Sunday, October 08, 2006

Net must deal with 'Joseph' question

By Jerry Johnston
Deseret Morning News
If you Google the word "Mormon," the Internet will pop up 16,500,000 sites featuring the word. Google "LDS" and you get 23 million sites — ranging from the church's official sites to off-the-wall entries like "Rum and Monkey Mormon Names" and "Bishop Booyah's Blog."
It's no wonder then that, just before he died, Elder Neal A. Maxwell fretted about finding a way to make the Mormon world on the Internet a little more uplifting.
Just as it's no wonder that Truman Madsen, quite likely the "most beloved mind in Mormonism," is also concerned.
In an e-mail sent my way last week, Madsen talked about trying to "help counter the dominance and prominence" of negative LDS Web sites. But rather than curse the darkness of cyberspace, he has ignited a little candle. And his Web site,, is a small island of perspective in a swirling sea of information.
And, true to form, Madsen throws his focus on Joseph Smith. He hopes his site — and recent set of DVDs — will play some kind of role in the ongoing debate.
Anyone who follows religious matters knows that 2005 was an interesting year for Joseph. After decades of writing off Joseph as a kook and frontier fanatic, scholars began to rewrite their opinion of the man. Heavy hitters like Harold Bloom began seeing him as an authentic American visionary. On television programs, such as "Law and Order," Joseph's name began getting lumped in with the likes of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Conferences were called. Books were written. Seminars held. And, under the hot glare of the interrogator's lamp, Joseph's failures and flaws were soon brought into high relief. As with other larger-than-life figures, Joseph's life was tugged and stretched like a lump of molding clay. Like a patient etherized upon a table — to borrow from Eliot — he was poked and prodded half to death. Chances are his real image can now never be seen.
Yet, into that fray, comes Truman Madsen, sounding the same note he has sounded for 50 years.
He sounded it back in 1989 when I interviewed him for the paper. Then, he said, "If one's interest in religion is totally intellectual, you can become a legitimate expert. But there's still the hard question of whether you fully grasp what you're talking about. There are those who say you must have an existential commitment to religion, or you will always miss the elan, the vitality of it."
The "elan" — the "vital force" behind things.
In short, while hundreds of thinkers and feelers examine the "candle" that was Joseph Smith, Madsen reminds them to not ignore the flame.
Like any pane of glass, Joseph Smith had impurities and flaws. But for Madsen, the big question is: Despite the flaws and impurities, was Joseph still able to allow the light to shine in?
Don't focus on the glass, Madsen is saying, focus on the light.
Madsen asks, despite everything else, did Joseph Smith embody a spark of the divine?
It is a question that all of the other Internet sites — all 23 million of them — must, at some point, grapple with.

1 comment:

CB said...

The number of "pro"-LDS sites decreased dramatically when the church implemented a policy that eliminated most existing pro-LDS sites.
All local ward and stake sites were shut down as well as many other
home-brewed sites. In some instances, friendly sites were contacted
by the church's legal department. The effect of that policy was to
shift the number of pro-voices down, and give dominance to more
critical voices.

What replaced those sites was and a few other officially
sponsored websites. While the church has done a good job marketing
themselves on the internet (such as crafting it's sites to make sure
the they make it nearly to the top of certain google queries, or
providing excellent genealogy services, or providing tools that
provide a basic, correlated understanding of the church) it does not
provide the kind of information many are looking for.

As Jeffery Nielson put it last week in his Tribune Editorial, " We can
no longer afford to teach only what is useful and hope people won't
discover what is true. In this day of easy Internet access, a person
can find more real history of the LDS Church in 30 minutes online than
the same person would in a lifetime studying approved church

Who can trust that the church will give a complete view of Joseph
Smith (for example)? If the church is not willing to provide a
complete view of him, people will search elsewhere to those who are
willing to fully disclose his life, (or other aspects of the church).
Nielson's plea for more openness is needed if church's materials are
to be taken seriously by those who would rigorously investigate the

Not too long ago, the church of Scientology church tried to control
information on the internet and began suing individuals who were
divulging information they were not comfortable with. I suspect their
efforts were futile in the face of the power of the internet. Just as
protestantism was able to successfully "protest" against the catholic
church because of the power of the printing press, the internet will
not allow the control or partial disclosure of information.
Maintaining an image through the control of information or obscurity
is no longer an option.

I suspect the church may need to change it's approach as internet
usage continues to increase, particularly among the younger generation
and foreign countries. Controlled, "correlated" information is no
longer be the sole source of information people receive about the
church. The gap between what is learned at church and what is found on
the internet is too wide. The church must shift it's approach to
accommodate a more full view of the church's history and the it's
issues, IMHO.