What’s in the way?

So what’s getting in the way?

What aspects of Mormon culture hold us back?  What sorts of things get said in our culture that aren’t helpful?  What cliches drive us crazy, what ideas are just teeth-grittingly annoying? And how can we look for the humor in comments that might otherwise hurt and sting?

For a long time, I was a staff writer for something called the Sugarbeet. Sort of a Mormon answer to the Onion.  Basically, we made fun of Mormon culture.  We put out a book and everything.  And although I was a very minor part of the whole enterprise, I found it really did wonders for my, well, testimony. It helps to laugh.

I’ve heard it all my life; people ‘go inactive’ because people in the Church say something that offends them, and that drives them away.  But to me, it’s not comments from ward members that hurt, but the attitudes those comments reveal.  And it’s not really that we ‘get offended.’  It’s more like we start to wonder ‘where do I fit in?  If that’s what everyone believes, and I don’t believe it, why am I here?’  So let’s look at some things people say, and how we might possibly respond.

“We’re living in the Last Days.  And our inspired constitution is hanging by a thread.  It’s up to us, the Priesthood of God, to save it.”

Okay, I’m a liberal Democrat, and I live in Provo, Utah.  I’m outnumbered.  I’m, like, Custer-at-the-Little-Bighorn outnumbered.  The folks in my ward are really nice about it, but every once in awhile, people blurt out something about that Moslem Socialist in the White House, and it’s annoying.  Comments like this have diminished since a Certain Somebody lost the last Presidential election, but they haven’t gone away entirely, as recent comments by a Utah stake President have shown.

It helps to know the facts.  The ‘constitution hangs by a thread’ stuff comes from something called the White Horse prophecy, which Joseph Smith probably never mentioned and which the Church has officially repudiated.  (Here’s a link to a scholarly article in BYU Studies on this prophecy.)  But like many folk doctrines, folks still believe in it, and cite it all the time.  Even Glenn Beck, I understand.  It’s best just to remember that the Church’s official policy is non-partisan, and that lots of Church leaders have likewise been Democrats.  And that might even be worth pointing out, from time to time.

“Don’t you believe in the prophet?”

Said with a condescending smile, right?  What happens is that you’ll be talking, and you’ll say something maybe slightly unorthodox, and this is the conversation-stopping response.  I see it a lot in science/religion discussions.  You’ll say something about, say, pre-Adamic death, and someone will quote Mormon Doctrine at you.

Mormonism is built on a foundation of continuing revelation.  But that doesn’t mean that every comment made by a General Authority is equally authoritative.  Sometimes the Brethren have disagreed.  At times, even, they’ve gotten things wrong. My main way of dealing with this kind of comment is to say something like ‘well, we’ll have to agree to disagree,’ and walk away.  But I think that’s a really lame response, and wish I had a better one.  Any suggestions?

“President Benson said that R-rated movies. . .”

I love film, as an art form.  I see lots of movies, I taught classes on film at the college level for twenty years, I study film theory.  I like movies.  And I have really good reasons to reject the MPAA rating system as a guide to, well, basically, anything. I see many many movies, and I don’t much care what they’re rated.

But for some people in the Church, President Benson’s comments about the rating system suggest an absolute standard, binding on all Latter-day Saints.  And the thing is, it simplifies matters.  R-rated=bad, PG-13=okay.  But the fact is, I have seen R-rated movies that were profoundly and powerfully moral, that changed my life for the better.  And PG-13 movies that were bad aesthetically and morally.  A letter-of-the-rating approach completely ignores the complexity and subjectivity of art generally, or of film as an art form, but if you’re not much into movies, that may not matter much.  I’m going to see the movies I’m going to see.  And give a friendly wave to ward members I happen to see at the cineplex.

“Read approved works by the Brethren.  We don’t need to read works by atheists or agnostics or anti-Mormons.  Just read approved materials and you’ll be fine.”

So, what, I’m supposed to research the religious views of every author I read?  Really? I’ve got a five book a week habit goin’ on here.  I don’t have the faintest idea which of my favorite authors are atheists. More to the point, I believe in actively seeking out books that are virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy.  An active search takes effort.  And to me,it’s worth it.

There are book people, people who love to read, who go to the library twice a week, who would rather read than eat.  I’m one, so’s my wife.  And then there are people who don’t enjoy reading.  That’s totally cool.  I don’t feel like I have the right to comment on what other people do for fun.  (Hunting, fishing, really any outdoor sports). I’m going to read a lot, all the time.  Most of what I read is non-fiction, because to me, it’s fun to learn about the world.  I don’t read a lot of ‘approved materials,’ because they’re boring.

“I know. . . .”

The Church is true.  The Book of Mormon is true. That President Monson is a prophet of God.

I understand, rhetorically, that to say ‘I know’ seems stronger than to say ‘I believe.’  But my reading of the scriptures tells me that we’re saved by faith, and not necessarily by knowledge.  In fact, to just believe is considered as much a gift of the spirit as ‘knowing.’

 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. D&C 46: 13-14.

I don’t know very many things on this earth.  I’m pretty confident in gravity. But religiously?  I try.  I do my best.  I wish testimony meetings could focus a little less on certitude, and bit more on the struggle for faith. Faith is, after all, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Let me find sustenance in that paradox, and be grateful for what I do not know.







11 thoughts on “What’s in the way?

  1. scott bronson

    “God designed our…

    …bodies; the earth; the universe; the gospel; etc.”

    Uh…no. We are – as far as I know – the only group on the planet that believes we are co-eternal with God. According to President Snows pithy couplet this means that He once was as we are now. He didn’t create himself and since we are in his image we are of an eternal design that extends back into our premortal existence a really long way. He is perpetuating patterns that he encountered along HIS eternal progression. He’s not presenting a new system to us, he’s letting us in on a longstanding, tried and true program for becoming gods. “It’s a narrow path, kiddies. I found it, and so can you.”

