A Rhetoric of Indirection

1024px-thumbnailI remember watching the Olympics when I was in high school and concluding that the swimmers had the best-looking bodies of all of the athletes. Not scarily gaunt like the runners, not comically and grotesquely bulging like the weight lifters, not the stunted look of the gymnasts.

I grew up swimming on summer neighborhood teams and for my high school. I was no good, really. But even I knew that Olympic level swimmers were paying virtually no attention to the appearance of their bodies. They watched their diets not because spare calories might adhere to their hips but because they needed enough calories–and the right kind–to swim as fast as they could. They lifted weights–not to sculpt their abs, but to enhance their speed. They swam countless laps–not to drop pounds, but to perfect technique and enhance speed. The physical appeal of those bodies that I was ogling on the medal stand was the accidental by-product of an entirely different goal.

I’ve been thinking about those swimmers recently as I try to grapple with the church’s emphasis on The Family. I joined the church in 1992. It was all about the Book of Mormon then. But when is the last time that you heard someone say that the Book of Mormon was written for our time? In fact, the new curriculum for college-age students omits half the time spent on the study of the Book of Mormon and replaces it with a class on The Family. When I joined the church, there was a focus on commandments that created certain habits: reading the scriptures, keeping a journal, maintaining food storage, obeying the Word of Wisdom, that sort of thing. We hear about these things a bit now, but a comparison of church manuals will show much more attention is now paid to The Family. There was a focus on individual righteousness–personal scripture study, prayer, personal worthiness, temple attendance, etc. Now when I hear those things, they are usually couched in or around The Family. In a training on sabbath observance, Elder Bednar said, “The basic purpose of all we teach and all that we do in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to make available the Priesthood authority and gospel ordinances and covenants that enable a man and a woman and their children to be sealed together and be happy at home. Period, exclamation point, end of sentence, that’s it.” When I joined the church, the “basic purpose” was described as a three-fold mission of proclaiming the gospel, redeeming the dead, and perfecting the saints.

To be clear: I am not anti-The Family. I have three levels of deep concern about the family: one is a societal-level concern, where I see individuals making choices that do not serve the best interests of children or the larger culture or, ultimately, themselves. And then there is a more personal level: most people will spend a good chunk of their lives in a family setting and if they are going to break a heart, wound a soul, or exercise any manner of cruelty, it will probably be to someone in that family–not the guy who delivers the water jugs each week. So it obviously makes sense that we think about how to live according to Christian virtues in families. Further, I think the family has an eternal role (which I struggle to understand because there is virtually no revelation about the place of the female half of those family members, but that is a topic for a different post), so I think it matters how we form and treat our families here. But.

But. I feel that the church I joined was one where the swimmers ate carefully and exercised hard in order to win their races. The by-product of that was nice-looking bodies, by which I mean thriving families. Yes, families were huge–literally and figuratively–in the church I joined. But that was the result of a rhetoric of indirection; it wasn’t the result of a direct focus on The Family. I feel like the church I am in now is one where the swimmers are obsessively trying to look good in skinny jeans. And they–by which I mean “we”–are not only not looking so hot these days, but we are going to lose our races. This emphasis on The Family is going to do us more harm than good. And it is starting to feel like idolatry to me. It often feels in church settings as if The Family is more important–more emphasized, more loved, more fussed over, more worshiped–than God or Jesus Christ. And anything that doesn’t mesh well with The Family–be it an older single member or a child raised by gay parents–needs to be ignored or banished so as not to interfere with The Family.

I am particularly dismayed over how the recent emphasis on The Family impacts our study of the scriptures. In recent years, an evaluation portion was added to the seminary curriculum. You can see part of one of the assessments here. There is one essay question in those materials and it is “What have the Old Testament and modern prophets taught about marriage?”

Well, that’s certainly an interesting question. You could talk about the acceptability of concubines, for example. You could talk about Joseph Smith’s polyandry. You could talk about levirate marriage. You could talk about how Joseph Smith did not inform his first wife of some of his subsequent marriages. You could talk about how Tamar was deemed the more righteous for pretending to be a prostitute. About the ease with which Brigham Young permitted divorce. You could talk about how the Law of Moses required a woman to marry her rapist. You could talk about how modern prophets have vacillated from advocating male-headship marriage to a marriage of equal partners. You could talk about how Abraham passed his wife off as his sister.

But, as you can see from the CES materials, the students are expected to answer as if all Old Testament and modern prophets have consistently taught the same thing about marriage. There are so many problems with this, I don’t know where to begin. First, this is an excellent case study in proof-texting: the points that CES wants students to make in the essay are only tangentially–if at all–supported by the text. Next, it ignores large swaths of the text (see above). And in so doing, it sets students up for problems in the future: I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: this is the next faith crisis. These kids will not be surprised by stones in a hat or by 14-year-old brides; they will be shocked at what the scriptures say. And they will ask why the church “lied” to them about it. And they will not trust the other things that their teachers and leaders have taught them. And they will be adrift. Even if they don’t get to that point, they are not learning the skills required to study the scriptures as adults: they are essentially memorizing proof texts and associated doctrine. This is not a recipe for a life-long interest in studying the scriptures. It is also a betrayal of the scriptures, which are not lists of prooftexts and doctrine but rather mostly narratives designed to require thought and engagement by the reader, ideally in a community. This seminary assessment is but one example of many of how our focus on The Family is leading us to focus on precisely the wrong things, to the detriment of individuals and families.

The thing about the church I joined was that everyone could swim. Single or widowed or gay or disabled or just unlucky in love or straight or married or young or old or whatever, everyone was invited to get their feet wet. The church today seems mostly about rocking the skinny jeans. I do not like this version of the church.


Update: I want to call your attention to comment #47, where Ardis articulates another problem with an over-emphasis on The Family.


