I’ve seen a few social media posts reacting to the July 2020 Ensign which features several articles on the “problem” of people losing their testimonies or leaving the Church and how Ensign-reading Mormons are supposed to deal with that. Apparently the standard mild Christian response (be kind, patient, and supportive; be a good example of whatever happiness or grace you think they are missing out on) isn’t enough. I confess that I don’t ordinarily read the Ensign, but today I’ll take the plunge. I’ll link each article and add a short comment on what is good and what is not so good about the discussion.
Faith crisis, doubt crisis, testimony crisis, truth crisis … is it really a crisis? This is America. People switch churches all the time. Denominational identification is a lot weaker than it used to be, with millions of Evangelicals attending megachurches without likely even knowing what denomination the enterprise or its ordained ministers are formally affiliated with. Why is it a crisis when a Mormon exits or joins another faith? We certainly don’t call it a faith crisis when a convert leaves their prior church and joins the Mormons.
But when a label enters popular culture and becomes widely recognized, it often allows people to notice and recognize something that was there all along but had somehow been missed by most of us. “Faith crisis” is such a label. It seems to function as notice to mainstream members that people actually leave the LDS Church (or choose to distance themselves from it while not formally disaffiliating) not just because of sin or because they took offense or because they are lazy but (you might want to sit down when you read this) because they have come to reject or doubt standard LDS faith claims and have done so sincerely. It is fashionable to blame the Internet for this, but I’m pretty sure it has been happening since well before the Internet. I know it’s fashionable to point to the CES Letter, but before that there was the Godmakers film and before that there was Fawn Brodie’s book and so forth. We’re just talking about it differently now, and talking about it more. The July 2020 Ensign seems to support this claim. When the Ensign is talking about faith crisis (not a topic the editors really want to talk about) you know it’s a thing. Okay, here are the articles:
Church History: A Source of Strength and Inspiration. This article is by Elder Cook of the Twelve, transcribed or adapted from a September 2018 devotional.
- What’s Good: It’s nice anytime they address LDS history directly. It’s great that two LDS historians are featured in the article, giving commentary and their own personal perspective on particular issues. It wasn’t so long ago the Church didn’t trust historians and sometimes exed them. Now there are many trained historians working for the Church doing good work and posting good material at LDS.org. Elder Cook specifically identifies “The Joseph Smith Papers, the Gospel Topics Essays, Church History Topics, and now the multivolume Saints” as evidence that the Church is doing a better job being transparent in discussing its history and doctrine. I agree those are better than most of the material put out in the past.
- What’s Bad: The first paragraph notes that “some people have even purposely misrepresented stories of the past to sow doubt” without the slightest hint or acknowledgement that part of the current problem is that the Church has purposely misrepresented stories in the past to maintain member commitment and keep people signing their tithing checks. I like the historian sidebars in the article, but the one on the Urim and Thummim is misleading and downright inaccurate. No, the U&T was not “mentioned in the Book of Mormon.” They devices used in the Book of Mormon are called interpreters. Joseph called what he dug up from the hill “spectacles.” He also used seer stones he dug up in other places. The term “Urim and Thummim” was not used for several years. It was borrowed from the Old Testament because that lends biblical credibility to the whole discussion (like we call Mormon priesthoods Aaronic and Melchizedek and we use the term Zion in many contexts). The way the U&T are actually used in the Old Testament by Israelite priests bears little resemblance to how interpreters are used in the Book of Mormon and what Joseph did with his spectacles and seer stones. Misleading and inaccurate discussions like this are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
How Can We Withstand False Teachings? This is an unsigned piece tied to an upcoming Come Follow Me section, covering Alma 30-31. It talks about Korihor. As a general rule, anytime an LDS manual or article discusses Korihor, you can count on some bizarre conclusions. You would think that a church whose founding prophet was killed by vigilantes would not have a problem rejecting vigilante action in any guise, but every Mormon discussion thinks Korhior got what was coming to him. Which is exactly what all the non-Mormons said about Joseph Smith back in the day.
- What’s Good: “Gain your own testimony” does encourage raised-in-the-Church Mormons to seriously study and ponder LDS teachings and history, and come to their own conclusion and form their own commitment. (Or not.) “We can rely on revelation” isn’t really objectionable — if God answers prayer, it seems fair to think God will enlighten one who sincerely prays to know whether this or that teaching is true, or whether joining this or that church is the right thing to do. Although LDS discussion of prayer answers seems to key on an emotional response, with just about any response meaning “yes, the LDS Church is true!” or, at worst, “keep praying until you get the right answer.” I think prayer is a garbage in, garbage out process. If you don’t put in a lot of work studying and thinking, don’t expect much enlightenment. If you do a lot of studying and thinking, you might not need prayer to arrive at your answer.
