Literalism as Gormenghast

The Marvin Peake’s book opens with the 77th Earl of Groan about to judge elaborate wooden carvings. The people that live outside the walls of the sprawling castle Gormenghast live for one purpose, to have their art chosen and placed in the Hall of the Bright Carvings. The carvers live in squalor. They are bitter and angry. Dark of mind and heart. However, they make art from the wood that grows in the surrounding area. The carvings are of such wonder and rarity that to see one is to fall in love with it.

However, to the Earl, Lord Sepulchrave, it is just a ritual that must be disposed of, which he does. Without regard to any actual merit he selects three carvings and goes back to the castle to perform the next ritual in the endless stream of rituals that make up his day. The Carvings are hauled to the Hall and placed on display in a dusty room with a fulltime caretaker. A room that no one visits. Ever. According to ritual, those carvings not chosen are burned to ashes.

The great holdings of Gormenghast are ruled by rituals that stretch back into the distant past so far that their meaning and intent is gone. They are carried out faithfully, if without joy, by the Earl, directed by an aging master of ritual who with single-mindedness dictates the daily actions of the Earl in the performance of his duty.

The emptiness of the rituals is reflective of Gormenghast castle itself. A vast and crumbling structure of such labyrinthine complexity and size that it stretches from horizon to horizon. Most of the wings are in shambles and only those sections where people are living are kept somewhat clean and minimally repaired.

By the end of the book, rituals that have been in place for hundreds of years are utterly destroyed. Destroyed because meaning had been lost. They had been enacted faithfully for many years, devoid of insight or meaning. Their original purpose masked by the ossified objects they had become. Without a renewal of meaning—without an injection of newness or life, they had become so stiff with arthritic deposits that they had become fragile and as such were easily fractured into shards when the first challenge to their continuity emerged and shattered their fragile existence.

What keeps ritual alive and vibrent?

Is there a lesson here for us? In our church what allows its procedures, policies and such to survive? Are they in danger?

I think the Bott affair suggests this type of ossification in just the way he related with past leaders of the church. It’s not uncommon to find certain people who hold the beliefs of past prophets and apostles up as something that we too are demanded to believe, ignoring the cultural context in which those men were raised and which colored their Weltanschauung. Like the rituals of Gormenghast the context for these views as been lost, so they are not only held up for current consumption naively, but yanked from the world in which they were embedded and an attempt is made to hammer them into spaces for which they should never be pressed into service.

For example, Gary R. at “No Death Before the Fall” often strings together long pieces of text from past general authorities as evidence that these ideas should direct our belief today. Evolution and such are often the sort of things that are excavated from the past and held up as exemplary perspectives and attitudes we should hold today. Because a general authority held that evolution was an abomination, or that another had deep culturally derived prejudices, that we should hold those views today is a mistake of the worse kind.

This miss understands the nature of an open canon and continuing revelation. It posits that these things mean only accumulative changes—that new revelations are just another line carved on a long list of doctrines also chiseled into stone and read literally and simply. This misses the point of an open canon. In an open canon, revelation is not just additive it is transformative. It recontextualizes all that has happened before. It makes all things new even the way things were read in the past. Everything must be recast. It opens new possibilities and rewrites and reinterprets that which came before. So much so that that which came before must be understood in entirely new ways. Literalistic, entrenched, and ossified readings kill the spirit of what continuing revelation even means.

In any organization, even our church, the danger of heading to Gormenghast is always one of the hazards that tempt us away from fresh vibrancy. This occurs most often when certain things are held as inviolate despite an imperative to reinterpret them in light of new information.

We believe in continuing revelation. There is nothing in that idea that suggests that new and vibrant expressions cannot or should not replace old perspectives that were clearly wrong, harmful and misguided, but perhaps charitably understood as motivated by prevailing attitudes and perspectives of the past beyond which we’ve moved. Bruce R. McConkie perhaps said it best upon the revelation giving the priesthood to African-American men:

“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.” 2

This is the effect of new revelation. Nothing is inviolate and gets to remain the same. Everything is changed. Including the way we bring things forward from the past.


1. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake, 1946. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London

2. All Are Alike unto God, BRUCE R. MCCONKIE, Bruce R. McConkie was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this address was given at the CES Religious Educators Symposium on 18 August 1978.


