Questioning General Authority

This guest post is from my friend, Jim Burklo, who is Associate Dean of Religious Life at USC. We were on a panel together last year at a conference sponsored by the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy (presentations are on youtube, here and here). This is a slightly abbreviated version of his report of his visit to SLC. I would really like it if we made it through at least a few general comments about the perspective offered by a friendly visitor before we get sidetracked by the single paragraph on Prop. 8. Thanks.
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For an exotic cultural and religious experience without leaving the borders of the United States, pay a visit to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints!

With my boss at USC, Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life, Jerry Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, Tammi Schneider, dean of religion, and Deborah Freund, president, Claremont Graduate University, I went to Salt Lake City this past Thursday and Friday to meet with top leaders, known as “General Authorities”, of the Mormon church. We were guests of the church, invited by the interfaith representatives of the LDS in southern California. I’d describe this older couple as retired people but that category is essentially meaningless in the Mormon world. These two gracious people work virtually full time for the church. They set the tone for the impeccable hospitality that was afforded to us throughout our trip.

From the airport in the morning we were whisked south about 50 miles to Brigham Young University in Provo. It sits right at the base of huge, rugged, snow-dusted mountains. Yellow autumn leaves fluttered as we walked among the clean-cut, conservatively-dressed students. We met with a group of scholars from BYU for the morning. Their eagerness to dialogue with us was palpable. One professor and I chatted briefly before the formal discussion. He and I blog at Patheos.com, an interfaith website. He wrote an intriguing piece recently about family as an alternative principle of social organization in contrast both to statism and to capitalism. He’s one of the “out” Democrats on the BYU faculty. His presence was a reminder of the diversity of thinking among Mormons, which is a surprise to many outsiders. Another professor reported something that intrigued me greatly. He said that when LDS young people drop out of the church, they give up religion altogether, and they don’t join the ranks of the “SBNR” – spiritual but not religious. Perhaps Mormonism is such an all-consuming experience that its people see it in all-or-nothing terms. A professor of history described his work in evangelical – Mormon dialogue, part of the LDS effort to be understood as a truly Christian church. A professor of Islamic studies answered my question about how other faiths are presented at BYU and by the LDS church. I pointed out that evangelical Christians have textbooks that outline the world’s faiths, with explanations about how all faiths but their own version of Christianity are wrong. “We don’t do that, and if any leader does that publicly in the LDS church, the higher-ups will put a stop to it,” he said. LDS current and historical experience of being very misunderstood by the rest of the society has made them sensitive to misrepresentation not only of their own faith, but those of others. He and other Mormon officials suggested that Islam, in particular, bears many similarities to LDS faith. Later that day, the president of BYU told us that many of the few non-Mormons at BYU are Muslims, because their parents like the fact that there are strict rules against drinking and premarital sex.) I asked a professor of law if the LDS has anything like canon law, as is found in the Catholic Church and many others. He said it does not, because the church is based on continuing revelation. I then asked all the scholars if this is a reflection of the lack of systematic theology in Mormonism, and they generally agreed it was the case. BYU teaches religion to undergraduates, and teaches religious education, but it is not a seminary and has no graduate program in religion. We learned that, by default, the public universities in Utah have some of the functions of seminaries for Mormons, as centers for the critical academic study of the LDS faith. Just before lunch, one professor smiled and said, “We’re weird, we Mormons. But that makes us interesting, don’t you think?”

From BYU we went to the training center nearby where tens of thousands of Mormon missionaries are trained for service each year. Young men go two by two for two years, and young women go two by two for shorter periods, all over the world to spread the Mormon faith. The young men wear their distinctive white shirts and narrow neckties and engraved plastic nametags. The young women wear long skirts and dowdy shoes. At the center they maintain a grueling schedule of language study and other training. I asked the center manager and a former Elder of the Quorum of the Seventy, the leadership body just under the Presidency and the 12 Apostles, whether the main value of the missions was in conversion of others or was in the spiritual formation of the “elders” and “sisters” who go on the missions. In so many words, they made it clear that it was the latter. Many missionaries make few conversions in the course of their missions. But they come back with organizational and language skills, global cultural awareness, self-discipline, and a much deeper commitment to their religion.

