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.
It’s hard to imagine his son Alma being too young to avoid an influence from this period of his family’s life. So, even after watching his father’s heart melt from a martyr’s message, even after witnessing Alma the Senior’s willingness to give up that golden throne and be driven into the wilderness to follow a Jesus who required his heart…even then, something else pulled at little Alma’s core.
Whatever conflict may have existed in Alma the Younger’s heart, he ultimately leveraged all his fame and inherited ability as a “man of many words” into the same path as his father once had – “speak[ing] much flattery to the people” in a way that “led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities.” More than simply persuade people to his own way of thinking, however, Alma’s couldn’t stand that others were teaching and believing otherwise. So, he dedicated himself to “going about to destroy the church of God.”
I don’t know many today who proudly identify as Destroyers of Churches. But some are sure attempting a fantastic job of it.
Winning hearts. As any who have witnessed the Love Loud phenom know, the persuasive power of the rhetoric, music and emotional appeals is substantial. Star-studded line-ups of celebrities, heart-wrenching stories of suicides, spontaneous weeping on stage, and statistics presented (always) in line with the same simple, compelling, enraging story.
What chance do any of the thousands of Latter-day Saints in attendance have of seeing past the brilliance of the flattering pitch?
About as much as the earliest audience of the Famed Alma the Younger: “And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them.”
When all is said and done, when all the enormous praise (ala MTV/Billboard/media outlets) received by Dan and Tyler and other activists passes away, I fear this will be the historical legacy of their efforts – just as this verse describes.
But it doesn’t have to end this way! Because it didn’t for Alma the Younger:
“And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God [with the sons of Mosiah]… and to lead astray the people of the Lord…behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them…”
And here’s where it gets really interesting.
That mean angel. What that angel had to say to them was so astonishing, and alarming – that they all “fell to the earth” twice – with Alma himself becoming “dumb that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands.”
Imagine for a moment people’s reaction to a story like this showing up on their social media feed: “Man gets physically paralyzed after hearing shaming comments directed at him…police looking for verbal assailant to press charges.” Not only had this angel made Alma feel bad – his message was so unsettling, so shaming…that it knocked him out!!
What a terrible thing for that angel to do, right?! For such a crime, clearly there would clearly be no forgiveness in this social platform or the next. Never mind that the discomfort of this message ultimately led Alma to the most indescribably beautiful transformation imaginable – including being “filled with joy” – with “nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.”
And “from this time forward” rather than continuing to be a “great hinderment” to the church, Alma became its veritable Tour to Force. More than simply another dedicated witness of Christ, he became one of the Mona Lisa’s of ministry and missionary work for the ages.
In a day where the church is being battered from many directions, I’ve sometimes wondered, “where are our Alma the Youngers? Who are the voices that will be our own Tour to Force so desperately needed?”
Heaven knows we could use that kind of added strength right now as a people – and the courageous voices sharing reasons to come back…But where are they? And what would it take to recruit these dearly-needed Alma the Youngers of our day?
Making the pitch. I asked this question of two dear friends who stepped away from the Church in recent years. Their decision involved a lot of thought and happened over time. I don’t doubt that. In fact, it’s precisely due to their thoughtfulness that prompted me to ask if they’d be willing to hear out my “best recruiting pitch.”
If I was a talent scout for an “Alma the Younger” for our age, they would definitely be near the top of my list. So would another dear friend who taught in the MTC while I was there – and who has become one of my favorite conversation partners (not despite our different views of the church, but because of them). And I’d have my eye on a third friend who was my roommate at BYU before later becoming estranged from the church with his wife.
To be clear, the parallels to Alma the Younger are limited. Each of these is seeking to raise good children (albeit “disabused” of their previous beliefs) – and has generally sought to be sensitive and careful with the possibility of destabilizing others’ faith.
What they do have in common is reaching harsh conclusions about their previously beloved faith community that I believe are simply wrong (and not for all the same reasons they might anticipate). And that’s why I’m asking each of them for a fresh opportunity to make the case as to what they may have missed – inviting an audit + rethinking of some assumptions they have likely made along the way.
Over the next seven months – from July to January – I’ll be publishing seven essays representing my best “recruitment pitch” to our Future Alma the Younger(s). Although posted publicly for a broader audience, it is these three dear friends I’ll be thinking about when writing.
Not that any of them are PUMPED about what’s coming from me! (: Some have admitted to mixed feelings about my pitch…this again? Sigh.
Maybe this is one reason friends who leave the Church so often seem to lose interest in even having a relationship with people in the faith. Sensing some kind of fear (of attempted persuasion? of disagreement?), we try to be respectful and thus avoid much of saying anything as members. Communication shrivels to a dribble…
Is there a better way?
Unapologetic transparency. How about this: not hiding what’s really going on inside – on both sides. (Doesn’t that get just-so-old?!) In this case, yes – I’m not going to lie: I want to try and persuade you to consider another perspective. Openly. Transparently. Without apology.
Persuasion for me is not a “bad thing” – but rather, a crucial “social good”…and something we should welcome, value and preserve in society today. That’s something my friend Charles Randall Paul has taught me.
So, I’ll be making my very best case, with (I pray) a wisdom higher than my own, and a tongue of angels to lay this on your own heart.
That doesn’t mean you need to listen, of course! I suspect some will refuse to even read or seriously consider what I have to say – opting out of any back-and-forth together.
But, in fairness: what’s really the point anyway? They are convicted – and so are you…why, then, would two people like that even waste time engaging?
Because that’s the only way we’re ever going to learn more! I’m convinced that friendly (but earnest) contestation is crucial to collectively discovering where we’re wrong – and what our blindspots are (including me!)
But what if we never even have the hard conversations? Pretty hard to learn anything new…and that’s precisely where we all are. Because so many of us are so darn scared to share what we think – or too busy to take the time and bother with something “that might not even change anyone’s mind…”
So, what?! Where ever did we get the idea that two people who are deeply committed to different ideas shouldn’t bother spending time together – and hearing each other out!?
Consider where this would leave us: Research has documented the degree to which spending time with people who think like us further galvanizes (and polarizes) our view exactly in the direction of our current thinking. It’s only when we seek out what Randall Paul calls “trustworthy rivals” in a practice of mutually respectful “contestation” that we have a shot at having our own deepest beliefs questioned – and even challenged.
But who wants that?
I do…we all should! And that’s what I’m asking for here: a shot to actually persuade you of something you haven’t yet seen.
Imagine how grateful you be if it actually works! Wow, BFF’s forever, right!?
If I’m right about my larger convictions, think about it: Your Future Self would dearly want me to be effective in doing exactly what I’m about to do.
What best friends do. To those who do hear me out, I want to promise to reciprocate in my openness to hearing from them – especially over time. In this, we’ll be pursuing the spirit of a joint statement by (Marxist thinker) Cornel West and (conservative thinker) Robert George, where they call for a willingness and even an “eagerness” to participate in truth-seeking discourse: “The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage — especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held — even our most cherished and identity-forming — beliefs.” [Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression]
George later described it this way: “we both recognize that if somebody does that — someone shows us that we’re wrong about something or we’ve drawn a conclusion that isn’t rationally warranted — that person is not our enemy. That person is our best friend. Even if it’s embarrassing to be refuted or contradicted in public, there’s still nothing more important than the possession of the truth” (emphasis my own).
I recognize that after many years of exploration, there can be a weariness of any such exchange between active and former members of the Church.
For that reason, I’m grateful for those willing to hear me out in the months ahead.
It was an angel who persuaded Alma to change course. I’m no angel – but I’d like to give it a shot.