A Curriculum of Stale Chips
There is a convenience store not too far from my house that my kids occasionally talk me into visiting. While I wait for them to fill slurpee cups full of brightly colored slushy liquid, I often pursue the shelves of food offerings. I’m drawn to colorful food —like a bag of puffed Cheetos I once purchased. While alluring, they turned out to be disappointingly stale and not satisfying. They were, after all, highly processed food from a convenience store where all the items of the shelves are covered in a light layer of dust. I had to remind myself that if I wanted something satisfying to eat I could cook it myself or go to a restaurant that uses fresh food like vegetables, fruits, grass fed beef and such. I love good food; even writing about good food brings a smile.
Imagine, though, if someone told me the stale Cheetos were perfectly fine, they were all I needed, and I should feel guilty for even suggesting they were not satisfying. The contrast between them and a farm-to-table meal illustrates how I feel about the Come, Follow Me curriculum. I’m sure the writers of the curriculum put a great deal of effort into the project and had good intentions. It’s also a difficult task to write curriculum for a worldwide church. And the business side of the church is organized in a hierarchy that makes completing *anything* incredibly difficult because any sort of project—from creating a curriculum to building a temple—passes through many layers of management who each have their own opinions. (If any curriculum writers happen to read this, please tell us your story of creating the curriculum.)
All graciousness aside, the curriculum is stale. Sure, it’s better than the previous manuals that hadn’t been updated for decades. At the same time, my irritation with CFM is its underlying premise: The lessons are designed to encourage a warm fuzzy loyalty to the church institution and ideas espoused in the Family Proclamation. To me, this approach strips the idea of God, understanding peoples’ relationship with God as recorded in scripture, and accessing the divine through sacred texts, of its mystery and wonder and tries to cram something big and beautiful into a little box. It’s the equivalent of processing a farm-to-table meal into stale Cheetos.
A few days before writing this post, I listened to the podcast Fireside with Blair Hodges. A quick shout-out for Fireside; its tagline is “Interviews about culture and religion with brilliant people to fan the flames of your curiosity,” and Blair does exactly that. He is a thoughtful person who finds interesting people to interview. Plus, the occasional sound of a crackling fire is so realistic I once glanced around to look for a fire when I was listening while biking through a wooded area.
Blair has a graduate degree in religious studies and he knows his stuff. In the particular episode I was listening to called “The Books,” guest Vanessa Zoltan of the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text discusses three different postures she proposes people use when they approach sacred texts. Those approaches are as a fan, or as a scholar, or as a devotee. This was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me because I realized I often crave a scholarly approach to sacred texts. But the real eye-opening moment came when Blair and Vanessa discussed the differences between a devotee and a fan. (Note: this exchange has been edited for length.)
BLAIR HODGES: I would say sometimes I think about…fans, where they almost get too—they’re almost too obsessive. And anything that doesn’t fit the vision that they wanted to have for it, there’s a lot of—there can be anger, you know?
VANESSA ZOLTAN: Oh, that’s interesting…I would say it is not their fandom that is getting in the way. I would say that there are other things that are often getting in the way..
BLAIR HODGES: Like prejudices that they’re bringing to it…
VANESSA ZOLTAN: Exactly, I don’t think it’s their fandom that is the problem.
BLAIR HODGES: But do you think there’s a lack of openness there to it, then? It’s like, they’re not letting that canon,….they’re not letting the sacred texts question them. They’re bringing what they already have to the text and just wanting it to say the things they’ve already got.
VANESSA ZOLTAN: Right. Exactly.
Boom. Mic drop.
“They’re bringing what they already have to the text and just wanting it to say the things they’ve already got,” is Come Follow Me in a nutshell. If you’ve ever looked at the manual, particularly the youth lessons, and wondered how in the world a scripture has been made to, for example, support marriage when the scripture happens to be about anything but marriage, that perspective is how. It’s what the church leaders via the writers of the curriculum want; they’re not allowing members to allow sacred texts to challenge them. Leaders seem to want members to walk out of church with pre-determined answers.
And frankly, not many members ask to be challenged, either. It takes effort to think of anything other than what we already know is the “right” answer. It can also be uncomfortable. But as I have learned from my fitness coach, it is important for growth to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Amos, the lesson from yesterday’s Sunday School, can be read by centering Amos 3:7 about the Lord’s word being revealed to prophets. With that verse we can pat ourselves on the back with reassurance that we belong to the one true church that has prophets. Or we can, as Blair brilliantly did while teaching Sunday School in his ward, allow the text to challenge us.
Amos, an average person, was asked to tell the people to do better, to treat others fairly by addressing inequalities and exploitation that was happening among the Israelites, including the priests. It’s uncomfortable to consider how we might be participating in systems of oppression. It may be uncomfortable for many members to consider that current church leaders react to pleas to do better pretty much in the same way that institutional authorities back then reacted to Amos by having the priest at Beth-el tell him to be quiet and go away.
I assert that there are long-term costs when we don’t allow sacred texts to challenge us in much the same way that there are long-term costs to eating stale Cheetos instead of fresh food. I see those costs being incurred right now in the church. As a teacher, I understand it’s scary to let go, to allow your students to grow and be challenged by a rigorous curriculum, because the outcome is not controllable. However, that’s how I understand my job—to cultivate student growth. For church leaders, curriculum writers, and teachers, I assert it is your job to help cultivate growth of the people in your classes. It’s worth it. We all need to be nourished and strengthened when we feast on the word.