Your New and Improved BYU Religion Core

After several days of rampant speculation and gnashing of teeth (here, here, here, and here) the new BYU religion core has been officially announced at

Here is what the announcement says:

The Church Board of Education and Boards of Trustees for BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii and LDS Business College have approved four new courses, to be introduced in 2015 and 2016 at all Church universities and Institutes of Religion. These new courses are intended to be cornerstones of your religious education experience. They are centered in the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets, with a focus on the Savior, His doctrine, and significant events in Church history.

The announcement gives the course titles of the four new classes as:

  1. Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel
  2. Foundations of the Restoration
  3. The Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon
  4. The Eternal Family

BYU Religion Education has a page up giving short course descriptions for the beta versions of the first three courses. It’s not clear to me if these are for next semester or if they are presently being taught. Here is the blurb for Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon:

Because of the Book of Mormon’s pivotal roles both in defining LDS doctrine and highlighting contemporary challenges, understanding the nature of the Book of Mormon societies and the spiritual principles taught to them in their own context is essential to harnessing the insights the book has to offer. This course is specifically designed to explore these contexts and study in-depth key doctrine and teachings throughout the entire Book of Mormon, thereby aiding the student to more effectively use the Book of Mormon.

For Christ and the Everlasting Gospel:

Our goal in this history-making course is to explore together the relationship of the two greatest matters of eternal consequence: our Heavenly Father’s great plan of happiness or everlasting covenant, which is also the gospel covenant, and the messenger of the covenant, who is Jesus Christ, the one, and only one, who puts into effect all the terms and conditions of the everlasting covenant. The two, the everlasting covenant and Jesus Christ, go together inseparably (John 1:1; JST John 1;1; D&C 93:8).

And for Foundations of the Restoration:

An exploration of foundational doctrines, documents, and history of the Church, including core sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, events of early Church history, and other topics related to the Restoration.

Nothing posted yet on The Eternal Family. Personally, I’d rather get a root canal than sit through a semester-long course on this topic. I’m happy to enjoy my eternal family, I’m just not that into talking about it. For an entire semester. Under the watchful eye of a conservative BYU religion prof who, at the end of the course, is going to give you a grade reflecting how well you can mimic, in short essays and multiple choice questions, the way your great-grandparents thought about race, gender, and sexuality.

And if this course has anything to do with the scriptures, the natural text for the LDS doctrine of the family is D&C 132. Do we really want every undergraduate at BYU doing a close reading of D&C 132? If you have a student headed to one of the BYUs or who will be taking Institute next year, you should probably go read the 13-part BCC series by wvs so you can answer all the questions your kid will come home with at Christmas [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,, and Part 13].

All that said, the BYU Religion core has not changed in two generations and is overdue for an overhaul (to incorporate the latest in religious scholarship into the courses). The quality of any course is largely dependent on who is teaching, and the faculty doing the teaching is getting better every year. Who knows, this could turn out to be a good thing.

39 comments for “Your New and Improved BYU Religion Core

  1. I had the same reaction. The other classes could be fine, but the Eternal Family one is going to have to be a whole lot more wresting than likening if they use the scriptures at all.

    Kind of like Gospel Doctrine this week, in which we read and discussed Isaiah Isaiah 54-56, 63-65 without a single mention of Babylon.

  2. “Under the watchful eye of a conservative BYU religion prof who, at the end of the course, is going to give you a grade reflecting how well you can mimic, in short essays and multiple choice questions, the way your great-grandparents thought about race, gender, and sexuality.”

    Having graduated in 2010, I think your cynicism is misplaced. All of my religion classes (I took 8 at least) had outstanding faculty teachers. But more to the point, what does the time in which someone lived have anything to do with whether something is eternally right or wrong or is variable? Surely ageism and generational division is one of the most effective tools of the pointers and mockers, has it ever been any different? Luckily, the Spirit of Elijah helps overcome ageism by turning the hearts of the children to their fathers.

    Randy Bott was an outlier, at least wait until things are implemented and used for a while before criticizing, unless you have already made up your mind that you know better.

