In my entry last month, I told of being present among a group of strangers who wondered why Mormon missionaries dressed in a way that made them seem distant and aloof to to the very people they're apparently trying to reach.
This is a legitimate concern for many of our own members, as witnessed by the many comments following that piece. If we want our message heard, why are we dressing our boys in a manner that makes them seem so oddly formal and unapproachable?
One anonymous poster, however, expressed the contrary opinion that by putting people off, the suit and tie look was actually accomplishing its purpose. This particular response has so bothered me that weeks later that letter is still stuck in my craw and keeping me awake at night.
Our missionaries dress formally, this reader insists,
"To show respect for the message & mantle they carry. The Church is not out to win a popularity contest, just to find the few who are ready for the truth.”
"But most people are not ready for the truth, & thus it mattereth not what they think about us.”
I've read those sentences over and over again, and I’m still scratching my head. If it mattereth not what others think about us, why does church headquarters maintain an expensive public relations department in an attempt to make us more popular with the gentiles? What about this new series of ads that is geared to assure all the non-members out there that we Mormons are just plain regular folk?
I recently asked a couple of missionaries here in Sacramento how that look was working for them these days. One replied, “We still get the occasional frumpy cat lady who lets us in.”
I am not opposed to the various public relations projects the church has developed over the years. During the Winter Olympics the church was very successful in getting a lot of really good press. That period was a major coup for church PR. That’s because every single one of the hundreds of members of the media who converged on Salt Lake City for the Olympics was given an employee from the church Public Relations department who stuck to them like glue every minute of every day. If Mormons didn't win the popularity contest it was only because there was no room for any other entrants.
I wonder if this commenter realizes how odd it is to defend the stuffy missionary uniform on the grounds that we’re only looking for that rare gentile who's gutsy enough or crazy enough to strike up a conversation with one of our nerdy looking reps. In her zeal to defend the policy, I believe she missed the bigger truth.
Should We Be The Light, Or Just Do As We’re Told?
I have to tell you the part of this reader's comment that really floored me. After stating that it is not only non-members who dislike Mormons, the reader closed with this sentence:
“Most all members of the Church quickly come to dislike & try to avoid or persecute the few rare members who really live the Gospel, for they make them uncomfortable & cause them to feel guilty.”
Did you just read what I did?
According to this person’s experience, most all members of her own church -fellow Mormons!-dislike, avoid, or even persecute the few rare members who really live the gospel! And why is that? Because the ones living the gospel make everybody else feel uncomfortable!
What an awful ward she must live in.
My experience, and I’m sure yours too, has always been the exact opposite. It's been my observation that Latter-day Saints who really live the gospel of Jesus Christ tend to make the people around them feel extremely comfortable because they have within them the light of Christ. They tend to be open, caring, and non-judgmental. People really living the gospel of Christ have a knack for helping everyone in their presence feel lifted up, encouraged, and comfortable.
When I'm in the presence of such individuals, guilt and discomfort are not what I feel. Love and acceptance would be better descriptors.
And such individuals aren’t all that rare, either. There’s one of them in my bed right now.
I Married An Angel
I used to wonder at Connie’s remarkable penchant for attracting others to her. What was her secret?
Easy. She simply loves and accepts everyone within radar distance without bias or judgment of any kind. She just really lives the gospel.
Which is actually pretty effortless, by the way. All you have to do is let go and let yourself BE. As I wrote previously in my essay What Do I Mean By "Pure" Mormonism, if you practice allowing yourself to experience sincere, infinite love for every soul you come in contact with, pretty soon it will become second nature. You already are a loving, divine, spirit being of light. It really doesn’t take much effort to get back in touch with your true self. And once you do, you'll always be in direct communication with the spirits inherent in everyone around you. That's how it works. Spirit touching spirit. Light touching light.
But I suspect none of this is what my anonymous commenter thinks of when she writes about the negative reaction one should expect to find if one tries to really live the gospel.
Rather than simply emulating Christ and allowing His light to shine within them, some in the church seem to define “living the gospel” as a desperate race to obey all the rules of the institutional Church. This counterfeit gospel keeps the membership focused on their shortcomings; constantly worried about what they should or should not be doing, they're motivated by the fear that what they're doing is never enough, rather than allowing themselves to simply be who they really are: Sons and Daughters of the Light. (If you're stuck in one of these ruts, I recommend Brother Stephen Robinson's Believing Christ as the book to help get you unstuck.)
What's worse is when such persons think of themselves as somehow having been called to arbitrate the sins of others. They then busy themselves with supervising -that is, finding fault with- those who are not as up to speed as they are.
These types live by a checklist of accomplishments necessary to prove to themselves and others that they are “living the gospel.” There's nothing wrong with efforts at self-improvement, of course. And service to others becomes automatic when living in the spirit because as Paul reminds us, if we don't have charity we have nothing. Charity along with service is the essential quality often missing. You can check off a list of assignments you've completed from here to eternity and still never really live the gospel.