Back in Salt Lake City, we had dinner on the top floor of the LDS-owned Hotel Utah, with views of the city, Temple Square, and the glorious mountains. We dined with two Elders of the Quorum of the Seventy and their wives. I asked how they reconcile the fact that Mitt Romney disavows his LDS faith as a factor in his run for the US presidency, while Elder Dallin Oaks, another member of the Seventy, gave a major speech recently complaining about the erosion of religious freedom in America. They cited the attacks on Mormon facilities and nasty verbal attacks on Mormons after Prop 8 was passed in California. “On behalf of the interfaith community, I apologize that all of us did not rally against those attacks as vigorously as we should have,” I said. When they said that gay marriage was an erosion of the influence of religion, I said that I perform gay marriage ceremonies and advocate for its legalization with my denomination, the United Church of Christ. “Which of our denominations will prevail in influencing the government’s policy? In either case, it seems to me, and to my progressive Christian colleagues, that religious influence and freedom in American society are very alive and well!” This made them sputter a bit. I said that same-sex marriage will be legalized inevitably, no matter what he or I think about it. So we must find other ways for each of our faiths to find acceptance and understanding for our particularities on this issue. They said it’s not inevitable for gay marriage to prevail. But then they admitted that was true only for the short term, because young people overwhelmingly support it, so one day it probably will be legalized. This admission greatly surprised me. In the end, all of us at the table agreed that we can work together to promote religious literacy so that all of our faiths can be understood: ignorance breeds intolerance. The LDS church suffers, as do all our religious traditions, from the lack of religious literacy in the wider culture.

That evening, we listened to choir practice in the Mormon Tabernacle, an old oval building with a metal roof which has unusually good acoustics inside. The “amen” of one of their songs was particularly heavenly, as it floated and faded in the beautiful old hall.

On Friday we visited Welfare Square, the Salt Lake hub of LDS humanitarian and relief efforts locally and globally. It is a huge complex including spotless warehouses, a cannery, a dairy processing plant (the cheese was excellent), an employment service, a store where Mormons needing assistance can be sent by their local bishops to get food and clothing, a giant thrift store open to the public, and a tall gleaming-white grain elevator filled with wheat for emergency use. This complex supports the internal welfare system of the Mormon church as well as its massive, highly-organized worldwide disaster relief and assistance programs serving primarily non-Mormons. At Welfare Square we repeatedly were told proudly by staff people about how quickly the church can mobilize big squads of its members to engage in humanitarian work both for people inside and outside the Mormon fold. The worldwide service mission program of the church impressed all of us in the tour group very much. It gave me a case of “holy jealousy”, wondering how my own United Church of Christ could match it!

Later in the day we visited the church’s vast convention center, with over 20,000 seats, where it holds its international meetings. In the lobby of the convention center, Varun and I were excited to find a framed “thanka” image made by a Nepalese artist, depicting scenes from the Book of Mormon in Tibetan Buddist style and with Tibetan Buddhist sacred imagery throughout. An example of wonderfully creative religious syncretism, it was very unlike any other art we’d seen in LDS facilities.

We had lunch in the Hotel Utah with the official church historian, who is an Elder of the Seventy, his assistant, and professors from the University of Utah and Utah State. We learned about the enormous scale of the church’s records, which in recent years have become much more available to the public and to the scholarly community. The scholars in our tour group asked lots of questions about the methods the church uses to maintain its physical and digital archives, which are among the largest of any institution. The historians indicated that the church’s expertise in this area is often tapped by other organizations. I asked about the role of history in the church. “What do you learn about the future of the church from studying its past?” The answer: “We rely on our prophets for that!” But with further questioning the church historians agreed that effectively, there is a sort of “case law” that has built up over the years, and that the top leaders of the church consult the historian’s office about how present issues can be compared to past decisions. Afterward, I got into an engaging chat with them about the Mormon concept of revelation. Many Christians strongly believe in guidance from the Holy Spirit, and other religions emphasize similar experiences. But it seems to me that the LDS church has a pretty specific culture about revelation, both for its leaders and its members.

