Mormonism in the (Post)Modern World

The Wheatley Institution hosted a conference at BYU last month, “Reason for Hope: Responding to a Secular World.” Video of the presentations may be posted at the Wheatley website at some point, but for now we have the Deseret News article summarizing the event, headlined as “Mormons with doubts shouldn’t give up the faith without ‘intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming.’” I think the Deseret News headline does a better job describing the conference than the official title.

Richard Williams, the Director of the Wheatley Institution, started off with “Angst at 5, Faith at 40.” The article quotes him as criticizing those who leave the Church as doing so based on a false view of what the Church is or what LDS doctrines are: “Most people who decide to leave the church really end up leaving a cartoon of the church.” Which is a strange view to endorse, given that LDS publications have, in the past, presented an LDS historical narrative that borders on cartoonish (as Williams is using the term) in its oversimplifications and omissions. The Gospel Topics essays are, it seems, an attempt to upgrade that narrative. But it is certainly the case that those who choose to exit the Church often do so as a result of reading a more detailed and less cartoonish account of LDS history (and of course that’s not an inevitable or even probable outcome for reading real as opposed to simplified LDS history). That’s just the opposite dynamic to what Williams is describing. Here is a longer quotation from Williams (as quoted in the article; ellipsis in original) giving his advice for dealing with a faith crisis:

Do not have someone else’s faith crisis. Don’t have a non-LDS faith crisis. If you think you are having a faith crisis, make sure to find out what faith really is in the context of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. … Assume that most of your cultural understandings are wrong or at least distorted. Then give the restored gospel a chance at your mind and especially at your soul.

Robert Millet, previously Dean of Religious Education at BYU, followed with “Doubt Not, Fear Not.” He restated the emerging LDS position on faith and doubt: Questions are okay but doubt is not okay, not at all. As he was quoted in the article, “Questions are a natural byproduct of being human. They are not, in a word, strange, inappropriate or a sign of weakness.” But “questions and doubt are not the same thing.” Here is a longer quotation from Millet’s talk which includes the “kicking and screaming” metaphor featured in the headline:

For me, to doubt our doubts is to be courageous rather than cavalier when it comes to eternal things. We cannot be casual in doubting our doubts and thus succumb to spiritual and intellectual laziness. In other words, no one of us should ever allow a doubt to reign, when in fact it has not won that lofty perch through proving itself beyond all doubt. Just as for me it takes too much faith to be an atheist, so we should not be so kindly, such a pushover, as to allow our faith system to go by the way without intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming on our part.

Barbara Morgan Gardner, on the BYU faculty but previously the Director for Seminaries and Institutes in Massachusetts, reported on her interactions with LDS graduate students back East. Here is how the article summarizes her findings:

“What I have been able to understand is why people stay,” she said. She boiled it down to character. Those who stayed active in the church exhibited patience, faith and trust in Jesus Christ, hope, knowledge and wisdom, obedience, diligence and persistence, humility, repentance and forgiveness, charity and virtue.

On the face of it, she seems to be saying that those who stay in the Church have good character or positive character traits (knowledge, diligence, etc.) and to be implying that those who exit have bad character or bad character traits (the opposites to the character virtues in the list). That’s just passive-aggressively demonizing those who leave the Church. I hope the full text of her remarks show a more nuanced approach to the issue.

Finally, Elder Bruce C. Hafen, Emeritus Seventy and formerly Dean of the BYU Law School and President of BYU-Idaho back in its Ricks College days, delivered “Faith is not Blind.” From the short excerpts in the article, it is clear that Hafen used some of the material from a 1979 BYU speech with a slightly different title, which was later reprinted in the Ensign. It is a classic, well worth your time to go read or listen to. Here is the a link to the transcript of the original BYU presentation: “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity.” In both talks, Hafen discussed three levels of dealing with ambiguity. Level 1: black-and-white thinking. Level 2: entrenched skepticism masquerading as realism. At Level 3, “we’re open-minded believers who know that history and life are not always clear-cut and tidy, but our desire is to keep learning and growing. We want to improve the status quo, not just criticize it.” There is a long passage in the 1979 talk depicting the dangers of overly zealous critical thinking in the context of LDS church classes and activities. Good advice for all LDS bloggers, commenters, and readers.

While I was digging around the Wheatley site looking for video from this conference (not yet posted, apparently), I ran across this video from another recent Wheatley conference at BYU: “Post Modern, Post Secular, Post Religious,” by John D. Caputo, a noted philosopher and theologian. He presents a more radical and more penetrating analysis of the place of religion in the postmodern intellectual universe. Definitely not a Level 1 guy.

42 comments for “Mormonism in the (Post)Modern World

  1. Perhaps we’ll get another lively T&S discussion on whether the postmodern glove fits the faithful Mormon hand (see

    I’m baffled by those who devote so much time denouncing evidence-based arguments against the Church’s truth claims in order to defend a church whose raison d’être (forgive the pretentious phrase, but I find no good English equivalent) is the fact that it is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”

    Some will recall that the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year is “post-truth.” In terms of his/her propensity to declare that spiritual promptings always trump documented events whenever the two come into conflict, the 21st century faithful Mormon is, in my view, a post-truth Mormon.

  2. Your comments about the cartoon religion and why people leave is spot on (at least from the DN coverage). And it makes me mad.

