What is a poor non-member to do?

It seems to me that we expect too much of non-members. I once attended a meeting in which a non-member scholar was criticized for reading the footnotes in the scriptures as if they were canonized. It is an easy mistake to make; one which I would imagine an awful lot of church members make. How was a minimally informed interested observer to know that the footnotes, while nice, are not considered authoritative? Nonetheless, this commentator was dressed down for his ignorance.

Obviously, in writing about this, I am writing about Andrew Sullivan, whose motivations, in spite of the accusations bandied about, remain unclear. Furthermore, I am writing it about that pastor from a couple of weeks ago who stumbled upon an anti-site and used it, and her own collected cult knowledge, to offer a depiction of the church that relied too heavily on long unmentioned and unused doctrines of the 19th century. Let’s assume, just for the moment, that these people are making honest mistakes and set aside the vast secret-combination theories.

Is it any wonder? Our beliefs are hard to catalog to begin with; for instance, the canonicity of the Journal of Discourses or the King Follett Discourse have not yet truly been worked out. For outsiders, these are the beliefs of our earliest leaders and, therefore, they must be important to us. How do we go about explaining that, for the most part, the Journal of Discourses is entirely unread in the church (and that most Mormons believe it is with good reason)? How do we explain that the statements made just 30 years ago about birth control, miscegenation, and the appropriate manner of dealing with homosexual desire no longer apply? In a church with an open canon (one that both grows and shrinks), how is the interested outsider supposed to keep up?

Some have done it; Jan Shipps and Douglas Davies are both examples of outsiders who have made a life’s work of the study of Mormonism and they seem to understand the nuances. However, we cannot expect every non-member who writes about or investigates us to put in the kind of time these scholars have (especially when most church members haven’t).

For most people, our baseline beliefs (continuing revelation to a modern prophet, scripture restored by angelic intervention, etc) are so bizarre that there is no reliable standard for judging what sounds right and what sounds ridiculous. I don’t know how many of you remember stories about Mormons having horns; members joked about people believing those stories in my ward growing up. If I started up a rumor that Mormons worship a living potato in the Idaho Falls temple tomorrow, I would guess that within a few years it would be accepted as fact (albeit a weird fact) by a good majority of the populace. There is no baseline of plausibility for non-members to use; therefore every rumor and every fact has an equally likely chance of turning out to be true.

I remember the first time I heard about the garment, I adamantly denied that there was such a thing. I laughed it off. Garments sounded too weird to me and I have been a member all of my life. I don’t really know when I accepted their reality, possibly when my older brother went on a mission. However, initially it was just another weird rumor, like babies being sacrificed within the temple.

How should we address this? I am really not sure we can. The best that we can do is to note that the basic doctrine that everyone must believe in order to be a Mormon is that Jesus is the Lord (and that the restoration of the Priesthood is important) and that beyond that we have very little evidence and very little need for theological conformity, even within our own tradition. Of course, this makes any statement suspect, no matter what the source, which is an idea that I am not personally comfortable with. To echo Richard Bushman’s call of a couple of weeks ago, do we have a better way to explain to Andrew Sullivan and the other potential outsiders out there what it is that we believe?


  1. Man, Sullivan is like cowbell to mormons. I got me a fever, and the only cure is more Sullivan!

  2. Hee! Now, answer the dern question!

  3. HP, in real life it ain’t that tough to figure out official mormon beliefs. LDS.org and mormon.org are right there. Sure they won’t really go into super-detail, but for the pastor or for Sullivan I would think it to be at least the best launching point. Or second-best, following BCC.

  4. Copycat! This is the same point I made in my last post (except it was about journalists). Scroll down and see … :)

    I am obviously sympathetic to what you say. I would argue, however, that limiting ourselves to “Jesus is Lord” is to understate the basics a bit. Gotta mention priesthood, Book of Mormon, First Vision, prophets, etc. Even granting all the unresolved sub-issues that each of these topics invite.

    Also, we need to face the fact that, regardless whether the King Follett Discourse is “doctrinal” or not, and regardless how much emphasis (or lack thereof) that it receives in the future, non-Mormons are always going to be fascinated in the larger cosmological issues. Period. It doesn’t matter whether they are the bread and butter of our Church meetings or not. And most of Mormonism’s perceived weirdness is related to its unique cosmology. This stuff is just a lot more interesting to outsiders than Jesus being Lord, and it always will be.

    Aaron B

  5. Steve,
    The problem is that the resources at lds.org (and, to a lesser extent, mormon.org) require a background in Mormon jargon to be used effectively (although with the new search engines there, this could change). Those sources are so thoroughly Mormon that I wonder if the average non-member would understand what was going on in many of the articles therein.

  6. Whooooo told you about the living potato? Great, NOW everyone knows.

  7. Here is the list of frequently asked questions under Doctrine and Beliefs at mormon.org

    What are your basic beliefs?
    Are you Christians?
    Is the Church of Jesus Christ a Christian church?
    Is the Church of Jesus Christ a Protestant church?
    What do you believe about God?
    What do you believe about Jesus Christ?
    Is Jesus Christ our personal Savior?
    Wasn’t Christ’s sacrifice alone sufficient to save me?
    What does the Church teach about Satan?
    What does the Church teach about hell?
    What is the purpose of life?
    Why do good people suffer?
    What do you believe about life/salvation?
    Can husband and wife be together forever?
    Do you believe that families will live together in heaven?
    Do you really believe there is a prophet like Moses alive today?
    Who was Joseph Smith?
    How is the Book of Mormon different from the Bible?
    If I’ve done something really wrong, will God forgive me?
    What goes on at a baptism?

    All interesting. I am just not sure that things are the questions that people come to mormon.org to ask.

  8. oops, sorry Aaron. I had forgotten about that post in the Sullivan brou-ha-ha.

    oops, sorry larry_co. I thought the potato was sacred, not secret.

  9. A search for garments at lds.org brings up the following article as the first hit:
    Carlos E. Asay, “The Temple Garment: ‘An Outward Expression of an Inward Commitment,’ ” Ensign, Aug. 1997

    All the other garment posts on the first page deal with getting one’s garments washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

  10. What kind of a role would the Articles of Faith play in all this? They may wander a bit (do we really talk about the gathering of the 10 tribes that much anymore?), but for the most part it is pretty straightforward and accurate. I wish they’d put those on the pass-along cards instead of or along with the invitation to call and get a free video.

