What expectations of accuracy should we have of non-LDS writers who write about Mormonism or Mormon doctrines? Not very high ones, I think. I believe an honest assessment of all the ambiguities, disputations and confusions surrounding the category “Mormon doctrine” require that we confront a simple reality: It is not reasonable to expect non-LDS writers to get “right” what we can’t even agree upon ourselves.
Consider the following: I’m a reporter doing a story on Mormon “doctrine.” I don’t want to misrepresent Mormonism, so I’m careful to back up my claims in the actual writings of early Mormon prophets. (Mormon prophets do, after all, represent God’s spokesmen on Earth, or so I’m told, and my LDS acquaintances do talk me to death about how important it is to “follow” them). But then I learn that Mormon Doctrine X no longer has currency in the modern Church. Nobody teaches this silly “doctrine” anymore. So, I figure that I need to start attending Mormon services and conversing with regular Mormons to get a better idea of what counts as Mormon doctrine these days. I do so, and in the process, I learn about Mormon Doctrines A, B and C. Problem is, when I write about them, all these Mormon intellectuals come out of the woodwork and chastize me for representing as “doctrine” that which is only a “folk doctrine.” So then I recognize that to figure out what REALLY constitutes Mormon “doctrine” I need to consult LDS academics, or at least Church-members with intellectual pretensions. So I start reading posts in the Bloggernacle. Problem is, none of the esteemed permabloggers seem to agree with each other. Or, at least they seem to disagree with each other much of the time, and there certainly isn’t any unanimity on the proper methodology for determining what is and isn’t Mormon doctrine. So, where does that leave me?
Seriously. What is a journalist supposed to do, for crying out loud?
In How Wide the Divide?, Stephen Robinson acknowledges that Mormon theology is something of a “moving target.” Similarly, Robert Millett, in his paper “What is Our Doctrine?”, quotes a Protestant minister who compares the act of nailing down Mormon doctrine to “nailing jello to a wall.” Millet sympathizes with this critique and claims that responding to it well required “some of the deepest thinking I had done in a long time.” And anyone who has spent any time in the Bloggernacle knows that debates about how to define Mormon doctrine defy resolution.
Why is this so? The reason is obvious, I think. Mormon leaders have traditionally espoused very, very robust notions of prophetic authority. In a Church where “Follow the Prophet” is a ubiquitous refrain, and past prophets are understood to have been just as in tune with God’s will as the current one, non-Mormons often assume that, absent strong repudiations, the statements of past prophets are still normative. Is this really an unreasonable assumption on their part? Can we really expect non-LDS writers to navigate the arcane, ambiguous and often self-contradictory debates about what does and doesn’t constitute “Mormon doctrine”?
I don’t think so. And it is for this reason that I just can’t get worked up about minor factual inaccuracies in the writings of non-Mormons about Mormons. If we can’t agree on much of this stuff ourselves, how in the world are we supposed to expect non-Churchmembers to do it?
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t expect any accuracy at all. Obviously, if a journalist claims that Mormons practice polygamy in 2006, he is being sloppy, lazy or dishonest. If a writer identifies us as followers of Mary Baker Eddy, or says we refuse blood transfusions on religious grounds, she is being embarrassingly irresponsible. But if a writer claims that we currently believe something that the LDS leadership has indeed taught at one point or another, it is ridiculous for us to act as if we’ve been viciously slandered.