    My faith wasn’t challenged because of what I learn in Sunday School and General Confernece; it was challenged because I learned a bit about Joseph and polygamy. It was challenged because November 5, 2015 was no Disney fairy tale (or if it was, the Church was the heartless, evil stepmother.)

  3. Thank you for this post. I’m looking forward to hearing these speeches in unfiltered form when they become available. Thanks also for pointing to Hafen’s earlier speech.

    One way to think about responses to a faith crisis is on a continuum from the therapeutic to the analytical. Each pole of that continuum has valid uses. Whether you ought to be more therapeutic or more analytical depends on the situation: Who are you talking to? What do you hope to accomplish?

    The Wheatley Institution’s web page on this conference suggests to me that the conference was conceived primarily as analysis. It says that the conference “is about finding and affirming faith and hope in the context of intellectual life” and that the speakers want to give the audience “new ways of framing and explaining their faith in the face of secularism.” In other words, the conference is meant to approach spirituality in intellectual terms—not to express empathetic understanding toward the struggle of seekers.

    Maybe the organizers are wrong in thinking that an analytical approach is a good way to help people experiencing a faith crisis. Maybe they’ve bungled it by mistaking the analytical for the therapeutic. Or maybe the speakers have some useful ideas that elude summary in a newspaper article. I won’t make a judgment on that until I can hear their remarks in full, but I’m anxious to find out.

  4. Michael part of the problem is even in its prime postmodernism was a broad term that covered many different (often contradictory) claims. Not all or even most postmodernism is relativist.

    Dave, one should note that Caputo’s view of God is pretty incompatible with Mormon thought. He takes a very very liberal theological view of God. He’s much more in line with figures like Tillich from the early 20th century.

    Don’t get me wrong – he says some very valuable things. But the whole religious move in the 90’s where theology was applied to phenomenology was much more about maintaining a kind of transcendence. There were some in that move I’d call theists but many of the religious moves were being done by atheists like Derrida. His NYT interview is worth readin


  5. “Just as for me it takes too much faith to be an atheist”

    More evidence of the utterly twisted logic of modern LDS apologetics. This is so completely bizarre and nonsensical that to give it a proper response would be to validate it more than not giving it one.

  6. Mark S, maybe you should view it as a consequence of choosing different axioms? Though you don’t seem particularly open to understanding if you already know what’s good logic and needs to be validated and what’s bizarre and nonsensical and needs to be ostracized.

    Michael H, a major problem with choosing documented facts over spiritual experiences is just how dad-blamed unreliable those facts are over time. And I don’t mean updating-the-evidence gradual-scientific-advance change, I mean pure-tonic forget-about-last-year Ministry of Truth memory-hole Peak Oil change. Once upon a time there was a story about a salamander, and it was the truth, it was a fact, so evidence-based the general authorities even bought the document, and to this day you’ll find people pushing salamanders. Demanding established truths be replaced by whatever is new and documented, in practice, creates people who are whipped around by every new documented truth like it was, say, like winds of doctrine, and that’s familiar ground, ain’t it.

    You’re forgetting that there is a great deal of benefit for anyone who can control the perception of documented fact, and so, all men are not angels, people do it. We are going to have trash science, in-retrospect-regrettable history, and absolutely bonkers psychology pushed at us, and every single time it is going to be real Truth, you’re killing your grandkids if you don’t accept it Truth, and don’t even ask about the last time someone said Truth, they’ll say, all that science twenty years ago, fifty years ago was junk. Bad methodology. You were the fool for believing it.

    You might begin to notice how convenient it can be to have a generally consistent set of beliefs to stick to even if someone documents a fact differently. If it stays documented, if it’s part of that set of truth Brigham Young claimed, well, we might be able to reach an understanding with it. If it’s doesn’t, we come out vindicated again and thank the Lord we’ll be there to help out those poor people who’ll get scammed again, those sorry souls that demand we replace most-likely-eternal truth with a fad.

  7. I knew somebody who after 30-ish years of inactivity became the Gospel Doctrine teacher in his ward after a year or so of activity. He talked about how much he liked the calling, except for the fact that once every Sunday he’d say something and instantly every hand in the room went up. Basically he’d say something wrong, and everyone wanted to make sure that the record was straight. As a result he was being corrected about his misunderstandings of what the gospel is.
    What I took from that, is that when he left the church, he left a misunderstanding what the gospel was. For me it was an interesting lesson on faith, he had enough faith to come back to the church even though he thought he was coming back to something different than what he thought he was coming back to.

  8. Mars, I agree that history as distant as, say, the first 100 years of the Church must be sifted through, checked against other sources, and checked again four times over. That’s why I look at something like Grant Palmer’s work as too eager to draw conclusions on less than verifiable sources. Still, I think it would be a shame to interpret the diverse source material on early church history the same way we now look at the Hoffman documents as fabrications. (On a side note, we should remember that Hoffman was extremely intelligent for embedding his forgeries in historical context, so I think it says something important that Church leadership took the documents as authentic). We should be skeptical, yes, but not dismissive of so much in the way you may be recommending with your example. To go with the latter would be to dismiss the extremely careful, well-footnkted scholarship of people like Michael Quinn.