Attend all your meetings? “Check.”
Go to the temple regularly? “Check.”
Keeping up on your genealogy? “Check.”
Magnifying your callings? “Check.”
Paying a full tithe? “I pay double tithing, just to make sure.”
“Hey, I told you I pay double tithing. I can't help everybody.”
Then there’s that all important big question: "Do you live the Word of Wisdom?" As we all know, whether one of our own is following this one to the letter -and beyond- is the only sure way to determine that a member of the church is truly, surely, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent, really, really, really living the gospel. It's the primary indicator of one's righteousness. There is no greater measurement.
Just don’t ask them if they follow the entire Word of Wisdom, though, or you’ll confuse them. You know what I mean, the main parts of section 89, where the Lord charges us to make sure most of what we eat is fresh fruits and vegetables. Not to mention how we ought to practice at least some moderation in the amount of of meat we ingest.
Lucky for us hypocrites, we can usually tell if a fellow Saint is living the full word of Wisdom simply by looking at the shape of his body. If he looks anything like me or Thomas S. Monson, he's probably a backslider.
|This guy is probably not living the full word of wisdom...|
|...But then again, neither is this guy.|
My Wife The Chick Magnet
I used to believe that perfect church attendance was the key indicator of one’s righteousness, but I don’t see things that way anymore. My wife Connie hasn’t been well enough to attend church for almost three years now, yet somehow she doesn't seem to be losing any of her light.
This past summer, I was concerned that Connie wasn’t getting enough sunshine, cooped up inside as she is most days. So I set up a lounge chair on the front porch so she could spend a half hour a day soaking up some vitamin D. One by one, several neighbor women wandered over to chat with her until there was a group of half a dozen ladies surrounding her and acting like being with her was some big happy reunion. It's like that every time. People are drawn to Connie. They miss her when they don't see her, and they can't stay away from her when she draws near.
By the way, one of our neighbors is an inactive LDS, yet she does not appear to feel the least bit guilty or uncomfortable around Connie. Go figure that one out.
In The End, Only Kindness Matters
I can name you several prominent Latter-day Saints who were early influences on me growing up, all of whom you would consider examples of men who really lived the gospel. Ask yourself if you think any of these men would be thought of as making other Mormons feel guilty or uncomfortable in their presence:
W. Cleon Skousen.
David O. McKay.
If you were to distill every character trait these men are known for -their intellect, their humor, their patience and love toward their fellow beings- into one word, the word I would use that would best describe each of them would be “kindness.” Not guilt. Not discomfort. Just simple kindness.
In the case of President McKay, one particular act of kindness on his part may have backfired on the church and affected things for the worse for decades after. In fact, I believe that this one simple act of charity ultimately led to a climate in the church which enabled some members like my anonymous reader to confuse living the gospel with clinging to a rigid orthodoxy.
Who's In Charge Here?
One day in 1958, it was brought to President McKay’s attention that Bruce R. McConkie, a relatively new member of the First Council of the Seventy, had taken it upon himself to write and publish a book purporting to be the definitive word on all matters of LDS doctrine.
The book bore the authoritative title Mormon Doctrine, and it’s unexpected appearance troubled President McKay a great deal, for since the time of Joseph Smith it had been the unique province of the president of the church to define the doctrine of the church. McConkie had neither consulted President McKay on his intentions nor presented the manuscript to him or anyone else for approval. The book’s arrival in Deseret bookstores had come as a complete surprise to the Prophet.
McConkie’s effusive preface to his own book boasted that it was “the first major attempt to digest, explain, and analyze all of the important doctrines of the kingdom” and that “never before has a comprehensive attempt been made to define and outline...all of the basic principles of salvation...”
There was just one problem with McConkie’s new book. Actually there were a lot of problems with the book. President McKay had asked apostles Mark E. Peterson and Marion G. Romney to examine it for possible errors and report back. Ten months later Peterson returned with a list of one thousand and sixty-seven outright errors and entries where it was felt McConkie presented doctrine that was either false, misleading, or just plain iffy.
President McKay called Bruce McConkie into his office and gave him a rare dressing down. In addition to McConkie’s violation of church policy and scripture as established by the Lord in D&C 28:2, McConkie had placed the prophet and the church in an extremely awkward situation. Because the error-filled book was becoming a popular reference among the general membership of the church, McKay felt the church should issue a formal repudiation and distance the church from the book and it’s author. On the other hand, he did not wish to embarrass Elder McConkie, and was concerned that a public repudiation might lessen McConkie’s influence as a General Authority.
The church would be better off today if the prophet had followed his first instincts.
