Teaching Sunday School, Part 3

Teaching Sunday School, Part 3

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-a-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.

Tom Doggett

Tom Doggett

I'm a programmer, Ancient Greek reader, feminist, spouse and partner, and a dad.

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