83 comments for “A Rhetoric of Indirection

  1. This times a million. Everything. And not least because the family in the eternities is something that the harder I look at it, the less I understand about it, and the less good I feel about it. (And I have a very happy family). When it is peripheral and a by product of doing the other things you mention, it isn’t so disturbing to me; I’m able to just trust that the things that seem strange and unsettling to me will all work out, and we’re focusing on Jesus anyway so it’s all good. But when it is the basic purpose, period, exclamation point, end of sentence, that’s it, well it’s harder to just shrug things off and not worry too much about them. Women, gays, priesthood, etc are apparently the central point, and if you’re going to force me to not look away, well then I’ve got a lot of questions that I though were peripheral but apparently are not.

  2. As one who belongs to a “marginal” group, I think you’re overstating this somewhat. That’s my initial response, in any case. I need to think about it more while I’m out today.

    Edit for clarity, in response to a comment below. *I* belong to a marginal group.

  3. “And anything that doesn’t mesh well with The Family–be it an older single member or a child raised by gay parents–needs to be ignored or banished so as not to interfere with The Family.”

    I am an older single (i.e., never married) member. I am a stake clerk, a veil worker, and a home teacher. I have diligent home teachers, as well as other ward members who go out of there way to watch over me. My bishop and stake president are both extremely thoughtful men who treat me with care and respect. I have neither been ignored nor banished. I am grateful for the Church’s emphasis on The Family.

  4. Thank you, Julie. I think your points are important and must be repeated and discussed. I am reminded of the recent general conference Elder Perry talk that deeply disturbed me (and many others) in how it claims things like “the restored gospel centers on marriage and family.” I mean, I sure don’t want that to be my center–and an institution that argues it should be my center I begin to question. Unless, of course, we are talking about ‘family’ in the way that Christ did–but we aren’t at all.

  5. Thank you, Julie.

    Nathan (3), your response may be well-meant, but is exactly the kind of response that, by its painful lack of empathy, makes things worse for so many others.

  6. Ben S., I think, has also rhetorically erred: a member of a majority group arguing the experience or claim of a marginal group to be overstated by virtue of their marginality isn’t the most persuasive move. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here. He means to come back and more fully respond. And I respect his work. It just reminds me of how much the ‘men’ of the church tell the women they are valued.

  7. Wilifried (5): I am not at all surprised that you find my factual account of my experience as a single member of the Church to be painful. Is there anyone who disagrees with you who doesn’t cause you pain?

    Brian (6): If Ben’s post is grammatically correct, *he* belongs to a marginal group.

  8. Very well said, Julie. One of my daughters confided in me several years after the fact that she experienced a faith crisis when she first read the Hebrew Scriptures—the God of her Mormon faith seemed antithetical to the ancient Jewish God, yet both versions of God were part of her LDS canon.

  9. Correlation is a combination of simplification (which is approximation and omission) and apologetics (which is a rationalized defense). The longer correlation continues the more corrupted the message will become. Pretty soon we’ll be banning children from saving ordinances and having them disavow their parents!

  10. Nathan, is the point of your post 3, 1) that Julie’s perception of the state of affairs is correct, but that she is wrong to feel as she does about it, or 2) that Julie’s perceptions of the state of affairs is incorrect, or 3) that Julie’s perception of the state of affairs is correct, and you are happy to concede that she legitimately feels as she does, but you would like it acknowledged that you feel differently, or 4) something else entirely?

    It’s hard for me to settle on which of these you mean, because your response to Wilfried seems to imply that your “factual” account of your own experiences trumps Julie’s equally factual account of her own. Your arguments are equally as subjective as hers, and yet you seem to be implying that because yours exists, hers are either illegitimate or incorrect. I’d hope that your request that your experiences be taken seriously would also indicate that you are willing to take seriously those who experiences differ from yours.

  11. Matt (11): The statement of Julie’s I quoted was universally quantified. Yet I am a specific example of a person that Julie says “doesn’t mesh well with The Family” but I have not any sense been “ignored or banished”. In my discipline, we call this a counterexample.

  12. Nathan (#3), I’m genuinely glad you’ve had such a positive experience. But I’d like to give a counterexample. I’m a never-married older woman, who recently moved into a new ward. After two months in the ward, no one in the bishopric has as much as said hello to me. You could say, okay, maybe they’re just not so good at welcoming new members. But tellingly, a young married couple who moved in the same week that I did was speaking in church within the month. Before anyone tells me that I shouldn’t choose to be offended, or that I also have the responsibility to reach out and make contact (probably true), I should clarify that I’m not particularly upset about this. Other members of the ward have been more than welcoming. But while this is only one instance, I’ve seen it happen again and again. I don’t think it’s the result of malice. I think it’s just that single members don’t fit into the system, and so aren’t on the radar in the same way.

  13. Nathan: it’s probably just in the text, but I’d appreciate it if you’d avoid the condescension.

    It seems to me that repeatedly throughout the article Julie said “I feel” and “I am particularly dismayed” and so on and so forth. Like Lynnette, I’m pleased that you’ve had a good experience. I don’t believe, though, that the best way to build the body of Christ is to tell those who’ve had less good experiences that you’re a counterexample to them. Rather, it’s to find ways to help them have good experiences too.

  14. Lynnette: I appreciate the experience you shared, but I don’t think it qualifies as a “counterexample”. To quote Wikipedia (all I’ve got handy) “a counterexample is a specific instance of the falsity of a universal quantification”. My statement was existentially quantified: Someone like me exists. I didn’t make a universal statement.

  15. Matt (15): I don’t know what condescension you’re referring to: You asked a question, and I answered it.

    I didn’t say I was a counterexample to Julie; I said that I was a counterexample to the universally quantified statement she made.

  16. Nathan, I’m not interested in a debate about the meaning of “counterexample.” What I meant to offer was an alternate perspective, and if you’re more interested in seeing how what I said fits into the dictionary than in how it applies to the post, then you’re really missing the point.

  17. And amen to Julie’s post. I find that going to church to learn about The Family just emotionally wears me down. That quote from Elder Bednar really stings. If everything we do is aimed at enabling a man and a woman and their children to be sealed together, there really is no place for me this church as a single, gay member (though ironically there would be even less room if I were married). I really appreciate it when church is focused on Christ, when the discussion is about better prayer or scripture study or discerning the Spirit or other life challenges that are issues for all of us. Hearing about The Family over and over is emotionally and spiritually exhausting.

