A couple of years ago I started a group project called the General Conference Odyssey. Along with some friends, I’m reading every General Conference that’s easily accessible on LDS.org (that means we’re starting with October 1971) and writing up my thoughts. At a rate of one session per week, it will take us about 14-15 years to get through the entire inventory. You can read more about the project, and find a mostly-complete index of every blog post to date, here.
After posting my entries at Difficult Run for the first couple of years, I moved over to Meridian a few months ago. This is a better fit for the posts (since Difficult Run tends to be more about economics and politics) and I’m really happy to have them there, but a few weeks ago they opted not to publish one of my submissions. I’m perfectly fine with their decision–and I’ve continued to submit all my subsequent posts as before–but I liked the post and so I decided I’d publish it here at Times & Seasons. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts in response to the priesthood session of the October 1980 General Conference.
Sometimes I read a session that I don’t love right away, but when I dig a little deeper I find something in it to keep with me. Sometimes I read a session that I don’t love right away, and digging deeper doesn’t help either. This is one of those sessions.
I figure I may as well share that reality with people because I’m a fan of realistic expectations. Of the people I know who have struggled with their relationship to the Church, one of the common themes is unmet expectations. We, as Latter-day Saints, tend to enjoy sharing positive experiences and those kinds of testimony-building stories where everything makes sense in the end. And that’s great. But it’s probably a good idea if, every now and then, someone speaks up and says, “This doesn’t make sense to me.” Because, sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the prayers aren’t answered, sometimes our life experiences leave us feeling broken and unenlightened and sometimes–on a much less dramatic note–we don’t like a General Conference session.
It may or may not be meaningful, but it seems that this happens most often with priesthood sessions for me. I remember the first few sessions I went to as a deacon when the leaders said they wanted to address the Aaronic priesthood. It made me feel special and included. But by the time I was a teacher, it felt patronizing more than anything else. Just like hearing about how special and chosen my generation was, only to hear the exact same message repeated again and again for decades to every fresh batch of teenagers. I’m skeptical about this approach, since at least in my case the end result was a faint, residual cynicism more than anything else. I’m looking forward to taking my son to Priesthood sessions in a couple of years, but I’m not looking forward to these aspects in particular.
I was also bothered by the absolutism of Elder Peterson’s take on vulgarity and purity in Purify Our Minds and Spirits. Speaking of avoiding vulgar entertainment—which he compared to cutting off the flow of pollutants into a reservoir—he emphasized that by “cut off the flow” he didn’t mean “cut it down, but cut it off.”
I don’t even know what to do with a statement like that. As far as I understand the world, you cannot divide art—even the popular entertainment kind—into binary categories of “pure” and “impure”. There’s a huge distance between an episode of Veggie Tales and violent pornography, but good luck finding the precise spot where the line is drawn. The only response to this kind of thinking, as far as I can tell, is a kind of moral paranoia, an attitude of, I don’t know where the line is, but I’m going to stay as far away from it as possible. I’ve met people who adopt this view, and if it works for them, great. But I’ve got the kind of OCD-prone personality that would inevitably take that attitude to weird and unhealthy places. On top of which, I know for a fact that there is a lot of entertainment—especially music—that has strengthened my faith and brightened my spirit that I would never have been willing to listen to if I’d held onto such a fear-based approach to life. (I’m thinking, if you’re curious, specifically of Thrice and Lecrae in particular.)
Or take Elder Backman’s talk, To the Young Men of the Church, which features a story about a young man leaving on a mission with his drunken father’s declaration that “Son, you will never amount to a hill of beans,” ringing in his ears. The story ends with the man—now a Zone Leader—responding to Elder Backman’s public statement (in a zone conference) that “You wouldn’t believe this, but someone once said of this young man that he would never amount to a hill of beans, with “We sure showed him, didn’t we, President?”
The idea that you can use leadership callings as a route to vindication seems incredibly treacherous. Is that a road we want to go down? Don’t we actually work pretty hard to convince people that leadership callings aren’t some kind of righteousness merit badge? (Full disclosure: I never trained anyone, I never was anything “higher” than district leader, and when I was district leader the senior companion in the other companionship was also the branch president. Maybe I just have an inferiority complex from that. :-) )
That’s not to say I found nothing to like in this session. I especially appreciated what President Kimball had to say in Ministering to the Needs of Members
Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. The Savior has told us to feed his sheep (see John 21:15–17). I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uninformed. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.
