Each week, Hannah and Asriel will discuss the Young Women’s and Young Men’s lessons for the coming week from a feminist perspective. This week is lesson 43.
The Young Women
By Hannah Wheelwright
Lesson 43: Righteous Living
I’m not a big fan of this lesson. The vast majority of the lesson seems to be scaring girls into “living righteously;” a vague term in and of itself. It also contains no quotations from female spiritual leaders or scriptural heroines.
The object lesson at the beginning, in which the teacher is instructed to bring in a jar of dirty water and shake it around to illustrate how our lives become impurified with dirt, seems stupid to me. And by stupid, I mean ultra simplistic and more fit for Primary children. We’re not in Primary anymore.
The biggest thing I disliked about this lesson though was its focus on self-worth. It explicitly ties righteous living to self-worth when it states:
“What are some of the benefits of beginning early in life to live a righteous life? (We can form good habits early; have more chance for growth, development, progress, and self-respect; and have less chance to make grave mistakes that would lead to a loss of self-worth.)” (emphasis added)
This idea that living unrighteously will decrease your self-worth is EXTREMELY PROBLEMATIC. Elsewhere, the lesson is careful to couch this idea in terms of “a feeling of self-worth,” but here it is frankly stated. Girls are being taught that sinning decreases your self-worth, explicitly and implicitly, in Young Women’s lessons. This direct connection will cause a multitude of problems when girls do find themselves committing sins or even just not being what they might consider righteous enough (going to the temple often, doing enough service, reading their scriptures, etc). The very tagline of this lesson, “Each young woman will recognize the feelings of individual worth that accompany righteous living,” again ties together self-worth with righteous living.
I know there is a scriptural and doctrinal basis for the connection between happiness and righteous living. My problem is that the lesson makes a connection between self-worth and righteous living. People who sin do not have less self-worth than those who do not. We all have equal worth before God.
The Aaronic Priesthood
Lesson 43: Tools for Searching the Scriptures provides the Young Men with a basic understanding of how the LDS editions of the scriptures. I always loved the lessons on how to use the scriptures to extract insights that reflect a fairly comprehensive understanding of the full context of the scriptural canon.
The question that occurred to me as I read the lesson was whether men and women have different expectations and/or experiences with scriptural texts. I’m almost certain that men have different expectations when reading the scriptures. The manual poses the thought-question, “How do these passages apply to us as priesthood bearers?” This to me is a clear indicator that because women and men play different roles in the church, they will be looking in the scriptures for passages that instruct them in their respective roles. I also wonder how women approach passages, such as in the Doctrine and Covenants, which seem to be speaking exclusively about priesthood organization or functions. It seems to me that women are certain to have a different reading experience than men, even from the same passages, and there are perhaps scripture passages in which women’s reading experience would be simply to be left out.
To make one more point, similar to women and men having different reading expectations and experiences, I would say that men and women receive different educations about how to access the information in the scriptures. This lesson for the Young Men has kind of an academic tilt to it in that it is not teaching specific doctrines, but how to maximize a reader’s engagement with and understanding of the text by building on past scholarship and relying on it to synthesize gospel insights from an inclusive scriptural perspective: the Bible Dictionary, Topical Guide, other canonized works, etc. There is no equivalent lesson in the Young Women manual. The closest match would be lesson 27, but I would hardly call it a match, as the lesson is primarily intended to provide Young Women with reasons or motivation to study the scripture; there is little to no discussion of how to use the texts more effectively.
Asriel: Basically what seemed most problematic to me from the Young Women’s lesson (aside from the wickedness=worthless comment) was the idea that your life will be messy (like ocean water after a storm) if you aren’t righteous enough, but that living righteously sets you up for smooth sailing. This over-simplified view just doesn’t work for everyone; bad things happen to all of us, but the implication here is that struggles in life are your own fault. Trials come to everyone, but how are the young women to know what is a trial and what is punishment for not being righteous enough? Many youth will incessantly evaluate themselves to see what they might be doing wrong, concluding that if they are doing something wrong (or not doing enough things as right as they could), the difficulty is a self-inflicted struggle, or that if they are not doing anything wrong, it is a trial. Well, news flash: everyone is imperfect, so youth will frequently conclude that the problem is their own failings. And that can really get them feeling down about themselves and their lives.
Hannah: I think that’s a very important point to make, especially considering it’s in the Young Women’s lesson. I think most people would agree that young women scrutinize their actions more and are just harder on themselves than young men are. So lessons like this where unrighteous behavior is directly linked to unhappiness as a punishment and a loss of self-worth seem to be sending dangerous signals to young women. One thing that bothered me in particular this week was the stark contrast between the Young Women’s and Young Men’s lessons in their approaches. The Young Men’s lesson is very academic, as you noted in your write-up, whereas the Young Women’s lesson is very anecdotal and centers around a simplistic object lesson. This fits into a pattern I’ve noted in my personal life, where my Young Women’s lessons and Relief Society lessons in my singles wards have followed a pattern where we read quotes or scriptures and then talk about how they make us feel. It leads me to believe that women in the church are being taught to connect religion to their emotions whereas men in the church are being taught to view religion with a scholarly approach.
Asriel: I’m not sure that most people would agree that young men and young women scrutinize their actions differently. Hopefully our commenters will chime in on that issue to provide some more perspectives. I’m right with you on the difference in emotional vs academic connections to gospel principles between men and women in the church, though.