Teaching the Gospel with Twinkies

This post started as a comment, but I ended up being too long-winded. I decided it’d be bad form to pontificate that much in the comment thread.

This movie terrified me as a child.

Of course, as I’ve prepared this post, it’s grown even more (I’ve got to give you some context!). Sorry about that. Still, I feel like I’ve learned some cool things, and I can totally pontificate here as much as I like.

A Twinkie?

The original post I was considering commenting on was actually a book review of John Bytheway’s recent book How Do I Know if I Know? It was generally positive, though the author, Ivan, admitted that JB is probably closer to “milk” than “meat” (in the words of Paul’s analogy). This shouldn’t surprise anyone – JB has become popular because of his entertaining style that’s aimed primarily at youth in the Church. To borrow a business term, it’s his competitive advantage.

In response to the review, someone suggested that it might be generous to label JB as “milk.” They offered that “Twinkie” or “Oreo” might be more appropriate substitutes.

Oh no you di’int!

Gauntlet thrown!

(Full disclosure, I’m no JB fanboy. In fact, the vigor with which some folks seem to follow his work makes me a little uncomfortable, but I’m uncomfortable anytime someone is propped up in place of ordained Church leaders.)

Ivan replied that it’s probably uncharitable and disingenuous to label JB a “Twinkie” (I agree, for what it’s worth). Someone else jumped in, but they sort of missed the point, thinking (I think?) that Ivan was discouraging the use of “Twinkie” on anyone. They contended that Twinkies aren’t harmful, even invoking Elder Holland’s use of the term (“Elder Holland invented the term “Twinkie,” what would you say to him, huh?”).  Ivan stuck to his guns, staying true, by the way (ha!), to Elder Holland’s original intent (we’ll get to that below).

Man, these M* guys are so smart.

“Some Prophet Totally Said…”

Elder Holland invented the “Twinkie” term, eh?

Whenever I hear people throw out vague “so-and-so-apostle said such-and-such,” I get wary (you should get wary, too).

For example, after Elder Oaks said what he did in the Priesthood session of General Conference in April 2014, this picture started to pop up online:

What’s the suggestion? Two times someone of ecclesiastical import said something in General Conference, and one of those times a very definitive position was walked back.

People can then rationalize the way they figuratively stone current prophets to follow future prophets, because, hey, Elder Oaks’ very definitive position will probably get walked back, too.

Except, contrary to what the picture would have you believe, N. Eldon Tanner wasn’t speaking at General Conference. He was being interviewed by a northwest periodical, Seattle Magazine. Not insignificantly, it’s been difficult to find the full text, and therefore the original context, anywhere online.

Add in what Elder McConkie said about “forget(ing) everything that I have said, or… whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation” and the fact that this is, in fact, a church of continuing revelation (see Articles of Faith 1:9), and, well…

The point is that someone is being intentionally tricky, and you miss it if you don’t go to the source.

(That’s the kind of thing the Ordain Women movement is doing. By their fruits, people…)

But I digress. Bottom line? Thank goodness for Google. To find this supposed Holland/Twinkie reference, all I needed to do in this case was type in “Twinkie” and “Holland” and *BAM*, I have the original words.

Elder Holland’s comment was from his April 1998 General Conference address “A Teacher Come from God.” Turns out it’s a fantastic address, and unfortunately I only touch on part of it. I would recommend it to you, particularly if you’re looking to improve your gospel teaching.

(If that’s you, you should also check out some gospel teaching tips according to science, found here and here, after reading Elder Holland’s talk, of course.)

Not a Twinkie

Is JB a Twinkie? In short, no.

In his talk, Elder Holland does in fact implore us to avoid “theological Twinkies” like

“The philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems.”

(He gives other qualities of “theological Twinkies,” but I thought this was a fair illustration.)

These “Twinkies” are opposed to “spiritual experience(s)” we can offer when we have, as teachers, “the same Christlike spirit, conviction, doctrine, and personal interest” that the full-time missionaries bring to the table.

Elder Holland also quotes J. Reuben Clark, who offered that

“[The youth] are hungry for the things of the spirit. They are eager to learn the Gospel, and they want it straight, undiluted. …You do not have to sneak up behind [them] and whisper religion in [their] ears; … you can bring these truths [out] openly.”

Like I said, I’m no JB fanboy. In fact, I gave a missionary companion tons of grief for singing JB’s praises. I just got so sick of it! So one day, I asked.

“How many John Bytheway books do you think you’ve read?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Probab-“

“Doesn’t really matter. How many books have you read that were written by apostles?”

*long, awkward pause.* “Hey, that’s not fair!”

Zero, by the way. The answer was zero.

Even so, looking at Elder Holland’s (and President Clark’s) criteria, and considering JB’s style – in Ivan’s words, “he doesn’t talk down to [youth], he avoids overly complicated language, and he presents the ideas straightforwardly” – JB is not a Twinkie! Certainly you can’t fault him for not trying to apply the gospel to a host of complex, controversial issues (and Ivan makes that point himself). Sometimes milk is better.

Deadly Twinkies and Teaching Balance

But the far more important question has nothing to do with JB. Rather, it has everything to do with us! When we teach, are we offering Twinkies to those coming to be “nourished by the good word of God”?

You may be wondering why it’s such a big deal. I love Twinkies! You probably love Twinkies. In an extension of the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, I wonder if two countries with access to Twinkies would ever attack each other – my guess is no.

And yet Twinkies are not harmless. In fact, they’re deadly to the degree that we equate them with other, more nutritious food. Elder Holland illustrates this principle with a story.

“During a severe winter several years ago, President Boyd K. Packer noted that a goodly number of deer had died of starvation while their stomachs were full of hay. In an honest effort to assist, agencies had supplied the superficial when the substantial was what had been needed. Regrettably they had fed the deer but they had not nourished them” (emphasis in original).

Most folks that try to supply Twinkies in a gospel teaching sense aren’t doing so maliciously. They, like the agencies Elder Holland mentioned, are putting forth “an honest effort to assist”. They’re trying to win over others, to engage others, to persuade others – all laudable goals!

Here’s what has worked for me.

When it comes to presenting and writing, I like to think of my message as a food. This helps me to consider both its nutrition and taste (plus, people totally “ooo” and “awe” over 2×2 matrices).

Picture1The tastiest Twinkie (top left) won’t change their lives, but some folks won’t ever touch the kale (bottom right).

Because kale is awful.

The balance is to teach in a way that’s nutritious and tasty (top right). An example that I love (since I’m usually teaching about this model in a professional setting) is the Ted Talk “Everyday Leadership” by Drew Dudley. He uses a story about lollipops to teach his principle and make it stick, which ultimately makes his coaching more efficacious.

And ultimately, that’s the goal of our gospel teaching, right?

Sometimes you’ll turn folks off – JB turns some folks off, and that’s totally OK – but using the methods JB uses often helps people have spiritual experiences. It’s not because of the goofy stories. It’s because those stories allow people to connect with the material, the doctrine, which in turn allows them to feel the spirit. That’s not a Twinkie. That’s, uh, something else…. Maybe a peach? Everybody likes peaches.

(I know, I know – Drew’s story is about lollipops, which in this analogy is represented not by lollipops but by a food that’s both good and nutritious (like maybe a peach?), and having the story be about lollipops is totally not confusing at all, right?)

Do your best to land in that upper-right-hand quadrant (where the peaches are). It’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s so much easier when you remember that your purpose is to nourish others, to help them have personal spiritual experiences.

In reaching for that, you have far worse examples than John Bytheway.

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