Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Why General Conference Is So Dang Boring
Okay, elephant in the room. I’m going to just come right out and say it: LDS General Conference just isn't worth tuning in for anymore.
For decades I have forced myself to endure a practice that was both tedious and tiring, but which I was certain would edify me somehow in the long run.
Today, however, I’m going to break with tradition and confess the ineffable: LDS General Conference has devolved into a dull, boring, stodgy waste of my time.
Apparently it isn’t just me who feels this way, either. Over the past couple of years I’ve confessed to many stalwart member friends that I don’t really find conference all that inspiring, and invariably they reply with “Me neither!" Then almost in a whisper, “I usually fall asleep.”
Most people, I've learned, tend to wander away from the TV after a while to do something else or pretend to be listening from the kitchen.
I’ve spent most of my adult years dutifully trying to watch all conference sessions in their entirety, usually forcing my reluctant children to join me, admonishing them that if they'd just sit still and shut up they might get something out of it.
I was also diligent about dressing up on Saturday night with my sons to go down to the Stake Center and attend the satellite broadcast of the priesthood session, which was so special and secret and men-only that it couldn’t be broadcast on regular television. (Note to you sisters who have wondered what esoteric information we were receiving during those clandestine nighttime meetings: it pretty much always came down to being reminded we should be doing our home teaching.)
When I was younger, my girlfriend and I once waited in line early in the morning for the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of actually attending Conference in person. People in line with us had come from all over the world with the same hope.
My girlfriend and I were lucky that day. There wasn’t room for us inside.
So instead of being cramped in with a lot of other stiff-dressed folks on a hard pew inside the stuffy tabernacle, we got to stroll hand in hand outside around temple square, enjoying the spring flowers and being in love. We were still able to hear the conference going on inside through speakers set up all over the square, so we didn’t miss anything.
Which is to say, had we been inside, we wouldn’t have missed anything, either.
We descendants of the pioneers don't like to admit it, but general conference isn’t what it used to be. It's certainly lacking the revivalist spirit common during the Missouri-Nauvoo period.
To be sure, there have been some notable water cooler moments occur at general conference from time to time, like Jeffrey Holland’s agitated rebuke at last October's session. That one was a waker-upper. Mainly because we’re not accustomed to seeing any of the brethren become even a tiny bit unglued.
(It should be noted parenthetically that Elder Holland was somewhat disingenuous in declaring that Joseph Smith was killed in defense of the Book of Mormon. Although translating and bringing forth that sacred record was the supreme accomplishment of Joseph Smith’s short life, getting the Prophet to denounce the Book of Mormon was the furthest thing from the mind of anyone in the mob that murdered him. Joseph was not arrested over anything having to do with the Book of Mormon; he was being held for trial over the destruction of another man’s printing press. Nor was the mob motivated to kill the Prophet over hatred for the Book of Mormon, which few, if any of them, had read or cared about. They were worked up over various offenses, real or imagined, having nothing to do with latter-day scripture.)
One reason I think the spirit is missing from most conference talks today is that they’re written in advance and then read from the pulpit. And ever since Elder Poelman let slip a bit of awkward truth back in 1984, conference talks are now vetted by committee and approved beforehand. (“The Best Conference Talk You Never Read” documents that little known incident.)
It’s not easy to feel the spirit from a talk that in all likelihood was ghostwritten by a staff member then read off a Teleprompter. In my experience, the Spirit tends to manifest in a much more impromptu manner. (Thus the saying: “in the spirit of the moment.”)
In Utah’s early days, you would have arrived at conference not knowing who was going to speak -it might even be you. Brigham Young often called members without warning directly from the congregation. Most of those unrehearsed sermons turned out to be pretty interesting. The Journal of Discourses holds twenty-six volumes of them.
Show Me The Money
One of the essential purposes for holding annual conferences was for the leaders to make an accounting of how tithing funds were disbursed. It was understood that those donations were the members' money, held in fiduciary trust for the work of the Lord.
For most of its existence, the Church had made a full report of precisely how much money it brought in, how much went out, and for what purposes. Recently, while doing research for a previous blog entry, I came across the report for April conference 1942, and was impressed at how detailed that financial accounting had been. At Conferences in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith, who was supported by the membership, gave an accounting of all his property down to his last goat.
But for some reason, around 1958 it was decided that a financial accounting would no longer be announced at conference, or anywhere else. Where your money went would henceforth be known only to the First Presidency and the Twelve. This change in policy seems to have been a corporate decision, as I have been unable to find any revelation from God authorizing such a change in that long-standing practice.