The reason I decided to share the stuff I didn’t like is because, as I mentioned, I want to dispel any potential myth that all experiences with the Church are good. They aren’t always good. Last Sunday a stake leader came and joked about how angry he got when someone else sat in “his” pew and shared a few humorous road-rage anecdotes. Except, I was more horrified than amused. His talk didn’t resonate with me at all. Those aren’t my struggles. But I am sure they are the struggles for other people out there, and maybe someone else really needed to hear the talk.
So all I’m saying is this: it’s OK not to love everything you hear in sacrament talks or General Conference sessions. That doesn’t mean you can just ignore them. Sometimes the things we most need to hear are the things we least want to hear. So we have to be humble and sincere. We have to stay involved and do our best to get something out of the talks we hear and, when we fail in that endeavor, it’s probably best to know that it’s perfectly normal.
And as for me? Already looking forward to next week’s session.
Your quote from President Kimball truly resonates (at least for me). We are exhorted to teach with the Spirit. But often, when we feel inspired to state something that is not directly from the lesson manual, we are exhorted not to do that. I recall 8 years ago when I was teaching the Old Testament in Sunday School, I would often bring in my copy of Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Deseret Book approved – by BYU profs) to help amplify a point, or to show the class members particular images. (Full disclosure: I’m a history geek, so I just enjoyed getting into it, and so did the class).
So one Sunday our Stake President attended my class. Afterward he exhorted me to not use that outside material, because. What he said I should do is use it to increase my knowledge and then perhaps bring that knowledge into the class. Huh? So showing the class pictures of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or of a Tree of Life was a bad thing. Well, I didn’t amplify understanding with any outside sources anymore, and my lessons seemed to lose the Spirit.
I can see how extensive use of non-approved sources could take lessons off-track, but let’s be reasonable. So much teaching in the Church is still way below where it ought to be. I often struggle to learn something during those 45 minutes.
“So all I’m saying is this: it’s OK not to love everything you hear in sacrament talks or General Conference sessions. That doesn’t mean you can just ignore them. Sometimes the things we most need to hear are the things we least want to hear. So we have to be humble and sincere.”
Why not? Members inadvertently ignore or forget stuff said in conference talks all the time. So much of what was said in conference talks decades ago seems no longer to apply. Incidentally Monson’s injunction to “dare to be Mormon” now no longer seems to apply in the wake of Nelson’s recent campaign against the identity of Mormon. You seem to feel the need to pay heed to as much of Mormon teaching as you can. This is why I called you absolutist in the other post (no offense intended, it is just that you do indeed come off that way).
I could never stand the Pharisaic culture insisting that I “not use outside material” when I used to teach. Nothing aggravated me more.
A few thoughts:
1. While this is an excellent post, I can totally see why Meridian choose not to publish it. At the same time, Meridian basically just proved your point about how people don’t like to hear negativity but only share the positive (from my life, for example, while I know I was where God wanted me to be, my mission was the worst two year of my life – until my divorce, anyway. I just figure God wanted to prepare me mentally for something like my divorce, because my mission was terrible, with a mission president deliberately making my life hell by assigning me totally apostate and slacker companions – although he likely saw it as helping thos missionaries rather than punishing me, since I had a reputation as a “hard worker” for some reason. Moving on …)
2. In my mission, we had Elders who were Zone leaders and APs (Assistants to the President) who were in that position not due to righteousness, but due to a desire to keep them in a position where the leadership could keep closer supervision on them. My second worst companion was a Zone leader who felt his position as ZL basically meant he was immune to sin (clearly being so righteous as to be chosen as a ZL), so he broke mission rules with impunity and basically treated his mission like a vacation paid for by his parents; he was also emotionally abusive.
