NoCoolName Blog


Back again! I didn't teach Sunday School this week, so there's no real new updates there. When I'm not teaching I tend to take a support role; I don't appreciate when a team teacher tries to hijack my lesson, so I feel it's appropriate for me to show the same courtesy. I try to give factual information when I can, however, as well as summations of what the kids read.

Speaking of summation, it seems as though a large part of each lesson I have is me merely summarizing the proof-texts in question instead of the class reading them for themselves. It bugs me each and every week when these kids struggle to try and read the language of the KJV. As adults who have been raised in the LDS Church we've all suffered through it and have overcome. We've learned the rhythms and idioms of Jacobean English, so for us reading the KJV isn't actually that hard. Sitting with these kids who are still in the middle of their Seminary years really brings me back to how horrible the KJV is and how dense and foggy the text seemed to be as a youth. Seriously, we read through the Saul on the Road to Damascus pericope and, while these kids knew the story well enough, when pressed for details they had trouble even finding those details in the narrative! Yet there I was sitting with my NSRV (like I'm going to actually use a 400-year-old text) knowing that if I simply read out loud from my text they'd follow it quite easily. Maddening.

I've promised the Bishop that I'd used the King James Bible (I can't remember when it came up, but it did at one point) in class, so while I prepare and get ready with my Greek New Testament and bring my NSRV to class (because I'm not that good with Greek yet), I'm still stuck referring them to their woefully antiquated King James scriptures. I've made my dissatisfaction with the KJV quite clear to the class (as well as its limitations upon me as a teacher), but so far nobody has taken me up on my challenge to purchase a modern Bible and bring it to Church. Oh well, at least one change that has occurred is that they're aware of the many different English translations and that they're not problematic for Mormons to read after they asked me one day which translations I have read and liked (answer: NIV is the most readable, NSRV tries to be the most true to the text, Jerusalem Bible is the most thought-provoking, etc).

Yes, I've read all of those versions (and portions of many others). I like the notes for the NET Bible (though they're far too conservative on controversial issues), and I always enjoy reading the Skeptic's Bible (and the Skeptic's Book of Mormon, for that matter). I'm not afraid to say it: I love reading and studying the Bible. Doesn't mean I believe it, to be sure, but belief and enjoyment do not have to go together.

The Bible is an old book. It's from a different culture (actually, it's from many different cultures and is influenced by Babylonian, Persian/Zoroastrian, Greek, and even Roman culture and beliefs), and it's not a modern book. It usually doesn't care about issues like slavery, the rights and equality of men and women, or such things as tolerance for other people and beliefs. It's often violent, vindictive, and presents worldviews that are dangerous when fully followed in our modern world. Why do I like it?

Because that's not the whole story. Liking the Bible is not a binary thing: acceptance of one part of it does not require acceptance of another unless you feel that the whole work is linked together by divine approval. If you believe in an inerrant text that is “God-breathed” or “inspired”, then you'll probably be interested in the countless apologetics that have been written over the millennia to explain the real shortcomings and problems present in the Bible.

But the Bible does present, at times, some very interesting questions to be answered. In opposition to the Book of Mormon's “Pride Cycle”, which features an an integral part of the process the doctrine that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, we have the dual knockout punch of the Hebrew Bible books of Job and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), both of which have as their central question: Why does life allow the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer? And both books refuse to answer the question, instead choosing merely to fling real life into the debate: all of us have suffered when doing what God “wants” us to do, and all of us have been blessed when going against the “commandments”. The solution found by the time the Christian New Testament rolls around is the dualistic idea of heaven and hell: the discrepancy will be made right in the next life or that this world will shortly be remade into a new world where such injustices no longer occur. For the majority of the New Testament authors this new world is coming quickly and the transition will not be pretty. When Jesus came the first time it was to start the ball rolling in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth; when Jesus comes again, he will finish the job and the world will be made anew. No more death, no more evil, and no more injustice. (Note: this is not unique to Christianity and is known as “apocalypticism”; however, it is certainly from apocalyptic ideas that Christianity formed.)

All of this gives a sense of urgency to much of the New Testament. The central message of most of the New Testament is not “Come Unto Christ because it's a Good Thing and you'll Feel Happy,” it's “You'd better be ready NOW, and the only way to be ready is to make yourself right with God through his Messiah”! The New Testament is not a pro-family collection: there's not enough time to worry about that sort of thing. The New Testament is not a pro-peace collection: war and peace will distract us from focusing on what's important.