  11. Nick Literski says:

    J. Daniel Crawford wrote:
    “. . . the basic doctrine that everyone must believe to be a Mormon is that Jesus is the Lord (and that the restoration of the Priesthood is important). . .”

    Wow…WOW…You’ve succeeded in reducing LDS-ism to simply an uber-authoritarian version of what you’d hear down the street in any “christian” church. Granted, this is where the church appears to be headed–the issue of obedience to authority is stressed more than nearly any actual issue of doctrine. The marketing message has devolved to “we’re just like you, except God gave us the authority to do it!” What a strange thing for any religion to hang its proverbial hat on!

    And now the King Follett Discourse is not “doctrinal,” and that it’s just some embarassing excuse for “OUTSIDERS” to wonder about “weird” cosmology? Why don’t you all just admit that you’re embarassed by the Mormonism of Joseph Smith, and quit pretending to be the same religion?

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Nick, the KFD has never been part of the canon of scripture. Settle down, please.

  13. I bet you, Steve, that there are thousands of active Mormons who consider doctrine what’s outdated to you. It is not straightforward to determine the content of Mormon doctrince.

  14. Nick Literski says:

    There you go…Ummm…we didn’t canonize it, and we think it’s “weird,” so let’s ignore it! Meanwhile, let’s preach the uncanonized “Proclamation on the Family” as the unquestioned word of deity! ;-)

  15. Nick, you are misreading me. I think that the most important doctrinal verse we have is 1st Nephi 11:17. That explains the first half of the assertion. The second half of the assertion is based on how I read the sealing power and its purpose. I do believe that this sets us apart from other churches, but it, like gaining a testimony of the Book of Mormon, is knowledge gained only in the doing of it.

    The King Follett discourse isn’t canonical and the place of non-canonical writings in our discourse is murky. This isn’t due to embarassment; it is due to the fact that these writings haven’t been confirmed in conference as being doctrinally authoritative in the way that canonical works (the standard works) have. The Proclamation on the Family isn’t canonical either, but I don’t see it fading away from our discourse any time soon.

    The truth is that our religion is wide enough to accomodate the beliefs of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, James Talmage, Bruce R. McConkie, and Eugene England (and I do realize that one of these things is not like the others). I am not embarassed by this fact; I see it as one of our great strengths.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    Hellmut, maybe on the margins it is not easy to determine whether a given idea is doctrine. I submit to you, however, that for 99.9% of all concepts, official answers are readily available. The marginalia will always be a headache, sure. But honestly, the right answer is easy when marginalia comes up: “I don’t know. That sounds like marginalia to me.”

  17. Thomas Parkin says:

    Faith in Christ, Repentence, Baptism by immersion, Gift of the Holy Ghost. Those, I think, are the essentials, and are what we teach, coupled with the idea of the Restoration, including preisthood authority. I love it – though plenty is lost – that the church is conentrating on these, centering these more or less basic Christian doctrines, like wasn’t done in previous generations. Not because it moves us politically closers to evangelicals – who wants that? – but because these are the basics that bring us to Christ. The rest, as Jospeh famously said, is contained in the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

    In 3 Nephi Christ says “Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost … I say unto you, this is my gospel”

    And again, in D&c 39: “And this is my gospel—repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom.”

    D&C 19: “And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.”

    And also D&C 18 and about a bazillion other places.

    If someone asks, I think these are what we teach. I think we ought to answer questions on other subjects with as much forthrightness as possible – but I don’t think we can hope for much where the Holy Spirit isn’t involved – our chance of that is killed when we are being nasty to people – however much internet discussion lends itself to gleeful, nay, joyful, nastiness.

    My 2 cents.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Andrew Sullivan today. I used to read him quite a bit. I’ve always felt a lot of affection for him. I want to say more, partly because I said something about him earlier that I now, after reading the things he actually wrote, feel wasn’t completely fair. But am in a hurry and will have to wait.


  18. I took a shot at this question with regards to journalists on Aaron’s post last week, but I’ve thought over the issue more with this post that is slightly different.

    I am a convert to the church. It was only after two years of study that I finally found myself in the right frame of mind to pray for answers and then join the church. My initial reason for being interested in learning more about the church was due to its complexity. Just from the few LDS friends that I had I realized that the church is much more like the Catholic church, ie a ‘high’ church, than the various ‘low’ or protestant churches. It cannot be explained away by the popular evangelical question, “Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior?” For most of them, this question is all that matters, is the basis for their doctrinal foundation. Nothing deeper or mysterious. And I respect them for that, but never felt quite satisfied myself.

    Simply, I don’t like that the church seems to be straying from its complexity and reduce itself to mirror the protestants. I see this as nothing more than PR in hopes of growing the fold. It is deceitful and dishonest. While we do need to focus and remember the basics, we cannot do so at the expense of the doctrine and tradition given to us from previous generations (JS, BY, etc).

    I say we stand tall, be transparent, and face head on questions and concerns over the past and questions on doctrine and faith. Catholics have a notorious past, yet have managed to put that behind them and continue to prosper. Why wouldn’t we do the same?

    Afterall, if we’re just going to reduce our religion to ‘faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,’ I might as well go back to being a Methodist. At least as a lay Methodist I’m not asked to work so hard:)

  19. Thomas,
    My essentials are, to my mind, the same as yours. That’s good doctrine. I also like that we are focussing on these areas.

    The problem with labelling those doctrines as marginalia is that it doesn’t lessen interest in them. I’m sure the Catholic church prefers to think of the ideas that motivated the Inquisition or the Crusades as being marginal, but that doesn’t seem to affect how people perceive it. Besides, for outsiders, as Nick points out, those are the interesting bits (of course, those are the interesting bits for a lot of us, too.)