  1. Why am I not surprised that Steve P would find a way to tie Gormenghast into Mormonism? Excellent work.

  2. Well done!

  3. Wow, SteveP. Beautifully stated. Religion merges with art in many ways, and new artists interpret the sacred according to their own living visions. For years, Mormon art seemed all Arnold Frieberg–muscular, filled with testosterone (maybe even steroids), bold. I would suggest that his art lacked much feminine beauty–and I don’t know if he ever painted a black person. I’ve been interested now to find images of mothers and angels, to see strength and grace merge through artistic strokes. I’ve been actively looking for an image of Christ which seems semitic. The best I’ve found tend to blur His face, but the skin tones are dark. The images I see in my ward house, in the temple, at the Distribution Center show me pictures that resemble me and my ancestry, which is pioneer ancestry–from Scandinavia and England. How do we truly recognize and value the sacred otherness of people (painted, sculpted, or in their everyday clothes, sitting next to us on a pew) who DON’T look like us. How do we accept them into a world which is still learning to respect them–really respect them? What kinds of bridges must we build to bridge the gaps we’ve allowed to widen?
    I love your line,”In an open canon, revelation is not just additive it is transformative.”
    I am awaiting further transformation, global transformation, which has been cleansed of irreverent divisions between the sons and daughters of God. One antagonistic writer said that we Mormons change our religious tenets easily, that we’re essentially flip-floppers.
    Cleaning up our history so that it is purged from racist thought (though preserved in some ossified state for future generations to marvel at) is not flip-flopping. It’s repentance.

  4. “I am awaiting further transformation, global transformation, which has been cleansed of irreverent divisions between the sons and daughters of God.” Beautiful. And I see by ‘awaiting’ you mean doggedly pursuing it, working toward it, and actively trying to bring it to fruition. Thanks Margaret, you do a world of good. (And yes. Let’s bring our art up to par with our revelation!)

  5. “Literalistic, entrenched, and ossified readings kill the spirit of what continuing revelation even means.”

    Amen – and amen. Such readings deny the proper path of “living” in “true and living” – as, biologically, “living”, by definition, means “changing” in one way or another. “Living” can mean decay or progress – and I prefer the accumulated, progressive change of evolving light and knowledge to the hardening that inevitably accompanies it’s denial and reliance on former doctrine as Eternal Truth.

    Fwiw, I wrote the following yesterday on my own blog:

    “Doctrine” Does Not Equal “Truth”

  6. The real question, though, is why the ones at the top of the LDS hierarchy were among the last to back down from their own “ossification” on the topic of race. There is a very real and dangerous problem with an organization that claims to be directed by God. The problem is that people in the organization believe it.

    And that is the strongest recipe for ossified literalism imaginable.

    And maybe the church *is* led by God in some things, but if it is, it’s on a much more subtle and inconsistent level than a lot of people think. People, after all, are inconsistent, and all of us–even leaders at the highest levels–are woefully inadequate at distinguishing the will of God from our own minds, if such a distinction can even be known.

    To my interpretation, the priesthood/temple ban is Exhibit A of the inadequacies in all of us. It wasn’t just Brigham Young or just Joseph F Smith or just Elder McConkie that perpetuated the racist myths. It was EVERY church leader at least up until 1978, and the church members went along with it, for the most part, because they were told that the church is led by God and they believed it.

    We either need to add some healthy nuance to that notion of being led by God, or we need to throw it out altogether, because, despite what we’ve been told in church, too much faith can be a very bad thing.

  7. “It wasn’t just Brigham Young or just Joseph F Smith or just Elder McConkie that perpetuated the racist myths. It was EVERY church leader at least up until 1978,”

    Just to be factually correct, no, it wasn’t. That’s one of the key points in that particular discussion – that they were never unanimous perpetuated.

    “We either need to add some healthy nuance to that notion of being led by God,”

    Amen – especially if we want to remain consistent with the entirety of our scriptural canon. It always amazes me that Mormons can believe in literal or practical infallibility, given our actual scriptures and how patently they testify against it.

  8. too much faith can be a very bad thing

    No. Misplaced faith can be a very bad thing. So can too much cynicism masquerading as reason.

  9. This is just so wonderful, Steve. It’s late and I want to comment more later,but just wanted to say thank you for the moment.

  10. Greg Prince talks a lot about “trickle up revelation” and of the good that common members of the church can do in influencing the leaders at the top. He talked about this in the context of the lifting of the priesthood/temple ban (e.g. work by Darius Gray, Lester Bush, and others), and in the youth program that was started in his stake and later instituted as a church-wide program after church leaders learned from the ideas of this one stake (that’s a summary of his story to my best recollection), and he talked about trickle up revelation in other contexts.

