Saturday, February 12, 2011

Church Ain’t Radiolab

Is anything more satisfying than a piping hot serving of Radiolab? Brainiacs Abumrad and Krulwich seldom disappoint. Whether it’s the velocity of a falling cat or the brain’s capacity to retain random numbers, they transform the esoteric into the accessible and do it with a grin. I mean come on, would I normally care about how prairie dogs communicate the approach of someone dressed in a sweater? But there is joy, yes joy, in listening to them dissect practically any topic. Radiolab is like healthy mind food. It’s tasty and low cal.

Which brings me to Mormon church meetings. How is that we church goers are content to sit though presentations largely devoid spark and wonder? Are we not co-conspirators in what passes for instruction? And why is that an institution that bills itself as God’s church can't do better than have members essentially repeat 4th grade over and over again? Is it fair to move beyond the question, is the Church true, and instead ask how a true church can be so free of interesting material?

Now I know that people experience meetings differently and that I am generalizing my experience to others. So please feel free to ascribe the above to Sanford world, but I think that my comments may be valid beyond my own experience.

Two weeks ago I attended a ward conference where the stake Sunday School Presidency gave a presentation on improving teaching. The presenter asked who in the audience remembered a great teacher and what made them so good. One person offered her father as an example. She said his technique was to ask questions she didn’t know the answer to. Another person told of a scientist in his ward who invited ward members to his home to discuss how science and Mormonism work for him. A third man said that he had a scout master who took the boys on fun and novel outings. The presenter listened to these stories and then opined that they were great teachers because they followed the spirit. I guess we all hear different things but what I heard was three people saying that their teachers were great because they gave new experiences, new information and challenged their students.

Maybe I have been watching too much CNN, but if the average Egyptians can foment change, why can’t we. Yes, the manuals are mundane and simplistic, yes, correlation dictates the shape of the curriculum, and yes, we honor and sustain our leaders, but pew sitting Mormons are also the church and we don’t need to be a bunch of enablers.

For the record, I know how egocentric and irrational I sound. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Dramatic, yes, but not necessarily wrong. Come on people, speak up.

23 comments:

Diana Croshaw said...

As common pew sitting Mormon's, what do you propose we do? I've FINALLY been released from my primary calling (after 5+ straight years in primary) and am now able to go to classes again... I can't say you are wrong in this opinion. Not all Mormon teachers are created equally. However, it is not my calling to teach at this time, so how am I to help with the redundant boredom? Give us your thoughts, Sanford.

Sanford said...

Thanks for seeing the futility of my plea and demolishing my call for revolution in less than 100 words. The truth is I don't know that there is anything I/we can do. The power to change a culture of instructional malfeasance is so far over my pay grade that my post only serves the modest purpose of letting off some steam. I don't have access to or credibility with anybody (I'm talking apostle on up here) who could possibly effect change. And I'm not even sure those men at the very top could make much of change. Mormonism is a big ole ship and I imagine it is hard to change course. So, on a micro level, I can attend the gospel principles class where at least I can enter into some sort of dialogue with the teacher, and I can try to make the experience somewhat more meaningful for me. I feel like my comments are predictably contrarian but people in the ward probably just see me as being slightly cranky. But I'm just trying to take those lemons and make some lemonade.

Eric Innes said...

Trying to incite a riot on your first post back. Well done.

Alice said...

The best thing the average pew sitting mormon can do is to study the lesson ahead of time. If you understand the lesson material, you can make well thought out comments, which always makes a lesson more interesting.

Someday when I get to sit through a lesson again (right now I'm usually roaming the halls with a baby who thinks it's nap time and wants his bed) that's my plan.

Anonymous said...

Bro. Sanford: Wonderful to have you back online provoking your adoring audience. This is my take:

1. I’d say the examples given show that those with expertise or passion in a topic are likely to be better teachers. It’s logical. Let’s be honest, most saints have neither an expertise nor passion for most topics discussed on Sunday.
2. The manuals are written for the masses and the masses only want to “understand” the doctrine at the elementary level. Which is totally cool with dudes in SLC. And digging a bit deeper only creates problems. You might find something you shouldn’t see! People don’t attend for the classes anyway. They attend for the community. And sitting through pabulum week after week and year after year proves just how committed many are to the culture.
3. Radiolab proves you need at least one Jew on the program to make things interesting. This American Life anyone?
4. But keep banging your head against the wall. Nothing will change. But you know that.

