I came across an article today that talks about some of the struggles Mormons are having as they wrestle with the way the church has portrayed its history for decades with the way that history actually looks when you return to the historical documents. Richard Bushman, noted LDS historian (and a former Bishop, Stake President, and Patriarch in the church) was quoted as saying that the “dominant narrative” of the church’s history isn’t true. It’s not sustainable.
And of course, some freaked out about the statement, trying to portray it as meaning that Bushman no longer believed the church was true. That it was all based on lies. But when cooler heads stepped in (Bushman himself, for one), it became clear the statement was part of a broader discussion, and that he was simply expressing the same sentiment many have already had about church history, myself included.
Basically, it’s this: history is complicated because life is complicated. We want to find narratives in life. Stories with a neat beginning, middle, and end. We want to reduce people down to archetypes. Heroes or villains. Good guys or bad guys. We want motivations to be clean cut. And the more we live in a society dominated by popular culture (via novels, movies, and television), the more we’ll want that history cut and dried and static.
For many people, history doesn’t happen until it’s been churned through Hollywood and they see it on the big screen. I’m reminded of this lovely clip from Ocean’s Eleven, where instead of watching the actual event (a building being destroyed), the character watches the news coverage of that event, despite the fact that if he only turned around, he could see the real thing.
This, in turn, reminds me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where someone who’s been out into the real world and seen all its wonders is forced to come back and try to describe those wonders to people who only experience that world through shadows cast upon a cave wall.
Real life is the real world. History is a shadow on a cave wall. No matter how much we want to be able to recreate that history and know exactly what happened, we can’t. It’s gone. Even film doesn’t manage to capture it. (Just look at the debates over the filming of Kennedy’s assassination, or the Twin Towers’ destruction, or the moon landing.) And even when film is fairly reliable, it’s still seen through a lens. Still filtered and edited and interpreted. Still just a single vantage point of a set moment in time.
But despite these limitations, people still clamor for the truth. In the church’s case, they dealt with that by constructing a narrative. A sequence of events focused on how the church came into existence, from Joseph Smith’s First Vision to the translation of the Book of Mormon to the trek West to the present day. And here’s where (I believe) the church made its real mistake: it presented that narrative as fact. As 100% true.
Let me amend that statement. Judging from some of the articles written by the church and published by the church over the years, there has been some effort to portray history more accurately. But the way church members received that history was bleached. Cut and dry. Probably due to two big characteristics of the church itself.
First, we’re run by members. Sunday School is taught by people who have no formal training other than (typically) having sat through many lessons on those topics before. This means that we excel in passing down the same message from one generation to the next. Worse yet, we’re sometimes discouraged from looking anywhere other than those pre-approved messages and lessons. For years, I believe that was out of concern that people would stumble across lies and take those lies for fact. But whatever the motivation, if you repeat a story often enough, it becomes ingrained. Age lends it credence. It becomes true because it is old.
Second, many in the church like to stress how they don’t just believe things. They know things. They know the church is true. They know Joseph Smith was a prophet. They know any number of things. And if they just say they “believe” those things, then others in the church look down on them. They question just how strong their faith is. And so we have a tendency to jump straight to “know” when maybe we’d be better off sticking with “believe.”
Because these two tendencies combine into a dangerous mixture where we “know” the church history we have been presented over the years is true, by very fact that it’s the history we were presented. People then continue to build their testimony, using these “known” facts as major support structures for that virtual building. And so when actual history rears its head and presents a version different from the “known” narrative, the whole structure can be put in danger. “If this isn’t true, what else might not be true?” Sometimes, the testimony comes crumbling down as quickly as that hotel in the Ocean’s Eleven clip.
In the article I first linked to, Bushman is quoted, wondering “why some people are thrown for a loop when they learn church history did not occur as they had been taught in Sunday School, while others roll with the punches.” I believe a large portion of that is explained by that conflation of belief and knowledge, and the insistence some have of being certain, though this is just conjecture on my part.
I can only speak for myself. Personally, I like to stick to belief and shy away from knowledge except in cases where it’s totally accurate. Thus, I know that living the Gospel has brought me happiness. I believe it is true.
Faith, for me, needs to be flexible. It needs to be able to adapt, and why shouldn’t it? It’s a basic premise of this religion that it is growing “line upon line, precept upon precept.” But I think sometimes we want to believe all that growing happened before we came into the church, and that it’s fully grown now. So when more growing pains happen, it can be upsetting. However, who can really say what the church is growing up to be? Who knows what the ultimate form of that church will be? In other words, how are we ever to known when it’s full grown and finished? I personally don’t believe it ever will be. Not in my lifetime, at least.
And so as things change, I accept them. I realize that this church is run by humans, and that those humans have plenty of flaws. So it doesn’t throw me for a loop when I find out a church leader did or said something foolish or wrong in the past. Why? Because, in some small extent, I have been one of the people leading that church on a local level. I know how many flaws I have, and how some of my well-intended actions have proven to be problematic in the long run.
Again, some want to believe that at a certain level of church leadership, the heavens are opened, and things are literally run by Christ. That He steps in and sits down to talk with the Apostles or the First Presidency or at the very least the Prophet. But my faith has never rested on that. I believe the church is run by imperfection, all the way up. Not that the leaders are bad people, or disingenuous, but that they’re subject to the same flaws all of us are, from great people down to regular folks.
We want miraculous. Elder Holland quoted a long story last month, telling future mission presidents of an amazing account of a missionary finding his long lost brother and bringing him back to the church. It was in turn quoted in my Sacrament Meeting this Sunday. And now it has come to light that the story is not true. Parts of it are, but key portions were embellished by a member in that family. Does this instance invalidate other miraculous stories? No. I have personally seen and experienced the miraculous, and I’m confident there are many such true stories out there, though they might not be shared too often. (I share mine rarely, if at all. Not because I don’t want people to know, but because they’re special to me.)
We want the Gospel and its history to be as straightforward and unchanging as addition. 2 + 2 = 4. But it’s not. Stories change. New evidence comes to light that gives more understanding of past events. I believe members who are too insistent on living in a black and white world do themselves a disservice. The further you edge into black and white, the closer you get to fanaticism in my book, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been done under that banner.
And so I keep my flexible outlook. I roll with the punches as they come up in church history and practice. My faith has the ability to look at the church and wonder which of its current practices are wrong, because I know some of its past practices have proven to be wrong. I know some inside the church who view me skeptically. Who might even claim I’m borderline apostate. But I know from experience that the line between apostate and faithful member is a line that shifts drastically from side to side, depending on the person drawing it and their personal views. I know some outside the church who also view me skeptically. Who wonder why in the world I stay in it, or how I can believe such fantastical things and express that belief with a straight face. But the line between faith and the fantastic is similarly swerved.
I believe it’s true because of the first hand experiences I’ve had with the church and the gospel. But I also believe what is “true” today might not be so simple tomorrow. Not necessarily out of malice or some evil designs, but just because truth is thorny. If truth had a profile page, its relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” No matter how we might wish it were otherwise.