The original sins of Mormon blogging

If the discussions here and at sites like this one are sometimes less than satisfactory, it’s partly because of unstated conventions and informal norms that got started nearly two decades ago and that we’re often barely conscious of today. Two especially need to be rethought.

Cheap validation. There’s an unstated but widespread convention that comments should be accepted at face value, with the result that people have gotten used to being able to say anything with the expectation that they will be believed. Things like “every bishop I’ve ever known was a blockhead” or “every elder on my mission was only in it for the chance to be a leader” or “I could feel the people in the chapel rejecting me.” Some reports of toddler wisdom lack only a defiant shout of “Ruthkanda forever!

(The one exception seems to be statements of mainstream belief, where it’s considered acceptable to reply to anything related to Church history or doctrine with something along the lines of “it’s so obvious that Mormonism is false” or “you’re just an apologist fitting the evidence to a predetermined conclusion.” For some reason, “Joseph Smith just made it up” is considered a useful response to devotional insights from 2 Nephi.)

But we need to take a moment and talk about…you. A certain percentage of people we meet in real life are mentally ill, poor observers of their own lives, detached from reality, driven by an undisclosed agenda, given to fantasy or catastrophizing, or just eager to sow trouble. When it comes to online discourse, we know that some people will make outrageous claims to gain approval, or are pretending to be something they aren’t, or they regard online discussions as an outlet for their creative impulses. Some of you fall into these categories. I don’t know who or how many, but it’s fruitless to pretend otherwise. There’s a handful of you I’ve met in real life and another few dozen that I’m fully convinced are real, while the rest have some degree of probability attached to your names. That’s just the unfortunate online reality.

Another online community I follow has its own issues and toxicities, but at least it has the salutary custom of participants saying: your story doesn’t add up; you’re obviously omitting some crucial details; you’re going about things entirely the wrong way; your suggestion would make things worse. We could use more of that. It would be healthier to push back and to interrogate claims, rather than to treat stories heard on the Internet as an especially compelling category of evidence.

And if you’re thinking, “Well, how would you like it if commenters here started calling your posts nonsense?” I invite you to look at the last couple decades of comments on my posts. People have critiqued every post I’ve made, from confessions of faith to insights from my research to an obituary for a family friend. So I’m not terribly impressed by the idea that everyone’s story deserves validation. Some of the stories are just not that plausible, and we’d all benefit if we got in the habit of pushing back and asking for context and documentation.

­­And even people who are posting in good faith are reporting a self-narrative that’s limited and skewed. You saw what you saw, but does it actually mean what you think? Sometimes when I mention something that has aggravated me to my wife she’ll agree or express sympathy, but most often she’ll tell me how I’m missing crucial information or interpreting things incorrectly. When I go back and read my missionary journal decades after the fact, sometimes I really do think: that other guy was such a jerk. But most often I find myself thinking: I can’t believe I was such a jerk.

Shallow membership. This has been a formally stated rule at times: it’s beyond the pale to question the faith or faithfulness of another blogger or commenter. And so we’ve gotten used to treating anything anyone says as compatible with church teachings or the gospel of Christ, up to and including rejecting the concept of sin or seeing Joseph Smith as a false prophet.

(The one exception again seems to be mainstream beliefs like the truth of the Book of Mormon or the literal Resurrection or the Church’s other truth claims, where it’s acceptable to dismiss believers as rubes or prisoners to empty formalism or weaker in actual faith than the critics whose first reaction to a session of General Conference is to look for its flaws.)

But after watching enough people go from holding edgy beliefs to jumping off the edge, it’s no use to pretend that everything anyone says is compatible with faithful membership in the Church or faith in Jesus Christ. Ten years ago you were saying, “How dare you question my love for the Church and the gospel”; today you say that you no longer identify as a Christian. Holding beliefs or saying things that are incompatible with basic Christian doctrine or Church teachings will eventually lead you away from the body of the saints. It’s a well trodden path, and even if it’s advice on vaccination that you’re dismissing as mere politically-motivated strategy or culturally-influenced speculation rather than prophetic counsel, the ending is the same.

