By Study and Faith, Part I

Elder Ballard recently spoke to seminary and institute teachers in what I expect will be regarded as a landmark address. He said that in the past, most youth in the church led “a sheltered life” and that “our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.” He explained that preparation for today requires CES teachers “to study from the ‘best books,’ as the Lord directed. The ‘best books’ include the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available. Through your diligent efforts to learn by study and faith, you will be able to help your students learn the skills and attitudes necessary to distinguish between reliable information that will lift them up and the half-truths and incorrect interpretations of doctrine, history, and practices that will bring them down.” So this is the first in what I plan to be an occasional series of posts that explores how to help the youth of the church learn those skills and attributes.

I teach the Young Women in my ward. And while I didn’t set out to do so, I realized that several lessons which I have recently taught might suggest one way in which teachers can help the youth to learn the skills which help them distinguish between reliable information and half-truths, as Elder Ballard suggested was necessary. Here’s what I did:

  1. For a lesson about the Plan of Salvation, I went to Google images and I searched for “Plan of Salvation.” I selected about a dozen images (I only used specifically Mormon ones, including the fifties-tastic one pictured below), enlarged them when necessary (so that each one would take an entire sheet of paper), and printed them out. During class, we looked at each one and I asked the girls to tell me what they thought each one got right and what each one might have overlooked. We had a fantastic discussion. They were quick to recognize that many models underplay (often entirely omitting) reference to Jesus and the atonement. One excellent observation one of the girls made was that the models usually show earth life taking up as much space as pre-mortal life and the post-mortal realms, but if we were to correlate space and time, earth life would be teeny tiny while pre-mortal life and post-mortal life should extend off the edges of the paper.
  2. For a lesson about the atonement, I shared with them the classic theories of the atonement (substitution, ransom, satisfaction, and moral example). For each one, we talked about how thinking about the atonement in those terms could bless your life. But we also talked about the limitations of each one. Then, I shared with them some analogies for the atonement (including the Drawbridge Keeper and the Piano Lessons). We had a great discussion about which aspects of these analogies help us better understand the atonement and in which respects they might be confusing or limited.


It occurred to me later that these activities conveyed the following message to my girls: you need to have your brain engaged when you are learning about the gospel so that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. And the presence of chaff is not an indication that the gospel is bad or that the church is wrong; it is an indication that we are all human and doing the best we can to teach each other. But you aren’t supposed to sit there acquiescently and accept everything written on the chalkboard in Primary as if it came from the finger of God or every analogy from a teary sacrament meeting speaker as infallible truth. Your job is to put your mind and soul to work and identify which parts of what they are teaching comport with the gospel and help you understand it better and which parts to set aside. Your job is to rejoice in the good parts and thank the teacher for them; your job is to think of even better ways to teach which can minimize the less helpful parts.

As a side benefit, I think my students appreciated the invitation to apply the critical (or even, sometimes, cynical) abilities with which teenagers are normally blessed. And I hope I modeled for them that there is no need to toss the baby out with the bathwater: we can appreciate the good bits even when we find problems.

This entire topic is a tad sensitive to me right now as I watch people I care about struggle to answer the question: How can the church be true if parts of it (history, doctrine, practice, policy) are so flawed? I’m very willing to help them frame this issue in a way which will allow them to remain faithful, but I am also aware that when this question first hits someone in middle-age, it is extremely difficult to reconcile. I hope, by contrast, that suggesting to the youth that things which are flawed can nonetheless be very valuable, can nonetheless carry the inspiration of God within them. My hope is that in the future, that question will not flay them because they never assumed that everything they were taught was perfect to begin with; rather, they learned how to evaluate what they were taught so that they might rejoice in the good and set aside the rest. To, as Elder Ballard said, “distinguish between reliable information that will lift them up and the half-truths and incorrect interpretations of doctrine, history, and practices that will bring them down.”


62 comments for “By Study and Faith, Part I

  1. Excellent post. Your YW are fortunate.

    “one way in which teachers can help the youth to learn the skills which help them distinguish between reliable information and half-truths”
    This presumes that the adult teachers are capable of doing this, which is not always the case.

    One problem is epistemological, in the sense that some teachers (whether YW or CES) are happy to quote an archaic or unique General Authority interpretation as if it is current and represents a monolithic LDS position. “The manual/General Authority said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The problem with relying entirely on an authoritarian epistemology is that it’s too easy to undermine that authority by demonstrating conflict among the authorities, whether over time (contrast HJGrant’s statement going around right now with Benson’s conservatism) or simultaneously (Joseph Fielding Smith vs virtually all his contemporaries on Young Earth Creationism.)

