Doubt Hits the Suburbs

July 30, 2013

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about living here in Virginia is that my religious past is not of any interest to my coworkers, with the exception of one guy, a Lebanese Christian engineer who has on occasion asked me about Mormonism. Apparently, he didn’t know anything about the LDS church, other than the big temple in Maryland, until the Romney campaign last year. I have tried very hard to be fair about the church when he’s asked, but it’s clear he thinks the church is a little odd.

This morning, he asked me if I had seen the New York Times article about doubting Mormons, and I said I had. He said that 3 or 4 families in his neighborhood are Mormon, and his wife gets together to do “woman things” with them (English is not his native language).

His wife asked her Mormon friends if they had seen the article, and they had. They apparently told his wife that they had been dealing with some of these issues in their marriages, with at least one spouse expressing serious doubts. They also said they had gone to their church leaders, but “no one wants to talk about these things.” These women all expressed frustration and disappointment with the church.

He ended up saying (as best as I can recollect), “John, they hide things, they keep things secret, and they threaten people to shut up. What kind of religion does these things? They can’t do this forever. People find out the truth always.”

As I said earlier, the church will survive the more visible doubt, but it’s fascinating to me that what we’ve seen among members for several years now is becoming well-known, even among people who don’t have any connection to the church.

The Exodus Is Here?

July 29, 2013

For a lot of years now, some ex-Mormons have fantasized that the LDS church is in its death-spiral, circling the drain. The truth is out, they say, and there’s a mad scramble for the exits.

Of course, this has been wishful thinking, as the slow and steady trickle of active members leaving hasn’t been all that noticeable, except of course to those who want to see it.

I’ve always said that the way to know that the number has reached critical mass would be to watch for the church to start dealing with the apostasy publicly. Sure, there were a few conference talks dealing with the subject, but they were lost in a sea of pablum about modesty and tithing.

Then came the Swedish Rescue. At the time (2010), I wasn’t really aware of the meeting and its results, but I had seen the rather lame printed packet the church had prepared. My impression was that it was just one more “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” moment. I thought Sweden might have been an anomaly, as I hadn’t heard of any similar disaffected groups anywhere else in the world.

I think we can all agree that the church’s response was inadequate, to say the least, and probably did more harm than good. For one thing, they clearly have lost some of the core membership in Sweden, by which I mean people who attended meetings, paid tithing, attended the temple, and served in leadership positions. What is worse, the contents of the meeting have been made public, and it’s become clear that their top historians had no answers for struggling members other than to suggest that the “bad” stuff was coming from Satan.

When I read and heard the contents of the rescue meeting, it really hit me hard. I expect local leaders to be caught off guard and tell struggling members to ignore the issues (and shut up about them), but it was another thing entirely to see Marlin Jensen and Richard Turley wave off question after question because there wasn’t enough time to address them. Presumably they had time to prepare and probably knew most of the questions in advance (I certainly would have), but they seemed completely unprepared to give any answers whatsoever. Elder Jensen, however, had plenty of time to hammer home the idea that these doubts and questions came from Satan and were not sufficient to raise real concern about the truth of the church and gospel. The kicker, if the reports are to be believed, was Elder Erich Kopischke’s ultimatum for people to suck it up or leave, combined with a warning for attendees not to share anything with other members.

It seems the church has learned at least a few things from the rescue experience. First and foremost, don’t send anyone official out to discuss the issues. Instead, they’ve sent out (or at least haven’t objected to) Richard Bushman and Terryl and Fiona Givens to hold meetings with doubting members. I have tremendous respect for Richard Bushman, who in my view epitomizes the faithful historian, acknowledging the problems but finding reasons to believe. The Givenses, however, don’t add much to the conversation, in my view, as they seem to approach Mormonism from a sort of aesthetic point of view, admiring Joseph Smith’s creativity and seeing it as evidence of his prophetic calling. And as others have pointed out, Terryl Givens is every bit as dismissive of the problematic as anyone else. You really can’t resolve someone’s problems if you refuse to acknowledge that they are problems, and that is why I don’t think the Bushman/Givens meetings will bear much fruit for the LDS church.

That the church’s woes have now reached the front page of the New York Times is disastrous for the church. We have seen the usual hyperdefensiveness in the responses of members and quasi-church publications but no real response–again, there’s not really much they could say, is there? The Deseret News’ response, for example, painted a picture of weak-minded members letting trivial issues derail their faith. It’s telling that the article linked to several apologetic sites but not to the actual Times article.

