Why the Aaronic Priesthood Manuals Suck

December 16, 2010

A commenter asked, “Runtu, any insights into why the Aaronic Priesthood manuals are so old and outdated? I think they were published in the early 80′s and they still contain quotes about not marrying outside your race; even though over half of our ward’s youth are products of mixed race marriage.”

Why, yes, I do have some insights, as I edited the first two of the three Aaronic Priesthood manuals way back in 1993-94 when I worked at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.

Some background is probably necessary. Before that time, there were six Aaronic Priesthood manuals, two for each quorum; basically, the idea was that boys would see a different manual each year as they progressed through the priesthood quorums. These manuals were relics of the 1960s, though they had been updated somewhat in the mid-1970s. But as my commenter points out, there were some very strange and outdated teachings in these manuals. For example, besides the counsel against mixed-race marriage, there was a lesson about chastity that taught that without a sex drive, men would be “reluctant” to sustain their families.

In 1993, the Curriculum Department decided to reduce the number of manuals from 6 to 3, adapting the “best” lessons from the previous manuals to create the new manuals. Normally, my job as an editor was to clean up the lessons as needed, whether that meant fixing typos, finding better and more recent quotes, and rewriting portions that didn’t work. So, when I got the text of the manuals, which was just lessons lifted verbatim from the earlier manuals, I was dismayed at how outdated and frankly bizarre some of the material was. So, I asked my managing editor what I should do, and he said, “Just do what we always do: whatever is necessary.” So I did. I removed the weirder quotes and put in more recent and reasonable quotes. For example, I replaced the sex drive quote with two quotes from then-church president Ezra Taft Benson indicating that our sex drive was a divine gift from our Father in Heaven.

One of the later lessons stood out to me because, alone among the 40-something lessons, it was not from the earlier manuals. This lesson was without a doubt the strangest lesson I had ever read. The lesson noted that the scriptures tend to use the same phrases over and over (“how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who publish peace” being an example). This repetition of phrases was an indication of God’s “writing style,” the lesson told us. By studying the scriptures diligently, then, we could learn to recognize God’s writing style and thus recognize in the words of the prophets and apostles those times when God is speaking to us directly.

I tried calling the two Curriculum guys heading up this project, but it was July and they were both on vacation. So I asked my boss, who rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, not that again.” He explained that these two men had been tasked with checking all the footnotes and index references in the scriptures to make sure they were accurate, and while engaged in this work had hit upon this notion of God’s writing style. Since then, they had been attempting, unsuccessfully, to get their ideas into church magazines and manuals. The two of us went upstairs to their supervisor, who told us that we were right to be concerned, that the lesson should not be in the manual. He suggested that I write a more standard scripture study lesson and submit that instead.

Everything went fine until I submitted the manual for approval. I found myself in a conference room with the two Curriculum brethren, one of whom literally screamed at me, and their boss.

“Why did you edit this manual” they asked.

“That’s my job,” I replied.

They told me that I was never supposed to edit anything but simply proofread. “We promised President Monson personally that this would just be a reprint to save money.”

I said it would have been nice if someone had mentioned this to me or the editor who was working simultaneously on the Young Women’s manual.

“You have to put it back the way it was!” they insisted.

I responded that, given that the money savings had already been lost, it would just cost that much more to “put it back the way it was.” Besides, I said, the manual was awful the way it was.

Big mistake.

One of the two men actually got tears in his eyes as he told me how inspired and inspiring each one of those carefully selected lessons were. He knew, because he had written them.

“You put it all back!” he said through tears.

But he didn’t mean all of it. They told me they wanted their “writing style” lesson back in, no questions asked. It didn’t matter that this lesson wasn’t a reprint; it was too important to leave out.

I mentioned that I had discussed this lesson with management–their boss was sitting right there–and that we agreed it was inappropriate.

The one man’s face went red: “I haven’t worked 25 years in Church Education to have some snot-nosed, pissant little editor undo all of my work!”

I turned to their boss for support: “Well, just work with them to get their ideas in the lesson. I think it just might work.”

The two editors involved (a woman and I) spent the next couple of weeks putting most of the garbage back into the manuals, though we quietly left some of the egregiously bad stuff out. Oddly enough, the two guys were more receptive to my suggestions than they were to hers. “That’s because I don’t have a penis,” she said.

The text went to layout, and when it came back, the Aaronic Priesthood manual was in Helvetica, and the Young Women’s was in Palatino. Why the difference? we asked.

“Helvetica is a more masculine font,” the layout guy said.

“Is that because it’s more erect?” asked my coeditor?

At least the cover was nice: a black and white photo of a Latino boy reading his scriptures.

The manual was then submitted to Correlation, and it came back with a 52-page report of mandatory changes (a new record for me).

