feasting on the word

yesterday relief society was very . . . let’s say confessional.

the lesson was on the subject of selfless service (jana shared her interesting approach to it last week). president kimball’s writings were full of doctrinally significant insights into the nature of service. i was excited to discuss this material, as many lessons or talks which focus on service end up being narratives of service received or performed, resulting in a lot of weepy eyes and a good deal of warm fuzzy feelings and very little rigorous discussion of the principle of service. a few of the points i thought i’d make an effort to bring up or comment on during the lesson included:

  • the relationship between service and fear—that when we live by faith, we adopt the savior’s perspective and can reach out to and serve others in love, rather than perceiving them as a threat (81). i’d also go a little further and connect this to the necessity of knowing Christ in order to have eternal life.
  • the fact that focusing on service helps us turn our attention towards people in very real circumstances and in need of very real help, rather than focusing on institutional structure and power—that we will become more concerned with doing the savior’s work, than with advancing through the ranks so to speak. (this point could have some interesting negative connotations, too—similar to the “opiate of the masses” understanding of religion; i probably wouldn’t have brought this up in relief society, though. for some reason, mention of karl marx doesn’t get me very far in church meetings. . . .) (82)
  • i love that president kimball celebrates individual gifts and urges us to use them in service, rather than “becom[ing] rubber stamps.” and that we “should develop our own talents and abilities and capacities to their limit and use them to build up the kingdom” (83). i especially think that mormon women need to hear this, given the time and energy devoted in church to establishing the “rubber stamp” of good womanhood.
  • that all the commandments “hang” on the first two commandments—namely to love God, self and neighbor (86). i think it’s so vital to remember that love must be at the root of all good. love—not obedience, or distinguishing ourselves from others, or meting out justice, or fitting some mold of how we think we should be.

and a bit of a negative i wanted to call attention to and perhaps address:

president kimball writes: “some observers might wonder why we concern ourselves with such simple things as service to others in a world surrounded by such dramatic problems. yet, one of the advantages of the gospel of jesus christ is that it gives us perspective about the people on this planet, including ourselves, so that we can see the things that truly matter and avoid getting caught up in the multiplicity of lesser causes that vie for the attention of mankind . . . .” (83). he urges us to choose causes that are good, rather than those that are “fashionable” or “may produce the applause of the world.”

i see a tension in the first quote between “dramatic problems” and “the multiplicity of lesser causes that vie for the attention of mankind.” the latter functions as a sort of appositive for the former, implying that “dramatic” global problems are somehow less important that the simple daily services we often give.

i don’t think president kimball actually thought we shouldn’t care about “dramatic” global problems, but the implication is there. i wanted to reclaim this, pointing out that trying to rectify such “dramatic” global problems necessarily “grow[s] out of keeping the commandments of god” every bit as much as serving our neighbors closer to home. that the busy-ness of doing simple acts of service daily in our own neighborhoods should not make us forget “dramatic” problems like the tragedy unfolding in sudan, the plight of women around the world sold into white slavery, the innocent victims of the AIDS epidemic in sub-saharan africa (and elsewhere), or the consequences of global poverty for those who do not have the means to help themselves (to name a few).

now, i recognize that small daily acts of service and responding to the “dramatic” global problems i mentioned are related. the small acts develop in us an attitude that will lead to our caring and addressing larger problems. but they can also assuage our consciences enough and occupy our time fully enough that we forget to look outside of our immediate neighborhood and care for our neighbors around the world.

you can see the lesson i would have taught yesterday.

it wasn’t what i got. what i got was 45 minutes of story after story after story of service rendered or received. and i got slowly more and more frustrated that we weren’t talking about significant and, in my opinion, often unaddressed characteristics of the principle of service. i appreciate that the women who shared stories felt the spirit, as did many of those who were listening to their stories. i understand the value of sharing stories—of remembering the times when we have served and when we were served. i think there is a place for sharing stories in a lesson, and had i been teaching i would have asked for people to share their experiences as part of my lesson. but my soul was thirsting and hungering for spiritual substance. and while shared experience may be one course of a spiritual meal, it does not constitute a balanced or full meal. i left relief society longing for the kind of sustenance i find in delving into doctrines and principles through discussion. this is not always my experience in relief society, but it often is.

why is it that we substitute sharing experiences for teaching? why do we dwell so very much on the emotional and ignore the intellectual aspect of spiritually feasting on the word?

and, on the issue of service, why do we limit our view of what it means to serve to the local and far too often forget the global? and, more problematic, feel justified in doing so?

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. stacer says:

    Personally, I think stories are intellectual (or at least can be, when they’re not spiritual twinkies). Perhaps it’s the way the stories are framed, and not so much the stories themselves. So many of us don’t remember the principle behind the story unless the story is included–kind of like how for a visual person it’s easier to remember the illustrations than the words themselves in a story you once read.

    I think that Elder Holland is a master at this kind of storytelling with a principle. Have you ever read or listened to his talk, Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence (as one example)? He tells multiple stories, but in a larger context of using them to illustrate the principles he’s teaching. That’s the kind of teacher I’d like to be, myself, especially as someone who is story-oriented.

