Panel of Jana Riess, Philip Barlow, Jan Shipps, with Kathleen Flake as moderator.
How much of Mormon past is necessary to understand its present in 21st Mormonism? Also on anti-Mormon literature focuses on LDS past, how will it be affected now?
Philip: That’s a typical Dr Flake question to ask. You made a good point in the Smoot hearings on how JF Smith faced in forgetting Joseph Smith’s last revelation (polygamy). We make meaning from the discipline of half-amnesiac and half historical teaching. We choose which strands to use, even if we have total recall. We construct identity through selecting what we choose to omit. My real answer is, I don’t know. But a usable history has to be selective, so it isn’t too much information.
Jan: In 1960 I was in Logan for 9 months. I never met a Mormon before and I started reading the history. As I talked with fellow students at Utah State, I became interested. No one mentioned plural marriage, as if it never happened. I reflected on that a lot and realized that the story of the people is as much about what they are forgetting as what they remember. You cannot tell a Christian story without speaking about the resurrection. You can’t get away without talking about Mormon beginnings, but it doesn’t have to be on the first page. There’s lots you can leave out and still tell the story.
Jana: I’m reading the new Brigham Young book. Seeing the history in the 1830s and 40s, we see huge changes in marital life, expectations, etc., there are huge changes, yet still some continuity. Two issues: what do we need as a people, and what do historians need. We cannot jettison it all. We do not need to toss polygamy away, for example.
Philip: I would hope a historian or anyone else seeking meaning of Mormonism, be interested in Mormon history. So I considered in this talk, I didn’t need to recite all the history, but I needed access in order to select as tools in a toolbox.
Jan: Most ex-Mormons keep rehearsing the early stories about things that are problematic, which can be interpreted in several ways, but they always place a negative interpretation on it. It is a bigger problem for 21st history not just for Mormons but everyone. We used to go to an expert or parent for information, and would get an answer with a connection to the past. Now they ask the Internet, and they might get an orthodox answer, but more likely an unorthodox answer.
Philip: I wrote a book on the Bible, and someone wrote if you want to know the KJV, read Phil Barlow’s book. Now with the blogosphere, a lot is ahistorical.
Jana: I love the Internet.
Kathleen: Why are historians asking “when did” or “when will” Mormons accommodate X? What do such questions illuminate?
Jan: I want to answer with another question. When you speak of accommodation, are they asking them to accommodate to the larger culture, or the larger culture to accept the Saints as they are? Can LDS accommodate to the larger culture without assimilating? Do they have to be like everyone else to be accepted? Do black people have to stop being who they are to be accepted?
Philip: It is a power question. A meaningful question in regards to religious survival. If a religion is too different, it will be hopelessly irrelevant or snuffed out. If it is assimilated, it will be irrelevant, as it won’t have any prophetic relevance. So many culturally liberal Christian churches struggle today, because they are becoming irrelevant.
Jan: We know that Methodism (which she is), accommodated so much that schisms broke off, refusing to assimilate (Nazarenes, Free Methodists). You could tell a Methodist in the 19th century, by the middle of the 20th, you couldn’t tell them from regular people.
Jana: Some Mormons think we can assimilate and still retain their culture: I’m a Mormon first. Armand Mauss shows we have some distinctive things. As we give up something, something takes its place. We give up polygamy, we push Word of Wisdom. Like Madonna, we keep reinventing ourselves.
Philip: When does accommodation become a sellout?
Kathleen: Friendly, helpful Mormon of today versus sinister Church of 19th century. Are we substituting individual good members with the sinister Church in the new ad campaign?
Jana: When I saw the NBC show, they went to see the Genesis Group, where they were clapping, etc. Even if it is a fiction, I’m thrilled we’re emphasizing it.
Jan: In the 60s, I thought Mormons were all alike, cookie cutter. Missionaries all look alike. Can the Church allow this amount of diversity in a Church that is as authoritarian as the LDS Church is? I don’t know the answer.
Philip: Relating to my talk this morning, the gathering to Zion, the Diaspora, and the now. There is a ritual cadence in General Conf, dress, etc. Many leave Utah to not be homogenized. When you said “sinister institution” we’ll see more people in the future who will say they are spiritual but not religious. The institution, by definition, is sinister and restricting to those who seek autonomy and diversity. OTOH, disciple and discipline come from the same root that suggests defending the institution to prevent drift and chaos in personal lives.
Kathleen: Regarding Philip’s analogy of Jews on the plane reflecting being in Utah, had elements of narcissism, coercion, and a people produced by place, and conflict, do you talk about that in SLC also?
Philip: I also thought of the Buddhists in Tibet, who are not as emotive. I did not mean to castigate the Jewish orthodox. It would be like visiting the Amish in Ohio. It was a focus on place and space. Utah are more diverse than even they know, and non-Mormons need to come to grip with that. We need to contest the culture and study/unpack it.
Kathleen: What is it that the LDS do not get about the cultural critique?
Jan: Jana mentioned the secrecy problem. In my commentary over the years, I keep saying that the secrecy problem is that Mormons see what goes on in the temple and it is private. The culture wants to know and think it is secret, when instead it is sacred and private. I tell journalists if they want to know, just find it on the Internet. There was a worry on Catholicism that the Church as an institution has control over its members’ lives. You either knuckle down on what the Church demands, or leave. So the institution and what it means in an independent America.
Jana: I’m going to disagree with the sacred/secret language. It is both sacred and secret. When we downplay it, we push the secrecy. We promise not to divulge things in the temple, and that is a secret.
Kathleen: many don’t get that distinction. Many Mormons think others should buy that.
Jana: Part of the barrier and Americans is Mormons think they are right and others are wrong. Discussions are to prove their rightness. We do not listen and learn from our neighbors. I would wish Mormons would walk around everyday and think they might be 100% wrong about religion. We should not assume we are somehow better than others.
Kathleen: Or what some Mormons think is sharing.
Philip: Mormons tend to take the scripture in D&C 1 “one true and living Church in whom I the Lord am well pleased” to compare it with other religions. Yet, we have scriptures that say others also receive inspiration of the Lord throughout the world (Alma 29:8). We do not have a monopoly on truth. It is possible to question this “one true church” concept. Mormons are chosen for a particular mission, but do not have a monopoly. Second, Mormons need the capacity to laugh at oneself. Our sense of persecution is painful and tender. Our witnessing, along with persecution complex, makes it hard to laugh. Gandhi’s wife invited some British, come teach us of your foolishness and we’ll share ours.
Jan: I never met a Catholic until high school, or a Jew until college. When I met Mormons I thought “oh they are just like Catholics.”
Q: What if you can convince the LDS they don’t have a monopoly of truth, do they then become mainline Protestant?
Jana: If I were in charge of the Church, we’d be bankrupt within 6 months and lose all its members. Sociology of religion requires certainty.
Philip: As with Joseph, we need to seek after the good, lovely and of good report.
Q: Is there an American aversion to create as Mormonism with its doctrine?
Kathleen: there is a history about it.
Q: What if Mormons had kept polygamy?
Jan: They would be at least as separate as the Amish, if not more. The culture would have forced them into a smaller and smaller space. Many were ready to hang up polygamy as soon as it ended.
Many would have moved to Mexico, and been a religion elsewhere. We’d all be speaking Spanish.
Q: What cultural things can we change?
Jana: I have a whole list of things.
Thanks Ram. GREAT job! Your recap makes me wish I had gone.
Our loss for not having you there, Bookslinger.
Please use the “MORE” tag!
You keep putting up these superlong posts that don’t show just the first couple of paragraphs on the front of the blog.
Good job, Ram. I’m surprised your typing kept up!
Rame, having done this at the FAIR conference, I gotta say you type a LOT faster than I do. Good job. Yes, use the MORE tag, as Bruce says.