“This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t made changes,” one of the Curriculum guys said.

I made the changes, and it went to press, where 50,000 copies were printed and readied for shipment.

Then I got a phone call asking for a copy because “President Monson has heard there are problems with the manual, and he would like to read it.”

A few days later, I was on the bus going home, and I sat next to the Curriculum guy who had screamed at me.

“President Monson said he’s OK with the text, but the covers have to go. So, we’ve hired temps to come in and cut off the covers with razors.”

“What didn’t he like about the covers?” I asked.

“You didn’t hear this from me,” he replied, “but I don’t think there would have been a problem if the boy had been white. But if you ever repeat that, I’ll deny it.”

Honestly, I have no idea if what he said is true, but that was the beginning of the end for me at the Church Office Building. I don’t enjoy being told not to do my job or being screamed at. Neither has happened since I quit working there.

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LDS Church Publications: A Reality Check

December 10, 2010

Manuolatry: A Reality Check

Recently I’ve been reminded that some people hold LDS church manuals in the same esteem as the pronouncements of living prophets and the scriptures themselves. One person asserted, for example, that “doctrine is more important that scripture … because we are not qualified to interpet scripture whereas the prophets are.” Doctrine, he tells us, is “enshrined” in “official publication[s]” of the LDS church. By this logic, then, Church manuals are more authoritative than the scriptures themselves because manuals have been vetted and approved as official doctrinal statements by the apostles and prophets.

This rather strange elevation of Church manuals stems from a misinterpretation of a 2007 Church statement intended, ironically, to clarify what constitutes doctrine. The key passage in this statement and the one that seems to cause the most confusion is this one:

“With divine inspiration, the First Presidency … and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles … counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.”

Let’s summarize:

1. The First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles “establish doctrine.”
2. This doctrine “is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications.”
3. The doctrine “resides” in the standard works of scripture, official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. (Technically, the Articles of Faith are part of the standard works because they are published as part of the Pearl of Great Price, but to point out this error would evince a spirit of apostasy, so never mind.)

We could argue about the distinction between “establish,” “proclaim,” and “reside,” but that’s not the point of this post. We will better understand what doctrine is by examining how the Church proclaims its doctrines in practice. I will simply mention in passing that, when I worked at the Church Office Building, we were told that a Church publication that had been through the Correlation process and published under a Church copyright was considered “consistent” with doctrine, which resided in the scriptures. This was an important distinction because it acknowledged that Church publications may at times be incorrect doctrinally and thus need revision or correction. The scriptures, or where the doctrine “resides,” are never incorrect doctrinally and are thus not subject to revision or correction (except for, obviously, printing mistakes such as typographical errors; the infamous “ano” passage in El Libro de Mormon comes to mind).

I don’t think we need to discuss the doctrinal authority of “the four ‘standard works’ of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith.” Rather, I wanted to focus on the Church’s publication process and how it guarantees doctrinal consistency.

A short history lesson might help. Before 1971, Church priesthood and auxiliary organizations published their own manuals, magazines, and other materials without central oversight from Church authorities: “As the programs and activities of Church organizations expanded in number and complexity, they came to have their own general and local officers, curricula, reporting systems, meetings, magazines, funding, and lines of communications” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism). Without central oversight, these various magazines published what they wanted, which often resulted in consternation and dismay from the leadership. It’s not surprising that many of the strange statements alleged by critics to be “doctrine” have been quote-mined from these un-Correlated publications; thus one reads about Quakers with tall hats living on the moon and the statement “when the prophet has spoken, the thinking has been done” in such publications.

Efforts to exert central “correlation” control over the various organizations began in 1907, but the current Correlation program was not fully in place until 1971. So, the first thing to consider about “official” Church publications is the date. Anything published before 1971 has not been through the Correlation process and thus would not qualify as consistent with Church doctrine. Consequently, the Church’s official web site does not contain any official publications with a copyright date earlier than 1971. Church magazines, for example, can be searched only as far back as January 1971. True, works both in and out of the church from earlier dates are cited often, but the inclusion of excerpts from such publications indicates that the teachings cited have passed a Correlation review, not that the entire work being cited reflects doctrine. In short, the Church does not consider pre-1971 publications to consistently proclaim its doctrines.

But what of current publications? Do they consistently proclaim church doctrine? Yes, so far as the Correlation committee is concerned, as they have been delegated the responsibility to evaluate Church publications against the established doctrines of the Church.