I won't disagree that this can be a very discouraging and unloving message, but it is a very passionate message. It is a demanding message. It is a loud message. The focus is not on the Atonement of Jesus (a doctrine that, when it is present at all, is never really agreed upon by the various writers). The “atonement”, if discussed, is usually what begins the process: Jesus's death allows his followers membership variously into a covenant with him or simply directly into the kingdom to come, and his resurrection is the first crack in the barrier between this world and that barrier is about to collapse completely.

This is possibly very interesting to you as a reader (or not, I don't know), but if you're much like me, which should you care? I'm a psilanthropist, which means that I believe that the historical Jesus (yes, I think there was a historical Jesus, but I don't know much about his actual life) is the son of Joseph and Mary. If there was anything supernatural about him, I would count myself as an adoptionist, which means I find myself in the camp that believes that the “Christ” came upon Jesus at his baptism where Jesus became God's son. But frankly, I simply don't care about the issue as I find the idea that an all- powerful God is powerless to allow sinful humans to be in his presence bizarre: the very idea that an atonement is necessary is very limiting to me (this probably represents a failing of my own to fully understand orthodox Christian theology; I'm sure they have very detailed reasons).

But I still like the New Testament because, to me, it represents the thoughts of some very intelligent people even if they believe in some rather fantastic claims. Following the complicated, yet well-organized, reasoning of Paul takes some real work and effort; examining the differences between Mark and Matthew can be very illuminating about the beliefs of some of the early Christians. I find the collection fascinating for the window it opens up to the ancient world. It's a loud conversation that occurs as you read it. Just look at James responding to Paul about works: he's not exactly disagreeing, not exactly agreeing—-instead he changes the meanings of the terms and moves the focus of the argument. Fun!

An analogy I've employed with friends is that the Hebrew Bible is like a house a few hours after a huge party has occurred. The whole place still smells kinda odd, but it's been mostly cleaned up. There's still evidence of the mess, but it's in the process of being cleaned (just don't go looking in some of the closets like Judges). But the Christian New Testament is like coming into the house mere moments after the last guest leaves: it's messy. It hasn't been entirely cleaned up. There's still stains on the walls and lampshades on the ground. Between the few people left in the house you'll not get the same story about what happened between any of them. All that the writers of the New Testament can agree upon is that God has been interacting with the world recently, and it has something to do with this Jesus guy.

Of course, some of that is taking the New Testament writers at their word, which is tough to do. I'm not saying you have to (I don't), but I'm saying that part of the fun is doing so.

And there are parts of that message that can be beneficial for humans. Sure, there's better formulations of ethical behavior than the Golden Rule, but I'd argue that the Golden Rule is generally a great idea. Yes, the New Testament writers often approach the end of the world and the destruction of the wicked with an uncomfortable excitement, but they also do preach about the need for tolerance, love, and respect within the community. It's not perfect (it'd certainly be better if it were more about love for everyone more often than it was about love for other Christians), but it's still good.

And that's one of the reasons I teach the class right now. The LDS Church can be very harmful in how it approaches its own doctrines. The idea of eternal families can often be used as a hammer to beat people into submission with the threat of losing their eternal family. The debate between James and Paul about “works” is often turned into a discussion about “ordinances” by Mormons, with the assumption that the Christian New Testament is somehow clear and obvious about the necessity of things like baptism or the Temple rituals (hint: it's anything but). These approaches, and other like them, to the Christian Bible can produce horrible results in some people: guilt, anxiety, perfectionism, depression, and worse. Adults and youth within the LDS Church are often sold a false bill of goods when they're told that the New Testament presents a unified voice on LDS doctrines that is always in agreement with modern prophets. And then, when they believe that the New Testament is “Mormon” in its outlook, they simply help perpetuate that view for others.

But the New Testament is not clean, and it is not Mormon. In some ways, it's almost against Mormon ideas: Paul clearly believes in the importance of grace (hopefully more on that later in a few weeks when I finally get to cover Romans in class and can report on it—-if there's one thing that keeps me going, it's the idea of talking about the genuine and pseudipigraphal epistles of Paul), the apocalyptic focus on the coming-right-now-better-be-ready End of the World means that it's remarkably anti-family, and the idea of the gifts of the spirit being tempered by a need for authority is held by only a very small part of the New Testament.

Within these differences, though, lies the solution to many of the cultural problems created by current Mormon thought, I believe. Within the chaos of so many different ideas lies the opportunity to present an alternative interpretation that is just a valid as the traditional Mormon one. There's enough to focus on within the book that presents a narrative against guilt, against anxiety, and against bigotry. You can show people a New Testament that is kind, soft, and loving; you can show the importance of inclusion, of equality, and of respect for others. You can show the importance of questioning, and you can show the importance of rejecting blind faith.