  20. Keith,
    I don’t see the trend as deceitful or dishonest. I see it as a shift away from looking beyond the mark. I see it as an admission that we don’t really know how to understand some of the things that our early (or recent) leaders said and that we don’t believe in prophetic infallibility in any case. I see it as the natural result of a prophetic tradition that doesn’t rely on dogma to get its authority. I also see in it the trend of letting old doctrines die quiet deaths, unmourned and unrepeated.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    yes, the urge to explain marginalia and satisfy curiosity is never ending, isn’t it. Beats me how to do away with that, but that shouldn’t be a compelling reason to rush forward with explanations that are incorrect.

  22. “I also see in it the trend of letting old doctrines die quiet deaths, unmourned and unrepeated.”

    But they never ‘die’ in this manner. Look at the discussion on this post alone. One hundred and seventy or so years on and we are still debating the relevance of the King Follett Discourse, the Journal of Discourses, and so much more. None of these ‘old doctrines’ have ever faded from the church, just put on the back burner and ignored. It is precisely because of our prophetic tradition that such doctrines will never go away, so why attempt to hide from them or ignore them, or worse have present day authority attempt to say that such discourses were not transcribed correctly or were never intended to speak as truth or doctrine, etc. We have the baggage, so we have to deal with it.

  23. I don’t advocate ‘rushing forward with explanations that are incorrect.’ But we do believe in a prophet, don’t we? That is one of his purposes, is it not? If GBH is no different than JS, BY, or any of the others, then he and the other brethren should be able categorically define doctrine, even if that means ‘contradicting’ something in our past.

    I don’t know how to take the standard line, “President Hinckley is for our time; Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were for their time.’ While true, when you extrapolate on this idea it frightens me. It is the same as the other popular church saying, ‘If the present leadership of the church hasn’t addressed the issue, then it is not doctrine that needs our attention.’

    Are these two popular phrases essentially saying that President Hinckley and the Twelve are the end-all to LDS doctrine? If so, then we can throw out the doctrinal ‘baggage’ of our past, but I have a hard time believing this to be true.

  24. ed johnson says:

    It is not just non-members who wish for fuller answers than those provided at mormon.org. Despite Steve’s assertion that there are official answers for 99.9% of all concepts, and everything else is “marginalia,” it remains true that authentic church members are teaching and believing all sorts of interesting things.

    For example, consider the website Ask Gramps. Gramps is a former mission president named Clay Gorton who answers the questions that naturally arise when people try to make sense of church teachings and relate them to their own lives. Just recently he has taken on such questions as:

    Is it considered a full tithing in the Mormon Church to pay tithing on our net income?

    Will members of different religious organizations inherit the celestial kingdom?

    At what point did Joseph Smith’s peep stones become the Urim and Thummin?

  25. ed, just because a topic is marginalia doesn’t mean it doesn’t garner a ton of attention. It’s called looking beyond the mark, and it’s a grand religious tradition. The popularity of such trivia sites as Ask Gramps doesn’t transform those questions into topics central to our faith.

    But yes. They are really, really popular.

  26. Did the incident with the footnotes take place at the AAR/SBL last year?

  27. If they are popular then they are not marginal, Steve. It seems to me that your conception of marginalia is rather marginal.

  28. Hellmut, I firmly agree that they are marginal in the “will they determine where I go in the afterlife” sense, which is how I (and, I assume, Steve) have been using it. It is in the sense of “people are talking about it” that it doesn’t fit the definition of marginalia, but even then, most discussion is relegated to that one guy in the ward who cares about such things. The bloggernacle gives us a very distorted view of what is marginal because everyone here is that one guy.

    Costanza, yes. (BTW, did you go this year and did I meet you?)

    Keith, it is the nature of what we believe that there is a tension between present prophets and prior prophets. In these instances, we seem to believe that present authorities always triumph (with the possible exception of Joseph Smith and Jesus). That said, we actively involve the scriptures in our discourse and we occasionally cite the KFD and the JoD. We don’t ignore the past so much as emphasize those elements in it that we find important at the moment.

  29. If LDS.org and Mormon.org are too jargonistic or too limited in scope, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism is the place to go. No excuses for the true and living potato.

  30. “they are marginal in the “will they determine where I go in the afterlife” sense, which is how I (and, I assume, Steve) have been using it”

    that’s right. And I firmly believe that no matter how much time is devoted to such topics, they are still unimportant.

  31. I am in agreement with both Steve and HP/JDC, but nevertheless find myself asking, if not important why was it ever taught from the pulpit? JS thought the KFD was important enough, even at the risk of shocking and turning away interested people and new members in attendance. Why on earth would a prophet, regardless of what era he lives, espouse doctrines that are not of importance or relevance to our salvation?

  32. The articles of faith were written precisely to answer these questions and I feel they still do an excellent job. But for outsiders they are in many ways simply not sexy enough, hence the drive to the truly exotic.

    Some of these things such as deification, I believe are an essential part of Joseph Smith’s theology and the actual capstone of the restoration IMO. They also cannot be understood at all in a three sentence blurb in any way that does them any justice. I don’t personally think they can really be addressed in a twenty minute conference address either. That said, I don’t think some of the most radical, mind opening doctrines brought by the restoration, such as deification, three kingdoms of glory, and the sealing power, spirit of Elijah are going anywhere. They can only be clarified, not rejected. The temple isn’t cannonized either but I think there is certainly some doctrine there that you may not get anywhere else.

    The fact is inscribing all truth in one great whole is a matter of recieving line upon line, precept on precept, here a little, there a little as we can bear as a church and psople. Does no one wonder that perhaps the spirit is working with all religion to emphasize the core truths we need to bring as many of God’s children as possible to life and salvationa and that perhaps this is the reason our emphasis seems somewhat similar. Have you ever thought that all the emphasis on the Savior is a direct result of our having pushed this core, central truth out of our minds by speculation on these marginalistic, esoteric teachings. I see so much of our reemphasis on Christ as a direct outgrowth of the prophetic call by Ezra Taft Benson to read the Book of Mormon. It seems we were losing too much of our bedrock, and by studying we are regaining it.

    It is a mistake to interpret lack of emphasis as loss of doctrine. Rather it might be interpreted as the fact that we aren’t ready for any more knowledge and undertstanding in that direction. However, clarification of old doctrine is absolutely the right and purpose of a living prophet.

