On the Half-Life of Admonitions

Latter-day Saints don’t watch R-rated movies. This is one of those specific, concrete directions that has an amazingly long half-life. It’s such an embedded aspect of LDS culture that I have no memory of being told it for the first time.

The upside of specific, concrete admonitions like this is that they are easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to apply. This means they can have a great and lasting impact on the behavior of the Saints.

The downside of specific, concrete admonitions is that their clarity and simplicity can enable dereliction of duty. Practical admonitions are intended to provide practical guidance, but practical guidance is always funded on spiritual principle. It’s up to us unpack the admonition to access the spiritual payload within. Because specific, concrete admonitions are sticky (to use a marketing term), they can easily outlast their original context, however, and as they become divorced from their original context they are easier to treat as intrinsically valid rather than contingent upon some underlying principle.

The contextual drift happens on at least two levels. First, the admonition was almost certainly initially part of a longer address that provided immediate context. Second, the admonition was given at some point in the past and therefore relates to a historical context. The longer an admonition persists in the group consciousness, the further it drifts from its textual and historical context. It gets harder and harder to reverse engineer the admonition to unpack the principle it’s based on. Practical admonitions become zombies: outer law intact, inner spirit missing.

When this happens—when a practical admonition becomes a zombie—we end up treating it superficially. This is at least a partial failure, since all practical admonitions are supposed to influence behavior and instruct. If all that remains is the influence on behavior, the admonition is already halfway failed.

In particular, there are two distinct failure modes for treating practical admonitions superficially. On the one hand, we can embrace the law without pondering the spirit. This leads to brittle doctrinairism. Doctrinairism is a half-failure because it ignores the principle beneath the admonition, but it gets even worse.

If we don’t understand the spiritual principle then we are incapable of offering an adequate defense when the admonition is challenged. When a student or child or friend asks us why we should follow the admonition, we have nothing to offer them in answer. The failure to defend the admonition—or to contextualize it and suggest it may not be fully salient—not only erodes the credibility of that particular admonition (which may or may not be a problem, since the admonition may no longer be salient), but it also erodes credibility of practical admonitions from General Authorities generally (some of which are certainly salient at any point in time). Doctrinairism has some benefits in the short-run. Compliance with admonitions generally does a lot of good even when we don’t understand the underlying why, but it is ultimately self-defeating.

The second failure mode is to reject the law without pondering its spirit. This is far and away the more prevalent failure mode of our day. To be doctrinaire is to be counter-culture, so at least it’s got that going for it. To default to rejecting all perceived moral restrictions is libertinism, so you don’t even get the runner-up prize for non-conformity with the prevailing culture. There was a time when suspicion of God and Church was an act of defiance, but those days are long gone now. Skepticism is routine and even knee-jerk. It’s skepticism of the received wisdom of past skeptics that requires bravery and demonstrates originality.

In our day, every moral prohibition is assumed superfluous (if not sinister!) until proven otherwise. Meanwhile the tools necessary to make the case that a prohibition is beneficial and meaningful—abstract values like honor and virtue—are evaporating from our cultural awareness. In a world that is convinced the shallow concepts of harm and consent suffice to write the entire book of morality, good luck trying to make a case for any but the most brutally obvious of moral precepts.

Conventional wisdom asserts a false dichotomy that we have to reject: obey or think for yourself. The actual default course of action should be to obey and think for yourself. Consider the simple example I started with: don’t watch R-rated movies. This simplistic rule is historically and geographically contingent. You can’t have a rule about R-rated movies without movies and the Motion Pictures Association of America to rate them, so it doesn’t apply to a time before movies or to films made in countries outside the US. But the rule is always delivered in a context (General Conference talks about purity of thought, for example) and that context references an eternal principle, most frequently embodied in the 13th Article of Faith that borrows from Philippians 4:8

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

If you just thoughtlessly follow the rule, then you’re effectively outsourcing your spiritual discernment to the MPAA. That’s clearly not the final intent of the rule, which is to provide a practical step in the personal, ongoing quest to find beauty and truth and light and use them to fill your life. If you thoughtlessly spurn the rule, then you’re still abdicating the quest, but now you’re also risking subjecting yourself to ugliness and lies and darkness. This is not an improvement, nor does it imply or guarantee free thought.

On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop you from adhering to the rule while you work out its rationale and implications. Obedience and free thought are not mutually exclusive.

The General Authorities are not going to stop offering practical admonition, nor should they. The practical admonitions provide useful guidance and concrete instantiations of abstract principles. We need them, and it is the job of General Authorities to provide them.

But it is also or job to actively participate in receiving and decoding those principles. We need to be a little bit more mature as a people in how we receive the guidance. Doctrinairism has got to, for one, and along with it checklist religion and judgmentalism. Judgmentalism makes no sense because we’re all at different points in our spiritual progression and we’ve been commanded not to run faster than we can walk. It is generally a bad idea to undertake radical changes in your life in an attempt to leap-frog directly to a perfect end-state. The reality is that your spiritual discernment is going to grow gradually (assuming you tend it and heed it). If that’s true, it means everybody is taking baby-steps. And if everybody is taking baby-steps, then nobody is at the finish line. We need to be receptive to practical guidance from the General Authorities, but we should also strive to be thoughtful about that guidance and gentle with ourselves and with each other as we seek to incorporate it into our lives.

