Anticipations of a New Gospel Principles Manual
Ever since news of the arrival of a newly published Gospel Principles manual hit the bloggernacle in July of 2009, I’ve watched with a strange curiosity the various reactions and commentary. Initial reactions were mixed. Many questioned the apparent deviation from the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series which began in 1998. The series still has about six manuals in remaining in the queue. Some saw the decision to use Gospel Principles to be an open invitation for mediocre teaching in the Church, others welcomed a break from the Teachings manual that tended to lead to lessons where class members merely read from the manual.
As I side note, I’ve long observed that nothing creates more passion and controversy among members of the Church online than discussions on teaching. Complaints and criticism of teaching quality abound. While the criticisms are varied in both tact and substance, I believe most criticism is driven by the the uniform desire by members of the Church for better teaching. This has been a constant concern not only by members but by Church leadership for years, yet online forums provide a means for members to find others who also desire better teaching. Mormon blogs such as Feast Upon the Word, which launched in the closing of 2006, focus on improving and discussing effective approaches to lessons and teaching, and the blog attracts the attention of many.
Church organizational and administrative history has also received much interest. David O. McKay instituted changes to Church organization that sought to avoid redundancy in the production of manuals and other teaching materials through a process known as correlation. “Correlation” however has become code language for many members online to mean either censorship or the production of banal manuals. They pine for the days long past, that age of a Mormon Camelot where teaching was beautiful and good. The effects of correlation are significant, yet one wonders when there was ever an age when teaching wasn’t a challenge. It is easy for correlation to function as a scapegoat, but it’s not clear whether any manual can serve as a panacea for poor teaching.
The introduction of the 2009 manual provided another opportunity for many members to lament some of the first fruits of a correlated curriculum. Rumors of changes in the manual likewise provide a fascinating look into the Mormon psyche. Were these changes substantial? Were they doctrinal? Would these changes solve problems with ineffective teaching? What were the changes? Expectations were high. Perhaps too high.
Matt W. at New Cool Thang provided the first review of the new manual in July of 2009. The manual received a beautiful facelift—improved with the selection of visually appealing images and photographs. Gone are premortal life illustrations of people in generic white robes, opting instead for stunning images of heavenly galaxies and mysterious nebulae. In terms of format, the manual contains helpful tips for teachers a the bottom of the page.
However, in terms of the content, the manual has not changed significantly. The text is essentially the same. There are a handful of references to more recent conference talks. Most changes to the text have been choices in capitalization or grammar that doesn’t affect the overall meaning of the text. Citations have been updated to refer to the Teachings of the Church series.
Some have pointed out that the mere four references to See McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine have been removed. However, this really isn’t significant. The references have been dropped but the preceding text remains the same. This is probably more indicative of the fact that these manuals must be published in numerous languages and where Mormon Doctrine is not available in another language, it makes little sense to refer to it. And in most cases,the original citation was not necessary to support any particular point of doctrine in the first place. Incidentally, it isn’t clear what the role of footnotes play in a simplified manual like Gospel Principles. There are plenty of sentences with no footnote, citation or reference at all.
Others have wondered about changes between the 1997 and 2009 editions. In August 2009, Life on Gold Plates produced a comparison of the chapter on the Atonement. It’s still too early whether blacklining Gospel Principles will yield fruitful insights, but many people will probably be comparing editions. Some critics of the Church interestingly latched on to changes between editions for signs that the Church was dishonestly downplaying problematic doctrines.
In November, I posted Gospel Principles Manual: A Brief History. I sought to examine the historical context out of which the manual was originally produced and provide the original reasons for its creation. I believe that the original reasons for the manual mirror the reasons for its use in 2010 and 2011.
In December, BrianJ at Feast Upon the Word provides some suggestions on How to Teach the new MP/RS manual. He also quizzically points out that “getting back to the basics” might not be much of an explanation for why the new manual is being used. He points out, and rightfully so, that the Teachings series is full of “basics.” If we haven’t been teaching the basics for the last 10 years, what have we been teaching?
Today Matt W. provided a follow up post on the new manual at New Cool Thang, and gives four reasons why he is not worried about the new manual. In addition, he notes Peggy Fletcher Stack of the The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed him and others for article about the manual: “A new—or is it old?—manual for Mormons.” I agree with Steve Evans, another individual interviewed, who stressed that the manual isn’t a substitute for “an engaged and prepared teacher in front of a engaged class.”
In conclusion, I think that the quality of the lessons will be determined by the preparation of the teacher and the class. I do think there is a great opportunity for more members to be actively participating in the discussion of how teaching is best served and I look forward to fruitful discussion in the next coming weeks.
Jared T. The 2010-2011 Relief Society/Melchizedek Priesthood Course of Study:Taking A Break From The Prophets. Juvenile Instructor blog, July 24, 2009.
Matt W. Review: Gospel Principles (revised) Chapters 1-10. New Cool Thang blog, July 24, 2009.
Joe Spencer. Coming up in Relief Society and Melchizedek Priesthood for 2010 and 2011. Feast Upon the Word Blog, July 27, 2009.
BHodges. A Comparison of the “Gospel Principles” Atonement Chapter. Life on Gold Plates blog, August 4, 2009.
Gospel Principles Manual: A Brief History. The Pierian Spring blog, November 16, 2009.
BrianJ. How to Teach the New MP/RS. Feast Upon the Word Blog, December 21, 2009.
BrianJ. Should I Feel Dismay?. Feast Upon the Word Blog, December 26, 2009.
Peggy Fletcher Stack. “A new — or is it old? — manual for Mormons, Adults get back to basics in Sunday studies.” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 31, 2009.
Matt W. Gospel Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New PH/RS Manual. New Cool Thang blog, January 1, 2010.
Kaimi Wenger. The New Book. Times & Seasons blog, January 1, 2010.