Is it really what the New Testament preaches? Debatable, but it's at least as valid as the Mormon view, but with an end result that is healthier. Instead of view the New Testament as a secret book that only Mormons truly understand and that supports all aspects of Mormon culture and doctrine good and bad, we can approach the New Testament as a piece from history that needs to be engaged with and that presents things both familiar and foreign that don't always line up exactly with what we were raised to believe.

For instance, I tried to emphasize last week that the entire community was presented as selecting the Seven (Acts 6...), that the Apostles were not administrators but were missionaries and that they wanted nothing to do with running the Church. I emphasized that what is arguably the first Gentile convert to the Church (the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8...) was a man who was part of a marginalized sexual class in both Jewish culture and religion. Because of the sexual class he occupied he was not allowed to participate fully in Jewish rituals (he could never be a priest in the Temple) and was viewed as not being a complete man in typical Jewish culture. (I figured it was enough of a comparison to not have to ask the kids, “Can you think of any social sexual classes in the LDS Church who occupy a similar role? What do you think you could learn from this story in Acts?”) I've been very vocal before about pointing out the presence of women in the narratives we've been reading and about their full participation in the stories we read. Hopefully it's enough to at least get them thinking about those areas where the LDS Church simply doesn't measure up when it comes to issues dealing with women and homosexuals.

I should probably stop there because I could easily keep going, but that, for me, is why I think it's still beneficial both for me to teach this Sunday School class as well as for an agnostic theist such as myself to continue to appreciate this first-century collection.

#Mormon #SundaySchool #AcademicBiblical

Again, the standard explanation: I'm not really writing these posts to be read, but more because I want to just talk. Thanks for listening; I'll try to fix the more egregious spelling/grammatical mistakes, but in the end I'm not too concerned.)

So one question I have had from people who both know of my lack of belief in the LDS Church and my calling as a Sunday School teacher has been, “Don't you feel like you're being misleading?”

Yes, I do. All the time. But for different reasons for different people. My students think that I'm a good Mormon, but at least they know that I value scholarship beyond stupid LDS sources because of what I try to bring up each week and because of my blatant ecumenical approach. My team teachers think that I'm supportive of the Church because I usually avoid the few difficult topics that they know about. Only one exception comes to mind:

Once a student in our class who enjoys reading obscure Mormon stuff (seriously, he brings up the Journal of Discourses about one a month!) mentioned an odd doctrine (I can't remember what it was, but I think it was about every human planet having its own savior) and thought the source was Brigham Young. I wasn't teaching, and my team teacher was a little flustered by the idea of Brigham teaching something like that. Trying to help, I tried to laugh it off with “Oh you know, Brother Brigham taught a lot of odd things about the nature of God and there's quite a few of those that the Church simply doesn't believe nowadays; you're free to disagree with Brigham if you want to.”

She got an angry look on her face and said simply, “No, people just wrote down what he was saying incorrectly.” I couldn't really say anything else after that without starting something that I couldn't control and I wasn't sure what lay down that road, so I just let her stick with that line of apology. However, I have a lot of difficultly controlling my face, so I'm sure my discomfort with such an idea was pretty apparent. Though it's a common apology about Brigham's Adam-God doctrine, it's simply not true. He taught it often, not just one time where his remarks were incorrectly transcribed. He even included it in the Temple drama, for Pete's sake!

But, getting back to the topic of me teaching difficult topics, there's one person that I really felt needed to know what I felt, and that was the Bishop. I didn't know what would happen during the year (still don't), and I knew it was a real possibility that something might happen (political event, apologetic crap in Elder's Quorum, conference talk, etc.) that would expose my beliefs more publicly than they are now known. When/If that happened, I wanted to have my ass covered if anyone thought that I had snuck in like a wolf in sheep's clothing to tear apart the youthful sheep of the ward. (Which, if you've been reading, wasn't my intention at all and is not how I approach the class. I know plenty of other Exmormons who are more than a little annoyed that I don't take such an approach.)

Actually, when I was first called, as I said previously, I told the counselor who called me that I wasn't sure I could do the job the ward/stake/Church wanted due to the (unspecified) doubts I had. He told me to just teach around the thorny issues and if I didn't believe it, to not teach it. He said that he had doubts he struggled with, too. Getting set apart was a little different. In the Bishop's office I felt the need to be honest with the Bishop, too. I know I stood a good chance of losing the calling before I even started, but I didn't want the local leadership to feel fooled if I had to come out as an unbeliever during the year. So I told the Bishop before the setting apart occurred that I really wanted to teach, but that I had doubts that might affect what I would teach. I wasn't lying, technically, but I certainly could have said more.