55 comments for “On the Half-Life of Admonitions

  1. I had a work colleague who had a long-time personal project of seeing all the major Oscar winners there’ve ever been. As far as I know, no LDS intellectuals criticized him for delegating his entertainment selection to AMPAS. I wonder why.

    “All that, your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.” –Screwtape

  2. I believe it was President Ezra Taft Benson, in a General Conference address, who first set a limit on R-rated movies. At the time of his statement, the line between PG, PG-13 and R rated movies was well-mapped and discernable. Not so much today; there’s quite a blur today. In the spirit of this prophetic advise, I look at a movie review and see how it is rated in terms of what type of violence, language, dialogue, sex, and several other categories that will determine if I will see the movie (or television show!) or not. If any of these categories pass the limit I feel is right according to the morality I have been taught, then I don’t go see it. For the record, I have a whopping two R-rated movies in my movie collection, neither of which deserve the rating according to the website explanation by the organization that gives the U.S. ratings. Also for the record, there are many, many PG-13 movies that get unwatched by applying this sort of review before rushing off to the theater.
    One of the problems with a strict adherence to President Benson’s letter-of-the-law advise, given a good number of years ago, is that today most countries have their own rating system based on values that differ from the U.S. system, which was the system President Benson referred to. An example: one of the Harry Potter movies received the equivalent of an U.S. R-rating in Australia because it portrays an adult committing violence against a child — Professor Umbridge was drugging the children with a truth drug, and she slapped Harry. So if we were staying away from a movie simply because of its rating, we would have to travel from country to country, examining each rating system. It would be easier for us to simply rate the movie by the Gospel morals and go from there.

  3. Nice post. Echoes of Chesterton.

    “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

    This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”

  4. Nice post, and nice quote from Chesterton, Ben S. My first thought was that the vast bulk of modern reform efforts reflect the mentality of Chesterton’s less intelligent reformer. But on second thought, it seems that this doesn’t quite capture it. The contemporary reformer, in my experience, believes he or she does know why a norm or institution was made: it was made for selfish or oppressive (racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic) purposes. Because those are the purposes (it is assumed) on which people with the power to make norms or institutions nearly always act.

  5. Mormons give Trump highest support of any religious group in poll
    Lisa Riley Roche
    Published: January 12, 2018 3:51 pm

    I understand the positive spirit of your piece, Nathaniel, but there’s a larger picture here. We are over-controlled in every aspect of our lives and strongly tilted to authoritarianism. That has dire consequences far beyond the movies we chose to watch.

  6. For many of these admonitions, the underlying principle appears to be simply obeying whatever the leaders say. Many of these admonitions are litmus tests to measure the conformity of members to the leaders’ words and have no intrinsic value or merit beyond that.

    Consider Elder Bednar’s talk Quick to Observe in which he commendingly tells the story of a man who broke off a serious relationship with a girlfriend for not removing a second pair of earrings when President Hinckley told women not to wear more than one pair. The lesson was that the girl was not quick to observe and deserved being broken up with. It accurately captured the spirit of the LDS Church. We are to obey and appear to be in conformity, with special attention placed on minutiae such as not breaking the Sabbath, without too much thought or questioning. The idea that Mormonism has a greater cause is more or less an illusion.

  7. Van, I think you highlight how ingrained into out culture this obedience to the admonition is, but by reducing the entire religion to this impulse, you ignore a great deal.

    In Gospel Doctrine last year, as we studied Jeremiah, the instructor highlighted how Jeremiah preached against the Jew’s feeling of superiority that was built into the fact that they were doing what they were supposed to – offering sacrifices at the temple. He used that to get us to ask if we do the same. Do we think assume our spirituality rests on doing the outward? Are we following the higher law that demands more than just showing up where we are supposed to be looking the way we are supposed to?

    The underlying principles are there in our scriptures. They can be found in general conference talks – Elder Uchtdorf’s calls for all to join us, Elder Holland’s admonitions to reach out and help those most in pain. Ours isn’t a dead work, even if we all get it wrong sometimes.

  8. Also, having recently reread Paul’s Epistles, I would argue that there is a principle tied to one set of earrings other than obedience.

    8 I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.
    9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
    10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

    1 Timothy 2:8-10

    While Elder Bednar focused on obedience, part of the lesson was that she did not seem to look for this deeper principle herself (he also did say that there were additional reasons the man broke up with her).

  9. One more thought, based on P’s comment.

    Obedience to authority is ingrained in our religion. It is an, arguably, very scriptural impulse, which has led to problems for other groups, as well.

    I recently read a couple biographies of Luther. Both pointed out how Luther’s loyalty to authority (ironically) led to problems for the Lutheran Church later, particularly under Hitler. Luther’s anti-Semitism played a role, too, of course, but I’m sure their reliance on authority contributed to that, as well.

    We need to be careful that we look to the other trends in scripture, when prophets and believers pushed back against authority when it demanded unChristian actions.

  10. Those were pretty crap statistics in the report p refers to. The other religious groups aren’t things like “Methodists” or “Lutherans” or “Southern Baptists,” but “Catholic” and “Protestant.” No doubt that lots of Mormons are Republicans and lots of Republicans approve of Trump, but the basis of comparison in that one was garbage.

  11. Stephen and old man, thanks for chiming in to confirm my point. I point out how Mormons measure faithfulness by obsessing about minutiae, and then you guys show up and throw shade on me for not thinking that obsessing about minutiae like the no two earrings in one ear rule and Sabbath day observance is really all that important. Are these really issues by which to measure someone’s worth and value? In Mormonism it is. A girl is not worth marrying because she has a few more piercings in her ears. Not playing sports on Sunday or not shopping on Sunday is serious business in the Mormon mind. I know lots of women who wear more than one pair of earrings and lots of people who go to the store on Sunday and I simply don’t see how this impacts their overall moral character or their physical health.