We then toured the Temple Square visitors’ center. Things have changed greatly since I went through it last as a child, on a family cross-country trip. Then, the emphasis of the visitors’ center display was on Joseph Smith receiving the Book of Mormon. Now the focus is on the Mormons’ virtual worship of a very particular ideal of family life. The tour starts with sitting in front of a big statue of Jesus, listening to his words quoted from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. From there you go to a series of rooms that are furnished like rooms in a suburban home. At each stop you see a clip from a film of touching scenes from the life of this archetypal white Mormon family of Dad, Mom, and three young kids, accompanied by tear-jerking music. The last room’s clip ends with the statement that only through marriage in a temple can families be sealed together for eternity. From there you go into a room with a scale model of the Salt Lake temple. (The real thing can be entered only by Mormons in good standing with their bishops.) Then you can go on to see more in the visitor’s center about the history and doctrines of the LDS church.

Clearly the Mormons have recast their marketing to de-emphasize their more unusual and controversial aspects, and aim their appeal toward people who worship a very particular form of family life. The household dioramas and film clips say at least as much in their omissions as they do in what they include. Apparently the Mormons have figured out that their beliefs are not the deal-closers. The people and the lifestyle are the attractions. Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.

Even the typeface for the name of the church on its buildings and literature reflects a big change in the way the LDS presents itself to the outside world. It now puts JESUS CHRIST in bold capital letters, to emphasize its identity as a truly Christian church.

We visited the church’s family history center, and all of us had a great time looking up our genealogical records on its computer terminals. I learned that my last name may be older than I thought. We were told that “Burklo” was the spelling of our ancestor’s name, Buchloh, that came from an error by a clerk in the Union Army after the Civil War. But it appears there was at least one Burklo born in 1803. The church’s genealogy program is used by people all over the world, Mormon and “gentile” alike. For Mormons, it is important because members can baptize their ancestors into the faith by proxy at LDS temples. The more names they know, the more connection to their family they can have in the afterlife. At the Church History Museum, we got a tour by its director. I was riveted by the displays of personal journals of the Mormon pioneers, with pencil drawings of Western landscapes. The church strongly emphasizes the privations suffered by its people in its westward migration to the Promised Land of Utah, led by Brigham Young, their Moses. We were told later that even Mormons in Argentina conduct re-enactments of migrants pulling hand-carts across the prairie.

We had our closing dinner with another member, or Elder, of the Seventy, and his wife at the Lion House, where Brigham Young (from whom this Elder was descended) lived with his many wives. The couple didn’t flinch in talking about Young’s polygamy. The Elder has worked for the church all over the world, particularly in Latin America. I asked him about retention of converts in the church outside the US, which I have read is problematic: lots of people get baptized into the church, but many drop out. He explained that retention is an issue in places where there are not enough local wards to accommodate new members, and in places where the church has not had time to develop strong leadership. I asked if this culture of the church did not identify people excessively with America. They said that people make it their own, and don’t think of it as particularly American. Toward the end of the dinner, the Elder told us he’d talked to the Elders who had met with us the night before, and that the topic of gay marriage had come up. He then announced with a bit of bravado that he had led the LDS effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. I think that left us speechless. But after dinner, as we were about to go to the airport, I asked his wife what was the most important misunderstanding that non- Mormons have about the church. “That we aren’t Christian,” she said. “Well, you and I have that in common,” I said. “Because I perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, and because I take the Bible seriously because I don’t take it literally, I’ve been told by evangelicals that I’m not Christian, either. So I have some idea of how you feel!” I wish that I had quoted to them this passage from the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, which functions as one of the church’s sacred scriptures. I discovered it while reading a book about LDS doctrine on the airplane home: “Whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man.” (D and C 49:15)

My most important learning from this fascinating short visit, besides being very impressed with the warmth, friendliness, and wonderful hospitality we were shown, was that Mormon leaders are hungry for their church to be understood and accepted as a mainstream faith. This makes them strong allies for all faiths in promoting religious literacy, religious liberty, and interfaith cooperation. They are very sensitive about any perceived threat to their faith from the government or the wider culture. I believe that many of their concerns are unfounded, but given the church’s history of being persecuted, it’s best for interfaith activists to go out of our way to be sensitive to their worries and find creative ways to reassure them. We have big differences, but we also have important common causes in which they can be remarkably effective partners.

