On Reading the General Authorities

Reading is an important part of Mormon practice. As is hearing. And speaking. These language forms, in their peculiarity, help create daily Mormonism, although they may not be reflected on often in their specific quality as language practices. Certainly without them, Mormonism would be a very different religion.

While there are many things we read, as part of Mormon life—scriptures, Church magazines, manuals, perhaps even blogs—here I want to focus on the writings of the Brethren, the General Authorities. How do we read them? Are there particular ways of connecting reader and text, of making the sentences leap from the page with sense?

In my life the words of the Brethren have a quality of holiness. I read lots of texts, as part of my ordinary existence as a scholar. Almost all the texts I go through do not have that same sanctity. The anthropologist in me wonders if that sanctity is, in part, created by the way I approach and actually read the Brethren’s words.

I am sure I am not alone, among Latter-day Saints, in feeling differently about the General Authorities’ writings than I do about other texts. As a result I suspect there are some distinctive Mormon practices around reading.

Brian Malley, in his book How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism, has made us aware of the importance of language use for creating the sense of an inerrant scripture among Evangelicals. The text, itself, does not possess the qualities attributed to of fixity and immutability. Malley locates those qualities instead in the way Evangelicals read the Bible and use the Bible.

While the comparative question of how Mormons read scripture is not the same as how they read the works of the General Authorities, right now I am interested in the use of General Authorities’ writings.

Unlike other texts, I was raised to approach the Brethren’s writings with an attitude of prayer, such that through them I could feel the Spirit’s whisperings. It seems to me that idea/act is an important beginning for comprehending an approach to reading.

I do not tackle my anthropology books with that same attitude. Rather I am looking at them for arguments and the mobilization of data, for interesting ways of bringing together theoretical/philosophical concerns and the understanding of people. I do not read fiction in the same way as either of the two above, unless I am reading for work. Then I carefully look at issues of form, symbolism, and development. Otherwise I read for story.

The image “prayer” for me captures not only the act of praying, but also a sense of gratitude and pleading. The gratitude enshrines a reverence that, per se, is generally not critical. Reverence and critical exist at opposite poles in this sense of reading. And yet in other religious traditions, such as Judaism, argument is an act of reverence. In my academic training I was taught to “tear texts apart” as an act of intellectual reverence. Yet my Mormon-ness experiences a distinction between reverence in my tradition’s religious sense and the ways I deal with academic texts.

A second part of a Latter-day Saint way of reading would seem to be captured in Nephi’s adage concerning scripture, to liken it to yourselves. This notion sets the Brethren’s texts in a different set of questions than those of internal coherence as a set of propositions in relationship with other literatures. Rather it locates them in a place of concern for the sacred story of one’s own life, in relationship to the sacred story of all of our lives as a search for exaltation. It is concerned with the questions surrounding God’s moving in our lives and our openness to that quickening.

For the moment I wish to look at a particular text, Elder Holland’s “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments”. Part of the reason I choose this text is because in a future post I want to use it to explore the question of Mormon erotics. But for now, as a laying of a foundation, I am interested in it as text and in the practices of reading it. I also choose it, because it was as I was preparing a paper on Mormon erotics, presented at the 2006 Salt Lake Sunstone, that I really became aware of issues of reading the Brethren. In that paper I brought an anthropological approach to reading where I looked at the text for what it might tell me about a particular culture, the Mormons. I was less interested in textual coherence than in juxtaposing Elder Holland’s text to the studies of ethnographers in places as far removed as New Guinea, Brazil, and the United States on comparative erotics to see what Elder Holland’s text could tell me about a Latter-day Sense of the erotic.

I wrote: “General Authority texts like this exist ethnographically in a difficult space: they have a kind of authority which impacts on individual Latter-day Saint lives, but they are not statements of how Latter-day Saints actually do things, as opposed to how they ought to do things. They also stem from the two kinds of lacunae Bourdieu described: they focus on esteemed actions and they take for granted that which goes with out saying. However, since Latter-day Saints live in the larger American society, these two lacunae become part of the way they reproduce themselves within the larger context and therefore are formative. Nevertheless, as we approach the text we must keep these things in mind.”

I then noted that “in his long preamble” Elder Holland establishes “his authority to speak and the responsibility it gives”. But as I think about it now, almost two years later, that preamble is not only an establishing of authority and responsibility, it keys the audience as to how they should listen, how they should understand the text. Anthropologists are now calling things like this metapragmatics, a fancy way of saying they tell us how the text fits into our classification of things and how we should approach it and comprehend it. A joke requires a different metapragmatics than does the constitution, say. An anthropology lecture is keyed differently than a testimony.