  2. I think another problem is that most LDS adults do not really continued to study the Gospel after Seminary/Institute/BYU graduation. Have they continued reading books, studying in depth? Not warm fuzzy largely devotional books (although those may well have a place), but those with substance, nuance, complexity.

  3. Great stuff. Lucky girls. Our young people can handle these things; trying to “protect” and “shelter” them from such things is exactly the wrong approach. If we wait until their brains are more calcified in middle age the task becomes so very much more difficult.

  4. Great post. I can say “good for those young women” but what I’m really thinking is that I’d like to be in your classes for the discussion, even though I might possibly know enough to follow your lead if I were teaching.
    I once had occasion to ask a group of young women what they would really like to study in their YW lesson time. Their suggestions and requests sounded much like these lessons, and part of the explanation was that “we learn this way in school so why can’t we do it here?” The YW leaders were frightened. Their fear might have been in some small way a sense of inadequacy, but I read it as mostly not knowing what was permissible or orthodox or allowed or would cause trouble for the YW leaders, the young women, or for both coming back through the parents of the young women. They turned to the bishop, asking him to teach–not as a fount of knowledge but (too cute coming . . .) as a font of orthodoxy.

  5. Agree with all of the above and especially Ben S.. Most of the people I know who struggle, have gone for a long period of “drought” in their personal study and only resume once they hear something that raises an interest. Unfortunately, they get overwhelmed by material that sometimes is intellectually dishonest and manipulative and they’re not conditioned to dealing with the wheat and chaff argument you present above.

  6. I applaud your teaching style and bravery. But, regarding the address from Elder Ballard to CES, why did it require an official pronouncement from an apostle to give us permission to teach more truth and openness?

  7. In response to Terry H. –

    Without being too inflammatory, reasons why people go through such a “drought” include that most LDS sources are very superficial and non-informative, in part because we don’t have a large class of professional scholars who have real intellectual freedom, and in part because all ecclesiastical authority ultimately resides in figures who have no training in scriptural matters. Our culture recycles quotes from people who never had undergone scriptural training themselves, so it ends up being the blind leading the blind. The material that I find so interesting–the type of material that Julie, Ben S, and Kevin B often cite–is Biblical scholarship, whose finest production is by non-LDS sources. Unfortunately, our culture has tended to strongly discourage people from going outside the correlated LDS materials for guidance.

    A drought or famine indeed – “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” Amos 8:11. Hopefully the work of people like Julie, Ben S, Kevin B, and many others will eliminate this famine and thirst.

  8. Here’s a timely example in yesterday’s Deseret News of myth perpetuating itself in Mormon culture.

    Mormon ‘gospel art’: Kitsch or classic?

    Walking before a Gary Earnest Smith rendering of three glowing angels appearing inside the church’s Kirtland, Ohio, temple, Mysha tells the children a story all Mormon children learn— how the women there ground up their china to put it in the temple walls so they would sparkle. “That’s sad,” said 7-year-old Ella.

    “It’s not sad,” her mother said. “They were happy to give whatever they had for the church.” Denson said she and her husband brought the girls to the museum specifically to see the art — much of which she and Jason remembered from similar visits with their parents and church groups. Asked if the quality of the art was important, she dismissed the question.

    “It is so hard for kids to grasp these abstract concepts” like sacrifice and the uniqueness of the church’s history, she said. “But here, you can show them a picture and that makes it more real.”

    The author of the article (and most members) probably don’t know that this legendary story has been debunked. Shining Walls

    The Truth About the Walls
    Elmeda Stringham was a real pioneer child who helped gather glass and pottery for the temple walls. Later generations looked at the beautiful walls and thought the Saints must have broken their best china to make the temple plaster sparkle. But that was not what really happened.

    Church historians visited Kirtland to do archaeology and uncover early Church buildings. In their excavations, they discovered pottery fragments in the Saints’ yards. Their find confirmed the early accounts that Latter-day Saint children gathered the bits of glass that made the temple walls shine, showing that anyone can help in the work of the Lord.

  9. To Ben S., Julie, and Terry H –

    What are some good examples of *officially sanctioned publications, of the LDS Church* that have “substance, nuance, [and] complexity,” to use Ben S’s language? Would the Church’s Sunday School, CES, or Auxiliary manuals qualify?

    And if such examples are difficult to list, why? Particularly in a church with $8 billion dollars of revenue per year, is it the cost of such an undertaking? Perhaps the Joseph Smith Papers project can be cited as an example (is it “official?”). Any others? Why is it so hard for such a wealthy institution to provide good teaching materials?

  10. I suppose there are degrees of official sanction, but I would list BYU Studies and Religious Educator (though some articles may not live up to it.) RE in particular has upped its game recently. The former bears the name of the Church’s university, and the latter goes out to all Seminary and Institute teachers.