Comments

  1. ” Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission. ”

    love this quote. its so true for the people in the younger generation.

  2. This is a very friendly article by this minister, he did mistakenly identify Elder Oaks as being in the Seventy. I thought he had some good insights, especially about welfare square, the last paragraph summed everything up well.

  3. Thanks for this look from this particular perspective. It was fascinating. I especially liked the concluding paragraph.

    It’s easy to forget that our current global leaders’ parents, in some cases, and grand-parents, in nearly all cases, lived through insitutional persecution and the near annihilation of the Church – so it really is best “to be sensitive to their worries” and not discount them. It’s hard to tell someone, “That can’t happen,” when it has happened in the past – and, in their case, the not very distant past.

  4. Yes, a thought-provoking article. It’s nice that a T&S blogging alum was there to greet him at the BYU campus. I’m sure if BYU had bloggers greet every visitor the perception of diversity would increase significantly.

  5. Wow, Dave–your talent for self-promotion is impressive!

  6. Dowdy shoes sounds about right, but narrow neckties?

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Uh, yeah.

  8. Narrow neckties some time ago, maybe the ’80s, entered the public’s idea of what LDS missionaries look like, and has been a handy stereotype since, actual missionary tie width being beside the point.

  9. I thought this was a very interesting article, and it is good to see the perspective of someone looking with a good-faith, but critical, eye from the outside. Some glaring mistakes, indicating a lack of understanding. I personally found Mr. Burklo’s quote mentioned in comment #1 to be rather condescending. And that is quite a rather flagrant example of prooftexting in his reference to D&C 49:15, isn’t it.

  10. Maybe it’s a Book of Mormon reference–narrow ties for narrow necks…

  11. Tom, of course there are mistakes, but those are probably more instructive than the insights of experts, in some ways.

  12. “that is quite a rather flagrant example of prooftexting in his reference to D&C 49:15, isn’t it.”

    No, it isn’t.

    I’m not saying it’s sound Mormon doctrine or what was intended in the revelation, but, from a parsing of the words themselves, it’s a valid point. If we can do that to lots of scriptural passages (proof-texting to bolster our doctrine), I see no reason why others can’t do it to ours. When you take accepted doctrine out of the picture, and especially when you include polygamy in the picture (illegal marriage in its time), it’s kind of hard to say he doesn’t have a logical point – no matter how you feel about it doctrinally.

    Sorry, Kristine, if that’s going where you don’t want to go with this discussion.

  13. Zionssuburb says:

    I’ve always found it interesting that we hear the church is changing it’s marketing or Branding and uses JESUS CHRIST in bold capital letters…. Do a search the sign identifying Joseph Smith’s office… he had it right WAY back then… It wasn’t capital, but BIG, BOLD. FLOWING, cursive Jesus Christ

  14. I think the more proper term would be “strip quoting” rather than “proof-texting.”

    But I did like his abbreviation of Doctrine and Covenants:

    “D and C”

    To my eyes, at least, it looks a whole lot less like a gynecological procedure when written like that.

  15. Fascinating. Thanks Kristine and Dean Burklo. In some ways at least, this tells a story much like the private reflections of visitors to Utah from many decades back.

  16. Prooftexting? We don’t ever do that.

    I appreciate Dr. Burklo’s charitable tone, considering he toured some of the most easy to scrutinize locations (MTC! yikes). Anyone eager to accept us as ecumenical partners is cool in my book. Let’s see if we reciprocate.

  17. Fascinating!

  18. thecottonfloozy says:

    The only experience that I have had with the United Church of Christ was a good one. A few years ago I worked with Rev. Haas (the Provo pastor) on a vigil for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. What a compassionate, progressive, and intelligent man!

  19. Oh, and here is the provo website: http://provocommunityucc.org/ You know, just in case we are interested in reaching out to them. Rather than always forcing them to reach out to us.