At the outset, the justification for Mormon blogging was that it would provide a space to discuss matters of common interest and work through potential concerns. It has not fulfilled that promise. It has instead frequently become a platform for mocking church leaders and teachings, a ready amen chorus for shallow complaint, and a halfway house between disaffection and exit. If that’s ever going to change, we have to admit that not everything people write is real, and not everything people say is compatible with the restored gospel.

22 comments for “The original sins of Mormon blogging

  1. I enjoy commenting on here and talking to the community. I agree that filters on communities can help curate discussion. I’m unsure if I am meeting your standards, but I’m here to improve!

    I wish the site could notify me when new comments arise. I rarely remember to refresh articles to see who else has chimed in.

    Or it might be nice to move the comments to X or another platform where the community can be more social.

  2. I love the Mormon blogs. I rarely comment but I read everything and instead of commenting I talk to friends in real life’s about posts. I started reading here back in 2008 when I had my first kid and quit work. The blogs have seen me through huge life and spiritual transitions. I am much more firmly rooted in staying in the church than I would be without them. And my experience with friends who leave is that they often haven’t had these years of blog posts from faithful, questioning people model how to work through problems or the consistent dose of posts that highlight the good while still being able to articulate the bad.

    Thank you for keeping timesandseasons up. Despite the weaknesses of online communities, it fulfills its promise for me.

  3. You’ve repeated this idea that once one’s beliefs stray from some arbitrary level of orthodoxy they are on the well-trodden path to apostasy. How does this not commit your first sin of cheap validation?

    In my experience, I know just as many people who left the church as fundamentalists as I know who left along a path like you describe. So there. I don’t think it is true. I have been a nonbeliever in the more literal claims of Mormonism for a decade and I’m still here, haven’t really changed much.

  4. Well, Mark, it depends. There are plenty of things where opinions differ, and other things that are clearly defined but don’t matter all that much. Then there are some things where saying them doesn’t just put you on the path to apostasy – you’re already there. The fun and interesting part is figuring out which things belong in which categories. Be sure to check out Stephen F.’s ongoing posts. There’s lots in them to think about.

    And while some basic planks of belief are important – you’re probably not going to last long if you think there is no God and Joseph Smith was a fraud and the prophet is a greedy conniver – other things are more about basic attitudes than about formal statements of belief. If you believe everything in Gospel Principles but fundamentally dislike church members or leaders, that’s at least as much of a problem.

    You’re right about rightward exit, which is why I mentioned the issue with vaccination. The rhetoric we saw from some conservatives diminished prophetic counsel in exactly the same way that some progressives have done, and I think the consequences are the same.

    The best way to prove me wrong – that some particular belief is in fact perfectly compatible with cheerful membership and service in the church – is to live faithfully for the rest of your life. I would love for people to prove me wrong.

  5. My living faithfully for the next 40 years would not prove or disprove anything, because your argument is a fact-free, data-free, unprovable personal anecdote, as is mine. I’m pushing back, interrogating claims, and asking for documentation, as you encouraged in the post. Your post is internally contradictory. The second point about “shallow membership” is exhibit A of what you disparage in the first point about “cheap validation.”

  6. I am pretty firmly convinced that our ability to live the gospel and stay active in the Church, especially in the long run, mostly depends on our feelings about them. Of course, what we choose to focus on and spend our time thinking about has a big influence on our feelings, and what we believe has a big influence on our thoughts. But I think that explains why believing or not believing something can lead to different outcomes for different people.

    To take an example that’s come up on the site recently, I think most members are now aware that Brigham Young said some awfully racist things. But how that fact makes you feel depends on whether you approach it in a spirit of judgement or a spirit of charity (neither of which implies accepting racism). The resulting feeling is a better predictor of future activity than what you believe about Brigham Young’s racism.

    It also very much depends on what you choose to do. Two members may both feel repulsed by Brigham Young, but one may spend far more time thinking about the Savior and what they love about the restored gospel and stay active, while the other may dwell on the failings of Brigham Young, soon discover other prophets had failings too, and leave.

