Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Mormon History–Nuanced?

We’ve all done it, in the retelling added a touch of colour to our lives, gilded the lily as they say to make ourselves look more courageous, more decisive and influential, made ourselves the hero. We’ve also done the opposite, taken colour out to make ourselves look less guilty, conveniently forgotten our culpability. It was our idea, we insist, that saved the day, or, yes, events did take a turn for the worse but, really, I played a very minor role back then.

We might feel some sympathy then with the Mormon Church as information spills out into the world at an alarming rate, no longer in the careful control of Mormon leaders but available for all to see.

Of course, when the Mormon Church gilds the lily it is much more significant then when a private individual redeems his reputation with a little gilding. The Mormon Church would have people order their lives according to its tenets, invest themselves fully into Mormonism and so it is rather important for people to know accurately what they are investing themselves into.

In an article for the Salt Lake Tribune we read about how the Mormon Church is responding to this development and how it is “concerned with misinformation and distorted information.”

It has always astonished me that a church that has always had almost sole control of its own literature and membership, that boasts a PR machine the envy of many advertising agencies should still manage to be misunderstood – read more on Why are Mormons so Misunderstood?

Surprised by what they find so easily online,” we are told, “ more and more members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encountering crises of faith.” Ever helpful, I wrote up some good links to reliable information about Mormonism in this short blog post.

“It’s a growing problem, acknowledges LDS general authority Marlin Jensen, the faith’s outgoing church historian, and one Mormon leaders are working to confront.

‘Never before have we had this information age, with social networking and bloggers publishing unvetted points of view,’ Jensen said in an interview Monday. ‘The church is concerned about misinformation and distorted information, but we are doing better and trying harder to get our story told in an accurate way'.’” (Emphasis added)

Of course, another word for unvetted might be unfettered, meaning unrestrained, unconfined – unshackled. Take away the prefix ‘un’ and you have Mormonism as they would haver it.

Mormons always insist that if you want to know the truth about Mormonism you should ask a Mormon. Have you tried doing that recently? Well, you should, then  you will find out that nothing seems to be “official”, that is to say, however exalted the authority you cite, prophet, apostle or even Joseph Smith, if what they say is inconvenient it is simply dismissed with “Oh, that’s not ‘official doctrine’, its just one man’s opinion.”

Imagine someone sitting at the back of a church in Ephesus when a letter from Paul the apostle is read out. Not liking what he hears he jumps up saying, “Oh, don’t think about it, after all its just Paul’s opinion.” But official Mormon doctrine is that easy to dismiss it seems. Which raises the question of who exactly should vet this information. The man in the pew is ever ready to dismiss his leaders’ thoughts and teachings so maybe he should do it. But what are prophets and apostles for if your Sunday School teacher can bat them away with a “not official doctrine”? (You have to click on this and watch, really, you must)

“Can the LDS Church do better to explain its history, even to its own members? ‘Sure,’ Jensen said. ‘Can we weave some of this into our seminaries, institutes and adult curriculum? I think we can, and efforts are under way to do that.’”

Imagine that, a church that has laid so great store by record keeping and education with a membership that, nevertheless, understands little or nothing about their own merely 180 year church history. Is it because Mormons are indifferent or is it because only now, with the advent of the Internet, these difficult issues are being brought to their attention? If the latter (it is the latter) then what has the Mormon organisation been teaching them up to now? If it is so important that they have an accurate understanding wouldn’t it always have been important? Lets give the last word to Terry Givens and Richard Bushman:

“I definitely get the sense that this is a real crisis,” said Mormon scholar and writer Terryl Givens. “It is an epidemic.”

There is a “discrepancy between a church history that has been selectively rendered through the Church Education System and Sunday school manuals, and a less-flattering version universally accessible on the Internet,” Givens wrote in an email from Virginia. “The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less that forthcoming to begin with.”

LDS scholar Richard Bushman, author of the critically acclaimed biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, has become a kind of historical therapist, he wrote in an email from his home in New York, “counseling with distraught wives and parents or disaffected Mormons themselves.”

For those who discover unwelcome information about the church’s history online, Bushman said, “the whole picture changes in a flash — like those optical illusions that show a beautiful woman and a hag.”

The best way to prevent this from happening, Bushman said, is to give Mormons “the whole story from the beginning.”

Of course, no matter how qualified and eminent, Givens and Bushman are not speaking officially – no one ever does it seems these days. And for all their determination that Mormons should offer full disclosure it seems the “official” story is still nuanced, as in this article in a Yorkshire newspaper. It seems the leopard can’t change its spots, and that’s official.

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