Thursday, May 1, 2008

Teaching Mormonism

I've heard the same lament from so many teachers.

"Did I really say that?!?"

You teach, and your students take notes, and then they write papers telling you what you purportedly taught them. And sometimes it makes you want to cry. Are you that bad of a teacher?

Oddly (or maybe not oddly at all) the student in my class who seems to get Mormonism best is from Kenya. And perhaps the reason is because he appreciates the Joseph Smith story in a way that is unfiltered by American cultural accretions about Mormonism. He accepts the First Vision as a theophany, plain and simple, and proceeds from there. He simply takes for granted that God did indeed speak to Joseph Smith, and then draws his own conclusions about what that means. American-born students can't seem to get past the whole question of whether such a vision could even occur, whether Joseph Smith was a charlatan or maybe a bit touched in the head. There's too much dangling in the way of simply appreciating the earth-shattering reality of that encounter between human and Deity to grasp what is at the heart and soul of Mormonism.

So maybe I need to cut myself some slack, and neither entirely blame myself for the apparent teaching failures any more than I can take the least bit credit for the apparent teaching successes. But it occurs to me that if my students were truly learning Mormonism, they would be learning it in something like eight to ten one-hour sessions with a pair of young teachers from somewhere far away, wearing name-tags that identify them as Sister So-and-so or Elder Some-other. That's the only real way to learn Mormonism from the Mormon point of view, and the best I can give them is something like a testimony, something like a general feel for what my faith means to me. If they can get that much, I am happy and can hope that deeper learning will take place later.

But I wonder, as I reflect on how my students learn (not just Mormon but other kinds of) religious history, I reflect on myself as a learner as well. Myself as learner and God as teacher. And how often God must be smacking his forehead up there near Kolob and lamenting, "Did I really say that?!?"

Sometimes I think the best we can do is learn a little bit of discipline, something that gets us to taste some humility, something that gets our minds off the iniquity and pride so firmly planted in front of our faces that we can't see anything else and certainly can't see God. If only we can learn that, perhaps other kinds of learning will come along later.


Todd said...

I wouldn't be too upset. It's hard for students from one particular faith tradition (or no tradition) to really "get it" when studying another faith, especially in the context of an academic religion class. When I took a course on the Qur'an, I never actually believed that Muhammad had an encounter with God, who revealed the words of the Qur'an to him. Still, I understood that Muslims do believe this and that this belief is fundamental to everything that follows.

Hoping for students to have a genuine encounter with the faith being taught about in a religion class is probably an overambitious goal. The best any religion teacher can hope for in an academic (rather than confessional) setting is to instill a solid analytical understanding of the faith being discussed, but for non-believing students, it will inevitably be from an outsider's perspective.

J G-W said...

Obviously, the goal in this class setting is not to make believers out of folks. I agree that a key is to give folks an analytical understanding. I'm still frustrated on occasion how many of the basic facts get messed up! But that worries me less, when people (like my Kenyan student) get the importance of a key concept.