    The recent Gospel Topics essays certainly qualify, given the way topics are approached, the footnotes, the use of up-to-date non-LDS and “controversial” LDS sources like Dialogue articles, the location, and Ballard’s unambiguous General Authority approval and push of them.

    Some of the more recent Deseret Book publications would qualify; Patrick Masons Planted , for example, or works by the Givens like Crucible of Doubt or The God Who Weeps.

    But generally speaking, material that goes worldwide goesn’t quite measure up, and the reasons for that are deliberate and historical, and we seem to be moving away from them. IIRC, in the 60’s/70’s as the Church started to grow very quickly and worldwide, combined with the expansion of Correlation, a deliberate decision was made to teach the lowest common doctrinal denominator, to keep it simple. That may have been the right thing at the time, I couldn’t say. But today we’re seeing some very negative effects of that philosophy, and I think it’s slowly being countered and undone. But it will take time. During that time, I will probably be pretty frustrated, as local leadership is concerned not with larger issues like these (largely because they’re not aware of them), but personal counseling, porn, divorce, callings, temple recommends, etc.

  11. “Why is it so hard for such a wealthy institution to provide good teaching materials?”

    I don’t think it is the cost, as you intimate. I think there are many factors at play, these and probably a few more that aren’t on my radar:

    1. Translation. Not the physical process, which the church does admirably, but the fact that cultural translation is extremely difficult and we are producing materials for a world-wide church.

    2. Varied audience. I can tell you how difficult it is to have FHE with an 11yo and 17yo; that’s nothing compared to writing a manual which works for both a suburban ward where most people are multi-generational members, RMs, with college degrees *and* a rural branch where basic literacy is marginal for both teacher and student and there are lots of newish converts. I don’t envy our manual writers.

    3. Value of expertise. The church learned long ago that professional lawyers, architects, accountants, therapists, etc., could make a valuable contribution to building the kingdom. We seem to have learned in the last decade that the same is true for historians. I’m holding out hope that we’ll figure out soon that people with professional expertise in biblical studies have something to offer as well. :)

    4. The opacity of correlation. I’m aware of instances where good ideas have been squashed by correlation because correlation operates by standards which prohibit those good ideas. The problem is that these standards are not known outside of correlation–if they were, LDS scholars at BYU and elsewhere would be busy writing and explaining why those standards need to shift yesterday. But they are unknown, and so they are not addressed, and they have a very limiting effect.

    5. The problem that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you don’t know that 30% of the OT and 90% of Isaiah is written in poetry (and I don’t think most church members or leaders know this), then you don’t know that you need to call manual writers who know it who can develop lessons which teach students how to read it. There’s no malice here; just people who don’t know what they are missing. (Perhaps this is just a restatement of my #3 above.)

    All that said, I am optimistic for the future. The new (OK, it was a few years ago) nursery manual was much better. The new youth curriculum is much better (although still needs tweaking). The new NT Institute manual is much better. The new Foundations of the Restoration class and seminary D & C and church history is much better, especially in dealing with tricky historical issues. So there is movement in the right direction. I am still in mourning over the new OT seminary manual and the replacement of NT institute with the Life of Jesus class, but I try to remain hopeful.

  12. To #2 above, my wife (and me on occasion) taught the single youth class in our Brooklyn ward for a good while. It had, on average half a dozen kids, ages 12-18. Mixed race, mixed class, mixed education, mixed church background. Awfully hard to “adapt to the class” when the class is all over the place by such huge margins.

  13. Ben S. –

    I’m sorry, Ben. “Planted” and Terryl Givens books are not official LDS publications, as much as I’d like them to be. It’s a non-starter to suggest that the Church endorses them. BYU studies and the Religious educator are not official. Heck, even Talmage isn’t official.

    The gospel topics essays were signed by…actually, nobody. Nobody wants to take responsibility for them, as in actually signing their name by them. Are they official? No way! Admittedly, they’re a resource. The essays that I’m able to find are about 5 pages each. Am I missing the lengthier pieces? Five pages. Think about that. In our era of transparency and openness, we have essays that solve all the problems in…5 pages, and 10-15 footnotes, each. These could have been written by a gifted high school student. In this era of unprecedented transparency, whatever happened to the lengthier pieces that were supposed to be produced (in which case, “mea culpa”)?

    As for *official* Church manuals that show “substance, nuance, [and] complexity,” the tally people have provided is currently…zero. Let’s keep digging.

  14. Julie –

    Of course it’s not the cost. The church could fix these problems if it had the willpower to do so. It could spare a little money for some full-time scholars to provide in-depth materials, but it chooses to use its resources in other ways. (You must be in an optimistic mood. I recall other posts of yours on the subject of church materials that were decidedly more pessimistic.)

