This has all happened before

Ruthwell CrossOver at the Interpreter, Nate Oman asks an important question. How will the church explain its relevance to a new generation that is less interested in the narratives that have served the church well in the past? Or as he puts it, what will be the “new language in which to celebrate the Restoration”? There were times when “Which church is true” was a vital and urgent question for many people in the places where the church was active. There are far fewer people like that in North America and Western Europe today. In a similar way, the church’s family-focused message doesn’t resonate as it once does, and, as Nate notes, some even see it as inherently suspect.

These are important questions. I’d add the caveat that “Which church is true” may well remain an urgent question in some places. The church will have an answer to “Which church is true” as long as there are people asking the question. A second caveat is that the church can’t reach everybody; those who see the institution of marriage as hopelessly corrupted by power inequalities between men and women and something to be overthrown rather than celebrated are not likely to find much else to interest them in the restored gospel. That does not change the fact that the church will need to explain its relevance to people for whom marriage and family are not central concerns.

Nate observes that the church has gone through cycles of expansion and stasis before and that it has modified its message for new times and new contexts. The same is true if we look even farther back at the history of Christianity, and looking at early Christianity may offer some suggestions for how to reframe the narrative of the restored church. This is not the first time that the core elements of Christian teaching have needed to be expressed in new ways. Even such basic teachings as the purpose of Christ’s life and atonement shift along with the expansion of Christianity.

In its earliest centuries, for example, Christian evangelization does not seem to have focused much on sin and redemption. In visual and artistic depictions, Jesus is represented not as a sacrificial offering, but as the perfect man, a moral exemplar whose death was final proof of his moral uprightness. Christ’s mission was explained not as vicarious suffering for human sin, but as the perfect embodiment of the life all people should emulate.

In similar fashion, the tribal chieftains of northern Europe who led their people (or forced their conquered rivals) into Christianity had little use for Jesus as a sacrificial lamb or a suffering victim. They did however find much to admire in Jesus, the rightful king and conquering hero who vanquished death and hell, not to mention a God who was more loyal than capricious Freya, wiser than bumbling Thor, and more trustworthy than devious Odin.

Of course these are just-so stories that set aside centuries of nuance and historical detail, but sweeping central narratives is precisely what the church will need to rethink. These episodes illustrate that Christianity’s shifting narrative responded to acute challenges from outsiders, but also to the internal needs and problems of those outsiders.

As in the past when early Christianity encountered Roman citizens (and barbarians aspiring to acquire Rome’s glory), the church’s new narrative will emerge from its conversations at the interfaces where it is actively engaged. Nate highlights missionary work as the church’s primary form of engagement. The church has other interfaces, including its universities, but the cumulative effect is that the church is most actively engaged with secularism and the broader Christian world. While the church maintains friendly relations with Jewish and Islamic communities, for example, in most places where the church is currently active, neither Judaism nor Islam is forcing the church to rethink its message, and the church doesn’t see in Judaism or Islam (or in many other regions of the religious map of the world) a competitor, a threat, or a likely source of future converts. The church is not in conversation with Judaism or Islam in the same way it is with secularism and Christianity as a whole.

If I had to hazard a guess, I might say that one future narrative for the church in a secular world might involve emphasizing how the theology of personal revelation supports creativity and artistic inspiration. In this narrative, Joseph Smith would function as a paragon of creative effort. Following your heart is a viable message, and following your gut instincts rather than doubting them can have real and immediate advantages. In this narrative, prominent Latter-day Saint artists and performers like Brandon Flowers and the Piano Guys become the vanguard, and even wayward stars can play a role. (See how the Latter-day Saint upbringing of Walter Kirn, Krysten Sinema and Tyler Glenn prepared them for their adult success?) Secularism has its own problems to solve, after all – it will always have trouble supplying a coherent overarching narrative to give meaning to human existence – and there is potential for the restored gospel to influence secularism at the same time that secularism influences the church.

Western Christianity faces its own acute issues. In its conversation with the broader Christian world, the church may be able to make a case for itself as a viable form of institutional Christianity that is reasonably successful at retaining its younger generation without relying on charismatic pastors or making too many concessions to secularism. The church could argue that it provides opportunities for organized Christian service, uncomplicated worship, and a Christian message grounded in the Bible rather than in Reformation-era hairsplitting over creeds and theology, while still being compatible with participation in modern society.

