scriptures. But General Authority addresses have taken precedence over the Standard Works, and the only scriptures that were mentioned in sacrament meeting today were the two verses that had been quoted in the assigned conference talk, which were quite outnumbered by the number of times the apostle who originally gave the talk quoted other Church leaders. Talks about talks are a terrible development in the LDS Church today, and it must be jarring for any visitors who were hoping to hear something from the scriptures. Apparently the Brethren want their own words to be given more prominence than the canonized words of prophets who actually saw angels, performed miracles, and predicted the future, or even than the words of Christ himself.
Maple Mom, “We have a curriculum that recycles bromides and platitudes and uses scriptures as shorthand but nothing is ever discussed in depth. We are so terrified of doubt that we avoid questions – when questions are the only way anyone will ever find answers.”
This! We live in a complex world of ambiguities, competing values, mysteries, conflicts, and flaws. Everything interesting about life and humanity is messy and, well, human.
Our leaders are hellbent on presenting themselves as divine rather than human—but in the most boring way possible. The passions and complexities of life are replaced with plain dark suits and meetings. The meaning of life is presented as simple and correlated. Any deeper exploration of scripture is, therefore, inevitably bound to poke holes in the sanitized, correlated narrative and reveal church leaders past and present as flawed. To make church meaningful for younger generations, we need to put the human element back into being human.
With regard to seminary, the same training meeting that introduced the “seminary required reading blocks” also included a statistic that “seminary graduates are approximately 4.2 times more likely to participate in the Church in the future”—which is the primary goal of seminary. There are good reasons to be wary of numbers coming from Church headquarters (where transparency and honesty are not priorities, as we have all learned in the last week), but our leaders apparently do see some sort of correlation between seminary and church activity, despite the experiences reported by several commenters. I wonder if that correlation will hold up in the future. And if the key element is seminary graduation rather than seminary participation, that might explain why CES is trying to make graduation as easy as possible. The former “learning assessment,” which was sort of a joke of an exam, in which students had to get three-quarters of the questions correct for credit, has now been replaced with something even easier. If the graduation requirements are watered down to little more than 75% attendance, it’s hard to imagine what that accomplishment will actually mean in their lives.
@matthew, you’re right that this is an issue in the entire church – not just seminary.
The Come Follow Me manuals use more conference talks & GC quotes than they do scriptures. Sacrament talks are based on GC talks. Elders Quorum & RS are also GC talks. GC talks themselves only very rarely involve a close reading of scripture.
I am a cynic but it just seems to me that the things that are most important to the Brethren often are not even addressed in scripture at all—or, if addressed, are addressed in ways that are actually contrary to the Brethren’s views. Indeed, reading the NT carefully the first year of CFM really accelerated my faith transition.
I don’t think scriptures are perfect by any means, but at least they represent the thinking of millennia of people and cultures and are important historical and religious documents for millions of people. For that reason I find them much more interesting to engage with them than bland and didactic GC talks. So we are all the poorer for emphasizing the words of 15 elderly (mostly white) men over Christianity’s broader wisdom traditions.
This reminds me of an experience I had with a fellow wardmember who was really persuaded by Denver Snuffer’s teachings, especially the belief that we were trusting too much in “the arm of flesh” and not enough on personal revelation. What was our bishop’s response? Just trust our church leaders and follow the prophet. Zero recognition that this advice *reinforced* the concern and made things worse.
This is what church leaders seem to be doing, doubling down on the “follow the prophet” rhetoric to the point of using church curriculum to reinforce their authority rather than actually educate anyone. I get that Sunday meetings are meant to be devotional, but as church members, we need a decent background in the historical context of scripture that could be provided in seminary & institute. At our stake RS Activity last week, the speaker pieced together an incredibly bizarre collection of scripture verses that, in reality,had nothing to do with each other. I realize that our church is prone to people who like to craft conspiracy theories, but *undermining* scriptural education in this church is going to lead to MORE proof texting and misinformation, not less.
@Matthew, your “seminary graduates are approximately 4.2 times more likely to participate in the Church in the future” statistic is interesting. I actually wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s accurate. However, there is the whole “correlation isn’t necessarily causation” problem. The Church is probably assuming that seminary graduates are 4.2 times more likely to participate in the Church in the future *because* they graduated from the seminary program–that seminary is the cause of this phenomenon–but it seems like it would be quite hard to prove this.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a good control group here, and it seems like it would be really difficult to achieve a control group. Of course, what you’d need to do to get a proper control group is identify a random sample of Mormon teens starting their freshman year of high school. You’d have to tell this group of teens and their parents, “sorry, but you can’t participate in seminary because we’re doing a scientific study on the effects of seminary on future Church participation, and you’ve been randomly selected to be in the control group”. The problem is that a certain subset of Mormon families would never agree to participate in the study because they want their kids to be in seminary so badly because they strongly believe that seminary will significantly increase their students’ odds of continued Church participation, and without those kids in the study, it seems like you would have a very flawed sample of students. After all, it might just be things that those families (the ones who would insist that their kids be allowed to take seminary, and who would also insist that their kids graduate from seminary) are doing on their own that is causing their kids to be much more likely to participate in the Church in the future–seminary may not have as much of an effect on them as the Church believes. You’d then compare the future Church participation of Mormon teens overall with the Church participation of the Mormon teens in the control group. Only then, would you be able to accurately measure the effect of seminary of future Church participation. I mean, I guess maybe the Church could look at areas just before seminary became available in places in the world where the Church is new and compare the numbers to just after seminary became available. That could possibly be interesting, but those places in the world are pretty different than the US/Mormon Corridor, so I don’t know if it would be valid to extrapolate the results to here. I really am unsure how the Church can assume that seminary is causing such a remarkable increase in Church participation without having some way of doing a scientific study. Maybe there is a way to do such a study that I can’t think of off the top of my head (I’m not a statistician)? Without such a scientific study, it seems like it’s entirely possible that the effectiveness of seminary could be much lower than the claimed 4.2 times more likely to participate in the Church in the future.
CES and their abuse of statistics to justify their demands.. they’re forever conflating correlation with causation, in my experience… it needn’t even necessarily be anything the families are doing, so much as the temperament of the kids.. those who find seminary suits them are the same that find the church to be a good fit as adults.. I can’t believe watering down the programme is likely to get better results. It could well result in losing kids they might otherwise have kept, in my view..
I taught Institute for one year only, 25 years ago now, and at the time the big push was YSAs who attend Institute get married at higher rates than those who don’t.,, so we have to get all YSAs to Institute.. we weren’t given the details, it was basically get them to Institute so they’ll get married… it was this kind of nonsense that put me off teaching seminary and Institute..,
It sucks, but doesn’t it suck less than the “just read whatever” in place before? (Not BEFORE before; I remember learning a lot as we went through pretty much each chapter in the late 90s.)
But yeah, I’ll join the chorus of lament for scripture-illiterate youth. When we were studying NT last time, at home I would periodically quiz my kids on things I considered basic knowledge a Christian should grow up with. In my middle schooler’s Sunday school class, they played a trivia game, and the question that stumped all the kids was what were the Gospels. My son finally named them off, and the kids wanted to know how he possibly knew that.
(I can’t resist adding that the bishop’s daughter was among those who didn’t know, and the bishop would occasionally pull my husband aside to talk about me, the problematic, less-believing wife.)
More recently, I was frustrated when my bishop (different one) challenged the youth to read the BofM at the beginning of last year’s OT rotation. No better way to show the kids how unimportant the Bible is to us.
Great post and discussion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Matthew.
Armand Mauss made the trenchant observation decades ago that “Church education” was about indoctrination, not education. That has only become more true as the years have passed. Any scripturally educated Mormon is almost by definition a self-educated Mormon as far as scriptures and theology and Christian history go. It’s hard to believe that the LDS Sunday School curriculum could get worse — and I was hoping putting Elder Uchtdorf in charge of Curriculum would help — but it seems like it did. “Home centered, Church supported” can be interpreted in many ways. “Don’t expect us to teach you anything” is one reasonable and fairly accurate interpretation.
