Tuesday, August 18, 2009
How To Tell If You Are An Idolater
When I first started out in Radio in the late 1970's I was an all-night disc jockey at a radio station in Provo. A full time news director worked there in the daytime, but I was all alone from midnight to six in the morning, so in addition to playing the hits, I was also in charge of selecting and reading the news at the top of every hour.
The news was dispensed from a noisy teletype machine in the station's hallway, and at ten minutes before, I would go out and rip off a couple of feet of printout. Then I'd select my choice of five stories, and when it was time, I'd read those short pieces on the air.
The AP wire always sent any stories pertinent to the Utah demographic, so one night following LDS General Conference, there was a short recap of what had transpired at Temple Square that weekend. I read it directly from the printout, and it went something like this:
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrapped up it's semi-annual conference today with church president Spencer Kimball encouraging the membership to..."
Oh my. I had just called him "Spencer Kimball". Without putting a "W" in the middle. But that was the way the thing was written when I got it, and I was already full into it and couldn't stop or go back, so I kept on to the next sentence and I knew right then I should have proofread the piece beforehand because before I knew it I was reading out loud "Kimball further reminded the members that..."
I finished the news but as I cued up the next record I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. Here I was, an active, temple-going, returned missionary and I had just referred to The Modern Day Prophet Of The Lord by his last name only. Not "President Kimball"; not even "Elder Kimball", but just plain old ordinary "Kimball", as if he was just some garden variety grunt. I felt just a tiny bit blasphemous, as if I had overstepped my bounds somehow and maybe taken his name in vain.
Since that night I've often reflected on the strange habit we in the church cling to in referring to general authorities by the formal names they had been known by in the business world. As I was growing up, almost all of these men had been successful corporate executives before they were called to offices in the church, and in that environment middle names and initials were part of the trappings of vocational ostentation.
But why should we continue that tradition in the church? Why do we feel it necessary to address them with the official honorifics they had been known by back in Babylon? Shouldn't the Lord's church be more egalitarian? After all, the early saints referred to the actual founder of our faith as "Brother Joseph", and more often as simply "Joseph". Do we esteem his successors more stately than he?
If you're a life-long member of the church, I dare you to pronounce a random list of general authority names out loud without having an uncontrollable itch to add a middle name or initial to each of them. Here, try this:
Feels kind of weird, huh?
If you felt just the slightest bit hinky saying those names out loud; if you felt like a closet sinner, then I submit that you are an idolater. That may seem a bit harsh, but consider: You're uneasy because you have been conditioned since childhood to see these men as demi-gods who are better than you, even holier than you. Certainly God looks more favorably upon these men than he does of you, right?
But wait a minute. If these men are called of God as in the ancient church, don't you think they see themselves as your servants?
They are not your overlords. They are not your bosses. They have absolutely no authority over you personally and very little ecclesiastically. They exist to serve you and the church as a whole, not to order you around or -heaven forbid- be worshiped by the membership. The highest priesthood they hold is the Melchizedek priesthood, the same one held by the average latter-day saint male. Any additional keys they hold are conditional upon the whim of the Lord; He alone decides whether, or when, or even if he will communicate through them, and unless he does, their pronouncements are their opinions only and no more binding on the the church than those of Oral Roberts or Tammy Faye Baker.
Why then would we insist on putting a wall between them and ourselves? Why insist on using titles that are more appropriate in the corporate world than in the Body of Christ -titles that only serve to make them seem unapproachable, exclusive, and distant?
I've seen good, humble people who I'm sure would be perfectly at ease in the presence of the Savior absolutely fall all over themselves when given the opportunity to shake hands with A Real Live General Authority. I've heard others excitedly retell stories of having been in the same room with one of these men, and of having been close enough to touch him.
You'd think they'd spotted Elvis.
It was in the writings of Hugh Nibley that I first saw this phenomenon among the saints described as idolatry, and I think he was accurate in his assessment. Brother Nibley quite properly chided the membership for their fawning attitude toward the church's upper management in his book "Approaching Zion", a book that posits how, rather than approaching Zion, we seem to be running lickety-split in the other direction.
I've had the privilege of knowing two general authorities, well enough to call both of them friends, and I don't believe either one of them would freak out if they were addressed by their first names. These are good men with good hearts, and this odd idolatry some have toward them does create barriers that I wonder if they're comfortable with. There is a time for protocol, to be sure, but I think the Lord would rather that most of the time we treated each other as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than to exist in some forced dichotomy of "Members" and "Leaders".
I have a friend involved in the production of church films who related to me a conversation he had on a flight to Brazil to do some shooting. He was sitting next to a member of the Seventies quorum who related an incident that happened when he was home one Saturday working in his garage. He found he needed to run down to Home Depot for a hammer, and he did so.
