Jacob Z. Hess
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.
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, 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:
- At some point, the evidence of concern became so compelling that the shelf would “break” under the sheer empirical weight.
- 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.
But is this “John’s story” or that of hundreds he has interviewed? Of course, people bring their own experiences and personal stories to an interview. What I’m suggesting here is that inevitably, inescapably, those raw experiences get “framed up” in a particular way during the course of the conversation.
And in this case, a certain narrative theme is very apparent across interviews: the troubling evidence is discussed in the interview as (a) objective and clear and (b) simply too much – requiring one with integrity to do something. In this way, the Heavy Shelf-Breaking Evidence Forcing Me to Walk Away message has been amplified to the world a thousand times over.
So dominant has this theme become online that it shows up everywhere now. One man, for instance, recently commented online:
The real issue is that the common body of evidence – when explored honestly and seriously…fully justifies negative conclusions about Mormonism at virtually every turn – including about common, routine religious/spiritual experiences that are interpreted as the “Holy Ghost” and “testimony.”
Many thousands of similar comments can be found in various groups online, full of similar assertions: it’s pretty simple – just follow the evidence!
That damning evidence, from this vantage point, “fully justifies” painful conclusions about what had previously been precious. Once someone has managed to wrap his or her head around this evidence, the argument goes, the only question left is whether one has enough “integrity” to embrace “science” or “history.”
As if it were only this simple.
What scholars believe about history and science today. Although John does faithfully represent a more classical view of empirical and historical reality, it’s not one widely embraced anymore among philosophers of science and history.
Because few scholars actually believe history or science are so simple, linear and clean. That is, of course, still an impression many in the general public retain – seeing science as a simple amassing of evidence that points one way or another. Historians are also typically understood as aggregating primary historical sources until the truth becomes unmistakably clear.
According to this account, the actual truth about Jesus, or Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon (for better or worse), is clearly laid out in the historical record for any honest-hearted person reviewing the evidence.
But consider this: After literally thousands of pages of grand jury testimony and evidence compiled about Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri by a white policeman (prompting riots in 2014), there are still wide disagreements on what actually happened. But with the scant evidence available on early polygamy in the Church, voices on both sides sometimes assert the historical truth on Joseph Smith or Brigham Young’s marriages is crystal clear.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: even with abundant evidence, the truth of a matter can be difficult to discern. And while repeated patterns of evidence should obviously be compelling to any honest science or historian, there’s also a lot more going on in historical or empirical scholarship – at least when it involves a human being!
And what is that? Human interpretation and values.
While people generally assume this kind of human element is “controlled for” in rigorous scholarship, that only applies to the most blatant of value interference. In reality, human interpretation and value permeate every level of scholarship. As paleontologist writer Brian Switek recently told Doug Fabrizio on RadioWest, “Science isn’t ‘we found a fact, and we’re going to put it on the shelf, and now we know this, and now we’ll move on’ – it’s this dance between fact and theory constantly going on. And the expectations you have going into something will influence the data you collect, how you interpret that data, how you think about that.”
Compared to the image of a scientist leaning in carefully, trying to intently “listen to the data” – this contrasting understanding points towards more of a dialogue with the data. Rather than “speaking for itself,” data must be interpreted – by a human interpreter (with his or her own distinctive values and standpoint).
This is what foils the simplistic accounting of an “obvious” historical or scientific report-out. Instead of a linear, mechanistic process of accumulating evidence, research is appreciated as a human endeavor involving human interpretation, evaluation and judgment (constantly + at every level).
And that means when it comes to research commentary (a la Mormon Stories, et al.), it’s not just evidence we’re consuming, but a particular interpretation of that evidence.
An alternative to the shelf narrative: Conditions of authentic choice. According to John’s story described above, the gradual accumulation of clear evidence is so compelling that it eventually reaches a point of undeniability (at least to souls with integrity).
Don’t members of the Church sometimes talk this way in the reverse direction? – aka, the evidence of God’s hand in the world or of the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness are so undeniable that any thoughtful person paying attention should be able to see them!
Is that something you’ve believed?
In response to this perception, Terryl and Fiona Givens write, “An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads”—with the genuine freedom to choose whether to believe (or not) requiring a space “perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension.”