  20. This is a helpful and very sympathetic write-up. It is a great look in how our culture and self-presentation is being interpreted by thoughtful outsiders. Reminds me of reading de Tocqueville in an attempt to understand antebellum America.

    And these are the kind of insights that come from such an outlook:

    “Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.”

    It worries me that our self presentation reflects this, which I think we’ve all long supposed, because the theology is what (among other things) makes me proud to be a Mormon.

    Terryl Givens has recently pointed out in a few venues how Parley Pratt offered a different trajectory for public relations. When LeRoy Sunderland wrote a series of anti-Mormon newspaper articles, exposing Mormonism’s heresies, Pratt responded by not only owning our radical beliefs but highlighting them as the crux of the Church. I sympathize with that vision.

    Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when we have some folk beliefs floating around that some mistakingly confuse for doctrine. Plus, it would be a nightmare to handle. Oh, well.

  21. (“What do you learn about the future of the church from studying its past?” The answer: “We rely on our prophets for that!” But with further questioning the church historians agreed that effectively, there is a sort of “case law” that has built up over the years, and that the top leaders of the church consult the historian’s office about how present issues can be compared to past decisions.)

    This is interesting, I would like to hear more about the dialogue between top leaders and church historians.

  22. Thanks, all, for your comments and corrections, for which I’m grateful! I should have done a better job of estimating the average width of Mormon neckties… I did see a fair number of narrow ones, but I’ll bet you are right about my overall perception being a dated one. We often see only what we expect to see. And thanks for the correction re: Dallin Oaks. Re: what you can learn from the future by studying the past – I wish that conversation had gone a lot longer. I have so much to learn about the Mormon concept of revelation, and how that connects and/or contrasts with its fixation on the past and its apparent resistance to change. But I have a lot more to learn about Mormonism in general! The trip to Salt Lake made me just that much more intrigued.

  23. Thank you, Jim, for adding your comment – and reading ours.

    More than anything else, I am glad you pointed out the diversity of belief and thought among us. It’s really frustrating to read over and over again from many others that we are brainless, robotic sheep.

  24. I would say that beliefs and doctrines are neither they price nor the prize for being a Mormon. They are an effect of being a Mormon. Jim Burklo was right to notice that we are a tribe, which has both good and bad sides to it, but I think he didn’t recognize the role that beliefs and doctrines play in a tribe.

  25. Thank you for this post. As a member of the LDS church, I am intrigued by others perceptions of our religion. I’ve lived in Utah my entire life and didn’t have much exposure to other religions until I served a two year mission for the church. As a student of the University of Utah (Arch-rival to BYU) I am continually intrigued by the common misconceptions of the church, even by those that have grown up here in Utah, surrounded by the culture and teachings of the church. I can’t even fathom how somebody would be able to have a fair understanding of my religion without being exposed to the culture that is so much a part of it. I’m curious if the author had any conceptions about the church that he discovered to be wrong after visiting, and if he would be willing to share them.

    Regards.

  26. Very interesting and insightful! I started to become aware of the church’s “worship of a very particular ideal of family life” only in the last few years. Obviously it’s a big change since the church’s early days, but I can’t quite remember if the emphasis on the traditional nuclear family was around when I was kid in the 70′s and 80′s. I know we didn’t sing any songs like “The Family is of God” in Primary back then.

    The UCC may not have the resources to provide humanitarian aid on the scale of the LDS church, but from what I’ve seen of the UCC and other churches in my area, they’re far more actively engaged in service within our community than any LDS ward I’ve ever attended.

  27. I was trying to pin down what this reminded me of, and Ben Park gave me the clue — for me, rather than de Tocqueville, this is reminiscent of the travelers’ accounts of earlier visitors among the Mormons (a genre we haven’t seen very often for quite a while) — he saw some of what he was conditioned to expect, and a lot that was new to him; there may be nitpicky errors in detail to be expected from seeing so much so quickly, but there’s also an unmistakeable openness and sincerity. “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us” — we should pay attention when the gift *is* given, and be grateful that it is this friendly. Thank you, Jim Burklo.