The process of Church publication is not all that complicated. Generally speaking, the organization involved (the Priesthood Department or the Curriculum Department, for example) proposes a new publication to the General Authority (a Seventy) who oversees that department. Depending on the publication, the proposal may have to be sent to the Twelve for approval, but I didn’t see this happen very often. Upon approval, the department creates a writing committee, composed of COB staff and volunteers. The committee follows the general instructions (sometimes a topical outline) and writes the publication. When the department has approved the document, it goes to the Curriculum Department for editing. Curriculum editors have a great deal of freedom to revise and often rewrite the contents of publications, and sometimes this was necessary. When the department has approved the edits, the publication is sent to the Graphics Department for layout and illustration, and then it goes back to the department for final approval. The last step is the Correlation report. Staffers in Correlation review the publication and return a report suggesting changes (ranging from typographical errors to doctrinal issues). After the changes have been made and the originating department, the editor, and the Correlation committee sign off on the publication, it is sent to the press for printing.

“For the Strength of Youth” is a good example of the process. Hoyt Brewster, then director of the Priesthood Department, proposed updating a pamphlet from the 1960s to meet the needs of the youth of the church today. He submitted the proposal, which was approved, and then a committee worked with Brother Brewster’s original draft and then sent a draft to Curriculum for editing. Two editors (one of whom was me) went through the draft, made changes, and then sent the document on for layout and formatting. This was only one of two times while I worked there that I knew of the Twelve being involved in any project (the other being a leadership handbook I worked on). The completed draft came back with changes initialed by the requesting apostle (most were marked “BKP”). We made the changes, got final approval, and sent it out to be published.

Most of the time, however, publications were proposed and produced by the organizations and their professional staff. We all understood that what we had published was not infallible or beyond questioning. That is why church publications usually include a request for comments and corrections. In short, Church publications are not scripture; they are subject to change, revision, and deletion; they reflect the understanding of those who produce and review them, but they do not enshrine established doctrine. One document I revised had at its original publication stated that the male sex drive was given to us because otherwise men would not want to stay with their families. That isn’t doctrine, but it was published in a post-Correlation manual. Similarly, another publication defined “visual contact” as constituting sexual harassment. Is that doctrine, or not?

It’s strange that in a religion that allows for translation errors and doctrinal issues with scripture (at least the Bible), some cling to Church publications as some sort of doctrinal pillar of truth. We never thought of them that way, and I never heard any General Authorities refer to them that way; in fact, Elder Gene Cook lamented quite often that instructors had become “slaves” to the manuals, and he wished people would open up a little and do their homework. Thus, in 1989, the Church revised its Sunday School curriculum to focus on the scriptures, not the manuals, as stated by Joseph Wirthlin: “Rather than use so much of the material supplementary to this unique book of scripture, our teachers are being encouraged to concentrate on teaching directly from the text of the Doctrine and Covenants itself…. These questions are also designed to be answered from the scriptural text instead of from resource materials in a manual. We feel this direction will turn the teacher and the students more to the Spirit, to the scriptures, and to prayer for understanding” (Ensign, Jan. 1989, 12). If the manuals were considered “more important” than the scriptures, Elder Wirthlin’s concern that the “supplementary” material from the manuals were distracting from the scriptures would have been nonsensical. The manuals were reduced in size and content precisely because they were and are considered less important than the scriptures.

Perhaps the best indicator of the Church’s attitude toward the manuals is how often they are cited by the Brethren in their writings and conference addresses. They aren’t. They quote scriptures and prophets, and even bad poetry on occasion. But it is rare for any Church leader to refer to Church publications, except on those occasions when a new publication is being introduced.


Marriage Is for Procreation Only

December 7, 2010

This little tidbit from yesterday’s appellate court hearing regarding California’s Proposition 8 caught my eye. The following statement was made by attorney Charles Cooper, who represents the pro-Prop 8 folks:

“Society has no particular interest in a platonic relationship between a man and a woman no matter how close it might be, or emotional relationships between other people as well, but when the relationship becomes a sexual one, society has a considerable interest in that. Its vital interests are actually threatened by the possibility of an unintentional and unwanted pregnancy.”

This position is hugely problematic. If the state’s only concern is sexual relationships that involve the “possibility” of procreation, then the state has no business marrying heterosexual couples who are infertile, past the childbearing years, or simply uninterested in having children. If this attorney is correct, such heterosexual couples have no more right to marriage than do homosexual couples.

But the state sanctions heterosexual marriages, whether childbirth is possible or whether the marriage is nonsexual and platonic (those types of marriages do exist). My uncle, for example, was widowed in his sixties and remarried to a woman roughly the same age. By the logic expressed by the two attorneys, the state should have denied them the opportunity to marry, as the state has “no particular interest” in such a relationship where no procreation is possible.

The state does have an interest in stable, committed, nonprocreative marriage relationships; otherwise instead of a blood test, couples would be required to submit to fertility tests before becoming eligible for marriage.

If this is the best they can come up with, I’d be surprised if they prevail in court.