  3. Maybe by “the Eternal Family” they really mean an rigorous study of the covenantal themes in the Old Testament? That’s how I’d teach it, to make up for the obviously lacking volume of scripture in the new curriculum…. ;-)

  4. Dave, it’s a curricular reform, no more and no less. Curricular changes often cause widespread concern, and there certainly can be winners and losers when it comes to enrollments and staffing, but the degree of angst (and, especially, cynicism) concerning this particular curricular reform seems overblown compared to the changes being contemplated. I have no knowledge of the actual process, but the result looks to me to be about what you’d expect when institutional stakeholders get together and talk about desired learning outcomes. Maybe you or I would pick different ones, but the list above seems pretty defensible. If you move away from thinking about topic coverage to thinking about student outcomes (and that’s what most departments at most universities have done, willingly or not, over the last decade or so), then you’re likely to end up courses more like the newer ones, and less like OT-NT-D&C-BofM.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I disagree that the post exhibits cynicism about the change, just doubts about how one of the four courses will be designed and taught. I ended on what is a fairly upbeat assessment:

    All that said, the BYU Religion core has not changed in two generations and is overdue for an overhaul (to incorporate the latest in religious scholarship into the courses). The quality of any course is largely dependent on who is teaching, and the faculty doing the teaching is getting better every year. Who knows, this could turn out to be a good thing.

  6. From what I can tell from the signs around campus, the courses are being taught now (Fall 2014) as electives and being pushed as really cool electives for Winter 2015.

  7. I think concerns about a course titled “The Eternal Family” are legitimate. Others have made the point that LDS teachings about the nature of the family are not well-based in scripture, and have changed dramatically over the last hundred years or so. In fact, the parts that are based in scripture look nothing like a nice Mormon Messages video. Our basic current teachings about the nature of the eternal family mask what is actually a very tangled knot of questions that have been only minimally clarified by modern revelation and are currently very politically charged. Where do culturally-dictated gender roles fit in? How about polygamy? How about Heavenly Mother? I think we all know that actual LDS people have opinions on these matters ranging all over the map, and that the leaders of the church probably do, too. I think it’s only natural for people to be curious and perhaps a little nervous wondering how an entire course on this topic would shake out since sometimes even a 30-minute Sunday School or Relief Society lesson can get dodgy.

  8. A “rigorous study of the covenantal themes in the Old Testament” gets you into the polygamy quagmire just as fast as DC132, not to mention issues of historicity with the accounts of the patriarchs. Don’t get me wrong–I think there’s tons to be learned there, but when you start out wanting to see current teaching about family in the scriptures, they just become the same old bludgeon every religion has used them as.

  9. To be sure Owen, 132 is much more surgical and precise than the bludgeon of eons old OT history.

    I think it is healthy for students to consider what polygamy actually meant. There are a lot of easier ways to have more sex than multiple marital commitments. We need to think more about such things, not less. Such thoughtless skirting over is part of the reason for all these faith crisis. Little effort begets little spiritual growth.

    @Kibble – remember, ‘scripture’ doesn’t have to be in an old book from another culture. It can be from last Sacrament meeting or primary class.

  10. Cameron, I think most Latter-day Saints think of canonized scripture when they hear the term “scripture.” it doesn’t include last seek’s sacrament meeting talk. It doesn’t include last month’s General Confereence talk. It doesn’t even include the Family Proclamation (recall the recent kerfuffle when Elder Packer referred to it as such but had it corrected before print publication).

    The letter from the BYU Religion Dean published at Enigmatic Mirror revealed how much opposition there was initially by the BYU religion faculty to the new proposal. That was largely because the new courses (in the view of many) are a step away from scriptural study toward merely topical study (although how this actually plays out with the new courses remains to be seen).

  11. Given all the hand-wringing about how the Church needs to step up its game in dealing with thorny historical problems, how is a semester-long class that includes a significant treatment on polygaymy a bad thing? Is there a concern that, in developing the course materials, the Church will walk back some of the statements made in the recent Gospel Topics essays?