  28. StillConfused says:

    White shirts and narrow neck ties is actually more of the air traffic controller look than the missionary look.

    I thought it was interesting that he said when youth leave the Mormon Church they don’t go to the spiritual but not religious camp. I have found the exact opposite to be true. Except for a few folks who are still in the “anti” phase, the rest are all spiritual but not religious. But I deal with adults not teens so maybe that is the difference.

  29. Almost 4 years ago I was part of an interfaith youth mission trip to New Orleans. Our group worked under the direction of a UCC Disaster Relief Team, which was very impressively organized. They lined us up with meaningful projects and made our trip much easier and more productive than many of our trips have been. I know we have had lots of LDS groups participate in disaster relief, but I don’t know if we actually have “Disaster Relief ” teams.

    I really enjoyed reading Jim’s impressions. I think we LDS are just starting to realize that there are large numbers of people outside our religion who are genuinely interested in knowing more about us and being our friends, even if we differ on some religious and social issues.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you, Jim. I found your account to be thoroughly charming.

  31. Wonderfully insightful write-up, thank you. I wish the BYU biologists could have been at your visit. We would have regaled you with tales of how evolution is entering our theology.

  32. Thanks for the perspective, Jim…lots to chew on.

    Ben Park, I had the exact same thought–watched Givens give that presentation a few weeks ago. And I agree with him (and you) that we’d be gravely remiss in valuing our church society more than we do our religious doctrine.

  33. Wonderful read, thank-you.

  34. This is a wonderful perspective that I am glad you shared.

    As a history buff there’s a part of me that wishes the author had recorded more precisely the names and positions of each of the people with whom he interacted, dined, and discussed doctrine with. However, there’s another part of me that loves the entire “folksy feel” of this post, because it doesn’t really matter that Elder Oaks is called a Seventy or that we don’t know the exact names of each of the General Authorities talked about. Any of the Brethren would have had essentially the same thoughtful, mind provoking discussions that are discussed here. And that’s the beautiful thing about our church. We don’t change because the world does. And our leaders’ opinions don’t change with the opinions of the world.

    Reading this made me more grateful than ever to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  35. “Any of the Brethren would have had essentially the same thoughtful, mind provoking discussions that are discussed here.”

    I don’t think that’s true at all, and that’s part of why I like being a member of the church. There are vibrant personalities among the Brethren, and plenty of different opinions.

  36. Patrick Mason says:

    As Jim mentioned, the president of Claremont Graduate University and the dean of the School of Religion (where the Mormon Studies program is housed) also went on this trip. I met with them the morning after they returned, and they positively raved about the whole experience. They’re going to do their own write-ups, so I won’t pre-empt them, but I can’t resist sharing this one little bit. They talked about having lunch at Brigham Young’s historic home, “the Lion’s Den.” After chuckling, I told them they weren’t far off (esp. not in the context of 19th-c. travel narratives!).

  37. @Kristine

    I simply meant that any one of the Brethren could have been in these same circumstances and provided an excellent experience for the visitors. It is without a doubt that there are unique and wonderful personalities among the General Authorities from one one end of the spectrum all the way to the other. What is beautiful is that our leaders are truly united and “one in purpose”.

  38. Is it possible that Jim Burklo met with Robert C. Oaks rather than with Dallin Oaks?

  39. I really enjoyed reading this. Glad to hear the couple in the Lion House “didn’t flinch in talking about Young’s polygamy”–I’d so much rather we just own all our history, politically correct or not.

    Is it alright to mention the Prop 8 stuff? Hopefully this won’t hijack the comments, or whatever that’s called…
    It was really refreshing to read Dean Burklo’s statement: “On behalf of the interfaith community, I apologize that all of us did not rally against those attacks as vigorously as we should have.” It often feels that those in favor of same-sex marriage would have those of us opposed be pariahs. It would be nice to be friends, or at least, not enemies. I’m grateful that Burklo’s so willing to look past the doctrinal difference.