Brother Korihor

pb said...

I'm with anonymous: passion is the key ingredient that is missing from gospel doctrine lessons, and is presumably present in radiolab's musings. My question is why would Sanford be wasting his time shackled to a passionless institution that inspires no joy in him? Is it that damned Pluto in the 9th again? Come on, this is the incarnation in which you can make it happen. Lose it. If you need inspiration, go see 127 hours. It may feel like you're cutting off your arm, but you will be free, at last.

Sanford said...

Alice, thanks for stopping by. I've followed your blog for gardening tips for a long time. I think your right about prepping for class but I sort of think that way the systems is set up preparation by class members is not made easy and the expectation is that nobody prepares in advance. I am sure you've seen the topic of how to make classes better beat to death around the bloggernacle but I will attempt one of my one in a few days. But in this post I was mostly saying the institution of Mormonism is to blame for much of the poor subject matter and cultue of dullness, but at the same time we regular Mormons share the blame for wallowing in the malaise and not actively expecting and asking for more from those at the top who decide how we will spend our time on Sunday.

Sanford said...

Bro. Anonymous, I can't say I disagree about points one and two. But three, come on buddy. Don't forget our star player, only the most important Jew of all time, that's right, Jesus. He's a very regular attender too. As for 4, again, your probably right. I certainly can't things on a Macro level, but I havn't given up trying a tweak or two on the micro. I'll let you know now my head holds up.

Alice said...

"the institution of Mormonism is to blame for much of the poor subject matter and cultue of dullness"

I agree. Although, I still feel like it is primarily my own responsibility to "get something" out of the lesson.

The teacher improvement course is one thing that could be improved- we talk a lot about listening to the spirit, but we don't talk as much about what we ought to be listening for.

I'm interested in hearing your ideas for a top down change. Maybe it's more effective, since a bottom up approach requires the majority to be looking for more than what we're currently getting.

In my SS class there are two teachers. Both teachers put a lot of work into their lessons, but one reads their prepared lesson and one is much more interactive. Some weeks I try harder to get the baby to go to sleep than other weeks...

Red Writer said...

Why seek to change something that seems to satisfy so many?

The world, afterall, is bigger than a wardhouse. Truth expands beyond its confines. Passion lacking?
Seek and ye shall find. elsewhere.
Radio lab: inspiration enough.

and if its not, how about a religious question circle of sorts?

Sanford, free yourself of the need to influence something that is too big to change. and that doesn't want to be changed. and whose majority doesn't want it to change. What is it that you want, anyway? Clearly, obedience isn’t enough for you. You want intellectual stimulation. at church. You're a Unitarian at heart. Its time to flee.

Brother Korihor's Lover

Sanford said...

pb, you ask why I waste my time with Mormonism. Well, I complain a lot about church but there are a lot of thing I like about it. Perhaps that will be the topic of another post. But I do think that your question is a very fair one. I told a friend the other day that I would need a great deal of therapy to understand why I return week after week but that I am too cheap to pay for it. I certainly am not immune from saying one thing and doing another. I blather about church this and church that but I'm right back in the pews on Sunday. I have been toying with the notion that my attachment is akin to an addiction. One I can't, but perhaps should, break.

Sanford said...

Alice, I have been thinking about ways Sunday School could be improved and will do a post, but it really is primarily an exercise in wishful thinking. I have a little bit of wiggle room to effect things in my ward but not much. So I think my only real option is to find a way to make it work for me within the existing status quo. So I suppose it is my responsibility but I don't think its my culpability.

Sanford said...

Ah, Red Writer, what an absolute pleasure it is to have you drop in. I heard you might pay a visit. Perhaps it is presumptuous to seek change. After all, in doing so I am saying that something needs fixing when others seem content and even pleased with how things go. It has occurred to me that rather than seek change, that I could just find another tradition that better suits my needs. Well, part of me needs to wallow perpetually in indecision and angst and that need is presently well fed. And I guess I kind of want to stick around Mormonism because I'm curious to see how it turns out for me. Am I just a dog chasing its tail or what?

pb said...