The Bishop turned to the counsellor. “Did you know about this?”

“I did. We talked about it when I first offered the call. I have doubts, too, you know, about some things. But I feel that this call would be good for everyone involved.”

The Bishop looked at me. “I don't know about this.”

You must understand that I've always wanted to teach Sunday School, and I wanted to fight for that opportunity even if I no longer believed. In retrospect, I'm still not sure this was the best thing to do. “I may have doubts, sir, but I know that I can teach the material well. It's not that I'm worried I'll teach them things that are false, it's just that I have trouble with some of the more 'Mormon' assumptions that we bring to the text.”

“Like what?”

“Well, for instance, we tend to view the Gospels as unified, but they're four distinct works by four distinct people. They were never meant to be read in parallel or harmony; each of them is meant to be read instead of the others. When they're aware of each other, they tend to edit each other to more closely match the message they individually want to convey. But as LDS we tend to adopt a very Protestant view of inerrancy except where the JST indicates an error. But if we really believe in the Bible insofar as it is 'translated' or transmitted correctly, we shouldn't be afraid of this stuff. It shouldn't bother us that John has a different focus and belief in who Jesus was and what his purpose was than Matthew or Luke, or that Matthew and Luke rewrote Mark to remove or alter things they didn't like or understand. Approaching each Gospel with an attempt to understand them internally from their own point of view means that we can gain a better appreciation for them.”

He still didn't look convinced, so I continued to talk. “Look, sir, I'll promise you: I'll always start from the manual. I'll keep on track with what the lesson is supposed to cover. I'll use the approved manual in preparing the lessons, but it's just that there are occasional things the manual presents that I cannot in good conscience teach as though they're actually part of the New Testament. It's not that I have anything to teach instead of those parts, but I'd be much happier just skipping over them.”

He was quiet for a bit, and then said, “Well, okay. We'll give it a try, but you let me know if you're having trouble.”

I agreed and sat down to get set apart. The feelings I had were very mixed as I sat with their hands on my head with my eyes open to the room. I didn't believe in the “Priesthood” authority that was setting me apart, but I had to defer to their decision and basically beg to teach. And I was begging because I'd always wanted to do this job because I love learning and knowing things and thought that I could help excite people in the same way. But I knew things and had learned things that had led me to secretly abandon the faith that I was supposed to be instilling. In short, I wasn't sure whether or not I was being a compete and utter fraud in going through with this.

But class started, I started having fun, I was teaching New Testament studies and scholarship, and the kids were having a complete blast. We had discussions, we got off topic into some of the more bizarre aspects of the New Testament Gospels, and in short I began feeling better about things. The Bishop even sat in on one of my lessons and complimented me on it afterwards. (It was about the parables. Factoids dropped: John has no parables, Luke has the most. Matthew's parables are more focused on the law and keeping covenants with God. Luke's parables tend to be more focused on other people and in promoting social justice. Mark's parables are almost exclusively about the coming kingdom of God and the end of the world. Parables themselves are not pretty little stories and they are not meant to teach complicated doctrine; they are not allegories where every little detail contains meaning. They can have many multiple meanings and there's no one “right” answer. Their purpose is to get into your brain and force you to look at the world in a slightly different way; they're like political cartoons where you have to puzzle out the meaning for yourself and when you do, you end up teaching yourself. Parables can get around the initial defensiveness of a person in this fashion far more effectively than a sermon. If the parables don't challenge you, you aren't really reading them correctly [but that doesn't mean you have to agree with them]) Things were going great.

Then the Bishop asked if I could meet with him one Sunday after Church.

He asked me to sit down and asked how things were going. It would have been easy to lie to him, but I really do respect him as a person. He's a military man, and is someone I'd actually consider to be a friend.

“Things are going great, sir, but I'll have to be honest with you: I'm going to miss doing this next year.”

He looked confused. “Why? Are you moving?”

“No. It's just that next year's topic is the Book of Mormon. I won't deny that there's a lot of interesting things that we could discuss about it as a class, but I cannot teach it as a historical work. I can't teach the Book of Mormon as though I believe it to be antiquitous. (Is that even a word?)”