The world in which one of these narratives predominates may or may not allow for coexistence with the other. Or the church may find itself in urgent competition with Islam after all or with something else entirely, necessitating some new narrative altogether. What is likely, however, is that effective new language to celebrate the Restoration will grow out of the church’s areas of active engagement with the outside world, and that the new narratives will not only celebrate the Restoration but also solve urgent problems for our partners in conversation.

31 comments for “This has all happened before

  1. I read and really enjoyed Nate’s article when it came out. I’m glad to see your commentary on it, here. The whole idea rings true; I welcome a proactive and constructive approach to the Church’s vitality into the future.

  2. I’ve wondered if the missionary effort needs an approach like that of Truman Madsen’s, “Eternal Man”, or the books written by the Givens. It would make it tough on 18 year olds, however, to begin discussions from a philosophical point of view, with their limited education. Paul, used that approach, though…

  3. This line from Nate Oman’s article should actually scare some people:

    “In the future, the Church will need a more pluralistic message. Those things compelling and existentially important to people in West Africa and East Asia are likely different from those that move well-educated Americans.”

    Some intellectuals like to act as if worldwide diversity will make the Church more progressive and less family oriented. But many areas in Asia and Africa are, for the most part (on the ground level) , way more conservative on sexual matters than even the average American or Western Latter-day Saint. (There’s a reason that, in the Anglican communion, the Episcopalian churches that left the American section then put themselves under the authority of African bishops).

    “Traditional” family structures and the “1950s family” Nate somewhat discounts as out of date in that article are actually going to be very attractive in many of those areas (even if they lose some of the accumulated Western baggage).

  4. I think the future is the swing back from correlation. There may be a Intermountain West narrative, Eastern US, Polynesian, African narrative as outposts continue to grow. I don’t see breakout sects but think regionilization may occur. I think the narrative has been too dominated by the Utah region of members, just like the bloggernacle is dominated by US Saints with predominantly US concerns.

    Enjoyed the post, narrative is a great way to look at this issue.

    The story of what the Church and gospel is will grow. The best days are not past and the past is just prelude to a broader message to a larger group of people spread over the earth.

  5. On one hand, yes, we all agree that most people aren’t sitting around wondering what church to join or why apostles are no longer on the earth, or what sin even is.

    We all were born.
    We all have families in one sense it another.
    We all suffer.
    We all cause others to suffer.
    We all have been taught.
    We all are teachers.
    We all will die.
    We all have wondered if there is a point or purpose in our life.
    We all have thought about whether or not there is a God.

    Those are the big questions of humanity that the church is uniquely positioned to talk about.

    I do agree that we need to use our judgement and experience to discuss these aspects of the human condition with our fellow brothers and sisters. But I don’t think the principled big issues above are all that uniquen in this generation, rather we have so much media and content telling us in what what topics to think and what we should think about them. Those ever present distractions cause it’s to go from one fleeting moment to the next without really engaging with the human condition.

  6. This is a really thoughtful engagement with Nate’s equally thoughtful essay, Jonathan. Your observation that Mormonism today, as it searches for a new way of expressing the Restoration, is in engagement with the wider Judeo-Christian and the wider secular worlds, and not the wider Islamic, Buddhist, etc., worlds, is kind of obvious now that you’ve written it out, but it’s not something I thought about at all before. One can imagine a future Mormonism, a century or so hence, quite possibly after another cycle of expansion and contraction, that engages different religious worldviews more widely, but the thing we call “Mormonism” today is still very much (in terms of its leadership, correlated teachings, institutional forms, etc.) an American church; when this moment comes around again, that very likely won’t be the case.

    That idea–that when “this has all happened before” happens yet again, the Mormonism that will have to rethink its message will be a different Mormonism than the one in need of rethinking today–connects with the idea of pluralism which comes up both in Nate’s original piece and in the comments of Ivan and RL above. Was it the possibility of a Mormonism with multiple narratives, a more regionalized and pluralistic Mormonism (very much like the way Catholicism evolved over the centuries), which you were referring to, Jonathan, when you wrote that any one re-imaginings of the Restoration “may or may not allow for coexistence with the other”? Ivan is probably correct that as one narrative becomes less useful in secular worlds, it may simultaneously become more useful in the Polynesian or African worlds that RL mentions. So maybe an essential concomitant to the kind of intellectual work Nate’s piece sketched out will also be some meta-work, laying foundations for a rethinking that will no be singular, like past re-orientations of the Restoration, but multiple.

    Anyway, thanks for the good thoughts, Jonathan.