Which begs another question. Are the Brethren remembering to seek the will of God when making major decisions as to what our tithing funds should be spent on? It’s hard to believe that God would advise the corporate Church to invest in a multi-million dollar hotel on Oahu while neglecting to inform the Brethren that a major recession was about to hit the nation that would seriously cripple Hawaii tourism.
Ditto the Church’s decision to build an upscale mall in downtown Salt Lake City just before the present economic downturn would result in shoppers lacking the discretionary funds required to sustain it. Further, The Brethren were somehow not apprised by the Lord of how much this gargantuan project would end up costing the church. After an initial investment of $500 Million, expenses have ballooned to $3 Billion.
Whether you consider the Brethren to have been wise stewards with the Lord's money is, of course, a legitimate concern. But the question that eats at me is why have we members not heard a word about these investments in any session of the General Conference of our Church? Why did we learn about them only after they were reported in the papers?
Those Were The Days
Years ago when I lived in Provo, I picked up dozens of volumes of the bound conference reports for a dime apiece at D.I. Over time I've enjoyed dipping into them and reading the fascinating things that were said over the tabernacle pulpit in the 40's and '50's. For the most part, the leaders in those days were offering original and useful counsel which at least was pertinent to the times. These talks, on the whole, were spoken without reading or memorization, and they feel genuine. You get the feeling you're being spoken to, rather than lectured at.
Most of those conference talks sixty years ago were hands down better than the pablum we're fed today where everything is milk, and the promised meat of the gospel is always a distant promise away. In many cases the theme of a particular talk in our time is so pedestrian that it could just as well have been delivered by a sectarian preacher rather than one purporting to posses further light and knowledge. Rather than present much of anything new, today's GAs seem to quote each other again and again on topics recycled from one another's sermons. I'm reminded of this cheeky Conference Report on YouTube which parodies the predictability of conference messages.
Then there was this embarrassing encounter in which a member was politely asked the question, “What revelation or prophecy has been made, in your lifetime, that you find the most inspirational?” The poor guy stammered about awkwardly, unable to think of even one.
The sad truth, and the obvious problem, is that we are no longer getting from conference what we are told we should expect. At general conference, of all places, we are missing the one important element that we claim sets us apart from all other churches. It’s that marvelous gift that, as a missionary, I promised my converts that we could provide them.
It is uncomfortable for some to contemplate, but it would appear that modern Prophets are no longer receiving direct communication from God. If they are, they have been failing to pass those communications on to the body of the Church.
Past prophets and scriptures foretold that we would get to this point, so it should come as no surprise to most of us. Yet the realization that we are actually living in the prophesied times does catch some members up short.
How long the institutional church has been driving on fumes, I couldn’t say. “Why” is a matter for deeper analysis at another time. I recall President Benson's repeated warnings that the Lord has placed the Church under condemnation, and that "this condemnation has never been lifted." More recently President Hinckley shrugged it off with “we don’t need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we've already received.” Others have suggested that God is withholding further light because the church has rejected the pure gospel as Jesus prophesied (3rd Nephi 16) was likely to occur in His future church.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to come up with any instances where the church as a body has seen any bona fide revelations for a very long time.
So here’s the $64,000 question: If you told an investigator that the salient thing about our church is that we have a Prophet who receives modern revelation, what specific revelation could you cite if he asked to see a recent example?
The following is a not-so-imaginary conversation that the venerable J.J. Dewey put forward in his fascinating analysis, Infallible Authority:
Where’s The Revelation?
“It is interesting to talk about the principle of revelation with a current LDS member. It often goes something like this:
Voice of Common Sense (VCS) "So you believe in modern revelation?"
LDS Member: "I certainly do."
VCS: Where can I find one of these revelations?
LDS Member: "There's lots of revelation. You don't have to look very hard."
VCS: "Great. I'd like to read just one. Could you show it to me?"
LDS Member: He pulls out his D&C and shows him Section 76. "Here's a good one."
VCS: "But this was given 170 years ago in 1832. That doesn't seem very recent to me. I want to see one of these modern revelations you have been telling me about."
LDS Member: "There's lots of revelation given out in general conference twice a year and others in the Ensign magazine."
VCS: "I see you have a stack of Ensigns over there, many with conference reports. Could you point out a revelation in one of them for me?"
LDS Member: "It's not difficult to do. Revelation is on almost every page."
