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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Guest Post: Inoculation

Have something to say? Anyone can submit a guest post to Modern Mormon Men. Just send us an email with your post, a post title and a paragraph of introduction (on yourself).

Ben Johnson grew up in the heart of Mormon country, just outside of Salt Lake City. Given the unsophisticated nature of his palette ("what's a filet?") he was sent to Denver on his mission, where he grew to love even more types of cereal. Post-mission Ben broke his mother’s heart by attending and, *gasp*, graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. Whether he does anything with that degree is another matter. Determined to prove that the system works, Ben met his future wife Katti in a single’s ward. It was nothing like the movie. Ben currently lives just outside Salt Lake City with his beautiful wife and two cereal-eating kids, Elizabeth "Chuck" (8) and Jacob (6). If you missed them, make sure you read Ben's previous guest posts about Halloween and Ward Librarians.

…wherefore, treasure up wisdom in your bosoms, lest the wickedness of men reveal these things unto you by their wickedness, in a manner which shall speak in your ears with a voice louder than that which shall shake the earth; but if ye are prepared ye shall not fear. (D&C 38:30)

The subject of ‘inoculation’ has been on my mind recently. As I sat down to write this post I remembered that back in January my brother and I had an email conversation somewhat related to this topic. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve reproduced the email stream below in its entirety. I think it represents an honest, off-the-cuff discussion between two brothers who have encountered and dealt with what could be considered troubling aspects of church doctrine and history.

Just in case, here is a quick definition of inoculation (hat tip Times & Seasons): Inoculation refers to any proposal to systematically provide helpful and accurate information about troubling LDS doctrinal and historical issues to members of the Church so they aren’t taken by surprise when presented with such information from unfriendly sources.

Frankly, I debated whether to even write this post. In theory I am all for inoculation, but in practice I want nothing to do with it. I don’t want to be the guy who kills someone’s testimony because I can’t talk about polygamy in the right way.

In any event, the email string is below (I used brackets any time I felt like some clarification was needed). What do you think about inoculation? Should it be practiced? If so, what is the best way? I honestly don’t know and I would appreciate any thoughts people have.

From: Ben Johnson
To: Brother

I finished the Givens interviews this morning [Mormon Stories podcast with Terryl Givens]. He said something interesting as he was wrapping up. They were talking about Church history and telling the whole story. He mentioned that Marlin Jensen has done marvelous work. He also mentioned Elder Jensen saying we have a falling away in the church now that is comparable to Kirtland.

Elder Jensen is going to be emeritus this fall and some people could be worried his replacement won’t be as open with history. I think, though, that the brethren in general are OK with it so the trend should continue. Another interesting thing came out of the interview, for me anyway. The interviewer mentioned that he discovered “Answers to Gospel Questions” or “Doctrines of Salvation” on his mission and so it was a big, big struggle for him when he discovered “real” history/doctrine.

The reason that is interesting to me is because my first introduction to church history/doctrine was ATGQ and DOS and it came early on in my mission. It started me on a path of wanting to know more and to read more about the church. And I, like the interviewer, have come to realize that those weren’t necessarily the final word on things. But our reactions to it have been different. It wasn’t a crushing blow to me for some reason.

Same thing with church history. I haven’t read all 7 volumes but I feel like I have a good grasp of what they say. I’ve also read/learned about the more unsavory aspects of our history (Rough Stone Rolling, McKay biography, magic, Hofmann, polygamy, etc.) but it hasn’t blown up my world. I didn’t/don’t feel lied to or betrayed. I feel some sympathy for the church. Do you want to be the guy who gets up in general conference to talk about Joseph’s peep stones? What if you do that and 30% of the church goes inactive? Who needs that on their head?

It is tough math and I don’t think it can be calculated. If you were the church would you put your troubling stuff in the corner and hope people don’t find it (and go AWOL)? Or do you preach it from the pulpit like it is no big deal and hope people really think it is NO BIG DEAL?

Mormon Stories did a podcast with Daniel Peterson and he said that if you make it to your 50th birthday without knowing Joseph had multiple wives it is your own fault. I think he’s onto something here, though I would sympathize a little bit with some of those types of people. Peterson said the church isn’t hiding any of this stuff and I think technically that’s true. The church won’t prevent you from finding it out, but neither will they announce it at general conference. However you can go to Deseret Book and buy a book that will tell you about it.

So, I think when people say that the church lied to them they really mean that in seminary/institute/gospel doctrine/general conference they never heard Joseph had extra wives. You can find out anything you want on your own. I sometimes complain that the Ensign is too bland or the manuals don’t give me meat but I’m not sure how much of that is for the church to do. Who knows, it’s obviously complicated. Like I asked before, does a brand new member in Chile need to know the same things about our history as a guy who has been in the church for 30 years does?

Maybe none of us do. I keep having this thought in the back of my mind: if I died BEFORE I picked up a copy of Doctrines of Salvation would I be saved? How about if I died before I found out Joseph had wives? My point is the guy in Chile and the guy who has been in the church for 30 years can both be saved if they believe in Jesus, do good works, etc.

This is long but there you go.

From: Brother
To: Ben Johnson

I noticed that I haven’t responded.

