Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are

This is the sixth of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger (see earlier essays exploring competing narratives of faith struggles, the pain of walking awayhistorical concerns, and The Church of Jesus Christ itself – along with the under-discussed effects of socio-political narratives on faith). 

“I thought it was a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Crazy thing is… it’s true…All of it. It’s all true.” – Hans Solo, The Force Awakens

Upon stepping away from the Church of Jesus Christ several years ago, a friend of mine wrote publicly about his new feelings at Christmas time.  In recounting a seasonal concert his family had attended, he remarked at how “transfixed” his young son was with the magic of the holiday event. Although this young boy still believed in Santa Clause, he no longer believed in God – following his parents’ lead.  

After reflecting on that ironic contrast, my friend’s concluding take-away was this: “They’re just stories! Santa Claus. Baby Jesus. Elves and reindeer. Angels and wise men. Each as real or fictional as the other.”

No matter how engrossing any of these dramatic stories may be to us, he’s arguing that like Star Wars, they’re really just pleasant fictions – no matter what Hans Solo might think.

Each time I revisit the conclusion of this man I continue to love and respect, I feel the same thing: A sadness. For him.  His sweet boy. And his whole family – especially during this season of the year.    

If the whole thing – baby Jesus, angels, the cross and empty tomb – really was just “mumbo jumbo” or a captivating fable…would Christmas have any meaning at all – outside of, perhaps, a raw anthropological acknowledgment of inherent value in social bonding, human community and cultural myths that help all of that happen?

Not really.

Transcendent joy?  Peace on earth?  Good will to men and women? 

Some nice feel-good concepts, arising from enduring myths that would make Joseph Campbell proud. 

As quickly as a child discovering who really left presents under the tree, the magic of this holiday season would vanish for me and many other believers. 

But it doesn’t have to.

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Does Progressive Teaching Represent a Higher Embrace of Jesus’s Gospel or a Misunderstanding of It?

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the fifth installment of a seven-part series that first launched on Millennial Star, now updated on Meridian Magazine, “Recruiting Alma the Younger (see earlier essays exploring competing narratives of faith struggles, the pain of walking awayhistorical concerns, and The Church of Jesus Christ itself). 

Time for a pop-quiz: Please answer yes or no depending on what most closely represents your own personal views (or that of a loved one).

1. Do you believe, generally, that women are not valued and treated well in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

2. When you see another sad example of sexual assault reported in the news, do you first think of the influence of patriarchy, sexism or misogyny (compared with the influence of endemic, increasingly violent pornography)?

3. Do you believe, generally, that people of ethnic backgrounds other than Caucasian are not valued and treated well in the Church of Jesus Christ? 

4. Do you believe that prophet leaders, generally, haven’t done enough to show they truly “love LGBT+ people.” 

5. Are you confident that the words “gay,” “lesbian” and “transgender” represent something fundamental about who someone is – even in an eternal sense? 

6. Do you believe the gay rights movement represents a natural continuation of the inspired efforts to expand civil rights that galvanized in the 1960’s?

7. When considering a heart-breaking instance of a gay teenager taking his/her life in our faith community, do you believe this largely has to do with this individual not feeling accepted enough by family, friends and the Church as a whole (compared with the influence of many other common factors)? 

8. Generally speaking, would you say you’re more concerned with changes you believe Church members and leadership need to make (compared with changes in the lives of those who might receive the restored gospel)?   

Last two questions: 

9. Would you consider yourself an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ?

10. If so, would you say you are happy and at peace in your participation as a member? 

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Turning Something Very Good Into Something Very Bad

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the fourth of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger” (see earlier essays on attachment injury, the pain of separation from the Saints and historical claims against the Church). Appreciations to Public Square Magazine and Meridian Magazine for sharing this previously. 

When a divorce takes place, something else almost always happens before:  whatever had once been earnestly, easily embraced as good and beautiful comes to be experienced as definitely not good and anything but beautiful. In the place of previous preciousness, new feelings of aching animosity often arise, alongside a new understanding of one’s partner, the relationship, and its history – as old memories are swapped out for a very different story.    

