Realistic Expectations

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.

Aaron B


  1. Excellent post. As I delved into a serious study of Mormonism, it was extremely frustrating to try and figure out what was really Mormon doctrine and what wasn’t. Official sources are frequently vague (at least I thought so). I found McMurrin to be helpful in that he is consistent and precise with his vocabulary. Whatever his defects, this was refreshing. All of this makes me wonder if Mormons have developed a theory of development of doctrine like John Henry Newman did. While, of course, doctrine couldn’t contradict itself, it could develop or grow… bringing out new insights and implications from what was only vaguely or even implicitly believed in the past or at least consistent with the past. Thoughts?

  2. Christopher Smith says:

    I recently spoke about Mormonism in my evangelical youth group. After the talk, an ex-Mormon student came up to me and said that I was the first person she’s ever heard talk about Mormonism who “got it right.” That felt good; I finally “got it right.”

    It only took me six and a half years of rigorous study!

  3. Jonathan Green says:

    Aaron, that’s a pretty poor example of how a responsible journalist should work. If you want to fairly represent what Catholics believe, for example, should you…
    a) cherry-pick quotes from the massive writings of early church fathers?
    b) interview random parishioners after mass?
    c) cruise around a couple of Catholic blogs?

    Answer: d) none of the above. A responsible reporter would check current literature published by the Catholic Church such as the Catholic Encyclopedia, and/or interview responsible church authorities, including both those responsible for PR and ecclesiastic leaders.

    Skimming the Journal of Discourses for fun quotes, listening in on a testimony meeting, and clicking around a couple blogs is not the sign of a journalist. It’s a recipe for lazy hackwork and liable to anti-Mormon stenography. But if a journalist writes “Mormons practice polygamy today!” and can cite supporting statements from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, a CES director, and a stake president somewhere, then the journalist has done his job. Until that point, he has not.

  4. What is a journalist supposed to do, for crying out loud?

    Well, since you asked, how about acknowledge somwhere in the more or less researched article that one wasn’t able to find consensus on a number of important doctrinal issues and present a more or less representative sampling of the findings?

    How about admitting up front that nailing down Mormon doctrine is like “nailing jello to the wall” instead of writing with all the authority a pen grants an author things like “Mormons believe that only men in plural marriages can get into heaven” as established, undisputed fact?

    A journalist who isn’t ready to acknowledge the inherent ambiguities of faith and belief is going to be doing little more than stirring the pot.

  5. You all have unrealistic expectations of journalists. I am grateful for journalists to expose the evils of politicians, just as I’m grateful for plaintiff litigators to expose the evils of corporations, but that does not mean that journalists will ever attend to details in a way that will satisfy either an expert or a partisan of a particular system or set of ideas. In a sense, a sign of expertise in an area is when you realize that journalists have cut corners or missed the point or got things quite backwards. This has happened with every area where I have gained reasonable expertise, Mormonism included.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I acknowledge the tremendous ambiguities in Mormon doctrine, which is indeed very difficult for an outsider to navigate, and I agree that we have to cut people a lot of slack in their efforts to “get it right.”

    I would distinguish, however, between someone (journalist vel non) who was indeed attempting to get it right and someone who knows better but is cynically using this ambiguity for his own propagandistic purposes in trying to destroy the faith of individual LDS.

    Personally, I like the ambiguity in LDS doctrine. I think it accounts for why we are one of the few indigenous 19th century Christian movements to actually survive and even flourish to today (JWs and SDAs being other examples). The trick is you can’t stay stuck in a single rut, but you have to change slowly enough so that the change is almost imperceptible. It’s like steering a large ocean liner; you have to do it slowly. So ordinary people in the pews have the perception of stability in doctrine and thought, and yet the Church has enough freedom to right its course over time. The result will be some ambiguity and different schools of thought on various issues, but to me that is preferable to having a set in stone catechism of the Mormon Church that doesn’t allow for theological development and innovation.

  7. Realistic expectations of a journalist? Very low. Literally nothing I have ever known about directly and personally (a court hearing, an auto accident, a gunpowder factory explosion, a corporate sale, an awards ceremony) has been reported with what I would consider accuracy — sometimes the stories would have been unrecognizable except that names were spelled more or less correctly (although I *was* called “Ardis Powell” recently) and dates and places were stated. I don’t know why that is, or why I forget it when I read stories I don’t know directly.

    I’d be happy if reports of Mormonism included the frank statement that the writer wasn’t an authority, and if s/he exercised a little charity when it came to sensational or seemingly incredible facets.

  8. Pretty much what Jonathan said. Aaron, your standards are just so devastatingly low. It is a very small thing to let the Church define itself and between (with publications like True to the Faith) and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism there is no excuse for the activities you describe.

  9. Maybe an author, non-member or member, could start with a founation of the 13 Articles of Faith and then begin their research. Or if all the Articles together are to complex the writer could refer to Article number 9. ” We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” God had Brother Joseph set up a Church that could move forward in time and have the flexiblity to change as more is revealed. Line by line, precept upon precept on a macro scale. We are humans after all and easily confused.

  10. As has been said, the truth of the matter is that there are very few statements that can justifiably follow the lead in “Mormons believe that …”

    As you said, we cannot expect journalists to get something “right” that we can’t agree on ourselves. But then, why in the world would a journalist think they can represent something as a doctrine of the church when we have not worked it out as such? Why should they be frustrated that it is hard to nail down? Why not just report that this is the case due to the lack of systematic and official theology in the Church? Why not write an article on the benefits of such an approach to theology?

    The big problem is that journalists want to say “such and such” is a doctrine of the church rather than admitting that there is very little official doctrine on controversial matters. It seems to me the job of a journalist is to represent things as they actually are. That requires them to represent unsettled doctrines as such. I don’t think that is too much to ask. Will they be frustrated by such a limitation? Yes, probably, which betrays some sort of agenda beyond reporting things as they are.