  2. amelia says:

    as a student of literature (a professional one), i obviously find stories intellectual. the problem is not in sharing stories, but in never explicating the underlying principles that make the stories meaningful.

    i tried to point out that i would, if teaching this lesson, use stories myself, but that i would want more than just stories. personal experience and stories are a fabulous teaching tool. but they are merely a tool; they cannot be the entire lesson or else the lesson is imbalanced.

    please do not misread what i’m saying here as a condemnation of story-telling or asking for experiences to be shared as teaching techniques. they can be very good teaching techniques. but little teaching happens if the stories are not explicated. it would be like one of my students turning in a paper that is all summary and no analysis. such a paper is a failed effort to make an argument in order to advance understanding. i feel the same way about a “lesson” that is nothing but personal experience or stories.

  3. Caroline says:

    Amy, I totally sympathize. And I wish you had been the one teaching that lesson. I hope you were able to make a lot of your comments during the course of this lesson.

    I think it’s quite common for relief society to be confessional fluff rather than doctrinal meat. My personal ideal is a good balance of both, like you suggested. I’m not sure why most RS lessons lean so much towards the emotional. But I suspect it’s because it might be a bit, well, easier to deal with the subject on that level. Less prep, heavy thinking, and scripture study required, perhaps.

    As for why we focus on the little acts of service, rather than the global, I think it may be because some of the global issues have political connotations in the minds of some. Discussing ways to eradicate world poverty could easily dip into a country’s policies – and I think there’s a good chance that could annoy some of the audience. Much safer to just stick to stories of giving people smiles or cleaning people’s houses.

  4. amelia says:

    i actually didn’t say a word, which is highly unusual of me. 🙂 but there really was no opportunity. not even really a handle with which to lever myself into the conversation with any of the points i had noticed and been thinking about. usually i manage to find an opening and try to steer conversation a bit (i’ve been criticized for teaching from the back row, but usually i’m thanked so i don’t let that bother me).

    i think you’re right about why the global concerns don’t come up in lessons. but it seems that many people aren’t even aware of them in their personal lives. my sister for instance never really thought about global issues until she began researching international adoption (and has admitted as much to me in so many words). since discovering the kind of poverty and illness and abuse that many (if not most) people in 3rd world nations experience, she has actually become active in trying to do something to help (she’s the one with the “kids from haiti cookbook” project that was linked here a few weeks ago). and i’m so incredibly impressed that she actually did something with her response to suffering, rather than letting it totally overwhelm her.

  5. TftCarrie says:

    In our ward, the RS teachers have been specifically instructed to invite many of the sisters to share experiences and stories during the lesson. The teacher almost acts more like a discussion leader than teacher. A good teacher can ask the right questions, reframe stories and guide the comments to make a point, but most of our teachers aren’t equipped with the skills to guide the discussion and instead use stories and comments as “filler”. This means you end up with a whole lot of skimming the surface on the week’s topic which always leaves me thirsty for more. I am grateful that RS and EQ have the same lesson because then I can at least have a good discussion with my husband on the way home from church.

  6. Brooke says:

    Perhaps one lesson to glean from it all is that everyone is on a different level, and everyone learns differently. The feeling that we may want “more” will drive us to continue to probe and learn. Perhaps what another woman needed was just that bit of emotional boost.

    It is amazing to see the diverse spectrum of women, isn’t it?

  7. amelia says:

    i do think it’s good for teachers to be instructed to have class members share experiences. many people in an RS class aren’t comfortable presenting interpretation of scripture, but are comfortable telling of a personal experience. and they’re valuable teaching tools. plus this instruction prevents a teacher from standing at the front of a room and talking at the class for an hour. the challenge, really, is to strike a balance. which addresses brooke’s point, too. i know that these kinds of stories meet the needs of people at church. and i’m glad that those needs are met. but i think it’s entirely possible for those needs to be met AND to meet the needs i was feeling on sunday. an appropriate balance would do both.

    part of this comes from my conviction that we too often live and know our faith shallowly. i don’t mean that to be condescending in any way. everyone’s life experiences and opportunities are different and so everyone will have varying depths of knowledge. i simply want relief society to provide an opportunity for women to plumb a little deeper.

  8. Sally says:

    I enjoy more intellectual lessons when I teach, but when I open things up more for discussion, the responses tend to be more feelings and personal stories. It seems to me that many women, especially SAHM, need a place to bond and express themselves and RS is a time for them to do that. And judging from the women in my class, there are many more women that want to be able to express their feelings than there are women who want intellectual discussion. Not that their is anything wrong with that – I just think that is why there is more of that type of discussion. I try to have a balance, but do miss having more in-depth learning.

  9. stacer says:

    amelia said, “please do not misread what i’m saying here as a condemnation of story-telling or asking for experiences to be shared as teaching techniques. they can be very good teaching techniques. but little teaching happens if the stories are not explicated. it would be like one of my students turning in a paper that is all summary and no analysis. such a paper is a failed effort to make an argument in order to advance understanding. i feel the same way about a “lesson” that is nothing but personal experience or stories.”