    I think most believing historians at least recognize that they can’t write off every off-putting historical detail as dubious, so they stick to the line of the Gospel Topics Essays by essentially saying “we are now mostly sure that Joseph married X amount of women, some quite young and some quite already married, but we don’t know that that’s such a bad thing.” There were simply too many sources to ignore the composite picture of Jospeh Smith as a polygamist, and the historical debate on whether he was not a completely or even mostly pious one is a debate still worth having–at least for people up to challenging their own faith. The same goes for any other major topic that challenged the cartoonish picture of Church history that many still cling to.

    That’s all to say nothing of more recent documented events that are driving some like me out of Church orthodoxy, such as the politicization (I’m specifically thinking of Benson) and corporate consolidation of the contemporary Church (see the intro to Hans Baer’s “Recreating Utopia in the Desert” for my favorite summary). These events are up to interpretstion, but not up to being challenged for actually happening or not. So, even if we could write off all the early black eyes on Church history as Hoffman-like frauds, there is still much to cause many to question some of the Church’s truth claims.

    I think the two Benson biographies anticipated for 2017 are part of a chronological progression in Mormon history that, unlike historical debates on earlier topics, will require those accustomed to saying “we can’t go that far back to actually know what really happened or what was really said at that meeting” to find a new foundation for the apologetics. Perhaps the postmodern approach (sorry, Clark!) that Dave mentions above or that Duffy has ascribed to contemporary Mormon apologetics is that new foundation. In that case, I have no idea how to engage in historical debates with people who are beginning to be so dismissive of history. Post-truth, pure-feeling apologetics is what the Wheatley conference looks like to me.

  9. Oh, that’s even better, not even a question of what events happened but of how you should feel about them. The facts I was talking about are things like how homosexuality is genetic, therefore ????, therefore the Church should relax its teachings on chastity, and then some twin study comes along and whoah, the science actually hasn’t spoken yet. As to whether Joseph took teenage wives or Benson enriched himself from the Church, there are facts involved but there are also motivations, and it’s the oldest trick in the book to point out some recently unearthed fact that has yet to be contextualized and provide your own context, to say “and therefore Joseph’s motivation was poon all along” or “therefore Benson’s politics were merely a front to sell books.” Interpretations aren’t bound to research, and judging the past by today’s standards is never a good idea. So we stand by and wait and see, and maybe nothing happens and we forget about it or maybe Thomas Marsh shouldn’t be selling that land for so much and there’s an issue. I don’t see how we need a new framework to handle that, it’s not a new problem.

  10. We are back on the broader topic of faith crisis. One of the dichotomies in Mormon culture is its methodological moorings produce what can only be called an Epistemological Butterfly Effect. On the one hand it emphasizes taking a simple, non-nuanced approach to doctrine and scripture, and directs a faith-based / devotional-moral approach. Such a system of teaching allows for a wide participatory interaction between many different peoples of different socio/economic/cultural backgrounds. In such a pedagogy, however, the rigors of historical context with text and history are eliminated, sometimes wholesale, or at least eliminated to the degree of the individual teacher and ecclesiastical leader at the moment.

    This approach produces non-nuanced worldviews and non-nuanced testimonies of worldviews. These testimonies of worldviews are often interpreted as testimonies of eternal truths. So when complicated and messy historical context of both text and history rears its head, many who have been sustained in the black and white world of “eternal truth” find themselves holding nothing but water in their hands seeping between their ideological knuckles. The faith inspiring children’s story we have been taught all our lives turns into a faith destroying hurricane which collapses the worldview upon which a life has been built.

    All this is well known, and we are again faced with the question what to do about it. Very often it seems we seek to cure this problem with the same pedagogy that created it. Repeatedly I am caught with the notion that many people addressing this dynamic seem to be missing its most essential aspect—it is not knowledge or information that has been discovered that is hurting a person’s faith—it is rather the trust intrinsic in the cultural epistemology that has been upended. This is not a problem of information but of existential identity.

    It’s like being married to a spouse only to discover that he/she has been cheating on you. Your ecclesiastical counselor points out, in a well-intentioned attempt to keep your family together, all the things that contributed to this adulterous affair, including your own bad and flirtatious behavior. While the counsel and advice might all be true, and while citing accurate statistics and techniques to improve your relationship can all be accurate, the truth of the matter is none of that addresses the existential identity crisis that occurs when one’s faith and love is betrayed by the thing that he/she holds faith in and loves.

    Existential crisis are not things to be taken lightly, and they live in the eye of the hurricane of doubt. This eye was in part blinked into existence by the flapping butterfly wings of “eternal truth.” So when I read the citation above by Millet I wince. When did it become wrong to doubt your faith? The last time I checked, faith was predicated in doubt. And in any case, those struggling in the eye of the faith-hurricane are being beaten by the winds of an existential doubt our culture helped create. I do not think it helpful to rebuke one who is doubting in such circumstances. Nor do I believe that doubt is a bad thing. It can be. And it might not be.

    One cannot solve a person’s faith crisis with ultimatums of truth or black and white truth statements about doubt. Actually, one survives a hurricane by leaving one’s normal domicile and seeking refuge within a bunker of strength where almost always one immediately realizes what is most important to them. There are some who leave the church because their domicile could not reconcile the winds and they end up taking what is most important to them to a different worldview. This is not wrong nor immoral. It is natural, even healing.

    The church has much to struggle with in this dynamic, not the least of which, I believe, that it really must start at the beginning, that is, with the butterfly.