  18. Julie, you nailed it again. The emphasis on family has become so over-the-top that it is seems to erase healthy boundaries between family members. Within a family it is becoming: your salvation = my salvation. There is pressure for “family group exaltation” that bypasses the reasonable individuality and agency of each member of the family (the Book of Mormon especially is all about individual salvation). This denigrates the self-determining autonomy of the individual, not to mention that it is impossible for anyone to enforce salvation on any member of their family. The family over-emphasis is wrongly leading many parents to enact the gospel forcefully on their children. Among faithful LDS mothers, I often see persistent desperation, grief, and depression as long as one of their grown children is not active in the church. We can enjoy much better quality of life if we rejoice in the agency of our children and respect their life journey whether in or out of the church.

  19. From Marcus J. Borg’s “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time”

    “Those who see Jesus as a champion of ‘family values” fail to see the radical edge to his message. It is not that he would be against loving one’s family (after all, he spoke of loving one’s enemies); rather, his attitude toward family is not univocally affirmative: family can be the problem. It is interesting that, during his public activity, his own family relations were strained. According to Mark 3.21, his family sought to restrain him because they thought he had become insane. See also Mark 3.31–35, where *family* is redefined as “those who do the will of God.” It was only after Easter, according to the New Testament, that some of Jesus’ own family became part of the movement.

    **Footnote after the sentence mentioning even “hating” family: See Luke 14.26 = Matthew 10.37

  20. I see the greater focus on the Family as a growing doctrinal understanding that families are central to the Gospel plan. Growing societal challenges to the family have led to greater appreciation that one of the central pillars of mortality is the ability to form family units which can be come exalted together. Today, we better understand how central family is doctrinally. That greater understanding is something to celebrate. It does not take away the importance of the atonement of Jesus Christ, which in fact has been emphasized more than ever, but properly places it in the context of familial love. I for one celebrate the deepening understanding that has come from the Lord.

  21. Julie, This post is perfect and I’m thankful to you for having the courage and forthrightness to say it, and the wisdom to say it well. Or, as the first commenter said, “This times a million. Everything.”

  22. This post and the comments following it make me wonder where you people go to Church? It is true that the Church exists to support the family, and individuals as the larger family of Christ. However, I do not see the over-emphasis on family. The basic principles and doctrines of charity, unity, and sanctification are still the emphasis where I live. We still focus on personal & family prayer, scripture study, temple worship, service, journaling, sacrifice (tithes & offerings), self reliance, cleanliness, etc. – all the fundamentals. But, in the end, we believe in the Patriarchal Order of Priesthood and the eternal nature and organization of the family. So, it stands to reason that the doctrines and principles of the Gospel would be couched in that context.

  23. I find it interesting that petty littel gramatical and speling errors are cause for such judgmint. Git over yourselfs.

    We use inclusive language, but we mindlessly shun people who are different. I don’t think for a minute it’s malicious, I think it’s true of a lot of groups where the members share a common belief, but that’s a relatively small overlap in a lot of cases.

    My protestant friends have permanent name tags they wear at church. We started using “Hello, My Name Is” tags under the guise of letting new members know who people are. Truthfully, it’s so we all can get to know each other. Few things are more embarrassing than approaching a person and saying “Hi, are you new?” only to hear “I’ve been in the ward two years.” After a while I feel guilty for not knowing someone, but I’m a high functioning introvert and those sorts of interactions give me hives.

    Our ward is quite heterogenous due to grad student housing being in the ward boundaries, so we have some established families, some older folks and a fair number of students. We try to include everyone. Sometimes we fail, but our intentions are good.

    Oh, and the family is awesome, but we work out our own salvation, one-on-one. I would welcome a return to the four-fold mission rather than a reaction to the political climate of “attack on families.”

  24. Thank you for this post. As a member of my own nuclear family, even *I* think our discourse around “The Family” is idolatry. A good deal of it is empty platitudes that don’t meaningfully apply to our lives, and I can only imagine how this kind of thing week in, week out feels to those who’ve been through divorces, infertility, long-term singlehood, etc.

    Are their signs that this trend is abating? I’m a millennial, so unable to recall clearly the days of the past that you describe. But they sound awesome.

  25. Interesting thoughts, Julie, particularly the evolution of the focus of church teaching from gospel themes in the 90s to family themes today. And now the Church if fighting to keep the definition of the family narrow as society expands it. The New Policy has certainly made it clear where the Church is going with this — the inclusive gospel is yesterday’s news. It’s all a little depressing, like the football team you had such high hopes for ends up 3-8 going into December.

  26. Post-polygamy, the LDS church has enjoyed many decades of living within a society that has shared their family values and expectations. Our culture provided compatible teachings and guidance about the family, which allowed the church to put its emphasis on adding to an already solid framework.

    Unfortunately, our society is now rejecting that solid framework. As a result, the church has to step in and build in ways it didn’t have to before. In other words, as our society moves further and further away from the idea of family (as taught by the LDS church) expect to hear more and more about the family from the pulpit.

    It’s the same as “Why didn’t Jesus talk about X or Y during his mortal ministry?” with the answer being that he didn’t because he was teaching Jews of that time period, who didn’t need to hear it because they already knew it. In a similar fashion, prior generations didn’t need to hear as much about the family as the current generation does; and if things continue as they are, future generations will need to hear even more.

  27. Excellent. The swimmer metaphor works for me, and acts as a pointer to the key observation–that our focus on The Family [however it includes and excludes groups and individuals, and however it feels] is leading us to focus on precisely the wrong things, to the detriment of individuals and families.

    In large part you say much better things I have been thinking about. However, the “next faith crisis” point is insightful and relatively new to me. Thanks for that. It crystallizes my increasing uneasiness over a divide between the scriptures and The Church, a feeling that I have to choose and can’t have both.