Has the apostasy problem reached critical mass? I think I may have been wrong before in assuming that the numbers of people leaving would drive the church’s response; I suspect it may be just the opposite. Relatively speaking, the number of people who have left is pretty small, though obviously large enough to merit these groping responses from the church. But now the issues causing people to leave are being broadcast in venues the church could not have imagined. What is driving the process isn’t so much the disaffection of core members but rather the incompetence and cluelessness of the church’s response. In my view, the church’s big issue now isn’t how to respond to disaffected members but rather how to reverse the perception that they have something to hide and that they are more interested in controlling the message than in saving souls.

Make no mistake: The LDS church is not going away anytime soon, but this is clearly a transitional moment fraught with peril for the church. Long gone are the days when they could hide or downplay truths that were not “useful.” The sad thing is that the wounds the church is suffering are self-inflicted. Back in the late 1970s, the Church Historian’s office, led by Leonard Arrington, embarked on a more open and honest portrayal of church history. Unfortunately, senior church leaders, led by Boyd K. Packer and Ezra Taft Benson, succeeded in banishing the new staff and restricting access to the church’s historical archives.

So, since that time, we as members have been presented a rather sanitized and slanted view of the church and its history and origins. One of the reasons for the increase in apostasy recently is the jarring disconnect between the squeaky-clean church history members are used to and the reality, which is, well, rather ugly in many ways. We were presented a Joseph Smith who was a combination of Superman, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus, and it can be quite a shock that he wasn’t.

It may surprise some people, but I don’t see the Packer/Benson approach to reflect real intent to deceive; ironically, the idolization of Joseph Smith is a result of their own need to see Joseph as the great man they believe he was. Of course, another reason is clear: People like Packer and Benson are afraid of the unvarnished truth because they believe it might shake members’ faith in the church. I’m convinced that this “faith-promoting” approach reflects a deep-seated need to protect Joseph Smith and protect the faith of the membership. The repackaging of Joseph Smith has been so successful that they can’t walk back from it without causing real shock and trauma for members.

Fortunately for the church, there is an example of how to “adjust” the church’s teachings away from the dogmatism of the past. When I was a young man, the other main branch of Mormonism, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), walked away from many of its core teachings, de-emphasizing the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scripture and adopting a more ecumenical and liberal Christian theology. Significantly, they acknowledged that, contrary to one of their foundational beliefs, Joseph Smith did indeed introduce and practice polygamy. They even went so far as to rename the church to “The Community of Christ” to further distance themselves from Joseph Smith and Mormonism.

At the time, I and many other Mormons saw this as proof positive that the RLDS church was in apostasy and would dwindle away because they had “watered down” the true teachings of the restoration. Indeed, the RLDS/CofC experienced major upheaval and schisms, though ultimately the church weathered the loss of some 6000-7000 members to “restoration” branches, while maintaining a membership of over 250,000.

If I were to guess, a similar reorientation of the LDS church–though I don’t see it as going as far as the CofC–would result in schisms in the church and the loss of some members. The church would probably lose more as a percentage of members than the CofC did simply because the LDS church has been much more rigid in its acceptance of the sanitized history and has promoted a sort of hero worship towards Joseph Smith and his successors. But in the end, the church would survive, just as the Community of Christ has survived. In a weird way, I would be sad to see the church lose much of what makes it unique. I am not suggesting any actions for the church to take, but my guess is that, in the long run, the church will follow the lead of its smaller cousin.

The one response that I am sure will not work is the traditional circling of the wagons and denial of the problematic. The Swedish Rescue and Bushman/Givens tour tell me the church agrees and is trying to navigate a better course. At this point, I can’t predict what that will look like or how successful it will be.

Smith and Jones Answers

July 26, 2013

Here are the answers to yesterday’s quiz.

1. Smith

2. Jones

3. Smith

4. Jones

5. Jones

6. Smith

7. Smith

8. Jones

9. Jones

10. Smith

11. Smith

12. Jones

13. Jones

14. Smith

A couple of points I’d like to make, as some have suggested that I’ve taken things out of context and that, if you try hard enough, you can find similarities between any two speakers (the example given is Stalin and Churchill).

First of all, I do not believe Joseph Smith was capable of what Jim Jones did. Not even close. Despite what anyone thinks, I did not mean to suggest that, because they had similar speaking styles and content, Smith and Jones were two of a kind.

As I said, I was reading some sermons from Jim Jones for an entirely different purpose, and I was struck by the similarities between his speaking style and content and Joseph Smith’s. It is striking, indeed. I spent less than 15 minutes on that last post, which I doubt I could have done had I been digging around for unfair comparisons. I would suggest that it would take some digging to find such similarities between Stalin and Churchill, for example. If someone would like to show me I’m wrong, I’m happy to be corrected, and I’ll even post what you come up with here on my blog.