  11. This whole “faith crisis” issue is anti LDS. I have seen quite a few felliw neighbors and friends who go through this “faith crusus” but in reality its just a way of saying they no longer believe but are too stubborn to actually leave, take a break from it, let time pass and learn again. The whole faith crisis movement in the church is nothing more tgan the new exoerinent if tge devil to create disgarmony in the church and divide it from within.

  12. John – that’s what faith is, isn’t it? We have faith that we have, more or less, eternal truth. The Restoration is an ongoing process, and we’re surely going to learn that many more doctrines we used to lean on are not eternal truth. A hundred years ago we had to struggle to reconcile not being polygamous. Two thousand years ago, eating pork. Five thousand years ago Abraham had to struggle to reconcile human sacrifice. Rather than a flaw in how we go about things, I contend that faith crises are a major part of life’s purpose. Ultimata are a dynamic part of our interaction with faith crises, our attempt to figure out what it is we have faith in, what it is, in the words of probably the most chilling Doctrine and Covenants verses, that we worship. Central to our religion is Jesus Christ and the Atonement – but what is that? Who is Jesus? We don’t get to know him in Sunday School, as I’m sure you’ve experienced – we get to know him in faith crises. Sunday School prepares us for those, but it can only do so much.

    We can fail these tests of faith. No doubt there were Abrahams that backed down, that refused, or that went ahead with the sacrifice in a crazed frenzy. We call him our father because he walked the line, because his trust in God, not in what he knew to be his institutions, not in what he believed to be moral and right, was absolute. We can fail our faith crises by being too loyal in the wrong direction, by placing our trust in our prophet too much and in Christ his master too little. But in my experience – and in the experience of those people I trust to have true faith – the Church is generally going in the right direction. Testimonies shaped purely by the Church program without actual spiritual interaction aren’t going to be nuanced. The Church can’t give testimonies, the Spirit can. Go figure.

    I believe what Rod’s talking about are those disingenuous faith crises that are broadcast Oral Roberts-style. The night of faith is a highly personal thing, shared if at all with those closest to you, much like sensitive revelations and other spiritual experiences. The distrust we have for those with faith crises seem to come with a lot of blog subscribers and public displays of anguish is similar to the distrust we have for those whose visions come with those massive self-published tomes. There’s a shape to things, in our experience.

  13. The problem I see with faith crisis dialogue is that it begins to place too much emphasis on judging truthfulness by how many holes you can find or make up about those who reveal the truth. But, all it does is create an entire ideaolog of falseness that leads one further away from the gospel. Bill Reel is but one example of doing this. He claims to help those in faith crisis or transition but in reality, his substance is anti LDS that causes the whole “faith crisis” to fester until it corrupts the faithful.

  14. “Most people who decide to leave the church really end up leaving a cartoon of the church.”

    I think you’re a tad uncharitable to Williams in your takedown of this point. There isn’t a single spectrum of ranging from “cartoonish, orthodox, faith-promoting” to “nuanced, unorthodox, faith-challenging”; we mustn’t forget that faith-challenging depictions of the church can also be cartoonish! After all, those who leave the church of “Our Heritage” because they’ve learned of the decades-long conspiracy among church leaders to cover up the warty Truth about church history have simply substituted one cartoon for another.

  15. It’s hard to quantify why people leave so saying “most people who decide to leave the church really end up leaving a cartoon of the church.” So I’m not sure we really know. Most of those saying this say it because of discussions with people who have left the church. But rarely are those representative.

    Further, even if someone does leave because of a cartoonish versions of the church relative to what most well read believers believe that doesn’t mean they created that caricature out of thin air. More significantly there are pretty legitimate ethical concerns people might see in church history. Now this isn’t a problem for me or many others. But let’s be honest why we feel that way. Either we’re fine with human mistakes among leaders and cut them more slack than others are comfortable with or we’re fine with God leaving us to our own devices more than people might be comfortable with. But there are reasons people hold the opposing views. By and large those of us not bothered by such matters are either doing so out of a faith informed by the spirit or simply are compartmentalizing our beliefs. Not everyone can do that. (In particular I think compartmentalization, while common, is also problematic)

    All that said, I’m somewhat sympathetic to Williams here in that in discussions and debates it sure is common for people to present a caricature of the Church. I think the whole inoculation movement really comes out of those discussions even if we can’t really quantify how common they are as reasons for leaving.

  16. Clark, I would add that the type of faith crisis described is a also something of a “first world problems” phenomenon (or maybe “upper middle class problems”?). Looking outside the U.S. or even inside the working class U.S. at extremely inactive or ex-members, my (admittedly limited) experience has been that personal offenses and inability to separate from the dominant culture (e.g., Word of Wisdom) played a far, far bigger role than concerns about Church history. These types of members are less likely to access (or even have access to) potentially troubling Church history information.

    None of this is to downplay faith crises related to Church history or doctrine, but treating that as the dominant reason people leave seems inaccurate to me, though maybe I reading too much into the post and comments.

    I also admit that one counter to my point is that the Church has already addressed many times and continues to address non-Church history reasons (such as being offended by a local leader) for inactivity and leaving the Church and that trouble with Church history is something the Church has only recently signaled willingness to address.

  17. NV, while I don’t trust my own experiences as reflecting the Church broadly, I think a lack of social connection, social offense, or issues like morality or Word of Wisdom are the bigger deal even among the “first world problems.” On the other hand I’m sure gay issues and history do affect a significant number of people. The latter is at least somewhat resolvable. The former is of course an issue the Church is still struggling with and has no good general answer of what to do. (As I’ve mentioned, it’s an amazingly tough problem and I’m glad I’m not an apostle who has to solve it)

    My guess is that even those who struggle with history issues (and again I hasten to add that there are real controversies in our history) typically first have other issues that make how they view the history issues more difficult. I recognize that’s a controversial statement. However clearly some people see the same history and have zero struggles. It’s worth asking why that is. From a hermeneutic perspective there’s something different about some people that makes them interpret the data differently. That means that the history along can’t be a sufficient explanation. (Again not denying in the least the big completely understandable ethical concerns people have from history)

  18. Most of the people I know who have left have agonized over the decision.

    It costs them family relationships. It costs friendships. Sometimes it costs a marriage. Often it costs the respect of one’s own children, at least in the short-term.

    One who leaves a high demand religion like Mormonism must be willing to step into a void of disbelief. Imagine if you can, taking your worldview and deconstructing it without a backup plan. You take apart what you believed about reality, and then as an adult you accept that you don’t really know what you thought you did.

    Most minds are incapable of that step, methinks.

    Yup. Leaving a faith like Mormonism is difficult. It has real costs. It takes emotional and intellectual courage. It’s terrifying if you were at one point a genuine believer.

    Consider this: Those who leave the faith must face the concept of death and suffering without the solution provided by their previous faith. Who is willing to do that? It’s terrifying to go from a position of belief to a position of disbelief, particularly for those who know real loss.

    That first step out is very uncertain. Very scary. I genuinely love the apostate mind. I love those souls who can do it.

    Why so much pressure to “stay in the boat”? Once you get out of the boat, you could certainly choose to get back in the boat if you don’t like your choice, no?

    I’m personally not interested, but once someone resigns from the faith, can they not get rebaptized if they regret their choice? Most Mormons I know would be understanding of that situation, “Yeah, I didn’t believe any of the faith’s truth claims, so I left. Then I realized I was unhappy, so came back.” I guess that conference talk could be called, “Ship Leave is an Exhilarating Life Choice and Jesus Approves.” :-)

  19. Clark, for many, it isn’t disturbing episodes in church history that drive them away but a sense of a betrayal from being misled by an organization in which they had placed their confidence. As Terryl Givens once observed, there is a “discrepancy between a church history that has been selectively rendered through the Church Education System and Sunday school manuals, and a less-flattering version universally accessible on the Internet … The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less than forthcoming to begin with.”

    The church seems to naively believe that if it publishes a few essays on controversial topics it can, overnight, undo the damage done to its integrity. While I’m delighted to see the church openly acknowledge controversial historical and doctrinal topics—issues that, in prior years, could get you excommunicated if you dared address them publicly—I will fact check everything it publishes.

  20. FarSide, I recognize that but that to me gets at more the caricature. I think that view is far less defensible. I recognize you and many others will disagree – but I’m much more sympathetic to someone freaking out about Fanny Alger or Zina Huntington than ‘betrayal’ because such matters aren’t discussed in Sunday School. Without rehashing that oft made debate.

    I’d add that I don’t think addressing such matters leads to excommunication. Of course how one addresses them matters.

    Land Ho, I think “go[ing] from a position of belief to a position of disbelief” is a mature thing to do based upon evidence. While there’s no doubt breaks from group-identity are tough, religion is not the only one. I do agree that it is terrifying for some people, but I’m not sure that is ultimately a healthy thing. Speaking in general since I am a believer – but I think the same phenomena occurs in many other areas of life.

  21. Clark, I’m not any more interested in rehashing that debate than you are, though I believe it is naive to think that the church doesn’t have a credibility problem. To take one among dozens of examples, when you continue place images on the cover of the Ensign of Joseph sitting at a desk, leafing through the gold plates while translating the Book of Mormon and it comes out that he actually buried his head in a hat and saw words in a seer stone and that the church has known this for quite some time, people are going to lose faith in the institution’s portrayal of its history and doctrine.

    As to excommunication, you apparently overlooked my qualifying phrase: “… in prior years ….” My point is that if in 1993 you published articles about controversial episodes in church history, there was a good chance you would be numbered among the September 6 and given the boot. Moreover, the reason that no longer occurs today (at least with same frequency) is because the Internet forced the church to finally admit that it hadn’t been telling the whole story.

  22. Even in 1993 I’m pretty skeptical. Admittedly the tensions were different then, but I heard all those things at BYU. I think the bigger issue then was the perception (correct or otherwise) that Sunstone and Dialog were trying to remake the church along a certain view. I don’t want to say things were as open then as now. They weren’t. But then only six people faced anything, one for reasons unrelated to his scholarship, whereas the topics had large numbers of people writing on them. The topics were regularly discussed on many mailing lists including ones I ran at the time in the early 90’s. (I should note that I presented at Sunstone in this era on somewhat controversial topics)

    While I certainly don’t like the art the Church has typically commissioned, I’m not sure it’s fair to judge theology by artists with questionable views. (Don’t get me started on Book of Mormon art) Again I understand why some take the view you note. I just don’t think it’s a justifiable one because it assumes a certain infallibility of the church in such matters I find deeply problematic. Further typically a double standard. No one is nearly as concerned about the problems of Dutch realist artists conceptions of 1st century Palestine as they are of artists conceptions of Joseph or Nephites; nor are people as concerned about common misunderstandings of the ancient near east as they are these things.