    And…why should it? The church is clearly going in the direction of elevating the importance of the “living prophets” and devaluing the importance of the textual tradition inherited in the scriptures. Why spend resources teaching members about nuance in the scriptures, when the goal is to have members know what was said in the last General Conference? The timeless truths of the scriptures are being replaced by General Conference talks that have a shelf life of about a year.

  15. FH, I currently see some reasons to be optimistic that we are moving towards doing a better job of reading scripture, as well as some reasons to be pessimistic–precisely what you’d expect in a large organization with competing interests. You are correct that in some posts I focus more on one side than the other, based on the topic at hand. Since Elder Ballard’s speech was the prompt for this post, it is more on the side of optimism.

  16. How can the church be true if parts of it (history, doctrine, practice, policy) are so flawed?

    This question is premised on a subjective judgment that may not be true.

  17. Julie –

    Ok, I’ll go with you there. Elder Ballard’s speech was a very positive development, so I should be a bit kinder in my assessment. Thanks for reminding me.

    Ben –

    I like your blogs and comments in general so much that I raise my white flag in surrender. It’s just not worth pursuing further, and bad for me to waste your time and intellectual energy when you have more important things to do. Seriously.

    Thanks again everybody, and signing off.

  18. Jack,

    I see how there could be ambiguity in my comment — in my comment, I thought of the potentially untrue premise as the flawed” part.

  19. Honest question …
    With the history of “flaws” in the Church and in its leaders and practices … and if certain practices perpetuated by church leaders are now considered embarrassing black eyes on Church history (but not doctrine) how can we be certain our current prophets and apostles aren’t pushing their own non-doctrinal agendas, which are being enforced by current church policy? Clearly the Church no longer operates by common consent and dissenters/agitators are ignored/excommunicated (maybe because it’s not in the lord’s time? I used to believe that, but now I don’t.) What are we to do when the Spirit and the scriptures are telling us something is very, very wrong with the way the Church is currently operating? It’s hard to believe the Church is currently being led by God when its own history seems evidence that …….. it’s not.

    I sincerely hope that some time in the near future the LDS Church corrects course and becomes more scripture-oriented and less “modern prophet” oriented. It smacks of Pharisaic idolatry. Best of luck.

    (honestly, I’m not trying to stir contention here, this is just something I went through and it’s not a simple matter of “there are problems with church *history*”. It’s a problem with idolatry and false prophets NOW, and spiritual alarm bells that went off while faithfully studying the Gospel. Yet because I have no stewardship there is no room for me to voice my concerns without being cast away.)

  20. Kami, here’s an answer I wrote to your question a long time ago:

    I will say, and I’m trying to be gentle here, that in your comment I see evidence of the kind of black-or-white thinking that I am hoping my young women won’t develop. When you say things like “It’s hard to believe the Church is currently being led by God when its own history seems evidence that …….. it’s not.” as if being led by God were an on/off switch and not a little more complicated than that. I just quoted this in my last post, but I think it bears repeating:

    Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: “So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”

  21. I would bet money that if you went digging, you would find statements just like those Ballard made in this talk going all the way back to Brigham and Joseph. Not because I have them at hand, but because that is the pattern I have observed over time whenever we think church leaders are saying something new and enlightened and start lamenting how backwards we used to be. Other than a few notable exceptions, our leaders have been trying to get us to study seriously all along. The problem is with us, not them. (With the notable exceptions hinted at, but even the lockstep McConkie types contradict themselves on issues like this.) If the membership made any serious attempt to utilize the resources we already have, there would be a reason for producing next gen material. But instead we can’t be bothered to even read a couple of chapters before Sunday School.

    And for those going down the “what are our leaders getting wrong now?” road, let’s get real. Guys doing it with guys is never going to fly in this church.

  22. Kami,

    What are we to do when the Spirit and the scriptures are telling us something is very, very wrong with the way the Church is currently operating?

    Each person chooses for himself — that’s the eternal principle. For me, the Spirit and the scriptures tell me that God’s hand is at work in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — I choose to receive the Lord’s servants and I’m grateful to be part of the work. How beautiful is the handiwork of our God — how wonderful is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!

  23. A quick response about the suggestion in #17 that the Gospel Topics Essays are about 5 pages long with 10-15 footnotes each. I count a total of 14 essays (I’m counting the “intro to polygamy” as one and the more specific Kirtland/Nauvoo, Utah, and end of polygamy ones as three separate essays). The total number of footnotes comes to 475, an average of about 34 per essay. A while ago I copied/pasted each essay into a Word document to make them easier to print and study, and with 1-inch margins, size 12 font (10 for footnotes), single spaced, the page count comes to 118, about 8 and a half per essay.