VCS: "But could you show me just one?"
LDS Member: "Read a couple paragraphs in almost any conference report and you'll see revelation."
VCS: "But I'm interested in what you call a revelation. Could you show me just one?"
LDS Member: He becomes agitated and gives a look that tells VCS that he must be slow mentally. "Pick up any issue and just read!" he says with exasperation.
VCS: He picks up an issue and turns to a page giving the text to a speech by the President of the Church. "I'm reading a speech by the one you call the Prophet, Seer and Revelator, but I can't see any prophesies, seer-ship or revelation.”
LDS Member: "Look again. There's inspiration in every paragraph."
VCS: "Everything sounds pretty ordinary to me, things that could be said by a Methodist leader who does not believe in revelation. For instance, here he is telling members to present a good example to the world. The Methodists say things like that."
LDS Member: He grabs the Ensign out of his hand and reads further into the text. "This is all inspired. Here the Prophet is pointing out the phenomenal growth the church has had and the hand that God has played in it. The church has grown so fast because it’s guided by revelation."
VCS: "So if growth is evidence of revelation, does that mean that Fox News is guided by a prophet getting revelation also? Fox News has also had phenomenal growth."
LDS Member: "Don't be ridiculous!"
VCS: "Well, can you show me a current revelation about the growth of the church?"
LDS Member: He impatiently flips his finger on the article and says: "Open your eyes. It's right here."
VCS: He takes another look. "I don't see any message here that claims to be from God relating to the growth of the church."
LDS Member: "How about this then? Later in the article he talks about the building of temples. They are sprouting up all over the world. The sites were picked by revelation, the growth and building done by revelation and when built they are directed by revelation."
VCS: "Show me one of these revelations."
LDS Member: "The prophet is talking about it in the article right in front of your face."
VCS: "Please point to the line that is the revelation." He hands the member the Ensign.
LDS Member: He throws the magazine on the table in disgust: "The whole thing is revelation. Open your eyes!"
VCS: :"But show me just one thing. One sentence."
LDS Member: "I have, but you won't listen."
VCS: "One Mormon told me that revelation is preceded by a 'thus saith the Lord,' like the Bible prophets used. I've listened to a number of Conference addresses and have never heard an authority use this term. I do not see the phrase anywhere in this article we are talking about."
LDS Member: "The prophet doesn't have to say 'thus saith the Lord.' He can just speak under inspiration."
VCS: "So how can you tell when he's giving a revelation and when he is just speaking as an ordinary guy?"
LDS Member: "It's just obvious when you hear it."
VCS: “I read a statement by a general authority that no member is to accept a revelation for the church unless it is presented to the church as a revelation and then voted on by the members. I believe it was Mark E. Peterson who said this. Now I do not see any evidence that this speech by the President has been presented to the church as a revelation. Wouldn't this imply that this and other talks from conference reports are to just be taken as teachings in the same way that the words of Methodist leaders are taken by their members?”
LDS Member: "Let me assure you there is revelation in conference addresses even though they are not voted on."
VCS: "What is a revelation anyway?"
LDS Member: "It is God speaking to someone here on earth."
VCS: "Would you say that a revelation is something that is revealed? In other words, something that was previously unknown?"
LDS Member: "I suppose"
VCS: "Suppose God himself were to tell us that 2+2=4. This would not be a revelation because we already know it. You can't reveal something that is already revealed. Does this sound right to you?"
LDS Member: "I suppose."
VCS: "In section 76 that you pointed to earlier, it was revealed to Joseph that there were three kingdoms of glory along with information about them. Provided that he did receive this from God, then this would qualify as a revelation, would it not?"
LDS Member: “Yes.”
VCS: "But, if you gave a talk in Sunday school merely talking about what is in this revelation, this would not be a new revelation, for the doctrine is already revealed. Do you agree?"
LDS Member: "I suppose. Where are you going with this?"
VCS: "By the same reasoning then, even if the President of the Church teaches from revelations past, he would not be giving new revelations. Correct?"
LDS Member: "That may be true, but we are told new things all the time."
VCS: "Tell me just one."
LDS Member: "You were just reading about the building of new temples."
VCS: "And Bill Gates just built a new home, but that doesn't make him a prophet, now does it?"
LDS Member: "You can't compare Bill Gates to the Prophet and Temples."
VCS: "I just did. Now we agreed that a revelation is something revealed that was previously unknown. Tell me of one revelation in recent history, say the past 50 years, giving the church new knowledge."
