Episode 13: Our Discussion on Inoculating the Saints Pt. 1

John Dehlinapologetics, faith, history, LDS, mormon, Mormons, testimony 25 Comments

In this episode David King Landrith, Blake Ostler, John Hamer and I discuss the recent Sunstone panel entitled, “Inoculating the Saints”.

A big thanks, as always, to Clayton Pixton for providing the wonderfully inspirational bumper music for this podcast.

Comments 25

  1. I would like to put the argument to rest, once and for all, that LDS artwork is a matter of artist interpretation. I have heard some people excuse the artwork of Joseph Smith leaning over and studying the plates as being the interpretation of their respective artists. THIS IS DISINGENUOUS!

    The LDS Church publishes these pictures on a site they control at joesphsmith.net (The LDS Church’s name, in logo form, appears prominently next to Joseph Smith’s image.)

    When the LDS Church knows the “stone in the hat” method of “translating” the Book of Mormon (see Russell M. Nelson, http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Ensign/1993.htm/ensign july 1993.htm/a treasured testament.htm) the church is not being honest to the visitors of this site (and by extension the members) when they choose to display these pictures at josephsmith.net. I’m not saying the LDS Church commissioned these works, but DO NOT use the artist interpretation argument ANY LONGER to excuse these images. The argument doesn’t fly.

  2. DKL said in effect that the church, arguably, does not have a responsibility to be candid and forthright about its history. There was also some comparison to parents withholding information from children until they are old enough to understand certain issues. I suggest that many people of good will earnestly believe that the church does in fact have a responsibility to be candid, forthright and frank about its history with the members; especially the adult members. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a church that expects its members to be honest in dealing with their fellows to be honest in dealing with its members. I don’t claim that the church has actively lied, but it’s arguable it has passively misled people. I also feel the analogy to parenting is a flawed one.

    Is a testimony based on incomplete evidence in fact a sound one? How can people dismiss a changed or damaged testimony as having been weak from the start? Is that compassionate?

    Feelings are not inconsequential but neither are the facts or cognition. I agree with Kevin Barney’s sentiment at the Sunstone presentation that he’d rather explain the hard issues than explain the appearance of subterfuge and deal with feelings of betrayal.

  3. The Church controls very tightly the art that it uses in its official publications, including church magazines, the Gospel Art Kit, class materials, and missionary flip charts. I had a friend in law school who was also a music composer. He had done some work for the church in the past. He told me how he had done a song for a Seminary music compilation. He used the word “you” in one place to refer to deity and was told to change it to “thou.” It didn’t sound right, so he gave him a song he thought was crappy and sappy but used “thee” and “thou.” It was accepted and made it onto the compilation. The church micromanages everything else. The idea that a rogue artist offering his or her own inaccurate view of a church historical event could get it past correlation is absolutely laughable. For those advancing this view, please tell me you seriously think the Church would choose a picture of Joseph with his head in hat over the one that shows him and Oliver sitting by candlelight with Joseph running his finger along the gold plates. If so, I have an artist friend who would be happy to provide the Brethren with a drawing of Joseph with his head buried in a hat. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the church to adopt it for use in the missionary discussions, though.

  4. It’s possible that KW meant that many people accept the notion that the pictures you described do not in fact represent an actual depiction vetted by the church, but that individual artistic interpretations were involved. KW may not have been disagreeing with you except to say there are many people who accept the explanation that you do not.

  5. Equality said, “The idea that a rogue artist offering his or her own inaccurate view of a church historical event could get it past correlation is absolutely laughable. For those advancing this view, please tell me you seriously think the Church would choose a picture of Joseph with his head in hat over the one that shows him and Oliver sitting by candlelight with Joseph running his finger along the gold plates.”

    Especially if an image of Joseph with his head in a hat was going out over the internet to potential investigators who have NO testimony of the “restored gospel”. When the church is trying to develop a new testimony with an investigator it most certainly does “have a responsibility to be candid and forthright about its history.” Anyone who believes to the contrary is fooling themselves.