    Of course the essays aren’t exhaustive, but 118 pages of single-spaced, heavily footnoted, well-written pieces on sometimes-difficult historical and theological topics is nothing to dismiss. If everyone actually read all of that as Elder Ballard encouraged (“know them like the back of your hand”) we would come a long way in our collective understanding.

  24. I didn’t mean to bite JH’s head off, but very few things in the church are signed. Our Gospel Doctrine/Ph/RS manuals aren’t, but no one disputes that they are far more towards the “official” end of the spectrum than “unofficial.” A lack of signature on them doesn’t undermine their status.

    Certainly signatures have some effect. A document like the Proclamation, with the signatures of all fifteen, or an official FP statement or letter with the signatures of the FP is stronger than something unsigned.

    I think we need to move away from an official/unofficial dichotomy and recognize a spectrum, as the Catholic church does. There’s the nihil obstat/imprimatur (~Deseret Book?) through papal bulls, encyclicals, etc.

  25. From talking to multiple authors, Deseret Book has very strict standards on what you can and can’t say. if it gets past the DB standards, that’s a degree of official approval for better or worse , much like nihil obstat.

  26. [Disclosure: Edward Kimball is my father] Regarding Deseret Book, an interesting case in point by exception is the “Lengthen Your Stride” biography of Spencer Kimball in the presidency years, which Deseret Book was ‘of course’ going to publish but ended up with two versions, neither one fully approved, and a publisher’s disclaimer preface to make that clear.

  27. No! Deseret Books standards are their own — they voluntarily impose strict standards — a Deseret Book publication does not signify any degree of “official approval” of the institutional church. Do they still put in the disclaimer that the views the book are the authors and do not necessarily represent the church? Deseret Book might be a church-owned corporation, but it is not the church.

  28. I’m not sure “official approval” exists, short of 15 signatures and even that is subject to aging out (controversial, I know). Whatever you lawyers and scholars say, for many of us members in the pews Deseret Book ranks higher than, the Gospel Topics Essays and the newsroom included. My sense is that is changing, to flip that ordering, but slowly.

  29. You seem to be quite absolutist, e.g. “a Deseret Book publication does not signify any degree of “official approval” of the institutional church” whereas I’m saying it’s *at least* a small degree. I don’t see that you can separate DB from the LDS Church in any meaningful sense in this regard. The views may be the author’s but if the Church-owned publisher publishes them, that’s still a nihil obstat. The Kimball bio above is the exception that proves the rule. I suspect that had it not been for the particular topic and author, they would have simply steamrolled over anyone else and either edited out or refused to publish.

    So, can you refine your argument?

  30. What church official grants permission, or at least finds no objection? I suppose there is no one. Official church publications come from the church distribution center, not from Deseret Books. Deseret Books publications may be faithful, but they are not official in any degree whatsoever. The disclaimer says so.

  31. There’s a difference between speaking on behalf of the Church, setting forth and elucidating official doctrine on the one hand (which is what you seem to think I’m arguing for), and being approved in the sense of nihil obstat, “nothing objectionable.”

    It is the latter much broader category in which DB publications represent a degree of officiality. They represent statements and views (plural) that are within the *acceptable* range to the Church, else they would not be published by the Church-owned publisher.

  32. You like quoting Latin from Roman Catholic usage. Here’s something from Roman Catholic usage: “The “Nihil Obstat” and “Imprimatur” are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur agree with the content, opinions or statements expressed.” In Roman Catholic usage, a nihil obstat is granted by a diocesan censor — what LDS church official reads the Deseret Books manuscript and grants the nihil obstat? No one. So, as I said, Deseret Books books are generally seen as faithful, but they are not official. You assert that Deseret Books books have, to some degree, “official approval” of the Church. You are wrong. The very text of the disclaimer in Deseret Books books shows you are wrong.

    I know you will want the last word, so I will not argue further.

  33. Well, you didn’t actually respond to the distinction I made in the previous comment, nor my comments before that about recognizing a spectrum of officiality. The DB disclaimer shows that it does not represent “official” in the first sense I use in comment #39 and I do not contend that it does. We are in agreement.

    Do you have insider knowledge about the DB approval process? I don’t, but I don’t think the nihil obstat analogy hinges on having an “LDS church official” equivalent to a diocesan censor. That said, note that the president and CEO of Deseret Book is an emeritus General Authority, Keith B. McMullen, member of the Presiding Bishopric from 1995-2012. And of course, since it bears repeating, DB is wholly owned and operated by the LDS Church.

    I contend that DB publications represent an LDS version of nihil obstat, and strong arguments to the contrary haven’t been made here.