    The supposed principles behind these admonitions are nothing beyond following the leader and appearing to be in conformity with norms set by those leaders. Suppose you relocated to an area of the world where three were no Mormons or no Mormon culture. How would not shopping on Sunday help you there?

  12. PS Stephen, I hear lessons about observing the higher law all the time. Then how come right after those lessons Mormons seem to go right back to obsessing about what kinds of teas you can and can’t drink?

  13. Van, no shade, just a statement that I disagree and why.

    To be clear, I don’t disagree that we do tend to measure faithfulness by obsessing over minutiae. As I said, it’s a problem in our culture. I do disagree with the argument that there’s nothing else to our beliefs. If so, then talks such as President Nelson’s “The Sabbath is a Delight” are meaningless. If the lists of do’s and don’ts are the substance of our religion, then where are the stories of faith being shaken by his teaching that Sabbath day observance doesn’t require those lists?

    To answer your specific question about shopping, just suppose I do live in such an area (I’m curious where you think I live). By not shopping on Sunday I am able to focus my time and energy on God, my family, and serving others. It’s a wonderful relief to me to have a day set aside in which I don’t need to worry about temporal needs. The presence or absence of other members of the church has no impact on this. Internet shopping clarifies this principle. I could easily shop all day Sunday without any other members knowing. But I still choose not to because of the principle I’ve chosen to follow.

    As for your question about why we obsess over those does and don’ts: first, I know many members who aren’t obsessing with them. For those of us who do get stuck on them, though, one thought I’ve had is that as we are introduced to the gospel, those lists can be very helpful. When teaching someone who doesn’t know what the word of wisdom is, you need to share with them what prophets have taught “hot drinks” refers to. Since we are often teaching children and new converts, we are brought back to these beginning exercises in discipleship. Sometimes we don’t recognize that there is a graduation point at which we need to move beyond the lists to the principles. And in recognition of our varying points of progression, I agree with Nathaniel’s point that “we should also strive to be thoughtful about that guidance and gentle with ourselves and with each other as we seek to incorporate it into our lives.”

  14. Stephen, well said. Rules can be stepping stones or stumbling blocks. It’s up to the individual to decide what it will be.

    I will add that this is not uniquely an issue among Latter-day Saints. Secular culture will, for example, get bent out of shape for someone using the wrong word (e.g. John McCain calling a problem that gets worse by trying to solve it a “tar baby”) rather than trying to figure out if the transgression really reflected a violation of the principle.

  15. “I do disagree with the argument that there’s nothing else to our beliefs.”

    True, Mormonism has depth and there are many members who do not obsess about minutiae. The problem is that Mormonism is a religion that has long emphasized distinction from the rest. It teaches members to take pride in these distinctions. What these distinctions often boil down to its not watching R-rated movies, not drinking coffee, refusing to play sports on the Sabbath, etc. There is nothing that marks you as a Mormon by doing community service of some sort, but these something distinctly Mormon about refusing to drink coffee or wearing garments. Talks frequently commend strict observance of these markers and censure those who do not observe them or trivialize them. That’s why I said that observance of minutiae marks the true essence of Mormonism.

    “When teaching someone who doesn’t know what the word of wisdom is, you need to share with them what prophets have taught “hot drinks” refers to.”

    This confirms my point that the purpose of many admonitions is simply to obey leaders. WoW is another perfect example. Sure smoking cigarettes causes cancer. But the insistence on not drinking coffee really seems to serve no purpose other than to obey leadership. Yet this is a strict admonition and you can’t get a temple recommend or get baptized if you do drink coffee.

    “Sometimes we don’t recognize that there is a graduation point at which we need to move beyond the lists to the principles.”

    Sounds nice, but Mormonism is hugely about lists and stuff you can and can’t do. This isn’t just some cultural phenomenon. The leadership is all about enduring admonitions. Elder Oaks actually just visited my ward a couple of months ago. He made a few remarks during priesthood. And what did he focus on? How deacons should use their right hand when they pass the sacrament.

  16. Also your story about Sabbath observance is nice. But how exactly does not purchasing things exactly keep you from doing that? Also, why Sunday? Couldn’t it be another day of the week? Couldn’t it just be part of the day? Where exactly is the principle behind Sunday or not buying things?

    Do you see my point about how being a Mormon, or at least proclaiming yourself top be a Mormon is about observing admonitions? If you said that you choose to do things that people often say should be done on the Sabbath on a different day of the week and don’t care about it being Sunday or that you don’t care about not buying things on Sunday, you would get some hard pushback by other believers for sure.

  17. Van,

    You’re right. There’s nothing particularly special about Sunday. We are not Seventh Day Adventists. We’re not too hung up on the precise day of the week. That’s why Latter-day Saints in countries that observe a different day of rest observe the sabbath on those days. A full day is conceptually important because that’s how we measure our lives, more than any other measurement of time, due to biological factors (among others). Refraining from commerce is just one of many ways to sanctify the day. In other words, while frequently part of lessons on keeping the sabbath day holy, Ive never seen it get more attention than a passing reference or brief explanation.

    Given that most of the rest of your comments amount to nothing more than your own conclusions, I think the following response is sufficient: you’re wrong.

