On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: <br />An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)

I’ve taught first-year writing at BYU-Idaho since 2010. The curriculum for the course I teach includes a student essay titled “Medical Student” by Margaret Parker. The essay is a well-written, day-in-the-life narrative profiling one aspect of the intense life lived by a med student named JD; this intensity is conveyed through the narrative’s fast-pacing and through some mild profanity. Because this life experience is likely completely foreign to BYU-Idaho’s student base, “Medical Student” appears on the reading list as part of a course unit called “Thinking about the Other.” The unit claims the following objectives:

This unit invites you to reflect on the question—who are they?—insofar as it can be answered by examining the beliefs, values, and experiences of other individuals whose perceptions of “reality” differ from your own. The assumption underlying this unit is that before you can engage in constructive communication about academic, social, and political issues, you must be able to understand and accurately report the experiences and positions of others.

At the end of this unit, you should be able to conduct effective primary research, such as observing and interviewing, to understand and accurately communicate the experiences and positions of someone whose perceptions differ from your own.

Within this context, “Medical Student” is meant to stretch students’ thinking about the people with whom we share this world, especially those who don’t share Latter-day Saint values. Some students (not a lot) struggle to get past the essay’s profanity and have approached me with their concerns. Which is fair enough: if they don’t want to read the essay, that’s their prerogative. One semester, though, a student had major concerns about it, which prompted her/him to worry about the school’s spiritual standing. The response escalated beyond anything I had previously experienced (I won’t go into details) and it prompted me to pray and think deeply about such concerns and how I might best address them with future students to encourage them to look at their education within the context of gospel values. The following letter grew out of that experience. I’m sharing it here because it explores a way of looking through the lens of Mormonism when we read texts that come from outside the Mormon literary tradition.

Because the letter’s pretty long, I’ll post the first half today and the second half Thursday. In the first half I address BYU-Idaho’s mission as a Church-sponsored university and place learning and reading within a gospel context; in the second half I walk through a reading of “Medical Student” using the principles I outline in that opening discussion. (To encourage engagement with “Medical Student,” . The link will die at the end of this week. If you find this post after 1.17.2015 and would like to read the essay, email me at tyler [at] motleyvision [dot] org.)


Friends:

As I’ve taught FDENG 101, students have sometimes express their discomfort with Margaret Parker’s essay titled “Medical Student.” I’ve thought and prayed a great deal about how best to address student concerns in terms of FDENG 101’s objectives and BYU-Idaho’s mission as an LDS-affiliated university dedicated to preparing disciple-leaders. I feel like the best way I can address those concerns is to speak openly, honestly, and specifically from my own gospel understanding. My hope in responding this way is to apply the Lord’s counsel that we “reason together” toward increased knowledge and mutually beneficial solutions to our problems (see Isaiah 1:18 and D&C 50:10).

The main concern some students have had with “Medical Student” is that they were shocked that a Latter-day Saint-sponsored university would make students read something that contains profanity. Let me address this concern in two parts, first, by speaking to BYU-Idaho’s mission as a regionally-accredited, LDS-sponsored university and, second, by offering some comments on “Medical Student” and how the essay fits into BYU-Idaho’s curriculum.

I’ll begin by addressing BYU-Idaho’s mission, which is to:

  • Build testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and encourage living its principles.
  • Provide a quality education for students of diverse interests and abilities.
  • Prepare students for lifelong learning, for employment, and for their roles as citizens and parents.
  • Maintain a wholesome academic, cultural, social and spiritual environment.

In part, the institution accomplishes each aspect of this mission by placing the processes of teaching and learning in the context of the restored gospel; by encouraging teachers and students to marry gospel insights and tools for living with the knowledge and skills that arise from different fields of study (i.e., English, sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, etc.); and by facilitating the moral development of its patrons.

A vital (life-giving) aspect of pursuing education in such a faith-based environment is that BYU-Idaho’s programs of study allow and encourage us to “seek learning [. . .] by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). This means that we ought rely on both reason and revelation as we seek knowledge, which further suggests that we should develop our ability to think and to make decisions for ourselves alongside our ability to listen to and learn from the spirit. In his monograph titled “Reason and Revelation” (which you can find online here), Elder Dallin H. Oaks addresses in depth the relationship between these ways of learning. His main claim is that they’re not mutually exclusive principles, meaning that we ought to apply both our intellectual and spiritual faculties to all of our studies and that each way of learning can and should inform the other. In fact, Elder Oaks encourages Latter-day Saints (as we’ve always been encouraged) “to pursue and excel in all fields of learning, acquiring knowledge by study and reason as well as by faith and revelation.” Such a pursuit, he concludes, is “pleasing to God” who uses both reason and revelation “to reveal light and knowledge to his children.” BYU-Idaho takes these ideas seriously, encouraging teachers and learners to excel as students of the gospel and of their academic fields and of other people and cultures, as well as by helping them learn (as I stated above) to marry gospel insights and tools for living with the knowledge and skills that arise from different fields of study. For the school to offer students a gospel-only education (one that focuses only on studying officially-sanctioned Church texts) would undermine its mission to shape disciple-leaders who are willing and able to effectively serve at home, in the Church, in the workplace, and in the world. Rather, to be of greatest influence in the world, we need to pursue knowledge of all things and to pursue it via both reason and revelation.

