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 www.mormonstories.org, 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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I somewhat agree with your conclusions. However, there are two lies that evengelical / conservative churches teach. It changes from church to church, some are outright overt about the teaching while others are very subtle.

1) If you follow the rules then you will be blessed here and now, usually with faithful kids and an upper middle class lifestyle. Big Lie of health and wealth. 2) To get to heaven you must follow all the rules now in order to earn that place. Works Salvation also known as legalism. Another Big Lie.

Truth is Jesus promised us trials in this life, but we can live the kingdom life anyway through loving one another. For Jesus, heaven was a side benefit to kingdom life today. Salvation is a free gift of God to be accepted in humility. There is nothing we can do to earn it.

All people and therefore churches / congregations are subject to sin / imperfection. Therefore the two lies above will appear at least a little bit in about any church. But ones that overtly push one or both of these lies should be avoided; even if some of the leaders obviously understand differently. We are permitted to align with another organization.

There are my initial thoughts on at least part of what you posted.

....rooomate...

Nonny said...

I too attended the Worldwide Training, but under duress. I was seriously resentful of having to give up a Saturday morning to listen to more of the same. I thought, if they just say one thing I haven't heard before...

I thought it was very gutsy for Sis Hughes to admit she didn't always "recognize" when she was being led by the Spirit. And Br. Holland didn't always have the "correct" answer for every issue brought up. It was more like real life than I would have predicted.

Your question, "What church do you want to believe in" is exactly what I have been asking myself for many months. I don't think I can take the literalness any more. I don't want to believe in a God who is so conditional any more. Your view of a more flexible church is tempting and acceptable from a NOM point of view. Yet I don't think the leaders are as fluid in their beliefs as you give them credit for.

Lunar Quaker said...

CF,

These are some great insights. Thanks for sharing.

I think some of the church leaders have the nuanced view and some of them don't. The church as an institution is dogmatic and rigid. I can't tolerate church anymore, but for those who can, more power to 'em.

John Dehlin said...

Enjoyed your thoughts. Thanks for sharing!!!

Varden said...

I just discovered your blog. Very interesting and thoughtful commentary. I'm an active, but thoughtful LDS member, who also appreciates Richard Bushman's book about Joseph Smith and church history. I also very much enjoy the outdoors and liked your comments about the two temples. Many of my most spiritual experiences have been in both places.

I appreciated your analysis of the worldwide teaching broadcast. I also attended and thought it was excellent. I don't think President Monson gave his talk because he couldn't do the teaching part--but because they were trying to provide some balance and different types of training.

I share with you a longing for more "meaty" discussions in gospel doctrine classes. I've also come to understand the purpose of the actual church lessons--they have to reach both the lifetime member and the person who joined last week.

Here are some of my thoughts on your commentary:

1) people are human--even Joseph Smith and all the current general authorities. They have real, human struggles and make mistakes--you're right, that's one way God allows us to have faith and learn from our own experience. But those human qualities don't make their teachings any less true. Nor do imperfections in the Bible or the process of recording other Church revelations make them irrelevant.

2) The missionary discussions, sunday school, gospel doctrine, etc., were never intended to be a comprehensive summary of Church history or complete doctrine. From what I've seen, the Church strongly encourages learning about these topics from well-researched and inspired sources outside of class. All of the church leaders I know have spent extensive time studying from these sources. Those are great places to learn about about church history--and are encouraged by Church leaders.

Complaining that you haven't heard about one specific problem in church history in a regular church meeting is like complaining that you haven't heard every detail of the tensions between congress and George Washington during the revolution in an introductory college class on American history. That's why we keep learning throughout a lifetime from lots of sources outside of class. Just make sure the sources are accurate and well-supported.

3) Finally--It loos like you have a choice to make. Where did the Book of Mormon come from? Is Joseph Smith a complete fraud, or was he inspired by God? If you've felt inspired, enlightened, motivated to do good through these things, and you feel the Church as a whole is a force for good, what does that mean? As Elijah said in 1 Kings 18:21: "How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him."

It sounds like you already believe the LORD is God, you just have to decide whether the LDS Church is inspired by him. You can't sit on the fence forever.