    This explains why people can leave over politics even though they believe most or all of the core doctrines of the gospel: if their focus is on their politics (on either side) rather than the gospel and they spend more time thinking about politics than the gospel, they’ll feel more strongly about their politics than the gospel. Then when a conflict arises, like the First Presidency urging members to get vaccinated or President Oaks talking about the same-sex marriage again, politics takes priority. Today’s angry, fearful, and tribal political environment seems practically designed to do that.

    This makes it really hard to identify a set of beliefs that leads to apostasy, but it also makes it hard to identify a set of beliefs that are “safe.” Something that doesn’t trouble me at all may cause you to fall away, and vice versa. But *how* we present things can make a big difference in how others react to it.

  7. Maybe you are looking at this pipeline of apostasy from the wrong end. I am apostate by your definition and Stephen Fleming is not even though his beliefs are way more divergent from standard church dogma than mine. Willing to bet that won’t last forever. But maybe he has a different answer for that challenge and that is why I am interested to see what he is writing more than another post complaining about apostate progressive blog readers but here we are again.

    It is attitudes like this last few posts that make it impossible to stay nuanced and divergent in your views forever and faithful in the lds church.

    But I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did without the Mormon blog world giving me a lens and a community to view my participation and beliefs. It gave me a place to talk about ideas that I couldn’t in Sunday school. Mormon blogs and bloggers were not why I apostacized. They helped me stay for 10 years. Maybe that delayed the inevitable but from a faithful standpoint Mormon blogs did a lot of good.

    I agree with the previous comment that it would help the discourse to have actual references for what the OP is trying to say instead of just complaining about and calling people apostate.

  8. That’s a great Comment, RLD. The only thing I’d add is–perhaps that’s why the Lord requires the sacrifice of broken heart and a contrite spirit. Only a profound sense of childlike humility can get us to put aside anything and everything that keeps us from coming to the Savior.

  9. I’m not sure why people think that orthodoxy is what I’m primarily concerned with here. As RLD says, emotion and attitude are more important. Or devotion. But it’s also true that incompatible ideas tend to work themselves out over time, and if you’re wedded to the idea of congregationalism or a Lutheran view of priesthood (for example) rather than a church led by a prophet and priesthood received by direct bestowal, that stands a good chance of hollowing out your church membership over the long term, as we’ve seen over the last couple decades.

    Again, as RLD says, two people might do the same thing, but one might say: I love the church and the prophet, but this is the best I can do; and the other might say: the church is full of know-nothings and the prophet is a doddering old man, and I’m not paying attention to that nonsense anymore. The different paths matter tremendously, even if the outward actions are the same.

    Brian, the awkward fact here is that you bear some personal responsibility for the problems with Mormon blogging today. I had a third original sin on the list, but I left it off to avoid dredging up ancient history.

  10. I am personally responsible for downfall of Mormon blogging. Will add that to my resume.

    I have tried to be civil and genuine in comments. Do not know what your problem but I guess I will take your vague and rude comments as a message that I am not welcome.

  11. Jonathan Green, you have recently been saying repeatedly that commenters are not accurately reflecting what you are saying.

    If so many people are misunderstanding your points, maybe you are not clearly presenting those points? Maybe your posts don’t actually make the point you are trying to make? Maybe your arguments don’t actually add up to the conclusion you are trying to present?

  12. JG holds himself as the arbiter of what is appropriate and acceptable in the Mormon blogosphere and has apparently determined that he is the decider of what is accurate, manufactured, or sufficiently in keeping with his standard of righteousness (which is, of course, perfectly in line with what God wants) online.

    The reality is that the blogosphere is exactly like the membership of the Church–there is a variety of opinion spanning the spectrum of belief….and that is OK. One does not, for example, to believe in the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon to believe in the gospel and be an active, participating member.

  13. Brian, BofH looks a lot worse in retrospect than it did at the time. It cemented the idea that while some of us might be here because the Church is one of the essential things we need to keep us going, the cool kids were just in it for the yucks and reveling in the drama from behind the mask of anonymity. And for that you do bear more than average responsibility.

    PWS, it’s entirely possible.

    A, it’s certainly true that belief in literal Book of Mormon historicity isn’t required. I’ve written a lot about it! I would be overjoyed if people who believe in an ahistorical Book of Mormon would demonstrate their commitment instead of diminishing its value as scripture.