Oh, I'm so glad this conversation isn't over. It is just so much fun. Okay, a couple of points. Yes, you have 2nd house issues, which is why you can't spend money even though it's your soul's purpose that's on the line -- as if your soul isn't worth opening your wallet for. How much do you contribute in tithing? If the answer is nothing, then forget the question. But if you put in your 10%, then take that sum and put it to better use with a good Jungian analyst. Your thinking about what options are available to you will expand as you allow your unconscious to speak to you and stop silencing and devaluing it.

And can I just say that the need that you articulate "to wallow in indecision and angst" is just those urgings, but they're getting harder and harder to suppress aren't they? You will truly need to commit psychic suicide on a very deep level if you continue to muffle your soul's longings so that you can "see how it turns out for you" with mormonism. There's really no need to stick around for that ending. It's readily apparent what it will look like, and it won't be pretty.

jupee said...

When are we getting together to make signs to hold up at General Conference? Happy Birthday!

Anonymous said...

I guess I am a little late to the discussion. I don't think the problem is necessarily institutional. I think it's a function of having non-professionals in charge of the lessons each week. Isn't it a bit unrealistic to expect the same polish, insightfulness and entertainment from a Sunday School lesson as from a professional radio program? Radio Lab has an entire staff of paid professionals trying to create interesting programs. Imagine what your Sunday School teach could do with an entire staff helping him or her prepare the lesson each week. Additionally, they can draw upon inherently more interesting topics for their shows than repentance and baptism.

Some teachers are very good and provide interesting and engaging lessons. Similar to Radiolab, the right teacher can make even the most basic gospel subject interesting and novel. Other teachers are either incapable or unwilling to go past a third grade level with their lessons. I don't really know what the church can do other than encourage local leaders to call more talented people to teach.

The new Priesthood/RS manual is much less detailed than previous iterations presumably in an attempt to make the teacher encourage discussion and not just rely on the manual. Leading an interesting discussion takes a certain amount of skill. A skill that many teachers don't possess.

Binnes

Anonymous said...

Binnes and I were thinking along the same lines. In addition to what s/he said, I will add that Radiolab has a very different mission from most churches. Radiolab is there to inform and entertain. I think most churches, including the LDS Church, see their mission as discipleship. Same root word as "discipline." Discipline is just never going to be as fun as entertainment.

Church is really about renewing or reinforcing our commitment to follow Christ. Like any form of discipline, this is mostly hard work, with occasional spark and wonder.

Sanford said...

Ok Binnes, it seems that you and I fundamentally disagree on this matter so I am going to address several of your points head on.

“I don't think the problem is necessarily institutional.”

Who is responsible for the tone of the discussion -- how we discuss things in the church? Who produces the manuals and strongly promotes that idea that you stick just to the material irrespective of student sophistication? Who produces a curriculum and tone that largely says that we have all the answers and thereby leaves little room for exploration? Perhaps Bishops and Stake President have control some of these matters but largely they are imposed from the top down. That to me is institutional control.

“I think it's a function of having non-professionals in charge of the lessons each week. Isn't it a bit unrealistic to expect the same polish, insightfulness and entertainment from a Sunday School lesson as from a professional radio program? Radio Lab has an entire staff of paid professionals trying to create interesting programs. Imagine what your Sunday School teach could do with an entire staff helping him or her prepare the lesson each week. Additionally, they can draw upon inherently more interesting topics for their shows than repentance and baptism.”

Ok, I admit that Radiolab has resources and time and people to produce an excellent program. But Radiolab’s resources are a drop in the ocean compared to the Church. There must be scores of people and a lot of money expended in producing lesson materials. But that’s not really my main issue. Mormon culture purports to have simple definitive answers to challenging complicated questions. Yeah, I know Mormons have the truth, but that doesn’t mean the discussion of the truth topics must occur in a manner that requires almost no serious thought or wrangling. People get bored hearing the same thing week after week in a manner that requires no real engagement.

“Some teachers are very good and provide interesting and engaging lessons. Similar to Radiolab, the right teacher can make even the most basic gospel subject interesting and novel. Other teachers are either incapable or unwilling to go past a third grade level with their lessons. I don't really know what the church can do other than encourage local leaders to call more talented people to teach.”