  7. I would point to untapped space for doctrinal innovation that could affect the relevant of the church in the future: First and foremost, there is the idea that the Gospel encompasses all truth. Within this, I would point to our notions of eternal progression and God as an engineer, leader of subordinate creators, and developer rather than as a wizard who just makes everything happen instantly. To my mind, this makes things like the supposed conflict between religion and science melt away for anyone with a little imagination. Seriously, why did anyone LDS every resist the theory of evolution? It certainly wasn’t because of LDS doctrine–it was all about non-LDS Christian baggage. Why did we abandon Brigham Young’s environmentalism? It boggles the mind. Then there’s the doctrine of Heavenly Mother. Christianity (not to mention some of the other major world religions) is hopelessly patriarchal and male-dominated, and no amount of ordaining women as priests really solves that without HM. The Virgin Mary is just a stop-gap. Sure, it would take major revelation, but at least the potential for serious gender equity exists in the doctrines of the church. Think about it: next month the prophet could stand up Sunday morning and announce an expansive doctrine of priestesshood, and, while we would all gasp in the moment, the next day we would just get to work implementing it, and even the High Priest curmudgeons would go along with it. I’m not saying that will happen, but it’s fully within the realm of possibility in terms of our doctrines of continuing revelation. What other large church or denomination has any of that potentiality? When they make changes, it’s a break from the past and they lose their traditionalists. When we make changes, it’s all part of continuing the restoration.

    I have zero idea what the future of the church will look like, but I’m hopeful that it will be rad.

  8. It appears the Oman essay presents a marketing dilemma. How do we repackage the message of the restoration to make it appeal to young people today, especially educated young people? But the message is still “We’re right, and you’re wrong.” We’ve packaged this in various ways since the beginning, but making that message palatable to the masses has always been a challenge. In today’s world, the challenge is even greater, as fewer young people see a need for organized religion. I’m not sure the Church is equipped to succeed in this venture. We’ll see.

  9. I live in Norway, and often talk with people about the gospel – either with members or nonmembers. My job also brings me in contact with many people from all over the world. Today in the western world many people struggle with emotional and mental challenges, due in my opinion to the complexity of today’s modern life – we have so many choices and the world has become very small. Many struggles with low self-worth – sometimes the church culture can make things worse, but the plan of salvation is extreme positive to the worth of very person on earth and all things living. When I tell people about this side of the gospel – the discussion is very constructed and positive. This is what I think we as a church should focus on, and in the process, we might also change our church culture to better appreciate all the different types of people God has created and all of His creation.

  10. In theory there is so much possible as all the commenters above point out. And that is why I am still a member. The problem as I see it is in the application.

    At present we have so much republican politics attached to the gospel, that I don’t see any of that happening. Can anyone see Pres Oaks giving up his gay bashing, and would the ultra conservative members accept it? Could we support abortion as the womens right along with sex education and free birth control, which are the proven ways to reduce abortion numbers. So many members are climate change deniers.etc. etc.
    That mormons vote for Trump is enough to put most reasonable people off. And that members overseas try to follow republicanism, because they see it as part of being a good member of the church.

    The church used to talk of rolling forth to fill the whole earth, and claim the highest growth rates of a religion. Don’t hear that any more. If we could purge the republicanism from the church, and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ I believe we might roll forth again.
    At present we are so extreme we are just the nut jobs on the edge of any discussion of real world problems. Obviously you don’t see that if you live in Utah, and perhaps not in Trumps America.

    In Australia in the first week of spring we are having temperatures in the mid thirties, and bush fires like it is the end of summer. At the other end of the country they are having snow where it doesn’t snow. The experts say it is climate change. Members on facebook are denying climate change.

    You would think a prophet would be leading the way on real world issues. The church is totally irrelevant. It is going backward, and so much would need to change, starting with leaders, to get it to the gospel. I just can’t see it happening. Not sure the leaders in their bubble even realise there is a problem. Who would tell them? If God did could they accept it?

  11. Regarding an expansive doctrine of the priesthood being a new message strength for the church, here’s the issue with it:

    It’s primarily a tactical one (policy) resulting from technology.

    Don’t get me wrong, we already use as justification for the washing and anointing of women the old testament scripture that Aaron and his sons were also brought before the temple and washed.

    But there’s a reason why temple work wasn’t women’s work in the time of Aaron — the biology of the reproductive system. Birth control and the subsequent years raising children, effective feminine hygiene products are all sexual procreation related innovations that increase the opportunity for women to take on additional responsibility.