    I have no problem with bottom-up, grass-roots ideas or leadership. None whatsoever. It’s just that in the context of the church, if that’s where we have to look (to the “bottom”) to get truths as basic as “no race should be denied the priesthood,” then why do we even have leaders at the top anyway? Something is terribly wrong when over 100 years worth of church leaders failed to take any real leadership stance on such an important spiritual issue as racial bigotry and ignorance, and it was only through the persistent efforts of “commoners” within the church (and influences from outside of the church) that the leaders were finally able to steel up the courage to do the right thing. This irony is exacerbated when church leaders continually exhort members to “follow the prophet” and to equate their own words with the will of God.

    The problem of ossification in bad (or at least old) ideas will be ever-present unless and until church leaders actually take upon themselves the role of forward-thinking leadership, and not just reactive re-fortification against perceived threats to the old way of thinking.

    The other part is that the members have to allow themselves to disagree with church leaders more openly and honestly. Of course, this won’t happen until members actually allow themselves to question church leaders and judge for themselves what is true or not.

    Without some kind of real dialogue, and give and take, between church leaders, the leaders will continue to retrench and exercise their brand of one-way directives, and most members will raise their hand thoughtlessly in church to sustain them, and repeat those directives in Sunday School classes, equally thoughtlessly and uncritically.

    Ok. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  11. Paul, I don’t disagree with the basic sentiment you are trying to espouse, but couching it in such black-and-white, hyperbolic terms doesn’t help your cause at all. It wasn’t and isn’t as extremist as you are painting it to be.

  12. #7 “Just to be factually correct, no, it wasn’t. That’s one of the key points in that particular discussion – that they were never unanimous perpetuated. ”

    Ok, that’s accurate, and it’s great that it wasn’t unanimous, but for all intents and purposes, it may as well have been, because the church never chose to take a stand on what most of us would now consider to be the right side of the issue.

    #8 “No. Misplaced faith can be a very bad thing. So can too much cynicism masquerading as reason.”

    The trouble is that we don’t always know when we’re placing our faith well and when we’re misplacing our faith. If we did know, it would no longer be faith.

    My comments don’t intentionally come from a place of cynicism. They come from a place of conviction (on this particular issue), and there’s a difference between the two. No, I’m not free from cynicism, and I’m not always right, but some issues come from deep within a person, and this is one of those issues for me. It’s less an exercise in “reason” for me and more an expression of my inner sense of right and wrong. I realize that others see things differently, and that can be discouraging to me, but it is what it is. Discouragement isn’t quite the same as cynicism either, though I suppose there’s some overlap. Sorry for letting some cynicism show through in the tone. What I wrote comes from a place of honesty though.

  13. Michael R. says:

    Paul, I think that you over estimate the ‘ossification’ issue with regard to the General Authorities. It is true that some may have taught now-discredited concepts, but at the same time there were genuine efforts made through prayerful appeals to the Almighty for clarification or resolution to the dilemma. We now know that David O. McKay sought a fuller explanation and also Divine permission to resolve the inequity. If we are to believe him, and I do, he was told by God that then was not yet the time and to not trouble Him further. Fast forward to Spencer W. Kimball and his relentless efforts to implore the Lord for a resolution, and he, after extensive and protracted fasting and prayer, finally receives the long awaited revelation.
    I have come to believe that God waited for the Saints to be ready to accept this revelation and to broaden their embrace to accept all as fellow Saints. When I was on my mission, (circa 1972), and serving in West Seattle, I and my companion were visiting the local bishop when a ward member, a police officer, stopped by to visit. Before his arrival we and the bishop had been discussing this issue. After the police officer entered the bishop’s home we discussed the matter for a few minutes more before taking our leave. My concluding comment was that I believed that the revelation would come in my lifetime, although I couldn’t even venture a guess as to when. The police officer then spoke up and said that if that day came while he was alive he would leave the Church. When the revelation came, I wondered if he did leave. But he and his attitude illustrates exactly what I mean. We don’t know how many “old school” Saints needed to pass away before this
    revelation could be given to the Church and the world without a general apostacy. I know that there was a loss of membership after the announcement of the revelation, but of course we don’t know the magnitude of the loss. However, if the revelation had come in 1910, it is plausible that the defection might have been of such a magnitude that it could have taken the remainer of the century for the Church to recover. It took the Civil Rights movement decades to raise the consciences of the American people to the egregious injustices perpetrated on African Americans, all for the presence of more melanin in the upper layers of their epidermis than we have. My conscience was raised during that time and so was the consciences of many of my fellow students at BYU. I have concluded that our Heavenly Father waits for us to grow in conscience and awareness of the injustices and inequities we see in this world. He wants us to rise to the occasion.This is an essential part of our mortal growth, testing and trials. It would be counter productive and against the very principle of our free agency for Him to fire down on us Divine fiats like the 16 inch shells of a battleship raining down on Okinawa. He orders instructive events here on this earth to teach us and help us grow, (and the adversary* orders other secular influences and events to draw us away). But we retain the divine right to think and reason these things out for ourselves, and by so doing we grow.

