Everything wrong with Mormon writing (I)

Collectivize the ignorance, individualize the enlightenment.

A common tic in Mormon writing, from blog posts or comments to memoirs and autobiographies, is to describe your life as the process of casting aside the misguided ideas you grew up with on your personal path to enlightenment. It works more or less like this: “As a young Mormon, I was taught that only white bread could be used for the sacrament. Only as an adult, while reading the writings of Gandhi, did I realize that white bread was not required.” It’s such a common framework for autobiography that it usually goes unnoticed.

But it’s also pernicious, especially in the hands of a clumsy writer. It’s easy to collapse complexity and diversity into broad-stroke depiction of communal dim-wittedness that contrasts all the more sharply with your individual intellectual advancement. You, a free thinker, aren’t one of those young earth creationists; you arrived at your enlightened state by sheer force of individual reason (so you can skip over any mention of the long history of diverse views on a topic like evolution). These thumbnail sketches of intellectual development not only rely on and reinforce clichés, but they consistently locate backwardness in the community and enlightenment outside it, turning intellectual biographies into a variety of exit narrative.

This clichéd framework distorts reality. Here’s the facts: You believed some nutty things as a kid because that’s what kid brains are programmed to do. They overgeneralize isolated examples and limited context into universal commandments. Often that’s helpful (it’s an essential part of how we learn language or learn to avoid dangerous things), but sometimes the results are defective.

Like the time in seventh grade when I wrote in a school essay that I supported my family’s rule against wearing shorts to school; I had never done so as my contribution to following my family’s dress code. (“Are you sure?” was my teacher’s marginal comment.) But there was no such rule. My parents had never stated it. My younger siblings didn’t know of or follow it. I was following a rule I had created in my own mind, based on the clothing habits of people who had grown up in places where cold weather lasts from September to May.

Or maybe you grew up believing some odd things because – how do I put this – your parents were out on the long tail of parenting styles. You can come to grips with your family background without casting the rest of us in the role of mindless fanatics.

So when you realize at 13 or 18 or 23 that something isn’t quite as you believed, it’s not necessarily about your brave personal struggle to free yourself from an oppressive institution. It’s more likely to involve a nearly universal process of layering complex reality on top of basic ideas that you picked up in childhood, and trying to identify which of those ideas need to be adjusted. There’s more than one way to read Genesis? Congratulations, welcome to adulthood.

And often enough, the narrative of a personal path to enlightenment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, either. Sometimes the writer gives away the game at the start: “Why does the church hide information about Nauvoo polygamy? It wasn’t until I was in a religion class at BYU/it wasn’t until a Sunday School teacher mentioned…” In a lot of cases, the reason people are surprised by information as an adult is that they showed up late to Seminary throughout high school and woke up only long enough in Sunday School to crack some jokes and roll their eyes. Your parents, teachers and youth leaders spent years trying to get you to pay attention. Now that you finally have, you’re upset with us for not telling you earlier?

So the next time you catch yourself communalizing the benightedness and claiming personal credit for your enlightenment, try flipping the script. How much of your previous ignorance was individual to you, or a universal part of childhood and adolescence? How much do you actually owe your new enlightenment to your community? Try to recognize the complexity beyond the simplistic cliché of personal intellectual struggle to rise above communal darkness through individual effort.

44 comments for “Everything wrong with Mormon writing (I)

  1. You have a point about my personal journey. But having paid attention in Seminary and Sunday school and also having had access to Dialogue since I was a kid, I can tell you that my journey bore little resemblance to the one you imagine it must have taken.

  2. Jonathon, I think this OP has ventured into the realm of gross oversimplification. I personally would not describe my own spiritual maturation as casting things aside, but as more picking things up, repurposing and reevaluating.

  3. Oh, so you, Jonathan have just been enlightened that the rest of us do this, by your own personal struggle, I take it.

    There couldn’t possibly be any truth to the idea that the church carefully leaves out any teachings about polygamy, and my son who found members in Brazil who had been members for 40 years and never heard there was any history of polygamy in the church, yeah it is all just the members fault that they have to read English and be on line to find this history. But, yes, his mission was way back in the 1900s, when nobody had internet, let alone poor Portuguese speaking members in Rio. Now of course, it would totally be their fault that the church carefully leaves out certain aspects of history. And, no, my seminary classes never mentioned it, at all, let alone just how Joseph Smith practiced adultery, not polygamy.

