When gospel teaching includes the ‘what’ and the ‘how’

09.19.2019 | The Maxwell Institute

From Rosalynde Welch of the Maxwell Institute’s advisory board

I just started a new calling as early morning seminary teacher. This role is testing me in a dozen different ways as I figure out how to handle sleep deprivation and relentless lesson preparation and teens at six in the morning. But it’s been a valuable crash course in the two main elements of teaching: the what and the how.

Every time I sit down to prepare a lesson, I’m torn between two objectives: First, to convey what the gospel means; and second, to give students an experience of how the gospel grows in our souls. If I lean too hard on the what, students may not care enough to come back the next day, no matter how knowledgeable my lesson. If I lean too hard on the how, I risk serving up “spiritual Twinkies” that ultimately won’t keep them spiritually nourished.

This impulse to teach—a central and distinctive practice for Latter-day Saints—is at the heart of a variety of books I reviewed for the most recent issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. [Editor’s note: you can download that article for free until tomorrow here!] Oriented in one way or another around questions of belief and doubt, each of the books fundamentally aims to teach. Some aim to prevent doubt by equipping Saints who are already strong in their faith with candid and faithful answers to pointed questions about sensitive topics in Church history and teaching. Others aim to help those who are currently in faith crisis.

As I read these books, I noted where their respective emphases fell on the spectrum between the what and the how. Some are largely informative, offering specific meanings to prevent or resolve doubt. They lean toward the what. Borrowing a term from textual studies, I called this the “semantic approach” to belief and doubt. These authors take a cue from Nephi, who, during his vision of the tree of life, is eager to know the meaning of each symbolic element (see 1 Nephi 11).

Other authors lean toward the how, offering frameworks or existential orientations, rather than specific answers to questions. This I called the “performative approach,” and I compared it to Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, wherein Lehi is most anxious for his family to taste the fruit, not to know its meaning (see 1 Nephi 8).

Intriguingly, the first set of authors generally aimed to prevent or alleviate disruptions to faith, whereas the second set aimed to acknowledge and enlist doubt as a part of life that can be used fruitfully.

The question of audience is important in all this. Who are the authors trying to reach? This question could have used more attention in my essay, particularly with regard to Laura Hales’s A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History. My discussion may have given the impression that the book Hales edited is meant to speak directly to Latter-day Saints in the midst of a faith crisis. I suggested her book may not be best suited to assuage concerns at that stage. Hales makes clear in the introduction to her book, however, that this is not its purpose, which instead is intended as a primer “to provide the most recent research by top LDS scholars and to create a safe environment for exploration within a faithful framework” (xiii).

When I wrote that her book would be unlikely to nourish individuals who, for whatever reason, cannot rely on an existing framework of faith, I thus only observed that the book would not do the kind of work it’s not intended to do, and my comments missed the mark in that sense (245). But, as I stated in the essay, the book does its intended work very well: To provide information to believing Latter-day Saints about difficult issues in Church history and doctrine.

The work of teaching one another the word of God happens at every hour of the day—even six a.m.—in every Latter-day Saint home, meetinghouse, and temple. Teaching each other what and how to teach is thus a matter of central importance. We are living in something of a golden age for “semantic” or information-oriented teaching resources from both official Latter-day Saint channels and the larger community of Saints. The how is more elusive, rather like catching lightning in a bottle. But the word of God must act on our minds and our hearts. Attention to the performative dimension of our teaching practices is the sunlight that will allow the powerful ideas of the Restoration to grow in our hearts.

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Rosalynde Frandsen Welch is an independent scholar who often writes about Latter-day  theology, literature, and culture. She is a member of the Maxwell Institute’s Advisory Board and author of a forthcoming book in the Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions series, focusing on the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon.