I was recently called as my ward’s early-morning seminary teacher. I’ll pause to let you all wince.
There are many challenges to this calling, but, to my surprise, waking up at 5:15 AM is not the greatest challenge. (This isn’t to say it’s the smallest challenge, either; I’m not a morning person, at all, and I freely admit to having some very un-Christian feelings in my heart–and words in my mouth–when that alarm goes off.)
No, the greatest challenge for me so far is walking the line between true and useful, as Boyd K. Packer would put it. We’re studying the D&C and church history this year, and I’m a total church history hobbyist: though by no means a professional historian, I’ve spent the past few years reading through “best of” lists of church history books (guided in part by the Bloggernacle; thank you, everyone!), and I’d like to think I’m a little more educated than the average bear, for good or ill. While this has its obvious benefits for seminary teaching—I spend a lot less time on preparation than I might otherwise–it also brings up a huge question: how much of this fancy book-larnin’ should I share with my students?
A big part of me wants to answer that with “all of it.” I, as a high schooler, would have loved to hear about the warts of church history; I’ve always struggled with being bored in Church, and the sleepiness of early-morning seminary didn’t help. Information about, say, Joseph Smith practicing polygamy would have at least kept me awake and paying attention. Furthermore, somewhat paradoxically, I think my recent reading in church history has been great for my own testimony and commitment to the Church; encountering the historical challenges found in the best books brought me away from the boredom I had been feeling and to an appreciation of some of the thorny intellectual problems posed by a commitment to Mormonism. But, of course, I’ve heard enough stories, both on the internet and in real life, to know that this isn’t the case for everyone.
I’m aware of this, and I’m trying to be sensitive to it, really I am. And yet it seems like every other day in seminary I open my mouth and something tumbles out; so far this year I’ve touched on Joseph Smith and polygamy (Mary Elizabeth Rollins, Fanny Alger, Patty Sessions, Zina Huntington Young, Helen Mar Kimball, Eliza R. Snow, and Agnes Coolbrith have all been mentioned by name), peep stones and treasure-hunting, Helmuth Hubener’s excommunication, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Dixie Wine Mission and the changing Word of Wisdom standards, the priesthood ban, the Kirtland bank failures, and probably some other topics that I’m forgetting right now. And I only teach every other day.
Clearly, if “true” and “useful” are really dichotomous, I’ve opted for “true.” But of course I don’t think they are, and in choosing to bring these topics up in seminary, I feel that I’m just practicing good spiritual medicine by giving my students a little inoculation. The way information spreads these days, it’s hard to imagine any of my students living their entire lives without learning about these issues, and wouldn’t it better to at least hear it taught by a faithful member, in a faithful context? Wouldn’t it be better if they could see, every other day, a model of a member who knows about difficult X, controversial Y, and faith-challenging Z, and stays in the Church anyway? Or, more realistically, wouldn’t it be better if, when they stumble on this information later in life, they can say to themselves, “Oh yeah, I think my seminary teacher mentioned that once!”?
That is the most important point to me: I don’t want my students to ever feel like they have been lied to. A few years ago, I got into an intense church-bathroom conversation with a fellow ward member, a college junior first working her way towards feminism. The topic of polygamy came up, and she was quick to decry it, to say how disturbing it was to her. “But,” she said, “I take comfort in the fact that at least Joseph Smith never practiced it. He said he could never hurt Emma in that way.” Who had taught her this? A well-meaning seminary or Sunday School teacher, probably, hoping to protect her by withholding or sugar-coating information; instead, the approach backfired, as it meant her already-fragile testimony rested partly on a patch of sand.
Inoculation has its dangers, of course; to continue the medical metaphor, overdo inoculation and you can end up with infection, an entire class of seminary students disillusioned and troubled about the Church and its history. I’m trying to practice it responsibly; most days, we focus only on big-picture gospel principles or fun object lessons, and when I do bring up controversial topics, I try hard to present an apologist’s viewpoint as well. Plus, my students have reacted very well, so far; they’re either smart enough or sleepy enough not to seem especially bothered, in most cases. (I did get some wide eyes when I brought up Joseph Smith’s 27 wives, though I think they were more surprised by the number than the concept itself.) Yet I know mine is not the standard approach; I certainly never got any of these discussions in seminary, and judging by the manual’s curriculum, most other people aren’t either.
So this is my struggle, every other morning at 6:15 AM: where do I draw the line? When do my attempts at inoculation go overboard and result in infection? Should I just shut up about my stupid meat and teach the milk already? Or should I assume that the students are already getting plenty of milk in their other classes on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday and focus on deeper discussions of history?
What is the ideal, do you think? What have your experiences been when dealing with this issue in Church instruction, as either a student or teacher?