Understanding Others: A Rant

When I was on my mission I encountered my fair share of anti-Mormonism. Upstate New York was largely Catholic, and those good folks almost entirely avoided the anti-Mormon scene. But there were also the Evangelicals, and they had all the pamphlets, the books, the same tired arguments ready to go. What bothered me the most about anti-Mormonism was the havoc a few sentences could wreak on your work. If you were talking to a group of people, and one person started spouting off about how Mormons are racist, how we believe Jesus and Satan are brothers, and that Adam and God are the same person, no one else wanted to listen to you. They could tear down our whole faith and claim to know what we believed with just a few choice words.

Of course, there are answers to anti-Mormon attacks. The problem is, if someone truly wants to know where we’re coming from and what we believe, they have to be open-minded and they have to be willing to listen to us for a few minutes. To respond to a charge that says we believe Jesus and Satan are brothers, for example, requires an explanation of the pre-existence, the roles both Lucifer and Christ played, etc. It’s not something understood in a hurry. But if someone is open-minded, they can learn about the richness of Mormon doctrine and the beauty of our experiences in the Church.

Words are exceptionally powerful things, depending on the context they are spoken in and the people who are listening. On my mission, if you told a Catholic that Mormons believe in a different Jesus, they’d probably ask questions and inquire into what you mean. Tell an Evangelical the same thing, they may never speak to you again. In Evangelical-ese, as I learned as a missionary, saying “they believe in another Jesus” is code for they’re not really Christian; they aren’t up to snuff.

Mormons have their own words that may not mean much to others, but to fellow Mormons, speak volumes. And sadly, just like anti-Mormonism, a few lines can devastate how others look at someone and their beliefs. Tell people that someone is “losing their testimony,” or is an “apostate,” or “doesn’t follow the prophets,” or “a Sunstoner” and so on, there’s an immediate perception that is gathered about that person. And just like anti-Mormonism is an unfair portrayal of what Mormons really believe and why they believe it, these kinds of pathetic labels are also unfair portrayals of what someone like myself believes and why I believe it.

Just as we in the Church need those who are open-minded and willing to spend a few moments to listen to our perspective, I need the same thing. Calling me an apostate is just as dismissive as saying Mormons are crazy because they believe Adam and God are the same person. Aside from being inaccurate, it fails to listen to someone’s perspective. If someone really wants to know why I believe the way I do, and how I’ve gotten to the point I’m at, they too need to be willing to take a few minutes to listen to my story. They need to hear my experience with Church history, my lifelong struggles with belief, my personal experiences with Church members and leaders, and what I really believe and why.

Doing so doesn’t mean you’ll agree with me, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m right. But it does accord me the respect and courtesy I’m due, just as the Church is due the respect and courtesy of finding out what we really believe, instead of blithely dismissing us with one-liners meant to tear us down and mark us as suspect in the eyes of others. Aren’t we better than anti-Mormons?

Comments

  1. Aaron Brown says:

    “Aren’t we better than anti-Mormons?”

    Alas, no. We often are not.

    Aaron B

  2. John, how disappointing. All along, I’ve been thinking about your posts and comments through my “apostate Sunstone Mormon who is losing his testimony” filter–when I should have been using my “apostate Sunstone Mormon who is sensitive to accusations that he is losing his testimony” filter!

  3. I think it is not a unique failure of either Mormons or Evangelicals that they dislike complexity and nuance. The acronym “KISS” evolved for a reason – people want things simple. We don’t deal well with ambiguity.

    Correlated LDS Doctrine is binary. Good/bad, white/black, true/false. When you dig into the faith, though – the history and origins and how it works on the ground – it’s not simple. It’s complex, with a lot of nuances and textures and shades of gray. That complexity is what makes it interesting, even beautiful.