  4. Oh, so you, Jonathan have just been enlightened that the rest of us do this, by your own personal struggle, I take it.

    There couldn’t possibly be any truth to the idea that the church carefully leaves out any teachings about polygamy, and my son who found members in Brazil who had been members for 40 years and never heard there was any history of polygamy in the church, yeah it is all just the members fault that they have to read English and be on line to find this history. But, yes, his mission was way back in the 1900s, when nobody had internet, let alone poor Portuguese speaking members in Rio. Now of course, it would totally be their fault that the church carefully leaves out certain aspects of history. And, no, my seminary classes never mentioned polygamy, at all, let alone just how Joseph Smith practiced adultery, not polygamy.

  5. The fine Times & Seasons tradition of Jonathan noticing a general pattern, describing it and then getting told by every comment that the general pattern doesn’t apply specifically to them.

    But it’s undoubtedly a general pattern among members and former members of all kinds.

  6. General patterns? Do we require evidence for these or does Jonathon just bestow us with his wisdom?

  7. Thank you, Jonathan, for helping me flip the script and realize that those ridiculous things I learned in Sunday School, in Seminary, in Institute classes, and from my parents were really just in my imagination. But I grew out of that and my spiritual journey has simply been the gradual realization that I had overgeneralized and oversimplified those basic truths.

  8. I don’t understand the vitriol pointed back at Jonathan here. How is anything he said controversial?

    I do not think Jonathan is saying that individuals cannot grow out of benightedness. Rather, he is saying that it is incorrect to assume the group (in this case, the Church) is responsible for what amount to personal misconceptions. The shoe may not fit all, but surely it fits many. Because the tendency is human.

  9. For myself, the irritation at Jonathan is because he is making one of those generalizations that he is criticizing. Maybe what he is saying applies to his experience, but his generalization about members making false generalizations about the church sure doesn’t fit own experience that “misconceptions” was because I was purposely taught falsehoods. My “road to enlightenment” has been finding that the church purposely misrepresents it own history, then blames members when they feel lied to. Well, the church lied by omission by purposely not teaching the full truth, and it took me deciding that the church hurts me, and how can it be “true” if it s harmful, then digging deeper into church history and finding volumes that are strategically left out.

  10. While I don’t know the particulars of your own life, individual self-liberation from communal ignorance is indeed a tired, worn-out cliche and if you describe your life using tired cliches, I am likely to think that you haven’t examined your life very closely.

  11. Anna’s experience has happened to thousands of members/ex-members in/out of the church. As an avid reader of our church’s history, (not just church sources) members are not aware of 90% of it and about 98% of the church has changed in some way/form over the years and that “change” is then taken by the current members as doctrines and the old ways are forgotten. Whether the “brethren” allow this to happen or it is their intent, who knows. I doubt it is.

    I have a theory regarding the church and its “history” that people are finding. It was never lost, but it was forgotten. Generations removed from the actual events leads to forgetting those events. Most the “GA’s” alive today were taught our history the same way I was growing up…church fed info. The early church didn’t write much history in general and by the time they asked someone to focus on it we got just sprinkles of it or just the salient pieces. For example…church members are completely innocent during all the “driving them out” era. Those poor saints who did nothing to provoke anyone. They were persecuted for fun, sport and giggles. Not so much. I am not saying they deserved this persecution, I am saying I understand why some of it happened based on history I was not told by church. (or missed while I was sleeping in seminary)

    My other theory is that the church, when they decided to share the history with members, went with the “share mostly the good side of things” route, like I did when I was wooing my wife. Some think/feel that it is deceitful. I think it is normal. When I met my wife for the first time, I did not give her the 411 on all my dirt on the first date. I saved it for when she thought she wanted to actually marry me. Then I was an open book and told her whatever she wanted to know. The church in a way does the same thing. Lets lead with all the good and holy we know and we can mingle the other stuff later when they can handle it.

    Brother Green seems to think we all were raised in his ward and had the same teachers/leaders/parents as he did thus if our experience/remembrance was any different, we must be imagining it. (if I missed the mark here please forgive JG. I dont pretend to read your mind here) I think he is right on about a 35% level. I think the culprit is leader roulette and members actually 100% believing what their bishop or stake pres said. Heck I will throw in past prophets and apostles in this mix as well. Not everything that they said or wrote was truth or doctrine. Lots of their own opinions… IMO. ;)

  12. Anna, you’re doing the thing that Jonathan is criticizing, even as you criticize him for doing the same thing. The call for introspection has clearly fallen on deaf ears.