  28. On the thought of group vs. individual salvation, about a year after our wedding it came up in subject that my wife (who grew up in an active family) thought that if your spouse didn’t make it to the Celestial Kingdom, but you were worthy to, that you wouldn’t make it either. Basically, your reward in heaven was basically determined by the least worthy of the couple. When I explained that if someone keeps their covenants, they will be rewarded accordingly (even if it means being married to someone else in the next life). She mulled that over for a bit.
    It does make me wonder if knowing that beforehand she would have chosen to marry, or if she was playing her cards safe.

  29. Elder Bednar’s comment merely paraphrases similar comments made by other brethren for the last 50 years, most notably Bruce R. McConkie. This was definitely being preached in the early 90s.

  30. I’m sympathetic to the point of the original posting. I still see the whole purpose of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the salvation of individual souls, individually. I think the purpose of the family is to help save individual souls. I see the wonderful blessings of the new and everlasting covenant of marriage as gifts from our God to his children as part of the latter-day dispensation of the fullness of times, showing the pattern that will be for all the faithful individuals of all times during the great Millennium. But to me, the purpose of the Gospel and the Church is saving individual souls, one at a time.

  31. Thanks, Julie. I grew up with a single mom and am married in a mixed-faith marriage. I have never fit into the perfect family format in the church and it really does get depressing to me. The pressure on me to have the perfect family and focus on the perfect family is real, and while I understand we teach to the ideal, going to church often seems like a heavy burden to me, rather than lifting me up and making me feel like I have spiritual hope.

  32. Brian #6 (in case you missed my edit to my original comment.) *I* am a member of a marginal group, and that is the perspective I speak from.

  33. Seems like ‘family’ has replaced ‘home’, as the site of LDS religious and social concern. LDS around before the 90s will remember ‘No other success can compensate for failure in the home’; ‘Home, the place to save society’; The most important work you will ever do is within the walls of your own home’ etc. This earlier ‘version of the church’ seemed to be confronting various disintegrations of home life apparent at the time (70s) and in many respects was just as uncomfortable/reductionist as this current orientation.

    Re seminary proof-texting: well the question referred to is clearly overly scaffolded with little opportunity for students to demonstrate any basic exegetical reasoning on the matter, which in my experience is not beyond them and potentially opens the way for more probing engagement. Perhaps it’s an issue of pedagogy rather than dogmatism.

  34. Wilfried, your response to Nathan is exactly the lack of empathy you accuse him of expressing. Times and Seasons seems to me to have morphed so much that instead of being an expression of faithful members exploring faith, it has become a gripe session.

  35. As a pretty poor high school swimmer myself, I endorse this post.

    But more seriously, Julie, you are again hitting it out of the park. Bravo and amen.

  36. Julie, while I agree that the emphasis on the family can be overbearing, and share your irritation with proof-texting, I think Elder Bednar would say that The Family is absolutely the purpose of all those swimming laps and healthy eating. The Family isn’t the toned body, The Family is the Olympic meet swimmers are training for. Callings and scripture study and missionary service and fast meetings and enrichment activities and all those other things you learned in 1992 were means, not ends. Sealed Relationships are the ends. Abrahamic covenant, Malachi 4, JS-H, D&C 132. We’re saved as individuals, exalted as sealed families.

  37. Family is a cultural by product, and thus we see the roles and activities of mother, father and children have changing over time. Emphasizing the “traditional family” is frankly shortsighted, because if and when personal and historical situations change, you have built your traditional family home on a foundation of cultural sand. Ironically of all groups to promote this type of argument, the LDS should absolutely know better, having recently (in historical time) come from glaringly different “traditional family” roots. I agree with the writer, in that if we concentrate on, say, the spiritual grammatical structure, vocabulary and contextual usage–the underlying nuts and bolts forming the language of the “Good News”, the Gospel of Jesus Christ–then we will be able to form many different types of sentences, phrases and expressions, all emphasizing different subjects and intentions, but following a standard set of underlying rules that serve to allow all to communicate to each other. We are all those different expressions, the arms, legs, hands, feet–all different but integral to the Body of Christ. All different, but authentically and non-judgementally focused by our knowledge and pursuit of the underlying basics of Atonement, Charity, Love & Hope, no matter our outward color, class, race, gender, marital status or–hopefully someday–sexual preference. Whether or not we are married, single, divorced, widowed, and yes, gay, lesbian or even Injured Samaritan. I know many folks that when their traditional family situation crumbled, not always by their own volition or desire, they felt lost and definitely not welcomed, even spurned by congregations more concerned about the perfection of appearance than by the Love of charity and Christ. Some may read that last sentence, and say “Not so”, but think about it, to outsiders, sometimes it’s interesting to note that with some families, a more harsh voice is often used inside the home, in private, but in public, it’s all a veneer of smiles and loving happiness. And often, we do our own analysis of those families we know like this, noting that they aren’t always what they seem, more pharisaic in basic behavior than they are true christian in practice. Are we sometimes like that as a culture, and is it caused by an emphasis on the shiny crystal chandelier hanging in the temple, rather than on something maybe more mundane, but made of the basically the same stuff, called sand–found underlying the temple’s foundations?

  38. Matt Evans writes, “We’re saved as individuals, exalted as sealed families.”

    I like this formulation. What I tried to argue in this post is that an overemphasis on The Family makes it harder to get individuals to salvation and harder to get families exalted. Much as Montessori education recognizes that you produce children with excellent handwriting not by forcing worksheets on three year olds (which is actually counterproductive) but by letting them put beads on a string (or other exercises which develop fine motor skills), I’m arguing that overemphasizing The Family–while it might seem like a logical response to societal trends which denigrate The Family–actually causes harm to The Family.

  39. When Church leaders preach love of God and fellowman, or developing faith, or keeping a particular commandment, it’s something any one of us can embrace and work on, and presumably any of those principles will indirectly benefit the family.