  12. JimD, my sense is that, in publishing the essays, LDS leaders wanted to put a sympathetic but accurate account of historical issues on the record and provide a resource for troubled members and local leaders — but not make those particular issues central topics in the curriculum or Sunday discourse.

    I am inclined to think the intended coverage of the proposed Eternal Family class will not give much time or attention to polygamy (that’s certainly not what LDS leaders want to talk about). But this is 2014. An LDS class on the family is almost certainly going to end up talking about gay marriage and polygamy. Half the students in an LDS class will have gay family members and polygamous ancestors, all arguably part of their eternal families.

  13. There is a nice post on this topic (the BYU religion curriculum) at FPR, linked above, but I will link again.

    I tried to comment, but can’t get past the Disqus firewall. Here is what I tried to say there, in response to the suggestion that religions of the world and religion in public life ought to have a more prominent place in the curriculum:

    “Yeah, wouldn’t it be great to have visiting scholars from other denominations or faiths teach religions of the world or religion in America to LDS students at BYU?”

  14. There is more to religion than scripture. Way back when, I took a couple BYU religion classes that had almost no scriptural content, one on the development of the LDS Church throughout the world, and another on other religions of the world. If a BYU religion class on the eternal family stuck solely to General Conference talks from the last dozen years, there were would be plenty to work with; church leaders never stop talking about family. Not every college class is an exploration of primary texts; many are merely expositions of the current state of knowledge or practice in a field, and that has a useful purpose too.

  15. “Half the students in an LDS class will have gay family members and polygamous ancestors”

    And statistically some percentage may be gay themselves.

    How can or should a religious class on The Eternal Family take their situations and future lives into account?

  16. @Anon, more people need to read the Guide to the Scriptures to see what the definition of family is:

    As used in the scriptures, a family consists of a husband and wife, children, and sometimes other relatives living in the same house or under one family head. A family can also be a single parent with children, a husband and wife without children, or even a single person living alone.

  17. Judging by the course titles and descriptions, I think that the change in course curriculum is positive only with relation to the Book of Mormon class. Treating the Book of Mormon topically and as literature, as do Grant Hardy and Terryl Givens, is a better step forward for studying it. There are too many geography theories about the BOM that lack sufficient evidence.

    But the decontextualization of the New Testament and the D&C is not a move in a good direction. Students need to cover both those texts within proper historical context. As for the Eternal Family course, my attitude is similar to the OP’s. I would love to the see all of the material for the course and how they intend to address the issues of gay marriage and polygamy. The debate on those issues within BYU Mormondom is just beginning.

  18. A quote from the Deseret News article referenced above: “Many of our students have already had extensive personal and family study in the scriptures,” said Chad H Webb, an administer in the Church Educational System. “They have gone through seminary and have served missions and they have a pretty good foundational understanding of the scriptures after studying them sequentially. The intent is to build on that previous gospel study experience.” Am I reading correctly that family scripture study, seminary and missions are where CES administrators expect students to get a solid grasp on the proper historical context of the scriptures? I know seminary has had recent changes, but I didn’t think they were *that* extensive.

    As for the Eternal Family course, I doubt polygamy will be brought in, if at all. Discussion of historical polygamy seems a better fit for the Foundations of the Restorations class. According to that Deseret News article, the Family class will be rooted in the Family Proclamation, with additional words from living prophets and scriptures thrown in. I can’t see why D&C 132 would be studied intensely in that environment. When I was at BYU they had a newer class based on the Family Proclamation, and most students viewed it as a type of marriage prep class. I’m sure there will be more controversy concerning the topics discussed now, though.

  19. The rising LDS generation turns out to be overwhelmingly Republican. As quoted by Jana Riess

    In general, as age increases do does the probability of identifying as a Republican. Strikingly, we see the opposite trend for Mormons. Older Mormons (over sixty-five) are less likely to favor the Republican Party (51 percent) than Mormons under thirty (69 percent), presumably reflecting the fact that during their formative political years, these Mormons were more likely to identify with the Democratic Party than they are today. (p. 86)

  20. That doesn’t mean they have the same views on homosexuality and polygamy as their grandparents, Ben S. If only all opinions could be boiled down to two all-encompassing labels. Wouldn’t that be nice and tidy!