    I think there is a certain wisdom in HP’s assertion that some things are not repeated because they are both looking beyond the mark and no longer held as doctrine by us as a people so that silence is all the clarification we need. I also think that when we are losing important doctrine God will definitely decide that we need to hear it again, just as he did with ETB. The cynical may say this was simply an effort at appearing mainstream, but my study and experience with the spirit tells me this simply isn’t so.

  33. Well, as a convert, I guess all the important stuff was pretty much covered very well in the Gospel Principles Manual, with some of Robert Millet’s “The Mormon Faith” on the side. It’s not this stuff that’s the probelm though, it’s the idiot members who want to make a big deal about someone using footnotes as a reference, or how someone pronounces “Amlici”, or the value of historical statements on black people/polygamy/kolob etc. that are the bigger problems. We do okay on the big stuff, but sometimes we can be so petty. I have recently mentioned this, but one of my most angry moments relating to church was when a missionary told me I was different from other converts because I actually knew about the church and wasn’t stupid. I don’t think anything has ever sounded so faithless and stupid to me in all my life as that missionary.

    Anyway, I think there is this awful mentality among the mormon psuedo intellectuals that they are the only ones who know the truth of the church, and everyone else are just sheep. Along with that is the condescending attitude towards non-members, non-lifers, etc that they can’t possibly understand the Gospel as well.

    It is foolish. The Spirit can speak to anyone and give them wisdom. We would do well to listen by the spirit and not just listen for the pauses where we can interject our little bits.

    Of course, I speak as a hypocrite on this, but hey, that’s me.

  34. Amen Matt W.

  35. Matt W., I think you might be stretching it a bit. I spend a lot of time reading, researching, and engaging in intellectual discussions on the gospel and find that I enjoy the knowledge that I have gained with regards to church history, former and present-day leaders, doctrines, etc. But all of my intellectual persuits are done to satisfy my passion for history and understanding. I’m a convert and studied the church for years before being converted by the power of the spirit. No amount of book learning or intellectual advantage takes the place of the spirit. But just because each of us as members have been blessed with the gift of the spirit does not mean that we must/should abandon learning all we can. So, I do not feel any better than any other member. I suppose at the end of the day all of my learning is of no more use than to have me be picked on occasionally in Sunday school to give an answer. It satisfies me to spend my time learning, but I never intentionally use any wisdom gained to look down upon another member of the church. We are all on this ride together.

  36. Matt W,
    I agree, amen. I have to believe some of the people upset at “shrinking” doctrine are those with the pride of which you speak. I also think it is absolutely to loosen the hold of that mindset that our bedrock similarities to mainstream Christianity have been re-emphasized. In the end it seems both the orthodox and the unorthodox, fringe and mainstream, member and nonmember are all prone to apostasy. We do well to try to avoid pride at all costs as it will merely harden our own doctrinal misunderstandings.

  37. What is a poor non-member to do?

    They will probably do what we all do when researching something new for the first time: they will consult the oracles known as Google and Wikipedia.

  38. in real life it ain’t that tough to figure out official mormon beliefs. LDS.org and mormon.org are right there.

    I haven’t found this to be quite so easy.

    On a recent thread at Zelophehad’s Daughters, it was explained to me that, “Official church policy, however, is that women with children should not work outside the home at all.”

    To be honest, I had never heard that. I’ve been in the church 20+ years (although part of that was in Europe and South America, and as a convert I missed out on the YW program). I’ve been a Relief Society President and Bishop’s wife, and I always listen or read General Conference talks at least twice, so I thought I was in the mainstream of the church and knew what we believed, but apparently not.

    I totally get that raising children is the most important thing we can do, and how crucial it is to teach and spend time with them; many general conference talks address such issues. But as far as a ban on all employment for all moms with children at home being pronounced in a way that makes it “official policy,” I couldn’t find it.

    I did a search at lds.org and found the fireside talk by Pres. Benson in 1987, but I’m not sure if it was even disseminated outside North America, and wouldn’t it have to be worldwide to be “official policy”? And I found an article by Pres. Kimball in the New Era in the 1970s. But honestly, I could not find any general conference talks or letters read to congregations or anything else that indicated this was ever “official church policy.”

    I don’t think we can dismiss such things as “marginalia,” because many women have made life-changing decisions based on the belief that being home with children was “obligatory.” I like to think that such decisions were only made after prayer and confirmation of the spirit, as it was in my family, so it doesn’t really matter what the church per se was saying.

    But I guess I am left wondering about the criteria for “offical policy.”

    I do not mean to engender another debate on the merits of moms at home–that can be discussed in the “Where Do Mormon Feminists Come From?” topic at Zelophehad’s Daughters, please.

    In this context I am much more interested in the nature of the “official” imprimatur.

    I think these women were honest in their beliefs, based on their years in YW, etc., and I don’t think they can be written off as “idiot members.” I find it fascinating that two well-meaning members can come up with such disparate notions about what is “official church policy.”

    And if you read that thread starting at about #78, it is clear that the quiet abandonment of prophetic counsel is part of the issue.

  39. It seems to me that we expect too much of non-members.

    What an odd statement. Are we too smart or are they too stupid? Or is there something fundamentally different and difficult about understanding the Mormons that does not apply to any other pursuit of knowledge/understanding? Does baptism remove a clouded veil from our minds enabling us to grasp the essence of it all while the uninitiated still wander in the dark?

    Your post reminds me of Rumsfeld’s musing about the intricacies of the Iraq war.

    Sure, it’s complex, but I think able-minded people everywhere are up to the challenge.

  40. #28 HP, I don’t know anything about the afterlife but as a social scientist, I surmise that the “marginalia” generate Mormon identities. The “marginalia” are where the doctrines transform social life. Therefore, it would be misguided to explore political Mormonism without focussing on the marginalia.

    Speaking of identity, the most important reason why no reporter will put much stock into lds.org is that it’s not authentic. It’s a public relations effort.

  41. In an ideal world, I think we’d have figures such as Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder Packer, Elder Holland (or whoever) directly addressing the King Follet Discourse, or whatever else, and presenting their own take on it and clarifying what the current Priesthood leadership of our religion thinks about numerous little-understood doctrinal items.