    But when they preach The Family directly, it’s beyond the power of many or most of us to do anything – anything at all! – to work toward the ideal. Sure, if your children are still young enough to be guided into following your lead, or if you’re a young person choosing someone to marry, you can take definite steps toward building The Family. But if you’ve done everything right (carefully chosen your spouse, married in the temple, raised your children with family prayer and scripture reading and everything else ad infinitum), and your spouse still decides to leave the Church, and your children’s agency still leads them away from your teachings, there’s not much you can do about it. If you’ve already married someone with no interest in the gospel, or if you didn’t find anyone suitable to marry at all, or if after years of marriage God has still not sent you children, then no amount of repentance (if repentance is even appropriate) will bring you one step closer to achieving The Family. For most of us who are not already in ideal circumstances with regard to The Family, there is literally nothing we can do today to move us any closer to the ideal, no matter how fervently and constantly the ideal is preached, nor how fervently and constantly we would embrace the ideal if we could.

    The gospel teaches us that, with the rarest of evil exceptions, it is never too late. God is there with arms outstretched to embrace the prodigal, we are told. But when they preach that, without exception, full stop, period, the gospel is The Family, and we are powerless to achieve The Family, then what are we supposed to do with Church and the gospel and mortality? We’re left doing the best we can on our own, without adequate leadership, and we’re left in the awkward position of wanting to sustain leaders, but instead being at odds with them because we are utterly powerless to follow where they direct.

  40. Unfortunately the church doesn’t want to have too much emphasis on the scriptures, or any at all really, because the scriptures are messy and lead to too many questions that the church cannot answer without losing a little authority.

  41. I just added this to my post because Ardis explained something I was aiming for but didn’t quite hit:

    Update: I want to call your attention to comment #47, where Ardis articulates another problem with an over-emphasis on The Family.

  42. I get tired of the word “messy” to describe history or scripture (namely Mormon history and scripture). To me it’s an excuse for its narrow-mindedness. History, much like current affairs, has many perspectives. It doesn’t mean it is messy, it just means it’s diverse and requires a little more thought and understanding than we’re accustomed to.

    great post, Julie.

  43. I wonder if the overemphasis on Family has backfired in an unexpected way at least with us – as my kids struggle and become disillusioned with the church, my attachment lessens as well. The church is a tool for use with our families. When that beneficence diminishes or disappears, the priority becomes clear – family, then church. And that feels very right.

  44. An additional difficulty with making The Family the center of our theology is that demographics make it increasingly unobtainable for young members. The imbalance in the number of righteous women compared to righteous men means that there will always be a large group of good sisters who simply cannot find a mate that fits the LDS ideal. The destiny of demographics all but assures depression, doubt, despondence, and despair for many of these women.

    Otherwise stated, demographics alone makes The Family an ideal that is simply impossible to attain for an increasing number of LDS members.

  45. I played the piano for the Brooklyn Stake Conference today, and the presiding authority was Elder Rasband, newish apostle. I was a little worred that his talk might be controversial, since the last time I heard him speak his talk was about the overturning of Prop 8 and how unhappy that made God, who would see to it that it would be reinstated. Yes, I almost left the meeting.

    Today his talk was uncontroversial, about the eternal family, fathers, mothers, and children will always be together, etc.

    This emphasis on the family was rising, but given central importance 20 years ago with the “Proclamation…” which was written by Elder Oaks at the behest of lawyers for the church, since there was no scriptural or doctrinal sources about the gender of parents at all, and it was needed as a pre-emptive strike against the encroaching gay marriage bills and general acceptance.

    You’ll find nothing in the Articles of Faith about marriage, families, or gender. If you didn’t know anything about Joseph Smith, you might think he didn’t know about the exisence of women and children at all. Jesus didn’t preach about it, either. There is some intimation that Jesus wanted people to leave their families to follow him.

    A telling moment in Elder Rasband’s talk, today (for me). He mentioned the *five* things we must do to come to Christ (and by extension, exaltation). The first four are the familiar ones: 1. Faith, 2. Repentence, 3. Baptism, 4. Gift of the Holy Ghost. And then 5. Endure to the end, which he said included celestial marriage and family.


  46. I wonder if over-emphasis on the family came from instances where 30 – 49 year old fathers (who were probably Elders) would make statements along the lines of not knowing if the church was true, but they could see it was good for their family so they were going to have their family stick with the church; and then the leaders wanted to make sure that all others in the similar situation (but perhaps didn’t have the courage to make a similar statement outloud), needed to hear that the church is a great place for their families too. Perhaps to the point where leadership figured the struggling father was a lost cause, but they could at least retain the rest of the family, and that would bring more souls to the savior.

  47. Jader3rd, of course, this new policy would sort of validate that, and refute it. Gay fathers not welcome, take your children with you.

  48. From #47, by Ardis:

    “We’re left doing the best we can on our own, without adequate leadership, and we’re left in the awkward position of wanting to sustain leaders, but instead being at odds with them because we are utterly powerless to follow where they direct.”

    The recent policy changes and the controversy have created a very serious problem in the church, in some ways more serious than the policy itself. A wave of doubt is cascading over us, drowning many, and harming many more. The brethren are fallible, yes, but also seem to be exhibiting the real sin of pride, for circling the wagons and not rescinding the policy, or at least postponing it. “We said it, so it is true,” and the rest of us (well, many) are now doubting the choices we made over the extent of our entire lives.

  49. Based on this forum and discussion, I walked into the chapel today, saw a single sister I did not know, sat down next to her and introduced myself. She was doing a needlepoint of a temple for her sibling who was getting married. For me this was a bold move as I am a pretty introverted person. We had a nice chat. I will keep doing for people who are sitting alone, usually in the back of the chapel. Thanks for the push, I appreciate the reminder. In addition to discussing the concept of alienation, let’s make a commitment to lessen it. Not as a “project,” but because we really should love each other. I made a friend.

  50. Another home run for Julie, whose clear-eyed logic and tone of moderate reflection has been a beacon for the last month.

  51. I’ve been privately complaining to friends about what I termed “institutional idolatry” of the family in the church for over a year now and I really wondered why I had not read any blog posts about it yet. Thanks for starting the public conversation. Maybe it’s being talked about elsewhere and if so I would enjoy any links that anyone can share.

  52. Not too long ago a woman in Relief Society asked, quite forlorn, what she was supposed to do to make her kids come back to the fold. What had she failed to do, and how could she fix it now? “How do you do it?”

    I raised my hand and commented that if there were some way to keep kids from going astray then Satan would never have fallen. Even God the Father can’t get all His children to come to earth. Do we really believe we could do better?