  21. If you want the anecdotal evidence from the life of this millennial who has lived both in and out of Utah, attended both BYU and out of state Institute, I think the rising LDS generation’s views on homosexuality/gay marriage are not all that different from our parents/grandparents. I think we are perhaps more willing to live and let live, but with only the occasional exception we still seem to align with the basic principle and doctrine.

    I don’t think polygamy is something most of us think about all that much.

  22. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    ABM, I agree that most young LDS, including the students of the BYUs, “still seem to align with the basic principle[s] and doctrine[s].” I would also agree that “polgyamy is something most of us [don’t] think about all that much,” although that could change in the near future.

  23. The Deseret News article, linked above, included this helpful paragraph making it clear the new required courses apply to incoming students starting in 2015 and that the four new courses will be required:

    Although the same number of credit hours will be required for graduation at church-owned universities and institutes, incoming students will need to take the four new cornerstone classes — “Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel,” “Foundations of the Restoration,” “The Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon” and “The Eternal Family.” These classes will make up eight of the 14 [religion] credit hours needed to graduate.

  24. “I think the rising LDS generation’s views on homosexuality/gay marriage are not all that different from our parents/grandparents”

    Hardly. Our Mormon parents/grandparents didn’t used to accept someone being openly gay. Nor did they used accept civil unions as a valid gay partnership. But according to a poll in August, 65% of Mormons in Utah said that gay couples deserved civil unions.

    As for the rising LDS generation being Republican, I don’t know what that has to do with the gay marriage and polygamy debates.

  25. Steve,

    First, the poll result is unsurprising. I think you would find that most people who are against same-sex marriage are not against some type of legal partnership or recognition… not that it matters now anyway.

    But to your larger point, yes, due to how our culture views sexuality and identity, millennial and younger Mormons view gays differently and are less resistant to a “live and let live” approach when it comes to legal recognition. My point is that your typical teenage or college aged Mormon still views homosexuality as a sin and views marriage as between a man and woman. My point is that for the most part there isn’t any debate or dissension on this issue among our generation.

    And is it relates to the OP/comments my point is that most of the students will not enter the Eternal Family class from a point of disagreement.

  26. @ Dave in #18.

    Thanks for the link, and my apologies about Disqus.

    “Yeah, wouldn’t it be great to have visiting scholars from other denominations or faiths teach religions of the world or religion in America to LDS students at BYU?”

    BYU already has (or at least had) something like this in place at the Jerusalem center where the instructor on Judaism is a Jewish rabbi and the instructor on Islam is a Palestinian Muslim; so I don’t think the idea is too far-fetched. Plus having a variety of people rotating through as visiting scholars would give BYU a chance to leave a positive impression with more people of other faiths as they cycled through.

  27. It is funny for me as a european to watch those discussions about BYU curriculum. Most people in France for instance do no search nor read blogs, english only church litterature, church history discussions, forums, or even read the newsroom in english. No one knows for instance about the recent online changes in the topical guide on the black/priesthood ban or polygamy.

    We have our own newsroom in french but it’s mainstream and local news.

    It’s a global church with universal teachings but still some specifics oriented towards americans only. But it’s more “international” than it used to be.

  28. @Pierrick-

    It is not even an American thing, but an American bloggernacle thing. I love ’em, but intellectual Mormon bloggers float in a bubble in an echo chamber. I have never, ever thought that the issues that get them fired up are engaging to anyone else in the Church. Periodically I ask my LDS friends, family members, or ward members if they have ever heard about or are interested in whatever the bloggernacle’s theme of the week happens to be — I never found anyone* who knows or cares about things like changes in the topical guide.

    Most American Mormons never give a second thought to BYU’s curriculum. Even those with children going there don’t care too much!

    Most American Mormons are not the bloggernacle.

    *Performed this experiment in rural Utah town; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Rochester, Minnesota; several places in New England; and now in Hawaii.

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