Ultimately, President McKay extended to McConkie an undeserved kindness. It was decided to let the matter lie, as long as Elder McConkie promised not to re-publish the book, even in corrected form. McConkie promised the prophet that he would not republish it.
It was a promise he did not keep.
I bought my copy of Mormon Doctrine in 1971, printed a year after President McKay’s death. Of course I was unaware of the private controversy surrounding it. The book became a runaway bestseller in the church and it’s declarations were considered by one and all to be the definitive word on all questions of LDS doctrine. I carried my copy to church with me every Sunday, whipping it out during priesthood meeting to prove my position the way an Irishman pulls out The Guiness Book of World Records to settle a bar bet.
Changing Of The Guard
The reason all this matters is that David O. McKay and Bruce R. McConkie had immiscible views regarding the complexities of Mormon thought and how the church should be governed. Like Joseph Smith, President McKay did not view Mormonism as rigidly dogmatic, so an attempt to compartmentalize LDS teachings into a granite-hard set of "doctrines" seemed needlessly divisive and might even be detrimental. McKay held that Mormonism is a broad tent with room beneath it for a wide spectrum of beliefs. All individuals are entitled to travel their own perfect path in life. To President McKay, the doctrine of free agency was of paramount importance over just about every other teaching.
Elder McConkie,on the other hand, was more like a strict Calvinist whose philosophy could best be expressed in the phrase, “My way, or the highway.” In McConkie's view, Mormonism required it's adherents to jump through an endless set of hoops laid out in a careful and orderly sequence. McConkie expected church members to toe the line, a line that was drawn in the sand by men in authority such as himself. Ordinary members were inferior in rank to the General Authorities who the Lord had placed over them to keep them on the straight and narrow.
Two years after the death of President McKay, Elder McConkie was ordained an apostle, and due largely to his reputation as the author of what many assumed was the Official Church Reference Book, he soon became the de facto expert on all questions relating to scripture and doctrine. His interpretations are the ones you see on the chapter headings in all our Standard Works. He authored two influential series of books, the three volume Doctrinal New Testament Commentary and a six volume series entitled The Messiah.
David Buerger has written that the sources that are most frequently cited by McConkie as authority for his interpretational positions are other works authored by McConkie himself. McConkie justified this unprecedented hubris by explaining, "I would never quote another man unless I could first square what he said with the scriptures and unless he said what was involved better than I could."
Over time, drastic changes to church government and policy were instituted, some even inimical to traditional practices. Where Joseph Smith had taught that the members were expected to govern themselves through the gift of the Holy Ghost, they were now being taught to depend upon the church hierarchy for continual guidance and instruction. A top-down program known as "correlation" was introduced church-wide to ensure uniformity of teaching and conformity of thought. Since the earliest days of the church, one of the primary pieces of business at General Conference was the annual accounting of how and where the tithing monies had been spent. Suddenly it was decided that those contributing the money need not be privy to that information. Where President McKay had emphasized free agency and tolerance as fundamental to the Mormon faith, the 1970's and '80's introduced a more rigid orthodoxy. Obedience to authority was fast becoming the first principle of the gospel.
Of course, the church was still full of members who continued living the gospel as they had traditionally been taught, by drawing on and emulating Christ; but more and more old timers found themselves looking back wistfully to the more libertarian administration of David O. McKay. Those creating policy may have been trying to tighten control at the top, but the general membership was not always quick to come on board. Most never noticed the sometimes subtle changes in policy and direction. To the average member, "the church" was still the Body of Christ, that aggregate of everyday Saints that made up the total membership. They hadn't gotten the memo that they now belonged to "The Church," a monolithic institution owned and run by a legal corporation duly registered with the state. So they plodded on, continuing to teach and live the gospel as they always had.
One of these gentle souls was a teacher in the BYU Religion department by the name of Eugene England. Brother England was a brilliant Mormon scholar with a pleasant disposition and an unparalleled ability to distill and convey many of the more complex principles of the restoration. He was arguably the most popular teacher ever to come out of the Church Education System, beloved not only by the students and faculty, but also by all who came in contact with him. England was said to personify the light of Christ; he radiated love and good will. A common description of him was that here was a man who was truly Christ-like.
It was probably inevitable that he and Bruce McConkie would eventually bump heads.
In 1966, recognizing a need for an independent forum for the free-flow of ideas central to Mormon thought, Eugene England and another Mormon scholar founded an academic quarterly publication they named Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. It was to be a forum where interested members of the church could discuss Mormon culture, history, theology, literature, science, you name it. President McKay recognized the usefulness of such unfettered dialogue within the church, for official Church publications weren't always appropriate channels for open dialogue between members.
However, things were beginning to change by the 1980's.
In most corporate cultures there are the managers at the top who hand down decrees, and those below who gather around the water cooler to discuss those fiats. As the LDS church hierarchy appeared to be acting more inclusive and detached from the general membership, letters and articles began to appear in Dialogue asking what the heck was going on upstairs. Dialogue was becoming the Mormon print version of the water cooler.
In some organizations, the High Mucky-Mucks don't like seeing the Mundanes gathered around the water cooler if they can't control the discussion. They prefer to break it up and get everyone get back to work. By the 1980's, rumbling sounds were coming from some Church administrators in opposition to "unauthorized" publications such as Dialogue and its sister Magazine, Sunstone.
Some letter writers to dialogue were showing signs of actual disaffection with the Church, but Eugene England reminded his readers that the leadership of the church were only humans with human shortcomings like the rest of us. We should love them and pray for them. And he encouraged all to stay within the church where they were needed and they belonged.
Aesop tells a fable about the Sun and the Wind arguing between themselves over which of them was the more powerful. They looked down and saw a man walking down the road below. The Wind challenged the Sun to see which one of them could get the man's coat off. The Wind went first, blowing great powerful gusts in repeated efforts to blow the coat clean off of the man. But it wasn't working. The more the wind blew, the tighter the man wrapped the coat around himself. Eventually the wind gave up, exhausted and out of breath.
Then it was the Sun's turn. Slowly at first, the Sun directed its radiant warmth toward the man, increasing the heat little by little until eventually the man removed his coat of his own volition. Aesop's moral: Kindness effects more than severity.
It could be said that in some people's eyes, Eugene England demonstrated the characteristics of gentle persuasion while Bruce McConkie has been described as an arrogant blowhard. Some have surmised that McConkie was jealous of the veneration England so effortlessly garnered from BYU students and faculty, a popular acceptance that seemed always beyond McConkie's reach. McConkie received the respect due him because of his rank and office, but I never heard anyone describe him as likable. Usually you hear quite the opposite.
Whatever the deal was, McConkie took the opportunity to chastise Eugene England in a ten page letter rebuking England for espousing a relatively innocuous point of doctrine that had been taught by Brigham Young but which McConkie disagreed with. "It is my province," he wrote, "to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent."
Of course, McConkie had been charged with no such commission, other than that which he had bestowed upon himself in his own mind. He had, in fact, once been called on the carpet by a prophet of God for displaying this very type of hubris.
Eugene England did not respond in kind, preferring in his usual way to quietly let things be. But McConkie had sent copies of his letter to a handful of other people. Those copies found their way around the so-called "Mormon Underground" much to McConkie's embarrassment, as the letter showed him not only to be a petty tyrant, but also that he personally believed that God allows the Mormon Prophets to teach false doctrine from time to time.
When Eugene England died in 2001, the outpouring of love for this tender soul was unlike anything I had seen since the passing of David O. McKay when I was eighteen. Dialogue published an entire issue filled with nothing but tributes to him; so did Sunstone. Many eulogized him for his pure love and unwavering acceptance of all who knew him. Countless stories were told of people who would have left the church had it not been for the welcome influence of this Christ-like spiritual giant.
When Bruce McConkie passed away after a year of painful pancreatic cancer, a tribute was published in the Ensign magazine. No mention was made of the number of people his prickly abrasiveness had driven from the church, but sadly there were many. Judging by his final testimony given two weeks before his death, he finally seemed to have developed the personal relationship with Christ that he had long declared anathema for others. The agonizing method of his passing was a sad and needless end for a man whose atribilious personality had kept most of his fellow Saints always at arms-length from him.
As for Mormon Doctrine, Deseret Book has recently announced that it will no longer publish or carry the book, but the reasons remain shrouded in rumor and speculation. Deseret Book claims low sales, but used book dealers report still selling them as fast as they can get them.
In their fascinating biography of David O. McKay, Gregory Prince and and William Wright conclude that Mormon Doctrine "became one of the all-time bestsellers in Mormondom, achieving the near-canonical status that McKay fought unsuccessfully to avoid, and setting a tone of doctrinal fundamentalism antithetical to McKay's personal philosophy that remains a legacy of the church to this day."
Follower Of Christ, Or Fan Of The Pharisees?
I admit to feeling legitimately concerned for the anonymous reader who left those odd comments on my blog last month. I'm bothered that she has confused loyalty to the institution with love of the gospel. She readily excuses the failures of the institution by deciding that well, we don't really care about those people who don't care about us. To her, those other people "mattereth not."
But I'm even more concerned about her assumption that members who live righteously should expect to be ostracized by their fellow Saints. If her own experiences have taught her that it is natural and expected to be avoided, to be disliked, and to be persecuted for her piety, I would hope that she would allow herself a bit of circumspection. If she is experiencing such reactions from fellow believers, it is not because she is living the gospel. It's because she is becoming a Pharisee.