Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"Joseph Smith and His Critics" seminar

I attended part of an interesting conference last week at BYU call "Joseph Smith and His Critics."  Dr. Richard Bushman started the day with a well written description of a problem affecting many in the church. 

A phenomena exists where church members begin exploring the Internet to learn more about the church.  They come across a vast amount of information portraying Joseph Smith and other aspects of the church in a light that seems at odds with their church experience.  As they explore further they find the information seems credible and come to the realization that the Joseph Smith they learned about in Sunday School seems starkly different that the Joseph Smith portrayed by the historical information they have encountered.

They feel disillusioned and deceived.  A mistrust of the church replaces their original faith.  When they bring this up with family members, church leaders or friends; instead of receiving empathy and understanding, they are typically told to pray, have faith and to stop reading "anti-Mormon" material.  They feel even more alienated, feeling they have no one to talk to, or understand them in the church, and end up going inactive, leaving the church, or possibly working this new found knowledge into a world view that allows them to remain in the church, albeit with an uncomfortable but compatible religious-view.

This conference was part of a summer seminar to explore this problem and to provide resources from the church regarding some of the issues that cause so much trouble to many members of the church.   

Papers presented at the conference (apparently gleaned from a list of troubling topics provide by a woman from Germany):

  • Introduction:   Richard Bushman
  • Robert Lund:  "Criticisms of the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company"
  • Stephen Harper: "The Book of Mormon Witnesses Saw the Plates with Spiritual Eyes"
  • John Beck: "Freemasonry and the Mormon Temple"
  • Brian Hauglid: "The Kinderhook Plates"
  • J. Spencer Fluhman:  "'A Subject That Can Bear Investigation': Anguish, Faith, and Nauvoo Plural Marriage"
  • Stephen Fleming: "Have Miracles Ceased?  Joseph Smith and the Power of God"
  • Kerry Muhlestein: "Treasure and the Supernatural: Joseph Smith's Search for the Divine."
  • Robert J. Woodford: "Joseph Smith's Revelations: Reception, Recording and Publication"
Other papers prepared but not presented include topics on:
  • The Book of Abraham
  • Emanual Swedenborg 
  • D&C 76 
  • Joseph Smith's Reputation.
I must admit it was strange to hear CES and church curriculum writers present papers describing events that have been labeled anti-Mormon.  It didn't seem that the papers presented any new information or interpretation already published.  There seemed to be an avoidance by some to acknowledge those who wrote foundational articles and books -- perhaps because these individuals or publishing institutions are considered problematic.  If so, I'm not sure this us-verses-them mentality is helpful, IMO. But, of course, I could be mistaken as I only caught a few papers.

Previously the church enjoyed an environment where difficult historical information was hard to come by.  It was easy to keep  information under wraps and simply dismiss such information as the work of enemies using unethical means to promote their agenda.  However uncontrolled independent academic venues sprang up around the time professionally trained Leonard Arrington became the Church Historian.  Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, BYU Studies, Sunstone, The Mormon History Association, The John Whitmer Historical Association and others provided publishing opportunities for those involved in an intensive quest to better understand church history.  The Internet later made access to such information easily available, and today, Pandora's Box is open.  As Jeffery Nielson wryly encapsulated the issue, "
a person can find out more real history of the LDS Church in 30 minutes online than the same person would in a lifetime of studying approved church materials."

Now it seems  the church is attempting to address the problem.  Subtle changes have occurred over the past 5 or so years that were previously absent.  For example:
  • The promotion by Deseret Book of Bushman's controversial biograph of Joseph Smith. 
  • Some materials on the church's website being corrected to be more historically accurate. 
  • A new updated & active newsroom at lds.org
  • Church spokesman participation in Newsweek's sponsored discussions on religion
  • Less excommunications of historians and dissidents
  • The church getting it's website near the top of many Mormon google searches.
  • The new Joseph Smith manual containing interesting material that goes beyond simplistic, repetitive platitudes. 
  • The church cooperating with the making of the PBS documentary "The Mormons"
  • Articles in the Ensign and/or Church News covering controversial topics in a straight-forward manner
  • Church funded books dealing with controversial topics [Mark Hoffman, Mountain Meadows] (although not published through Deseret Book).
  • And more ...
Another milestone is this conference.  It seems the goals of the seminar is to disseminate honest, complete, yet faithful accounts of controversial topics to seminary teachers, institute teachers & others, enabling them to better "pastor" those troubled by controversies.  Some of these papers may be published in the BYU Religious Center publication "The Religious Educator."

How long will it take such information to trickle down to those who need it?  Could this plan backfire by providing another avenue for troubling information?  What can be done for those who have already become disillusioned?  Could the church partner with institutions also interested in a full accurate history that they have previously distanced themselves from?  Will this information ever be taught as part of the standard curriculum in order to "inoculate" members of the church from troubling information?


robert said...

Inoculate the membership from this:

I read this on a faithful's website and could not believe how far the fellowship has strayed from Christian principles. I don't know which part of this is more disturbing: the sanctimonious duplicity of the member or the tactics of the church?

"We wholeheartedly agreed with the prop and already indicated we’d be happy to throw some money at it to help out. What we were dreading, though, was to be asked to make “get out the vote” calls or put up a sign on our lawn (the worst part about being asked by the Church to do something is you really can’t say no– and if you do, you just don’t get it). One of my wife’s best friends is a gay man (with a monogamous partner) with whom she already shared her feelings on same-sex marriage. Surprisingly he agreed, and even called the whole issue “ridiculous.”

As it turned out, when the SP sat down with us, it was actually about making a contribution– a rather sizable contribution. He already had a figure in mind. Interestingly, the Mrs. and I both heard the figure in our heads before he said it. I asked if all the members were being asked for the same figure, and he admitted they weren’t. We told him we’d talk about it and would let him know if we’d send it or an alternative amount. He agreed and left a donation form for ProtectMarriage.com which asks you to submit, among other things, your name, and the name of your ward and stake.

Different thoughts ran through our minds after the visit. My wife wanted to know how they came up with the customized figure and stewed over the notion that they probably reviewed our tithing records. The alternative would have been to pray over each family name, which seemed a painful, time-intensive exercise considering we were talking about the whole stake. Meanwhile, I didn’t like the idea of tallies being made for each ward. The SP said they’d be getting back lists of the donors and how much they paid. I didn’t like the idea of my faithfulness being gauged so. I also didn’t like contributing to a coalition of churches, many of which I suspect are Huckabee fan clubs. Plus, let’s face it, it was a huge chunk o’ change they were asking from us."

They made the donation...and within minutes they got the dream home they had been praying for. They believe it is for their obedience to the Lord...? I wanted to vomit.

Anonymous said...

This conference at BYU is definitely heartening for those of us desiring more truth and less "faithful" history, etc. However, until "the church" changes the curriculum, and their overbearing control of it, at the local level so that the truth of our history, etc. can be taught and discussed broadly, then its steps are not sufficient.

Try giving a talk in sacrament meeting that elucidates your fellow saints even a little bit on one of the history issues presented at this conference!

The church has a very long way to go, both locally and centrally, in being open to anything outside the carefully prepared versions of the gospel or church history.

From one whose knowledge and belief of the truth is largely hidden, so as to remain in the "church family."

Unknown said...

I appreciated reading your thoughts. All too often we can become victims of a certain parochialism in viewing the gospel as being hounded by the intellectual issues that fit our own wants.