    I think that this constant drumbeat about The Family is what makes people think that they can and must do better than God in order to be adequate.

  53. My suspicion is that this post will be viewed in retrospect as being quite prescient. (Of course, I also might be wrong. I was one of the geniuses who invested in Pets.com.) I wonder if the theology of the family is where Mormonism’s latent neo-Palagianism both shines through the brightest and reveals its fissures. It’s one thing to say that the individual must do a whole host of impossible things in order to gain salvation — it’s another thing entirely to say that a group of people (i.e., the family) must do this. I can see this sort of familial works-based righteousness amplifying the problems historically associated with such soteriology: on the one hand, a sense of inadequacy to achieve what is asked and, on the other side of the coin, a sense of boundless pride at the notion that salvation is attainable based on one’s owns skills and cunning. Ardis points out beautifully and heartbreakingly how the first of these problems rears its head and, in my view, how in the context of a familial works-based righteousness, the sense of inadequacy often associated with Pelagianism becomes a sense of impossibility (if one is gay or simply unlucky in the mating lottery). The second problem (pride over the individual’s ability to earn salvation) also seems of greater concern in the context of familial works-based righteousness in part because when we go from emphasizing individual virtues required to earn salvation to the things the family must do to earn salvation, the list becomes oddly truncated and generalized (get married in the temple, hold family home evening, teach your children to be good Latter Day Saints, and have quality family time). In other words, it seems to me that one could do those things and sort of miss the whole point, which I take to be that we should live a life of holiness, as exemplified by the Savior. And finally, I wonder if the grace-based corrective to such a view of salvation is even available when the focus is not on the individual but on the family. Historically, the whole idea of grace is articulated by focusing on the individual’s “prise de concience” regarding his/her relationship with creation, which (in the New Perspective on Paul), then leads to graceful or holy living. At the very least, this view becomes much more complicated when the perspective is shifted from the individual to the family.

  54. Julie –
    As I try to summarize your insightful perspectives to myself, I see you exploring the relationship between form and function. When all our various functions must fit a standardized form, dysfunctions are bound to pop up everywhere. Form FOLLOWS function, and not the other way around. When the form is idealized over process and function, the stage is set for tragedy. Come to think of it, that’s the basic recipe for all the greatest literary tragedies we know. If only the problems with THE FAMILY were merely literary !!

  55. The main reason that I am dismayed at the recent new handbook instructions vis-a-vis children of gay couples is this: it prioritizes family OVER the Savior. It places family in more central role than the atonement. Family first, Jesus second.

  56. I think many of us as members of the church fail in many respects. Can we handle that? That we are all failures in some way or another? Some of us inadvertently offend someone. Some of us don’t serve as much as we should. Some of us yell at our kids. Some of us don’t read our scriptures, etcetcetc. There are diverse ways we all fail. Some of us speak and teach of families because that’s what we know and understand, not realizing how our words are going to be misinterpreted or offensive to someone. I really don’t see too much focus on the family. I doubt, if you asked Elder Bednar if we could get to heaven if we lived in a perfect families that we would be saved, he would say yes. I believe he would tell you that the only way to get to heaven is to have faith in Jesus Christ and serve Him with all your heart, or something along those lines. We teach about families because those relationships continue beyond the veil. I believe that God does want all of His children to be sealed so they can live with Him in exaltation. That doesn’t mean you can’t have those blessings, ever, if you didn’t get the chance to be married in this life, or if you had a less than perfect marriage. The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about relationships. Look at what the Savior taught, love God, then love your neighbor. Two relationships right off the bat. Family is a relationship too, one that has eternal consequences. Single members have always been promised that nothing will be withheld from them if they are faithful, just because they didn’t get the chance to marry in this life. And since we know that you can’t have the highest degree of glory without being sealed to a spouse, that leads me to think He has a plan for those single brothers and sisters who kept their covenants but were unable to find a spouse. You are not forgotten by the One who truly matters. I would be interested to hear the rest of Elder Bednar’s teaching about sabbath day observances. He knows better than many of us do that none of the ordinances or teachings of the Sabbath day have any meaning with out God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. If you have heard him speak in other places, that would be clear. Maybe every member of the church needs to reread and ponder Elder Uchdorf’s talk from last conference about simplifying and starting where we are. My final thoughts on the family are that God wants us to be like Him. Including married and sealed to a spouse, like Him. If we have already taken Christ’s name upon us and entered into the waters of baptism, the next step is the temple blessings, they are important too. The Savior wants us to receive all the ordinances He provided for us. If you don’t have them yet, don’t give up on Him or lose hope. Stay faithful and look forward to the day when you will receive all the promised blessings. In the mean time, those that have already received the ordinances still need to be taught too, that doesn’t mean they are trying to exclude those who aren’t there yet. This last fast and testimony meeting a beautiful sister stood up and bore her testimony of fasting. She said in her whole life in the church she had never fasted because it was too difficult for her, but does that mean we shouldn’t teach about the importance of fasting because there are some members who struggle with it or who don’t do it period? No! Line upon line, we will all get there, whether the issue be your family is struggling, or your sexual preferences bend toward the same sex, or you experienced terrible sadness, or loneliness, in that way, we are only failures if we give up, or lose hope in the Saviors ability to transform our lives, if we pick apart the words of the prophets to convince us this is not the true church.

  57. Excellent post, Julie. Thanks for expressing your knowledge and insights.

    Erin said, “My final thoughts on the family are that God wants us to be like Him. Including married and sealed to a spouse, like Him.”

    It seems that we know very little if we believe that God is Him. Don’t we know very little about God’s marriage? For instance, if God is Him, it sounds as if he’s a single or a male married to another male or other males. If the family is the end all implied in referenced resources and talks, why doesn’t he or the other leaders tell us all about the marriage of God and introduce us to Heavenly Father’s (since we acknowledge Him over and over again) spouse(s)? After all, wouldn’t that somehow be insightful as to an ideal?