    So I can completely understand and respect a church that for 50-100 years after these disruptive innovations have permeated the culture the acknowledgement that now a womens Priesthood will be revealed.

    But I’m a little sad that we’d have to think of it in terms of sameness to what the men do, rather than something distinct that embraces womanhood.

    In one sense there’s no metaphysical Melchizedek particle that governs the priesthood. It’s God’s power and authority that was named after him for culturally and spiritually significant reasons.

    There’s no reason why women couldn’t be ordained with the Priestesshood of Eliza, which is really just setting apart a certain authority after the pattern of her righteous and Godly service. I assume were such a thing to happen we’d go with Emma because she’s a counterweight to Joseph, but I think Eliza would have more to pattern after.

    However, we don’t talk about lines of authority much. For this to really have more weight and be less woke, wouldn’t you need Eliza herself to come and ordain a woman to that authority which she possessed and announce that she also received such authority from Eve, who received it from the Mother of us all? (Well, Eliza likely knew those two as same person)

    And do we think that the power of the Mother of the Son of Man would be divorced from the very reality of the eternal progression of procreation in the first place; focused entirely on outward ministration, neglecting the necessity of the mother? Which brings us back to the reality that much of this cultural pressure is linked to innovations that literally place a dam on aspects of womens procreative design.

    Ironically, while we seem to becoming more “woke” about menstruation in public conversion, we are omitting that it’s ALL connected to procreative reproduction and the absence or failure of a fertilized egg. We talk of cycles and bleeding divorced from the context of how your body is either preparing to create or nurture one of God’s children* or getting you ready for the next opportunity to do so.

    Of course this is on the minds of many women who think about children, but we have to see how this aspect of biology has been frequently reduced to talk of hormones, tissues, and blood.

    *And if you are the creator of God’s children that makes you the creator of Gods, and what do you call the creator of Gods? Well, once upon a time she was called Eve, the mother of all living.

    So I think we’d be trading an eternal everlasting birthright that literally is the key to all existence for a mess of pottage if we said, “hey let’s focus more on women doing church administerative assignments like the men.” But we’ve always wanted someone to preach and rule over us, the administrative is naturally where we seem to be drawn because it’s so visible.

    But I’m suggesting that’s because for all our knowledge and innovations, for all the cultural sex obsessions, we have forgotten how to talk about motherly procreation.

  12. Continuation of last comment…

    Which gets back to the message for our day. The things we really need to talk about and tailor our message to, are exactly what our society is literally covering it’s ears not wanting to hear as we’re developing sophisticated technologies that euphemize and ignore underlying biological reality.

    There’s a need for a better articulation of the message and divine role of man and woman. But that’s a tightrope walk of misunderstanding and ironic accusations of sexism.

  13. Geoff Aus
    In the United States after seeing what the Democrats have become almost anything Republican looks mighty good.

  14. Jon Miranda – you just made Geoff’s point for him. The point that US politics are so intrinsic to belief is a real turn off. In most cases what church members (especially US ones) do is so loud, potentially good converts can’t get past to focus on what they are saying about the gospel of Jesus Christ, which really should be the point, right? And it rubs off the wrong way all over the world.

  15. RJP
    Members tend to elect those to public office that closely match our own ideals and principles. Democrats have become so outrageous that it’s hard to understand anyone voting for them.

  16. Jon, Only to a conservative American, which is the problem the church has. Most countries in the OECD have universal healthcare, which provides birth control and abortion as a last resort. And result in longer life expectancy, less abortions, and actually costs the economy less than Americas healthcare mess.

    So universal healthcare, and adressing climate change, and redistributing money to those in need, rather than to the wealthy, which republicans refuse to do, I assume are the things democrats are proposing that do not appeal to you. These are things the rest of the world, where the potential converts are, see as normal.

    One of the things that makes the church unacceptable is that mormons would vote for Trump.

    So Jon in the context of this discussion, your comment is an example of why the church is no longer acceptable.

    The original article gives hope that there might be a future for the church. It might just be in a hiatus, while it changes direction. Time for a big revelation, to know how to make the church acceptable as the carrier of the gospel of Christ.

    I think some of the ideas like, that all truth can be included in the gospel, that the gospel is progressive, and moves with the times.

    I am not sure the leadership can change direction. Lets hope so.

    Can you change Jon, if the church changes?

  17. Geoff AUS
    The people of the church are a peculiar people.

    Liberals of the world tend to support abortion, gay marriage, goddess worship and witchcraft.

    The leadership in Salt Lake City supports none of these things.