  18. Dsc, let’s put it this way. Let’s say you met me for the first time and saw me wearing a tank top with a cup of coffee. It was Sunday in Utah and I told you that I was planning on going out social drinking and watching an R-rated movie with friends later that night and had not attended church that day. I regularly used profanity in my speech (f-words, saying, “oh my God”), had tattoos and multiple piercings, and told you that I enjoyed gambling from time to time. Then I told you that my job was partly rebuilding homes for hurricane victims in the Caribbean and managing a battered women’s shelter and that I took foster kids from troubled homes into my house. What if I then told you what inspired me to get involved in such work was the faith of my childhood, Mormonism, in which I was still a firm believer. Might you be surprised? Might you be taken aback a little and find yourself a bit perplexed, not fully willing to accept that I was a fully active Mormon or fully legit let alone primarily driven by its teachings in my career? Might it blow you away even more if I told you that I sought to attend the temple as much as I could? You would be forgiven if you were. Why? Because what marks you as a Mormon are the little things, the adherence to these admonitions. It is the way you dress, abstinence from coffee, tea, and alcohol, the way you speak, your regular church attendance, activity in callings and in your ward, etc.

    Now let’s say you met me and I said that I wasn’t a Mormon. Might you think of me as a good person? Sure, why not. But by saying I was a Mormon, you would probably be prone to think, “you’re not very observant” or “you really shouldn’t be attending the temple doing the things you do” or “you couldn’t possibly be inspired by Mormonism.” In fact, in your initial reaction, you might be more prone to think of me as a kind of a bad person and it might take you longer to accept me as a good person.

    I reiterate, the true spirit of Mormonism is marking yourself as a Mormon, and you do so by adherence to a list of dos and do nots. On some of these there is more leeway (i.e. watching R-rated movies, saying some minor curse words) and on some issues there is not (drinking alcohol, being in a same-sex romantic relationship, etc.). Yes, you can claim to be inspired by Mormonism in larger acts of goodness only if you adhere to the admonitions first. If you don’t adhere to the admonitions, believing Mormons will probably get hung up on adherence to those admonitions before they could accept you as legitimately inspired by LDS teachings.

  19. Van,

    Your analogy misses the mark entirely. Would I be suspicious that such a person was in fact an active member of the Church? Yes, of course, in the same way that I would suspect that someone eating a bacon cheeseburger wasn’t really a observant Orthodox Jew, or that someone driving a Hummer wasn’t really an active member of the Sierra Club. It’s also similar to a recent incident in which I learned that a member of my stake was engaged in some questionable business practices. I came to suspect that his faith and devotion were only superficial.

    Yesterday in Sunday School, we discussed behaviors that people may engage in with the purpose of merely appearing to be devout, while more important matters get left by the wayside (the Sermon on the Mount is timeless). As I’ve pointed out already, this is not a uniquely Latter-day Saint phenomenon. It’s part of the human experience.

    “the true spirit of Mormonism is” This is a very “John W” style argument. That is, you are attempting to define others’ beliefs for them. Not only is it inaccurate and offensive, but this is how religious prejudice plays out across society (jihad is the true spirit of Islam, material wealth and power is the true spirit of Judaism–it even crosses into politics: Democrats are really communists in disguise). Again, you’re wrong, and you saying so doesn’t make you right.

  20. Van, earlier you wrote, “There is nothing that marks you as a Mormon by doing community service of some sort,” but it is worth pointing out that this is false. See “Mormon Helping Hands” and various disaster relief efforts.

    Also, you are confusing outward markers of community membership with core meaning and identity. If I met a coffee-drinking person who claimed to try to attend the temple as much as possible, I would conclude he was either a hypocrite who thought nothing of lying to his bishop, or someone who thought nothing about lying to me about his temple attendance. It’s not the coffee that’s the main problem, it’s the dishonesty, especially when there are other options available to the coffee drinker (“I’m not really in a condition to attend the temple much right now, but I try to practice the teachings of the church as best I can”).

    Dsc, another very John W-esque side of Van is how he never modifies his position after being informed that he is completely wrong about something. It’s just endless repetition of the same point, time after time after time. This time he’s claiming to be an active church member, though. Van, do you believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon now?

  21. JG, to Van’s (general) point: what, exactly, is the problem w/ coffee, besides the fact that someone in authority said there was a problem?

  22. “Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition [admonition].” HBB

  23. P, Van’s general point was that my religious beliefs consist of nothing but mindless obedience to authority.

    If someone else would like to claim that some of the things we do are arbitrary signs of obedience and community membership, then sure, we have some of those. That’s not in dispute. But claiming that arbitrary obedience is all we have is stupid and offensive.

    But arbitrary signs mean things. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the phoneme sequence /faIr/. But rushing into a theater and yelling /fair/ is illegal, even in a society with strong free speech protections. In context, that sequence of signs has meaning. Even as an arbitrary sign, signalling obedience to church teachings is important. Signalling community belonging is important. I want people inside and outside the church to know that I support the church’s mission. I want to obtain a temple recommend truthfully rather than dishonestly. In the context of the whole system of signs and meanings, drinking coffee would be a terrible idea.