  34. Ben S.,

    So if objectionable material is found in publications from DB, BYU studies, the religious educator, etc. – can the Church be blamed for the troubling material? In other words, does the Church really stand behind this material, and are we held to account for it?

    I argue that the Church is engaged in a bit of a game that has gone on for decades. Certain books or ideas are given an unofficial stamp of approval through their cultural use, with the caveat that at the first sign of trouble, any responsibility the Church takes for the material vanishes and the actual author is thrown under the bus.

    Were McConkie’s numerous writings official? Cleon Skousen? What about the lies of Paul H. Dunn? What about Paul Owen’s article on the apocryphal nature of 1st Nephi, found in BYU Studies? Is Charles Harrell’s book “This is My Doctrine,” sold at DB, an official church publication (if so, wow! The Church is really open about how inconsistent its doctrine is!). How about the Gaskill’s “The Lost Teachings of Jesus,” based on a demonstrable hoax? Or, closer to your heart, what happens regarding the numerous, numerous articles and books opposing evolution, and taking a fundamentalist view of Eden, Babel, Noah’s Ark, etc. – all official doctrine? All of the material written by McConkie and JFS on evolution – official church doctrine, or just opinion? What about the conflicting statements by Roberts, Widtsoe, and Talmage?

    You want to have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say that all these materials have the imprimatur of the Church, and then say they don’t when it suits you. Please be principled in your arguments! Your position is untenable, and it isn’t strengthened by your inappropriate, amateur references to Catholic doctrine and the nature of logic.

  35. Frankly, I feel like I’ve failed in communicating, because you’re still not grasping my argument about a spectrum of officiality nor the distinction in comment #39 and you’ve resorted to calling names and casting aspersions. Are you aware of Times&Seasons comment policy?

    Nihil obstat is not the same as “official church doctrine” (whatever that is) and that has been my argument from the beginning.

  36. And now I see that FH and JI are not the same people. My bad. Still, the statements in comment 42 don’t accurately represent “my position”, so I’ll ignore the hyperbolic accusatory questions at the end.

    Moreover, FH is in violation of the comment policy to use a real email address, as the last comments I’ve checked have all used different addresses, which all bounce as fake.

    So FH, if you want to participate in the conversation (and your participation is welcome), you’ve got to talk nice and use a real email address.

  37. You will want to use correct facts: Keith McMullin is not CEO of Deseret Books. However, he is CEO of Deseret Management Corp. Deseret Books is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Church, but of Deseret Management Corp. He does not make editorial decisions for Deseret Books.

    Why do you ask about my insider knowledge of the Deseret Book process? Does how I answer that question affect the validity of my words? An ad hominem appeal to shift the discussion from the merits to me? That isn’t fair.

    I know I said I was finished, but I’m back just this once for matters of truth and fairness.

    I contend that DB publications represent an LDS version of nihil obstat.

    If you have backed away from imprimatur and “official approval” (your words, not mine), and just leave it as above, then yes, we can agree that Deseret Books publications required represent an informal, LDS version of nihil obstat. Deseret Books publications are generally seen as faithful, even if not official. As a matter of corporate policy, ” Deseret Book is committed to support the mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” By the way, Deseret Books does have an arrangement with the church to sell some official Church publications, but these clearly show publication by the church, not Deseret Book.

    Yes, the editors at Deseret Book do try to publish only books that, in their careful opinion, are not objectionable to the Church. In this regard, they are self-censoring.

  38. I appreciate your post, Julie. I find great potential in the kind of teaching you’re proposing for the youth of the church.

    I’m less optimistic, however, that Elder Ballard’s message will turn out to be a landmark address. (I hope I’m wrong.) A few hours ago I returned from a stake conference meeting where, among other things, the visiting General Authority:

    A) Extolled the virtue of black-and-white thinking. The commandments allow us to see things as black and white, he said, while Satan wants us to see gray. If we’re not happy in the church it’s because we see too many grays, he added.

    B) Assured the congregants that no prophet, from Adam on down, has ever led in a wrong direction. (There may have been enough fuzziness to the statement that, if pressed, he could plausibly say that he doesn’t mean prophets cannot make mistakes, but I’m sure the inference most took is that it is much more blessed to obey counsel than to carefully examine it.)

    C) Told of his own experience with trusting the prophet: When called as a bishop, he thought better of buying a suit he was considering because it had three buttons in the jacket instead of the two he always recalled President Hinckley wearing. (He later bought it after he saw a picture with Pres. Hinckley with a three-button jacket.)

    These issues aren’t exactly the issues you’re dealing with in regard to church history and scholarship, but this meeting (and I use the meeting as an illustration, not as the whole basis of my outlook) didn’t give me much confidence that we’re about to make strides in dealing with nuance, messiness, troubled consciences or multiple perspectives. It didn’t encourage me that church culture will soon be more inclined to nurture those who want something more than Ensign-level gospel study–in other words the hit-and-miss nurturing that Times and Seasons’s comments section often bears bears witness of.