    We would no longer be a peculiar people if every time the Winds of Change blow we acquiesce to their demands.

  18. “Liberals of the world tend to support abortion, gay marriage, goddess worship and witchcraft.” In other words, they support freedom. You’re free not to participate in any of those activities, unless and until you change your mind. Why is it so important for some to make sure everyone believes as you do about these topics?

    You know what the “Mormon Creed” used to be? “Mind your own business.”

    Liberals tend to support “want[ing] the liberty of believing as [they] please, it feels so good not to be tramelled,” as a famous man once said.

  19. Jon – you really can’t dig yourself out of a hole. Enjoy Trump while the world burns. Geoff, your comments are spot on but politics is only one thing.

    As much as some might not like it, the church is barely relevant now let alone in 10 years. We must engage with that reality. The time for exclusive truth claims is over. And the church needs to rebuild credibility along with relevance. The focus should be on the gospel of Jesus Christ (rather than adhering to inexplicable rules). I think we still have a unique enough proposition with this approach and it becomes about welcoming all truth.

    This, however, means we must be comfortable being wrong and saying that we don’t “know”.

  20. We live in a wonderful/exciting/historical/challenging time – through the internet most people in the world can be exposed to the restored gospel. In my mature years, I have begun to see all people as members of the Church. The reason for this is the plan of salvation. We all started as intelligences in eternity and at the proper time we were all organized into spirits. We all received more light and knowledge and we all chose to embrace Gods plan for this earth life, and we all received a physical body. We all were born with the light of Christ and we all will die and we all will be resurrected. Through the work in the temple all will be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. All will get their endowment, and all will have the chance to receive all the blessings God has made available to His children through Christ atonement. We will all receive a kingdom of glory (with a few exceptions).
    We all have a lot to be thankful for – God inspires all people all over the world. Let’s include all into the “Church”.

  21. Rolf Torjesen, beautifully stated. We don’t really grasp the expansive nature of the Gospel, Restoration and love of God usually, do we? Our minds are usually too narrow to remember that for God, time and distance are not constraints.

  22. I think the left right US political fighting is kind of stale and hate how everything has been politicized. Maybe it’s subjective but I think the Church does just enough to make both sides feel comfortable and yet uncomfortable in the right ways. Yet this is a local US issue. The future Church is moving to become truly international. Take a look at their UN involvement for the Church’s more international issue stance.

  23. Rolf
    Life has a lot of pitfalls and are we not admonished to warn our neighbor? In the movie Avatar the lady Avatar turns to the other one when calamities are raining down and she asks him you knew this would happen?

    Many of us are afraid or nervous to speak out especially with social issues that are popular nowadays. If you have a chance to warn somebody and if you are prompted to do it do it without delay. Or it will be on your head.

  24. Jon Miranda
    I agree, we all need to repent, not just our neighbor – in order to receive more light and knowledge from God. I just feel we need to acknowledge how far we all have come – this is the good news – the gospel is positive. We can not begin to comprehend the love God has for all His children. Repentance/ change is positive – in Norwegian repentance is “omvendelse” which means “turn around”. We should be bold – also in proclaiming Gods blessing to all of us. Thankfulness creates happiness – we need to be more thankful.

  25. “you really can’t dig yourself out of a hole” {by voting for Trump}

    Put me in a hole and say that I can’t dig myself out if it and I’d dig some stairs into the walls of said hole. But make me swear never to dig into the sides and will I get out? No never, I’d die first.

  26. “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”15 She later elaborated that “following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

    I said republican because that is what I see as the source, nothing to do with the gospel.

    Remove the source, the church still has to get rid of this, if it is to be relavent, then it can present the gospel, and once that has cleared, it may be listened to.

    I still have hope.

  27. One possible avenue to reformulate the Church’s view of the world would be by looking at some of the precepts of Process Theology. While I’m not expert on PT, I think much of it provides a important framework for presenting Latter-day Saint doctrine. Phrasing it as a process not a static occurrence.

    Instead of looking at a creation of the earth, we need to look at a creating, an ongoing creation process that continues to this day. We are co-creators of the earth with God. This provides an important justification for LDS environmentalism.

    Perhaps, even more important is the idea of a restoring instead of a restoration, an ongoing reestablishment of Christ’s Church. This is an idea that was presented by Prez. Uchtdorf in a past GC talk. This fits in well with the LDS doctrine of continuing revelation. But it does run counter to the idea of a never changing doctrinal base. But in a world that is continually evolving/changing, revelatory guidance is more important than ever.

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