    If you’re looking for an inherent reason to avoid coffee, totally divorced from a Mormon context, there’s this: it’s imprudent to waste the performance-enhancing benefits of caffeine by letting your body adapt to it for daily social rituals where the caffeine serves no purpose or to abuse it as a daily minor stimulant. It’s much more useful to save the effects of caffeine for game day. Also, in case of a migraine where adult-strength medication is too much, a kid can get a similar benefit by combining kid-strength medication and a can of Mountain Dew. If the kid has gotten used to caffeine from a daily Dew habit, they’re out of luck when the migraine hits.

  24. Dsc, Utah is awash with con-men and scammers. There have been in the past (and I think that this still holds true) more MLMs per capita in Mormon belt than anywhere else in the world. I can’t think of anyone more worthy of church discipline than the heads of these barely legal MLMs who essentially defraud tens of thousands of people out of thousands and thousands of dollars. The question is, why doesn’t the LDS church focus more on these guys? The cruel irony is that you are more likely to face church discipline by telling a local leader that you drink coffee (maybe not in the form of disfellowshipment, but it could be losing a calling, losing your temple recommend, being told not to take the sacrament) than you would be for engaging in unethical business practices.

    On the “true spirit of Mormonism” argument, I stand by it. I am not unfairly characterizing or caricaturizing LDS folks (members and leaders alike) by saying that they focus excessively on admonitions such as coffee, garments, not viewing nudity in movies, not saying “oh my God,” etc. A simple college experience at BYU reveals as much. For the majority of Muslims, jihad is important, but jihad as an internal struggle, not as a violent outward struggle. That said, however, it is unfortunate that a good number of Muslims (according to Pew researching) do actually support violent jihad. Judaism doesn’t teach that acquiring worldly wealth and power is of utmost importance. That would be a mischaracterization. American Ashkenazi Jewish culture does, however, place a lot of focus on hard work and career success (also backed by research).

    Jonathan Green, what was I wrong about? I know a couple of people who do hold temple recommends and drink coffee, quite regularly. People aren’t asked that specifically on the temple recommend questions. I have every reason to believe that you don’t find coffee drinking in and of itself offensive and don’t bat an eye when non-members drink it. But it becomes a major issue for you when it comes to members. You say that it wouldn’t be about the coffee if you found out that a recommend holder drank it, but what would make the person a hypocrite or a liar? It would all boil down to coffee. Just like what wouldn’t make a woman marriage material in Elder Bednar’s eyes boiled down to wearing two pairs of earrings. Members are given a harder time about coffee than conning people out of money through MLMs, even though the latter is clearly worse. You can be a healthy and moral person and drink coffee. You can be a modest and presentable person and wear two pairs of earrings. You can also be an extremely unhealthy person and follow the Word of Wisdom enough to justify getting a Temple Recommend (you can pound down the Rock Star energy drinks and tell the bishop, “hey, I don’t drink coffee”, even though you would be a healthier person if you just stuck to coffee). You can be an immodest dresser who wears tight clothes to church (bear in mind that what is considered acceptable for many women wear in an American LDS ward would be considered scandalous in a good number of cultures and countries) and not wear two pairs of earrings.

    You guys say I’m missing the mark. How about you take a good look at Mormon culture and leadership.

  25. “But claiming that arbitrary obedience is all we have is stupid and offensive.”

    Not claiming that. But that is a big part. Anyhow, Jonathan, when you pass the sacrament next week, or whenever, don’t forget to use your right hand.

  26. “You are more likely to face church discipline [for drinking coffee than unethical business practices.” Really? That’s probably true for the edge cases, but I don’t think that’s true for the cases of out-and-out fraud. I personally know someone who was excommunicated for fraud. For the edge cases, it typically requires a multi-week trial to determine whether someone has committed fraud; word of wisdom issues are typically less squishy and easier to factually determine, although there are edge cases there too, and I’ve never seen anyone disciplined in any form at all for the difficult calls.

    “I am not unfairly characterizing or caricaturizing LDS folks…” You are.

    “A simple college experience at BYU reveals as much.” I went to BYU for 7 years. That’s not my experience.

    “How about you take a good look at Mormon culture and leadership[?]” I have.

    “Not claiming that.” That’s a lie. “The idea that Mormonism has a greater cause is more or less an illusion.” “the true spirit of Mormonism is marking yourself as a Mormon, and you do so by adherence to a list of dos and do nots.”

  27. Dsc, OK someone got exed for fraud. Good. Happy to hear. Let’s ex those MLM scammers and tell BYU to stop running ads for NuSkin and other predatory companies. Bear in mind that discipline doesn’t have to come in the form of a formal hearing. Revoking a temple recommend or refusing to renew one can be seen as a form of discipline.

    No I’m not claiming that all Mormonism has is arbitrary obedience. Many of the admonitions, such as not smoking tobacco, choosing your friends wisely, and getting all the education you can, are rooted in deep wisdom and following that counsel is likely to help you reap great material and spiritual rewards. But the Mormon experience is hugely tied up in following counsel and obedience to admonitions as I demonstrated in the hypothetical story I told you. You can to some degree think for yourself in Mormonism but a lot of areas are really restricted if not off limits altogether. The idea that there is some greater cause to following many of these admonitions other than just virtue signaling is an illusion.

  28. Van, you didn’t demonstrate anything. Your analogy is meaningless. And you’re in no position to tell me what my experience at BYU was.

    I’m glad you walked back to our original assertion about members of the church. However, that doesn’t mean that you didn’t see those things. You clearly did. Unless that was some other van making those statements.

  29. “Your analogy is meaningless”

    No it’s not. You’re an obtuse easily offended snowflake.

    “I’m glad you walked back to our original assertion about members of the church.”