Elder Holland invokes responsibility on his part and on that of the reader, although he does not say so explicitly, when he writes “This responsibility to speak to you never gets any easier for me. I think it gets more difficult as the years go by. I grow a little older, the world and its litany of problems get a little more complex, and your hopes and dreams become evermore important to me the longer I am at BYU. Indeed, your growth and happiness and development in the life you are now living and in the life you will be living in the days and decades ahead are the central and most compelling motivation in my daily professional life […] It is with an eye to that future–your future–and an awareness of this immense sense of responsibility I feel for you, that I approach this annual midyear devotional message. I always need the help and sustaining Spirit of the Lord to succeed at such times, but I especially feel the need for that spiritual help today.”

Elder Holland is telling us to listen/read with the Spirit, because what follows is of the Spirit and Holy, since it refers to a future of salvation. In the texts he mobilizes notions of seriousness, as opposed to casualness, as attitudes people should bring. His topic is sex, but his preamble tells us these attitudes of seriousness and the sacred should apply to reading. But seriousness here is not the seriousness I as an academic might bring in my slicing and dicing of texts; rather it is the seriousness of the Holy in the Mormon attitude of approaching and experiencing the Spirit.

While writing my paper, anthropological analysis of Elder Holland’s text came to feel transgressive. It applied different cannons to reading. Even cutting and pasting parts of his preamble here feels troubled.

I felt /feel wary of falling into the binary Elder Holland set of “seriousness and spiritual” versus “casual and carnal”. I wanted to pen a different space for my academic, anthropological reading.

One final point: Elder Holland’s “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” was a talk first and an article second. It was probably written, like academic talks, before being spoken to the audience. Now it lives as an article mobilized in Latter-day Saint discussions of sex. This play, among speaking, writing, listening, and reading, is fraught with spiritual significance in Latter-day Saint usage and requires development, another time.

For now, I just want to pose for a topic of conversation and discussion this issue of how do we approach the Brethren’s writings? Is your experience like mine? Do you also experience reading differently when you read different genres? Is it something in the genre, or do metapragmatics cue you to read differently, like I argue happens with Elder Holland’s speech? How do you read the Brethren?


  1. John Deacon says:

    I think that for me it comes down to the approach I use when reading and listening to the brethren. My confidence in their words is such that “truth prevails” when they speak. With this confidence i can move forward without having to rationalise or compromise their words but attempt to liken it to my life and deepen my own understanding of the gospel.

  2. I know that when I randomly open any article to read in the conference issue, I can normally tell within two sentences which apostle is speaking (I obviously don’t know the 70 so well). Very distinctive expressions and spirit for each.

  3. Can I just say, David, that this is a great post?

    I’d like to think I do respond to those metapragmatics correctly, but I’m afraid I’ve developed a habit of pulling bits out of context and scanning those bits for political and social meaning. Also, out of habit from my profession, I find myself paying too much attention to stylistic devices. I think your unease at dealing with the text in that way is instructive.

    However, I’ve started listening to the conference talks as mp3s, and I find it much easier to access them as holy texts in the way you describe here. Professionally I listen and assess much less often then I read and assess, and perhaps for me I need the intellectual distance forced on me by listening.

  4. david knowlton says:

    How we listen, as opposed to how we read, is an important issue, Norbert. I sense you are saying that you like to listen because then you are not pulled to a more professional way of reading. While listening you can “access” the holiness in the texts.

    Do you think this is primarily because of the way we are taught as Latter-day Saints to listen, including “listening” to the Spirit? Is listening the primary form and reading a secondary way of approaching them?

    Certainly the idea of approaching General Authority texts in a prayerful attitude might suggest so.

    It is hard for me to hear the Brethren’s intonation and voice, even though the formalities in them sometimes bother me, without feeling that openness to the holy and to instruction.

    John Deacon suggests that it is “confidence in their words”, an attitude of trust and perhaps testimony that circumvents the normal critical attitude towards text. In other words there is something in the mood, to borrow from Douglas Davies, with which people approach the words that gives them their holiness. I like how John says it “My confidence in their words is such that “truth prevails” when they speak. With this confidence i can move forward without having to rationalise or compromise their words but attempt to liken it to my life and deepen my own understanding of the gospel.”

    I hear John deacon arguing that the attitude allows him to follow Nephi’s adage and liken them to himself. Is that what you mean John by “deepen[ing] my own understanding of the Gospel”? Is it finding the references for it in your own life?