On Monday he learned he was in trouble. Somebody had finked on him. More than one somebody, it turned out. Several Mormon busybodies had actually called church headquarters to complain about the unseemliness of a general authority of the church being seen in public wearing jeans and a polo shirt.
So now there's another rule imposed on those who accept a calling to lead the church. They can't leave the house for any reason unless they first get fully dressed in a white shirt, suit, and tie.
If members of the church insist on treating other members as if they are somehow elite and above the rest of us, that's what we're going to wind up getting: an elite group, separate and detached from the rest of us. This is not the way God wants things to be. The scriptures warn us not to esteem any man above another.
It's important to remember that Joseph Smith himself cautioned the membership against treating the priesthood leaders as if they have extraordinary powers and privilege. And you have to give Joseph credit for actually publishing the many instances when the Lord called him on the carpet for getting too uppity. If he could be entrapped by pride, anybody can.
There's a a very real danger in making celebrities of our fellow servants in Christ. These men are only human, and they can succumb to the trappings of hero worship just like anybody else. Do you think Satan sleeps and that the Brethren are immune from the temptation for power over others? Why then the famous cautionary warning in D&C 121:39?
As sometimes happened with Joseph Smith, all that obsequiousness can go to one's head and make a humble servant soon forget his place. Bruce McConkie was notorious for his arrogance in knowing he was right and everybody else had better get in line behind him. First Counselor Henry D. Moyle's unrestrained ambition spent the church into serious financial crisis before President McKay finally put the brakes on him. The revelation that Paul Dunn fabricated those incredible stories of heroism about himself, though intended to inspire, proved destructive to his reputation and an embarrassment to the church.
Boyd Packer once gave a talk at BYU entitled "The Unwritten Order of Things" in which he did not hide his presumption that men like him are entitled to a status that the rest of us don't enjoy. As the title infers, Brother Packer has come to believe some policies and privileges need not be instituted by God in order to be binding on the membership, but are simply "understood".
Although there is much to agree with, one cannot read this talk without a growing sense of unease that Brother Packer seems to be inventing some of his own doctrines here, independent of any revelatory input from Jesus Christ. (The talk appears to have now been removed from the official church website.) Boyd Packer was later revealed to be the secret instigator behind the vindictive excommunications in 1993 of six devoted Latter-day Saints, including a humble follower of Christ
whose primary sin turned out to be that he had not shown Packer the proper deference.
But there is at least one more reason to be wary of blind obedience to priesthood authority, and that is the very real danger that we could become "darkened in [our] minds" as Brother Joseph tells us was happening to the saints who grew too dependent on him. Every now and then I hear some well-intentioned member of the church declare that we should always obey our leaders even if we disagree with their counsel, because even if it turns out that they were wrong, the Lord will bless us anyway for our obedience.
There is no scriptural basis for such a papistic assumption. Every doctrine of the restoration declaims against it. Joseph Smith said that "such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings...When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves."
The general authorities of the church are human beings. They're not perfect. Heck, they are often not even unified. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Orson Pratt had open and very public differences in their understanding of scripture and in what direction the church should be steered, the latter two often contradicting each other during the same conference sessions.
David O. McKay and J. Ruben Clark's disagreements surfaced publicly in Time magazine, and "the two men polarized other general authorities and bureaucrats into 'Clark men' and 'McKay men'" for decades afterward.
Less civil and more heated were the philosophical differences between Ezra Taft Benson and Hugh B. Brown, which spilled over into serious acrimony between them and often affected quorum business. There was some seriously bad blood between these two. I happen to own a like-new copy of one of Benson's books which he had inscribed and given to Elder Brown. I found it at D.I. for two bucks. Apparently Brother Brown couldn't get rid of the thing fast enough.
The uncomfortable history of the first presidency and the quorum of the twelve is the history of any corporate institution. It's a not always pristine story of climbers, alliances, and end-runs around authority. We deserve to remember that God has always worked through men who were regular, flawed human beings. We don't do these guys any favors by putting them on pedestals and forcing them to live up to some image of how we feel the ideal men of God should behave. By doing so we create the misconception that somehow they themselves are "the church", and force them to divert much of their energies into protecting their own images.
Unwarranted truckling doesn't bring the members of the Body of Christ closer together; it drives us further apart. Worship should be reserved for the Master only.
We have a role to play here. We can start by stopping the idolatry, by ceasing to assume or expect perfection in those called to management positions in the church. We can stop elevating them above us, and we can refrain from clucking our tongues when they don't measure up to our pious expectations.
We can go back to treating them the way the early saints treated Joseph Smith and the early apostles: Like regular human beings, like brothers in the gospel rather than leaders held aloft. We can treat them, as the apostle Paul might put it, like "fellow citizens with the saints".