    *I won’t give him the capital ‘A’…

  14. It took the Civil Rights movement decades to raise the consciences of the American people to the egregious injustices perpetrated on African Americans, all for the presence of more melanin in the upper layers of their epidermis… We are reliving this experience with gay rights simply because they fall outside the church truncation limits of of the human bell curve of sexual preference. Gay folklore has been preached then quietly set aside or replaced. Who needs folklore prophets? Who needs lagging revelation? Where is our proactive divine leadership?

  15. I coincide with Margaret #3 in the “ethnics in arts” issue on the church. And also, this ossification of ritual and policies, to me, has a lot to do with the actual incapacity of the church integrating other cultures in a worldwide faith. With this speech of “faith under attack” the church is castled in standards rooted in eternal truths but highly biased by culture. It is deeply alienating for mormons outside of the US (whether they perceive it or not) to structure huge chunks of your life into an anglosaxon pattern. This goes beyond an entirely anglosaxon hymnbook, activities, instilled way of life and programs. I think it permeates the whole stiffness of the general instructions and “mormon culture”.
    I wonder how would it be like if the vast richness of different ways to see the world could be successfully integrated within our church common culture, I think there is a treasure of renovation and transformation there, for sure. That integration has nothing to do with having good domesticated natives dressing in their picturesque traditional clothes for parties.
    ( I cannot swallow the pill that God just prefers anglosaxon ways, which I love and appreciate for sure, but please, there is so much more!)
    International hymnbook to start with? Can you picture yourself singing some African praise to God in sacrament meeting? I bet africans (and asians, and everybody else) sing translated anglosaxon hymns every single SM.
    Please, do not take this as an attack to US or antiamericanism, it is not. It is just my two cents from, maybe, a different perspective.

  16. “I wonder how would it be like if the vast richness of different ways to see the world could be successfully integrated within our church common culture, I think there is a treasure of renovation and transformation there, for sure.”

    So true.

  17. I understand, Paul. Thank you for your additional comment.

    It’s a deeply personal issue for me, as well. I’m just saying that the vast majority of what was written and said about the ban and the justifications for it came from a relatively small minority of the actual apostles who lived during the ban. We forget that sometimes. (Yes, there weren’t strongly worded, public arguments against it, but we now know of some pretty intense private questioning at multiple times.)

    That has significance for the overall issue of literalism, imo. Unfortunately, the most vocal proponents of anything, in any arena, tend to be the literalists who are convinced they know exactly and absolutely – and those who are not literalists tend to be far less vocal, since they are not as certain they know exactly and absolutely. They tend to teach principles, while the literalists tend to preach “facts” (as they see them). Thus, the public voice of almost any organization of any reasonable size tends to be the literalist one – the piercing sound of the piccolo, to borrow Elder Wirthlin’s wonderful orchestra analogy.

  18. Ray, I think you’ve pointed out something important. Literalists tend to be much more certain because the things that they frame their views on are not based on encounters with the real world that are subject to revision as science is. Yet they don’t realize that their readings have a context that is as culturally embedded as they are. For example, Young Earth Creationism was an invention of the fundamentalist movement invented largely in the 1920’s, yet its proponents assume they are saying the same thing that the ancient Hebrew authors of Genesis meant–Not.

  19. #13 “We now know that David O. McKay sought a fuller explanation and also Divine permission”

    Yes, I’m aware of what has been said about David O. McKay, and it’s nice to know that he cared enough to at least consider the topic. Here’s the thing though. Take a mental trip back to the days of Joseph Smith, and let’s talk about a (very) different topic for a moment, for the sake of comparison. Joseph taught all kinds of hard doctrines, whether the people were ready for them or not. He even introduced his followers to the idea of polygamy. (Stay with me. I’ll come back to my real point.) He started by introducing polygamy to only a select few trusted friends, and he publicly denied the practice when rumors got out, and he even destroyed a printing press to try to keep it as secret as possible (and to discourage dissent in general), but the fact is that he still introduced the concept to people, he still practiced it, and he got others to practice it. All of this happened within a very short time frame.

    I’m no fan of polygamy, but my point has nothing to do with polygamy itself. It has to do with Joseph’s willingness to break social taboos, push boundaries, and forge ahead with his vision of what the church can and should do. He didn’t wait until the church members were ready for polygamy. He didn’t postpone the move for another 100+ years. He started implementing it very quickly (allegedly after some hesitation and an angelic visitation warning him of dire consequences if he didn’t proceed), and began rolling out the idea to a gradually widening circle of friends. Had he lived long enough, he probably would have publicly endorsed it eventually. He was headed in that direction, and that’s what his successors did.