This isn’t an argument for relativism or a denial of the possibility of strong conviction about truth. It’s simply a reminder of what Latter-day Saints have been taught since the beginning: that God set up this Big Beautiful (and Often Terrifying) Plan of Progression with human agency wholly sacrosanct. As one of the original songs from the first Latter-day Saint hymnal says, God will “never force the human mind.”
What the Givens are suggesting here is that God preserves our freedom by holding back! Remarkably, even though He could be more clear and perfectly persuasive, He intentionally, lovingly does not. As one commentator nicely elaborated:
God has set up this marvelous place of tension between competing perspectives of reality. There are reasons and facts that point us in one direction or another, but in the end we choose a story that resonates with us, we choose a prophet to follow (Pres Nelson, John Dehlin, Sam Harris, Sean Hannity, etc.), and we construct a story for ourselves that agrees. “Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.”
In a world explicitly designed for conditions of authentic choice, the Givens go on to argue that “one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial.” Rather than the sheer weight of evidence on one side or the other tipping the scale, they go on to suggest that the thing that “tip[s] the scale” is the fact that each individual is “truly free to choose belief or skepticism, faith or faithlessness.”
Instead of a choice about whether to follow the “undeniable evidence” confirming that either the Church is true or false, the central choice from this vantage point is something else entirely: what do we really want the most? The Givens elaborate:
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we ‘get it right.’ It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. The content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe…When freely chosen, faith expresses something essential about the self.
Such a freely-made, transformative space of ongoing choosing is made possible, the Givens’ argue, by being “confronted with a world in which there are appealing arguments for a Divinity that is a childish projection, for prophets as scheming or deluded imposters, and for scriptures as so much fabulous fiction.” Simultaneously, however, they point out: “But there is also compelling evidence that a glorious Divinity presides over the cosmos, that His angels are strangers we have entertained unaware, and that His word and will are made manifest through a scriptural canon that is never definitively closed.”
Seeing John’s influence clearly. Okay, so where does this all leave us? From the vantage point of this second story (wherein conditions of authentic choice are paramount, and God will not force the human mind), the influence of someone like John Dehlin comes to be understood quite differently.
Rather than primarily a discloser of facts or a revealer of uncomfortable realities, we come to understand John as a missionary like the rest of us: someone raising a certain perspective and offering it to the world. Interview by interview, John drew out a certain framing of other people’s insights and experiences (as we all would, if we were conducting the interviews).
Subsequently, those listening in to this conversation took away modifications and sometimes whole-sale renovations of their own assumptions and narratives. Compared with the way in which my friend described the influence of this podcast, then (forcing her to confront painful challenges represented in a more comprehensive historical picture), I would argue a more accurate description of what is happening goes something like this:
John’s wide audience over the years has consumed more than simply other people’s stories. They have also partaken (over and over) of his own vision of things – adopting this man’s distinctive interpretations on precious questions of deep import. Many listeners, then, have embraced many of John’s personal perspectives as their own – influencing a new, difficult, painful “reality” in their own lives.
Upon embracing such a troubling new narrative, these people do what we all do: perk up to any further pieces of evidence that might justify this aching suspicion and frustration (cue up the Salt Lake Tribune). Consequently, any perceived mis-steps by Church leaders (or some Bishop, or some seminary teacher somewhere) – whether now or in the past – add further incontrovertible evidence confirming the truth of this new understanding.
The longer people consume a growing aggregation of disconcerting evidence (especially when framed up as incontrovertible and damning), the more shock sets into the system. From this place, virtually everything seems to confirm the truth of what has already been embraced as reality! Even when concerning evidence could be understood in new ways (as in the remarkable new Saints history or gospel topics essays), it’s almost universal to hear former members dismissing it all, while referencing their own critical historical narrative as plainly, patently true.
Throughout this process, it’s remarkable the degree to which human fallibility can be selectively overlooked. It was Jordan Peterson who once called “the capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimize, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalize, bias, exaggerate and obscure” both “endless” and “remarkable.”
While the possibilities of such failings in the leadership of the church are endlessly dissected and scrutinized with remarkably little trust (and strikingly little generosity), much of what John has concluded has been embraced by my dear friend and many others with a great deal of trust (and strikingly little critical scrutiny).
The imbalance is pronounced. And the effects over time are perhaps predictable.
People are changed fundamentally, along with their lives as a whole.
We don’t just tell stories, after all, we live them. And we’ve all been watching John’s narrative at work in people’s lives over the last decade.
We’ve witnessed its fruits.