    I wasn’t misreading–if anything, I wasn’t explaining my own idea sufficiently, due more to distraction by pending deadlines than anything. I was just sharing my experience that pretty much was about what you said in the above quote.

    I was sharing that example of Elder Holland as someone who taught me how to integrate both ways of teaching into a cohesive lesson. As a Sunday School teacher twice in the last two years (and just got called to it again last week), I’ve struggled from the opposite end, lots of intellectual info-dump in a way I found personally challenging but left my classes alternately dumbfounded and bored silly.

    I found that treating the stories in the scriptures as I would stories in my master’s program helped some, but that I had to sprinkle in the personal stories before people would start getting involved in class.

    So I agree, it has to be the right balance of those elements, because otherwise you have either so many comments that the lesson gets lost, or so few comments that students aren’t engaged in the lesson at all.

  10. stacer says:

    pretty much was about what you said in the above quote.

    I meant to say “pretty much trying to say what you said… etc.

  11. amelia says:

    thanks, stacer. i too appreciate elder holland as someone who integrates stories into his talks in such a way that they enhance the analysis of doctrine and principles he presents. it’s what i try to do (not always successfully) and he’s one of my favorite role models.

    sally–i’ve had some similar experience. i think part of the reason SAHMs need a place to express themselves is that they spend most of their time with children and need adult communication and interaction (i base this on my sisters, both of whom have expresed this need to me). but i also think part of this trend arises from the fact that the women in the church are cultivated as emotionally spiritual beings, rather than intellectually spiritual beings. most of the conference talks given by women tend towards the emotional rather than the analytic. this is obviously not universally true. sherri dew gave talks that were regularly analytic (if occasionally problematic). and i think sister parkin’s talks sometimes presented interesting and unusual spiritual insights of an analytic nature; however, i think she lacks the rhetorical training and/or sophsitication to make those insights the focus of her talks, which usually tend more to the emotional.

    all i want is a balance. there is no gender divide along which emotional and analytic fall. there’s no inherent reason why women should not be engaged in the latter as well as the former. and i don’t think the position of women in the church will be one of full equality until it is understood by both men and women that women are every bit as capable of doctrinal analysis and interpretation as men.

    but now i’m up on one of my soapboxes…

  12. Elizabeth says:

    “however, i think she lacks the rhetorical training and/or sophsitication to make those insights the focus of her talk…”

    Having been in her home many times over a period of many years, I can assure you that Bonnie Parkin is as intelligent, sophisticated, and
    intellectual and as any person that has ever read this blog – if not more. She is as perfectly comfortable dining and conversing with the most brilliant medical minds of the century as she is playing in the dirt with grand children.

    She speaks to a wide audiance, and crafts what she says to reach as many as she can.

    To assume that she lacks sophistication in an aspect of her life is most definately either being pretentious, or naive.

  13. amelia says:

    well, i’ve never conversed with her in person. i’ve only heard her conference talks. and, as a student of the written word, i find them lacking in rhetorical sophistication. that’s my opinion. you can disagree, of course. i have no problem with that. i don’t think i’m being pretentious; i’m just stating my opinion. she strikes me as intelligent and insightful, but her talks are not tightly organized or rhetorically powerful. in my opinion.

    but the strengths or weaknesses of any particular speaker is not really my point. my point is that the way women speak and teach in the church reflects the ways in which women in the church are cultivated to be emotionally spiritual, rather than analytically spiritual. neither of those things (emotional spirituality vs. analytic spirituality) is inherently better than the other, but i think that they are incomplete without each other.

  14. a spectator says:

    I would be surprised if the elders quorum or hp group in my branch did much analytical thinking about this lesson. I bet it was a story-fest, too. I think it is just easier, regardless of gender.

  15. AmyB says:

    I can see this discussion from a couple of points of view. I am very sympathetic to your point, Amelia, that the culture of the church encourages women to be more emotional than analytical. I wish there were more balance, as well. But my other reaction is that if one hopes to be intellectually stimulated at church, or even general conference, one is going to be continually disappointed. We really can’t expect much from a mostly volunteer church. I go to other places to fulfill those desires.

  16. amelia says:

    well, i certainly don’t expect to be intellectually stimulated at church–certainly not on a regular basis or by a majority of what i hear. but i do hope to be intellectually stimulated. and there are certain teachers in my own ward and my previous ward whose lessons make me think in new ways about the gospel. so i don’t think it’s an unrealistic hope. i suppose i see general conference as something of a guideline (although one that fluctuates regularly). generally speaking, at every conference there are about 25 to 30 talks. typically i find four or five of them provocative in terms of leading me to thinking about the gospel in new ways or with a new perspective. sometimes more, sometimes less. i hope to see something similar at church.

    and having never been to elders quorum, i’ll take your word for it, spectator. when i suggest that there’s an association between “male” and “analytic spirituality” in the church, i suppose i’m speaking of models and ideals, rather than practical realities.

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