The LDS Church is overhauling its educational approach to Mormon scriptures — and while some are cautiously optimistic, others clearly are unhappy about it.
The new curriculum — to be taught at all LDS colleges and in Mormon institutes and seminaries — will be based on four "cornerstone" courses:
• Jesus Christ and the everlasting gospel: A study of the savior and his roles in Heavenly Father’s plan as taught across all the Utah-based faith’s standard works.
•Teachings and doctrine of the Book of Mormon: A study of the signature LDS scripture with emphasis on Christ’s ministry.
• Foundations of the restoration: A study of the key revelations, doctrine, people and events of the restored gospel. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe their faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, brought back, or restored, the pure gospel taught by the savior.
• The eternal family: A study of the central role of the family in the LDS plan of salvation as taught in the scriptures and the words of modem Mormon prophets.
Brent Top — dean of religious education at the faith’s flagship school, Provo’s Brigham Young University — summarized the new direction in a letter last week to faculty in his department.
Top, who could not be reached Tuesday for comment, wrote that the school’s trustees — mainly LDS apostles — "enthusiastically endorsed" the four courses, expressing their view that "this was an inspired proposal whose time had come."
Older, scripture-based courses are still being offered, the letter said, but as electives, not as core curriculum.
Critics, who have been debating the plan’s merits for months, this week began blogging about it.
Longtime BYU history professor William Hamblin called the new curriculum "appalling."
"It will result in the further decay of scriptural literacy — already a significant problem among the Saints. Scripture study in the church has now become nothing more than completely decontextualized proof-texting," Hamblin writes in a Patheos online essay. "There is, practically speaking, no further institutional support by the church for the actual study of scripture —as opposed to church doctrine, devotion and daily application."
In a second essay on Patheos, Hamblin scolds liberal Mormon scholars, who he says want to study LDS scripture, especially the Book of Mormon, apart from its "authentic ancient history."
Latter-day Saints believe Joseph Smith translated ancient American writings from a set of gold plates into English, which became the Book of Mormon. Critics assert the book is a 19th-century creation.
Hamblin also accuses LDS Church Educational System (CES) faculty, who teach students in Mormon high school seminaries and college institutes, of trying to "decontextualize both the Bible and LDS scripture in the search for proof-texts regarding the three D’s — doctrine, daily application and devotion."
Julie M. Smith, writing at Times and Seasons, says this new direction is "a great loss to the church" and she "mourns it."
"Each individual book [of scripture] has a different historical setting, author, audience, cultural setting, etc. You can’t understand any particular verse without understanding this background." Smith writes. "So to survey isolated verses without a firm grounding in the background means you are only looking at the tip of the iceberg — which means you have no idea of the depth of what you are looking at, no sense of its true dimensions."
Scripture study "is a skill," she adds. "It requires certain tools. If these are not taught at BYU/CES, where will they be taught?"
Religious scholar Blair Hodges, however, cautions against hasty judgments.
"Aside from a basic outline, none of us have any idea what the course content will actually be," Hodges writes at By Common Consent. "As conceived, the new courses will be designed specifically to meet the challenges of the rising generation of Latter-day Saints. Creating core classes hopefully won’t happen in a vacuum."
In addition, BYU faculty "are also supposed to be empowered to develop new courses besides," Hodges writes. "This opens the door to a host of new approaches within religious education."
Indeed, Top’s letter says that there will be extensive discussions with religious-education faculty, department committees and the College Curriculum Council in the coming months.
"A faculty meeting will be convened [by April 15]," Top says, "to approve courses."
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