If the Book of Mormon inspires you to do good, and the Church is a force for good, why not jump in, join with it wholeheartedly and help make a difference for good?

I can already tell you're a wonderful person and could your thoughtful outlook is needed in the Church.

If you just made the decision to become "hot," (Revelation 3:15-16), you could do some tremendous good! Don't drag on forever being lukewarm.

Best wishes in your choices. I look forward to seeing how your journey progresses. I'd love discuss more if you want to e-mail me at vardenh@gmail.com.

Thanks!
--Varden

ChristFollower said...

Varden, thanks for your comments. I also appreciate you not leaving them as anonymous, because it's hard to spend the time writing thoughtful replies when I don't know the person I'm replying to will ever check back to read my comments.

>>1) people are human--even Joseph Smith and all the current general authorities. They have real, human struggles and make mistakes--you're right, that's one way God allows us to have faith and learn from our own experience. But those human qualities don't make their teachings any less true. Nor do imperfections in the Bible or the process of recording other Church revelations make them irrelevant.<<
I agree with what you say above. The problem we often have as LDS is that doctrinally we admit our church leaders are human, but culturally we're taught to place respect for authority and obedience above most other things. So inside we know the truth, while outside we treat them like they are much more perfect and inspired than they would usually claim for themselves. What I think they really want is respect for the office, and what we give them is respect as persons.

>>2) The missionary discussions, sunday school, gospel doctrine, etc., were never intended to be a comprehensive summary of Church history or complete doctrine. From what I've seen, the Church strongly encourages learning about these topics from well-researched and inspired sources outside of class. All of the church leaders I know have spent extensive time studying from these sources. Those are great places to learn about about church history--and are encouraged by Church leaders.<<
Regarding early church leaders especially the modern church is very careful to screen out most evidence of how "human" they were. My general issue with the church has less to do with how human Joseph Smith was than how much of his actual life and history gets filtered out in talks and lessons. Faithful members get blindsided with information they have never been exposed to and suffer a great deal of pain as a result.
As far as being encouraged to study outside sources, it sounds like your experience has been different from mine. In lessons instructors are always specifically prohibited from bringing in outside sources, and most people tend to want to carry that advice into their own study. I have yet to hear someone in a church meeting encouraging people to prayerfully study church history from a variety of sources and make up their mind. I believe most people would read books like Bushman's, Michael Quinn's books (for which he was excommunicated), "Mormon Enigma" (which the authors were prohibited from speaking about, and "Sacred Loneliness", and assume they were "anti" because they contain facts they have never heard of before that reflect a more negative side of church history.
Have you ever heard of the "September Six"? Granted this happened years ago, but in my experience the church doesn't encourage the writing of history that is not faith-promoting.

>>Complaining that you haven't heard about one specific problem in church history in a regular church meeting is like complaining that you haven't heard every detail of the tensions between congress and George Washington during the revolution in an introductory college class on American history. That's why we keep learning throughout a lifetime from lots of sources outside of class. Just make sure the sources are accurate and well-supported. <<
There's more than one specific problem. Space precludes a full list, but we could start with the use of seer stones to translate the Book of Mormon, Helen Mar Kimball, the council of fifty, the fact that Joseph Smith had 33 wives, many of whom were married to other men, and many of the reprisals the Saints conducted against non-members in Far West. We could talk about Sidney Rigdon's "Salt Sermon", and we could quit repeating the story about Thomas B Marsh and the milk strippings, when his issues with the church had more to do with the Danites than some silly controversy over a cow. From there we could move on to blood atonement, Brigham Young's comments on race, the Adam-God doctrine, etc.. It's a long list. Unfortunately "accuracy" is often relative. You can find well-supported sources for different versions of history. The various First Vision stories are a good example, and this is one person talking about a relatively simple event.

>>3) Finally--It loos like you have a choice to make. Where did the Book of Mormon come from? Is Joseph Smith a complete fraud, or was he inspired by God? If you've felt inspired, enlightened, motivated to do good through these things, and you feel the Church as a whole is a force for good, what does that mean? As Elijah said in 1 Kings 18:21: "How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him."

