I have been teaching a course on Mormon literature at Utah Valley University for over ten years. But in 2014 I was given the opportunity to teach a similar course at Brigham Young University. I’ve taught as adjunct faculty at BYU for almost as many years as I’ve taught at UVU, and I often joke that only by teaching at both schools can I be whole—I feel like I can only be fully open about my political and social views at UVU, but I can only be fully open about my religious and spiritual views at BYU. Because it’s a state school, UVU allows me to teach Mormon literature as I would any other type of literature, employing the tools of literary and cultural criticism. We can analyze Mormon culture and theology, but I cannot bear my testimony or endorse a particular doctrine or perspective. My students are mostly juniors or seniors majoring or minoring in English or Religious Studies. However, the course I taught at BYU was a GE class for non-majors. And while everyone at BYU takes religion courses, those courses are not typically religious studies courses—they are primarily designed to build faith and knowledge of LDS doctrine and theology. (Although there are disagreements about how to define religious studies as a discipline, I think it can best be defined as the multidisciplinary secular academic study of religion.)
At any rate, before I handed out the syllabus on the first day of my first BYU Mormon lit course, I decided to survey students about their expectations. I asked three questions: What do you think Mormon literature is? What is the last Mormon literature you read? And why are you taking this course? After collecting the survey, I almost gasped audibly. Almost every student defined Mormon literature as either scripture or the words of General Authorities in recent conference talks, listed the Book of Mormon or Jesus the Christ as the last Mormon literature they read, and confessed that they were taking the class because they wanted to increase their testimony. I suspect that some of them were trying to impress me with their level of spirituality, but even factoring in a bit of buttering up the teacher, I knew their expectations were very different from mine. In Mormon literature, we do spend some time studying scripture—the Book of Mormon in particular—but we look at it as a work of literature, not as a model for faith. We also study memoirs, poetry, essays, plays, short stories, and novels. And, because literature reflects culture, we cannot shy away from hard issues—in Mormon lit, issues like doubt, polygamy, the pre-1978 priesthood ban, and theological transformations.
While my UVU students often didn’t know all the details of Mormon history and belief, my BYU students had a very narrow definition of literature and its purpose. I joked later that my UVU students mostly get the “lit” part of Mormon Literature, but don’t get the “Mormon” part; and my BYU students mostly get the “Mormon” part, but don’t get the “lit” part. That first night, I was so sure we were in for a very rocky road that I almost walked out of the room and told them that we’d need to find a different teacher.
Despite my concerns, the class turned out fine, and subsequent semesters have gone even better—in many ways better than they have at UVU. I found that most BYU students had already wondered about some of these hard historical issues, many suffered with doubts, a few had come home early from missions. And all of these students felt isolated and alone because they didn’t feel like they could talk about these things at BYU or in their student wards. Some even worried that they might get kicked out of the university for questioning or expressing doubts. But students seemed to like a frank, honest, yet faithful approach to these subjects. Here are a few of the comments I received on my last student evaluation:
“I loved this class. One reason was because I felt comfortable talking in class and voicing my opinions and ideas.”
“I wish my religious courses could be more like this! As we all shared our ideas, I felt as though there was some real spiritual strengthening going on.”
“I loved the deep discussions we had and the no-judgment atmosphere where we could all ask questions and learn together.”
I share these comments only because I think they reflect how satisfied students were with open and honest discussion.
A couple of weeks ago, Elder Ballard spoke in a live broadcast to CES Religious Educators. He began by briefly reflecting on the past 100 years of the Church Education System, but then stated, “I am more interested in the next 100 years and how you can help your students face the ever-changing challenges of the 21st century.” Commenting on how the Internet has changed the world, he stated, “Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.” He stated that the curriculum of the past, though“well-meaning,” simply could not prepare students for the present, “a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.”
The talk represented a sea change, I believe, in how the Church approaches gospel learning. He instructed CES leaders and instructors to not only read the scriptures and words of General Authorities but also to seek out “the best LDS scholarship available.” He urged them to know the recently-released Gospel Topics essays “like you know the back of your hand,” to be familiar with the work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, that published on the Church history section of the LDS.org, and on the LDS Newsroom (where, I believe, some of the most interesting and substantial ideas published by the Church appear). He stated that they needed to listen to their students, reply respectfully and honestly, and not repeat to them faith-promoting myths and unsubstantiated rumors. We must, Elder Ballard admonished, “inoculate … students by providing faithful, thoughtful, and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history.”
The Internet, I believe, has been a historical revolution unlike anything we have seen since the invention of the printing press. We cannot expect pre-Internet methods of teaching to work in the Internet age. I applaud Elder Ballard’s vision of that future. (I’ll leave it for another time to explore the taken-for-granted definition of “faithful LDS scholarship.”) I believe BYU should be included in that message. Based on my limited but positive experience, I believe these students are hungry for more substantive conversations. But it is also the kind of education we need to provide in our Sunday school and priesthood classes. If young people need this kind of honest and faithful curriculum, their parents do too. How else are they going to respond to their children’s questions, doubts, and concerns? How are they going to know not to call into question or report on a something a teacher has said in a seminary or institute class? How are they going to know that these instructors are only following Elder Ballard’s instructions?
I find this new focus refreshing and much needed. And I know that it works because it is the kind of education I received at BYU back in the early 1980s from teachers like Eugene England.