Elder Neil L Anderson gave a talk in General Conference in 2018. He echoed a statement from Dr. Russel M Nelson (before his call as an Apostle): “My [philosophy is to] stop putting question marks behind the prophet’s statements and put exclamation points instead.”
The actual extended quote is:
Russell M. Nelson is obedient to the president of the Church, and he is baffled when he hears people ask questions like, “Is it really the will of the Lord that we do everything that President Kimball says?”Russell M Nelson, A Study in Obedience
“The Lord said, ‘Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same,’” Dr. Nelson reminds us. “My experience is that once you stop putting question marks behind the prophet’s statements and put exclamation points instead, and do it, the blessings just pour. I never ask myself, ‘When does the prophet speak as a prophet and when does he not?’ My interest has been, ‘How can I be more like him?'”
While President Nelson is still an example that an exuberance for obedience to empirically good principles inherently brings blessings, we do a disservice to E Anderson, Pres. Nelson, and even the Lord when we neglect to do our own due diligence. When we neglect to evaluate that which is taught in church and that which we hear over the pulpit in general conference, we reduce the leaders to simple talking idols. An idol doesn’t desire our engagement, our wrestling with the difficulties, or our weighing of a myriad of consequences. An idol requires nothing more than our obedience.
Can there be discomfort when things said over the pulpit aren’t accepted without question? Yes. Can people pick apart statements and sometimes assume the worst in others? Definitely. Could this statement be an example of rhetorical overstatement intensified by a generally hagiographic Liahona article? Possibly. Nonetheless, a best practices approach still seems to be to encourage our thoughtful contemplation and personal confirmation – particularly when the source holds the mantle of responsibility for the church.
One of my very favorite quotes from Pres. Chieko Okazaki came in response to an interview question on why she stayed within the church when she could have left. She responded: “I stayed because it was God and Jesus Christ that I wanted to follow and be like, not individual human beings, …and I saw them within this church.” One of the wonderful (and frustrating) things about this church is that it is filled with people that irk us and say things that are wrong, including ourselves. Nothing teaches like the frustration of dealing with real people, many of whom are also leaders. While the Lord uses many methods to teach us, perfect leaders with perfectly transmitted messages are not one of them.
Questions to Ponder:
- Is there more worth in:
Putting exclamation points behind all of the prophet’s words or
Putting question marks and personal confirmation before other punctuation?
(In either E. Anderson’s or Pres. Nelson’s context)
- Is it sometimes important to not consider when the Prophet speaks as a Prophet and just accept?
(While answering these questions, consider (and empathize with) those on the margins and/or with those affected by past doctrine/policy issues.)
- In a broader context, is rhetorical overstatement necessary in General Conference talks and similar? Are these talks usually given in a “wartime leader” context? Or is it mainly part of E. Anderson’s and Pres. Nelson’s personality to use these techniques?
(Definitely a part of Brigham Young’s oratorical style)
- Can you share examples of general conference talks in recent history (or general authorities) that inspired you with encouragement to seek earnest personal confirmation (not just a divine rubber stamp)?
- Or is that perhaps not the responsibility of a General Authority? Could their role be more like spiritual cheerleaders/testifiers, or like Pres. Oaks has mentioned about his approach before, legal counsel presenting only useful supporting evidence?