It sounds like you already believe the LORD is God, you just have to decide whether the LDS Church is inspired by him. You can't sit on the fence forever.<<
Possibly you make some incorrect assumptions. I wouldn't waste time writing this blog if I didn't think the church was inspired. I would be off posting on RFM instead. I have had too many spiritual experiences in the church to claim otherwise. The church led me to Christ in a way that no other church tried to do. My "issue" is that I don't believe the LDS church to be an exclusive source of religious truth. I feel our Father in Heaven is reaching out to each of us in different ways more subtle and nuanced than we understand. I've spent a lot of time studying the Bible in the last couple of years and have visited many churches. I think different parts of the Bible and the LDS standard works speak to different people based on where they are in life, which is why we have so many churches. Even within the LDS church there are different viewpoints on the importance of Christ vs devotion to the leadership structure and the value of grace vs works. It's not one size fits all. There is more religious truth out there than can be contained in the LDS church, or any one church for that matter, and more range for interpretation of what is actually in the scriptures than can be satisfied by a strictly 21st century LDS view. God doesn't want us to just "follow the prophet". If he did our history wouldn't contain so many inconvenient details the modern church would prefer to keep out of public view. Faith is intended to be a wrestling match. Otherwise it's not our own. It's borrowed light. I think the 21st century LDS church is a very comfortable place for people who don't want to wrestle with details of faith and who crave simple answers. That's where I was for the first 20 years of my membership. For better or worse it's not where I am now. At 47 life experience has taught me that the simple answers just don't work anymore.

>>If the Book of Mormon inspires you to do good, and the Church is a force for good, why not jump in, join with it wholeheartedly and help make a difference for good? <<
What makes you think I'm not? :-) For years I've been inspired by the example of Jesus in the New Testament. By his compassion and by his concern for the poor. Meanwhile I've been in ward missionary, clerk, and scout callings. I've watched the main effort of most wards devoted not to relief of the suffering or reaching out to people in our own wards whose lives have been ripped apart by various things, but to just keeping the programs running. Teaching scout classes to five kids, running a cub pack with 12, teaching the same lessons over and over again, giving basically the same sacrament talks over and over again. Despite their best efforts the vast majority of bishops administer rather than minister because the programs are so complex to keep running.
Rather than putting my shoulder to the wheel in order to keep ward programs running, I now devote much of my time to paying attention to the wife I have been ignoring all these years because I had scout meetings and campouts to put on. I spend at least 30 minutes a day in the scriptures, still contribute 10% of my gross income to charity, still don't drink alcohol, look at pornography, or watch R rated movies. I ride my motorcycle and *worship*. I look at the people and the things around me and thank God for what I have been blessed with and try to see my mission in the world apart from just doing what my bishop or stake president told me to do. I am more fully alive in the Spirit than I have ever been in my life, because for once the message of the Holy Spirit to me trumps the inspiration church leaders have for my life.
Despite being at somewhat of a crossroads I still home teach and fulfill a ward calling to the best of my ability. So I believe I *am* making a difference for good. The difference is that I can follow the inspiration I have received and have always received in ways I never could before.

>>I can already tell you're a wonderful person and could your thoughtful outlook is needed in the Church.

If you just made the decision to become "hot," (Revelation 3:15-16), you could do some tremendous good! Don't drag on forever being lukewarm. <<
I am "hot". Otherwise I wouldn't spend time writing this blog, or replying to your comment. :-) I am just not hot in a way that may fit paradigms you have been taught. I feel the love of God and of Jesus Christ in ways I never have before. I appreciate Joseph Smith in a way I never have before. I have just come to the realization that there's more than one way to look at the LDS church and doctrine, and following the inspiration of the Holy Ghost I am doing so.
Thanks again for your comments. Feel free to keep commenting if you want to. We're unlikely to change each other's minds fundamentally, but the discussion is always enlightening.

Guy Noir, Private Eye said...

Varden:
most of us by now acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes... BUT: when leaders make mistakes... Do they admit same, reverse things done in error? My experience has been NOT. Admitting or acknowledging mistakes is only the first step. In an authority-driven organization, leaders fear admitting AND Correcting will undermine their Power(s).I can't think of any such reversals of decisions, or even later repudiation of past failings...Can You?