It’s the uncommon teacher that can meet the institution expectations of lesson teaching from the assigned materials and make a lesson memorable. I regularly ask my Mormon friends what their Sunday School and Relief Society lessons were about and they generally can’t remember. Come on, are our expectations so low that we will accept that week after week? And teachers that choose to deviate from the text to present a more interesting and sustaining lesson are often reigned back in. A teacher generally doesn’t have the option to listen to the spirit and present a lesson that he or she thinks right for a class. Rather, the manual and topic controls. And why doesn’t the church encourage local leaders to call more talented people? Seems like a good place to start. But the bland institution message is more important than the teacher so I don’t expect much change in who gets called to teach.

“The new Priesthood/RS manual is much less detailed than previous iterations presumably in an attempt to make the teacher encourage discussion and not just rely on the manual. Leading an interesting discussion takes a certain amount of skill. A skill that many teachers don't possess.”

Ok, so let’s pick better teachers, and let’s foster a culture where real discussion can occur. Let drop the pat questions and formulaic answers and try to have real learning. But I think that that change has to occur at the top and Mormonism as an institution disdains real discussion, so good luck.

Sanford said...

Hi anonymous, welcome to the blog. I agree that Radiolab and the Church have different missions. But why does discipleship have to equal boredom in lessons? Don't you think that a church that is God’s church on earth, and takes 3 hours of your time listening time every Sunday, should have something interesting to say? I am really talking about my experience, and others, like yourself, of course, see things differently, but discipleship without spark and wonder often feels like drudgery to me. Perhaps I need to dial down my expectations, but information purveyors like Radiolab show me that there is plenty of spark and wonder outside the Church. Can’t we get a little of that inside the Church?

Anonymous said...

So are you going to post something new, or is this a one-off event and you'll go on hiatus for another year or so?

Korihor

Red Writer said...

Sanford, there is so much I’d like to say here to convince you to give leaving a go (especially regarding the anonymous comment about hard work vs. spark and wonder…really?), but clearly, what I want to say won’t have much of an impact. You are staying. So, the question becomes, are you enjoying the wallowing, or do you really want change? And if you really want change, then let’s see your action plan.

Here’s an idea: create your own Mormon RadioLab pilot! Come on Sanford. You’re a clever one. (I’d suggest that you and Korihor partner up for this endeavor as he does have secret radio show fantasies…if only he were in.) Instead, how about partnering up with Troy Williams, EP of RadioActive? He’s a public radio man and surely a listener of RadioLab, and he’s a Mormon. See http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/51308137-82/mormon-book-poor-saints.html.csp#disqus_thread.

Come on, Sanford. Are you a talker or a doer? A wallower, or an agent of change?

Sincerely,
Brother Korihor’s Lover


“Don’t just talk — get involved and get active!”
-RadioActive

Puolustaja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Binnes said...

I have taught a number of lessons during my time in the church and I've never felt any sort of institutional pressure to dumb down the lesson. I think the irony of this whole discussion, and something you glossed over in my last post, is the brevity of the new Gospel Principles manual used in Priesthood and Relief Society. My understanding of the purpose of having a less fulsome manual is to foster discussion. By having less detail in the manual the teacher can't simply read the lesson because there isn't enough material. Rather, the teacher is encouraged (by the powers that be no less) to lead discussions rather than just lecture. Is this an institutional attempt to increase discussion and exploration?

"Who is responsible for the tone of the discussion - how we discuss things in the church?"

I think the teacher leads the tone of the discussion. If the teacher is open and inquisitive the discussion follows the lead of the teacher. If the teacher is close minded and parrots the manual the discussion stagnates and lesson becomes boring.

I do agree that lessons are often repetitive and boring. I have felt frustration before with the seemingly constant repetition in the church, but you have to consider the challenge of teaching the gospel to such a varied audience. In a Sunday School class you could have recent converts, gospel scholars and everything in between. How do you present a lesson that meets the needs of everyone in the class when the needs are levels are so different?

I think you overestimate the influence of the Brethren on weekly lessons. I can think of a number of different factors that exert greater influence on a boring lesson than church "oppression."