He got real quiet for a while. My gut was wrenching. “I'll be honest, sir. It's your ward and your call. I've not been teaching anything that I believe is actively against Church teachings; I've tried to avoid that for this reason. You asked me to teach Sunday School, and I've been teaching it. The kids like it and are learning.” This is one of those “problem” classes and it really was a good thing that the kids enjoyed coming and were involved. “You've even been in there once or twice; I've tried to keep those lessons the same as the other ones. I want to keep teaching, but I can understand if you need me to step down.” Truth be told, my Mormon instincts started to kick in and I felt the tears starting to well up (male crying is not just a Glen Beck thing in the LDS Church; pretty much all Mormon men are trained that crying is an acceptable show of emotion within a Church setting). They were real tears, though. I wanted to keep teaching, but I also wanted to be honest.

“So what do you believe, Tom?” He asked. And I couldn't help it: it all came flooding out. The Book of Mormon is 19th Century pseudepigrapha. The modern, SLC-based Latter Day Saint church is far different from the organization that started in New York in 1830, or even the 19th Century church of Brigham Young and his successors. I had real difficulty believing that God was in charge of this particular branch of Mormonism rather than any of the others, especially the polygamous break-offs who at least have prophets who still publish “revelations” in the voice of God. The Salt Lake Church hasn't received any published revelations of God's voice through its President/Prophet since 1846, instead canonizing personal visions recorded in journals or even simple pronouncements of policy changes that are more press releases than scripture.

“So you believe in polygamy?”

“No, not at all; I don't even think that, assuming the LDS Church was led by revelation in Nauvoo (which I find to be a big assumption with major problems of its own), polygamy was ever a commandment from God. I think it began from human desires and grew to eventually become a part of the movement.”

He was quiet. “What about the Temple?”

“I used to enjoy going, but now every time I'm there I can't shut off my brain. I see the masonic symbols and ritual in everything. I could tell you about the masonic history or background of nearly every aspect of the Temple drama. I do not believe that the Temple rituals are unique or special. I can appreciate the quiet within as a great place to think and meditate, but I don't believe in the special privileges the Temple is supposed to provide.”

“You don't think they're holy?”

“I do think they're holy because the people inside them approach the buildings and their rituals with awe and respect. I think it's the same with many cathedrals, or many temples of other faiths. I doubt God values them any more or less highly than other buildings constructed for the purpose of human communion with deity. Though I'll be honest, I'm not sure why the Church builds so many when it doesn't even have the active membership to support the ones it already has. The ornateness of the buildings is troubling to me.”

And so we went on for about an hour. It was the first time I'd told anyone besides my wife and a few close friends about what I believed and didn't believe. I'll admit it: I cried. It's tough to admit this stuff. And besides that, I knew I was tearing away at the fragile foundations of my call.

So at the end I reiterated again that I understood if he wanted to take away my calling right then. He thought about it for a moment.

“No, I don't think I will, Tom. I don't agree with you on these things, but I can tell you want to be honest. I'm grateful you feel you can talk to me about these things. We'll just have to find another teacher for the class next year.” Then he bore testimony to me that the Book of Mormon is an ancient work, that is was translated by Joseph Smith, and that the Temple is a holy place. I had nothing to say in response that I hadn't already said, so I tried to be polite and nodded. Then he encouraged me to go to the Temple again. After the stress of the previous hour, I agreed to, though I knew it wouldn't do any good in rekindling my faith. That fire would have to burn through too many facts I'd learned. I knew that could work for other people, that some people had the ability to know the things I knew and yet continue to believe, but I didn't think it would for me. The problems with cognitive dissonance were too difficult for me to personally deal with.

And so, here I am, still teaching Sunday School. The ward leadership knows I don't believe in most of the “Mormon” stuff (hell, I don't even know if I believe in God anymore). And yet I'm still teaching. I'm certain now that I'll be let go at the first screw-up, but until then I feel much freer about my position vis-à-vis the Sunday School class.

My apologies for the length of these posts; I'm not very good at keeping things succinct. Hmm, next time? Unless anyone wants to know something else, I guess I'll talk about why I even care about the New Testament itself since I am no longer a Mormon, no longer a Christian, and am nearly an atheist. And probably some other stuff from class that I've enjoyed and why I think it's worth my time (and theirs) to continue being a teacher.

#Mormon #SundaySchool #AcademicBiblical

Wow, I forgot that this blog was part of an aggregator (sorry, Main Street Plaza). I kinda thought my words were just flying off into the private, digital realm of the Internet. Silly me, nothing on the Internet is ever private. If you're reading this, please understand that I'm pretty much approaching this as a rant flying off into teh intarwebs. Make of it what you will (along with the constant grammatical mistakes where my fingers fly a little bit ahead of my brain). If you have questions about my teaching Sunday School, go ahead and ask them and I answer them as best as I can.