  6. Dathon, I agree with you that KW was probably affirming that the pictures work to persuade the uninformed. I was just trying to drive the point home with my “somewhat” flippant response.

    BTW, I loved you in the Ten Commandments!

  7. In the original Sunstone session, one of the presenters spoke of three levels on which a church member could approach church history. On Level A, things are neat and clean and simple–in my experience, this comprises what is delivered in correlated church manuals and classes. On Level B, things become confusing and messy. Issues once clear become muddled; new information surfaces that doesn’t fit neatly into previous mental models. It is suggested that on Level C, things once again become clear, though presumably there is more depth and substance to a Level C member’s understanding.

    Scott Peck discusses a similar idea in his books. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I’ve seen the truth of this idea borne out in other dimensions of life, and it makes sense that it would hold true when applied to Mormon History.

    I love the discussion of whether the church is or should be responsible for helping adult church members move from one level to another. In considering the potential consequences of such an endeavor, I am reminded of what happened in early Christian history. I’m certainly no expert, but have learned from reading Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrmann and others, about the fight among church leaders to determine what would be included as canonical scriptures. There were evidently many versions of the “gospel” in circulation, many of which emphasized different versions of Christ’s ministry. Some of the ancient texts referred to as Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as those discovered at Nag Hammadi are believed to be some of those that were excluded from the New Testament Canon.

    As I understand it, Bishop Irenaeus was a prime authority in determining which books would be included. He specifically included the Book of John and excluded the Book of Thomas because the former implies a role for the church in a person’s quest to approach God, whereas the latter implies that each person has the ability to approach God by him or herself.

    Inasmuch as latter-day church members at a Level A understanding would presumably be more inclined to unquestioningly support church authorities, does anyone think that, human nature being what it is, church leaders have decided, consciously or not, not to promote a deeper understanding of the people and events that make up our history?

  8. “I love the discussion of whether the church is or should be responsible for helping adult church members move from one level to another.”

    That is a nicely succinct statement of the problem at hand. However, perhaps considering the people involved in the topic, maybe this analogy might work:

    In Lehi’s dream of the tree of life in the BoM, he tells of an iron rod which leads through a dark mist. As people travel through the dark mist, many let go of the rod and fall away. Yet, the tree of life is only reached by travelling through that mist. So, to the speaker’s analogy, holding to the rod before the mist is level A. The mist is level B. Nothing is clear, things are dark, and it seems as though nothing is what you thought because you just can’t see anything anymore. Level C is open to interpretation because there are some people who find the good kind of level C without that meaning they think the validity of the church is clear cut again. But for the sake of the point, the church itself would consider getting through the mist and remaining on that path to the tree of life to be level C.

    However, in those times when you feel that pressure that you are better off just having faith about the things you don’t know (i.e. don’t bother asking the tough questions), or when you know the tough issues and you watch the church produced DVD with Joseph translating right off the plates (give me the biggest break ever if you think that the at least one person from the 12 or the FP never saw it before it was finished and sent out) … that feels like the church is so worried about losing people in the mist that they would rather us just hang on to the rod just outside the mist, and stop moving. If you do that, you simply can’t get to the great things beyond the mist. If you go through it, at least you have some kind of chance to come out on the other side.

  9. In the light of John’s (I think) repeated comments about “setting the record straight,” I thought it was interesting that yesterday I got an email from Deseretbook about their “Setting the Record Straight” series, a bunch of reasonably priced (under $10) books about gospel issues.

    Susan Easton Black authored the one about Joseph Smith, there are also volumes about Polygamy and Mormons & Masons, and the one on Blacks & Priesthood is authored by Marcus Martins.

    Anyone seen these books?

  10. To add to MM’s point, not only is that painting of Joseph and Oliver Cowdery used on official church websites and in official church publications, it was shown a couple of years ago during President Monson’s conference talk. I’m doubt the prophets micromanage to the level of picking artwork for church publications, but I’m sure that they have full control over pictures shown during their conference talks.

  11. I’m afraid it may be worse than having full control of picking which images are shown during a conference talk. If the talk makes no mention of the “specific” method of Book of Mormon translation, then why show the image at all?

