So I'm skimming through one of those unexpected books that you stumble across and somehow end up reading: Why Don't Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means For the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2009) by Daniel T. Willingham. In the second chapter he discusses teaching facts versus teaching skills. They are complementary, of course, and both must be taught. How does this relate to what we do in gospel settings? What are scriptural skills and how can they be taught in Sunday School or other church classes?
Factual knowledge provides the foundation for the teaching of skills. "Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills that teachers want for students — such as the ability to analyze and to think critically — require extensive factual knowledge" (p. 19, italics in original). So an important part of church teaching is building a stock of scriptural facts. But what comes after scriptural fact accumulation? What scriptural skills might one acquire? I'm going to skip the preliminary considerations of setting (perhaps a college course is the place for teaching skills along with facts) and etiquette (perhaps Sunday School classes should focus more on promoting participation and discussion than imparting wisdom via lecturing) and just explore the interesting question of "scriptural skills."
One skill is comprehension, the ability to understand all there is to find in a verse or passage by careful attention to the terms and statements in the verse. This is certainly a skill that can be practiced in a church setting. For example, here's a verse worth understanding.
And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations. (1 Nephi 12:23.)
Tough verse. Modern Americans, hypersensitized to race, read this and similar verses such as 2 Nephi 5:21-24 and 2 Nephi 30:6 as commenting on race. Furthermore, the racial thinking of some 19th- and 20th-century LDS leaders conditioned Mormons to interpret such verses in terms of racial categories. But after 1978, racial thinking in the LDS Church is (or ought to be) as dead as polygamy. So how do we read this verse?
The verse says "they became" dark, filthy, and loathsome. But race is an immutable category — you can't change it. [And I'm aware that race is not a clearly defined term in the scientific sense.] That's why racial discrimination is invidious. So despite how we have been conditioned to read it, this verse is not talking about race. People don't become a different race when their beliefs change. Perhaps appearance changes (becoming smiling and radiant?) when beliefs change. Perhaps other people (who retain those earlier beliefs) view a person or group whose beliefs have changed differently, leading to the use of harsh but subjective terms like filthy or loathsome. But careful reading and reflection supports the conclusion that 1 Nephi 12:23 and similar verses are not talking about race.
Another skill candidate is comparison. Reading related verses can help a reader figure out tricky verses as well as help reveal general themes, concepts, and doctrines. So, for example, compare 1 Nephi 12:23, the verse quoted above, with 2 Nephi 30:6. That verse looks to a future when, after "the remnant of our seed know concerning us" (v. 4) and after "the gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them" (v. 5), the following will occur:
And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people. (2 Nephi 30:6, 1981 ed.)
This verse reinforces our earlier reading of 1 Nephi 12:23: we know that a few generations does not transform the race of a group of people. Furthermore, the reference to "scales of darkness" shows that some of the language is metaphorical, not literal, as there are no actual scales that fall from a person's eyes. This suggests the transformation (either becoming filthy and loathsome or becoming pure and delightsome) is metaphorical as well.
Another comparison is instructive. The wording to this verse was changed in the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon to the present "pure and delightsome people." Previously, it read "white and delightsome people." It was not an arbitrary change — the 1840 edition changed the wording to "pure and delightsome," then later editions reverted to the original 1830 wording. But the fact that modern LDS leaders approved the change back to the term "pure" in this verse suggests that they see the terms describing whiteness or blackness in this and related verses as metaphorical.
Commentaries and Context
Another skill is the use of commentaries or other reference materials to see what informed commentators have to say about a verse or passage. Commentaries also provide the background information that puts the writer, his language, and the ideas conveyed in the text into their proper social and historical context.
The obvious context for Book of Mormon passages quoted above that seem to be discussing race is the world of 1830 shared by both the translator and the first generation of readers. Mormons were certainly not the only people in 1830 America to mix ideas about God and race. Viewed against the 1830 background, what is surprising about the Book of Mormon is not that it would associate race or skin tone with God's favor, but that it would proclaim that those of any race or belief could, as a result of accepting the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, become "pure and delightsome." That's the sort of good news that got Mormons in trouble with their fellow Christians.
Other candidates I can think of for scriptural skills include prayer and meditation; reflective writing in a journal or a notebook; and applying verses to our own modern situation. Any others? What else besides facts are we teaching in church classes?