Thursday, October 08, 2009

Another extended comment

(This was written in response to my friend Cody, here. I post it here as I think it provides some background to my last blog post and ensuing comments.)

Perhaps I'm just disenchanted by the many professed Mormons and Christians who spend their days affirming over and over again how strongly they believe in the BofM, how much they know so-and-so is a prophet, how they know 'the Church is true," how much they know that Jesus is the Christ, etc, etc, etc... and they continue to live in self-righteousness, ignore those in need, and live a life concerned only for their own supposed spiritual salvation.

I'm disenchanted by Mormons who think the best way to help the hungry and homeless is to give them a BofM and share their testimony.

Furthermore, I was not intending to condemn Holland's talk. I was only intending to say that it wasn't anything to get excited over. I've heard dozens of pastors share their testimonies of Jesus, the Bible, homophobia, anti-Mormonism with the same gusto and triumph as Holland.

If I thought that Holland's talk would make a better world and make Mormons act like actual Christians (and not like our self-righteous evangelical counter-parts), I'd be all over it. But my own experience says that won't be the case.

All the BofM testimony sharing on the first Sunday each month just doesn't do near the amount of what Christ asked of us as does one person reaching out to another in need.

Furthermore Cody, you really ought to avoid accusing me of things I have not said. You claim I said that "the only useful talk would be one urging us to "feed starving children." That simply isn't true. You asked, "Ummmm, what better way than to bear testimony of Christs very words and teachings?" I said a testimony shared by feeding starving children would be better, not only. Big difference there.

Here are some more responses to your claims:

"I really think it's sad when members of the church try to secularize the gospel of Jesus Christ, water it down..."

I agree with the watering down part. And I believe that the watering down occurs when we ignore Jesus' commands to build communities and take care of those in need, and replace it with a conservative individualistic soteriology.

Not quite sure what you mean by the secularizing of it though. If you want to call Joseph' communitarianism 'secularization', then have fun. If you want to call Brigham's cooperative economic system 'secularization,' then have go at it. If you want to call Jesus' radical criticisms of Jewish legalism, Roman oppression, and economic disparity 'secularization,' then I guess we just have a different Gospel.

"If all we did as a church was teach service and kindness to neighbors (yes its the second great law of the gospel and we need to apply it more) we would fail to return to our Father in Heaven and would be no different than any of the hundreds of other religions in the world today."

Jesus taught that we love God by loving our neighbor. He taught we serve God, by serving those in need. Jesus himself said that those who return to the Father are those who care for the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, clothe the naked, and take in the immigrants. Those were his criteria. If you want to water down his teachings and impose the very Pharisaical legality on him, then have a great day. Throughout the scriptures, baptism is not used as a simple ritual which magically removes metaphysical sin-stains, but is an initiation into a community of believers (aka, the body of Christ, the Kingdom of God, etc) who covenant to take care of those in need. I choose to believe in a loving God who places the needs of others above his own pride and desire to be praised. If I die and discover that God was more concerned with his own praise than the alleviation of his children's suffering, I'd gladly go to hell.

"We need the saving ordinances of baptism and the temple by way of the proper priesthood in order to obtain salvation."

Well we obviously have a different conception of what sin is, and thus a very different conception of what salvation is. While you seem to see sin as a metaphysical stain on your soul that requires the metaphysical powers of a prescribed ritual, I see sin as the breaking of relationship--with others and with God. With this view, baptism (and the temple ordinances) isn't about literally washing away sin-stains, but is about creating community symbolically washing away the individualism and self-interest that caused divisions in our relationships. While I am admittedly more of a pluraist and universalist, I nonetheless see baptism (if done in the manner seen in the scriptures) as the best means for this. As my experience as a missionary, it was obvious that for the converts I taught the most valuable part of their baptism was their inclusion into a new community and family. Unfortunately most of the members didn't realize this and didn't embrace them as they should have and allowed them to slip back into their past of severed relationships with others.

"As hard as we try and as much as we might want, even the perfect lifestyle full of service is not going to unite humanity."

The perfect lifestyle full of service is the uniting of humanity. By serving others we create the Kingdom of God. We build the relationships that continue into the next life. Joseph Smith was quite clear that heaven wasn't a place we go, but a place we create. Heaven isn't the gathering of strangers, but the continuation of the relationships and community we develop here.

"Christ himself didn't even come to unite the entire earth during his mortal ministry. He created some extremely large divisions in society by declaring with boldness of the truthfulness of his gospel."