    I didn’t walk back anything. You went BYU. Nuff said. How about addressing what I write.

  30. Well, Van, I’m glad you’re showing your true colors.

    I’ve already explained why your analogy is meaningless. The existence of behavioral markers does not demonstrate an over emphasis on those markers.

    You first said that the idea that Mormonism has a greater cause (than obedience and conformity) is an illusion. You then said you’re not claiming that all that Mormonism has is arbitrary obedience, implying that there is a greater cause. That sure looks like a walk back to me.

    “Nuff said” What does that even mean?

  31. I was surprised to see 30+ comments when I checked this post just now, because there’d only been a few in the first couple of days after it went live. For what it’s worth, I do think that there are certainly problems with blind obedience in LDS culture. Some of these are endemic to all institutions, some are endemic to religious institutions in particular, and some are even unique to LDS culture.

    Nonetheless, a lot of the critique from p and Van fails to illuminate much.

    p, my main problem with your line of attack is that it starts off with a self-contradiction and never manages to get much beyond it. There’s incredibly irony in saying that Mormons support Trump due to too much obedience when the LDS Church pulled out basically all the stops to *criticize* candidate Trump. The official press release supporting immigration in response to his comments during the campaign was all but unprecedented, and any reasonable observer would obviously conclude that if the Latter-day Saints were doing what they were told, then they wouldn’t have supported Trump to the extent that they did. Honestly, the most interesting thing about Trump’s performance about LDS voters is how badly he did, relative to the baseline support for Republicans among Latter-day Saints. So, your initial comment manages to fail both factually (the LDS community obviously dislikes Trump intently, relative to their baseline support of the GOP) and–to the extent that the LDS voters went with Trump–it certainly didn’t fall in line with obedience to authority.

    Another problem, just as serious, is your refusal to accept / acknowledge the idea that obedience has any value in and of itself. You seem stuck on the idea that “it’s just coffee”. Well, I could as easily point out that there’s absolutely no difference between driving on the right-hand and left-hand side of the road. It’s not like the UK does it right and the US does it wrong. It’s a completely arbitrary, meaningless distinction. I think we can all agree on that. I think we can also all agree that you should drive on the same side of the road as the people in the country where you’re driving. What’s the big deal. Left or right… it’s not like one is objectively better. But conformity–in some cases–matters.

    Now, if you’re willing to grant that there are some contexts where principles like conformity and obedience, etc. have real import (independent of any underlying importance) then we can have a discussion about when and how those principles are relative to LDS theology and culture. But if you can’t–if you’re stuck on “it’s just coffee” and that’s as far as your imagination or understanding can take you–then I’m afraid you’re simply not keeping up with the conversation. You’re like someone trapped in the wreckage of their smashed car saying, “But left or right, who really cares?” There are principles that you simply refuse to see, and nobody on the Internet can see them for you.

    Van, you seem to be operating under pretty much the same paradigm:

    You can be a healthy and moral person and drink coffee. You can be a modest and presentable person and wear two pairs of earrings.

    I don’t think these obvious statements are in dispute. And I also don’t think they are really interesting at all. The thing that you’re missing is that sometimes rules that are not important in and of themselves fulfill a larger purpose. There are at least two (and probably more).

    First, as with my comments to p, sometimes it doesn’t matter which option you pick, but it does matter that you and other people agree on some option. You want to meet a friend for lunch. Does it matter what time? Does it matter which restaurant? No, not really. But does it matter that the two of you pick a time and place? Yeah, it does. (See also: coordination game.)

    Second, it’s not hard (for me) to imagine God asking His kids to do something for which there is no reason that they can understand. It may be that there is a reason, but they can’t understand it yet. It may be that there is a reason, but that God doesn’t want to tell them. It may be that there is no reason whatsoever, other than that God just wants to provide a completely superfluous rule as an opportunity for us to humble ourselves… or not.

    If God told me, “Hey, I want you to wear your brown shoes tomorrow instead of your black ones”, I would find it odd. I would be curious. I’d like to know if there was a reason. Some metaphorical significance or strange Rube Goldberg chain of causality. But I hope I’d be willing to obey even if I didn’t have any of that. Because hey, maybe God just wants to give me a chance to do something I’ve been asked to do.

    Look, when it comes to the Word of Wisdom I have my own theories. Beer, tea, and coffee are the big social drinks. You rule those out, and you pretty much socially isolate–or at least separate–Latter-day Saints from every other culture in the world. Adherence to the WoW can and does have a powerful effect in marking us as distinct. As a “peculiar people.” Maybe that’s the reason. Or, maybe that’s a whole cluster of reasons: it’s fosters unity among us (by making us distinct) and helps missionary efforts (same reason). Then again, that’s just my own theory. I could be totally wrong.

    But here’s the thing: the WoW is not only about whatever purported benefits there are supposed to be, social, healthwise, or other. It’s also just about obedience. Which you either recognize as an independently valid moral consideration, or not. If you do, then we can talk about the hows and wheres and whys. If you don’t, then fundamentally you’re rejecting the entire project of organized religion as a going consideration. Which, you know, if that’s what you want to do: OK. But you should at least own it, to yourself and others.

  32. After reading about the hypothetical person who does good works, claims to attend the temple, yet drinks coffee and doesn’t follow any of the Church’s recommended dress and grooming standards, I would have to conclude that such a member is one of those “buffet Mormons” who pick their favorite commandments to follow and decide the rest don’t apply to them. Sure, some commandments are more important than others; keeping the law of chastity matters much more than the number of earrings one wears, for example.