    But again we’ve been around and around on these things. It’s probably best to just respectfully disagree.

  23. Clark, re: comments on art and feeling deceived. The problem is not as much with the artist or the art as much as it is with a Church sponsored sanction of that depiction through publication and distribution, even when such depictions have been shown to be false. That matters. I consequently don’t think your comparison to Dutch realists holds up.

    But, as you have said, we’ve been around and around on these things. Nice to finally see BYU publically providing a venue for some of the discussion. Hafen has it right, I think. Black and white thinking (long (and still) encouraged by the Church in many cases) leads to black and white thinkers who feel betrayed when they find out things in the Church are not so, and also that the very people who told encouraged the black and white thinking knew things weren’t so.

    But, round and round we go. Are we being pulled to the gravitational center of Christ through love unfeined and a search for truth or, ironically, to the outer skirts through ever-expansive defensiveness and platitudes? I’m with FarSide at this point. I’m not convinced yet by the existing moves towards transparency. Hopeful, (however slow it happens), but not convinced.

  24. Most of the art the Church publishes of Christ or palestine are the Dutch realists. How is that different? Through publication and distribution (put on even most walls in meeting buildings) isn’t the Church giving the same stamp of approval? But to your other points I agree. Black and white thinking isn’t helpful. I think we just disagree how much it was and is present. I thought it pretty clear in the early 90’s a lot of things were people’s opinions.

    I should add that while black and white thinking in general is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive, of course some things are black and white in terms of answers.

  25. Clark, It seems to me that what I think you and I might call a “caricature” of the Church and the restored gospel, is not recognized by many as a caricature, but is perceived instead as either the reality or a claim of reality. Maybe I have misunderstood your reference. The kind of art FarSide has complained of being published in the Ensign, is not just there. I was appalled on my last visit to Temple Square to find still displayed in the north visitor’s center that familiar painting of JS translating the BM with a finger tracing the characters in question on the gold plates. There was not even a notice posted there that this was the artist’s attempt to depict the concept of translation, but was not how the historical record says it was done. How is such a display in that context anything other than a thoughtless [or even intentional] misleading of the visiting public, whether members or not, setting them up for future disappointment in the Church’s truth claims and for difficulty in determining what, if anything, to trust even as an honest mistake or artistic imagination? Similarly, though it would seem to me more arguable, the posting in the south visitor’s center of the claim that “everything in the temple testifies of Christ” struck me as a misleading of the visiting public. Everything?! Really?! Only, it would seem, if everything in the world and world history (Hitler and Holocaust included) testifies of Christ. Maybe in some sense “everything” does, but certainly not in the same sense promoted by the Church in trying to teach what constitutes a testimony to be shared in fast and testimony meeting. Instead, that posting looks like a PR ploy which, if remembered by a first-time temple goer (for other than baptisms for the dead) will simply contribute to the shock and offense many have experienced as a result of inadequate or misleading temple preparation. While there are many who are not bothered by the credibility problem or who are more bothered by Fanny Alger and Zina Huntington, etc., I cannot see that as a legitimate reason to continue creating the problem for those who see a credibility gap when the Church’s responsibility for doing so could easily be avoided. The use of Dutch realist (and other northern European Jesus depictions) does indeed implicate the same conceptual “stamp of approval” problem, but what is depicted is sufficiently distanced from uniquely LDS truth claims about the BM and the temple, etc., that it is much easier for those who experience a credibility gap to deal with the use of imaginative paintings of Christ and Palestine. At least as to the Dutch realists themselves, they were not LDS artists depicting LDS truth claims. In teaching the SS GD class, I have used a very wide variety of art from many periods, many different Christian persuasions, from the orient and from Africa, many styles (including abstracts), etc. Even including pictures from Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa), an initiative undertaken in the 1970s to help teach the gospel in Northern Cameroon. (French Catholic missionary François Vidil worked with Mafa Christian communities in Cameroon to create an enormous catalogue of paintings depicting the life of Jesus as an African man. The plan was to build a resource that would help Mafa people to teach from the bible in a way that connects with their community.) When this is done it becomes possible to both capture and hold people’s visual attention and teach the gospel without inadvertently teaching false truth claims. If the gold plate/character by character depiction of BM translation is to be displayed, why not publish explanation with it? and/or display next to it a painting of JS translating with his head buried in a hat and the gold plates nowhere in sight? The institutional choice of Dutch realist paintings of centuries old people and events in Palestine and the institutional failure to use art as I have in GD class is hardly an excuse for the knowing institutional choice of misleading “realist” art as to its own history on such a central matter as the translation of the BM. The two are simply not comparable in their effect on many, even if the concept of an institutional “stamp of approval” is the same.

    OK, this particular soapbox has become tiresome — probably for you, too! :)

  26. Clark, could you unpack this a little bit?: “I should add that while black and white thinking in general is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive, of course some things are black and white in terms of answers.”

  27. JR (27) “It seems to me that what I think you and I might call a “caricature” of the Church and the restored gospel, is not recognized by many as a caricature, but is perceived instead as either the reality or a claim of reality. “

    Yes. That doesn’t make it right of course. People have misunderstandings of the gospel and Church all the time. Heck, I probably have several that I’m not aware of.