  4. I appologize for not being down with the lingo. (I’m a newbie). What’s a sunstoner?

  5. John – I have some experience with the anti-Mormon/Evangelical folks from outside the church but I am a little more concerned about my experience with the Conservatives are Right/Democrats are Evil crowd within the church. I find it amazing that I can develop a close, spiritual relationship with someone in the church, where we share so many common beliefs about society and life, and then when I admit my leanings to the Democratic Party I am immediately labeled as something less than human. Many years ago I was working on a church welfare assignment with fellow ward members and someone “outed me” – in a friendly way. My neighber from across the street who had know me for more than five years took that opportunity to make a general statement to the effect “My grandfather used to tell me that if you were a Democrat you were an evil person.” She said it in kind of a slow, mythodical way. And so I retaliated with a childish responce “My father told me that if you were a Republican you were either rich or stupid – or both.” It didn’t help the situation.

    My father has said some things similar to that but I really don’t believe them. In fact it may be wrong of me but I just a ssume that my fellow church members are Republicans until I am sometimes pleasantly surprised to find that we share similar political beliefs as well as spiritual ones. And in those instances where I have an opportunity to sit down and speak calmly with fellow church members from either political stripe I find that we are usually very close in our overall beliefs but just believe that our objectives will be achieved by one party or the other.

    I’m not really sure how to combat the problems you mentioned in dealing with Evangelicals but it seems that all of us can best disspell those false beliefs about ourselves, whether they are political or religious and whether from within or without the church, by living goods lives and bearing good fruit.

  6. John,

    I think you are losing your testimony.

  7. lost,
    A sunstoner is someone who reads the magazine Sunstone. It’s a magazine about our church culture, doctrine and history but often from perspectives not of the Ensign. John H used to work there.

  8. Jordan,
    Was that a joke or are you serious?

  9. Oh come now, Rusty. It’s a joke. Of course! :)

    Now the serious question is- has Rusty lost his testimony?

  10. John,

    Your point is well taken and I agree wholeheartedly.

    However, speaking neither of you nor anyone in particular here, I have experienced situations in which it appears that people want a double standard. They want to attack the church, but when they are called out for it, throw up their hands with claims that they are simply struggling members and accuse members for lack of concern.

    No doubt they are right, and that members ought to be unconditionally loving. But when someone consistently says apostate things, they ought not be surprised at having an apostate label applied to them.

  11. Prudence McPrude says:

    I don’t call apostates “apostates”. I don’t call them anything at all. I simply close my eyes, put my hands over my ears, sing We Thank Thee Oh God For a Prophet, and run away as fast as I can. No sense being tempted by crafty conversations with the minions of the Adversary. Why even converse with the non-Heaven-bound? You wouldn’t walk on a new carpet with muddy hiking boots, would you? So why let the heathens track mud all over your soul. Avoid the appearance of evil. Avoid the real thing, too.

  12. Sister Prudence,

    Do you date? Or anything like unto it? Because I definitely want to get to know you better. You seem like just the right kind of gal who would love, honor and obey her husband, and be a loyal helpmeet to a man who is interested in pursuing eternal increase. Please post your phone # and picture (preferably with your bonnet off).

    Keep sweet,

    Jedediah Allred Pratt

  13. Not all Mormon testimonies are of the “I believe everything I’m told in church and I’ll do whatever they say forever” variety. Those stalwarts need to recognize that legitimate testimonies come in different flavors. There’s the “I believe some (and enough) of what they say” variety; the “I’m still coming to church, but …” variety; and even the “I’ll go to church next Sunday; after that, who knows …” variety. Hey, some people are in a zone where they are just scraping by week to week, but they are still FULLY ACTIVE and PARTICIPATING members of the Church. Why do stalwarts get so much enjoyment from pigeonholing every member who doesn’t measure up to their personal standard of outward activity?

    Recall the quip that a man’s definition of a nympho is a woman who wants sex one more time than he does. Maybe a Mormon’s definition of an inactive is someone who attends church one less time that he or she does.