Well, continuing the posts about my teaching of class, I'm not sure what anyone else is expecting. I'm not even sure what I was expecting when I started. Part of me wanted to teach these kids critical thinking skills and an approach that would lead them to understand how non-divine the Bible is. Another part of me still wanted that “Mormon Pride” of being an awesome Gospel Doctrine teacher: to fill these kids with what they would feel was the Spirit of God and would lead them to be good Mormons.

So far now, about halfway through the year I think I'm still somewhere in the middle of things. I don't believe that God, if He (or She, or They) exists, really cares much about my little old classroom, and I doubt that “the Spirit” people in the LDS Church claim to feel is anything more than a good feeling. Thus, it's something of a fool's errand for me to teach in such a way that my class can “feel the Spirit”. But that doesn't mean that I don't know the process, the intonation, and the subjects that would cause my class to feel, for themselves, that “something special” was being taught. I can't say that I've avoided it. There have been some weeks where, after class, the kids will tell me that they “felt the Spirit really strongly.” I always smile to them and thank them, because from them it's really a sort of praise and it'd be pretty rude to shoot that stuff down. But in the end, I've tried to keep away from the emotional theatrics and I don't think anyone has minded.

I've also not been able to keep things in a purely secular sense. As a Gospel Doctrine teacher, I “team teach” with another teacher. We take turns with a lesson every other week and assist each other on the other week. I've had a few different “team teachers” and I know well enough that while the 16-17 year olds I teach are open to simply learning for learning's sake, my team teachers are actually the people that I need to watch myself around. Each TT has, at different points, come up to me after class and mentioned that they're grateful for the historical and linguistic knowledge I bring to class, but that we need to prepare these kids spiritually as well as mentally. Usually this comes up after I say something that, while unnoticed by the kids, catches the attention of the TT in an uncomfortable way. “The author of Mark says...” “Well, we shouldn't be surprised to find this here; remember that the author of Matthew is a very Jewish Christian and loves the Law of Moses...” “The gospels are not histories, they're testimonies and tracts. We shouldn't be surprised that they tend to use history as a tool to tell their story and bend it to fit their purpose when they want to.” (I should note that each of those comments was made in response to a question from the class, by the way. I'm not one to make waves for the fun of it.)

In the end, I seem to have adopted a middle road of radical ecumenicalism. The kids know (and have commented to be about it, positively) that I'll make use of other Christian religions to make my points often. For myself, if we're talking about the Christian New Testament, then we shouldn't behave as though people only started trying to figure this stuff out after 1820. There have been two millennia of Christians and they have wrestled with their texts for countless centuries. In my class, those debates count. We've talked slightly of Pelagius, Augustine, and Original Sin (for a while they knew what the word “Semi-Pelagian” meant). We'd discussed Luther and the roots of the Protestant Movement. We've discussed modern Christianity's approach to the Trinity, as well as Mormonism's bastardized version of what “those Christians” believe.

In fact, that was probably the first time when I thought that I could keep doing this job. It was only a few weeks after I had started, and I was still trying to get into the swing of things. I'd established my preparation methods: look up the scriptures in the manual, read them, prepare my own lesson based on the scriptures read, and (finally) look at the LDS Sunday School manual to see what their recommended lesson suggested. Usually I covered many of the same points, but my own preparations avoided a lot of the “LDS-ness” that the manual seemed to convey. The lessons were fun, but I was still struggling with my purpose, as a closeted non-believer, in teaching a class that was supposed to be about “Gospel Doctrine”. Just the mental masturbation about being flattered as “so smart” by everyone wasn't going to cut it (and it's not that I'm smart —– I'm not any smarter than plenty of other people within or outside the LDS Church —– I'm just more well-read in archeological and theological materials and have good retention of what I read).

The lesson was on the Baptism of Jesus. I started off by mentioning that this is one of the parts of Jesus's life that everyone, whether Christian or not, believe occurred (well, assuming you believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed, but I have little patience for Jesus Mythicists, but that's a question for another time). I went over the “Criterion of Embarrassment” for a bit (not by name, of course, because that's a mouthful), but I mentioned that few people felt that starting off your gospel by having Jesus receive baptism from someone else really put Jesus in a good light, but actually made him seem somewhat subservient to John. Then we got to the baptism, and I pointed out the various accounts from Mark and John (pointing out that they were probably the only unique authors, since Matthew and Luke were pretty much re-writing Mark for their Gospels). As we started to move away to the next point my TT (team teacher) stopped me.

