Our relationship to commentaries and manuals, from an Ignorant Schoolmaster point of view (Chapter 3)


At the Feast Upon the Word Blog, we finished up Chapter 3 of the Ignorant Schoolmaster this past week. During it, I made this comment on our relationship to scriptures and commentaries.  Since I’m the one who made this comment, I assume it’s ok to cut and paste it to my blog? I hope someone will inform me if this is improper blog etiquette!

RobF said, in his initial post,

“The first vice is laziness. It is easier to absent oneself, to half-see, to say what one hasn’t seen, to say what one believes one sees.” (55). What do you see here? For my part I wondered, how are we lazy in the gospel?

I’m just going to look at one aspect of our relationship to the gospel. It is much, much easier to just pass over difficult scripture passages than to work through them. I think when we do this, most of us assume, “I’m not smart enough” or “I’m not spiritual enough” to work through that. A person who says this either then passes over it, or they then go to a commentary or type it in lds.org to get a fast, “right” answer from someone they assume is smarter than they are.

The problem though, is that usually these commentaries or talks never get thought. They can be fantastic resources, but not if they are taken as a superior word and never thought about. If we can assume the equality of intelligence, then it seems to me we would take whatever the commentary or talk said and verify it in the scriptural text. Our goal, remember, is not to have one “right” answer, but to explore possibilities. Was this person reading the text carefully? (If they were not, they may still have something worthwhile to say, but let’s not take it as the final say on the verse or passage!) If they were reading carefully, what were they noticing that I have never noticed? How does that open up even more adventures for thought? How does it help me on my own orbit around this verse? The danger is to take up the orbit of the commentary because I think I can’t find an orbit on my own. Discoursing with others is fantastic; let’s just not forget to treat them as equals who have something the are saying to us.

In this sense I think we actually treat their words with more respect, not less. I don’t think it is disrespectful to go through a talk by President Monson or Eyring more carefully to see what he was saying. Just as we have gone through Ranciere and asked not “Does it sound like what I’ve already thought?” and then moved on, happy or not, we could treat any general authority’s words the same way. What is Pres. Monson really saying here? Why this word? What does it have to do with the talk as a whole? What is that story saying? What did he not say in that story? What do we think about it? What do we make of it? How would a very careful reading of a conference talk open up truth we hadn’t thought of before?

“Reason begins when discourses organized with the goal of being right cease.” If I am concerned with one right answer from the beginning, then I want to spend as little time reasoning with others as possible. There is a sense of “being right” in Ranciere, but it comes in being honest, verifying, and finding the better and better translations of what someone else has written or said. It comes at each careful step of verifying what we think we’ve seen by looking at the text again. But even here, we must not mistake our opinions for truth!

In a classroom at church, too often we are concerned with making sure the “right” answer gets said (whether we are the teacher or in the class). This seems most easily avoided by taking up a verse or passage. Then we are not asking, “What is the right way to spend the Sabbath?” and arguing for a half hour. We are asking, “What do you read in this verse? What do you think about it? What does it say?”

The manuals the church makes can be taken in two ways, just like a commentary or a talk. (I’m not thinking here of the Presidents of the Church series, since those are all quotations.) We can assume that whatever they said on a topic is the best answer, end of discussion. Or we can see it as an intelligent communication from a group who had something to say. We can take up what is said, and see what they were actually communicating. This route means we take the manuals with more serious rigor, not less. But we also assume they are not doing more than they themselves claim to be doing. We take them at their word, in the way they present themselves. We see where they are rigorously adding to a discussion, and where they are not. We see where the various statements fit in with the rest of the lesson, or the rest of the section, or even the manual as a whole. Then we can be more faithful to the manual, even if we quote it less!

I come to this having taught Young Women’s for two years. Sometimes the manuals present a topic, list a scripture, then ask the girls to answer a question. But then the manual presents answers to be put on the board, regardless of what the girls answer!

This could be interpreted in several ways (and ought to be studied), but unfortunately what I saw teachers do was to only take an answer as a “good” answer if it matched up with the one in the manual. Even if the girl actually answered in words closer to those in the verse, it was treated as slightly “wrong.” “Oh, that’s close. Here’s the answer….” That drove me crazy. The girls became more and more accustomed to playing the “what is the teacher thinking game,” which was really more of a “what word is in that manual” game (like playing taboo 🙂 ). The teacher wasn’t thinking about the manual, the scriptures, or the girls’ answers. What was important was getting a list on the board of the “correct” doctrine or “correct” way to live.

Most of the girls knew certain “right” standards to live by, but they had no idea why we believed any of them and certainly had no idea that they came from the scriptures. The scriptures and the doctrines/standards were two separate worlds, for the most part. They just waited to be told what to think and what to do (and of course then either lived it or didn’t).

What then will they do, when they have two teachers who each authoritatively give them answers that contradict? They either have to pick one person as superior, or they have to assume it’s all a show and doesn’t amount to anything real.

There is a danger in using any church lesson to give someone the “right” answer. We are also teaching them 1, there is no more thinking to do, 2, they can’t figure it out on their own, 3, there are superior minds who know these things, and 4, if you hear otherwise you’ll have to pick who you trust more (or it’s further proof you can’t remember things right). Ranciere rings so true to me because I see that if we use the scriptures as our material “thing” in a classroom, it makes us equal before it with the infinite task of reading and studying. Every discussion becomes an adventure in the land of knowledge – a fun play that is so productive and so joyful. A passage of scripture becomes an infinite source of truth and rejoicing, rather than a heavy weight to be taken care of as fast as possible.

It just seems ironic and counterproductive to ask any teacher to assume a position of superiority, when we all have the infinite task of studying out the scriptures and the words of the prophets.

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