  11. 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.

    The assumptions of non-Mormons are the least of our problems. The real problems arise when Mormons assume that the statements of past prophets are still normative.

  12. ed johnson says:

    Non members are, understandably, interested in the facets of Mormonism that are unique, unusual, or even weird.

    “True to the Faith” is simply not a good reference for these things. For example, it doesn’t even mention plural marriage. Any decent reporter who wanted to understand LDS doctrines about the family would have questions about plural marriage. It’s also full of distinctive mormon language that is less meaningful to an outsider than it is to insiders.

    But I’d agree that the Encyclopedia of Mormonism is a great resource, and really should be the primary resource for this type of reporting. The problem is, I don’t think it’s very well known or easily accessible. Is it on the web?

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Aaron, the tryptophan infusion from today’s meal must have addled your mind. I see no reason why we should abandon our efforts to correct incorrect publications or to reverse errors made by journalists.

    Now, if you can’t get worked up about the idea, that’s a different thing altogether. Perhaps the topic of apathy is worth examining?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    The Encyclopedia of Mormonism isn’t on the web at a single location (like the Catholic Encyclopedia, for instance), but many articles are on the web and may be found by searching.

  15. “And anyone who has spent any time in the Bloggernacle knows that debates about how to define Mormon doctrine defy resolution.”

    I think it is even difficult to point to any discrete examples to support this assertion. Can anyone point to any classic or espcially typical bloggernacle debates.

    I agree that the methodology of doctrinal construction is uncertain–but let’s show this is so with specific examples and evidence. That is, let’s not frame our uncertainty with more uncertainty.

  16. I find it hard to blame most journalists in their attempts to cover the beliefs and doings of such a complex church and religion. Honestly, put yourself in the shoes of a staff reporter for the NY Times or Washington Post or the like. More than likely you would have been raised in a small, middle income household on the east coast somewhere and until receiving the assignment to write a report on lets say, ‘Mitt Romeny and his church,’ you had only heard of the Mormons in passing. The confusing image that comes to your mind is gold plates, not celebrating Christmas, living without electricity, multiple wives, farming communities, etc. Then you look at a picture of Romney and think, ‘Who are these Mormons?’ ‘He looks so ‘normal,’ so the picture in my head must be wrong.’ And then, the big question…’Where do I even begin to find answers in order to best articulate my report?’

    While this image that I’ve drawn is a bit simple and problematic, I do not doubt that many journalists approach the church with a similar background to the one mentioned above. So, where are they to begin? Where are they to go? With whom are they to speak? There are endless outlets ranging from websites to interviews to books on every topic imaginable. It certainly seems to be a daunting task.

    And the point of all of this is simply to say that we do not make the job of a journalist any easier. The fact is, the church is complex and complicated. Mormons are not just another protestant, evangelical people with the basic belief in salvation through Jesus Christ. And any attempt to boil the LDS doctrine down to something simple like this is misleading and wrong. All too often I hear institute teachers and gospel principle teachers telling classes that the doctrine of the church is simple: something along the lines of faith, repentance, baptism, gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. Ha! If only it were so easy.

    The church needs to be increasingly transparent, even at the risk that involves. We need to help journalists understand that although we are a relatively young church, we are yet a highly organised and structured church with a complex set of doctrines and traditions only rivaled in Christianity with the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Mormonism isn’t something to approach lightly and we as members can’t attempt to explain it in such terms either. I fear that the leadership of the church all too often gives the wrong image and attempts to hide from the difficult task of our ‘deep’ doctrines and traditions rather than facing them and being understood as a ‘high’ and complex church.

  17. I would just add the the definition of our religion is summed up nicely in our articles of faith- For instance- On questions pertaining to the plan of salvation, 3 & 4 give it perfectly. The problem outsiders and ourselves have is that there is a major issue with defining all of the little parts that make up the whole. Things like the word phrases “eternal life” or “salvation” or even “spiritual death” can have very differing definitions depending on who said it and the circumstances around it at the time it was explained. Almost every printed reference, dictionary or teachers manual published by the Church has a slightly different stance on all of these little definitions that make up the whole.

    From this it is easy to understand where we get so confused in defining our beliefs. Should our doctrine be as simple as the articles of faith? You bet. Why aren’t they? Because everyone in authority in the church or who has power to make something authoritive has to add to it and try to clarify something that does not need clarifying. Why do we not come up with something like BRM “Mormon Doctrine” then? Because the authoritive Brethren will probably never be able to agree on all of the little parts that make up the whole and be correct in all things at the same time. This church we have to remember is one that is still growing and evolving and one that continues to be enlightened daily in advancing the doctrine more perfectly.

    It is thus my opinion that when we define “mormonism” we should always look at it from the view of what we currently believe in but in doing so that perception might change in the future. This does not hold well with critics or even ourselves, but at the same time we should be open to the facts that since Joseph Smith first organized this church, we have continually changed our methods of ordinances, worship and purpose that today does not resemble the definition of what Mormonism was viewed at a 100 years ago.

    I do wish that we could somehow get together on the core doctrine of the plan of salvation and get that set in concrete though as that part will never change.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    “I see no reason why we should abandon our efforts to correct incorrect publications or reverse errors made by journalists.”

    Oh, come on, Steve. Like I advocated this! Re-read the post, why don’t cha.

    Aaron B

    P.S. Am on vacation, and so don’t have time to respond to anybody else right now …

  19. Steve Evans says:

    LOL — of all the comments on all the posts in all the world, Aaron takes the time to respond to my ill-informed rant.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    — that’s me expressing my gratitude, btw.

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