LDS Member: "I'm sure there are lots of them."
VCS: "I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here, but can you tell me just one?"
LDS Member: "The brethren recently placed a revelation to Joseph F. Smith of the spirit world into the standard Works."
VCS: "But, again, this is over 80 years old. Can you give me a modern revelation?"
LDS Member: "In 1978 a revelation was received on giving the Priesthood to blacks."
VCS: "So where is this revelation?"
LDS Member: "It's right here in the D&C."
VCS: "That does not even claim to be a revelation. It merely states that it is a letter. Where is the revelation?"
LDS Member: "It says right here that 'He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood.'"
VCS: "Yes, it does say there was a revelation, but where is the revelation?"
LDS Member: "You're looking at it."
VCS: "I'm looking at a letter saying that there was a revelation. A letter saying there was a revelation is not a revelation. My question is where is the actual revelation?"
LDS Member: "If the Brethren say this is the revelation then that is good enough for me."
VCS: "But the brethren do not say this. They merely say this is a letter which mentions the revelation. Hasn't it been the policy of the church to have revelations binding upon the church to be put in writing as Joseph Smith did?"
LDS Member: "Things can change as the Lord directs.”
Summary: This poor fellow thinks he sees revelations creeping out of every rock, but cannot produce even one. Someone not familiar with the LDS Church would most likely consider this dialogue imaginary, that such a person believing in ephemeral, illusive revelation could not exist in the real world. But such is not the case. There are millions of such LDS members, thinking they see revelation when none is even claimed.”
“Why is this belief in something that cannot be demonstrated or produced so strong and pervasive when no modern written revelations are even in existence?”
“It is because ‘modern revelation’ is a core doctrine of the church, the "rock" upon which it is founded. If members admit that none exist then it would force them to consider that perhaps something is amiss.”
Perhaps Something Is Amiss
I know what it is like to feel the burning of the Spirit. Connie and I experience it frequently, and when it happens, the feeling is both undeniable and indescribable. We have been privileged to experience that glorious witness more and more frequently as time goes on.
I would have thought that if there were any time I should expect to feel the spirit of The Lord in such overpowering abundance, it would have happened while I was listening to a speaker during the General Conference of The Lord’s Church.
Frankly, conference weekend is an all too familiar routine. The Saturday morning session will end without my receiving much of anything in the way of spiritual sustenance. So, I tell myself, surely there will be more meaningful presentations during the afternoon session. Then that comes and goes without anything of import, so I assume the Prophet is saving his big sermon for the next day. Sunday morning, same as Saturday. Later that afternoon before I know it, the prophet is giving his conventional closing remarks, conference is over, and all I feel is relief for having endured it once again.
To be sure, much of what is covered in general conference is useful and of certain value. It never hurts to be reminded of gospel basics or that there may be areas in our lives where we could use some improvement. But don't we invariably receive deeper and more lasting illumination through private study, prayer, and meditation on our own? Truth be told, little of value is presented in conference today that is not also proclaimed through other Christian venues, and often in timbres less stultifying. Sometimes after Conference I can't help feeling that rather than sitting there vegetating in front of the television, my time could have been better spent becoming spiritually fed.
What could I do instead of watch conference? Well, since this is Easter weekend, I think I'll give another listen to Cleon Skousen's The Atonement, the talk that has had more meaning and influence in my life than any other LDS sermon ever. Joseph Smith And The Doctrinal Restoration sits on a shelf half finished; I could read some more of those essays. Also yet unread is Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God. That sounds deliciously weighty. And it goes without saying that anything I have around here by Hugh Nibley will be of great benefit to my understanding on a wealth of gospel issues.
Nothing against the men who administer the affairs of the Church, but most of them have backgrounds as lawyers and business executives. They make dandy administrators, but I've got a hankering to hear from some actual theologians.
Over the years as I have dutifully watched conference, I have been talked down to, lectured at, made to feel inadequate, and bored to tears. Sometimes I've even been inspired. But I don't recall any instance of an overwhelming spiritual witness that what I was hearing was coming directly from the mind of God. Yet that was was the purpose I was tuning in for.
If conference speakers can't exhort extemporaneously by the power of the Holy Ghost; if they are unable to capture and hold the attention of the Saints with the radiating light of Christ; If they won't give an honest accounting of Church finances; and if, year after year, conference fails to serve as a platform for disseminating revelations from God; then tell me, what in heaven’s name is the purpose of General Conference, anyway?