  13. I think when Jonathan mentioned polygamy specifically in the OP, it distracted from what I believe to be his broader point: the church, gospel, life, etc is not what we imagine it is when we’re a kid. There isn’t always an institutional force holding you back. Instead what you’re freeing yourself from was your not yet developed brain and limited cognitive abilities and life experience. We have ownership over this development.

    “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

  14. Jonathan’s point is well taken. But I think it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that—at least in day-to-day experience in Church pews and classrooms—there’s less genuine diversity of belief and opinion manifest than there might be (while still maintaining common purpose as a religious community). The sad truth is that whether one is raised with out-of-step beliefs or comes to them over time, it can require a real measure of self-confidence and independence to continue in a community where those views aren’t often voiced (and, when they are, they’re not welcome). The issue isn’t whether one who accepts uncontroversial claims of geology or biological evolution (as s/he may have learned about at BYU) inwardly chortles at the benightedness of young earth creationists, for example, but whether s/he feels socially isolated and rejected within the religious community. We lose too many people because of that social isolation—the sense that “I’m the only Democrat in my ward,” or the only LGBTQ-tolerant person, or non-racist, or non-supernaturalist, or green tea drinker, etc. We’d do better by welcoming people’s epiphanies so they realize, before it’s too late, that they’re not as alone as they might think in the community.

  15. The OP, and this blog in general, seems to follow the following formula: Personal or virtual life situation occurs where someone’s experience and thoughts are different than the blog writer (be it how and when they learned about church history not found in the official manuals, or whether they attend happy hours with their colleagues, or if they didn’t like Sound of Freedom, or how they supported a member of the queer community, or how they view lying to the SEC). Blog writer feels frustrated. Blog writer comes to T&S to call them names behind their back and impugn all the worst things imaginable about the person. Comments on the situation vary.

    It’s your blog. Talking to a licensed professional might provide better results.

    Ugly Mahana asks “How is anything he said controversial?”

    “Or maybe you grew up believing some odd things because – how do I put this – your parents were out on the long tail of parenting styles.” Calling out the parenting styles of people you’ve never met seems kind of controversial in my mind. It also seems really unkind. YMMV.

    “In a lot of cases, the reason people are surprised by information as an adult is that they showed up late to Seminary throughout high school and woke up only long enough in Sunday School to crack some jokes and roll their eyes. Your parents, teachers and youth leaders spent years trying to get you to pay attention. Now that you finally have, you’re upset with us for not telling you earlier” Calling out the entire LDS youth population for not paying attention seems controversial to me, if not downright rude. Firstly, like how can you even know what you claim to know? Secondly, in my experience, the youth actually pay attention. It’s the adults on their phones in all the meetings.

    Let me know if you would like more examples.

  16. Avoiding cliches in writing is always good advice.

    It still seems like a very backhanded and rather pointed criticism of progressive and exmormons. This is a tired pattern from writers on this blog. Even if this is not intended, it is how this part of the audience interprets it.

    I really enjoy this blog and Jonathan or Stephen’s posts when they are about something substantive.

    I do not think that their criticism of post or exmormons is very insightful or empathetic. If I had one request it would to be to avoid veiled criticism and maybe address specific examples that support your thesis instead of whatever this is. It is easily misinterpreted and the comments devolve into people who’s experience doesn’t fit or who disagree about it is hard to have a real conversation.

  17. I just think it is rather stupid to blame people for not learning in seminary what is not taught in seminary. Yes, sometimes people generalize their experience of misunderstanding or falsely generalizing and then learning better, and share their epiphanies and it sounds kind of dumb to those who never made that generalization. Jonathan is very right about that point. And we should always look at why we didn’t know something sooner. That is very different than saying you must have been sleeping through seminary if you didn’t learn there that Joseph Smith married women who were already married to other men. That fact wasn’t taught in seminary, so it is stupid of Jonathan to criticize anyone for not learning it in seminary. It was not an incorrect assumption or generalization that I made, but something the church chooses not to teach because it makes Joseph Smith look bad, really bad. I am just saying there is a difference in where the criticisms should be placed, either on the individual for making assumptions or generalizations or on the church for teaching a slanted history.