  14. Prudence McPrude says:

    Jedediah,

    Thank you for your kind words. I’d be happy to post my picture, except (1) I’m already happily married to a wonderful, honorable, righteous priesthood holder who receives and deserves my constant doting and unquestioning obedience and (2) I wouldn’t dare post my picture in this awful place. Chances are, one of these freakish bloggers would obsessively track me down and rob me of my every virtue. The wicked never can leave the righteous alone, believe me! I know.

  15. Aaron Brown says:

    Hey Prudence,

    What is your husband’s calling in Church? I understand you say you’re happily married, but my wife and I were contemplating a new sister-wife, and you sound like you’d fit the bill. Forget Jedediah. If I have higher ecclesiastical standing than that hubby of yours, then your dumping him and becoming one of the Browns is totally kosher. Think about it, babe. I await your email.

    Aaron B

  16. John:

    I assume that you realize that if you want everyone to understand the nuances of your views on the church and testimony, then you’ll have to explain it over and over and over again. You’ll have to explain it to every new home teacher, to every new bishop, to every member who asks why you made the comment you did in GD, etc. Frankly, I don’t think I’d want to explain the complex nuances of my departure from faith to every member with a MIS-generated piece of paper and a desire to do good. And don’t forget, in 9 cases out of 10, that person is going to try to dissaude you from the beliefs that have taken a lifetime to acquire, and will do so probably using arguments you’ve heard before and citing scriptures you know aren’t as applicable as s/he thinks they are. Indeed, your standard is likely to produce for you a lifetime of similar and difficult conversations. Maybe the point I’m coming to is that you’re looking at labels as bad because they don’t catch the subtleties of the impetuses (impeti?) that drove you to the point you’re at now, but that maybe these labels make life easier for everyone involved, yourself included.

  17. The better alternative is simply to prepare a detailed academic paper explaining your personal belief/disbelief and then to hand copies of that paper to people at every opportunity. Since the paper will probably be quite long and detailed, most people won’t read it. Therefore, they’ll refrain from categorizing you at all.

    On a more serious note, my underlying concern with this discussion has to do with the orthodoxy drive. This is the motivation to determine what the “approved” beliefs are and to force everyone else to either adopt those beliefs or simply admit to being evil. As long as this orthodoxy drive is prevalent within the church, people will make incredibly negative assumptions about anyone who doesn’t vociferously adopt approved opinions. But those assumptions, and the categorizations that accompany them, aren’t the real enemy–the enemy is the underlying desire for everyone to either completely conform or completely rebel. That’s what I’d stand against.

  18. John,

    Thank you for this. My personal experience has been that the time taken to try to understand another person is time well spent. If we rely on labels and generalizations, we miss out on many friends.

    Eric R., may I suggest, as gently as I possibly can, that “calling someone out” (your words) sounds like you are the sherriff and this is high noon in the old west? That is a pretty aggressive approach, and one that is almost guaranteed to fail. One of the great things about the church is that everybody has a bishop and it is the bishop’s job to judge. The rest of us can sit back and enjoy the show.

    Gordon B. Hinckley quoted this poem in general conference:

    He drew a circle that shut me out—
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took him in!

    I think his point was that when we encounter someone who seems to be off base, we are being given a chance to develop charity.

    With that in mind, I would like to propose the Hinckley Law of Bloggernacle Manners. It states:

    “Anybody who puts the label of heretic or rebel on anybody else is self-evidently guilty of not following the prophet.”

    Persons found guilty of violating the Hinckley Law would be subject to the punishment prescribed by the Monson Imperitave:

    “Drown them in sweetness.”

  19. Nate Oman says:

    John H.: Suffice it to say that I have always dismissed everything that you have ever said as the rantings of a depraved Sunstoner whose real agenda was to transform Mormonism into a pale version of Unitarianism (although a bit more liberal) with a strong belief that Adam is God thrown in for good measure. I realize now that I have been unfairly pigeon-holing you and will try to mend my ways.

  20. Mark,

    I agree that’s what calling out sounds like, but not what it means. It means merely the identification of a statement as contrary to the teachings of the prophet. (Which you also do in your post. You just now called out those who attack others, and labeled their behavior as contrary to the teachings of the prophet, ie apostate.)

