Teaching Institute: Finding my Bearings in a Sea of Scholarship
Over a month ago, I was called to be our stake’s institute teacher. For the uninitiated, that means I teach a church class once a week to young adults, usually on a book of scripture. I was very excited for the calling; I have spent the last three years teaching a youth Sunday School class to 12-year old boys, and while I loved hanging out with the kids, it will be nice to teach students who are polite enough to at least hide the fact that they are deadly bored instead of making it painfully obvious every ten minutes.
I’m teaching the New Testament this year, which has been a blessing and a curse. I love the New Testament, especially the four gospels. It’s the heart of Christian living, and each work is brilliantly written in its own way. But it’s a curse, too, because it has a history, a foreign language, and a solid 2000 year-gulf that we have to traverse each class period. New Critical methods that insist we stick with the “text” and not try to delve too much into historical context or authorial intent can be a helpful way to bracket a lot of questions I simply don’t know how to answer, but at some point the teacher feels responsible for providing more information, background, and insight than can be gleaned for personal study. While I would never pretend to be a New Testament scholar, I feel it is important that my students at least know that it exists, or that I at least am aware of that scholarship and verify that my teachings and insights are built on the sandy foundation of mistranslations or textual inaccuracies.
And this is where I’ve been startled to realize how helpless I am as a lay-instructor of an LDS New Testament class. While Mormons read the scriptures a lot–daily, we are instructed–we are essentially reading in a demilitarized zone, cut off from modern translations, scholarship, or commentaries. We are one of the last Christian churches to still use the King James Version of the Bible, and our sparse linguistic footnotes and densely-printed double-columns can make the difficult language nearly impenetrable. On top of that, we have very little sense of where our scriptures even come from, or the context in which they were written: who wrote each book, exactly? What year were they written? If the authors weren’t eyewitnesses, where were they getting their information?
Not only do these questions never get raised, but there is never any sense for how a lay Mormon might go about to answer them. I generally consider myself to be a curious Mormon who wants to learn more about the Bible and is willing to accept that many of my traditional notions about it might be wrong. At the recommendation of a good friend and biblical scholar, I purchased the New Oxford Annotated Bible (based on the NRSV translation). Yet when I sought a couple of commentaries or biblical introductions in the Notre Dame library, I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of material looming over me, mocking my ignorance and taunting me to dare chip away at it. It didn’t take long to realize that the solution was more complicated than simply grabbing a commentary and start reading: each commentary has its own particular emphasis, with its own theological leanings, and its own level of academic rigor. Some were pastoral, designed to be references for writing sermons. Other were academic tomes aimed at parsing individual words or phrases. Some had social or political concerns in mind. None, I was sure, was at all interested in how the Sermon on the Mount compared with 3 Nephi 12-14.
I had come face-to-face with a serious problem with church instruction that relied strictly on lay members: where is a curious Mormon to turn for some direction on how to study the bible? The church handbook, I was surprised to find, insisted on only reading the KJV in English, was openly wary about non-correlated commentaries, and counseled that studying by the Spirit was sufficient. Fair enough, but what about all the scriptures insisting we seek knowledge by study as well as faith, and to seek out the best books? It quickly became apparent that for a Mormon instructor, even an institute teacher, there were no directions or suggestions for biblical study beyond the LDS Standard Works. There is of course the manuals for each standard works, but each are nearing 40 years old, and for a church that insists on continuing revelation, it is more than slightly ironic that the views of apostles and presidents from the 1970s continue to hold disproportionate sway over scriptural and doctrinal interpretation. Of course, no one wants devotional classes to become a history lesson. But for a church whose founder, though he claimed to receive direction revelation, studied biblical languages and translations voraciously, we could be more open to incorporating knowledge with faith.
The problem is not merely that we don’t know enough about the Bible, but that we don’t even know where to go to learn more. Most churches expect their pastors to have at least more than amateur knowledge of the texts they are teaching. Where does the Mormon church-goer turn to? Who do they trust? If we venture beyond the bounds of correlated material, how does one find their bearings in a sea of biblical scholarship that is probably more vast than any academic topic out there? With lay teachers and lay leaders, we are less comfortable than most trusting “experts” with scriptural interpretation or analysis, and yet it is obvious to almost everyone that a little expert advice would go a long way to making sense of these works.
I have a lot more to say on this topic, but I’ll stop for now. This institute thing has been an experiment, as I’ve tried to figure out the best way to not only learn the most I can but teach the most effectively possible. I’ll try and post periodically on this to help me reflect on the process.