I caught something that Givens said about polyg@my [I work for a company with strict email filters. We have to be creative when typing some words]. He said that it was either ‘commanded or allowed to happen’ in the early church. I have a hard time thinking that it was ‘allowed’. In other words, that Joseph came up with it on his own and the Lord just let it happen. In my mind, the only way pgy makes sense is if it was commanded by God. I find it comforting that Givens says we’ll never practice it again. I don’t want to participate in it. Obviously Givens doesn’t declare doctrine, but there must be a solid basis for his opinion.

From: Ben Johnson
To: Brother

I’ve listened to six or eight podcasts on Mormon stories and the interviewer’s worldview comes through on each one. I’ve never heard his story in his own words but I’ve been able to piece together that he grew up in the church, did a mission, etc. At some point he realized that there were some unflattering aspects of church history and he felt betrayed. I think he went a bit farther than most in he has become a bit agnostic; how could God let evil exist in the world, how could God wipe out entire cities in the Old Testament, etc. Maybe agnostic is too strong a word.

I’ve read two of Givens’ books and I’ve even heard him speak at a fireside but I had no idea (until this interview) how smart he is. He’s on another planet.

Having said that, though, I can’t go all the way with him on some of his ideas. Like p0lyg@my. I agree with you. I don’t think Joseph came up with it one day. The record seems to support that it was revealed to him pretty early and he had to be pushed into practicing it on a larger scale. I think if we keep in mind the Victorian sensibilities of Joseph’s time we can better understand why it was such a mess. Look at our day. We aren’t prudes by any stretch of the imagination and yet p0lyg@my is viewed with horror.

So answer me this: in your life I’m assuming you had the same upbringing I did as far as doctrine and church history. At some point you probably found out that there were “two” church histories. Did you just shrug it off? Does it bother you?

I think I probably found out on my mission, and then more so when I got home, that there were problems with some accounts of church history. It didn’t really bother me though. I never felt lied to because I figured I was on my own to find out whatever I wanted.

From: Brother
To: Ben Johnson

I get the impression that the interviewer is more of a ‘liberal’ or ‘loose interpretation of Mormonism’ type Mormon. I can see where he’s coming from, but if I were that type of Mormon I wouldn’t waste my time or my 10%. I don’t think you can be that type of Mormon and believe it’s true.

I’m reminded of an article I read several years ago that was linked to on CB [Cougar Board]. It was an article about some single Mormons in the DC area and it featured prominently a single young woman (late 20’s or early 30’s I think) who was pretty critical of the Church on its prudish stand on s3x and some other stuff. During the article she was being quite critical of the Brethren and some of the Church’s teachings. At the very end of the article the interviewer asks “So why do you keep going to the Mormon Church?” She responded: “Because it’s true.”

That was a bit of an eye opener to me. She was quite critical of many aspects of the Church, and I thought “you obviously must not think the Church is true.” But when she said that it was, I was kind of shocked. It made me think ‘There must be something real there (in the Church) when a person can be so critical and divergent from the Church’s teachings, and yet still think it’s true.’

Typing an e-mail is a hard way to have a long detailed conversation about this. But I’ll say this, to answer your question about two church histories: it has been a slow realization, not a sudden impact thing. Although, there have been a few ‘gut punches’ I can remember. I remember as a kid sitting in mom and dad’s living room. I had heard, or the TV had just said, that JS had multiple wives. I thought this was anti-Mormon bilge. I asked mom if JS had multiple wives and she said yes. I felt sick to my stomach. I must have been 8 or 9 or 10.

On my mission I came to realize that callings and inspiration aren’t as simple and clear cut as I was taught growing up. I served in the office and saw my mission president give some bad advice or make mistakes in companion assignments. I really like my mission president and I think he’s a great man, but it was an eye opener to see behind the curtain. The same thing can be said when I was Ward Clerk and Exec Sec and sat in on Bishopric meeting. It’s more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants than is taught generally.

I don’t go looking for anti stuff on the web, but I’ll come across something and then I’ll go find an answer on an apologetics site like FAIR or FARMS or some such. You remember the Mormon stories interviewer telling Givens that often times an explanation is more of a ‘reasonable doubt’ defense rather than a satisfying explanation? I think have come across some of those, but then I will find something more solid somewhere else.

There may be some things I haven’t found satisfactory explanations for, but I can’t remember them right now. My attitude has been a ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’ type defense. If the Church came from a false premise, or is a fraud, then it wouldn’t be the force for good that it is now. Certainly there are imperfect people in it, but the Church is a very solid, pretty much scandal free institution that teaches how to live a good life with members who are generally very upstanding individuals. If it were a fraud it would be more like Sc1ent0logy, and it isn’t.

Oh, one last thing. The older I get, the more I realize that what is actual ‘doctrine’ is much smaller than I thought. For example, many things that Bruce R taught are wrong, but people treat (or used to) them as doctrine: blacks will never receive the priesthood (proven false), evolution is a deadly heresy (not the Church’s position), blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence (not doctrine), Catholic church is wh0r3 of the earth, etc.

You read the McKay bio right? Remember the stuff about Benson and his intermingling of Bircher politics with gospel doctrine, even during GenCon? That furthered my opinion that not everything the Brethren say is binding doctrine.

It’s a delicate balance to swing away from “all the words from the Brethren are binding doctrine” and not swing too far and end up with “I don’t need to follow anything they say".

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