    Russell, it had to be said. But this is also the culmination of a series of posts I’ve been working on for a while, and I plan to get back to my usual stuff after this.

  14. I don’t see how knowing my full name of Brian Gardunia makes any difference.

    I have tried to be civil and engage honestly. You have not. Instead you have made this blog worse by continuing to be rude to commenters because they aren’t I guess faithful enough for you.

    I make no apologies for not using my full name. Most commenters do not. If that is your policy make it so. It isn’t the norm on the blog since it started. It has never been the commenting policy and I can’t see how that makes any difference.

  15. Please refer to the comment policy that is in the site links:

    1. Comments are expected to reflect different points of view. Critiques of others’ positions are to be expected, but those critiques should be of the argument, not the person. No insults. (For more detail on this point, see Jim’s in-depth discussion of the issue, including his list of practical suggestions for commenting and posting).

    2. As a general matter, Times and Seasons is a forum for believing members or for others who are willing to respect members’ beliefs. Commenters do not need to believe in the Church, but comments that suggest that all believers are per se unintelligent or uninformed are not welcome.

    3. On the flip side, it is also unacceptable to call into question a commenter’s personal righteousness.

  16. Jonathan,

    Communities set boundaries. Sometimes they are quite restrictive, but sometimes people like it that way. The great thing about the internet is that if you don’t like the way those boundaries are constructed, you don’t have to participate in those communities. There are certainly plenty of places online where “Mormon Orthodoxy” is a requirement to participate. R/latterdaysaints comes to mind as a relatively good-natured “orthodox” place of discussion. No one is forcing you to participate here, or at all.

    I’m not saying this in the spirit of love it or leave it, but because I’m just happier not worrying about someone being wrong on the internet as much as I used to.

  17. It’s your blog. I am a guest as a commenter and obviously not a welcome one. I will stop commenting on future posts. I think the criticism was personal and pointed and not about what I said in comments but about what Jonathan thinks he knows about me? Still have no idea what he is accusing me personally for doing but I will let it go and walk away. Good luck with the blog.

  18. Brian, if you browse through the comments on this post, you’ll see what I mean. Maybe you aren’t responsible for the death of Mormon blogging after all, you just ended up with an unfortunate handle. Sorry for assuming that “Brian G” was “Brian G.”

    John C., if I remember correctly, the last time we interacted, you were accusing me of supporting white nationalists because I signed on to a statement advocating for people to be both committed to the Church and flexible with their interpretation of scripture, and you never did come up with any evidence that Radical Orthodoxy had anything at all to do with white nationalism. I believe I called you a weasel at the time. I stand by that. As for the matter at hand, several of your posts over at BCC are what I had in mind as things that are not compatible with faithful membership in the Church. It’s not any particular tenet of belief that’s violated, it’s the sneering contempt for the Church, its leaders and teachings and your fellow members that comes through in your posts.

  19. Yeah that isn’t me.

    Apology accepted and I will still refrain from commenting as I am not a believing member any more and am so not really the target audience any more, though I still read what is left of Mormon blogs. In part out of habit and I part because of why I started – it helps me think about ideas and the questions I still have about Mormonism.

    I am past my Reddit exmormon angry phase but still in the why did I believe that phase. Being Mormon was a huge part of my life for 45 years and will continue to be the culture I am part of in my family and my community including long time collaborators and friends at BYU that I still work with on quinoa, plant genetics and engineering.

  20. Okay, okay, it was actually me guys. I’ve been through a doozie of a faith transition since then…

  21. Jonathan,
    I’ve mostly moved on from DezNat tracking. Life is short. I agree that I can be weaselly on occasion, although I do try to post with some integrity. It’s possible I sneer on occasion as well, but I do love the gospel, fwiw.

    Radical Orthodoxy has not done anything to dissuade me from the belief that it was more aligned with DezNat than it thought it was. It seems dead as a movement now, so who cares.

    Jonathan, I know you don’t care what I think, but I admired your blogging for a long time. I think you’d be happier off the blogs.

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