3. President Kimball’s quote is a good one, and one that we still fail to live up to in church.
4. “Sometimes the things we most need to hear are the things we least want to hear.” Bold, underline. and highlight that. I find I get more out of Conference if I listen for what makes me uncomfortable, rather than looking for “yeah, that’ll show those people who don’t agree with me.” I tire of people in the ‘Nacle who post things about Conference to either attack other people for not listening to the prophets or to condemn and correct the GAs for their backwardness. If your post starts with something “there was a lot to like, but also a lot that was frustrating [because it didn’t fit with my political/cultural views]” I already don’t care what you have to say. I listen to Conference to figure out what I (and to some extent my family) need to work on.
What resonates most strongly with me is not the idea that we may need to hear what we don’t want to hear, but the emptiness of there so often being nothing to hear, comfortable or not. That feeling of there being “a famine in the land” is more destructive than anything else, in my experience. I try not to talk about that too publicly because I don’t like being part of generally negative online discussions. Maybe I should be more candid once in a while, in a way that might reassure someone that they aren’t alone, and that occasional bad experiences at Church don’t necessarily mean that they should chuck it all by letting those poor experiences overwhelm everything else.
I appreciated this post probably more than anything else I’ve read by you. Thanks.
“I tire of people in the ‘Nacle who post things about Conference to either attack other people for not listening to the prophets or to condemn and correct the GAs for their backwardness”
And yet you just made a post indirectly attacking other people for not listening to the prophets. The ‘Nacle has grown increasingly conservative in my estimation. The bloggers who used to criticize the GAs for their backwardness now do so on the ex-Mormon subreddit. I can’t help but think that the separate the wheat from the tares attitudes of the conservative bloggers has driven them to that. There really isn’t much middle ground left in modern Mormonism, or should I say, Church-of-Jesus-Christ-of-Latter-day-Saintsism.
The best way to use outside material is via the passive-aggressive method. I stick strictly to the material, but in the course of the discussion, I offhandedly bring up ideas that I’ve read online or in other books, that I’ve put in my notes. So it’s all there, it just doesn’t get cited (unless someone asks me about it).
I’m glad you liked something I wrote, Ardis. ;-) Thanks!
As for outside material: I use it all the time. My #1 source is Ben Spackman’s patheos blog (and anything he links), but I’ve also pulled in everything from articles in the New York Times to song lyrics from my favorite bands to an autobiography from one of my favorite rappers.
For the most part, everyone seems to appreciate what I bring into the class.
It’s pretty easy to bring in outside resources so long as you just don’t identify them. i.e. don’t bring a book in just say something like “scholars say” or “at this time in Jewish history” etc. I think the point about outside resources was more about people just bringing in texts like Mormon Doctrine (which I think was the real target in the 90’s) or for more liberal members Dialog or Sunstone. (Although I suspect that was far less common) I definitely remember when younger long stretches where teachers were ignoring the scriptures and just quoting McConkie for most of the lesson. After the directives against outside resources you heard that less and less. The whole point was that members just weren’t reading the scriptures nor focusing on the scriptures. The change to even have the scriptures as a four year cycle of lesson was really designed to move the Church away from that problem. And that’s the context of “no outside resources” originally. It was a “get back to the basics” which I think is commendable.
Xander, I’d say the bloggernacle is a pale shadow of its former self. People just don’t read blogs much anymore. Across the board and not just Mormon blogs. Facebook slowly took over the blog market. That said, if you look at even a so-called “faithful” aggregator like The Mormon Archipelago it’s hard to see conservative blogs as even close to a majority of blogs, let alone dominating more of late.
Admittedly I’m not sure what you mean by conservative mind you.
If there is a “middle ground”, you clearly are not part of it (but then, I’m probably not either). And the idea the ‘Nacle is now conservative dominated is – well, it doesn’t pass the metaphorical smell test.
And I had no attack intended, indirect or otherwise (there is a complaint, but it’s not meant as an attack). If you feel attacked or see an attack in there, that’s on you, not me.
If I taught GD I’d be using Ben Spackman’s blog too. I do think we can be reasonable about non-manual materials. But I really appreciated the push to stick with the basics, having spent my high-school years being fed every faith-promoting rumor ever told. From the blood transfusion kid who thought he would die to the Ten Tribes living in a hollow earth under the North Pole, I heard it all from teachers trying to catch our attention (I guess).
“Sometimes the things we most need to hear are the things we least want to hear.” Bingo.