I listened to this episode of Mormon Matters on my hour-long subway ride yesterday. It’s always nice to have a little conversation going on that I can invest my time in during a long commute. (Yay public transportation! But that’s another post.)
I appreciated the discussion between three very wise and thoughtful ladies – Fiona Givens, Joanna Brooks, and Jana Riess. I look forward to reading the Givenses’ book (maybe I can talk my husband into us “needing” the Kindle edition). But I do want to share my thoughts about the dissatisfaction expressed toward the correlated Church curriculum.
I’m not sure when “correlation” turned into a scorned concept, but I guess I can see how people could feel that the limitations of official Church manuals and materials were a subtle attempt to squash and control the inclusion of other great thoughts from outside sources. I’d like to offer an alternate viewpoint. First of all, I would point to Preach My Gospel and “Come, Follow Me,” the Church’s newest youth curriculum. For anyone who feels that the institutional Church wants you to parrot back pre-approved paragraphs from a lesson manual, these two approaches to teaching are absolutely amazing. I’d encourage you to look through and even use them for some of your lessons. It’s beautiful the way we’ve been learning line upon line about effective teaching and learning and what that means for our ability to reach out to the diverse group of saints and those interested in the Church.
Secondly, I’d like to offer up the perspective of what correlation means for a worldwide church. I grew up in an area in the American West where Latter-day Saints were still a minority but where conservative politics were a big way of life for everyone and I was under plenty of cultural and social pressure to believe that the Church and the Republican party were basically the same in purpose. Not that I begrudge my Republican friends within the Church of their right to be active in politics as they see fit, but in spite of a well-correlated Church curriculum, I still had plenty of experience with “personal insights” being presented as Gospel truth. I still struggle when friends and family feel that my political attitudes are not sufficiently “Mormon” enough and that there must be something going wrong. I’m always refreshed when Sunday meetings bring a reprieve from this and we can teach and learn principles from the Scriptures and General Conference that let us for once talk and listen as brothers and sisters in the Gospel. I’m grateful for the doctrines of the Church being presented through official channels and the personal interpretations being left (for the most part) in the private conversations in which they belong.
Now, extrapolate that out to the worldwide Church. I’ve lived in various East Asian countries over the past few years and I’ve seen what the Church means there. Let me tell you, there are enough linguistic and cultural differences for the Gospel to struggle through without throwing an uncentralized, heavily academic set of doctrinal expectations into the mix. As a missionary in Japan I made it a point to get rid of non-official stories, poems and handouts that were all over the sister missionaries’ apartments. Not because these things were made with ill intentions, but because there was too much at stake in terms of translation, both linguistically and culturally, to be passing these things around to members and investigators as examples of Mormon doctrine. I went to an FHE gathering with mostly newly-baptized members where someone read a translated version of an email story about trees that grew up to be Christ’s cradle, boat and cross. The discussion then spun off into a confused debate about whether plants have spirits. Now, there’s a time and a place for people to talk about things of interest on their own, but it’s really dangerous when things are coming through official-seeming channels and new converts, especially those from non-Western backgrounds, are trying to make sense of what their new religion actually teaches. I was SO grateful throughout my mission for the standardized set of Church materials available in a variety of languages. I liked that in multi-lingual meetings, where we had a sister teaching in Japanese and I was sitting there with a Chinese and a Filipina investigator on either side, that I could hand each of them a manual in their native language and I could help them follow along.
As fascinating and worthwhile as theology influenced by medieval and renaissance-era Western philosophy can be to a certain demographic of Western Latter-day Saints, there are plenty of good reasons that we can’t make it our Sunday School manual. Academia (through the nature of its primary creators) is, currently, profoundly ethnocentric. As a Church, we have to teach the basic principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – not because we’re dumbing things down but because we’re translating across linguistic and cultural divides and we need to focus on the truths that are vital to all of us. I LOVE that the newest curriculums constantly prompt teachers to ask the class for personal experience and insight. Seriously, almost every other sentence of the Gospel Doctrine manual says “Read this scripture and then ask the class how they’ve experienced this principle in their lives.” That is how we’re doing our best to adapt a very profound and beautiful worldview to a variety of cultures and peoples. And it’s not even a cop-out. Some of the best and most profound discussions I’ve had with very intelligent and scholarly friends have come when we’ve addressed a simple question like “What have the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel meant to you in your life?”