26 April 2008

Teaching: the Bread of Life Sermon

After feeding the five thousand, the Lord profoundly taught "Moses gave you not that bread from heaven," (John 6: 32) referring to the manna provided to the children of Israel in the wilderness. This statement, coupled with his ensuing sermon declaring His divine role as the Bread of life, so shook the audience that "many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him." (John 6: 66)

A few years ago, an inspired bishop assigned this chapter to my then-fiance and me as companionship study as we prepared to be sealed. I realized then, for the first time, how radical the Lord's teachings were to his audience. Jesus was not merely preaching comforting words about how He is our daily Bread; rather, He was violently rending the veil of the Jewish worldview. By declaring "Moses gave you not that bread from heaven," Jesus declared His divinity, yes; but His audience would likely have perceived it less as a declaration of divinity and more as a slander against their founding prophet. Shattering preconceived notions of prophethood and Messianic ideals, Jesus' call required a response of His hearers.

In analyzing how the Lord teaches and trying to follow His example, do we work similarly? Does our teaching (or preaching) require our hearers to respond. Or do we allow enough platitudes and feel-good moments to eliminate such "hard doctrine" from our worship?

Alma 5 presents a similar strategy. We receive a series of questions that require self-evaluation and that destroy our tendency to megalomania and self-righteous complacency. Thus, the pattern of the Lord seems to call us to abandon our worldview and take up His. Abraham's call (which I have addressed elsewhere, see Conversaion and Abraham Paper here: http://www.angelfire.com/planet/morrisonwritings/), summoned him to abandon every sense of self that had previously defined him and to follow the Lord.
In sum, the Lord's teaching style presents itself as radical and revolutionary--hardly a traditional LDS conception of "reverence," yet more reverent to the Object of our worship than our "reverence." Teaching and studying the scriptures should evoke the same discomfort that the Lord's audience experienced when hearing "Moses gave you not that bread from heaven." If this call does not accompany our interactions with scripture, we are not properly teaching or studying. The scriptures, whether ancient or modern, can provide us an opiate to feel good about our current belief system. Or they can do violence to that belief system, replacing it with the daily Bread for which we pray. If we approach the scriptures merely to take comfort in our current understanding and find our interpretations or personal versions of doctrine verified, we will find what we look for. But we miss the Lord's call in the process and end up starving.


Mormon Heretic said...

Excellent post!!!

I'd love to get in some Sunday School classes and actually get out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, many church members are like the Zoramites. Sure, we don't all get up on the Rameumptom, and give prayers saying how great we are, but on the other hand, many of us go to church and really don't want to get out of our comfort zone.

As I look at my marriage, it is interesting to me that my wife loves all the sappy stories that we hear. To her, they help energize her, and help her want to be better. But to me, it is just like eating too much sugar, and I get that sick taste in my mouth, when you can't stand any more sugar. I need some insulin.

How do we make both of us happy in church? We don't. She goes to class, and I bring a book with some meat, and read it instead of going to class.

MattM said...

Is satisfying both kinds of hunger really impossible? Or are you just saying it's unlikely?

I've participated in some (precious few) classrooms wherein we did take up scripture carefully and closely, yet still managed to "spin" some moments of the discussion toward the more "sugary" inspirational moments. I remember teaching one Sunday about the Oath and Covenant and using my role to push the Quorum to delve much more deeply and ask questions of scripture that I (and those I talked to afterward) had never considered. The atmosphere was almost electric. I tend not to use the "sugar," but we had two or three such comments that could tide over those who thrive on such while allowing the others to feast on the meat that's awaiting us.

But, if my anecdotal experience is any indication, the frequency of having such lessons seems relatively low--so I end up perusing the scriptures, taking notes, and occasionally making a comment or asking a question that hopefully causes real interaction, thought, and a little discomfort.

Any ideas for how we can increase the frequency either as teachers, leaders, or class members?

I do find that looking for the appropriate moment to ask "what are the hard sayings(John 6:60) of our days?" and pointing them out as often as we can naturally work them into lessons is a way of engaging with scripture and with the Spirit myself and encouraging others to join me.

Tim said...

In order to learn, a certain sense of disequilibrium is usually required. When we see things in a new light, we have the chance to learn something new. Henry Adams wrote that “Real learning is not so much the product of reasonable thinking as of those illuminating moments which permanently warp the mind.” Most gospel teaching and learning that happens in classes on Sundays is not of this type. We usually do not learn new things at church. Instead, we usually have familiar, comfortable truths reinforced.