“We should also point out that all three members of the Godhead are present here.”

Me, uncomfortably knowing where this is going, and trying to keep it within the text: “Yes, they are. We have God the Father speaking from heaven, God the son (in John, at least) in the water, and God the Spirit as a dove appearing. This is the beginning of Jesus's ministry, and we can see that he is sent by God because of the miraculous beginnings described by the authors here.”

“But it's also important to note that all three members of the Godhead are present here. Some people would say that this would be impossible.”

I really don't want to go there. “Who specifically would say that?”

“Well, all of the other Christians believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are all the same person.”

“I guess none of those billions of other Christians throughout history ever thought to actually read their Gospels and discover the truth hidden in plan sight within this story here?”

Uncomfortable silence, which, in retrospect I probably deserved for throwing down the gauntlet so hard. Well, time to pick up the pieces. I turned to the class. “Since I'm not technically a 'traditional' or 'orthodox' Christian, I'm probably not the most qualified person in the world to tell you what they believe, but I guess we could talk a little bit about this, if you'd like?”

Since my class, being teenagers, is always up for a tangent to the lesson, they readily agreed. So I began by explaining that Christians were, of course, very well aware of the Baptism of Jesus. So how to they deal with it? They deal with it well enough, it's not some horrible problem they don't know how to resolve.

The problem, I continued, is that we Mormons have a very poor understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. In Greek, the Trinity is described with the word homoousia, which can roughly mean “the same being” or “the same nature”. Ousia is much like our English world “being” if looked carefully at it as a verb: “present tense 'To be'” (though note that it is an adjective, not the actual “to be” verb of Greek; it's just that ousia covers a similarly wide range of meaning). What does it mean “to be”? Existence, nature, substance, essence, and so forth. The classic definition of the Trinity, as set forth in the 1st Council of Nicea (and I also pointed out that Nicea nearly always get's a bad wrap among us Mormons unnecessarily [I plan on writing a series, if I ever get time, going over the history and context of the early councils for the purpose of presenting them to Mormons accurately instead of the jumbled anti-Catholic and anti- Trinitarian 'just-so' stories that LDS like to tell themselves about Nicea.]), was that all members of the Trinity were of the same ousia, or “being”. At different times through history that has been interpreted strongly, as though they shared the same experience and were nearly the same entity, but other times that has been interpreted loosely, as though they shared merely the same divinity and purpose. I've heard the Trinity described by some loose Trinitarians as a sports team, a single unified team of individuals that work towards the same goal. I mentioned as well that among traditional Christians “Modalism”, or the belief that there is only one God and that He expresses himself at various times as either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost was actually a heresy (a word I also had to define, as they'd never heard of it before). Thus, Christians have to walk the knife's edge of doctrine between Modalism and Polytheism; they've had a few centuries to figure it out, and they're pretty good about keeping their balance collectively, though you'll certainly find individuals who are modalists or polytheists. Mormonism ignores the problem by simply declaring itself polytheist, but even for us it's not that simple: even the Book of Mormon sounds, throughout most of its pages, like a modalist document. Much Mormon Apologist ink has been spilled trying to recover the Book of Mormon from modalism, to varying levels of success.

So in the end, I told them, the Trinity is actually a somewhat complicated belief. Many Christians love and adore the complexity and incomprehensibility of it. I mentioned that we Mormons also have our own mysteries that we love where the very mysteriousness of the doctrine makes it seem greater to us, with the best example of this being the Atonement. We routinely hear from various people that how the Atonement actually occurred at one time for all people is a mystery beyond understanding, and yet nobody in the LDS Church seems to find this problematic. Instead, many Mormons love the idea all the more for not understanding it (I'd even argue that the doctrine isn't all that difficult to comprehend, but that we enjoy the mystery of it so much that we actively play it up amongst each other). The Trinity is the same way for many Christians; they love it and treasure it.

And then at the end of my ecumenical rant, an interesting thing happened. One of the kids raised his hand.

“One of my friends at school is a Christian. Well, I mean a non-Mormon Christian. I don't know what he believes about the Trinity. I've never actually asked him. I know he's gotten made fun of because of it before, but he's never actually told me what he believes. I'm going to go and ask him about it.”

Suddenly the class was all talking amongst themselves about their Christian friends at school (I didn't know that there were enough non-Mormons in Utah Valley for everyone to know someone, but I guess there are). And this wasn't in the typical, “let's get to know you just enough so that we can convert you”-type discussion. These kids were actually talking amongst themselves in pure curiosity about a doctrine that none of them had been raised to believe in, but that perhaps some of their friends believed. It was, even for someone like me, who no longer believes in the LDS Church, or even in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, a truly heart-warming experience.