Jesus came down as a person to try to affect change in the same we that we are to try... as humans. He wasn't just going about preaching about a book and a bunch of individual rituals. The Jews already had their devotion to books and rituals. That was their game, they would have loved Jesus if he were playing their game. The Romans would have been just as fine with that as well. Some guy preaching about a book and rituals was no threat. Jesus created divisions because he spoke out against the oppressive systems of his day. He didn't create divisions, but rather pointed out the divisions that already existed from these oppressive powers. He pointed out the divisions created by the Jewish focus on individual piety and ritual observance. He pointed out the division caused by Roman oppression--which got him killed. He pointed out the division caused by the ever-expanding disparity between the rich and the poor. Jesus recognized that peace and true community could not be achieved when oppressive powers existed severed God's children.

"By testifying with power and boldness of the Book of Mormon, Elder Holland is essentially inviting people to Christ. There is no other book in existence that can teach you more about Christ and being a good neighbor than the Book of Mormon."

I agree with the latter sentence, but unfortunately that is not how most Mormons I know read the text. Holland's talk focused on the truthfulness of the BofM's ancient origins. From my experience, most Mormons find the testimony of the Book's historicity more important than the Book's content. As I mentioned earlier, most Mormon would think that the better way to help the starving poor is to give them a testimony of a book than to give them some food. A testimony of the book is worthless unless it turns into change in the world. Similarly, a testimony of Christ is empty if it isn't shared with Christian living. I think Jesus said it best:

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.


  1. Loyd,

    That's almost enough to turn me into a believer. Almost. Seriously, beautifully written, and I wish this were a church talk I could hear, regularly.


  2. Lyod,
    I only read your blog very sporadically so I don’t really have a handle on all your likes, dislikes, thoughts, philosophical leanings, spiritual orientations, etc. But the best impression I have of you are in your words: “I choose to believe in a loving God who places the needs of others above his own pride and desire to be praised. If I die and discover that God was more concerned with his own praise than the alleviation of his children's suffering, I'd gladly go to hell.”
    I am pretty sure this is a rhetorical device used to convey your confidence in who you believe God is and not a true statement of your intentions should you ever meet God. I don’t believe that you would rather go to hell than be wrong. I don’t believe this because it seems inconsistent with your other posts which seem to criticize people who make firm, clear statements that are easily debatable (See Holland and the historicity of the BofM or other pastors who “pastors share their testimonies of Jesus, the Bible, homophobia, anti-Mormonism with the same gusto and triumph”). My impression is that where you are firm, (“a testimony shared by feeding starving children would be better,” or in the mandate to serve and have compassion) you are firm because the proposition is easier to defend. You implicitly recognize it is the easier position to defend when the best arguments you make are straw men arguments like “I'm disenchanted by Mormons who think the best way to help the hungry and homeless is to give them a BofM and share their testimony.” (I think if you ask most Mormons how have they helped the hungry and homeless, very few will say “I gave them a BofM and shared my testimony.” I think most Mormons understand the practical nature of feeding the poor and homeless. Whether they do feed the poor is, of course, a sweeping generalization that is not easily confirmed especially depending on how you set the standards that will qualify act x as one that has fed the poor.)
    Thus, it appears to me that your criticism of Holland’s talk is more a function of how certain he seemed rather than the talk’s content or its relation to Christ-like service. If your criticism is more about his style, then I think that is a fair criticism. But if your criticism is really about how Holland or anyone can know even the ancient origins of a Book which science, reason, or critical theories have not confirmed, then I think you criticize the origins of even your own belief that Christ-like service saves. Presumably, Holland knows the authenticity of the BofM through faith. Likewise, your belief in service’s connection to your eschatology is by faith. Simply, I think you are wary of conviction on easily debatable topics. You are no doubt trained to view the world around you with skepticism and “critical thought.” “Critical thinking” is easier on the merits of a talk that focuses on so narrowly on an interpretation of the BofM, than about a proposition as broad and universally accepted as serving others or caring for the poor.
    Does it really take a criticism of Holland’s talk to advance the proposition: care for the poor? This confuses me.

  3. Ryan,

    My comment about rather going to hell is meant to point out that God is not such a being and that Mormons (and traditional Christians) should not act as if he was. Now if I died and discovered that God was in fact such a being, I would do what Joseph Smith once said in response to other Christians who said that Mormons would go to hell... I'd go to hell and make a heaven of it.

    I'm not wary of faithful conviction. My last few posts have been exuding my own faithful convictions. My posts were in reaction to the many FB comments and blog posts praising Holland's talk when I believe it does not deserve so and will ultimately do nothing to enact what God requires of us.