As for seminary … I think what CES teachers *think* they are doing (educating young LDS in the scriptures and LDS doctrine) is not what LDS leaders hope they are doing (in some not-quite-understood way setting young LDS up for a life of full activity in the LDS Church, starting with a mission and temple marriage). Honestly, neither of those beliefs is what is *really* going on for LDS youth in seminary. But CES and leadership seem unwilling and largely unable to reassess either the goals of the program, its actual performance, or how to achieve the outcomes they want. We’re really short-changing our LDS youth!
Matthew, to your prompting about this post being more about Latter-day Saint member and leader scriptural apathy, in our adult Sunday School (the class formerly known as Gospel Doctrine) for the first Sunday in January, the teacher asked why we might have a tough time with the New Testament, and I was heartened when one brave soul raised his hand and said that he didn’t really read it growing up because it wasn’t emphasized compared to the Book of Mormon (he’s in his mid 40s) and he feels now like he doesn’t have the same grasp on it as someone from another Christian denomination has with a comparable amount of “hours in the pews” (he’s been attending his whole life). I fully expected some harsh rebukes from a few in class, but to my surprise, there were a ton of nods and murmurs of agreement. We simply don’t want to take the Bible too seriously for reasons the good folks on here have identified.
As for the New Testament itself, I don’t think it’s so much the Gospels (though I do think faithful members really struggle with the idea of accounts of Jesus’s life that can’t simply be chalked up to the idea that “Oh Matthew was writing to the Jews so that’s why his and John’s accounts are so different from each other.”), but rather the epistles that give members trouble and makes them flee back to the Book of Mormon (which has very little to say about things that occupy an important place in Latter-day Saint practices, temples being at the top of that list). Maybe he totally makes sense in Koine Greek, but Paul (and Pseudepigrapha Paul) as translated into English would receive an F from any English teacher I ever had. On top of being hard to understand (even with a more modern translation), he is REALLY hard to fit into Latter-day Saint doctrine. He really is all about faith over works and much of what he writes is, on its face, simply incompatible with how Latter-day Saints view salvation, let alone exaltation. To even start to make sense of it, I find you have to have the courage to say that Paul got things wrong (e.g., The idea of celibacy being better than marriage makes sense if you believe Jesus is literally coming back any day now and that you don’t want to expose pregnant women and little babies to the horrors and suffering of the end of the world. The problem is that Paul was wrong about Jesus’s return being imminent, but unless you’re willing to call out an apostle as being very wrong about something very important, you can’t really make that argument about Paul).
I’ll not waste my time with discussion of the Book of Revelation, because I’m fairly convinced it’s not inspired scripture. If anything, it may be a re-worked Jewish apocalypse that had references to Jesus inserted into it to transform it into a Christian work. Regardless, I don’t find it to be helpful, and the amount of time and money people have wasted trying to understand it or pay someone to explain it to them, far exceeds the value Christians have drawn from it (Revelation 21:3-4 excepted).
Not A Cougar,
I’ve long gotten than vibe from believers about the NT vs. the BOM. The Book of Mormon is more understandable, is what I keep hearing from believers. The NT has strange verbiage and stories that just don’t quite make sense. The NT is a book that needs a lot of context to gain insight from. The OT even more so. Which leads me to be believe all the more that the BOM is a 19th-century concoction. If it really did come from the ancient Americas 2200BC-400AD, its writings would probably be a bit more difficult to derive sense out of, as any ancient text, be it from Egypt or China, tends to be.
John, sure it’s inconceivable/possible/probable/certain (depending on who you talk to) that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century invention, but I think the appeal is much more that the Book of Mormon does explicitly what Christians wish the Old Testament would do, be a Christian document that clearly and unequivocally place Jesus at the origin and heart of Israelite religious practice. Sure, you can cherry pick verses and shoehorn Jesus into the OT in ways that essentially ignores Jewish voices and contrary archaeological and textual criticism, but the Book of Mormon doesn’t force you to do any of that. He’s clearly identified on every page. His name, life, and mission are clearly and minutely copied down hundreds and thousands of years before his coming.