    Neal also brings up a sensitivity to the individual speaker/writer such that we know their phrases and tones, and approaches to topics perhaps, such that we can identify them within “two sentences”. What though are the marks of the individual styles, Neal? What keys one versus another, and how do those individual issues relate to the broader approach you might have for General Authority text?

  5. I realized a couple of years ago that I was not affording non-LDS authors with the same kind of charitable reading that I did LDS authors. It seemed, to me, a slant that limited the benefit I could derive from others. I’ve worked since then to notice and relax the internal aversion/debate mindset.

    I like the way you’ve developed your (possibly related?) idea here.

  6. John Deacon says:

    David Knowlton – This is exactly what I mean. But not only finding the reference in my life, but increasing my knowledge of the gospel.

  7. I first read and listen to everything with one question in mind:

    “What can this teach me personally – that I can liken unto myself?” (or, worded differently, “What hits me as I read / listen – what jumps out at me?”) Once I have focused on what I can learn personally, I then go back and try to understand what was being said overall – by focusing on very careful parsing of the words. I would rather understand some of it than misunderstand some of it. That’s true of religious texts, non-religious texts and blog discussions.

    Only after that process do I go back and try to see if I disagree with anything in it. (and that applies to how I listen to Christian talk radio as I drove the hills of rural SE Ohio, WV and PA, as well) I believe almost everyone has something they can teach us, as long as we are willing to look for it in what they say and write.

    In the case of this post, what jumped out immediately was the following:

    “Unlike other texts, I was raised to approach the Brethren’s writings with an attitude of prayer, such that through them I could feel the Spirit’s whisperings. It seems to me that idea/act is an important beginning for comprehending an approach to reading.”

    That sums up my attitude quite well. “Help me learn what I need to learn from this,” was how I translated it to myself.

  8. Very interesting post and something I just began to realize in my life from this past conference.

    After serving 7 years as Bishop then less than a year on the HC I was called as a Spanish Branch President. Although I had served my mission in Guatemala, I had never had the opportunity to hear conference (entire conference not just snippets) in spanish (no broadcasts in the highlands). This past conference we gathered as a Branch at the Stake center to listen to conference and the one overiding thing I came out of conference thinking was this:

    These wonderful members don’t know the voice of the prophets!

    We hear translators who, by and large, do a nice job with the words. However the inflections, the timing, the distinctive voices, are missing.

    I know I have really come to appreciate that aspect of conference now.

    As to the actual question…I love to read some of the Brehtrn more than listen to them. For example, Elder Wirthlin is a spectacular read, so is Elder Scott. On the other hand, I would rather listen to Pres. Monson and Elder Holland than read them.

    Anyway, great post. Thanks for the insights.

  9. Interesting remarks, David.

    Two comments: First, I definitely put that Malley book on order. And second, I highly recommend you listen to Don Bradley’s presentation from last year’s Sunstone Symposium, “Making Witnesses.” It’s more specifically about how The Book of Mormon’s metapragmatics work, but I think that the same way of reading gets carried over to a certain extent into the reading of the General Authorities.

  10. In my experience, once I open up, sit down and listen, and/or choose to read the words of the General Authorities I feel converted. I suppose it is some type of metaphysical conversion. Perhaps I change through the Spirit to be receptive to tones and words far differently than had I casually accepted the presentation of those spiritual messages, without an attention to holiness.

    I recently read a presentation by Blake Ostler called “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment” where hey suggests that the Holy Ghost transforms the natural heart to a Urim in Thummin, or Liahona. That the broken heart, as an altar in the microcosm of the temple, functions also as a Liahona. When receptive to the tones and words of the Brethren I become as a seas of glass, inheriting messages through mind and feeling.

    So for me, when I open up (as I term it) then the Holy Ghost transforms my reading/hearing to be akin to receiving visions and dreams through sound and the metapragmatics of text.

  11. David,
    If these comments aren’t rich ethnographic/textual sources for the questions you’re asking, i don’t know what would be.

    Fascinating discussion

  12. “And yet in other religious traditions, such a Judaism, argument is an act of reverence.”

    I too consider analytical consideration and “tearing” text apart a form of reverence, whether the texts are words of our prophets and apostles, or the words of religious leaders of other faith traditions. But I also believe in extending charity to the speakers or writers (of whatever tradition) in trying to understand the intent or purpose behind texts that do not make sense.

  13. david knowlton says:

    C.Biden. I suspect your experience is not unique. I have often thought boredom plays an interesting structural role in Mormonism. Banality does as well. I have friends who love to go the rounds on this one.