    Now, whether the church should teach the ugly truth or teach some glossy faith promoting version is a different question. If I was the church, I wouldn’t teach the ugly truth either. I am just saying it isn’t fair to blame people as if the church did teach the ugly truth and they failed to pay attention in seminary. It is really a small quibble, but one so many believing members make when they want to blame those who leave because they found out the ugly truth and wish they had known sooner and then blame the church for not teaching them instead of blaming themselves for ever trusting the church. Now, if Jonathan wants to blame me for ever believing a word I was taught in seminary, then yes, I am so totally guilty of that. But he is out of line for blaming me for *not paying attention* in seminary.

  18. But parenting styles really are different! We know that by simple observation.

    Let’s say you grew up being taught that dinosaur bones are the recycled remains of life on other worlds. It’s an idea that I heard mentioned in conversation at least once at some point in the last 50 years, although I’d put it closer to 40 years ago than to 20. But someone probably really did grow up with that belief. Was that a pretty normal belief, or were the parents a few sigmas away from the median? The parents may have believed it because they were church members, but that doesn’t mean it was the mainstream LDS belief. And when you’re a teenager, it’s really hard to know what people in other families believe. It’s easy to assume your family is typical – but is it? When you start acquiring adult beliefs, it’s easy to attribute everything you were taught to the church, but a lot depends on how things were mediated by your parents, and it can be difficult to separate the two.

    But it’s necessary, because if you write, “As a young Mormon, I was forbidden to read books from the science section of the library, so I grew up believing that dinosaur bones were remains from the planets from which the earth was created,” I’ll likely think that you haven’t seriously thought about what was particular to your own family or circumstances.

  19. This used to be a good blog.

    Responses from the author do not even acknowledge the very clear criticism. It’s obvious he hasn’t put in serious thought about this topic and is dismissive of any attempts of dialogue with anyone that disagrees with any point.

  20. I think the controversy comes in large part because of an extremely common feature of our current world and internet culture both: we too often confuse being mean with being clever. Whether it is angry commenters on more progressive sites calling more traditional believers sheeple or the favored T&S methodology of calling those who struggle liars, it’s something we see much too often. Which is unfortunate. The posts on this site often bring up interesting ideas. I read them despite the inherent meanness of the approach rather than because I find that approach uplifting or persuasive.

    I generally try to compliment those writers who are able to approach their topics with more positivity and generosity of spirit. For those writers, thank you very much!

  21. Brian, there’s no reason a progressive or former member necessarily has to tell a story of individual escape from collective ignorance. You’ve undoubtedly heard plenty of other options, such as “The church’s doctrine of ABC led me to understand that I also need to extend that doctrine to XYZ,” or “While I’m not a believer, I respect the standards I grew up with and the people who made a positive contribution to my upbringing,” and many others. You can choose a narrative of individual self-liberation, but you can also choose to emphasize continuity or connection. The point is that there’s a choice.

  22. No reason you have to, but if you actually have thought deeply about this question. It is, I find, a common experience. Instead of criticizing members who use this cliche, maybe you should reflect a little or have a bit of empathy for them.

    I can remember the moment where I read Rough Stone Rolling as an active member and I thought “This isn’t what I was taught about polygamy, or was I not paying attention?” So I fell deep in this – to use a cliche on purpose – rabbit hole. For a short reference list of what I reread to see if the church was intentionally keeping the members ignorant or if I was just not paying attention:

    1. Gospel principles – 1997 edition – Nothing at all about polygamy in any chapter including the one about Joseph Smith, the restoration of the church,
    2. Gospel principles – 2007 edition – even less. Not a word about any controversial topic or beliefs.
    3. Teachings of Brigham Young – 1997 – Two wives mentioned – Miriam Works and Mary Ann Angell. No others. Last marriage in the biography was in 1834
    4. Teachings of Joseph Smith – 2007 – Historical summary – marriage to Emma 1827. No others. No reference in the rest of the biography. The closest is that it says “In 1834 the Prophet dictated the revelation that describes the eternal nature of the marriage covenant” p22 Chapter 12 – about D&C 132 and Joseph’s teachings about marriage – the words “plural marriage” “polygamy” do not appear. No reference for context about anything regarding polygamy, including what is a funny question about how the teaching of D&C Changed Parley P Pratt’s life – since he was murdered by the angry and probably abusive husband of his last plural wife. . 479-491.
    5. The Restored Church – 1977 – p-181. “Revelation on Marriage” This one actually does talk pretty openly about polygamy – calling D&C 132 – “The Eternity of the marriage covenant and plural marriage” Although it makes it seem like Joseph wrestled with this issue only after he dictated the “revelation” and “wandered night after night pacing the mississippi with his brother Hyrum wrestling with the problem” It also spends whole paragraph declaring that there was no lust involved. It also says that charges of adultery for Joseph were false. He actually slept with other peoples wives. No mention of Fanny Alger in 1830s or other wives he married. No list of names or count.

