Everyone’s been complaining the last few years about how all of America’s manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas. I’m here with good news: there’s one sector of manufacturing that’s alive and well in Utah. It’s Manufacturing the Spirit. Let me explain.
A few months ago I toured the St. George Visitors’ Center with my family.
I was amazed at the polish the place had in every aspect of its presentation, from the interactive technological displays to the shining white teeth at the center of the sisters’ smiles. The focal point of the presentation was an innovative video tour, where you pass through a corridor in stages, watching a video clip about family at each stage, progressing with them in their journey. The entire experience was extremely effective, and I felt a well of emotion in my chest as the message closed with furiously swelling strings and hugging relatives.
But I noticed something troubling as we walked out after the show. Where I had expected to feel the peace of the Spirit, I felt something else– something unsettled. As I inspected my emotions, I figured out what it was– I felt manipulated. This was not an intellectual response borne of cynicism. This was really my emotions speaking, telling me not to trust whatever weepy instincts had touched me in there.
That distrusting voice is not something I like to encourage, but it gained a lot of credibility a few weeks ago when we went to Disneyland. I stood with my son and watched a parade go by, composed of Mermaids, Lions, Witches, Princesses, and Wooden Puppets. The climax of the parade was a huge dance number with a bunch of beautiful fantasy couples (Belle and the effete-post-Beast, Cinderella and Charming, etc) singing some amazingly trite lyrics about “This is our festival! and best of all. . . we’re sharing it with you,” set to a swirling, catchy melody. The message was dim as could be, but the production values were positively radiant. And as they sang, I noticed something that I still shudder to acknowledge: yup, exact same tightening of the throat and rapid blinking of the eyes. Wow, I need to write a whole other post about how I’m really getting old.
But you probably see the point. I went to two very slick productions, one in which the eternal gospel was presented, and one in which the seven dwarfs welcomed me merrily to CommercialKitschHell, and had exactly the same response. Something’s wrong here.
The risk of manufacturing the spirit is not a challenge faced solely by the church’s communications arm. Youth programs often face this temptation as well, given their intense desire to find ways to touch kids that so often seem immune to thoughtful spiritual communication. You hear often of pioneer treks for youth that feature greatly diminished food and water supplies, presumably with the idea that the kids will be softened up and find spiritual enlightenment in their adversity. These treks are invariably reported to be spiritually profound experiences, and I do not doubt that for the most part they are.
But while the vehicle of imposed adversity may often be useful, it is obviously subject to mishandling. For example, many cite the deep spiritual experience of having women pull the handcarts while all males walk alongside, possibly with the hope that the men will feel some mix of guilt and respect, and that perhaps that vulnerability will give entrance to the spirit. I recently heard of a company that met a pre-planned insurmountable obstacle, were encouraged to pray, and were then miraculously rescued by a group of men from the ward, dressed all in white. This kind of contrived heavenly solution to self-imposed drama seems to me the very definition of manufacturing.
I emphasize that I have nothing about pioneer treks in general, nor the broad idea that sometimes we need to shake our youth up a little. But I think we need to guard against the temptation of seeing any emotionally poignant or bracing experience as spiritually nourishing. President Hunter warned against this in a speech to CES leaders:
Let me offer a word of caution on this subject. I think if we are not careful as professional teachers working in the classroom every day, we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself. I have watched a great many of my brethren over the years and we have shared some rare and unspeakable spiritual experiences together. Those experiences have all been different, each special in its own way, and such sacred moments may or may not be accompanied by tears. Very often they are, but sometimes they are accompanied by total silence. Other times they are accompanied by joy. Always they are accompanied by a great manifestation of the truth, of revelation to the heart. Give your students gospel truth powerfully taught; that is the way to give them a spiritual experience. Let it come naturally and as it will, perhaps with the shedding of tears, but perhaps not. If what you say is the truth, and you say it purely and with honest conviction, those students will feel the spirit of the truth being taught to them and will recognize that inspiration and revelation has come into their hearts. That is how we build faith. That is how we strengthen testimoniesâ€“with the power of the word of God taught in purity and with conviction.
As quoted by Robert Millet in “Bearing Pure Testimony,” Religious Educator vol. 1, no. 1 (2000), pp. 25-46.
(Thanks, Ben, for that quote)
Let’s focus on that last line– “taught with purity and conviction.” I hope we can do a little better at testifying with purity– which I take to mean delivering gospel principles unalloyed with slick packaging or emotionally jolting accompaniment. Is there a way to find a happy medium between the aging style of simple testimony, and the new-age mode of glossy emotion? How can we bring the spirit quickly and effectively, without smoke and mirrors? There must be a better way.