  12. On the ‘news’: Who’d download a Temple recommend? -BYU students who can’t get into a friends wedding. (BYU students are always to blame!!!)

    Really enjoyed the discussion here; also enjoyed Blake’s interview over at Mormon Miscellaneous.

    I’d add though that the church’s role and mission is to build peoples testimony, administer ordinances, and help then ‘endure to the end’ and I’d say that it’s trying to do so in Sunday school and Priesthood/RS classes. Maybe they -the committees- could vary some parts of the lesson manual here and there, so that inoculation doesn’t happen. But that’s never the main role nor should it be the aim of Sunday church classes. The scholars, including even BYU ones, should be the ones to answer the scholarly questions. (Or let members run site like this one or Mormon Miscellaneous or Sunstone or even Maxwell Institute etc)

    As to the prophets teachings and prophesies, General Conference is a good starting place, only problem may be that you have to be able to see it. (Same thing happens when God speaks in personal revelation.)

    Let prophets be prophets and scholars be scholars. (My rule 1)

  13. I agree with DKL to a point. It isn’t the Church’s responsibility to take people from level A to level C. However I do think that the Church would benefit from making it clear that there is a level C that some people operate on and from encouraging people to get there. Right now if you sit in the average Sunday School class you’d think that anybody that thinks there is anything beyond level A is headed for apostasy. I think this is as much a cultural problem as a institutional one, but there needs to be a way to address it. Honestly I think that blogs and magazines are a pretty good resource and in a small way counteract the prevailing level A culture.

  14. Independent of whether the church should take people from level A to C, I believe it should be more forthcoming.

    It’s just the right thing to do to depict the past as accurately as we can.

    Today, the church makes infrequent, obscure and/or partial references to the tough topics. But it certainly doesn’t paint a holistic picture that includes them consistently.

    On my mission, I read all of the standard works, the missionary approved books (Jesus the Christ, Marvelous Work and Wonder, Articles of Faith, the Great Apostasy, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith) the monthly Ensigns and more. These did not paint a realistic picture of how the restoration occurred as I understand it now.

    Later in my twenties, I read ‘No Man Knows My History’ and it opened my eyes to all sorts of things I had never heard in over 20 years of Seminary, Institute, Sunday School, Elders Quorum, Mission and Family Home Evening. This included things like polyandry, marriages kept secret from Emma, marriages to sister and mother-daughter pairs, failed prophesies regarding Kirtland banking, bartering the Mormon block vote in Nauvoo, the evolving church hierarchy, Masonry and the endowment, church militias, the battle of Crooked River, the Book of Abraham controversy and anachronisms and potential plagiarisms in the Book of Mormon.

    It’s not just that the information is difficult to find in church approved materials. It’s also that there is a culture in the church that broadly paints every critical or scholarly work as anti-Mormon. Once labeled, any argument can be summarily dismissed on the basis of its motivation as opposed to its merits. Here’s where I think inoculation could be helpful. It has potential to open up the culture so that people could discuss these issues in a more reasoned manner. Like Mormon Matters does 🙂

    Regarding inoculation, I did feel betrayed after reading NMKMH and hundreds of follow up pro/con/neutral books and articles. I trusted the church — of all institutions — to give me a straight story. It was very difficult to get over. I actually experienced the stages of grief over a period of a few years.

    Until something changes, it will be very difficult in practice for the average member to access and absorb this information. My LDS friends and family will continue to base their faith on an idealized and heroic version of our heritage.

  15. I think I should add that while the Church might not owe anybody C level material in Sunday School. it sure as heck does in Institute and BYU Religion classes. I had a year of Institute that was glorified Seminary and functioned on a level lower than A if that is possible. But I have three great years of it that engaged B in order to arrive at C and it was wonderful, but still not enough. Too bad that CES five of the eight years I gave it.

    I think the problem is that a lot of well intentioned people don’t understand the difference between B and C and fear both of them. The don’t understand that the real harm isn’t the B material itself but the sense of betrayal, of having been lied to. If you haven’t personally felt this then it is something that is easy to dismiss. But feeling that you’ve been lied to is much more dangerous than the B level information itself. Dismissing B as a lie does not help, but only compounds the problem.