    But the problem is, our leaders are not professional thinkers, for the most part. They come almost universally from practical careers and walks of life. When you remove direct revelation and inspiration from God from the equation, most of “the Brethren” are rank amateur theologians. Any expertise they gain in this area is largely self-taught.

    Of course, never rule out how the prophetic mantle alters the equation. But my point is that our leadership is usually not well-equipped to venture into the troubled waters of doctrinal parsing. Absent a direct mandate from God to clarify an issue, I don’t think you’re going to see much action. And God, by and large seems to be taking a hands-off approach in this area.

  42. Hellmut,
    And since when do reporters not put much stock in PR efforts? I’ve seen plenty of reporting that takes a company’s press release and changes it from “we are releasing our new product” to “Microsoft [or whomever] is releasing its new product.”

  43. I’m always hesitant to use the word “canon” when talking about scriptures. Isn’t the doctrine of searching out all truth (what can be confirmed to us by the Spirit) part of our theology?

    I realize we’re not about to get a GA speaking about deification directly in General Conference; however, I have seen things like the KFD abused far too often among the less than respectful. I would like to see matters like these addressed again.

  44. That’s true, Sam. But those news items are not the same genre. The commensurate piece would be a critique of the Microsoft product, which certainly would not rely on PR materials.

  45. It just occured to me that the focus on “correct” information is misguiding. Lee Thompson’s “report” on Mormonism is not a hack job because her information is false.

    She does a hack job because she refuses to present that information on Mormon terms. Pressing data into her own lenses, she does not present Mormonism authentically.

    One could probably link most, if not all, of the information she uses to legitimate sources such as the scriptures and lds.org. Presenting that information on her own terms, however, is so distorting that Mormons cannot recognize themselves.

    Thompson is an incompetent reporter not because she gets the facts wrong but because she lacks the empathy to make the facts intelligible.

    That imposition on the Mormon experience is indeed an aggressive act.

  46. Keith (#35),
    If you do not yet think that much learning leads some members to look down upon others (I am very tempted to insert a usually in there), then you haven’t been in the ‘nacle long enough. False ideas of intellectual superiority are one of the bloggernacle’s constant bugaboos.

    Naismith (#38),
    I find our great doctrinal flexibility to be one of our strengths, but I can understand that not being the case for others (also, note my comment to Keith when reading my comment to you ;) )

    Peter (#39),
    My point was that we assume that newcomers should understand it all in our terms immediately. That simply isn’t possible and it is wrong to expect it of them. Our perspective on things Mormon has been gained through years of experience; these outsiders simply don’t have that luxury (especially if they don’t have a good informant handy to explain things; on that front, note the softening of Sullivan’s tone as he has encountered more Mormon emails).

    Hellmut (#40),
    I think that it would be wrong to focus on the marginalia exclusively, because such reports generally assume that there is a standard position on these “marginal” issues when there actually isn’t. Therefore, you get situations like Pastor Thompson’s report (assuming that the good Pastor meant well) where the Pastor doesn’t know how to tell marginalia from core and therefore presents the marginalia as core. I don’t mind public discussion of the marginalia (after all, how can it avoided?), but I would like the public to know that we believe in Christ, too.

    njensen (#43),
    I understand your concern. All I can say is that we call the Standard Works “the Standard Works” for a reason. This isn’t meant to preclude personal revelation; it is meant to set a standard of what everyone has to accept as authoritative within the church. You should coincidentally note that we do not have a standard interpretation of any given scripture (at least, not one that I am aware of).

    Hellmut (#45),
    That is often what Mormons find offensive about most anti attacks. It is not that they have gotten the information wrong; it is that they have imposed an interpretation on it and claimed that their interpretation is the only viable one. I didn’t really get that vibe from Pastor Thompson, to be honest, but you may be right about the Pastor’s motivations.

  47. Thomas Parkin says:

    It used to bother me a lot – A LOT – when I heard people, especially leaders, in the church talk about ‘getting back to basics.’ I wanted, and was, moving on past basics and felt, rightly, that was the point. It’s all about increasing our personal, individual understanding on all topics – expanding our soul, increasing our capacities intellectual, emotional, physical, being more, better, deeper, broader. To indeed be a God. :)

    However, it comes to me now that I wasn’t nearly as grounded in the basics as I might have been, and that cost me. I resisted Joseph’s retranslation of Hebrews 6:1. (Read that scripture in the KJV and JST – it seems to me very apt to this discussion.) I may have come to understand some deep things, and in the right way. I have understandings from those days I cherish and cling to – but I had no solid foundation in faith (which includes keeping and doing the word), repentance, covenant making and keeping, and the rest – and while the Spirit was active in my life, it was nothing like the near constant companionship that I now know is possible, exactly because of my lack in the simple gospel of Christ – in which I had very little interest, and in fact was annoyed by talk of of it. There was nothing that got under my skin like the phrase “the gospel in its simplicity.”

    If we are striving to live the basics, the gospel, then we will absolutely be in a position to receive personal revelation, the Lord will pour down knowledge upon us, the doctrine of the priesthood will distill upon our souls. And there is no verbotten subject between us personally and the Lord. We can search into the deep things of God. And we should. Mother in Heaven? We should look into that. We should humbly, quietly, go about searching into that if we desire to. (Just don’t expect it to all be laid out for you in Conference – because we are lead to the water, it’s up to us to drink. And don’t expect that the Lord is going to give you leave to talk about it in Sacrament meeting.) The Lord isn’t about keepig us down listening to talks about tithing, and life in the Celestial Kingdom is not going to be like attending Sacrament Meeting over and over and over again. But, my discovery is the the Spirit still strives with me at that foundational, practical level. How strong is my faith in Christ, how complete is my repentence, how consistantly do I keep my covenants? I have found it deeply painful and difficult to deal with these questions, – because I’ve had to try to stop gratifying my pride and my vain amibtion, and my ego is a big as a house, and stop covering my sins – which include a bit of just about everything. You name it – the natural man in me can find some appeal to it. But I begin to be a truly free man. I am changed through Christ.