    But let’s remember some interrelated principles: that God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, the importance of small and simple things, what it means to sustain the Church’s leaders, and that we cannot become a Zion people without becoming unified in all things. It’s safer to follow the prophet and apostles than to become a law unto oneself.

    If you don’t understand how drinking coffee isn’t part of the Word of Wisdom, ask any bishop, or any stake president, and they will tell you that when they ask the question about obeying the Word of Wisdom in temple recommend interviews, yes, the question includes coffee consumption. A coffee drinker can’t answer that question affirmatively without lying. And I think most people would agree that honesty (another temple recommend question) is more important than drinking coffee.

    And for all the criticism of following checklists of do’s and don’ts, what about the Ten Commandments (eight things not to do, two things to do)? or the two great commandments (two things to do)? You can find some nuance in each of them, and they get discussed often in gospel settings, but they still amount to checklists, and that doesn’t reduce their importance at all.

  33. Van: your comments about the Sabbath seem to be missing the point. Sunday is not just some random day selected by a past member of the Twelve. It was declared by the Lord to be a holy day. If you don’t get that, there’s really nothing to discuss (on that issue).

  34. Worth noting that in Israel the Church has meetings on Saturday and treats that as the Sabbath and in Islamic countries often follow their tradition. So while Sunday is the day we follow, that’s largely simply because the rest of Christianity (minus the Seventh Day Adventists) follows that day. That gets at the “arbitrary” element Nathaniel was pointing out. Something can be arbitrary yet important to follow – especially if modern revelation tells us to do it.

    I think what Nathaniel is getting at is that something can have an arbitrary element to it yet still be important. There’s a bad argument that assumes any hint of arbitrariness undermines religious teachings. That’s just silly as Nathaniel’s traffic example exemplifies.

  35. This conversation on the prohibition of coffee: immense sound & fury signifying absolutely nothing, a slandered seed that when roasted & ground produces an invigorating, antioxidant-rich beverage. Meanwhile the real WoW culprits, the 400 pound meat eaters who thereby damage themselves & the planet not to mention crash the healthcare system, get a pass, cold & famine be damned, we don’t even talk about it.This is the general category of Mormon nonsense & irrationally that makes me want to walk out those chapel doors & never look back. Soooo sick of it,

  36. P,

    It’s clear that you’ve lost the thread or never had a grasp of it to begin with. I don’t think that you actually care that much about meat (if you did care, why didn’t you mention it earlier?j; you’re just looking for something to criticize. But in my experience, there is a growing trend to reemphasize the other aspects of the word of wisdom, including encouraging whole grains and discouraging excessive meat. And if it’s important to you, than rather than get hung up on other people being too concerned with coffee, why don’t you make some constructive comments about how we shouldn’t forget that the Word of Wisdom is about more than what few things are prohibited entirely. In other words, you can either try to elevate the conversation, or you can engage in a childish tantrum about how coffee isn’t that bad and you’re so smart and everyone else is so foolish for thinking it is.

  37. The longstanding absurdity of WoW as some kind of faith marker speaks for itself; selective interpretation just adds another layer of crazy: meats/fats do the damage, not “hot drinks!” What kind of loony health law is this that we’re so comfortable hanging our hat on? Exactly what parts do we actually observe? As for your “growing trend” – why do we need a “trend” if it’s in WoW?!!!! Nothing about this situation makes sense, much like Blacks & priesthood issue, and speaking up is NOT a bad thing.

  38. P,

    There’s no sense in having a discussion if you’re just going to ignore what others have already said.

  39. Van, I think the reason I’m struggling with your assertions that there’s “no greater cause,” is then what’s the point? Why go to church (as you’ve indicated you do)? Why engage on a website for faithful members? Let me be clear: I’m not saying you shouldn’t be here. Where you attend church and what websites you engage with are your choice and my judgment of that is irrelevant. I ask because if I felt as you do – if the Church is simply about obeying to be distinct – I would find another denomination that was about Christianity for Christianity’s sake. So, am I missing something?

  40. I seriously don’t understand the OP. What is the point? And I don’t understand Clark’s last justification for obeying “arbitrary” admonitions.

    Take coffee. The WoW used to be sold as an important health code. But according to modern nutritionists, coffee and tea are not a serious health problem. However, the admonition is. It encourages people to drink substances that are much worse: soda (sugar and fizz), energy drinks, etc. Thus the unintended consequence of not drinking coffee is frequently much much worse than the substance prohibited. It can push members toward obesity and diabetes.

    I also resent you calling my relatives less than honest for drinking coffee and maintaining their temple recommends. My grandfather was a bishop and a stake president. He couldn’t wait to get out of Cache Valley (his homeland) so he could have a cup of coffee. My father drank coffee and maintained his TR. My 99-yr-old mother drinks coffee. I’m pretty sure none of them has ever lied in an interview. No reasonable person judges them because they drink coffee. I don’t think for a minute that God will judge them for this “transgression.” In today’s world, it’s an arbitrary admonition with no justification.

    The injunction against R-rated movies is equally questionable. The MPAA rating system is arbitrary and rarely very accurate. There are so many better ways to judge a movie than by its R rating. Mormonism needs to clean up the hubris. Not defend it.

  41. Rogerdhansen,

    Perhaps read the comments before commenting. That was all addressed.

    And really? The word of wisdom pushes people to unhealthy alternatives? Have you ever looked at the Starbucks menu?