  58. D Fletcher- are you ignoring Doctrine and covenants sections 131 and 132 marriage is essential to exaltation. Not to be saved. If your only goal is to be saved, get baptized and endure to the end; but if your goal is all that God has to offer us, marriage is essential

  59. Probably the best bloggernacle post I’ve ever read. Have been talking about these exact issues with a friend for the past year and a half. I agree with Julie 100%. I’m tired of hearing constantly about The Family (despite being a happily married parent of 4), and I do hunger more for real discussion of the scriptures, with all their viewpoints, and for true celebration of the good news of Jesus Christ. I don’t like how the gospel of The Family seems to be replacing Christ’s gospel in the church, and, like many here, I don’t think this emphasis is getting us spiritually or temporally to where we want to be.

    Let me just add one viewpoint. I recently had a General Authority interview as part of my candidacy for a job at BYU. It was my second time interviewing with a member of the Seventy. My first interview, almost 4 years ago, went something like this: Share with me your testimony. This time around, however, we went through what amounted to a much expanded temple recommend interview, which my interviewer had to read word-for word. Given the context of my comment, you will not be surprised to learn that many of the new or expanded interview questions focused on how I now and how I would, in the course of my employment, uphold the church’s doctrine of The Family, not only in my own personal life but in my teaching. At the time, however, even I was surprised at the degree of the focus on The Family.

  60. Daniel, #23

    Can you explain what you mean by this?

    ” Today, we better understand how central family is doctrinally. That greater understanding is something to celebrate. It does not take away the importance of the atonement of Jesus Christ, which in fact has been emphasized more than ever, but properly places it in the context of familial love.”

    The Atonement stands by itself, it’s not something that needs qualified by context. And the Atonement is valid even in the absence of familial love.

  61. Both Julie’s post and Ardis’s comment, which I think are insightful and really resonate with me, deal with the problems of focusing on The Family as it concerns individuals in their quest to be God-fearing, Gospel-loving people by raising their own family. Something strange that has happened in addition is that the people otherwise powerless to change their family situation very much that Ardis mentioned (singles, empty-nesters, LGBT folks, et al) are asked to support The Family as an institution in a more abstract way by vocally supporting or standing against particular legislation, sharing Facebook memes celebrating that the heteronormative nuclear family unit is ordained of God, and being outrageously happy about and supportive of their friends’ weddings, babies, etc. I have a lot of single Mormon friends who post The Family-worship type stuff on social media as though that is the only thing that will placate God while they’re yet unmarried and, sadder still, with the subtext that they are utterly incomplete as long as they remain single. To be honest, my single non-Mormon friends are, on the whole, abundantly more well-adjusted because they assume that family life (which many of them want as well) will come when it comes; in the meantime, they are still allowed a sense of personal purpose. That’s the kind of personal purpose (and peace!) that should be at the center of the Gospel in order to then promote broader community harmony and values. Like Julie says, it’s gotta happen in the right order lest our Mormon swimming pool become a place of vanity and chaos.

  62. Very thought provoking post, Julie. I don’t know if I’m 100% with you, but you bring up some good points. I can definitely agree with some of what Ardis said, as well. I’m on the fence between agreeing on the “overemphasis” of the family and feeling that perhaps that’s simply what this generation needs.

    On the one hand, I dislike the thought of focusing too intensely on any one area of the gospel to the exclusion or marginalization of other parts. That can lead to problems. On the other hand, the apostles are to teach the general rules to the world at large, even if a particular individual is doing fine in that area or is even an exception to a given rule, and perhaps this increased emphasis is needed for the majority of people to awaken and defend the family. I do believe that is needed and I believe that the family is under attack, from a variety of directions. I also like to give the apostles the benefit of the doubt, else why even have leaders at all?

    On yet another hand (how many hands do I have??), I have to wonder what exactly is being taught in the home for the family to be so misunderstood or lightly valued that we feel the need to have classes previously devoted to scripture instead being devoted to family. There’s really not much overlap there at all. Aren’t the parents teaching in the home about the importance of family, both by example and explicit instruction? Perhaps not and perhaps that is one reason for the increased emphasis on the subject.

    I suppose at the end of the day, I am seeing an undercurrent of two things, both in response to this post and among people I know and interact with outside of the internet. One of which I can empathize with and one of which I do not. The first is the idea that this increased family emphasis is hurtful and exclusionary to some people. While I don’t see things this way, I do feel for those who are in pain and I would like to help them. I am not sure how to go about that (and, in fact, am fairly horrible at it, despite my best efforts.) This bothers me. No one should feel excluded or uncared for. Everyone, despite their family circumstances, is worth saving. And can be saved. And should be saved. Emphasis on the importance of the family does not change this, but I can see how it might send an unintended message of exclusion to those who aren’t in certain circumstances. I’m not sure what the answer is to this, but I think it will probably come down to individuals dealing compassionately with others. I don’t know if it can be successfully addressed at the “macro” level. But I could be wrong.

    The second is the idea that people are “tired” of hearing about the family so much. I care much less about this. It’s common for us to receive instruction about many of the same basic topics over and over and over again. I used to hate always having to hear about the Book of Mormon all the time. I was so sick of it. I felt like I had gotten the message just and clear already and that other things were being neglected in favor of the same message on blast all the time.

    However, I eventually realized that I was the actual problem. I was exactly the audience for the message, because I only “understood” and agreed with it on a superficial level. I had not given anywhere near the effort that I should have to reading, pondering, and discussing scripture at all. I realized that I needed to focus much more, and expend much more effort, on truly developing a strong testimony rather than simply believing and being content with that. Now, my experience is mine and doesn’t necessarily apply to all people. But it did make me much less quick to believe that I had some part of the gospel sufficiently “down pat” to the extent that I could pick and choose what I should listen to, or how often a topic should be preached. Because that really isn’t up to me. And it’s fortunate that it isn’t. Despite my misgivings, I strongly suspect that the same might apply here, at least to me.

  63. I think it is just the math. The church can only survive if LDS families reverse the trend to smaller families and have a pretty good retention rate of those families. Unfortunately, everyone and everything else takes a back seat. The church is about large families again as a matter of survival.