Maybe it’s time to rethink how we’ve come to understand the etiology of this new epidemic of faith crisis. Rather than shockingly clear evidence “breaking” a shelf, I’ve argued here we consider the possibility that we are, in fact, seeing a particularly accusing and suspicion-drenched narrative at work – eroding faith over time, to the point where someone’s precious confidence and trust in prophetic leadership itself breaks.
What we might be seeing is the extent to which John’s Story shreds faith.
An invitation. If the above analysis is true, it suggests a revision in how to understand the major decision John Dehlin’s work lays before us. The idea that one must choose between having integrity to follow the full truth of the evidence (or not) is misleading. The choice is not between simply between following the evidence or not, but rather whose interpretation of the evidence you decide to be most trustworthy. That’s the inescapable choice in front of all of us: who do we have confidence to help guide us in these important conclusions and their inevitable, associated influence in our lives?
To my dear friend and others who have adopted this new way of seeing the world (unwittingly or not), I plead for you to reconsider.
Do what meditators do, and push back against the thoughts and stories in your head. You did this once with the gospel narrative. Now, do this again with John’s Mormon Story, seeing it for what it is: a particular perspective and narrative, and a uniquely accusing one at that.
Once you do that, ask yourself: Do I trust the mind and heart of John Dehlin to direct my paths and have such a profound influence on my life and family?
Or are you looking for someone of greater humility, faith and joy? Sit at the feet of President Russell M. Nelson once again – perhaps this coming general conference, and ask yourself: Is there light in this man?
Look into his eyes and countenance. Then look into John’s.
And make your choice.
Special thanks to Rock Hudson and Michael Taylor for thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript.
Although not taken up extensively here, as part of this conversation it’s also important to look more carefully at the widespread, and poisonous accusation that Church leaders have been lying about history. For a generation that came home from war and didn’t talk about it, typically didn’t talk about painful situations such as abuse, and wrote American history with (yes) a uniquely positive focus on the affirming pieces – I suppose we could accuse them all of lying in every respect. OR we could acknowledge that there was a different way of approaching history and a different way of dealing with uncomfortable things in that generation. While appreciating the advances we’ve made in telling a more comprehensive history, it would be good to pay attention to our tendency to insist (with remarkable ethnocentrism) that previous generations think like our Tell-All, Share-All generation today. This was explored in more depth in an earlier piece, Did the Church Lie to Me?
 Over time, even John’s devout followers have acknowledged the extent to which his work has come to feel like less of an archeology expedition – and more driven by his own passions, like a dissection or autopsy of an institution preemptively declared (by the chief investigator) dead of any credibility and trust.
From, Lavina Fielding, Camilla Kimball: Lady of Constant Learning (Ensign, 1975). Sister Kimball shared this in 1975, in the context of exercising faith over things we don’t understand: “I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them.” She twinkles, “I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.”
 John has clearly gone through many evolutions of his own in his story-telling over the years, as acknowledged by one long-time listener: “John’s gone through his own story. He’s been, at times, angry, sad, conciliatory, open minded, close minded, frustrated, grateful, happy, helpful. He wanted to stay, he wanted to help others stay, he wanted to get others to leave, he wanted to leave, he didn’t want to be excommunicated, but he practically dared the church to do so.”
 Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012), 4.
 Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012), 4–5. In an interview after the book’s publication, the Givens pointed out they weren’t intending to suggest in these passages that the evidence was always 50/50 so someone must flip a coin – clarifying that they believe there is stronger collective intellectual and spiritual evidence for the restored gospel than not, while pointing out simply that God makes space for plausible explanations on both sides.
 One helpful reviewer cautioned at this description as a potential strawman, noting “I think you’d be really hard pressed to find anyone who sees John as a mere discloser of facts.” To that, I would point out that my friend (and many others) definitely see him as having disclosed facts and revealed a hard reality. Although many of my friends would likely agree on a philosophical level with my more nuanced portrayal, this accurately describes how John’s work has practically functioned in many people’s lives.
 To be clear, followers of John are not unique in doing this. All of us – once settling on a narrative we embrace as reality, move forward assembling evidence to support the story of our choosing. That’s not necessarily bad, and more of a feature of human experience. The problem arises when we stop being aware that we’re doing that! (Most members aren’t aware of this either. It can feel like a threat on both sides – and a potentially terrifying realization. But it doesn’t have to be! What this means practically is added scrutiny to truth claims to really consider whether we believe them or not).