    1. AES

      But isn’t it interesting that as much as we love to quote President Snow’s “pithy couplet” that as a culture we’re really, really uncomfortable with the idea that God was ever, um, less than godly?

  2. juliathepoet

    I have to admit that I am eternally grateful to Heavenly Mother and Her understanding that I would never have survived growing up in Utah. I know there are people of independent thought and the ability to apply it to everyday life in the Wasatch front, and you and Ardis are proof of that. Still, in 1976, there was no Internet. Even in 1993 when I graduated from high school, and BBSing was getting started, I think my brain and heart would have exploded, and/or given up.

    I say all that to let you know that I truly am grateful that you bring such grace and humor to the interactions with the ward members and neighbors you are surrounded by. I can’t imagine having half that much patience.

  3. Ryan

    The Rated-R commentary drives me crazy. The President Ezra Taft Benson quote was taken way out of context, and was only delivered to the youth of the church. It says in part to stay away from Rated R movies that are suggestive, immoral or pornographic. Everyone has their own interpretation of what is “suggestive or immoral,” and it doesn’t really state that no one should watch any Rated R movies, ever. Somehow this one quote turned into a “no Rated-R movie rule”- a rule that has never actually been dictated. The fact that no other Prophet since President Benson has avoided dictating a hard-line rule on the matter, reiterates that this is simply a culturally-driven rule, and certainly not a doctrinal one.

    That said, the conversation I have is the same one. It goes like this, “Well, President Hinkley/Monson has said we can’t watch Rated R movies”…”No, he actually hasn’t.”…..”Well, it is in the For the Strength of Youth Pamphlet.” ….”Actually, it is not…” People don’t believe me, then research it and point to the President Ezra Taft Benson quote.

    But what drives me the most nuts, is that in adopting this hard-line stance, we are essentially accepting the MPAA rating system as our moral guide to what movies we should see. Why should we let the MPAA be the church’s guide to what is appropriate? We should be able to discern for ourselves what movies have inherent value. No one can convince me that movies like Shawshank Redemption, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Argo, etc., don’t have great value. That said, I am never bothered if someone chooses not to watch R-Rated movies. Or PG-13 movies. Different people are affected differently by things they watch, and certain individuals have sensitivities toward certain content in movies.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Eric. You are on a roll.

  4. STW

    Luckily the longest stretch I’ve ever spent in Utah was in the old mission home in SLC so personal dogma has rarely been part of my upbringing. There were too many examples of good people believing the wrong things and staying good people. (the nerve) I also had a mission president who believed in solid foundations and had likely forgotten more church history then most of us ever learn. He could expose a lot of sand underlying a testimony.
    For example, Pre-Adamic death? Immaterial. However, Joseph Fielding Smith and James E. Talmage did argue about fossils found in Adam’s alter at Adam-ondi-amin so the road has been traveled before without resolution. It seems the two of them could handle not agreeing and basing a testimony on either position is unwise.
    Some days I’m hard on the iron rod; other days I’m relying on a Liahona.
    Life is supposed to be a test. Even if it’s open book no one has read all the chapters.

  5. Erika

    Other things I wish people said less often? “God gives us ________ so that ________.” I say this with a firm understanding that sometimes God does give us test X so that we can learn/avoid/become result Y, but my recent experiences in life make me a firm believer in a God that allows life to happen to us with the understanding that everything we experience here will, in the long run, prove educational to us. Do I think that God afflicted my womb in order to teach me patience? No. I do believe that with faith and prayer I can take my particular experiences and learn patience from them, but I don’t think God pulled the infertility lever (or the car exploding on the freeway lever, or the miscarriage lever, or the brother-doesn’t-talk-to-me-anymore lever, or the rejected-from-graduate-school lever–Holy Crap, am I doing something wrong?!?! No, life is just like this some times) in order to force me to learn a lesson.

    The problem with believing in a lever-pulling God is that at some point, you start to wonder about God’s motivations, and at some level it starts to feel hard to believe in the kind of loving God we profess to believe in. When I say that God has a Plan for me, I do it with a capital P–a Plan that leads me to Godhood someday. I believe that there are aspects of that plan wherein God will direct me one way or another, but do I believe that God planned for me to get pregnant after 5 years of trying and treatments only to discover that that pregnancy yielded an empty hole that was consuming all my effort without actually producing a fetus? Nope. That’s just nature being its occasionally unfortunate self. Do I believe in a loving God that helped me pull through that personal tragedy, who has helped me learn to be resilient in the midst of life’s crap, who weeps with me in a show of perfect empathy only available to one who has descended below all things?

    Yes. That’s the God I believe in.

  6. bob

    I am totally with you on the whole belief vs. knowledge. I had a bishop that taught us that what a person believes has a greater influence over their actions than what they know. For example, I know that God forgives anyone, but if I believe, deep down, that he makes an exception in my case because I am just too worthless to bother with, then I won’t make much of an effort to make any sort of change in my life. I think that belief (often rendered faith) is the most powerful force in the universe.

  7. WhiteEyebrows

    My response to the “don’t you believe in the prophet” line is the old standby: “Yah, you know the difference between Mormons and Catholics? Catholics believe in an infallible Pope, but think he gets it wrong most of the time – Mormons believe in fallible prophets who never get anything wrong.”

  8. Melanie

    I really agree with the need for more conversations about the struggle for faith. We tend to talk about it like something bestowed with a magic wand to only the most righteous. I think another couplet to remember is that one about line upon line.


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