    To my mind, treating all God’s children as god’s children is far more important than increasing a man’s celestial glory through multiple wives. But church leaders didn’t just waver on the point of race. They fought it. They actively stood on the wrong side of the issue and defended their position.

    Now it’s in vogue to say that they (or God) delayed the decision because the church wasn’t ready for it. That the church wasn’t ready for it was undoubtedly true. But that wouldn’t have stopped someone like Joseph Smith from declaring it anyway. Joseph had his weaknesses, but bold courageous leadership was his hallmark and one of his greatest strengths.

    The modern church leadership continues to endorse the idea that what sets the church apart from the rest of the world’s religions is its unique position of being led directly by God. If that’s the case, then we’re saying that God himself changed from being a bold, courageous, forward-thinking leader into one who was more concerned about the inconvenience of unseating long-standing bigotry within the church than in charting a course forward toward greater love for all of his children. I can’t say what God’s plan was, but it’s easier for me to accept the idea that the church leaders were wrong and that they were severely lacking in courage and vision on this issue than it is for me to accept that God just didn’t care enough about it to make it a priority until the moral laggards within the church could handle it without getting their feathers ruffled too much.

    So, if we are a church of continuing revelation. Let’s have some continuing revelation, especially on the issues that matter most. That’s my main point.

  20. “That the church wasn’t ready for it was undoubtedly true. But that wouldn’t have stopped someone like Joseph Smith from declaring it anyway.”

    Um, Paul, it did stop Joseph from “declaring” polygamy to the Church – as you said yourself earlier in your comment.

    Also, it would be very easy to compare Joseph’s insistence on polygamy in the face of intense opposition to future leaders’ insistence on the ban in the face of intense opposition – and the point I would make, again, is that people who believe they are “defending” something tend to fight vigorously to protect it. That is true, especially, if they are literalists – which is one of the central points of this post.

  21. Amen, Paul. And consider that more information about the actual church history was available when Pres. Kimball took the reins in 1974. Lester Bush’s article had been published the year before, and was drawn to his attention. Prior to June 1, 1978, Pres. Kimball asked the Twelve to look into the issue, to study it out, before meeting. Part of inspiration is information. We study it out first, carefully. An anti-intellectual church will not value faithful scholarship in the ways it must, even as a fully intellectualized church would likely not value faith as it should.
    Also, SteveP, OSSIFY has been one of my favorite words since HS biology. I have actively sought ways to use it outside the description of bone maturity. I will start sprinkling it into many sentences now. I’m aiming for three uses tomorrow. “There’s something about this pizza. I don’t know–the crust is so dense. It’s like it’s ossified.” “I’m really dragging this morning. I want to stay in bed and ossify.”

  22. Ray makes a good point. Perhaps a better example than polygamy would be Joseph’s preaching on the plurality of gods, something he knew was controversial but which he taught unapologetically multiple times.

  23. #20 Um, Paul, it did stop Joseph from “declaring” polygamy to the Church – as you said yourself earlier in your comment.

    If David O. McKay had secretly practiced the ordination of blacks to the priesthood, and had secretly let blacks receive their endowments in the temple, and had introduced his fellow apostles to the practice and encouraged them to do it, while carefully planning how to eventually introduce the concept to the rest of the church, then your point would stand, Ray, but none of that happened on President McKay’s watch.

    Joseph did introduce it to the church–starting with a select group of fellow church leaders–and taught it as a binding revelation from God. McKay just passed the issue on to his successors.

  24. SteveP reveals his literary roots! I actually labored my way through one of the Gormenghast books when I was a kid, but it was awfully dark. More like Lovecraft or Poe than Tolkien.

    I think you are right to focus the problem of “ossification” on individuals. The Church itself has very little trouble in changing its practices and doctrines when it wants to, such as eliminating the office of Patriarch or rearranging the Seventies whenever that is convenient. The idea that doctrine is eternal and doesn’t change (the idea that gives rise to ossification) is helpful for keeping the general membership in line (to keep rank and file members from practicing “trickle up revelation” as discussed in comment #10) but doesn’t limit senior LDS leaders in any meaningful way.

  25. “McKay just passed the issue on to his successors.”

    Even if I agreed with that description, I would add that it was because of what he felt was direct revelation from God telling him not to act yet even though he wanted to do so. That gets overlooked completely in your sentence above.