Confronting ideas that are new to us, or those that seem to challenge long-held beliefs can be unsettling or disturbing to many. Most of us are very careful in formal church settings to not bring up ideas that will cause such feelings in classmates. In our attempts to build faith, we limit opportunities to gain new insights. This is a trade-off that most of us are willing to accept to maintain good feelings in classes.

MattM said...

I like the Henry Adams quotation. I agree that the trade-off seems to be a way of promoting the values deemed most important while not introducing too much of the unfamiliar or uncomfortable which could have deleterious effects on faith which is at an early sprouting stage. I just wonder whether that approach swings the pendulum too far in the same direction in personal devotional activities and stagnates individual growth not because the individuals are insincere or lazy in their efforts but because they have few examples of how to engage in Adams' "real learning." It seems that a significant part of the membership of the Church desires more growth than the reinforcement of comfortable truths provides. Surely the responsibility rests on them, and not the Church, to obtain this desired growth; however, I wonder whether instructors in Church settings could enable it better.

More thoughts are always appreciated as to whether this would be too dangerous, fruitful, etc., as well as concerning how it could come about--either institutionally or individually.


Mormon Paleo said...

Matt M.,

Wasn't the Jewish religion in a state of apostasy when Jesus uttered these sayings? Wasn't Joseph Smith, like Christ before him, acting as an Elias, a restorer of truth that had been lost?

Thus, the crooked growths of apostasy are pruned or even destroyed so that the true seed can take root.

But what is the sense in constantly destroying? How can perpetual iconoclasm build any sort of lasting, enduring, saving tradition, not to mention ordinances, principles, commandments, etc.? How can the seed of true faith take root, be nourished, and grow if it is constantly being uprooted, as if it was a seed of apostasy itself!

Or perhaps Joseph Smith's revelations indicate another worldview not currently considered by the Mormon orthodoxy, that of a parallel means of salvation, but not the only means?

That said, surely there is room for us to uproot and even shatter the apostate elements in our lives, those that keep us from God. Perhaps this is your meaning.

But in any case, my brain cell is having a hard time wrapping itself around this argument (in the philosophical, rather than contentious, sense of the word). Maybe I should procure another.

MattM said...

Mormon Paleo--thanks for your insight. I imagine it's my own brain whose replacement ought to be procured. You did, however, in your penultimate paragraph, arrive at my conclusion. The violence comes after the seed of faith has sprouted and grown. We merely need to make possible the almost-constant pruning that enables the seed to grow as it should, rather than sheltering it unnecessarily from the pruning hook in an effort to promote growth.

In sum, the approach I am taking suggests that active engagement with the sacred results in a re-orientation with the world and with self that fundamentally shifts one's world-view. Perhaps the violent words used in describing this create the wrong imagery. I merely use them to convey how radical a change each and every encounter with divinity brings--even when the result re-affirms known truth, the re-affirmation itself changes our relationship to truth and to God in "violent" ways.

In this way, the lives of "revolutionaries" such as Jesus and Joseph act as an "Elias" for our own--and we relive the apostasy and restoration on an individual basis as they lived them in the more general sense.

Hopefully this clarifies rather than muddies where I'm coming from. In my most recent post on the blog I actually raise a similar question--how does this kind of viewpoint harmonize with the Alma 32 model of faith (if at all)?--I'll definitely be thinking it through more carefully.


Mormon Paleo said...

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
-John 15:2


I see your point now. Thank you for the clarification. Indeed, repentance is certainly a shifting of our worldview. Powerful spiritual experiences are accompanied by powerful, life-changing feelings. We see this in Moses, when, after the vision he has with God in Moses 1, he states that now he knows that man is nothing, which thing he never had before supposed. What comprehension of the nature of God did the Brother of Jared have before he saw the finger of the Lord? Obviously, the experience completely changed his worldview, his perspective of himself, his God, and thus all of creation, its purpose, etc. Perhaps, as you intimate, our knowledge of the true character of God, His goodness, His wisdom, His power, His purposes, etc., and His works, is as crude and approximate (or more even) than the brother of Jared's. Yes, we may be equipped with more facts than he had. (Or perhaps just a different revealed set.) But spiritual knowledge is so different from intellectual knowledge...

Perhaps we even see this when a newly called General Authority mentions how uncomfortable he is (or read Elder Haight's or Elder Kimball's thoughts before being sustained).

In any case, those in and out of the church who refuse to progress, who shelter (or rather cripple) themselves from the spiritual sunlight which can both grow and scorch us, quite frankly, damn themselves (condemn themselves for those unfamiliar with, for instance, Jeremiah Wright's usage) in this life and the next.

Such an attitude God will surely permit an individual to possess, but they are unable to live with Him, having grown so distant from His character and His nature of eternal progression.