  40. Oh, and better for the sister missionaries to wear dowdy shoes than immodest ones!

  41. we’d be gravely remiss in valuing our church society more than we do our religious doctrine.

    couldn’t agree with this more. I had to think for a while after reading the “price not prize” statement, because lately I feel like my church participation is exacting from me a fairly hefty emotional price. But it’s not the doctrines. In fact, if I could find a way to chuck the “society” and retain the doctrine, I probably would, but I find the two inextricably linked. Maybe sometime I’ll expand on that thought, but it’s late and I’m not sure I’m making sense.

    Love the perspective- very thought provoking post and comments, thanks.

  42. Ges, on behalf of those of us in a same-sex marriage, I apologize if Prop. 8 made you feel like a pariah.

  43. I loved the reference to the Tibetan Buddhist Book of Mormon art hanging in the conference center. There’s so much we could gain from fostering that “creative religious syncretism.” There’s so much that’s beautiful in the world that doesn’t originate from us, and it’s a shame to never notice it.

    Hearing Mormon culture described without the typical Mormon jargon was so refreshing! I’ve always been bugged by our tendency to talk about things always in the same way, in the same words, over and over.

    “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us” — we should pay attention when the gift *is* given, and be grateful that it is this friendly. Thank you, Jim Burklo.

    Amen, Ardis (and Ben Park, who shared the same sentiment). Exactly.

  44. Steve Evans says:

    #42 for BCotW.

  45. Seconded! While we’re on the subject, I can’t help but ask if comment #40 is tongue-in-cheek… I don’t know Ges so I might be totally missing the joke, and if I am I apologize! If it’s serious, though… really? What are “immodest shoes”? Shouldn’t that say “better dowdy shoes than impractical ones”, or “uncomfortable ones”? Does everything sister missionaries do have to be about suppressing sex appeal?

  46. It was interesting. As someone else noted, there were a lot of errors and misunderstandings but that probably illustrates a lot of things we’re presenting (perhaps unconsciously).

    Ben (20) “Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.”

    It worries me that our self presentation reflects this, which I think we’ve all long supposed, because the theology is what (among other things) makes me proud to be a Mormon.

    I think that this has long been a danger in our bridge building. (See below) Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad we do reach out like this. But fundamentally what we’ve achieved is that people still think us amazingly weird but respect aspects of our lifestyle (even if they wouldn’t want it).

    I found this passage rather interesting.

    I pointed out that evangelical Christians have textbooks that outline the world’s faiths, with explanations about how all faiths but their own version of Christianity are wrong. “We don’t do that, and if any leader does that publicly in the LDS church, the higher-ups will put a stop to it,” he said. LDS current and historical experience of being very misunderstood by the rest of the society has made them sensitive to misrepresentation not only of their own faith, but those of others. He and other Mormon officials suggested that Islam, in particular, bears many similarities to LDS faith.

    I think this is a bit misleading given that for a while many Mormons took up a lot of conservative Protestant distrust of Catholicism. (Witness the McConkie style of theology from the 50′s through the early 90′s) I think this change of tone was very much part of the work of Pres. Hinkley though – especially in the 90′s.

    It’s interesting how the author sees a big gap between our rhetoric and practice here regarding homosexuality and related issues. Admittedly that has a lot to do with the particular faith he belongs to. Still I think that unfortunately many engaging with bridge building primarily think in terms of more conservative Evangelicalism and perhaps Catholicism. Yet there really is a much broader Christian religious tradition out there.

  47. Steve Evans says:

    btw Miri, could you please drop me an email at the contact email address under “info & contact” on the left sidebar? Thx k bai.

  48. Sharee Hughes says:

    Regarding the “dowdy shoes” of the sister missionaries, if you have to be walking around all day, you don’t want to be wearing high heels! If comfort looks dowdy, so be it.

  49. Sarah in Georgia says:

    #40 Ges for BCoW

  50. What are “immodest shoes”?

    Perhaps this will help.

  51. but I can’t quite remember if the emphasis on the traditional nuclear family was around when I was kid in the 70′s and 80′s. I know we didn’t sing any songs like “The Family is of God” in Primary back then.