    Anyway, probably over-baked my point, but there it is. *g*


  48. HP/JDC – The idea of no standard interpretation explains my personal feelings a whole lot better. Thank you

  49. HP #46

    It is not that they have gotten the information wrong; it is that they have imposed an interpretation on it and claimed that their interpretation is the only viable one.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, HP.

    My reading of Thompson does not go that far. The text does not indicate that she considers her view as the only viable one. All I am saying is that she does not look at Mormonism at its own terms.

    To be sure, it would also be unreasonable to only explore a social phenomenon from the perspective of the participants but without empathy it is impossible to read.

    That’s where Thompson falls short. Instead of respecting Mormons as authors, she reinvents the Mormon experience in a way that Mormons cannot recognize.

  50. The sign of a good journalism . . .

    No let me rephrase that. The sign of any journalism is to ask people questions before spouting off. i.e. do research that goes beyond a quick google.

    Asking a few informed Mormons would quickly let someone know what was informative or not. So I don’t buy that as an excuse.

  51. a random John says:

    Ask Gramps is in denial on the subject of stones.

  52. From a non-Mormon’s point of view: I only know about LDS.org and Mormon.org because I know Mormons who told me to look there. A whole lot of it is stuff I don’t understand because it’s not really written with non-Mormons in mind. Andrew heard read that someone wrote about “Mormon underwear” and looked it up on Wikipedia, where he found a photo of garments. Instead of people offering help and guidance, he got thousands of e-mails condemning him. Not a good way to make friends, people. The questions will arise, and the answers should be out there readily, in language non-Mormons (and non-Christians)understand. Yes, he was a bit sloppy, but the Church hasn’t gained points in the eyes of the average American voter by the Mormon response to Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Saying “he should have asked first” is a lame excuse when you don’t even know what to ask. There are a couple hundred million Americans and a few billion non-Americans who started out as much in the dark as Andrew, so respond kindly and with compassion. To do otherwise is to sow seeds of suspicion and anger, and that’s not a way to spread the Church’s message, unless you want the perceived message to be a negative one.

  53. Well stated Mike, and well noted. Please make recommendations of what was unclear on Mormon.org or LDS.org and I’ll report those issues to people who work on those websites.

  54. Matt, I don’t think that lds.org is the issue, as it is directed toward an internal audience anyway.

  55. HP/JDC: I don’t know that any content of the church is directed solely toward an internal audience. I think any content in the public domain is put out with the intent of being in the public domain. The LDS church is a missionary church and every inch of it should and ought to be functional to anyone with an interest. I think the new Beta is a great effort towards this, if you’ve checked it out, but I would be interested in Mike’s response as to whether the site was inaccessible (he couldn’t find what he was looking for) or if the terminology was uncomfortable or incomprehensable on the items he was seeking out.

    Of course, I’d just take the feedback and shoot it to LDSwebguy…

  56. Thanks, Ed, for the link to Ask Gramps. I can think of many people in my ward who would confidently answer questions exactly the same way as if it were the Church’s official position–i.e., that the theory of evolution is inconsistent with the gospel, that President Joseph F. Smith’s 1903 counsel against playing cards has never been revoked and remains fully in effect, that black Africans are descendents of Cain, that birth control is evil, that the WofW passage about eating meat sparingly really means that we should eat meat abundantly, that during the Civil War most Church members favored the Union and opposed slavery (I doubt that is true, but do not know), that Joseph never used a “peep stone” or “seer stone” in translating the BofM,

    I do not see whether he has addressed whether there is progression from kingdom to kingdom, whether a faithful Mormon can be a liberal democrat, or whether God once was a mortal like us.

  57. Matt — I’ll try to check out both sites over the weekend and shoot you some examples.

    HP/JDC — LDS.org is where the info is for the news media, so it ought to be written as accessibly as possible.

  58. The LDS church is a missionary church and every inch of it should and ought to be functional to anyone with an interest.

    Should be but it isn’t. For example, we are using the same visual materials around the world without regard for local or national aesthetics.

    It’s a little different for the United States public relations effort but the missionary program abroad is about validating ourselves rather than efficient outreach.

    That’s why every Mormon has to become half an American, which creates its own attraction. It’s not a premise, however, upon which one can build sustainable Mormon communities abroad.

  59. Not a good way to make friends, people…the Church hasn’t gained points in the eyes of the average American voter by the Mormon response to Andrew Sullivan’s blog…that’s not a way to spread the Church’s message, unless you want the perceived message to be a negative one.

    Mike Kessler,

    Are you really saying “If you want me to like you, you will have to change your tone”? I suppose being responsive to demands makes for good customer service, but I think there are limits beyond which an institution can no longer be held responsible for how the “message” is received.

    In addition, conflating the response of many members of the Church with the Church’s reponse as an institution is a mistake “the average American voter,” not the Church or its members, has made.

  60. Hellmut- I think you are partially correct, but not sure what you mean by visual materials? Videos, Art, Ensign? Personally, I find this line of reasoning pretty incorrect. If you can find some form of data which supports increased effectiveness based on aesthetics, I’d be interested to see it. I think we have gotten much more generic in our general approach to the Ensign, but it is a hard thing to Balance.

    On the other hand, we do have a simple challenge of having a missionary program which is all volunteer and is mostly American. I do think this generates some problems as aspects of American Culture are confused with Gospel principles. Personally, It took me about a year into my mission before I even realized this problem existed. I think that is a much greater problem than any visual media issue.

    I don’t think sensitivity training helps much either, the only true solution is local missionaries, which the Church is working hard on encouraging…

    Anyway, I find your “validating ourselves” statement false. It is not about validating ourselves. It is about trying to do what we believe God would have us do.

  61. Thanks a lot for your thoughtful response.

    If you can find some form of data which supports increased effectiveness based on aesthetics, I’d be interested to see it. I think we have gotten much more generic in our general approach to the Ensign, but it is a hard thing to Balance.

    I am puzzled by the last sentence. All it takes are images that are relevant to the audience. Why do you think it is a hard thing to do?

    I don’t have any data on my fingertips but the argument that cultural imposition harms the missionary program appears to be trivial. Imagine what would happen if Toyota ran only Japanese footage on American television.