    I could keep going. I have a bookshelf of the manuals and books of my time in the church and when I thought I was going crazy I reread them all.

    I totally respect the people and the standards I grew up with, but I also have a lot of empathy and give some grace to people that may feel hurt and write about that experience. Even when they use the cliche you are criticizing.

  23. There are some resources that the church has made available to help people avoid this cliched experience and it would be a much better argument if you were able to recognize why people may got to this response you criticize and how you or the institution can help avoid it instead of basically calling people stupid or lazy.

  24. Don’t meant to speak for Jonathan, but I believe his point doesn’t revolve around particulars about what was or was not salient in pedagogical materials at what point in time in the Church, but rather the self-congratulatory framing of one’s personal intellectual journey out as some proverbial Hero’s journey out of a community of simpletons. There are sophisticated and simple members, as there are sophisticated and simple non-members, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, etc, and it’s very easy and convenient to fall into a narrative where every deconversion story is a Galileo moment.

  25. Thank you, Jonathan.

    I could make a long list of things I heard in Church over the years that were “derivative doctrine” but I won’t. (I will say I heard “Every member a gardener” before “Every member a missionary”.) I learned on my mission that Truth starts with the Scriptures, words of the living prophets, and words of the past prophets that the current leadership has chosen to emphasize – side-by-side with the Holy Ghost. (I miss the time from the last part of my mission, when the words seemed to come right off the page and I understood their meaning better.)

    No, I don’t understand what was going on with polygamy in Kirtland and Nauvoo – but I’m not sure Joseph Smith did either. (No one has explained Fanny Alger to me satisfactorily.) But I try to go by faith, building on my testimony. I had a youth Sunday School teacher emphasize to us that we were there in Church primary because of our parents’ testimonies, and we had to develop our own.

  26. Stephen, yes, that’s pretty much it. And it doesn’t even have to be a deconversion story – there are plenty of narratives from believing adults that follow the pattern, too.

    Also, a quick note for I Am Done With This Blog: That’s okay! I don’t have enough time to address every comment, so I have to pick the ones where I can think of something useful to say, and sometimes I just can’t. You’re much better off reading someone else who’s smarter and better informed on the issues that are important to you than I am. Good luck!

  27. I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of active orthodox members who are fully aware of all the arguments. They are “nuanced” in their own way. They’ve “stared into the abyss” and have found meaning in orthodoxy.

  28. I can relate to this and not just in Mormon upbringing.

    I think mentioning polygamy by name probably triggered the derailment.

  29. I have been mostly away from the blogosphere for the last ten years. Discovering that many of the same characters are still carrying on with the same “I’m right, you’re wrong!” rhetoric both in the OP and the comments is disheartening. ~sigh~

  30. This post collectivizes the ignorance (of Mormons with any degree of disaffection, regarding their true thought processes or what they were actually taught) and individualizes the enlightment (of Jonathan Green, regarding how disaffected Mormons truly think or what they were actually taught).

    How ironic.

  31. I want to think the best about people. I have made several comments here about simple ways that the bloggers and the commenters could be more open to understanding another point of view and to consider it more carefully.

    Each of these has been ignored by the bloggers.

    After this experience and yet another “blame the progressives” post, and truly believing the bloggers to be intelligent men, I unavoidably come to the conclusion that the bloggers enjoy trolling progressives and I encourage all who read this blog to avoid feeding the troll.

