“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ― Anne Lamott
Recently, I was involved in an online discussion regarding the usefulness of the Church Educational System, which was really about the usefulness of how we teach things in the church, which is, as you may know, a topic I think about. Part of the conversation involved speculation regarding how many people would leave the church if the bowdlerized version of church history that we currently receive stopped. To some degree, this is a moot point; the internet has rendered attempts to sanitize history for widespread internal consumption counter-productive. Certainly, there are umpteen thousand exit narratives online where ex-members express their sense of betrayal and frustration when they learn x, y, and z about the church (note: umpteen thousand is an exaggeration; there cannot really be more than a gajillion out there (note: I’m not trying to get you to go looking either; I’ve pretty much summed up every single one with this sentence here)).
Some people would argue that we won’t lose that many people if we start teaching history using the Richard Bushman model (or some such). What they are actually saying is we won’t lose many of the right people if we change our teaching model. Remember, we have all heard stories of people losing the church when the priesthood ban ended (but that was okay, because they were racists) or when polygamy ended (but that was okay because they were polygamists). I’ve even heard stories of people leaving the church over misspellings or over the introduction of the three hour block (those silly, silly apostates). That people will leave the church over just about any reason is a truism; the question we should be asking ourselves is “what sort of people are we trying to retain?”
I ask because, for all that I dislike the Church Education System model of teaching, I understand its purpose and I think it is a noble purpose. It strives to provide an inoffensive, generally palatable spiritual product for the masses. We are actually interested in retaining everyone in the church, even the people who think that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy or that Jesus drank grape juice because the Word of Wisdom is eternal in scope. So thinking that improving the rigor of our historical narrative or our exegesis isn’t really about our struggle for truth; it’s about our desire to reshape the church in our own image (at least partly).
While I may not have been floored when I discovered that Joseph translated out of a hat, it is possible that someone else could be. It is not, and should not, be our role to manufacture a crisis of faith on someone else’s behalf. I’d object to it at a youth conference; I see no reason to let it slide in Gospel Doctrine. Your role in Church Education is to invite the spirit. That’s about it.
Now you can have a discussion regarding whether the fried froth we are given in Church Education actually does this (I believe that it can and does), but you can’t deny that they are trying. The people in the CES (bless their little hearts) aren’t actively trying to destroy testimonies years down the road by repeating faith-promoting rumors that will be misremembered in someone’s exit story on youtube. They are trying to keep your children from having sex prior to marriage (and possibly to go on a mission). They have enough, with that on their plate, that we should cut them some slack if the frequent mangling of scripture and doctrine that happens in seminary and institutes worldwide is encountered in real life. Again, it isn’t as if you don’t do it all the time, yourself.
Which brings me back to my original point: the quality of the history or exegesis presented to and repeated by members of the church isn’t our problem; what we do with it is. It shouldn’t require a great work of art or moving homily to get you to repent; reflection on your daily choices should be sufficient. And the tendency to see our daily choices as the product of our superiority, rather than of our consumer or social preferences only adds to our pride. Which is what this is all really about, isn’t it?