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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Why does it hurt so bad to walk away from the Church of Jesus Christ?

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the second of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger (starting with an initial piece exploring attachment injury in relation to faith struggles).

“Excruciating”…“the worst pain imaginable”…”I couldn’t believe how much it hurt.”

It’s not uncommon to hear language like this from people walking away from activity, life and membership in the Church of Jesus Christ.  One dear friend of mine wept as she described the pain of separation, repeating multiple times during our visit how some of the new things in her life (coffee, tank tops) “didn’t take away the pain.” 

So, I asked the natural question that came up for me, “so, in a previous stage of life when you were happy and active in the Church, this kind of deeper inner pain and lack of peace would have been taken as a pretty good indicator that something is off – and maybe God isn’t behind the direction you are going, right?”

“Yes, but not anymore,” she and her husband replied – explaining that they no longer believed in the existence of a Holy Spirit that guided people with internal promptings: “We don’t believe that anymore.” 

I found this exchange simultaneously fascinating and troubling. Here was a precious family (and dear personal friends) taking momentous steps down a path that felt downright excruciating… And yet, rather than seeing these deeply conflicted feelings as having any deeper import (as would have jumped off the page for them within their previous faithful narrative), they saw no higher meaning or sacred caution in this case, and from this new way of seeing the world. 

Stories we tell about pain. I first became interested in how we make sense of (and narrate) pain when I interviewed people saying conflicting things about depression: “Prozac saved my life” insisted one woman, while another mother told me, “Prozac led to my son’s suicide.”

How could two people with similar experiences (medication for serious depression) arrive at such profoundly different conclusions and interpretations? That same core question still fascinates me today about other contested, difficult issues (including, most recently, in relation to sexuality, gender and faith). For instance, what leads one person to adopt one way of thinking about the pain of walking away from the Church of Jesus Christ, and another person to adopt a profoundly different way of thinking about essentially the same thing? 

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Proposing another way to understand catalysts to faith disaffection: Attachment injury

Jacob Z. Hess

This is the first of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger

There continues to be lots of discussion about disaffiliation and disaffection from faith communities these days – most often, involving a language of unexpected “faith crisis” hitting, which can subsequently trigger what many experience as an inevitable, irrevocable “transition process” away from religious practice.

While the language of “crisis” may be a useful framework at times, it also has its limitations.[1] So, I’d like to propose today another way to make sense of some of the moments that seem often to act as early catalysts to a process of disaffection.   

For the last decade, marriage and family therapists have been learning to better help couples navigate intense moments that can prompt an unraveling of otherwise secure, loving relationships – moments where marital attachment has essentially become “injured.”  Formally, “attachment injury” has been defined by Dr. Sue Johnson and colleagues as occurring “when one partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring in times of danger or distress” and is “characterized by an abandonment or by a betrayal of trust during a critical moment of need.”

This “injurious incident” subsequently “defines the relationship as insecure and maintains relationship distress because it is continually used as a standard for the dependability of the offending partner.” Whatever happened in the past thus “becomes a clinically recurring theme and creates an impasse that blocks relationship repair in couples therapy” (italics my own).

While acknowledging some limitations of this other proposed metaphor, I’d like to suggest the concept of “attachment injury” as having some unique applicability and relevance to the variety of incidents that often precipitate what is most often characterized as a “crisis of faith.”  My proposal below applies across faith communities generally, since clearly disaffiliation is a broad phenomenon.  But I take as my primary focus examples from my own faith community: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In particular, I raise this as another way to help make sense of times or specific moments when our understandably high expectations of life in our respective faith communities are not only not met, but in different ways (and for different reasons) painfully disappointed.

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Recruiting Alma the Younger

Jacob Z. Hess

This last weekend, I caught a glimpse of Tyler Glenn and Dan Reynolds on the Love Loud Livestream singing a mock primary song, with words implying hypocrisy among those hold a different perspective on sexuality than they do, for not being loving like they are (like even a child should find obvious!) I couldn’t help but think about what it could have meant if – instead of using their enormous reach and popularity to foment discontent, resentment and suspicion, these famous rock stars would have found a way to uphold, sustain, and even defend their beleaguered former family of faith…in the very moment when Heaven Knows we need it the most.   

“It’s not more critique and attack we need right now,” I told a good friend recently who has stepped away from the faith. “What we need is an Alma the Younger.”

It would oversimplify the Book of Mormon account to describe Alma the Younger as growing up with a huge spiritual advantage due to his prophet father, since that same father once sat on a golden high priestly throne thanks to his willingness at the time to speak “flattering…lying and vain” words to justify the “riotous living” of a sexual free-for-all in his patron King’s court.  

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Who Loves Gay People “the Most”: Prophets or Activists?

Jacob Z. Hess

When it comes to “the loving thing to do,” we continue to reach very different conclusions in the American conversation on sexuality.  Why? Our convictions about love, I argue below, arise directly from other convictions about happiness and identity itself...all of which explains contrasting evaluations of whose teachings are “loving” and whose are “destructive.”

With another Pride month upon us, rainbow flags everywhere remind us about who has decided to love gay people in their neighborhoods. But what does that really mean? And is it a question about which thoughtful, good-hearted people could legitimately, honestly disagree?

Maybe not. It’s become so common to equate support for the formalized gay rights movement with loving people more, that when a question or concern is raised about this same movement, it’s become almost automatic for (many) people to label the person raising the question as obviously “unloving.” 

And when someone suggests (as I have) that it’s possible to love gay people in a different (perhaps even better) way than is being called for in the gay rights movement, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised with the responses. 

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