    And I guess this nurturing is what I’m most concerned about. Being exposed to a wider swath of church history in seminary and institute is well and good. I expect it will help, if it comes to fruition. But there will still be issues that hit people differently and at different times of their lives. And dealing with those matters will not simply be an issue of having been taught to not expect perfection in church history. Nor will it be enough to send them off to read FAIR articles and pray harder. Better nurturing may also be needed.

    Having concerns or wanting deeper understanding within the church is thought by many members to result from pride, sin, or lack of faith/obedience. And that of course colors how people who fit into this category are dealt with, and often how they come to see themselves. Many become alienated to one degree or another. While some church members may at times have sympathy, certain individuals may be well-placed to help, and some congregations may accommodate the heterodox better than others, as a general culture and institution we seem to lack the capacity to nurture in this situation other than to hope that those involved keep their thoughts to themselves and work it out with the Lord. Building a culture and institutions that better minimizes the alienation will take significant time and effort.

  39. JI, I’m not “backing away” from anything. You implied that there was no equivalent LDS official to a diocesan censor in the DB process, therefore the analogy was invalid. I asked if you knew the details of that process, i.e. if you knew that for certain that an LDS General Authority did not play a role in the process. That’s not an ad hominem; I have no knowledge of the details of that process, only that certain standards are in place, and I wanted to know the basis of your assertion.

    I don’t think it requires a General Authority to act as an official doctrinal referee. Most of the people on the various Correlation committees are not General Authorities, for example, but again, I have no specific knowledge of the DB process.

    You are correct that McMullen is over DMC, which owns DB. I should have been more precise. DMC is “the holding company for business firms owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” according to their own website. I don’t think you can distance DB from the Church as sharply as you appear to.

    I stand by my analogy, which recognizes a range of authoritative approval and authoritative lack-of-objection (nihil obstat), DB fulfilling the latter.

  40. I am puzzled by Ben S.’s insistence about the quasi-official status of Deseret Book publications, since he repeatedly acknowledges that he has no inside knowledge of DB’s approval process. But I can see a good reason for JI’s adamant position. DB is a going business concern, and its publishing decisions must be based primarily on keeping the company profitable, not on religious orthodoxy. It happens that religious and political conservatism is currently good business for Deseret Book. That’s a safe stance to take, since it appeals to a lot of conservative Mormon customers and it’s unlikely to stir up controversy within the Mormon beehive. But it’s very dangerous to conflate DB’s business strategy with an official imprimatur from the Church. There is still a pretty wide range of stuff that DB publishes, anodyne though most of it may be. To suppose that DB’s editorial decisions represent quasi-official positions from the Church leads quickly to confusion about whether theological or political ideas should carry quasi-official weight just because they show up in a DB publication. Or whether the lightweight inspirational authors and novelists who fill DB’s lists somehow represent the Church’s ideas about what these kinds of books should be. The “nihil obstat” argument that Ben S. wants to make is just too fine, especially considering that the Church has made no such distinction itself.

  41. I wonder if commenters really understand “nihil obstat.” Saying “we have no objection” is a far cry from saying “this is exactly what we think a book should be.” It’s the difference between deciding a movie is okay for your kids because there are no swear words, and saying that a movie is a piece of great art.

    I agree with Ben S. that publication by DB *is* a cultural indicator that an item has no overtly objectionable (heretical, pornographic, whatever) content, and therefore fits on the *range of authoritative approval” which is all the authority he has granted publication by DB — it doesn’t represent the full range, but it is o the scale.

    Anecdotally, more books are purchased from DB to give as gifts than to read — if that’s the case, then the general LDS population seems to recognize the same “nihil obstat”: “I’m not interested in reading it, but it comes from DB so it’s safe to give to Mom/Grandma/my visiting teacher.”

  42. “note that the president and CEO of Deseret Book is an emeritus General Authority”

    But so is the head of the Trump campaign in Utah. What significant is said about an enterprise when you say that it’s being run by an emeritus General Authority?

  43. I’m really surprised that there’s any disagreement about Ben S.’ comments. I can imagine discussion about whether it’s good or appropriate for Deseret Book to play a role in the range of authoritative approval. I can imagine debate about the quality or bona fides or authoritativeness of any number of particular works published by Deseret Book. I can imagine legal distinctions about ownership and control and approval vs authorization vs not disapproval, and so on. But as a purely descriptive matter, for better or worse, like it or not, it seems to me beyond debate that the Deseret Book imprint operates as a kind of stamp of approval in Mormon culture.