    I agree with you that native missionaries possess a greater degree of cultural competence. On the other hand, foreigners invoke greater curiosity. Usually, foreigners can also rely on the good will of the audience.

    That good will, of course, is mortgaged when there is no effort of adaptation. Missionaries make an observable effort to adapt. With respect to public relations and proselyting materials, the institutional church does not.

    Therefore responsibility rests with management, not the missionaries.

    To be sure, the LDS Church is not the only organization that has troubles with cultural issues. The inability of Volkswagen to run a production facility in the United States or the recent failure of Walmart in Germany are other failures to adapt to local conditions.

    Anyway, I find your “validating ourselves” statement false. It is not about validating ourselves. It is about trying to do what we believe God would have us do.

    Well, may be, I am going too far. I am assuming that people’s actions reflect their priorities.

    From the perspective of a non-American it is hard to believe that the missionary program is really about outreach. The message is packaged so clumsily that an incompetence explanation appears to be implausible.

    People are neither born that insensitive nor does God ask us to be provincial.

    It may well be carelessness. If decision makers do not care then that reveals the conversion of foreigners is not their priority. If it were then decision makers would not repeat the same fundamental mistakes for generations.

    There have been a number of efforts by German leaders to educate their American superiors about this problem to no avail. LDS decision makers chose to ignore this problem, which indicates that they are not all that interested in maximizing the conversions of Germans. Apparently, they have to respond to other constraints that determine their priorities.

    I don’t know why Jesus has to look like a Viking. I suspect, however, that it might have something to do with our desire to create god in our own image. May be, that factor contributes to the institutional incapacity to produce non-American materials. If that is the case then the design of proselyting materials is about self-validation. It certainly is not about outreach.

  62. Hellmut, interesting and well thought out response. I will try to be as adroit in answering you.

    First let me tell you my limited scope of international issues comes from my two year mission in the philippines, and I have never been to Europe, so am not sure about the aesthetic there. With that in mind, I will plod forward as though I were some sort of expert, of course. ;)

    re: it being difficult to balance. In my mind I had made a shift which did not translate to my writing. I hnk the form of the ensign has gotten much more generic and that the visual departments working on the ensign have made great efforts to produce more international content, especially in regards to using pictures of saints in foreign countries, and in using art from all around the world. The writing, however, has only partially made the leap. While the areas of the magazine I consider marginalia have been able to bring in a more international group of writers, I think the core sections have been challenged by producing monthly messages which lean toward an international vein. Why?, because the “core” church history is very american, if not very Utahn. Second, becasue the vast majority of contributors of non-marginalia to the Ensign are either professors at BYU or General Authorities, there messages are challenged to extend beyond that ethnocentric area. Considering the current sentiments many in the BCC group have about the purported “vetting” of Church History and Doctrine, I’d say Balance being difficult is a fair sentiment.

    Re: Actions and Priorities. First, I would note that results are not indicative of actions. Second, results are not indicative of priorities. After all, Wal-mart and Volkswagen have a priority to make money, so their results are definitely not indicative of their priorities.

    I don’t see the Gospel message as being incompetently or clumsily packaged. Grab your Gospel Principles or Preach my Gospel and point out the problems, and where they are innappropriate or Unattractive for Germans, and I’d be willing to learn from you.

    Now, maximizing the conversion of Germans sounds like a great Idea for an LDS book series. (“Maximizng the conversion of (Your mission country here)”) We should hire some statisticians, ethnographers, and Marketing people and make the books. Anyway, I do think you are right that there are some constraints which limit maximizing the conversion of Germans. They have to still be taught the LDS version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am sure we could have a lovely debate about what that does and does not entail, but I am pretty much pro “Gospel Principles” on this one.

    re: Jesus looking like a Viking. I think we have a pretty good variety of Jesus portrayels, though we do stick to the popular portrayel most often, as it is fairly “traditonal.” It would be interesting to see how non-traditional Jesus images hold up from a marketing point of view. Sicne the two most often used artists, so far as I can tell, for the Church are Calr Bloch, who is dead and Catholic, and Harry Anderson, who is a Seventh Day Adventist and I don’t now if he’s alive or dead, but was considered the foremost Artist of Christ in the world at the time he was commisioned, I’d say outreach much more likely than self-validation…

  63. Hellmut, I worry that my tone may be worng here. I am genuinely and sincerely interested in maximizng the conversion of all people and would love your thoughts on specific areas where the church could improve their efforts.

  64. No worries, Matt, your tone is great.

    Actions and Priorities. First, I would note that results are not indicative of actions. Second, results are not indicative of priorities. After all, Wal-mart and Volkswagen have a priority to make money, so their results are definitely not indicative of their priorities.

    Touché! The argument about for profit corporations is a hit, Matt. However, I did not evaluate results but the failure to use appealing images. Compared to the damage that your argument is inflicting, my excuse is feeble.

    I don’t see the Gospel message as being incompetently or clumsily packaged. Grab your Gospel Principles or Preach my Gospel and point out the problems, and where they are innappropriate or Unattractive for Germans, and I’d be willing to learn from you.

    The illustrations that do the most damage are the study guides and brochures for investigators. American aesthetics are not appealing to every audience. Many Germans, for example, will consider them kitschy and naive.

    The purpose of an illustration is to render the material relevant to an audience. American fashion, American furniture, American hairstyles, and even American phones are not all that relevant around the world. Sometimes they are subject to ridicule, which is a distraction when you try to relate gospel principles. Nothing is gained and a lot is lost with alien illustrations.

    Why?, because the “core” church history is very american, if not very Utahn.

    And that’s the point where we confuse our identity with the gospel. The gospel ought to be universal, not American.

    Besides, Church members have a glorious history everywhere. Their sacrifice in the mission field is often such that they overshadow anything that has happened in Utah since the life time of our great grandparents.

    There are so many cases of Mormons who survived the Nazis and the Bolshevics that one could fill the Ensign with their faithful biographies for years. Constructing Mormon identity exclusively around reenactions of bonnet wearing handcart pushing teenagers discounts the real sacrifices of members around the world.

    Second, becasue the vast majority of contributors of non-marginalia to the Ensign are either professors at BYU or General Authorities, there messages are challenged to extend beyond that ethnocentric area.