    As such, you fail your own test. The law you propose is self-defeating. You are implicitly putting the label of heretic or rebel on a certain behavior and thus, according to the very statement, you are not following the prophet in making the initial claim in the first place.

  21. I am a little confused. If someone doesn’t agree with church doctrine, why are they offended if they are labelled as someone who doesn’t believe in church doctrine.
    Yeah, there can be shades of grey, but a lot of things are black and white.
    Lets pick a commandment. Smoking cigarettes. Your choices are;
    1. Believe in the commandment (smoking is a sin) and follow the commandment
    2. Believe in the commandment (smoking is a sin but I still go ahead and do it)
    3. Not believe in the commandment (smoking is not a sin) but since you don’t smoke it isn’t a huge issue
    4. Not believe, and smoke (smoking is not wrong and I am going to do it)
    Whichever you are, you have the choice to smoke or not, you have the choice to believe or not, you have the choice whether to share your opinion that “smoking is a sin” or “smoking is not a sin.”
    If you expect to share your opinions, you have to let other people share theirs.
    If you expect to hide your opinion because it is personal, you have to expect to be very secretive.
    About Sunstone, are you 1,2,3 or 4? And if you don’t think it is a sin then why is being called a Sunstoner offensive?
    If you have “problems with the church” or “lifelong struggles with belief” that is your experience, and that is how you feel. But it is quite normal for you to be put in a category (in people’s minds) with others who have problems with the church or struggles with belief.

  22. What we have seen in recent years is some dialogue between LDS and Evangelicals in Scholarly Conferences, an Issue of Review (FARMS) and books. (How Wide the Divide).
    I was LDS years ago, left over the BOA issue. i was fairly anti then but have come to realise that God’s people must be in every church not matter how much I disagreed with some of their theology. I went on an Emmaeus Walk (Camp Retreat) with a group of men from Catholic, Uniting Church, Pentecostal and others. We studied, prayed, played together. No one tried to make me a Catholic or anything else but accepted me as a genuine Christian. Now whats say some LDS were invited and attended, got to know as friends some of the attendees. Would they use this to seek an opportunity to have the missionaries come and see them? If those friends refused to have any further discussions with the missionaries would that friendship wane? I can have discussions with all traditions about C S Lewis, Tolkin, Chesterton and yet while disagreeing in some areas we have a core of beliefs we have in common.

  23. Jack Jones says:

    I to a point I agree with JKS. While there are some issues that have “different shades of gray,” such as dietary supplements and what movies you are comfortable with watching, etc, etc, the church is fundamentally about the issues that are black and white. Someone who has ‘belief issues’ is not someone who disagrees with someone when that someone said a certain Ben Stiller movie is inappropriate, it would seem (based on the description) it goes much further than that. As such, anyone with a problem with church doctrine might think people are just passing them off as people with belief issues – which they are, thus being my confusion as well. Obviously they don’t completely understand that person’s situation, but its not like they are mislabeling them, and its not like that person can just say “They shouldn’t label me as a person with belief issues since they don’t understand my beliefs.” They may not understand WHY that person believes what they do, but they do have an understanding of what they believe nonetheless, even if they don’t know the whole story.

    (Note that none of this is to imply that labeling someone is kosher or to say that no additional effort need to into understanding that person’s beliefs, it is simply to explain the irony of what I feel this post is).

    I guess my question is then is it the label that bothers the thread starter, or is it that the thread starter actually believes the label to be factually inaccurate? Or is the thread starter trying to say that someone is not necessarily an apostate just because they personally have some trouble with certain Church principles?

    I’ll close by applying some Forest Gump wisdom: Apostate is as Apostate does.
    I think that goes without saying but not quite. Pretty much having a problem with the word of Wisdom but still keeping it means you are a worthy member because you are being obedient, etc, etc, but if you aren’t for whatever reason, then you have crossed the line to the point of being an __________

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