    Again, I get what you are saying and don’t disagree with the general point you are making – but the sentence above sounds incredibly dismissive of one of the men who did more than just about anyone else to get the ban ended officially. He even went so far as to state that it wasn’t doctrine – that it was just a policy. He didn’t “just pass the issue on to his successors” – and that’s all I’m really saying.

    Positioning the overall historical issue in such extremist terms blurs history as much as traditional white-washing does, albeit from the other side of the glass, and it only further ossifies those who see it as unfairly attacking those who didn’t openly support and seek to justify the ban and, in the case of Pres. McKay, actually did MUCH to prepare the way for Pres. Kimball to end it. I’m saying a deeper look at the actual history brings out the fact that there were lots of apostles who didn’t actively preach in support of the ban or concoct justifications for it. I’m just saying we need to recognize and admit that if we are to talk about the overall issue in a comprehensive, convincing way.

    Breaking down the mistaken idea that there was unanimity in support of the ban and the justifications for it is an important first step. Eliminating that literalist stance is critical, imo.

    Really, that’s all I’m saying

  26. I appreciate the nuance you’re trying to bring to the discussion, Ray (#25), and I will definitely acknowledge that President McKay was more open-minded on the issue than many, and that his presence in the church hierarchy helped pave the way to an eventual overturn of the priesthood/temple ban. All of that is true.

    Nevertheless, there is a difference between being sympathetic to a cause, which McKay was, and championing a cause, which McKay did not.

    And yes, I’ll admit that I question his interpretation of the answer to the prayer that he feels he received, not because I disbelieve him in any way about the experiences or impressions he had, but because, those experiences and impressions were necessarily filtered through his own mind and thoughts, as they are with any person who thinks they receive an answer to a prayer about something.

    I’m not saying this about his experience specifically so much as I’m making a general statement about the nature of personal impressions and perceived revelations. We all feel impressed about things from time to time, and sometimes very deeply so. Sometimes those deep impressions prove to be true and in alignment with what’s right, and sometimes we find out that even our most powerful impressions were more a manifestation of our own thoughts and desires than they were a manifestation of truth.

    The priesthood/temple ban is one instance in which it’s easier for me to believe that McKay was mistaken in his interpretation of his feelings than to believe that God was waiting for a magic moment in 1978. Is it possible that McKay received real revelation telling him to wait? Sure, it’s possible. But it makes more sense to me that McKay was reluctant to make such a bold move, and so he interpreted his feelings as an answer that the policy should not be changed.

    To go back to the point of the main post (literalism as a cause of ossification), literalism in the belief of unambiguous direct revelation to church leaders is one of the main causes of intellectual ossification within the church. I question the literal interpretation that President McKay received an unambiguous direct answer to his prayer on the topic of race, because if he did, it creates more theological problems than it solves, when it comes to why God would have given that answer and why God would have chosen to exclude so many people for so long. It forces us to invent folkloric fabrications to explain the apparent injustice of God.

    By way of contrast, saying that a church leader was mistaken due to human weakness requires no folkloric fabrications. We all have human weaknesses. That’s easy to understand and accept, and even easy to forgive. But it doesn’t make those weaknesses God’s will.

  27. Being an ecologist rather than a historian gives me a different way of looking at it, but I’m enjoying the heck out of Paul and Ray’s discussion. The field of restoration ecology, which focuses on healing and bringing back ecologies to their original or some other desired state is notoriously difficult. Invasive species are constantly interrupting, random events like weather or climate are shifting the parameters, and unknown effects are constantly interrupting. And one can never get it right because ecologies are complex, emergent, and dynamic. What one doesn’t want to do is create a fragile system such that the ecology collapses before it can take off and the ecological system becomes depauperate and fails utterly. People often talk like the restoration of the gospel is God’s machine that he could wind up and set running like a shinny silver robot to lurch forward on command. God ought to have done this or that kind of tinkering to get the clanking tick tock to point x. Rather I see it as a restoration ecology. Lot’s of room for disasters, but a constant effort needed to get rid of invasives (prejudices, literalism, anti-science and such), but to get the ecology right takes all the tricks of the trade. What fragilities God faced in getting this ecology right we don’t know. I for one think it’s important to join his efforts in creating a vibrant cultural ecology today and fight against the invasive species trying to destroy the desired emergence, so when I see a thing that doesn’t belong (say, creationism or racism) I have no qualms about yanking it from the soil or pond no matter who mistakingly planted it (I’m looking at you Brig. Young, carp in Utah Lake? Really? Come on.). But deciding what God ought to have done when is a matter best left to the great restoration ecologist in the sky. And yes, he needs top and bottom to work hard to see the right emergence occurs. Quite likely there are no guaranties that even as of yet the outcome is certain or fixed.)