    Furthermore, my claim tabout "Mormons who think the best way to help the hungry and homeless is to give them a BofM and share their testimony.” is hardly a straw man. Though most Mormons would hardly say that out loud (though I have heard many say those very words), or perhaps even cognitively recognize that as being their thoughts, the over-abundant rhetoric, emphasis, and cultural practice that I (albeit anecdotally witness), caused me to believe that such is the case. In the same manner, I doubt few conservative republican's would ever openly say (or perhaps cognitively think) that the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians is justified in advancing American interests, their over and abundant support of that very ideology says something in itself.

    Finally, I'm not advancing my position because it is easy to defend, but rather I am defending my position because I feel it is the right one. That it is easier to defend gives credence to my belief that it is in fact the right one.

  4. Loyd,
    Thanks for the reply. Would Holland’s talk deserve praise if it would ultimately enact what God requires of us? What does God require of us? Know that we need to care for the poor? Care for the poor? Know that the BofM is true? Stand as a witness that the BofM is true? Assuming that God would require the affirmative to each of those questions, is it relevant which is more important or better? If it is relevant, how are those determinations made? Is it right to say that standing for a witness of the BofM is worse than caring for the poor in all cases at all times because Mormons don’t generally give to the poor?
    Again, I don’t think anyone would argue successfully that we don’t need to take care of the poor. Too many people already are firmly convinced that we do. Your efforts to convince us of that proposition are probably wasted. Now, your main contention on this issue seems to be that while many of us say we believe it, very few actually do it because of selfishness, pride etc. Since your post was inspired by people who reacted positively to Holland, I am assuming you believe these people are among those who are more concerned about personal salvation than about community salvation. So, I take your strategy to be to tell these people: “Wake up. You are more concerned about the truth about the BofM than what really matters: caring for the poor. To convince you that you should care about the poor, I will explain why you should not care about a talk that affirms the truth of the BofM.” To me, this strategy is as effective as explaining why you should not care about a talk that explains that 2+2=4 because it is inconsequential to caring for the poor. I think the only way this argument works is if you assert that the BofM is not true and people should not waste their time listening to Holland tell you that it is because you could be caring for the poor instead. Or alternatively, everyone knows the BofM is true and repeatedly saying it is only detracts us from what we should be doing, caring for the poor. Unless you want to argue either of those positions, you really have not advanced your argument at all. The book of Mormon can still be true AND people should still care for the poor.
    All I am saying is, I am suspicious of your motivations. I think you would rather tangle in debate about chimerical issues such as the correlation between a talk about the BofM and the neglect we all have in regards to the poor, than that we all really care for the poor. That said, I believe you when you say that you believe in caring for the poor. It is not hard to believe considering it is one of the universally held principles in the Western World (some want more care than others I suppose). It’s just that I don’t believe your proposition that Holland’s talk will “ultimately do nothing to enact what God requires of us” especially on reasoning connected to why we should care for the poor. AND, I don’t really care what your motivations are. If one of your motivations was to entertain your readers and get a good reaction, then you have succeeded with me! We all need something to do to break the monotony of our days.

  5. Ryan, to put it simply, I think Holland's talk was either (1) preaching to the choir; (2) alienating Latter-day Saints who believe in the divinity of the BofM, but not in its historicity; (3) detracting non-members. For (1) it essentially does nothing but encourage the sentiments that I expressed in the earlier posts and comments. For (2) and (3) it creates more harm than good.

  6. If the testimonies expressed in this morning's fast and testimony meeting are any indication, Elder Holland's talk found a wide base of fans among your average active Mormons. Though it is too early to tell, I suspect that the long-term effect of this talk will have little to do with the Book of Mormon (remember several years ago when Elder Ballard gave a talk about the importance of the Bible? I remember a lot of people talking about how this was going to usher in a new era of focus on the Bible. So far, I have not seen that come to fruition) and more to do with the tenor of Holland's discourse. Specifically, it will repopularize a more emphatic and aggressive form of discourse that has become rare in LDS fora in the past 20 years or so. In my opinion, it is a form of discourse that was better left retired, but I suspect that we will see it employed more often (and with poorer results) in sacrament meetings and stake conferences in the near future, now that members feel they have a "license" from the Quorum of the Twelve.

    On to the substance of Loyd's post. My wife once participated in a summer seminar for LDS graduate students who were teaching BoM and other classes at BYU, run by two conservative professors in BYU's religion department. Each of the graduate students had to present a paper regarding the BoM during the summer. According to my wife, one of the graduate students read a paper, the conclusion of which was that the BoM ultimately does not care whether we have a testimony of the BoM, but only that we have a testimony of Christ. I think that is a sound conclusion, even if not entirely borne out by the text of the BoM itself, which seems to care a great deal about its own authenticity according to some of the very same scriptures quoted by Elder Holland.

