Evangelicals Need Inoculation Too

I hope you have seen the recent public announcement of the initiative to use the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org to essentially do what we have been calling “inoculation” for the last ten years (see here for a list of links to Bloggernacle posts on the topic). The three short video interviews of General Authorities listed at the top of the Gospel Topics page (identified with titles like “How will Gospel Topics be enhanced?” rather than identified as GA interviews) give additional details about the initiative. While there is a lot of ground to cover, this is a very promising development. We should nominate whoever championed this initiative for Mormon of the Year.

So now that it’s happening, what else can we say about inoculation that hasn’t already been said? For one thing, it is not just an LDS problem. Youth of all denominations face faith challenges when they leave the supporting environment of home, family, and church to enter college. Perhaps that has always been true, but it seems like more of a general issue today than it has in the past. Here is Bart Ehrman’s short description of the challenges he sees undergraduates (largely Evangelical students) encounter when they eagerly take his Intro to the New Testament course at UNC Chapel Hill, as related in his most recent book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012):

Every spring semester at Chapel Hill I teach my undergraduate course Introduction to the New Testament. My students are smart, interesting, and interested: the majority of them are Bible-believing Christians. We spend a good portion of the semester — over half of it — studying the early Christian Gospels and then the life of the historical Jesus. To most of the students almost everything in the class is a complete revelation. Even though most of them were raised in the church and attended Sunday school for a good portion of their lives, they have never heard anything like what they learn in this class. That is because rather than teaching about the Bible from a theological, confessional, or devotional perspective, I teach the class — as is only appropriate in a state-supported, secular, research university — from a historical point of view.

What do his students hear, and how do they react?

Many of my students are surprised, dismayed, and sometimes even depressed (or, alternatively, liberated!) as they acquire historical knowledge about the New Testament. They hear, often for the first time, that we do not know who the authors of the Gospels actually were other than that they were almost certainly not the Aramaic-speaking lower-class peasants who made up the earthly disciples of Jesus. They learn that the different Gospels present very different portrayals of who Jesus was, what he stood for, and what he preached and that the New Testament tales of Jesus are full of discrepancies in matters both large and small. Many students are especially taken aback when they realize that even though the Gospels appear to be presenting historical accounts of Jesus’s life, much of the material in the Gospels in fact is not historically reliable.

So here are a few general comments on this evolving topic.

  • It appears that Evangelical students are likely to “hit the wall,” so to speak, when they start college, from their biology class that covers evolution if not from an undergraduate Bible class. LDS students will likely encounter the same sort of issues (the Bible issues, plus our own unique Mormon issues, but not evolution, which isn’t an issue for most LDS) later, in graduate school or through personal study years later. And the older you are, the tougher those delayed childhood diseases will hit you.
  • The enhanced articles being posted in the Gospel Topics section at LDS.org give LDS parents a resource for discussing troubling issues with their kids (the video interviews specifically state this as a purpose of the new articles), essentially inoculation-in-the-home. They may also be a way to introduce discussion of these topics into the LDS curriculum, but it is unclear whether the folks who write manuals will incorporate this material into their lessons. I don’t know if they follow current events at LDS.org or in Mormon Studies. I don’t know if they read Bloggernacle posts about inoculation. I don’t know if they read books. Who really knows what guides LDS curriculum writers?
  • Where’s the LDS Newsroom on this? Not a peep from them on this seemingly big development, even though the media is running with the story of the new Race and the Priesthood page.
  • For an initiative like this, there are intended consequences and there are unintended consequences. I wonder how this will play out over the next couple of years?

7 comments for “Evangelicals Need Inoculation Too

  1. Dave, I too wonder how important this initiative is to the Church, considering the absence of any advertisement that would reach even a majority of Church members. Or maybe they think its only for those who go looking for it anyway. Same with other “big developments” like the statements on race and (a few years back)homosexuality. Since communication is pretty much what the Church does best (and what it prides itself on), I have a hard time believing that this understated roll-out is unintended.

    That being said, its a start and its much more faith promoting when the Church (or a parent) is addressing these issues – opposed to allowing the troubling facts of history or doctrine sneak up on people. (like in the case of Ehrman’s course) From the other thread, Evangelical scholars like Peter Enns are proving (in my view) that Biblical issue don’t have to break a Christian’s faith – if we adjust our expectations. That’s where Mormons will have to start as well.

  2. It’s not just the youth that need ‘inoculation.’ It hasn’t been a month since the priesthood ban was a topic in our Gospel doctrine class, where I raised my hand and suggested that the church was suggesting with the new edition of the scriptures that the ban was a result of the attitudes of the saints and not by revelation from God. My comment was met by a bevy of hands by white-haired brethren on a mission to refute me or at least back pedal and change the subject. (Job 32:5-9 has always been a favorite scripture passage of mine to pull out for this reason.) I wonder what they would say now? I suspect since the reasons for the ban aren’t said but implied, they would still play the “we don’t know why” card.

  3. Will F (#1), the statement at the LDS Newsroom that you linked to, plus a shorter statement dated Feb. 29, 2012 also posted at the LDS Newsroom, were issued just a day or two after the Washington Post article quoted BYU Religion prof Randy Bott sharing his views about possible justifications for the pre-1978 priesthood restrictions. Some cross-links to the new Race and the Priesthood page have been added to the statement you linked, but the text is, I believe, unchanged. Those two Newsroom statements were the initial official reaction to the Bott story when it broke; I suspect the new Race and the Priesthood page is a more detailed and considered response to the Bott story and also to the more general problem of persistent racist folklore. What Bott said to a reporter is voiced in hundreds of LDS Sunday School classes around the world whenever the topic comes up. That’s the real problem.

    Of more interest is a post that went up at the Gospel Topics page a couple of weeks ago, which received little or no attention at the time but which lays out in some detail the changes to and plans for the new and improved Gospel Topics site.


  4. Christian J (#2), in light of comments in the Deseret News article (first link in the post) and the discussion at the Gospel Topics site (linked in the comment above), I think LDS leaders consider this a significant development, one they hope families and individuals will use to deal with faith issues. I think it will get some attention in the next round of worldwide training seminars and probably in a conference talk or two in April.

  5. We need more people like Susan (3) willing to speak up in lessons, or at least an Ensign article refuting some of the folklore that people cling to.

  6. Chet, I agree that the signal to noise ratio in Sunday School needs improvement, whether by better comments from informed class members or from an informed teacher. Of course, there is an art to the thing. Prefacing a comment with “there is another way to look at this question” is better than “here’s the way it really is.” The manuals don’t really help much, which is a big part of the problem. The new articles at LDS.org suggest a new awareness of the need to provide accurate information along with the incessant exhortations to serve in callings, read the scriptures, pay your tithing, and teach your children.

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