Sunday, February 11, 2007

Worldwide Training –
I need to say in advance that if you’re not LDS much of this is probably going to go over your head, because you don’t have the cultural context to understand it.

This is going to seem like a lot of rambling, but I promise it all ties together at the end. Trust me on this.

It’s been an interesting few weeks. This year Wife of Bath and I have been on the “one Sunday a Month” plan in our ward. Otherwise we have attended our Episcopal church. One Sunday we played hooky because we just needed to talk more than we needed to be in church. So most of my exposure to the LDS church has been either the Ensign, conference talks, or the DAMU (aka the Disaffected Mormon Universe).

In general the Ensign has made me mad as hell.

I’ve been reading in the New Testament with a new enthusiasm, starting in 1 & 2 Thessalonians and James, because they appear to be the oldest books. I have developed a real love affair with coffee over the last month, because I have been trying to quit drinking so much soda and was looking for a caffeine replacement so I didn’t get headaches. Caffeinated coffee and scripture study are a marriage made in heaven. In the mornings I get a lift, a sense of focus, and a general sense of well-being from a freshly brewed cup of coffee that I spend the rest of the day looking forward to. The writings of the New Testament are elegant in their subtlety, inspiring us to faith while at the same time reminding us of the perils of falling back into putting our own wants (i.e. sin) ahead of a simple love of God.

On the other hand the Ensign and most conference talks are extremely simplistic “gumball” theology. It’s all about you and your choices. God punishes disobedience. God rewards obedience. Sacrifice brings the blessings of heaven. Worthiness brings the influence of the spirit. Unworthiness drives it away. Just one absolute statement after another. Good or evil. Obedience or disobedience. Worthy or not worthy. The funny thing is that experience teaches us that real life is not really like that. Most situations are shades of gray in which both elements of good and bad may be found. God’s will is not always our immediate happiness, and the spirit doesn’t always flick on and off like a light switch based on our most recent choice. Good behavior is not always rewarded in the way we might expect, and bad behavior is not always punished in the way we might expect. That’s why they call it “faith”. We don’t usually get that kind of “red light” “green light” feedback.

The Ensign makes me mad as hell lately because this kind of oversimplification just confuses people and guilts them out. It forces them into a great deal of stress trying to convince themselves that what their mind tells them must be true because of what the Ensign says and what their eyes and actual experience show them are actually happening are actually in agreement. In the physical world this type of experience produces motion sickness. The eye says “I’m not moving”, and the inner ear says, “yes you are”, and vomiting results. The Ensign may affect some people this way also.

In the meantime I have been listening to the Richard Bushman podcasts on, and it has been fascinating. I have learned less about Joseph Smith and much much more about how someone like Richard Bushman, who knows more about Joseph Smith than any anti-mormon alive, manages to maintain his sanity, let alone his faith. In summary I believe Bushman manages to maintain his faith because he sees the church at many levels. His foundation is a feeling that the church is a force for good, and that is solid granite. Built on top of that is his historian’s training, which teaches that facts can often be assembled into more than one story, depending on the bias of the teller, and all tellers are biased. There’s no such thing as an absolutely true interpretation of history, because even eyewitnesses to the same event may differ on what actually happened. I don’t think he really takes the history of the church as seriously as he takes his basic belief that the church is a force for good. Whether or not Joseph Smith used seerstones, propositioned 14 year-olds by promising their parents eternal security, actually translated the Book of Mormon from any sort of plates, whether the three witnesses actually physically saw anything, etc., is just not important relative to that foundational truth that the church is a force for good.

Likewise his understanding that the official church history is more of a public relations effort than an attempt at real history. It just seems obvious that the church has to tell it in such a way that it doesn’t shatter the faith of the members, while at the same time not going so far afield that people are shocked by some of the actual details.

Fast-forward to yesterday.

I attended the Worldwide Training meeting broadcast by satellite from Salt Lake City at our stake center.

The subject was basically on teaching, primarily in the classroom setting, but also in the home.

It consisted of three basic parts: a “conversation” between Elders Packer and Perry, a generally unscripted teaching demonstration by Elder Holland, and a wrapup talk by President Monson.

I thought the unscripted class part with Elder Holland was the most effective training coming from church headquarters that I have ever seen. He had a "class" assembled of about 15 people, some GAs, some in the auxiliary presidencies, and a few younger folks who I guess are from the area, work in the office building, etc.. He taught them a class on teaching, basically by example. Here's an "apostle of the Lord" up there, yet he got the class to answer most of the questions, encouraged them, brought out people who weren't saying much. Members of the class challenged him a little on some points and sisters from the presidencies actually admitted *they didn't know things* and asked for real answers to their questions. He didn't say one thing I remember about obedience, modern prophets, etc.. His basic message was communicating the love of Christ to our classes by the spirit. He cried a few times during his lesson, and I did too. One thing he said that broke him up while he said it was, "if you can't teach them, at least show them you love them, and maybe you'll be able to teach them later", referring to difficult students.