God emphasized this need when speaking to an 1832 conference of high priests that had convened in Kirtland, Ohio under the direction of Joseph Smith. During the conference, many of the attendees had “prayed ‘separately and vocally'” that the Lord would reveal his will to them “concerning the upbuilding of Zion.” One thing he told them was that, in order for them to “be prepared [to act] in all things” that he called upon them to do, they needed to learn “Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:79-80). In short, as disciples of Christ they needed to learn as much as they could about as many things as they could so they can be of greater benefit in the upbuilding of Zion. The same goes for us.

In March 1833, just a few months after God revealed his will to the conference of high priests, he reiterated the principle that education is something we ought to make our lifelong “business and mission.” I take this to mean that we should never stop learning and that we should be open to being taught in every aspect of our lives—at home, at school, at play—and by every situation, every person, and every story that we encounter (even those that don’t align with our value systems or standards). This counsel came specifically to Joseph Smith when the Lord told him that he, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams would constitute the First Presidency of the newly established Church of Jesus Christ. As part of their “ministry and presidency,” God told them, they were to “set in order the churches, and study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people. And this,” God continued, “shall be your business and mission in all your lives” (D&C 90:15-16). This statement suggests that God’s kingdom will only progress and expand as his disciples’ improve their abilities to minister to and to lead others, and that disciples can improve these abilities by acquainting themselves with all good books and with other languages, tongues, and people. (This is one reason we think about the other as part of our studies in FDENG 101.)

But what does the counsel to become acquainted with “all good books” entail? This is especially important to consider in terms of BYU-Idaho’s curriculum because, as an LDS-sponsored university, the school should exemplify this attitude. Speaking about the organization and development of God’s children to a conference of saints gathered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on the 6th of February 1853, Brigham Young offered an explanation of the things that Latter-day Saints should read as they seek to develop their moral capacities and to become like God—things BYU-Idaho is all about. What follows is an excerpt from Pres. Young’s discourse (the full-text of which is available online here):

“Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all [someone whose interests, purposes, and even morals are narrowly confined or limited]. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books [i.e., the scriptures]. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.

I make these remarks to lay the foundation for principle in the minds of the people; and if you do not yet understand what I would be at, I will try to illustrate it still further. For example, we will take a strict, religious, holy, down country, eastern Yankee, who would whip a beer barrel for working on Sunday, and never suffer a child to go into company of his age—never suffer him to have any associates, or permit him to do anything or know anything, only what the deacon, priests, or missionaries bring to the house; when that child attains to mature age, say eighteen or twenty years, he is very apt to steal away from his father and mother; and when he has broken his bands, you would think all hell was let loose, and that he would compass the world at once.

Now understand it—when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theater, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.

If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practice evil? No; neither have I told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.

Still further. When I was young, I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise. The proper and necessary gambols of youth having been denied me, makes me want active exercise and amusement now. I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the highway to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free and untrammeled in body and mind. Let everything come in its season, place everything in the place designed for it, and do everything in its right time. And inasmuch as the Lord Almighty has designed us to know all that is in the earth, both the good and the evil, and to learn not only what is in heaven, but what is in hell, you need not expect ever to get through learning. Though I mean to learn all that is in heaven, earth, and hell, do I need to commit iniquity to do it? No. If I were to go into the bowels of hell to find out what is there, that does not make it necessary that I should commit one evil, or blaspheme in any way the name of my Maker.

The premise of Pres. Young’s statement that we should read books beyond just the scriptures in order “to know everything upon the face of the earth,” including both evil and good, is the idea that we can gain an understanding of these things without having to experience them (or their consequences) for ourselves. So: we can read about people whose experiences, values, and behaviors don’t align with our own without compromising our own values or being induced to sin. In fact, reading about the lives and perspectives of people who differ from us can have the opposite effect: if we open ourselves to other people’s stories, restraining the impulse to dismiss them at the first sign that they might not align completely with our values and/or beliefs, we can become more tolerant. We can develop our capacities to empathize with and to love others whose backgrounds and/or value systems don’t align with ours. And in the process we can become more like Christ, who vicariously plunged into the depths of human evil, sin, and suffering so that he could exalt those who would have him be their God.

(Jump to part two.)


Thoughts on part one (besides tl;dr)? Sound off below.

7 thoughts on “On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: <br />An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)”

  1. Reading, with interest, and looking forward to part two. This would make a very good devotional address, Tyler.

    I taught Flannery O’Connor’s _Wise Blood_ in Provo one year, and experienced some resistance. Of course, there the blasphemy becomes the inexorable and–for Hazel Motes–inevitable and inescapable presence of Christ. So the resistance was soon overcome by talking about the vanity of Motes’ blaspheming.

    I taught the same novel a few years later at a university in Canada, and experienced similar resistance from a few devout students of other faiths, with the same result, more or less. But it was good for me to be aware that LDS students aren’t alone in wrestling with the world and sometimes being a little our of joint for their exertion.

  2. Devotional address, nothin’! This is a Dialogue essay waiting to happen :)

  3. I like this framing very much. My feedback is: perhaps you go into more specifics in the second part, but the question I would still have is why understanding of the other necessarily requires profanity.

    And by that I mean not the question I personally have, but rather the question that I would have if I was a BYU-I student who took a very strict interpretation of the wholesome environment aspect to the College’s mission.

    I have some thoughts on that but will wait until the second part posts on Thursday.

  4. .

    Like William, I’m into it but hate to comment prematurely.

    I will say that you have addressed this topic so far with impressive charity. Your story is both why I would love to teach at a Church school and why I wouldn’t want to teach there very long.

  5. Your story is both why I would love to teach at a Church school and why I wouldn’t want to teach there very long.

    Took the words right out of my mouth.

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