G r e a t write-up!! I live in the Fort Wayne area. I was not able to attend because I only stumbled across news of the conference a week earlier and could not make arrangements. How do you folks find out about these events?! Did you help with organization? Does this particular conference convene regularly? What’s up next?
Swisster, unfortunately this conference did not get as much promotion as one would hope. I heard about it from my stake president, who heard it from another who knows the person setting up the conference. Since I am on the high council, and my stake president knows I am a junkie for this kind of thing, he let me know. I immediately sent out a notice everywhere I could – a week before it happened. Still we had about 80 in attendance, not a bad crowd.
If these people had read or heard our Church’s recently distributed “The Mormon Next Door” Power Point presentation,some of their comments and generalizations and criticisms would be moot points.
We do recognize truth is everywhere and that good and holy men who aren’t LDS have shared inspired truth. We have never said we have a monopoly on truth. Some take offense that we have restored truth and modern-day revelation, yet, I see other churches seeking truth from us and preaching it. We are glad to share the light of the gospel! and we appreciate that God inspires his Children with light and truth, whether in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or not. As Nephi said, “I know that God loveth His children, nevertheless, I know not the meaning of all things”
Organized religion is a must. It is a good thing. Look how much good comes from organizations like “Mormon Helping Hands”, Deseret Industries, Relief Society, Priesthood meetings? Not to mention the many, many Christian organizations that go throughout the world creating clean water reserves, housing, schools, hospitals, etc. for the needy. How about the Perpetual Education Fund, which has helped tens of thousands of impoverished families come into mainstream business to provide a better life for themselves and contribute their talents to becoming leaders in their fields. Even those who wish to worship alone have found God through some form of truth from a religious organization. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, etc. There is strength in numbers. Also, the Holy Ghost can be in one place at one time, yet HIS INFLUENCE CAN BE FELT by more than one person. Hence, the purpose of organizing ourselves for personal blessings and sharing the joys of these blessings with others who seek.
When you have a witness from the Holy Ghost of the truthfulness of the teachings of The Book of Mormon, Latter-Day Scriptures, Prophets and Apostles, then when you hear a someone give his personal uninspired opinion, whether he be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or not, you can recognize the difference.
I have seen the new Mormon Next Door program. The problem is, over many years the Church members, if not the Church at times, have given the impression that the Church is infallible. They take the “only true and living Church with whom I, the Lord, am well pleased” concept in a narrow interpretation, often meaning there can be no other true and/or living church.
One phrase I’ve heard often is this: The Pope is supposed to be infallible, but few Catholics believe it. The LDS Prophet is supposed to be fallible, but few LDS believe it.
With this concept of perfect prophets, we often find members shocked when they find out about Joseph Smith and polygamy, Brigham Young and blood atonement, Adam-God, etc. Many of our members are leery of other churches, sometimes believing them to be led by Satan, rather than God.
The Church is working on changing those perceptions. However, it has been a long and slow process, and will continue to be so as long as members memorize passages from mid-20th century LDS literature, such as Mormon Doctrine. There’s a lot of good in these books, but our doctrine has often moved past some of the statements in these dated books, which means some members don’t move forward with the Church. So, in the PH/RS manuals of the prophets, you’ll note that there is a careful selection of quotes that support our current beliefs. There is no discussion of polygamy, for example, since we have not practiced it in over a century. It is hoped that with such manuals, the members will learn our current doctrine, and not the one-off statements occasionally made in the past.
That said, the Spirit does work in many other churches. Alma 29:8 teaches that each nation and people gets the amount of light and truth they are ready to receive. So, when my Catholic or Methodist friends share their witness of Christ with me, I can feel the Spirit testify to me that they are speaking truth.
Yes, we LDS have many wonderful covenants and ordinances restored to us, that others do not have. But this does not mean we have all truth. We only have enough spiritual truth, priesthood authority, and restored doctrine to prepare us for exaltation. Most of our doctrines and truths can be found in other religious faiths as well, from Judaism to Buddhism to Islam. We shouldn’t be afraid to learn great truths from them, nor to share the truths we have.