- What’s Bad: The slogan “we can remember that truth is truth.” What does that even mean? In LDS discussions, “truth” is often confused with loyalty. “Be true,” in an LDS context, isn’t saying anything about truth, it’s saying be loyal, regardless of what the facts are. Learning to differentiate truthful statements from partial truths, misleading statements, or downright falsehoods is not an easy task. They used to teach it in college. Maybe it’s just part of growing up. Let me just throw in some advice from Richard L. Bushman on the topic of LDS history, since so many LDS issues are historical ones. He said go ahead and read LDS history books and articles, but read across the full spectrum. Make sure to read several points of view, not just one side of the story. That’s not advice you’ll read in any LDS manual.
When I Felt Deceived about the Church. A signed personal piece with the subtitle “Why I left. And why I came back.” A brief summary: “I began looking into the arguments of those who had concerns about the Church. … Some of the things I read over the next two years led me to question everything about the Church. Some who go through this feel sad. They grieve for the loss of their faith. I became angry. I felt that the Church had deceived me. I wasn’t sure what was real or whom I could trust.”
- What’s Good: This seems like a sincere and straightforward account. People do read to get info about troubling issues. It does lead some people to have questions about this or that issue, or to have bigger questions about LDS faith claims in general. Concerns about who can be trusted (when those previously trusted now seem unreliable) are an understandable development. Maybe some readers who have similar concerns feel validated. Maybe the answers this writer came up with are helpful.
- What’s Bad: The article quickly jumps from truth questions, the issues this guy has, to family tensions that resulted from his inquiries. The wife is unhappy. He didn’t go through the temple with his missionary son. The Church pretty much trains people to give doubters a hard time, especially family members. Using peer pressure and family pressure to punish one who has sincere questions is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And talking to someone’s stake presidency counselor doesn’t generally produce many answers. We all know that local leadership is strong on administrative experience, short on pastoral training, and almost totally deficient in LDS history familiarity. The statement “Satan is working overtime to discredit the Lord’s Church using any means possible” suggests that anything that raises a legitimate issue is the work of the adversary. Well, no. Sometimes it’s just messy history. Sometimes it’s changing LDS positions and confusing explanations.
When Loved Ones Leave the Church. A mother struggles to know how to help her son. “My husband and I have a son who does not believe in our faith. It can be difficult to know what to do. But these Book of Mormon examples can help us find inspiration for our own families.”
- What’s Good: Most Mormon parents are going to struggle over a child’s decision to leave the Church. So are Catholic parents and Evangelical parents and Muslim parents whose children either don’t take much interest in the faith of their parents or take an active interest in a different faith. Are Mormon parents more saddened than other parents when this happens? Maybe. Hard to tell. I was just reading about a Mormon convert whose Catholic mother never got over his LDS conversion right up to the day she died. Siblings or friends ought to be a little less intrusive about the religious choices of other adults (their friend or their brother/sister) but hey, parents care about their kids. They care about their kids’ education and jobs and them finding a happy marriage or partner, and they care about their religious choices. You can’t blame a parent for caring. It’s what parents are supposed to do. It’s when parents don’t care about their kids that we should have a problem.
- What’s Bad: When the article says “ask others to help.” If you ask a trusted uncle or one friend to talk to Johnny, he could use someone to talk to, maybe that’s okay. But to recruit friends and family to give Johnny a hard time because he’s not going to church anymore, that’s not good at all. Johnny might decide friends aren’t being very friendly and neither is family. And “teach truth with clarity and fearlessness” raises a similar problem. I’d rather it said, “remember, he’s still your son and deserves your love and support.” When the opportunity presents itself and your kid is likely to listen, that’s when you can share your convictions and offer advice or encouragement. But don’t wield your testimony mallet every time Johnny comes over for dinner or visits for the holidays.
So go read one or two of the linked articles (or maybe one of the ones I didn’t link to) and tell me what you think. Helpful or not? Accurate or misleading? Would these articles help you understand a child or sibling who is leaving the Church? If you have left, would these articles help your parents or siblings or friends understand why you left, or just give them more wrong ideas?