    Somehow I think boredom is one reaction, although int eh right circumstances it can also turn into the heightened response of spiritual movement. That intrigues me.

    Brad, maybe you can write from this ethnographic material. I am not doing fieldwork right now. To do so I would have to run a project through the Institutional Review Board and announce to everyone that I am gathering data. Instead I am just asking questions. But as you know ethnographers observe society and participate in it. Their very interactions create material for more meditations.

    I am particularly struck by the richness of material on the conversations on BCC. People’s experience of Mormonism is intriguingly complex, from Ray to C. Biden in just a few posts. They illustrate the range of experiences. Tod’s visionary response is also part of the repertoire. I will bet that Tod too has been bored sometimes.

    You too Brad. How do you read? What is the range of your response?

  14. David – Boredom? Yes.

    I find for myself that I need certain stimuli, or the lack thereof to really get in the holy line. For instance, silence is an ultimate gateway for me. I feel like text and sound can penetrate my heart and mind far better when I can absorb light and truth through minimalism.

    But like I commented on a previous thread, I do not believe that revelation and connection only exist within a vacuum of silence. Reading without dissonance allows the words to speak for themselves through the Holy Ghost.

  15. PS – I just realized I wrote “Urim in Thummin”! Ha.

    Urim and Thummin. Duh.

  16. I _love_ this post!

    Fwiw, one of the biggest cues to how I read the Brethren’s words comes from some sense of relationship with them, gained from past experiences and also expressions of their personality (anecdotes, syntax etc).

    So, perhaps strangely, the better I feel I ‘know’ the speaker, the more receptive I am to the holiness in the message.

    Lately I’ve wished it wasn’t like this!

  17. Great post David. I have something to say about the metapragmatics of speech. This problem is directly related to the how Mormons negotiate the various commandments that they are given. If the words of prophets are the markers in the road to eternal life then do ALL the words of ALL the prophets hold the same ontological status? This is clearly not the way that “listening” to the Brethren works. Although in some wards you may find the individual who claims that every word from the prophets’ mouths is inspired and infallible (similar to the catholic dogma of pontiff infallibility), this is clearly an untenable argument. Joseph Smith himself said “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (HC 5:265).

    So when are those cues given that a prophet is “acting as such”? What are the proper cues given to signal the authority of a statement. Of course there is the classic “thus saith the Lord” or “as the Lord liveth” forms that are employed in the scriptures and early speeches of the Brethren, but what of today?

    General Conference itself, as a form of ritual practice, seems to entail a certain transfer and designation of authority to speech. But even that itself doesn’t go all the way for the members of the Church. I was talking with a member of my ward the other day and she commented to me that when a woman speaks at general conference she stops listening because that individual doesn’t have the authority (due to gender difference and lack of the priesthood) to speak for the Church.

    So it seems that those cues that signal the metapragmatics of the Brethrens’ words doesn’t rest solely upon the words themselves, or on the pragmatics of “speaking/listening” (as General Conference, Stake Conference, or even Sacrament meeting goes), rather those signals are embedded in us throughout our the praxis of living as a member of the Church. It is in a very Durkheimian sense the collective consciousness of the lay members of the Church that helps decide the “holiness” of the words of the Brethren.

    For example, one statement that has continually fascinated me is the admonishment by the Brethren to not watch rated R movies. Although this is continually stressed in many situations, especially amongst the youth, I continually come across members of the Church who do not believe that this it is a “sufficient commandment” (their words). So it seems to me that those words are mediated both through the individualized experience of individual members but also, if not more so, through the collective experience of lay members. Bourdieu…

    This leaves these questions open…is the process of listening to the general authorities a democratic process? If not, how is it that members collectively determine when it is that the prophets are “acting as such”?

    And if the individual experience of the spirit as confirmation plays a significant role (as I believe it does) then can the spirit specifically tell you that a prophet is not “acting as such” (Brigham Young, JD 6:100; JD 9:151)?

    Of course, my reliance on the written statements of Joseph Smith goes directly to your issue of speaking and listening/reading and writing. Is the writing of general authorities’ statements another step in the signaling of authority to speak and necessity to listen? It certainly seems to be part of the process of canonization.

  18. Jordan, how sad that lady in your ward feels that way. Good grief. The female speakers at conference are representing auxilliaries, yeah. But still their words can impact one in their individual lives. If people have the right mindset, there are things to learn from everyone we meet.

