Toss the Milk and Lose the Meat

I think most of the people that frequent the Bloggernacle believe that classes such as Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society fall short as far as how engaging they could be. This has been discussed in numerous places. Most recently at BCC; and earlier here at FPR under the rubric of “Consequentialism”. “Engaging” of course means different things to different people, but it often is expressed along with the idiom of “milk before meat”. I want to argue in this thread that employing the “milk before meat” rhetoric will not solve the problems people are trying to articulate.

As far as I see it, the paradigm of milk before meat is heavily attached to the following ideas:


(1) Hierarchy and pride. “Milk” is often understood as the fundamentals–faith, repentance, etc. “Meat” is that which is beyond the fundamentals. Those who claim to be ready for meat imply that they have mastered the fundamentals, and are ready for a “higher” teaching. To claim to have mastered the fundamentals also implies that one is on a “higher level” of gospel understanding/living/righteousness than other LDSs. This is the hallmark of pride.
(2) Humility. This is basically a further implication of the point above. Since milk are the fundamentals such as faith, and my faith always has room to grow, I’m not ready for meat and would not (and perhaps should not) claim otherwise.
(3) The esoteric. “Meat” refers to things that are not essential for my salvation, at best; and at worst is nothing better than navel-gazing.
(4) Scholarly enterprise. “Meat” refers to skills that take long amounts of time to develop (language training for instance, or time spent reading/researching history). That’s fine for professional scholars and those who want to spend the time doing it, but not all members have the desire, the time, or perhaps the capacity to do it. The “meat” therefore is not practical.

Ultimately speaking, I do not believe that those looking for more engagement in SS/RS/PH necessarily buy into this paradigm (at least not entirely). However, it seems very much entrenched in the culture of the church. Given how prevalent this paradigm is, I do not believe that arguing in its terms will lead to the changes hoped for.

Theoretically speaking the problem(s) should be approached by avoiding the milk before meat rhetoric altogether. In other words, there would be something like a two step solution:

(1) Clearly identify the problem(s)
(2) Couch the problem(s) in terms more socially acceptable than milk before meat

Example:
The problem in SS is that the same old answers are given after the same old passages of scripture are read.
Solution: We are still under the “condemnation” of D&C 84 for not taking the BoM seriously, and part of escaping this condemnation means reading it closely and understanding it more. What exactly does Nephi mean when he says that “we lived after the manner of happiness” given that the same chapter talks about severing their family ties (and God cursing those severed), building weapons, and waging wars?

Admittedly this is more of a theoretical solution (and the solution isn’t so much of the point of this post). Which is to say that there are still practical issues this doesn’t resolve–do I stand up in SS and announce that we are still under condemnation? Or do I use it as my justification when accused of searching for “meat”? It would be interesting to hear some of the practical applications of this, and other thoughts perhaps challenging my premise that the argument cannot be won (at least probably not in this generation) by playing in the terms of milk before meat.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Toss the Milk and Lose the Meat

  1. While I understand the basic vs. esoteric paradigm for milk vs. meat, I find it a lot more useful to refer to John 4:34: “Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” Along those lines, I find that the most engaging SS/EQ lessons (both teaching and sitting in the class) come when we discuss direct application of gospel principles in our interactions with our families, friends, etc.

  2. jupiterschild

    Rob T, I think that to put John 4:34 into the milk/meat paradigm is to mix metaphors. The Greek word that the KJV renders as “meat” is βρωμα (brohma), which simply means “food.” (And even if you don’t agree with me, there’s certainly no milk/meat dichotomy discussed in these verses.)

  3. How about pointing out to those who resist certain topics based on the demands of “milk before meat” that Paul had a very different reason for the dichotomy: he wanted to but could not share the “meat” because the people were unrighteous, not because of any of the reasons 1-4 that you list?

  4. smallaxe

    Brian J.,

    How about pointing out to those who resist certain topics based on the demands of “milk before meat” that Paul had a very different reason for the dichotomy: he wanted to but could not share the “meat” because the people were unrighteous, not because of any of the reasons 1-4 that you list?