By contrast President Monson gave the closing speech, a typical scripted rehash of stories we've all heard before, standing behind the podium in the conference center reading from the teleprompter.

On one hand you have Holland living on the edge (so to speak) and trusting the spirit in front of a worldwide audience. On the other hand there's Monson, afraid to turn loose of the old forty year old formula and share a little bit of himself.

In trying to bring all of these experiences together, I realized that to a large extent the church is what you want it to be. To another extent it resembles an onion with many layers. Bushman makes a similar point. If you want to believe in modern prophets and that God has an orderly plan for the universe, you’ll probably believe in the Book of Mormon. If you don’t, you won’t. He explicitly said that the facts by themselves don’t draw you absolutely to one conclusion or the other.

I believe Elder Holland was speaking to a mature audience, and as such assumed we could handle a certain sense of unscriptedness about not only him, but the luminaries in his “class”. In order to invite the spirit he had to take some risks and abandon some structure and allow us to see a more personal side of not only him, but his class. He spoke quickly and animatedly, jumping from one thing to another, a restless intelligence. Julie Beck seemed a little slow, like she had had some kind of brain trauma at some point. Kathleen Hughes broke down and cried during Elder Holland’s summary. They were real people, just like us, with emotions and questions and imperfections.

On the other hand, President Monson obviously felt that the men and women of experience and maturity in the worldwide audience were not ready for that kind of informality. What we needed was an authority figure behind a lectern reading simple and easily understood platitudes.

In general the LDS church is trying to present a very complex and subtle organization and doctrine in simple, easy to understand ways. It does that by dumbing down the doctrine and the history. The idea is that this works fine for most people and is very soothing and comforting. Eventually some people break out of that level, much like finding out that the stars we see above are really just a painting on the ceiling, and we break through the shell and find something else beyond. I think most leaders at the bishopric level and above have broken through that ceiling. They know the leaders are just people, sacrifice doesn’t always bring forth the blessings of heaven, maybe Joseph Smith had a little drinky once in awhile and cast an approving glance on a fine specimen of womanhood, but fundamentally they’re going to perpetuate the simple story the general membership and the public can understand and not confuse them with details.

I guess maybe the realization I came to is that the leaders don’t really believe the simple story, any more than we believe that Primary lessons encapsulate the entire gospel. They can sit through dumbed down Gospel Doctrine lessons, seminary lessons, and priesthood/relief society lessons, knowing that there’s a deeper truth out there because they’ve found it on their own. Since they don’t believe it, maybe it’s OK for us to not believe it either and not feel somehow unfaithful, apostate, or somehow morally wrong.

Put another way the church teaches a very simplistic view of Sabbath observance, with stories about Joseph Fielding Smith walking past a corner grocery store to patronize one that was closed on Sundays. Yet really the General Authorities don’t believe this, because they eat in restaurants when traveling away from home on church business on Sundays, and many church-owned businesses function on Sundays. They are more than happy to have people standing by to collect offering reports on Sundays, the church websites will take orders on Sundays, etc.. They teach something simple the members can understand, yet practice something much more nuanced. They have broken through that painted ceiling, so maybe we can too.

What church do you want to believe in? The one where a 14 year-old boy went into the woods to pray and saw two personages, or the one where a boy somewhere between 14 and 16 may have had a spiritual experience that evolved as he grew older and his understanding grew and what he was trying to communicate evolved?

What church do you want to believe in? The church where God always answers the prayers of the faithful and punishes the wicked, or the one where sometimes children of full tithepayers get cancer or fall into swimming pools and drown while their parents are distracted.

What church do you want to believe in? The one where modern prophets speak to God and will never lead the church astray, or the one where they pray and sometimes get answers, and other times are completely fooled by document forgers just to remind them that they are only reflectors of divine light and not the sources.

The thing is, it’s all the same church, and you have a choice as to which view to use, just like the General Authorities do. You can either view what’s put in front of you, or you can break through the painted ceiling and see what the real immensity of the universe looks like, unscripted and unpredictable in all its glory.

It’s OK to sit through a lesson on Jesus choosing the original apostles that morphs into “follow the current leaders and you’ll be blessed”, like I did today. Or a priesthood lesson on the Atonement that tells us that all we have to do for God to love us is to keep the commandments (except if we could do that, why would we need the atonement?) The leaders know these things aren’t completely true, and it doesn’t bother them. It’s OK to break through and see the truth. It’s OK to stay where it’s safe and simple. Ultimately it’s up to you which view you want. Either is OK.