    It was definitely emphasized when I was growing up. Admittedly some popular family oriented songs like “Families Can Be Together Forever” only came in the adult 1985 hymnal – although it was popular since being written in I think in the late 70′s (the copyright says 1980). That said the emphasis with such phrases as “no success can compensate for failure in the home” goes back to David O McKay (he was actually quoting J. E. McCullough – although most people don’t realize it was a quote)

    While I think one could argue the 19th century wasn’t exactly an emphasis on the mythic American nuclear family I honestly think the roots of the emphasis in the modern era (let’s say McKay onward) comes out of our theology of sealings and the idea of resurrection and salvation being a family issue rather than an individual one. And that goes back to Joseph Smith and his theology of Malachi as well as the temple.

  52. #40 was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a modesty post from a week or so ago. Dan (#42) you got me. I realize the GLBT community has felt that way for years–still don’t think the pendulum needs to swing so far the other way that people lose their jobs for donating money, have their cars and/or homes vandalized for sporting bumper stickers/signs, etc.

  53. Consider the apology official, Ges, as you now sound much more reasonable than I do. :) I hoped to see Prop 8 defeated and I think the way the gay community is treated by Christian communities is appalling. But I agree with you that no one should be attacked in the ways you mentioned for supporting what they believe is right.

    Peter LLC: This “immodest”, absolutely, if only because of the price tag. (And I’m guessing that is the post Ges was referring to.) Immodest in the sense that Mormons generally use it–which is how I read it–no.

  54. On the one hand, Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him.” (Matt. 5: 25.) On the other hand, historically, the enemies of this church have always been of the religious set. It was the Sadducees and Pharisees that saw to the murder of Christ. It was the ministers who led the persecutions against Joseph Smith. It is fundamentalist church leaders that encourage the vulgar and crude demonstrations at temple dedications and such like. In the Book of Mormon, there is only one (questionably) atheist; Korihor. All the other people with whom the church has problems are usually of the “Nehor” faith. It is a wise people that knows from which direction their troubles will come. Call me parochial, call me paranoid. I just flat don’t trust these people.

  55. “Call me parochial, call me paranoid.”

    OK

  56. Lee, if by parochial and paranoid, you mean “uninformed about various denominations of Protestant Christianity,” then, yeah. The UCC has got to be the denomination _least_ likely to produce enemies of our church (or any other).

  57. This was a wonderful essay. Thanks for posting it! There were so many perceptive insights. In fact, I think that a lot of what some of the people are calling “errors” are not errors at all. They are merely different perspectives on things, like the parable of the blind men who feel different parts of the elephant and proclaim that an elephant is like a tree, or a rope or a husking basket. All of them were right, and all of them had incomplete, even misleading, knowledge about what a whole elephant was.

    The comment about the doctrines being the price, not the prize, of admission was great. How many Mormons would hold up polygamy or the priesthood ban as prizes of Mormon membership? Hardly any Mormons think of these issues this way. They tolerate them to the extent that they can because to completely divorce one’s self from those (or other) issues would also divorce them from the church as a whole package. Active Mormons want the package, so they are willing to pay the price of some of the less desirable details. (There are plenty of other less desirable details besides the two I mentioned, but those are easy targets, even if they might be considered more policy-like than doctrine-like by some people.)

    And those who are unwilling to pay the price of the less desirable details tend to leave religion altogether, rather than convert to another denomination. He is right that there is definitely something about Mormonism that makes every other denomination seem to pale in comparison, in terms of the level of commitment and a feeling of belonging in a culture, a tribe, and a sense of purpose and life trajectory. Whether this makes Mormon-church-abandoners less likely to join the throngs of the “spiritual but not religious” is impossible for me to say without looking at a data set, but agnosticism is a rather common path, from what I have seen, with varying degrees of interest in spirituality.

  58. I have a good friend that joined the church about a year ago who joined mainly because of the example of friends, and the positive family values. It wasn’t until after she became a member that she began to find out more of the details about the doctrines and practices within the church. She struggled with them, and finally decided that the prize of membership was not worth the price of the beliefs. She still respects the people in the church, but has no intention to return to it. So there’s a real-life example of the price/prize metaphor.

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