    Perhaps you could correct me where I’m wrong, but I would see using this argument falling square in the realm of (1) and (2) mentioned in the post unless we feel comfortable with the claim that we as an entire church are more righteous than those Paul was writing to. Assuming that we did feel okay making this assertion, there are still the other issues (3 & 4)that many members would feel strongly about. This is to say that it might be possible to refute one or two of the points mentioned above, but every single one of them would have to be resolved before moving forward (and there’s probably more that I haven’t listed). IMO, we’re better off circumventing the discourse altogether.

    But I don’t know, perhaps you could come up with a fantastic contextual argument in terms of what Paul “really” meant by milk before meat (but then again comprehending the argument would probably fall into point (4) listed above…).

  5. smallaxe

    Rob T.,

    This verse is problematic as jupiterschild points out, but taking your interpretation, wouldn’t we have been “doing” meat all along? Do you think that this argument is forceful enough to break through the dichotomy of milk/meat?

  6. I don’t think the problem is so much needing new topics in Sunday classes as it is a lack of inviting the Spirit. The Spirit teaches everyone according to what they need and want to know. If the Spirit isn’t present, the lessons stagnate.

    Of course, once this premise is accepted, the corollary is a realization that even the best teacher can only invite the Spirit into the room. It’s up to individuals to let Him into their hearts. We can’t have that, though. It leaves nothing to complain about except oneself.

  7. I agree that the argument is a silly one to enter. I also agree that the premises you presented are silly.

    For instance, this is a self-defeating premise: “The esoteric. “Meat” refers to things that are not essential for my salvation, at best; and at worst is nothing better than navel-gazing.”

    It assumes that we all understand what “salvation” is and what it entails. but we don’t. So that requires deeper inspection and we find ourselves already outside of the mythical “milk” realm from the get-go.

    In fact, it seems to me that the “milk” is usually associated with practices — what we should do; while the “meat” is associated with theology/philosophy — why we should do it.

    Anyway, I think the practical answer to dealing with Sunday School classes is to teach interesting and inspiring lessons if you are lucky enough to get to teach and to make interesting and inspiring comments if you are in the audience.

  8. ed42

    Is it “meat” to want to understand what is meant by the cedars of Lebanon or the ships of Tarsis or any of the “learning of the Jews”? Christ commanded us to study the words of Isaiah yet we only spend 80 minutes every 4 years covering this book, none of which “reveals” it to us.

  9. First, I want to be clear that I am talking not only about SS lessons, but a whole approach to the Gospel. When I use the milk/meat phrase I guess I just mean I am hungering and thirsting to learn more when I go to Church. I want to come into the presence of the Divine. I need help and direction. Instead, I get jumped on by people telling me
    1. if the lesson is not interesting to me, it is my fault, or I don’t have the Spirit
    2. I am disregarding the needs of people who haven’t learned the basics
    3. I am a rabble rouser who just wants to question the Church

    Sorry, I don’t buy it. I love feeling the Spirit as much as anyone, but so often these excuses are used as rationalization by those who don’t want to put effort into gospel learning/teaching/doing, and are trying to pass off water as milk.

  10. SilverRain,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that the spirit is what counts, and that people have a responsibility to seek after the spirit. I think we would also agree that people feel the spirit differently. The question in a group setting is how we work together to feel the spirit. I would prefer to operate under the assumption that everyone is working as hard as they can to feel the spirit and we should do what is possible to be inclusive to the variety of ways the spirit manifests itself. This isn’t an issue of blame, but rather one of learning to work together to create an environment where the spirit can dwell–keeping in mind that this happens differently for different people.

  11. In fact, it seems to me that the “milk” is usually associated with practices — what we should do; while the “meat” is associated with theology/philosophy — why we should do it.

    Anyway, I think the practical answer to dealing with Sunday School classes is to teach interesting and inspiring lessons if you are lucky enough to get to teach and to make interesting and inspiring comments if you are in the audience.