  28. The idea of a restoration ecology is a good one. With that kind of broad approach, it makes it possible to include all of the key players in the big picture, and not just LDS leaders. In a very real way, it might even allow me to bestow the title of “prophets of the restoration” on notable moral leaders like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others (all of whom had their own weaknesses, but certainly stand out from the crowd for their considerable strength on important topics).

  29. SteveP, your post is a great explanation of what an open canon and continuing revelation really means. Thank you.

    A week and a half ago, J Stapley gave a presentation at the Church History/BYU symposium on Joseph F. Smith. In his presentation, he talked about Joseph F. Smith as the last of the “old school” prophets. He was born in Nauvoo, made the western trek, and had known every church president personally. The context was that during his administration, we began to see a major move away from the oral transfer of church doctrine, practice and policy, to a more uniform, written form, as in the very beginnings of correlation. One example used was that temple liturgy was not written down, and not consistent from temple to temple, until an effort was made to produce a uniform ritual that was not unique to each temple, and perhaps even to each officiator.

    I found it a fascinating topic, and have thought about it a lot since then, particularly in regards to the Bott issue. The priesthood ban existed at least for the first 50 to 100 years almost exclusively as an “oral tradition.” No written revelation, only the comments of various church leaders, recorded in the Journal of Discourses, the Deseret News, etc. Once an effort was made to begin looking at the ban from an academic, historical, and scriptural perspective, it began to expose the ossification of the reasoning behind the ban. The 1978 revelation to Pres. Kimball was indeed transformative to those who would recognize it. However, (and I hate to use NDBF Gary as an example, but he seems the best known example), there are those that seem to be clinging to the incorrect traditions of our fathers, still basically oral utterances, but preserved in print form, giving the spoken word more heft and longevity than perhaps they otherwise might have.

    As SteveP pointed out, McConkie’s statement about “forget everything we thought we knew” is just as significant for its impact on our understanding of revelation as it is about the ban and .the oral traditions that perpetuated it.

  30. “even allow me to bestow the title of “prophets of the restoration” on notable moral leaders like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others (all of whom had their own weaknesses, but certainly stand out from the crowd for their considerable strength on important topics).”
    Rightly so!

  31. #26 – “By way of contrast, saying that a church leader was mistaken due to human weakness requires no folkloric fabrications. We all have human weaknesses. That’s easy to understand and accept, and even easy to forgive. But it doesn’t make those weaknesses God’s will.”

    Absoloutely. Well said.

    #27 – Steve, I really love that example. It goes along with the “strength of the root” framework in Jacob 5.

    Paul, I really like the restoration description in Jacob 5 – a planting, dunging, pruning, etc. process rather than a one-time event that many members see. I see the racial biases and the Priesthood ban as a “bitter fruit” that needed to be pruned by a removal of the branches that bore them, and I see other things in the same light. Prejudice and discrimination are the biggest such branches, imo, and I don’t believe we are anywhere near done with that particular pruning process yet, but I also know enough of agricultural care to believe in the disastrous effects of radical pruning of branches that have reached clear to the root. We’ve removed one such branch, but we still have little offshoot branches (invidual members) that won’t disappear completely until the surgical wound has healed over completely – and, frankly, like the older generations of Israel in the wildnerness, those offshoot branches just might have to die before the wound heals completely.

    That saddens me greatly, but sometimes it just is what it is. It doesn’t mean I should stop trying to find ways to nip them in the bud wherever I find them, but it gives me a degree of patience I wouldn’t have otherwise.

  32. I also want to second Steve’s response in #30. Add Mother Teresa and so many others to that list, and we have a great start toward a real appreciation of God’s grace that “so fully he proferrs us”.

  33. This is a great post. In an orthogonal view:

    It appears to me that there are two types of people involved in change, the changers (revolutionaries) and the keepers (as per the 77th Earl of Groan). IMHO, Chairman Mao is our most recent, well known, large scale, changer and a very instructive case. He took millennia of ritual and threw it in the trash which, in many ways, was superlative. Those rituals and cultural icons kept millions enslaved as surfs and laborers for the rich and powerful.

    But society and human life cannot sustain too much and too rapid change. Chairman Mao shows what happens if the changer does not die. He loved revolution, he felt lost and useless without it. As Chinese society began to settle down into new patterns, Mao grew bored and did not like the settling down so he instituted the Cultural Revolution, a true disaster. Too much change is not good, so the revolution must end and be handed to the keepers to solidify and unify.