Perhaps that was the Spirit then? I don't know; I personally doubt it, but that doesn't mean I'm correct in doing so. I think it was an honest pride in these kids being willing to explore the ideas of others. When we got to class next week I asked if anyone had talked to their friends. Only the one boy had, and he said that his friend wasn't really that religious and didn't actually know what he felt about the Trinity. But he apparently appreciated someone asking him about his beliefs because that never happened; it was usually the other way around.

And so this is the middle road I currently try to travel. My goal in class isn't to help these kids be better Mormons and get to some “Celestial Kingdom”, nor is it to be better biblical scholars. Instead, my goal is to give them the tools to become the people that the LDS Church, one of the most disliked minority religions in America, needs: open to others, open to discussion, open to research, open to debate, and, above all, open to loving their fellow humans. My lessons, when I can get them to be applied to to us modern humans, tend to focus on helping others, on the messages of inclusion, assistance, and grace that are in the Gospels (yes, there's plenty about “justice”, vengeance, punishment, and other horrible things, but these kids are going to hear enough about the “justice” of God as they continue in the LDS Church).

Next post, I'll talk a bit about how the bishop's felt about all of this as I've talked with him more than I imagine most teachers do.

#Mormon #SundaySchool #AcademicBiblical

I've wanted to write this for a while. I'm not sure how interesting it will be for anyone else, but I keep wanting to tell someone how much fun I've been having teaching Sunday School, as well as rant a little bit.

In November I finally got fed up with the crapologia and insipid approach our Sunday School was taking towards the Hebrew Bible. From the constant Book of Mormon-inspired Christological approach to texts that have nothing to do with a Messiah viewpoint to the horrible misrepresentations of Jewish beliefs I was tired of it. I study this stuff all the time; it's not that hard to do a little research outside of the Sunday School manual. I love the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament! They're so deliciously messy and human. They're worn down by time and are written by dozens of real, and different, human beings. It argues against itself constantly and consistently challenges the reader to understand it both as individual works and as the artificial whole we tend to view it as. It's fun!

So I finally did it: I asked the bishop to let me teach. I've got the chops for it: I've read the books, I know the current scholarship relatively well, and gosh-darn it (because I'm talking to the Bishop) I've even put the effort into learning Ancient Greek and can read the New Testament (admittedly, I can read it far too slowly to actually do any real translating in class) for cryin' out loud. I can do this!

And so they actually called me. I wasn't actually expecting them to, mind you. Mormons are trained very early that there's two things to understand about callings: you don't turn them down and you don't seek for any calling.

So I actually told them I'd get back to them and waited a bit. I wrote my friends on reddit to ask their opinion. They seemed to be, for the most part, of the opinion that it would be a bad idea: I'd not be able to continue teach if I gave my full beliefs about the LDS Church in class and if I taught things that the parents didn't like I might get in trouble.

So in the end, I decided to be honest. I told the second counselor who had extended the calling that I really wanted to teach, felt that I could teach the New Testament quite well, but that I personally had many doubts in relation to Mormonism itself and wasn't sure that I could teach the class everything I would be expected to teach them and remain honest to myself and them. He told me that he had some serious doubts himself and to just teach around what I had doubts about. “If you don't believe it,” he said, “then don't teach it. If you still think you can provide a good experience for these kids, then do it.”

So I did and started. Thankfully, I was able to skip the first lesson on the “Pre-existent Christ” and we started off with the two nativity stories (Matthew and Luke) and how they were the same and how they were different. I went into the meaning of the word κατάλυμα (kataluma) and explained that it didn't have to mean “inn”, but instead could also mean “guest-chamber” or “special room” (this is the same word used by Luke for the “upper chamber” of the Last Supper). So you see that in all likelihood, if the nativity story as Luke wrote it occurred as written, then Jesus could have been born in a stable not because there was nowhere for the family to stay, but in an attempt to give them some privacy in a very full house. It's even possible that the manger that Jesus was laid in was a centralized stable within this very full house and that Mary had no privacy whatsoever. It was also fun to explain to them the differences between the gospel writers (Matthew's nativity does not mesh with Luke's and instead looks to have been based very heavily on the Biblical life of Moses; we're not even sure how historical to take any of it), their traditional authorship (and their actual anonymity), and to see these kids have fun actually learning something about the Christmas stories.

I'll keep talking about the rest later. I need to go to sleep now.

#Mormon #SundaySchool #AcademicBiblical