    This would have been another good point to list above (although maybe it falls under #4). I find that this can also be couched in more socially accepted language (what’s worked for you?). For instance, I think it’s a common assumption that we should have some understanding for why we do what we do. We may disagree as to what level of understanding is needed, but a question that usually begins with, “I’ve never quite understood why we….”, will generally get some fair play. On the other hand introducing the question with terms such as ‘philosophy’ and ‘theology’ tend to relegate the issue back into the milk/meat zone.

    On another note, what does it mean to teach “interesting” lessons or make “interesting” comments?

  12. Is it “meat” to want to understand what is meant by the cedars of Lebanon or the ships of Tarsis or any of the “learning of the Jews”? Christ commanded us to study the words of Isaiah yet we only spend 80 minutes every 4 years covering this book, none of which “reveals” it to us.

    It will be considered meat if it comes across as either esoteric or as a scholarly enterprise. The theory is to frame the issue in such a way that it connects with something important (such as you mention the fact that Christ commanded it, although it seems that a more vivid argument is needed in this case).

  13. BiV,

    Forget the milk/meat dichotomy and express yourself as a “true seeker” (admittedly this might be difficult given that people already may have certain impressions about you). Instead of “What do we do about the history of racism in the church?”, use “How do we reconcile our current belief in equality with what in the past seems like such inequality?”

  14. mondo cool

    smallaxe:

    Well, Paul does use the terms “milk” and “meat.” What do you think he meant by them? Was Paul merely too provincial? Or, is there simply a misuse of the terms by some among us today?

  15. Well, Paul does use the terms “milk” and “meat.” What do you think he meant by them? Was Paul merely too provincial? Or, is there simply a misuse of the terms by some among us today?

    To be honest I don’t know what Paul had in mind with the terms. It probably is a misuse of them as far as the contemporary usage is concerned, but in this case it’s the misuse that counts. That, it seems, is what people take to be normative. It would be interesting if someone could come up with a stronger textual argument, but I wouldn’t be opposed to still upholding a claim to avoid the discourse altogether as far as SS/RS/PH teaching is concerned.

  16. On another note, what does it mean to teach “interesting” lessons or make “interesting” comments?

    Non-boring stuff I guess. I’ve found it takes trial and error as a student and teacher to see what comments keeps people awake in Sunday school…

  17. ed42

    Advice (Warning?) to teachers: Do NOT ask an adult class an answer that a ‘junior’ primary child can answer.

    “Let’s read about the baptism of Christ – we’ll start in the front and each person read a verse. …. Thanks, now who baptized Christ?” Grrrrr!

  18. harold

    Meat vs Milk? My body would wither with malnourishment if I only drank milk, so also with my spirit. I’ve tried for years to interject points of discussion in SS and preisthood to no avail. My wards HP group is mostly PHD’s they are the worst at refusing to dig a little deeper into the gospel. Example: for a while I was asked to teach the HP group. I told a story of an Institute instructor who showed up one day to announce that he had lost his testimony by reading one book. I had that book in a bag and held it up for all to see then tossed it on the table, still in the bag within arms reach of most of them (about 12 men). I then went on with my lesson, that book sat there for the whole lesson not one man touched it or asked what it was. When the closing prayer was over I asked the men as they were standing to leave if they wanted to know what that book was. I could see that some were afraid to know what it was, others didn’t care, one man took what I said as a challenge and said “Yes tell us what it is” they all looked at the table but still no one would touch it, so I picked it up and took it out of the bag and held it up for all to see, it was the Book Of Mormon. This story speaks volumes to me. The meat is THE Gospel it’s what we are as spiritual adults are suppose to eat. We as a church don’t want it for two reasons first, FEAR of what it will reveal about god and ourselves and two,we just don’t care. So lets all sing “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam” and memorize an Article of Faith, and leave the Gospel laying on the table hidden in the bag.