This happens with a dissolving marriage. And it does with the end of other kinds of unions, including in relation to faith communities. 

In a talk earlier this month, Russell M. Nelson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, outlined some of the humanitarian work the Church had been able to accomplish in a single year with the help of member contributions, including:

  • 400,000 food orders given out to hungry individuals
  • 300,000 people in 35 countries receiving vision care 
  • 50,000 people in dozens of countries receiving wheelchairs
  • Thousands of mothers in 39 countries receiving newborn care
  • Over 100 disaster-relief projects around the world helping victims of hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, and other calamities

Since these efforts began, hundreds of communities in 76 countries have also received clean water, with a total of more than two billion dollars provided in aid to people throughout the world independent of “church affiliation, nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender, or political persuasion.”

To many observers—even those who wouldn’t consider themselves religious—such efforts would be reliable markers of a people and an organization that is “good.”But especially over the last decade, more and more have come to see this faith community (along with other religions) in a very different light. 

How does something good on its face, come to be experienced as bad?  

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The Second Great American Desensitizing

Jacob Z. Hess

In the 1980’s and 1990’s religious leaders in America raised alarm about the continuing cultural infiltration of the sexual revolution through pornography and sexually explicit media – based on the long-term consequences many feared if objectification and promiscuity became the norm.  During this time, they warned the American people as best they could about how we were becoming “desensitized” to increasing nudity, promiscuity, etc. 

When not ignored or minimized, these “prudish” leaders were widely mocked and derided for raising any concern at all – “obsessed” as they were, about the “wrong things.” Others framed these warnings as attempts to stifle freedom and control people’s lives.  

But the religious leaders were right.  The long-term fruit of degraded norms when it comes to sexuality have manifest themselves in full glory over the last two decades. And they’re not good.  

Over the last twenty years, others have raised alarm with the continuing cultural infiltration of animosity, harshness and demonizing rhetoric in our public discourse – especially directed at those who disagree with us. These cautions have been similarly based on long-term consequences many fear if aggressive, anger-fueled language became the norm.  

As in the past, these concerns about another wave of growing desensitization in our country have been widely ignored, minimized – and even derided.  Others likewise frame these warnings as attempts to stifle freedom of expression and control people.  

But they’re wrong.  And the long-term fruit of degraded norms of conversation are continuing to manifest themselves over time. They aren’t good.  And they won’t be good in the future.   

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The Story John Told You

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the third of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger” (see earlier essays on attachment injury and the pain of separation from the Saints).

When a dear friend stepped away from the Church a few years back, she cited what she called “historicity” concerns laid bare after listening to a podcast called Mormon Stories hosted by John Dehlin.

I was surprised (and not surprised) that she had taken John’s insights as uniquely trustworthy and objective, including in his challenge to core teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the beginning, many found John’s casual, ball-cap-wearing style disarming – with large numbers over the years placing confidence in him as a reliable guide in more carefully investigating some of the central claims of their faith.

One interview at a time, John’s podcast gained popularity for parsing through little-discussed historical moments with keen interest, like a brave archeologist sifting through the fragments of the past in search of the full truth.  That ongoing examination was positioned as a free-thinking, but fair-minded inquiry – independent of any other agenda but knowing the facts.[1] 

As a result, people came to relate to the podcast as a way to really scrutinize the evidence – beyond the positive prejudice that infected those of us not-so-affectionately called “True Believing Mormons.”   

Putting it on the shelf. With each passing interview John conducted, the worrisome evidence piled up. Taking up a metaphor once used by Camilla Kimball in the context of preserving faith,[2] John and his followers would subsequently, dutifully try to put certain historical wonderings “on the shelf.” But after so many explorations over time, and so many concerns arising, many ultimately described a substantial internal shift taking place:   

  1. At some point, the evidence of concern became so compelling that the shelf would “break” under the sheer empirical weight.
  2. In that moment,they would often simultaneously conclude it must all be false, and Church leaders must have been lying to them.   

That dual motif, so often recounted on the Mormon Stories podcast, is the central part of what I’m calling John’s Story – the narrative he’s personally shared with the world over the last decade.[3]

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