In an article in the December 2016 Ensign magazine, Mormon apostle Elder Russell M Ballard wrote:
‘As Church education moves forward in the 21st century, our educators need to consider any changes they should make in the way they prepare to teach, how they teach, and what they teach if they are to build unwavering faith in the lives of our precious youth. Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, “Don’t worry about it!” Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.’ (December 2016 Ensign p.22 By Study and by Faith)
I can’t help but wonder that ‘Church Educational System’ (CES) has proved a misnomer up to now, since the CES has apparently failed in the past to educate Latter-day Saints on these issues. Mormons have, by the admission of M Russell Ballard, been asked to settle for, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Honest questions have been met with, ‘testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.’
Stultifying is the realisation that Mormons are encouraged to regard this development as ‘a good thing.’ Consider for a moment the message reworded: ‘We fobbed you off with testimonies, calls to trust the brethren, prevarications, denials, half-truths and downright lies about historical facts – always to protect you from enemies of the church of course – but now we are taking down those questions from the countless shelves and back-burners we told you to store them on and talking about them.’
But if those answers were always there why has the CES not brought them before? Its not as if no-one asked.
I am reminded of a disastrous car advertisement back in the Seventies. This particular make and model had a reputation for rusting. The company fixed the problem and made an ad promoting the improved model. It involved putting two cars on a cliff-top to be battered by wind and foam. One rapidly oxidised while the other remained untouched by the elements. The one that rusted was last year’s model. The folly was in sending out the message that, if you were the proud owner of last year’s model, you now looked like a sucker.
Generations of Mormons, and Mormon watchers, will know the frustration of ‘if in doubt, bear your testimony.’ Generations of Mormons will know the pressure of facing questions, of having questions, but having no answers and falling back on testimony. Of their standing in the church being judged, not by their grasp of objective truth, but by the strength of their testimony in the absence of answers. ‘I know the church is true, I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.’ No more it seems.
But if those answers were always there why did they have to put up with the old model for so long?
Many will be aware that the Mormon Church has, since November 2013, been quietly publishing essays on the official church website, essays that deal with the thornier issues of Mormon history and practice. I say ‘quietly,’ the church describes it as a ‘soft launch’ meaning they didn’t go out of their way to draw attention to them. They simply put them up one or two at a time over the months. There are eleven now, covering subjects such as polygamy, the several different versions of Joseph Smith’s first vision, the pre-1978 priesthood colour bar, and others. They can be found here.
The Deseret News of December, 26, 2016 carried a story announcing the integration of these essays, along with other materials, into the church’s official teaching manuals. From Adult Sunday School classes, through seminary and institute classes, to a new Gospel Topics manual, information that was once rare as hens teeth inside the church will now be available for discussion. A new App is available (inevitably) and a new course, Foundations of the Restoration, has been written to reinforce the message of restoration and strengthen members’ faith in the Mormon narrative.
The ‘soft launch’ has tested people’s response to the essays of course, and I can’t help but think this might have gone one of two ways. Nevertheless, with most Mormons taking a long time to catch up with what was going on, there has been time to get used to the fact these essays are there. Critics of Mormonism have been much more on the ball in realising their significance. The Mormon way, however, is to regard such innovation as somehow traditional almost the moment it happens and develop an instant loyalty to whatever the ‘true church’ puts out.
Inevitably, there is talk of ‘context’ and ‘interpretation,’ of being guarded against ‘people who attack the church.’ Its an old trick but it seems to work. Demonise critics as enemies rather than concerned, honest, and helpful friends, and challenge church members immediately to take sides; my church right or wrong. The clear message is, the church alone has the facts and the correct, orthodox understanding of the facts. So where have they been until now?
Why this initiative, and why now?
‘Church leaders today are fully conscious of the unlimited access to information, and we are making extraordinary efforts to provide accurate context and understanding of the teachings of the Restoration.’
It is true that unlimited – and anonymously accessible – access to information on the Internet has had an unsettling effect on cults. Wherever the Internet has gone cult activity has been compromised. But there is another problem it seems.
‘…not all of our students have the faith necessary to face the challenges ahead and because many of them are already exposed through the internet to corrosive forces of an increasingly secular world that is hostile to faith, family, and gospel standards. The internet is expanding its reach across the world into almost every home and into the hands and minds of our students.’