    Frankly, the material in the Ensign is so basic that a well educated teenager could write half the content. Even in cultures where the LDS Church is weak, there is plenty of talent to produce indigenous material.

    With fifteen stakes there are 180 high council members in the German speaking countries. If a fifth of them wrote one essay a year then 15-20% of the content would be national.

    The Pentecostals got it figured out. World headquarters guards the doctrine but their materials are locally composed, designed and produced. That’s why they have solid growth and we don’t.

    Everybody in the world can be a Christian. Most of us cannot be Americans. Therefore an ethnocentric approach of preaching the gospel will exclude people that might have been converted. That does not require substantive changes. It requires respect.

  65. Please elaborate on the damage my arguement is infliciting. I want to make sure I understand you.

    As for the current pamphlets, I’d have to say many americans may also view them as kitschy or naive. I don’t think the pamphlets are for everyone. I think giving out pamphlets in general is not for everyone. You’ve got a valid point here, but I think it boils down to the general offense some have to their sensibilities that Religion can or should be marketed at all. I’d recommend giving a book in these situations instead. How does Jesus The Christ or Gospel Principles hold up in German? (I know they didn’t do so well in Cebuano, as Cebuano is a dying language)

    I would love more of the International Stories of Church History, and I personally love current church history. (As it seems to matter a lot more to me that Gordon B. Hinckley is a Prophet than that Joseph Smith was one, but that is a topic for another time.) I think there have been some excellent pieces down on Blacks in Africa by the Church for Church History. I’d love to see more of these German stories. I know the New Era has run articles on teens in multiple different countries over the past year, and the Church news has attempted articles on Church history in a variety of different countries.

    In the Philippines, the Liahona has a Philippino Insert into the General Magazine, which was pretty good and interesting. Is nothing like that in Germany? I would have assumed it was like that every where. Let me know. I guess another question is do Germans get the Liahona or the Ensign…

    I’m not so sure on the pentacostal front, I’ve never examined the realities of their numbers.

    Anyway, I have to get back to work, but thanks for giving me something to thnik about.

  66. Peter, comment #59:

    Are you really saying “If you want me to like you, you will have to change your tone”?

    No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that perhaps this was a missed missionary moment, at least at first. Thankfully, other Church members later gave Andrew some slack and answered his questions politely, and Andrew now sounds like he’s been fairly well won over by kindness. Missionary moment achieved, or at least PR moment achieved, since Andrew is still a Catholic as far as I know. Millions of other people have the same questions he had, or will in the coming months if Mitt Romney campaigns nationally. It may be difficult to tell the difference between ignorance and questioning on the one hand, and rudeness and intentional attacks on the other. I know that the Church and its members have been attacked verbally and physically through most of the Church’s history, but sometimes people are just curious and don’t intend to be disrespectful. No, you don’t always have to turn the other cheek, but it’s probably a good place to start, especially since it puts the onus on the other guy and not the Church and its members.

    And I realize that there is a difference between the Church and its members, but not everyone does. I’m Jewish, and I’ve heard my share of much more disrespectful comments than Andrew made, but they are almost always from someone who has never met a Jew before and/or knows little to nothing about Judaism, so to them, I am the face of Judaism. So I smile and give polite answers to the person’s questions. They don’t become Jewish, but that’s not my aim. What happens is that I become just another human being, not something to fear, and any other Jew that person meets thereafter hopefully will get a break, and will be seen as a human being first, and not as “the other.”

  67. I basically concede your point on intentions, Matt, and admire the effect of your argument.

    Not using any brochures goes probably a little far. It is useful to have study guides that accompany the discussions, especially when we want to give reading assignments. Of course, if one ignores the aesthetic sensibilities of the audience then the study guides become counterproductive.

    There is an insert into the German Ensign. It usually reports about activities that happened five months ago. It’s really bad. The administrators in Germany claim that they need three months lead time, which is a bizarre excuse in light of the fact that daily newspapers have been published for centuries.

    The thing to do about the Ensign and anything else is to localize the entire publication. Otherwise, we will never be an international church.

    I always liked Talmage’s Jesus The Christ. A lot of German members have read it. I have never heard anyone say anything negative about it.

    There are bad feelings about The Miracle of Forgiveness and Mormon Doctrine but those objections are grounded in theology and psychology rather than culture.

  68. There are an awful lot of resources out there for someone who actually wants to learn the answer. I find it incredibly hard to believe that it’s a challenge for a well-educated American adult living in a large city, who has a large daily readership and media contacts coming out of his ears, to figure out that a) talking about someone’s underwear and b) putting pictures of something that’s purported to be sacred is a dumb idea.

    I similarly find it hard to believe that anyone over about 25 who thinks we sacrifice babies (or virgins) in the temple is being anything other than deliberately obtuse — again, at least in the United States. Never mind LDS.org; there are Mormons in every state, and 60,000 really, really obvious-looking Mormon kids wandering around just hoping someone will ask them questions about the church. I can’t drive from my house to the bank without passing a couple of elders tracting, and I live in near-rural Ohio.

    I have no opinion about the appropriateness of our materials in an international context. I will, however, say that even I think the photos in the Russian edition of the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet are hilariously out of date. Never mind the American-ness, there are grown women wearing sailor-collar dresses (complete with bows and white piping.) How much more 1989 can you possibly get? Anyway, I don’t think it’s a problem of us hating German sensibilities. I think it’s a more basic “object lesson” vs. “aesthetics” issue.

  69. Hellmut, as far as aesthetic sensibilites, I think the real issue becomes that aesthetic sensiblities are even more complex than that.

    We do have a cutltural/ethnic sensibility, but more important than that, popular psycholgy devides these aesthetics bt ersonality type, and then on top of that is the division of visual learners from sensory, textual, or audible learners.

    I think a Costs benefits analysis needs to be made on the diversification of magazines or pamphlets. There are obviously many ways a non centralized system could come back and bite us in the but. However, on the strictly visual sense, I defintely see your point, but am not sure how detrimental, clothing/hair-style/ etc are to the effect of the pamphlets.

    Thanks again fro your thoughts though.

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