    The larger point is that the BoM is simply inessential to the Restoration and the Gospel. It was an effective instrument in attracting new members to the Church but we can easily imagine the existence of the Gospel and to a lesser extent the success of the Restoration without a Book of Mormon, or without an entirely historical Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon elucidates some principles but does not announce them exclusively. In short, the BoM itself is not an eternal principle. The things which Loyd is emphasizing above-- love, Christian service, care for the less fortunate, are eternal principles.

    I once asked my stake president a member's belief in the Book of Mormon was not part of the temple recommend questions. While he admitted that he had never given it much thought, he stated that he believed that the truth of the Book of Mormon is covered under other questions in the temple recommend interview, namely the question regarding Joseph Smith and the question regarding the Restoration of the Gospel. As I stated above, I think that the Book of Mormon was a helpful, but not necessary, condition for either Joseph Smith's prophetic calling or the Restoration (the fundamental elements of which are, IMO, the restoration of the Priesthood, the establishment of the Church, and the revelation of temple ordinances). Therefore, I believe that, even according to the temple recommend questions themselves, a member can freely enter the temple and participate in the celestial glory without a burning and firm testimony of the historical truth of the Book of Mormon, or even a testimony of its importance.

    I think that this conclusion conflicts greatly with what was taught by Elder Holland, which tended to emphasize the Book of Mormon as a necessary and central facet of any member's testimony, without which they were not entitled to the fullest blessings of the Gospel. I believe that this significantly overstates the case for the Book of Mormon, either its historicity or ultimate import.

  7. If all we did as a church was teach service and kindness to neighbors (yes its the second great law of the gospel and we need to apply it more) we would fail to return to our Father in Heaven and would be no different than any of the hundreds of other religions in the world today.

    This truly is one of the more unappealing comments that Cody made at Life on Gold Plates. I'm glad that you specifically addressed it here.

    But the idea is simply (and, in my opinion, pernicious). Instead of the point of true religion being to serve, this is merely a secondary point. And what Cody truly believes is that this "secondary point" is not truly sufficient to reach the primary, if one only seeks to serve, one will hopelessly fail.

    So, in other words, God is not sufficiently satisfied by an attempt to serve others. Instead, God demands something more...something artificial...something divergent. He demands something unique and contrary to service and kindness and all of these recognizable virtues.

    This is alienating and unappealing. But I guess if that's what Cody wants to believe in...if that's what the church wants to peddle, then that's their prerogative.

    I am refreshed, Loyd, that you recognize that service *is* how we serve God. We love our God *by* loving our neighbor. By helping the least of them.

    At the same time, I am still disheartened and disillusioned...because I do think that many members will think this is a secondary goal that cannot and does not sufficiently fulfill the primary goal of exaltation. So, I think that if God does exist, if we act him as the general authorities want us to, then he is the deity you feel you could not follow.

    What I regret is that your beliefs -- however refreshing they are -- are still idiosyncratic. They are unlikely to become the majority focus of the church, its leaders, and its members. Because of that, I can't abide in the church. Because I know that more people will agree with and hold Cody's position to be closer to truth than yours. Don't you see similarly? So how do you persist as heterodox (even though you can justify all of your positions scripturally and with the words of prophets past and present)?

  8. Are you guys for real? Do you really take yourselves and your impressive vocabulary skills that seriously? Your writing, in its very demeanor and tone, is insulting and disrespectful of people who are doing their best to be Christ-like. Elder Holland, and that is the respectful way to discuss him, even if you are not a member of the LDS faith, is a man of conviction, faith, and tenderness. His latest general conference talk was unusual because of his impassioned testimony and somewhat harsh language when describing those who try to downplay the validity and disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Maybe his words cut a little too close to some of your open wounds that you seem to be nursing in this venue.

    Now as for feeding the poor, in my quick skimming of lengthy comments, I didn't see that anyone even mentioned something called the Fast Offering. Some of us actually know people who have used these generous funds to feed their families. The hungry and the poor are people who live next door sometimes, not some collective noun that you toss out in a verbal battle over who is the most Christ-like. It almost seems as if you believe that having a fervent testimony of the Book of Mormon and bearing it disqualifies someone from having an active charitable life.

    A little less pronouncing and labeling and more humble, respectful discussions and introspection would be some good medicine for those religious and spiritual wounds that seem to monopolize this blog.

  9. I think you mean concept, not conception.

  10. Actually, conception is just as grammatical.

  11. Dianna, you are the one who came on this blog and stupidly accused me of having poor grammar. First, you are wrong in your attempt to correct my grammar. Second, even if my vocab was bad, this is a stupid blog. Who cares.

    Finally, I am a faithful Latter-day Saint. If you want to address my criticisms, please do, but for you to just come on here with your simplistic self-righteousness is just sophomoric and silly.


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