This is a radical change from the usual message to and about Mormon youth. They are usually celebrated as the best generation yet, a chosen generation, elect and faithful, ‘stripling warriors,’ the belt-and-braces security of the future church. No longer the case it seems. Saints of earlier generations proved much more faithful because they heard, and had ‘pure testimonies.’ These Former-day Saints, ‘were clean and pure and free from pornography and worldliness as they sat at the feet of inspired missionaries, teachers, and leaders. The Spirit easily penetrated their soft and pure hearts.’ And so we come to the nub of the problem.
‘It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine, and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the Church. Few students came in contact with alternative interpretations. Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life.
Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when they have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view. Today what they see on their mobile devices is likely to be faith challenging as much as faith promoting. Many of our young people are more familiar with Google than with the gospel, more attuned to the internet than to inspiration, and more involved with Facebook than with faith.’
‘Alternative interpretations?’ Alternative to what? Alternative, it seems, to ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Alternative to ‘testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.’ It seems Former-day Saints were not so much especially virtuous but simply settled for less because less was available. What this is about is controlling the flow of information. The church no longer controls information as it once did, so it controls attitude to information, even as it spins its own history – again.
Russell Ballard writes about ‘Spiritual Inoculation’:
‘We give medical inoculations to our precious missionaries before sending them into the mission field so they will be protected against diseases that can harm them. In a similar fashion, before you send your students into the world, inoculate them by providing faithful, thoughtful, and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.
To name a few such topics that are less known or controversial, I’m talking about plural marriage, seer stones, different accounts of the First Vision, the process of translation of the Book of Mormon or the book of Abraham, gender issues, race and the priesthood, and a Heavenly Mother.’
There is information out there and, before young Mormons get their hands on it, we need to inoculate them – against information. Information a disease?
Consider, for a moment, the driving force behind this initiative. Young Mormons are asking questions, not because they are encouraged to by the church, but because of information they find outside the church that hasn’t hitherto been easily available inside the church. These are not bad questions, just awkward. This is not corrupting information, but clarifying facts. Why would anyone want to be inoculated against what has inspired such questions?
Every church faces the same problem. Every church is discovering the same uncomfortable truth. There is unlimited information readily accessible out there, and it is no longer viable to protect your children by pulling up the drawbridge. Enlightened leaders have always known that it never has been. That is not altogether a bad thing – is it? Surely, as we have said elsewhere, good leaders realise that those church members are safest who are most involved in kingdom-building activities that prepare them to meet the world with confidence. That means inviting questions, encouraging understanding, promoting depth and breadth of knowledge. Not seeing information as a threat but as an opportunity.
It turns out the world of the Internet is not the only place offering questionable information. These men are not to be trusted either:
‘As you teach your students and respond to their questions, let me warn you not to pass along faith-promoting or unsubstantiated rumors or outdated understandings and explanations of our doctrine and practices from the past. It is always wise to make it a practice to study the words of the living prophets and apostles; keep updated on current Church issues, policies, and statements…and consult the works of recognized, thoughtful, and faithful LDS scholars to ensure you do not teach things that are untrue, out of date, or odd and quirky.’
Untrue, out of date, or odd and quirky? Would that be from inside or outside the church? If it is from inside the church – out of date – then the church is producing all four types of information; untrue because out of date, odd and quirky because no longer practised. Not only so, but even prophets of past generations are not to be trusted. Could it be, then, that information from outside the church might be true, timely, and correct in pointing out what is untrue, odd and quirky about Mormonism? The list of issues covered in the eleven essays certainly represent major changes in teaching and practice:
Polygamy (Once essential to exaltation, now a temporary cultural necessity, a claim history does not bear out)
Seer stones (Once downplayed as a medium of translation and revelation, now openly recognised as such)
Different First Vision accounts (Once different accounts were emphatically denied, now they are accounted for – after a fashion)
The book of Abraham (Once considered a direct translation from a scroll in Joseph Smith’s possession, now thought to be a direct revelation and nothing to do with a scroll)
Race and the priesthood (Once considered the result of the curse of Cain carried through the lineage of Ham, now blamed on the racism of Mormonism’s second prophet, Brigham Young)
Russell Ballard suggests the answer was under the noses of Mormons all along:
Fortunately, the Lord has provided this timely and timeless counsel to teachers: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118)
This is very good advice. Lets allow individuals to discover and decide for themselves what are the best books, and what constitute ‘words of wisdom.’ It has worked so far. Just look at what light has been shed on the darker episodes of Mormon history because members have sought learning and study outside the restricting confines suffered by previous generations. In the end, even ministries like ours may come to be regarded as, if not a friend, at least a not altogether bad thing to have in the world. We can dream…