Another reader suggested that I focused exclusively on sermons and speeches Joseph Smith gave at the end of his life, when he was in rather desperate circumstances. There may be something to that. I’ve long felt that Joseph Smith was less calculating than a lot of people think. I see in him someone who started something that snowballed out of control, and his later speeches and actions reflect a desperation born of that loss of control. I’m not sure when he reached the point at which he couldn’t just walk away, but clearly by the end of his life he was wedded (no pun intended) to his position as prophet, seer, and revelator.

That said, I do not believe my earlier post was unfair because, whatever you think of Joseph Smith, the similarities I pointed out are obvious. Readers can make what they will of that.

Smith or Jones?

July 25, 2013

Without looking these up, can you tell which of these statements were made by Joseph Smith and which were made by Jim Jones? (I’ll post the answers tomorrow.)

1. If I had not actually got into this work and been called of God, I would back out. But I cannot back out: I have no doubt of the truth. I speak boldly and faithfully and with authority. … I know what I say; I understand my mission and business. God Almighty is my shield; and what can man do if God is my friend?

2. I am causing untold thousands to believe in the Jesus of ancient history by the great miracles of healings, prophecies and discernments I perform in His name! Many have believed God to be dead until I showed them that He is as tangible as the food they eat and the air they breathe. Oh what a privilege it is to live in this recognition and be able to personify the Mind and Works of God in Christ, therefore enabling the pure in heart to see God, and know Him aright, which is life eternal.

3. Dissenters are running through the world and spreading various foul and libelous reports against us, thinking thereby to gain the friendship of the world, because they know that we are not of the world, and that the world hates us; therefore they [the world] make a tool of these fellows; and by them try to do all the injury they can, and after that they hate them worse than they do us, because they find them to be base traitors and sycophants

4. It is better to try for a right goal than to see the selfishness [of] those who, once believing, have turned their backs on their ideals. And I have never met such cowards and hollow, conniving people, as exemplified by some who have left and who have become so belligerent.

5. It is quite obvious that I have gone through the Valley of the Shadow and returned. You have nothing to worry about … because I did not bring you to this point to leave you without a future, without someone who loves you, who will plan and care for you.

6. I have been chained. I have rattled chains before in a dungeon for the truth’s sake. I am innocent of all these charges, and you can bear witness of my innocence, for you know me yourselves. When I love the poor, I ask no favors of the rich. I can go to the cross—I can lay down my life; but don’t forsake me. I want the friendship of my brethren.

7. As I grow older, my heart grows tenderer for you. I am at all times willing to give up everything that is wrong, for I wish this people to have a virtuous leader, I have set your minds at liberty by letting you know the things of Christ Jesus. When I shrink not from your defense will you throw me away for a new man who slanders you? I love you for your reception of me. Have I asked you for your money? No; you know better. I appeal to the poor. I say, Cursed be that man or woman who says that I have taken of your money unjustly.

8. I am loving. I have taken in people who have betrayed me. I have forgiven them. One man I saved. … but he didn’t know me in those days, and he … made false charges. But I took him in when he got the light, and I’ll take you back many times. I forgive more than anybody you ever heard of, including your God in the Bible. Matthew 18:21-22, “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”

9. My only desire is to establish the great work of Jesus Christ on our troubled globe. I have taken the true scriptures to heart, where it declares in Philippians 2 for us to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God” and we are all created in His image and likeness. I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.

10. I will prove that the world is wrong, by showing what God is. I am going to inquire after God; for I want you all to know Him, and to be familiar with Him; and if I am bringing you to a knowledge of Him, all persecutions against me ought to cease. You will then know that I am His servant; for I speak as one having authority.

11. I do not regard my own life. I am ready to be offered a sacrifice for this people; for what can our enemies do? Only kill the body, and their power is then at an end. Stand firm, my friends; never flinch. Do not seek to save your lives, for he that is afraid to die for the truth, will lose eternal life.

12. I am a sacrificial lamb. I am ready to be sacrificed. Either alive or dead, or imprisoned. In tumults, in riotings–Whatever man wants to do with me, I am here to glorify the name of Jesus! … They will take me and do with me what they will, but whatever they do, I will … thank God, for I have come to suffer. I have come to give my life freely, that people might be healed, that they might be free. … I will still do my work, because they that are against me cannot be as great as that which is within me. I have come with none other purpose than to do the will of him that sent me. I have come, dying daily, I have come crucified in the flesh, nevertheless I live, … but Christ sent me to be me. The life I live, I live not by the flesh … but by the will of the son of God.

13. I have no desire but to do the will of God. … I have only the desire to be God in the flesh, manifest to bring forth salvation in the name of Jesus. I have no other desire. So what can you do with me? There is nothing that you can kill, there is nothing you can destroy. I have no dreams, I have no ambitions but to do the will of God Almighty!

14. God is my friend. In him I shall find comfort. I have given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me, only to do his will.