    The problem is that it doesn’t take much thinking/knowledge to realize that history isn’t clearly known. By anyone. The story of Washington and the cherry tree didn’t happen. Lincoln was a racist. So forth. However lots of people believe the cherry tree story and assume Lincoln was akin to modern civil rights activists. Folk traditions, even with the level of converts we have, inform people’s ideas far more than actual data. This is true of basically everything.

    That people don’t want to acknowledge they might be ignorant and take everything at face value is fine. But at a certain point it’s the individual’s responsibility. I just don’t see the religious aspect of this as particularly unique. You find exactly the same phenomena in most religions and honestly in nearly any topic. It’s completely understandable. But the issue at hand is more one of responsibility.

    Michael (29) In general black and white thinking doesn’t admit nuance or degree. Taken to extremes this means drinking alcohol is as bad as murder. (Of course few take it that far) Some things are black and white of course. While the degree something is bad may vary (say embezzling money or murder) both are wrong. Where black and white thinking tends to fall down is with complexity. In ethical matters you often have competing values that are in tension and the answers aren’t clear. In terms of knowledge we have to admit our ignorance and recognize things aren’t sure.

    So I didn’t mean much profound by it. Just that complexity makes black and white thinking often difficult and that many phenomena come in terms of degree.

    A perhaps better way of putting it is that people crave to oversimplify matters and make things easier than they actually are. Of course the opposite happens sometimes too. People make things unnecessarily complex and assume things are harder than they are.

  28. To add JR, where I think we both agree is a wish the art would be more accurate. My point is just that it’s never been accurate along any measure and that this is a problem of religion in general. Non-Mormon art about the Bible is just as inaccurate and people draw just as incorrect inferences. The difference is no one feels betrayed by that nor just as inaccurate art about the founding of the United States or George Washington’s tree. People freak out about Arnold Friberg but not Carl Bloch. Why?

    I’d love Book of Mormon & Biblical art to actually look like what Palestinians likely looked like. I wish the swords of the Nephites were macuahuitls rather than gladiuses. Although still wrong the SLC visitor’s center admittedly now has paintings with both – unfortunately keeping the gladius in the Nephite hands. Wrong but a definite step up.

  29. I’ve been reading this thread a little closer than most in an effort to get a sense of the type of thresholds for paradox, in history or elsewhere, that Mormons more faithful than myself have.

    Saying in effect that “jumping ship would not be warranted if people could just understand the nuance of topic X” is fine, so long as the actual topic is explored. To argue that allowing for nuance makes it easier to remain faithful to the Church’s truth claims without actually presenting a nuanced approach to a specific topic just doesn’t seem constructive to me at all.

    Perhaps its time for me to only chime in on discussions that aren’t limited to mere conceptualization. I suppose that’s why some of the best discussions I’ve had on Church history are the ones that center on the research contents, and not merely the concepts, of the topic at hand.

  30. Michael, you’re completely right that it’s hard to discuss in too abstract of terms. It’s more helpful relative to specific topics. Part of that is due to the reality that despite our abstract commitments we certainly treat some areas differently than others. Usually for pretty compelling reasons. So to answer my question above, the reason uniquely Mormon art is treated differently from general yet erroneous Christian or early Founders art is due to familiarity.

  31. Clark (31). In my particular LDS experience people have freaked out over Carl Bloch, but not Arnold Friberg! The freak-out was at the institutional level that required brushing the angel’s wings out of Bloch’s Gethsemane altarpiece when “reproduced” in Church publications. In more recent years the wings have appeared in Church publications. I remember the rants about angels not having wings and the complete failure to teach the symbolic nature of the artistic representation, the failure to teach the scriptures with respect to cherubim and seraphim and their [symbolic] wings, and the failure to teach Malachi 4:2, all while singing every Christmas about the Sun [uselessly altered from Malachi to “Son” in the LDS hymnal] of Righteousness “ris’n with healing in his wings.” The same sort of changeableness has often happened with art, music, etc. as they appear in Church usage depending often on the whims [?] of what particular GA is then taking charge. E.g., in my childhood, the Jadwin Avenue chapel in Richland WA had a very fine and rather large painting of the first vision on its otherwise blank front wall. It pictured the Father and the Son appearing to a kneeling Joseph, like a number of stained glass windows in various LDS chapels. It had been painted by a visiting artist, reputedly one of those who had painted some of the temple murals in Utah. One visiting GA objected and the artist was required to come back and paint the Father and Son out of the painting, showing only light through the trees instead. [On my most recent visit, the painting was entirely covered by an ugly opaque drapery.] I’m not quite sure why that GA freaked out, but we don’t seem to have the same freak-out going on with respect to the preserved and reinstalled stained glass windows depicting the same scene in effectively the same way.

    Art will never be entirely “realistic”; not even photographic art in the current computer age. We could do better than pushing realism by being clear about using multiple different, symbolic representations, “realistic” or not, rather than letting folks blithely assume that a purported “realistic” artistic style is conveying an untouched, un-photoshopped photographic representation of physical history. By the time children are able to understand that Santa Claus is a symbol, most of them can also accept it. I suspect adults could do the same with pictures of JS translating from gold plates, for example, if only they were taught about pictorial symbolism and the variety of possible meanings of the word “translate.”

    Having now completely hi-jacked this thread on a tangential issue, I’d better get off the soap-box before it breaks.