    Usually I’ve been a listener at conference. Then I will read the talks either online or in the Ensign.
    The other day, I was at my mom’s and she had some old (2005) Conference CD’s. So I borrowed them and have listened to some of them this week during my long commute(included listening to my first Priesthood session!!). Speaking of that conf, I lack the ability to describe it, but it was fascinating to hear how Elder Bednar kept addressing the Priesthood as Bretheren. He was speaking on not just going on a mission but becoming a missionary. Somehow the way he said Bretheren was very powerful, for lack of a better word.

    In general, it is amazing to hear the power in the voices and focus just on their voices and not watching them via video.

    I appreciate what the brother said about how native Spanish brothers/sisters miss hearing the voice/tone of our leaders. I think we who can hear and see are also lucky! We get to hear the hymns,e tc and hear all those voices. For example, the fall 2007 Conf when there was that touching scene w/Elder Haight and Elder Holland as Elder Holland helped suppoort Elder Haight, even as Elder Haight spoke words of being a true disciple and having love for others. Those of us who got to witness that event got to see and learn something that those who only heard the Conf on CD or who read it later or who will read it years down the road will miss out on. (that is unless the people at lds.org put in a PS as a footnote to describe the beauty of what happened)

    When at General Conf they show pictures of people/places, I feel bad that those who are blind miss out unless someone decribes it very well.

    Other than this, I basically tend to prefer certain themes and relevant quotes (ie to my life) and focus on those.

  19. OOps- forgive me. Please allow me to correct. You know I meant to refer to Elder Wirthlin in my above comment concerning Elder Holland. I am a doofus, it’s been a long day.

  20. david knowlton says:

    Nita, and others, bring up the importance of seeing and hearing General Conference. Douglas Davies claims that Latter-day Saints emphasize sight in building their religious sensorium, or set of senses. I am touched by the visual testimony of Elder Wirthlin helping Elder Haight. The way my individual set of feelings connects with the image in General Conference, without any words in the middle, and somehow draws up gospel principles and perhaps testimony, is not peculiar only to Nita. If Davies is right, this is something that is organized within Mormon practice. It is a key part of our religiosity.

    Jordan, you are working through the ways that people bring their own things to the experience. It is not just keyed in the talks, but also has to be received and responded to harmoniously. The listeners and readers have an important role to play, as so many of the posts here mention, whether it is through their personal connection with a General Authority, the feeling of boredom versus heightened feeling, or something else. Chris (number 9) I like what Don Bradley develops. I do need to listen to his talk, since I missed it at Sunstone, but it seems he focuses on the internal textual issues. It is also important to see how reading itself is organized and taught.

    The experience itself is not simply ones individuality in action but is something that is molded and structured by living in a religious society and being part of it. This idea of the social organization of hearing/reading and responding is important in the anthropology of language ideologies, or metapragmatics. it is the idea that there are socially organized ways of understanding what language is supposed to do and how it is supposed to work. These ideologies, among other metapragmatic forms, stand between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader. They join them.

    The anthropology professor strikes. Yikes…

    still I am fascinated by how people hear and read. Jordan’s question of when is something to be taken serious and when not is an important one.

    For me, this became obvious when President Kimball gave his don’t kill the little birds speech. It dropped from popular consciousness like a stone in a lake. It seems the Brethren are aware that what they say is not simply received but must pass through an audience’s filters. While frustrating for them, this relationship between communities and authorities makes for an organic Mormonism that works.

  21. I was thinking about this thread this morning on my way to work. Another talk that one truly “felt” via wathing was the one President Faust had that talked about forgiveness. He spoke about the Amish and how as a community they instantly gave forgiveness to the man who brutually murdered their young schoolgirls. But I learned much by hearing President Faust, he was very emotional at the start of the talk and for a few moments couldn’t speak due to the emotion of his message.

  22. For the record, it was Elder Nelson helping Elder Wirthlin.

  23. Nita, I absolutely agree. I will always remember that talk as one of the most powerful ones I’ve ever heard from a General Authority. The other month during Sunday school we watched that talk and after he finished there was a long silence. You could feel the power that his words had had on all of us. It wasn’t just the intellectual rigor or the nice story he told but it was also how he told it.

  24. Peter, thanks for clarifying my clarification!!! Yikes!!! How embarassing even my clarification was messed up. I knew that, believe me. I seriously wonder about my mind sometimes!

    Jordan- that is neat your ward watched the whole talk.

    I joined the Church in high school in 1985. I don’t really know how the earlier prophets/GA’s sounded. I have always been a reader more than a listener. This thread has me thinking it will be fun to go back and listen to some of their talks, not just read them!

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