  42. Hear hear Roger! – in fact, research indicates that both coffee & tea (black tea & green) are antioxidant-rich with copious health benefits.

    Diet Coke, the temple recommend alternative, is nutrition-free and loaded w/ caffeine. Where’s the logic?

    Dsc what’s with the dismissive, reflexive condescension anyway? You do not advance the discussion.

  43. P

    I’m dismissive of unsupported assertions that are contrary to my own experience. If I saw evidence, I wouldn’t be dismissive.

    For what it’s worth, Diet Coke has a tenth of the caffeine per fluid ounce as coffee. And the vast majority of people don’t need more antioxidants than they get in the typical diet. And I doubt that Latter-day Saints consume more cola than other Americans on average. If you have data suggesting otherwise, please share.

    In other words, I’m dismissive in part because rather than engage in the actual discussion, you’ve now resorted to conjecture and fad science.

  44. The other part is that the assertions are contrary to my experience. I’m happy to listen to conjecture that agrees with my own experience (although I try to avoid conjecture in my own discussions). I’m also happy to listen to evidence that doesn’t agree with my experience.

  45. Excellent! Here’s a piece from NIH/Journal of European Endocrinology indicating health benefits of coffee. Please send me one for Diet Coke.

    The Emerging Health Benefits of Coffee with an Emphasis on Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease

    Siamak Bidel and Jaakko Tuomilehto

    Debate persists whether coffee is beneficial or problematic for human health. Coffee consumption has been associated with a decrease in risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and numerous epidemiological studies have demonstrated that healthy, habitual coffee drinkers are more protected from the risk of contracting diabetes than individuals who do not drink coffee. Coffee consumption has been associated with a reduced incidence of impaired glucose tolerance, hyperglycaemia and insulin sensitivity. Data suggest that several coffee components, such as chlorogenic acids, are involved in the health benefits of coffee. Various mechanisms for this protective effect have been proposed, including effects on incretin release, liver glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity. Epidemiological data support numerous other health benefits for coffee, including reduced cardiovascular disease (CVD), a protective effect against some neurodegenerative conditions, a favourable effect on liver function and a protective effect against certain cancers These associations are based mainly on observational studies and are currently insufficient to recommend coffee consumption as an interventional strategy for risk reduction in type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases While excessive consumption can have adverse effects on some conditions, particularly in terms of sleep quality, these effects vary among individuals and most people do not have any symptoms from coffee drinking. Moderate coffee consumption is associated with no or little risk of severe diseases and may offer substantial health benefits. Thus, coffee is a safe, low-energy beverage and suitable for most adult people.

  46. P,

    I am aware of studies that suggest that coffee may have some benefits (even more for tea). That coffee is safe isn’t the topic that I’m dismissing. What I am dismissing is (a) the notion that Diet Coke is harmful in moderation and (b) (and more importantly), the notion that the Word of Wisdom causes people to consume unhealthy alternatives to coffee.

    But really, why are you so hung up on the coffee thing? You evidently think more about the prohibition on coffee and are more concerned with it than any active Latter-day Saint that I know.

  47. If you lived in east Kansas we could discuss this over coffee. I’d probably like you.

  48. P,

    These are the comments I am dismissive of:

    “It encourages people to drink substances that are much worse” (rogerdhansen)

    “Hear hear Roger! … Diet Coke, the temple recommend alternative….” (p, in response to rogerdhansen)

    Those statements have not been substantiated.

    And discussion over coffee and a warm peppermint tea would certainly be interest. Alas, I am some distance from east Kansas.

  49. I seldom check the MPAA rating. My favorite movie of the past few years is “The Accountant” which explores autism.

    On describing this marvelous picture to friends at work, one asked, “What is it rated?” I didn’t know and had to look it up (and again just now). On hearing that it is “R” he lost interest in my report; it is forbidden and therefore no point in discussing it.

    I have become extremely cautious about anything Disney of late. “G” seems to mean “Anything Goes”.

    As I consider Van’s scenario:

    “Let’s say you met me for the first time and saw me wearing a tank top with a cup of coffee…”

    A good start on describing my next door neighbor but in his case its a cigarette.

    “Then I told you that my job was partly rebuilding homes for hurricane victims in the Caribbean and managing a battered women’s shelter and that I took foster kids from troubled homes into my house.”

    Okay, flying some virtue signals if you did all that without compensation. Otherwise its just your job, congratulations on having one.

    What does it mean for you and me? Not much. You have said nothing that would make me either your friend or your enemy.

    “not fully willing to accept that I was a fully active Mormon”

    You have a different definition of “active Mormon” as compared to me and maybe some social assumptions to go with it.

    As to reasons for prohibition on coffee and tea, the scripture does not say BUT one reason I learned in Seminary back in the day was that both of these substances must be imported at huge expense from foreign nations; depriving the early church of scarce currency reserves. Its probably a quibble but the solution is simple; iced tea and iced coffee. No longer “hot drinks”.

    I consider obedience to be important. Obey first and challenge the reason as time permits, depending somewhat on the nature of the obedience relationship. I was in the Navy and obedience is pretty much mandatory and for good reasons, but so is the right and duty of anyone who knows why a command should not be obeyed to shout out “Belay that order!” if obedience is going to produce catastrophe and you know it but the order giver does not. The belay isn’t always by a superior; but can also be uttered by a more experience but less ranked sailor (COB, Chief of the Boat for instance).

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