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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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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