  32. Regardless of this post’s merits or lack thereof, it is an objective fact that seminary and Sunday school curricula did not include information about Nauvoo polygamy, and therefore it is objectively wrong to blame members for not learning information about Nauvoo polygamy in those settings. To be frank, the constant blame reversal on members for not learning things that the church intentionally withheld from them pisses me off. The entire reason the Gospel Topics essays now exist is because the church wasn’t honest about its history, and that approach is unsustainable in the internet age. (According to the church’s own teachings, selectively omitting facts to give people an incorrect understanding of its history and put itself in a more positive light is just as bad as overtly lying. And although I can appreciate people wanting to give the church the benefit of the doubt, this was very intentional on its part. Leonard Arrington wrote in great detail in his diary about how Mark E. Petersen, Ezra Taft Benson, and Boyd K. Packer fought his department at every turn when it tried to publish honest history.)

    Incidentally, I grew up with dinosaur books, and the only reason I ever interpreted Genesis literally is because I read quotes from Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith in the Old Testament institute student manual telling me that I had to. That manual is still in use and hasn’t been revised in 44 years. But sure, I was the one at fault.

  33. Christopher Nicholson:

    “To be frank, the constant blame reversal on members for not learning things that the church intentionally withheld from them pisses me off. The entire reason the Gospel Topics essays now exist is because the church wasn’t honest about its history, and that approach is unsustainable in the internet age.”

    Christopher, the church bears the responsibility to teach the gospel–not the minutiae of its history. Of course, now that we live in an age of information the church makes everything available so that we have direct access to primary sources. Even so, those sources serve to strengthen the church’s foundational claims–not discredit them.

  34. Jack:
    “… –not the minutiae of its history.”

    You are absolutely correct. I agree. But there can be problems with this:

    Our church has long insisted that our history is faith-promoting. That our leaders have been inspired in every footstep and decision. Now this isn’t literally true. Our church materials have repeatedly taught us that our leaders are divinely directed and we are encouraged to model our lives after them. And rightly so. Whether they should tell us about the “black eyes” in our history is unclear to me. It seems to me that you are saying that our leaders should not be expected to tell us the negative things. That is uncertain for me, but I will take it if you insist on it, because frankly: I just don’t know.

    But our leaders have, in my opinion, done more than simply not inform us of the bad stuff. They have actively hidden it in some cases. And this leads to disillusionment among some (not all!) members.

  35. Polygamy was at the very core of LDS theology and practice for half a century. (Brigham Young and George Q. Cannon would be appalled by the current narrative that it was a rare, temporary exception to the Lord’s standard.) In my opinion, treating is as an inconsequential minutia of history is dishonest.

  36. So, about polygamy, and Brian’s reading list. We’ve had posts and discussions about the diverse views on polygamy in the 19th century. What the Church should say about polygamy today is certainly an interesting topic admitting of different views.

    But the problem with pointing to polygamy in a discussion of how you, an intellectual, have risen above the ignorant masses – to return to the actual topic of the post – is that we all read the same books. Richard Bushman was and is a faithful member of the Church, and you can buy Rough Stone Rolling at Deseret Book. So the information per se doesn’t compel any particular action. The narrative framework of personal enlightenment versus collective benightednenss doesn’t stand up to scrutiny once you acknowledge that everybody has the same information. We differ in the choices we made, not how much we know.

  37. Jonathan, it’s easy to scoff at formulaic “enlightened deconversion” stories, largely because you don’t like the deconversion part. Consider that there are similarly formulaic “enlightened but still stick with the Church” stories. There are formulaic dismissals by orthodox members that “they just wanted to go sin” to explain those who leave (denying them any claim to conscience or choice if their sincere religious beliefs change).

    And of course LDS conversion narratives are as formulaic and stereotypical as deconversion narratives. And they follow the same “now I see the light!” plot as do deconversion narratives. So it seems like you think you are dismissing enlightened deconversion narratives, when in fact you are essentially dismissing most narratives that people tell about their views, commitments, or changed religious beliefs. Why can’t the narratives you reject be sincere expressions of a person’s experience and perspective? That’s exactly what most of the LDS testimonies we hear once a month in church are. Do you have a problem with formulaic LDS testimonies as well?

  38. Jonathan. You started with the polygamy ignorance example in the OP I was trying to show that most of the time this trope isn’t because people that leave the church and use this cliche think the members are to use your words ignorant masses or that they are intellectually superior but they are just describing their experience. You are assuming that progressive Mormons think really badly of active members. This bad intent is not there. That is what I see most people actually reacting to in your post and comments. Stop assigning bad intentions when none are meant or implied. That is my point.