Even better, that bore of a read, the Law of Moses is largely shoved offstage and transformed into “this thing we do but don’t write about while waiting for Jesus to show up” and you’re not forced to wrestle with the parts of it that really don’t fit well with modern Christianity (slavery for example).
Finally, it places America on a pedestal. It’s the new promised land and the location of the New Jerusalem. What great news for a restorationist movement founded in America.
Oof, these last few comments about the BoM are very insightful. Thanks all.
Once you start seeing the BOM as a white Christian nationalist narrative, it’s hard to unsee.
As the last few commenters have noted, the Book of Mormon, even with its archaic diction, is easier to read and understand than the King James Bible. But for church leaders, the solution is not to encourage reading in modern translations or to provide more historical and literary background; rather, they would prefer that members not really read the Bible at all, apart from a few favorite verses and devotional thoughts from conference talks–which is basically the Come Follow Me curriculum. (Mary Ann noted above that church leaders are “doubling down on the ‘follow the prophet’ rhetoric to the point of using church curriculum to reinforce their authority rather than actually educate anyone.” Ouch. But the same thing happened with the revised seminary manuals that started appearing in 2015 and were the prototypes for the CFM manuals.)
“Home-centered, Church-supported” means that the Church isn’t offering anything for Latter-day Saints who want to study the scriptures more deeply. If that’s something that is important in your house, go for it. But don’t expect any help from the Church. This could be interpreted as the leadership abdicating, or defaulting on, their teaching authority, Not everyone is interested in the scriptures, of course, but for those who think that continuing revelation should be based on a solid foundation of scripture, there is a famine of hearing the words of the Lord in our church meetings. LDS podcasters, including numerous BYU professors, have rushed to fill the void, and interestingly, non-members are also realizing that this is an unmet need in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For instance, Pastor Jeff McCullough, of “Hello Saints” (with more than 38,000 subscribers, most of whom I assume are LDS), has started his own Come Follow Me series in his ministry to Latter-day Saints. He uses the NIV rather than the KJV and presents an evangelical take on the week’s CFM reading. He’s not doing anything extraordinary, just regular evangelical preaching (which is not my cup of tea), but he knows more about the New Testament than almost anyone in the Church Office Building. In our aversion to being “trained for the ministry,” we have lay leaders and full-time church employees who know less about the Bible and biblical scholarship than freshman college students who have taken an introductory course in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament at any secular university in the country. A basic understanding of the Bible could be gained by simply reading a mainstream introductory textbook like those written by Michael Coogan, Bart Ehrman, or Luke Timothy Johnson (BYU, of course, does not teach such courses).
This sort of basic understanding could help keep apostles from saying outrageous things, as when Elder Renland compared latter-day prophets to Balaam in the April 2002 conference. (He clearly had no idea of how Balaam fit into the wider narrative of Numbers or how he is regarded in the New Testament.) Similarly, Elder Bednar could have avoided his disastrous October conference talk about appropriate wedding garments if he knew more about parables and their interpretation, or about how to identify reliable sources for biblical scholarship (to say nothing of his plagiarism). I love the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days and I want to sustain our leaders, but I feel like we are moving in the wrong direction with regard to the scriptures. The Church could be doing so much more in fostering the study, understanding, and application the word of God.
Elisa, I give all credit to Kevin Barney for his 2016 By Common Consent post “Yo, Dre, I Got Something to Say,” as the inspiration for my musings above on the Book of Mormon. It’s a thought-provoking post that assumes arguendo that the Book of Mormon is not historical and then discusses reasons why Joseph Smith might have created a record with ancient prophets in it to get the wider world to listen to his thoughts on Christianity.
Sorry, I was referring to Elder Renland’s conference address in 2022 (not 2002), the one where he discouraged talking about Mother in Heaven.