  32. Oh, no, we never get to talk about art here! I love talking church art. I want to signal-boost your point on realism, too. I don’t mind the Nephites being portrayed as Romans (or Roman Vikings – what is with that helmet in O Ye Fair Ones?). I wouldn’t mind them being portrayed as Aztecs either, or medieval Europeans, or in modern body armor with guns. I love depictions of Christ, the Apostles, Mary Magdalene and Santa Claus as West Africans. It means their images are being adopted into those nations. When I see a Roman Nephite I see a Nephite who has been adopted into our classical tradition. Now, issues of historical accuracy and deception are real issues, and of course a depiction of Christ with a glowing heart in front of him are probably bad ideas and so on, but we could greatly benefit from a larger variety of art if we, say, restored the old art classes that were taught in Relief Society. An enterprising RS president could easily start a discussion on that.

    I would say my absolute favorite Church art piece is Meridene Grant’s A Name and a Blessing, . The description goes: “My painting depicts a Chinese family in traditional dress gathered in a beautiful and peaceful garden for the blessing of an infant. The scene also evokes a feeling of reverence for the blessing given by three Chinese Melchizedek Priesthood holders.” It’s a watercolor in traditional style of, in one sense, the lost Chinese church we hope once existed, and in another the adoption of the restored gospel by Chinese culture. I would be elated to hear that at least one Taiwanese meetinghouse displayed a copy. The artist was I believe very old and no longer seems to be active. I hope to see more artists adopt the Gospel and our unique stories into their cultures (Joseph Smith as an Arab?), and to see the recent trend in adopting local architectural styles for temples make its way to meetinghouses as well. Imagine visiting the Indian Saints in a meetinghouse designed from the ground up to fit the local style and also the needs of a congregation.

  33. JR (34) I actually agree with most of your rant and have made similar rants myself at times. I’m not sure it really affects the question of personal responsibility though.

    I’ll admit that *personally* I’d prefer art or at least art trying to be representational be informed by the latest scholarship. However knowing the reality of groups, I know that’ll never happen. At best I can wish groups do better. My gripe is just that this isn’t a problem uniquely Mormon. It’s true of almost anything. Tell the average person that all those photographs and paintings of nebula are enhanced and nothing like you’d see with the naked eye. People are shocked. Strangely though they don’t feel betrayed.

  34. Mainstream Mormon art styles are pretty easy to assess: walk into Deseret Book and see what they are selling. Mormon art, for the most part, is Protestant, Caucasian, First World or Middle Class, Traditional, Romanticized. This is not surprising because art reflects culture just as culture can reflect art. Mainstream Western Mormonism is Protestant, Caucasian, First World or Middle Class, Traditional, and Romanticized.

    This is not a criticism, nor is it a bad thing. It is. And lots of people respond to it, many in a good way, and some not.

    I admit, I’m on the outs with this stuff. I would once like to walk into a Deseret Book and see, to my surprise, not a Germanic white Jesus, but, god forbid, an actual Mediterranean Jewish Jesus. I gave up on the Mormon art world during the whole Rodin controversy at BYU. I must also admit, one of the slight antagonisms I have with LDS publications is the art–Bloch, Olsen, repeat. Having said that, there is some really great work being produced on the edges.

    Fortunately, we all get to put the art we like into our homes as we like it.

    I have several Lynde Mott’s, including a 3′ by 5′ original of Mary and the Midwives ( hanging in my living room. It is spectacular in the original. And the best thing about it are the comments I get from people who walk in and see it. They range from “Why do you have a pregnant lady on your wall?” to “That is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” These comments come at about half and half.

    I also have a Buddha statue in the same living room, with a couple of Ansel Adams, and there are many people who simply do not know what to say (I can see their thoughts rolling in their eyes about the Buddha but stopping at their mouth). It is so fun that I am considering installing a large Avilokiteshvara statue riding a horse, just to push some people over the edge.

  35. Yup. Mormon art basically is informed by the same aesthetic and bad scholarship as mainstream American Protestant art.

  36. “Tell the average person that all those photographs and paintings of nebula are enhanced and nothing like you’d see with the naked eye. People are shocked. Strangely though they don’t feel betrayed.” I’ll take this a misstep and not the slight that it appears to be to those who feel betrayed.

    Sure, people can be shocked about anything manipulated they once perceived as ‘true,’ but they will feel betrayed in relation to their core beliefs being challenged (their foundation(al narrative), let’s say) and amount of trust they place(d) in the author/sponsor/perpetrator of the thing manipulated. Obviously, some people have more initial trust in those authors/sponsors/perpetrators (perhaps because they are asked to do so) than others and thus feel more betrayed.

  37. Brian (39) they will feel betrayed in relation to their core beliefs being challenged (their foundation(al narrative), let’s say

    Right, but remember the discussion was over whether their beliefs are a caricature of the church. That is whether their core beliefs should be core beliefs.

    I certainly agree with what you say and think that is why these people feel betrayed. But that can be true and Williams point also be right.

  38. There is difference between art (fine art if you will) and illustration. I would put Bloch (a favorite of recent Church Presidents) more in the art category and feel it is wrong to turn it into an illustration by removing the wings and adding the sleeves. Artist should be given a great deal of leeway with their products.

    On the other hand, illustrations should be accurate. Not Joseph Smith translating from plates, etc. Christ should be portrayed as Mediterranean and not a Scandinavian. And I suspect that Adam and Eve (if they existed) were not blond Scandinavians. The “white and delightsome” model is racist.

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