    I agree that the cliche is a tired one and may not be compelling reading. But it is t because progressive or ex members think or mean the things you are pushing on them. Have some charity and compassion. Not everyone does have the same information. That is also a key component to why people are surprised and write or
    Talk this way about their experience.

  39. Stephen and Christopher,

    There’s no question that some folks feel betrayed when they learn something that puts a new twist in their understanding of church history or doctrine or what-have-you. And the last thing we want to do is push them out the door because that “new twist” may be causing them doubts. Even so, I think it helps if there’s a general understanding of what the primary responsibilities of the church are. First and foremost the church is obligated to preach the gospel. And I think we sometimes confuse that task with giving the saints a robust education–something that looks like what you’d get from the department of humanities at some school or other. But this cannot be–the church barely has the time and resources to teach the scriptures let alone history and languages and so forth.

    And so, while I loath the thought of losing a single soul over something so inconsequential (to me) as the rock in the hat–I must say that I get a little impatient with folks who lose their convictions over something so trivial. Why should we be alarmed by the fact that Joseph Smith used three seer stones instead of two? Or that instead of appearing like some apparatus from Middle-Earth — like the interpreters that came with the plates — the stone in the hat looked more like something that would have been used by an ancient shaman?

    When we compare those differences in detail to the church’s priorities on the subject — which is to teach that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God — then those details become rather trivial. Of course, that’s not to say that they’re not interesting or insightful. The various tellings of the first vision open the door to wonderful insights vis-a-vis Joseph’s experience with Deity. But be that as it may, some folks have a hard time with the differences in the eight or so accounts of the vision. And I think one of the reasons for that difficulty may be that — as I said earlier — they lose sight of the church’s main objective–which is to teach the gospel. And with respect to the first vision that means a focus on those elements of the event that establish core doctrine–which is not likely to include the sound of a twig snapping or the tops of the trees burning or one personage arriving before the other.

    I hope I’m not coming across too harshly. I know there are some folks who are on the fence or who have left the church after a long gut-wrenching decision-making process–and I don’t want to trivialize their suffering. Even so, I think a lot of frustration could be averted if we simply remember what the church’s priorities are. And then take it upon ourselves to become informed about history and language and theology and so forth.

  40. Jonathan

    Here is my challenge for you. Since this is a multipart series, tell me the alternative story to this cliched exmormon deconstruction experience using no cliches and common Mormon tropes. You say that we all have the same information and that progressive and exmormons made a choice to lose their faith. On that I agree with you. But tell me that story. Tell us about that choice for you and how you looked started to or did lose your faith and how you regained it. I honestly would love to read it.

    You may not have empathy for the exmormon experience but I can’t help but care about the Mormon one. It was my past and a part of me wishes I could have held on to it. I am through it now but my past self is a mystery I am still trying to figure out. I never have thought such negative things about believing members because I was one of you. Or when I have, I can’t help but feel charity because I was the thing I hated.

    But – don’t waste time disparaging exmormons or progressive Mormons. Be specific and don’t just bear your testimony. Tell how you looked at all the difficult bits of history and doctrine and came away orthodox and believing.

  41. Dave, I very much agree that formulas of some kind are necessary. I just don’t think that “collectivize the benightedness” is a very good narrative – it distorts more than it distills, and it denigrates the many for the benefit of the one. I suggested some alternatives upthread, and I’m not even calling for rejection of that narrative, but introspection: people who think it describes their situation should also ask themselves to what extent universal processes of learning or community efforts to educate also play a role.

    Conversion narratives and deconversion narratives aren’t mirror images of each other. We don’t often hear testimonies from, let’s say, former Presbyterians about how evil the Presbyterian Church is and how brainwashed and ignorant Presbyterians are – if we did, it would actually make me uncomfortable, conversion narrative or not. At least around these parts, I’m more likely to hear: My parents raised me to be a good Christian, and then I wondered…; or: I made some not-great choices growing up, but then I met this nice person who was a Church member and I talked to the missionaries, and then…

    Brian, while I don’t entirely agree with how you characterize what I’m saying, your request is very reasonable and I’ll try to figure out a response. I’m not sure how soon I’ll be able to write it. I wouldn’t want to do it in the context of this set of posts (I’ve got a couple more like this that I think are useful, but are more contentious than I prefer). It would fit better with one I have sketched out in my mind after that. I’ll see what I can do.

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