    In the United States we had a revolution, the experiment for democracy. Two political parties emerged which embody the changers and the keepers. I do not imagine the world had much experience, to that point, with political parties. These two poles embody most of the differences in almost every democratic society, which we label liberal and conservative. We hope they are in dynamic equilibrium, with the changers bringing necessary change while being damped and slowed by the keepers. If the keepers win, disastrous revolution is eventually certain to follow. An extended period of life under keeper rule is not nice, to put it mildly, and will be as bad as poorly managed change.

    Joseph was a changer who did it approximately right. He was killed at the height of his changing power. I am assuming he loved his power to change things. What would have happened if he had managed to make it to the mountain stronghold? Would he have been like Mao, continuing his confrontation with secular society to create a real mess? But he did not and passed the keys of the kingdom to keepers and organizers. For a hundred years or more his liberal, changing, spirit was kept alive in the Church leadership who remembered him, who was nevertheless dedicated to keeping. Finally, however, Joseph’s legacy passed completely to the gerontocracy of keepers and organizers.

    The ultimate effect has been, as the winds of change have been reshaping the world, that the Church has doubled down on the old strategy. Correlation can be seen as an attempt to bolt everything down and keep everything under control of the keepers. The keepers did not want just anyone writing manuals, adjusting programs, etc. The end is that hardly anyone in the Church can have their own thinking on any subject. We, the membership, have become extensions of the thoughts and will of the leadership. We are their hands, feet, and voice. This is the organization of an army or navy, following orders of the leaders.

    Change will happen. If there were not separation of Church and State, ecclesiastical revolution would be a horrid and bloody affair. That sort of revolution will not happen in the modern world because ecclesiastic control, now, does not mean domination by force. Revolution in the Church will not happen like the Protestant revolution against Catholicism because of the freedom of our society. The revolution will happen organically. Presumably the Church will reach an equilibrium with the surrounding society, neither growing or shrinking, but existing. Then another sprout can grow from the roots. That will be the change. I think it is already beginning to happen.

    An alternative for change is to allow the ability of individuals in the Church to change the Church, to lead it into a more rapid rate of change. There are problems with this because people will use this freedom to do bad, as well as good, things. The bad things are the price of this more rapid adaptation. I do not hold much hope, however, that the keepers will stop keeping. There are no means for not keeping in the Church. There is no diffuse power, no independent Relief Society, no relatively independent Mutual Improvement Association or Sunday School Board, which can control its own destiny even a little bit. We are all dependent on the First Presidency and the Correlation Committee to tell us how to do and what to think except in the narrowest range of implementing the prescribed programs. There are no political parties existing in dynamic equilibrium to help move the body forward. The opposition parties have been eliminated for all intents and purposes. (FYI, God loves opposition, God is a changer. See the story of Jesus.)

    As an example of the possible: when the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed, I was so excited. I thought, here was a proposition we owned. We even had a Mother in Heaven to prove it. It was a chance to move into the vanguard of freedom and equal rights in society. A reasonably progressive leadership could have worded a nice response supportive of the goals of equal rights. The response could have included the wonderful Mormon doctrine of eternal gender and shared celestial glory, which we, as a Church, would want to further: that we do not believe in the subjugation of women, who are equal partners and utterly necessary in that eternal glory. The response could have stated that the Church could support the Equal Rights Amendment with certain carve-outs for military service and religion.

    In the end, the whole ERA brough-ha-ha had no real effect on anything except to drive more changers from the Church. Likewise the Priesthood issue, likewise Prop. Eight. We have become a church of keepers. Does continuing revelation only have to do with which keeper is right for which keeper job? Or where to build the next building? We, changers, miss Joseph.

    I ramble.

  34. RW, that was great!

  35. At the risk of a thread jack: Tying the ban, art, and ritual all into one is the temple ceremony. I’ll know we’ve finally left our racist doctrines in the past when we have a Black Adam and a White Eve in the temple video. I told this to a white mother who had several adopted black children (and who has on their behalf been involved with the Geneses group), her response: “It will never happen.” In other conversations it became clear that this is because she still (after all that has been said) believes too much of the folklore. It is great that we are finally addressing this, but we still have a long, long, long, way to go.

  36. Chris, fwiw, it helps that in the temple the Lord can be black. I’ve seen it, and I will never forget the image.

  37. Steve, your #27 was worthy of a post all by itself. Just wonderful.

    RW, your #33 was terrific, too.

  38. Thinking about the connection between the church and the bloggernacle, I can’t help but think that there is a danger of ossification within the bloggernacle as well as the church. In that instead of rituals and ceremonies that certain issues get mummified and ritually brought up and discussed again and again within the bloggernacle, even if the relevance and context of the issue has died long ago. That there is a risk that we are writing about, commenting on, and critiqueing issues that are no longer relevant or important today but they have been preserved by us.

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