  64. Just to reiterate, since many of the comments here and RW’s post seem to reflect something I didn’t intend to convey: I’m not arguing against the importance of thriving families. I’m saying that thriving families are most likely to result from a rhetoric of indirection (=a focus on the practices of discipleship and the development of Christian virtues, as reflected in the four-fold mission of the church) and not on an overemphasis on The Family.

  65. To relate specifically to Martin James’ comment: if the goal is large families, I argue that the best way to get there is through an emphasis on discipleship and virtues, not on an emphasis on The Family.

  66. Martin (73) While Mormon families have shrunk somewhat since the mid-20th century we’re still well above US average. “The new study found that the average number of children ever born to Mormons now between the ages of 40 and 59 is 3.4.” “The LDS average was well above the next closest groups. The average number of children born to members of historically black Protestant churches was 2.5. Next were Catholics and evangelicals at 2.3.” Add in a quite high retention rate and we’re doing quite well in terms of at least matching growth of the US (which is partially driven by immigration given relatively low birth rates)

    I do think one of the greatest challenge the Church faces is dealing with the massive demographic changes in the US. There are so many singles and I don’t think the Church has figured out how to make them feel more included. I was relatively older when I got married and I remember that period from 29 to 35 where I didn’t feel a part of things at all. Many of the people I knew in similar situations fell away simply because the social struggle of acceptance was hard, bringing a cycle where it was harder to keep the spirit (both due to peers one was with but also participating at church).

    My sense is that they are emphasizing the family to try and stave off the church adopting the same demographic shifts that apply to the nation at large. (Ones 20s becoming an extended adolescence, becoming more set in ones expectations making move to marriage more difficult, expectations of marrying later, fewer kids, etc.) Don’t get me wrong. Looking back I think there were some huge benefits to getting married later. A lot of the stresses I think couples face were reduced because I was more mature. Likewise looking back at myself in my 20’s I was socially still very immature and probably not ready for marriage. I think everyone matures at different rates and we don’t really adjust for that well. (I say as I see some of my kids of seem to mature different parts of their personality at very different rates than some of their peers)

    I can understand people not wanting so much focus on the family, but I don’t see many good suggestions on how the church should adjust to change the changing social focus by society at large within our subculture. There often is (without pointing at anyone in this thread) more an assumption we should just embrace the social changes of American culture and remove those aspects of church culture that conflict. That just seems inherently problematic to me.

  67. Excellent essay, Julie. Regrettably the church’s approach to the scriptures seems to mirror its attitude towards its history: ignore the stuff that isn’t compatible with the current Mormon perception of the world or that may cause cognitive dissonance. And you’re right—this will lead inevitably to another faith crisis, with the church’s credibility taking yet another hit.

    Imagine how all of this must appear to reasonably well educated person who is investigating the church.

  68. Julie,
    You may very well be right that indirection beats direction for large families but I am concerned that the overwhelming cultural trends towards smaller families means that there has to be an increasing difference between LDS teachings on discipleship and virtue relative to other social institutions.
    Clark Goble points out that the LDS families of those between 40 and 59 are much larger than those of other religions yet the share of mormons in the population has not increased much recently according to the same Pew survey.
    This basically means that birth rates much less than 3.4 per woman mean the church will shrink without increasing retention and/or increasing conversion rates. Both of those face serious headwinds. I think the church leadership realizes that its survival depends on those with very large families remaining loyal to the church which means an increasing difference from prevailing cultural trends.
    Yo may be right about the individual virtue focus being the better path, but then that would require an explanation of why it hasn’t been sufficient to produce a greater number of young people committed to the church.
    I agree with you on the personal preference for the type of teachings you describe, but I don’t think those alone are sufficient for the church to sustain itself in the United States. The Family approach may not be effective either but it doesn’t have the direct benefit that it specifically ties virtue to reproduction. One of the most profound and direct statement in the proclamation is that commandment to multiply and replenish the earth remains in effect.
    I would be more able to agree with you about the Family being counterproductive if i could see how it caused those with large families to either have smaller families or be less committed to the church than the earlier focus of teachings.
    I feel that some of the church’s teachings that moved toward personal spirituality and away from practical skill building for families was counter productive. I agree with you that a family theology without practical teaching to help with family creation is counter-productive.

  69. Martin, the growth rate of the country even including immigration has shrunk. We’re shrinking our growth roughly at the same rate the nation is.

    Honestly though I don’t think the brethren care about the growth rate so much as they do seeing family as a key theological lynchpin in our conception of God.

    I do think you have a point that it’s not clear to me that focusing in on something else would be helpful. (Depending I guess upon what we mean by helpful) Saying focus in on Jesus is a bit vague. We already focus *a lot* on Jesus. (I’m constantly flummoxed when people say we don’t – he’s mentioned as key issue every few minutes! – far more than families are) It’s just that the very way we see Jesus is through a lens of family.

  70. If I recall correctly, I read a statement by former BYU-Idaho President Kim Clark, saying the spiritual emphasis at church schools would be shifting to more on “The Family” due to the fact that about 40% of college age LDS kids, and these were good active LDS students, hadn’t gotten the message at home that the Family Proclamation was about SSM. The students had no understanding of why this is a big deal.
    This lack of understanding stunned church leaders so they are trying to correct the error rather than let it perpetuate.

  71. Not surprising as there is no mention of gay marriage in the proc, also it may be that the proportion of members who don’t oppose marriage equality, certainly in that age group, would be 40%.

    If that is the case how many people are unhappy with the latest effort. How many are happy, is it a large majority? Tipping point? Itis not discussed in our ward.

  72. I am so late coming to this party, but just wanted to add my hearty AMEN to everything you wrote, Julie (and Ardis!) – and plead with you to somehow get this essay into the hands of the higher ups at CES. I am not expecting that any changes will be made, but when scriptural illiteracy in the Church becomes epidemic and fatal, at least they cannot say they weren’t warned. You are a treasure in the Church, Julie. I vote for you to be in charge of Church Education :)

  73. Nathan:

    As a member of a stake presidency, I can say you describe beautifully exactly what we try to do with all. Thanks for noticing!

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