  16. btw, this podcast seemed to talk around the idea of inoculation rather than really dive into it. I was hoping for more after the last one. Sorry guys.

  17. I think everyone would agree that having a victim mentality leads nowhere and we all need to take charge of our lives, but to me….the assertion that those who have discovered tough historical points in their mid 20’s early 30’s have themselves to blame is simply not adequate. I listened to each podcast twice to try to understand where Blake is coming from – to no avail.

    It’s not my purpose to argue against the church, but we’ve gotta call a spade a spade if we want to deal with this issue thoroughly. It’s tough to address any problem, let alone put it behind us, if we can’t even acknowledge that there is a problem to begin with. By blaming the individual member, the church does not have cause for reform. I don’t think anyone on the panel would agree that institutional change isn’t needed.

    In nearly all of the cases I’ve seen where people have been troubled by historical issues they’ve learned about late in life, the problem is not a lack of interest in the church as a kid, youth or adult. As John has stated, many of these people cared too much. So to argue that people just didn’t take an interest in their religion, to me, is way out there. The problem, as I see it, is that these people who took their religion seriously took the counsel to not “look beyond the mark” relative to historical and other doctrinal issues seriously as well. Many (I would say the vast majority) of members still believe that venturing into the reading you’ve described is dangerous, not recommended and even out of bounds.

    As an example, I was speaking with a very successful 39 year old member of the church today who told me that he’d never read anything by Jan Shipps because she wasn’t Mormon, wasn’t a church leader, and therefore was not entitled to any credibility at the bookstore. This is my general sad experience with members of the church. Where did they come up with these ideas? It’s the general message I’ve received at church for 32 years. Are we members also to blame for being taught this type of thing in church? Blake assails those who disregard this type of common counsel, and what’s worse, he refuses to even acknowledge that these types of things are being taught at church. Instead, he redefines the problem as a simple case of ignorance among our members. If members were really encouraged (or even felt like it was acceptable) to seek these things out at an early age – or better yet, we assimilated the tough points in our cirriculum (which is the right thing to do), we wouldn’t be losing so many when expectations of these historical points collide with the reality of those points.

    Blake also stated several times that it was uncharitable to teach tough historical points to someone not ready for such. I would say that it’s much more uncharitable to leave our people blowing in the wind when they discover historical context that was simply left out because someone decided they couldn’t handle the whole truth.

    Finally, the milk before meat argument, in my mind, is only valid when those providing the diet of milk also eventually provide the main course. Not only is it unwise to allow the competition to provide dinner (in some cases tainted with cyanide) but it makes people feel shafted when they eventually find that milk isn’t the only meal in town.

    Hopefully the church can find a way to move forward….and hopefully all those who have waded through the challenges caused by this issue can find peace.

  18. Blake Ostler is, of course, correct that we would be asking too much of Joseph Smith if we demanded positive proof for angelic visitations. However, it seems to me that historians who are committed to description and analysis based on evidence have more to contribute to the discussion of supernatural phenomena such as Moroni’s visit than Ostler acknowledges.

    Although it is impossible to verify Smith’s encounter with Moroni in terms of observables, Joseph Smith’s account of the event entails several observables and implies others.

    Therefore it is possible for a naturalist’s analysis to shed light on supernatural phenomenon.

    Naturalism and its assumptions would only become an obstacle in the discussion if there were not any other issues with the Joseph Smith but his claims to the supernatural.

    Historians can do quite a bit without being skeptics about Joseph Smith’s supernatural claims. Their work need only rely on agnostic assumptions. Acknowledging that one does not know is not the same as denying supernaturalism out of hand.

    Therefore historians can effectively study the Joseph Smith story, rely on logic and evidence without dismissing religious truth claims out of hand.

    If naturalism is not relevant to the challenges that historical work presents to the Mormon origin myth then Ostler’s concerns about naturalism remain irrelevant at this time as well.

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