  44. The difference between Donald Trump and Deseret Book is that the church owns Deseret Book, it’s enjoyed by many church members, and it’s aimed at an LDS audience. Not sure what Robert Oaks is thinking (or perhaps the problem is that he’s not thinking), but Donald Trump sure isn’t owned by the church, liked by many church members (judging solely by polling and voting numbers), or aimed at an LDS audience.

  45. Not making any point other than the point I’m making, but Keith B. McMullin is an emeritus general authority. Robert C. Oaks is a former general authority.

  46. Am I right that he was never a member of the first quorum of the seventy (although somehow a member of the Presidency of the Seventy)? He was a member of the second quorum, whose members don’t gain emeritus status. Interesting distinction that the news articles haven’t grasped.

  47. Julie, I liked your five answers to “Why is it so hard for such a wealthy institution to provide good teaching materials?” All very valid. I’ve wanted to be in your class since I met you.

    I’d add #6 as priorities. The church spends money on all sorts of things, including humanitarian service—which is about the only thing some factions give any credit for (when they actually do). So how many resources would it require to overcome your (and other) barriers? What would be the net benefit of doing so? I don’t have an answer to that specifically, but I’m not positive that in the grand scheme of things what we need most of all is to have erudite teaching materials, as nice as they might be to some.

    Ben S bemoaned the idea that most LDS adults don’t continue deep gospel study after college. I’d agree that is true, but intense scripture/historical/language study simply isn’t the priority for everyone. I’m glad for those who do this work and read many of their writings, but I have no interest in doing much of it myself.

    I focus on web technology and languages, business, tax law (shoot me), education, entertainment promotion, etc., because it’s most useful to me. Should I spend that time in gospel study? What’s the opportunity cost? My husband is a world-class expert in multiple engineering specialties (blockchain, reputation, autonomous vehicles, fuzzy logic, etc.) and spends most of his time learning and consulting about those subjects. He enjoys intense gospel study and is an excellent, well-read scholar, but uses that in teaching gospel doctrine, family discussions, etc., and doesn’t take the time to blog, write, or discuss it online. Priorities.

    Ben S.:

    I didn’t realize we were playing with the No True Scotsman fallacy. My bad.

    haha Ben, Ben, you’ve been blogging a long time. You should have seen that from a mile away!

  48. An off-topic thought based on the scripture reference:

    By study and faith.
    Study: scripture study, pondering
    Faith: doing, living life

    Don’t just think about these things, try to add them to what you do every day.
    Also, awesome lesson. Definitely appreciated by most LDS artists, I’d wager.
    Sometimes I fancy taking up a more innovative religious art career. So many good ideas to start with: #1, Abinadi was a young scrawny guy that had his whole life ahead of him.

  49. “… but I have no interest in doing much of it myself.”

    A confession that has the ring of truth, but no other merit.

  50. imprimi potest (religious superior for authors in religious orders): it can be printed
    nihil obstat (diocesan censor): nothing stands in the way
    imprimatur (bishop): let it be printed

    Basically, it just means that the persons indicated found nothing objectionable. It doesn’t typically convey anything stronger.

    However, the absence of information such as an indication of who, precisely, is “approving” DB publications and the conditions and standards for doing so make the analogy too strained for my tastes. Transparency is necessary for trust.

  51. As for DB and its authenticity, the hardback of “Lengthen Your Stride”, about the Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball had a disclaimer from Corey Maxwell (Neal’s son?) in the front as to the representations of some of the people mentioned (certain GAs who might be thin-skinned).. To his credit, Edward Kimball got them to put the manuscript (less heavily edited) on a CD sold with the book. Frankly, I can’t find the book, but have downloaded the pdf from the CD everywhere and refer to it all the time.

  52. it seems to me beyond debate that the Deseret Book imprint operates as a kind of stamp of approval in Mormon culture

    I’ll agree with the above statement for Deseret Books publications — however, I still aver that the above cannot be equated with “official approval” of, by, or for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That has been my sole point in this discussion.

  53. Just my two cents on DB. I worked at Deseret Book’s corporate office from early 2011 to mid-2012. I was the office services clerk, so I knew everyone in the office on a first name basis because I personally delivered them their mail. I worked closely with both the publications department and the buying team, helping them read manuscripts submitted for publication or books that publishers/authors wished to be sold in the stores. Those who published manuscripts and purchased books to be in the DB stores were more than aware of the implied stamp of approval. It is part of the decision making process, so when some have here suggested that approval I can state that it is a real part of the process on the inside at DB.

  54. I totally love your approach, Julie. What a great way to convey the need to, as you say, keep one’s brain engaged in class, as well as to teach about the actual topic. I look forward to more of this type of post in your series!

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