Let’s be honest: from time to time you want to dig out that old baseball bat in the back of your closet and just take a few whacks at your printer. It won’t talk to your network. It won’t print on the right size paper. Ink costs about half a car payment. So you by cheapo ink in a refilled cartridge, but your printer … won’t recognize it. I’m surprised printers don’t come with a currency input scanner. “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t print that page … but if you put in a twenty, I’ll try again.” So I finally ditched my ink-sucking printer on Saturday night and bought a laser printer at my local Staples. I priced toner cartridges: about the same price as a pack of ink. I walked out the store a happy man.
This Is A Manual? So then I had to install the thing. No such thing as plug and play for a printer. Once upon a time you got an actual instruction manual with a device or appliance, that would say something like “With a Phillips screwdriver, screw in the four one-inch screws, one at each corner of the main cover.” Now you get a poster-sized fold-out chart full of pictures that bear some slight resemblance to the device or appliance you just purchased, but with no words. Yes, someone in Spain or Pakistan could use this wordless chart as well as I could, but the problem is it doesn’t really make much sense to any of us.
As an experienced Mormon blogger, I knew exactly what was going on: Correlation. This wordless and largely useless chart was a correlated instruction manual for installing my printer. It was supposed to be a universal document that would be useful to anyone in the world, regardless of language or education. Instead … well, with a match, it would be helpful to start a fire, but it couldn’t even get me past step one with my printer. Toner cartridge in hand, I opened the little door on the front of the printer and stared at a piece of plastic blocking the opening, not the large slot ready to accept my bulky toner cartridge. Thanks, correlated instructions.
The Internet Knows. So, like any fellow consigned to live in the 21st century, I fired up the laptop and entered my make and model number into Google. What pops up on the first page? A link titled “How to install your Brother MFC-L2710DW.” I know, a fifty-million-dollar fighter jet probably has a shorter model number than my printer, but I wasn’t complaining. That ten-minute video, which probably took all of thirty minutes for Young Tech Guy to produce, showed me exactly how to install my printer. (There was a secret button that opened an even bigger door on the front of the printer, revealing a small cavern into which my toner cartridge slid oh so nicely.) That video was about a hundred times more helpful and informative than that wordless fold-out chart that a team of technical writers probably spent a thousand hours designing.
As an experienced Mormon blogger, I knew exactly what was going on: The Internet. If you have a question about this or that (and who doesn’t?), you could spend a hundred hours in the Church History Library and come away as perplexed as when you first entered. But one hour on the Internet can give you a boatload of insight. Honestly, how did people live before the Internet? How did they find phone numbers? How did they find the closest Chinese takeout place and see whether it had two stars, three stars, or four stars? How did they get answers to gospel questions? The Internet has really been the biggest change (to leadership, a very unwelcome change) that has hit the Church in the last fifty years. It helped me install my printer. It helped you buy your last car. It answers questions about Mormon doctrine and history.
Danger, Will Robinson! You can’t believe everything you read about the Church or LDS history, or everything you see on TV, or everything you read on the Reddit, or every post on your Facebook feed, or every stupid video that comes up on YouTube. You need to develop a sense of what sites or sources are credible versus those that aren’t. You have to do some good old-fashioned book reading to develop your own knowledge base against which you can test claims made about Mormon doctrine or history. It helps to have a community you can bounce claims or questions off of to get additional feedback and other sources, whether that be a blog, a Facebook group, or even a real-life book club or study group. But it just seems beyond dispute that there is a great deal of reliable and insightful material out there on the Internet, the kind you don’t get in the manual. The truth is out there, but so is a lot of garbage. You just have to do some sifting to get the good stuff.
Mormonism: The Missing Manual. So here’s your prompt: If Mormonism had a “missing manual,” what would it be? What would it cover? Where would you buy it? I’m thinking converts have the most to offer here. It’s a common lament that the LDS “temple preparation” class does almost nothing to prepare an LDS adult for what happens in the temple. What prepares potential converts for life in the Church … missionary discussions? Not really. Life as a Mormon is sort of like on-the-job training, but it can be a slow and even painful process. What you say or don’t say at the pulpit on testimony day. What you ask or don’t ask in Sunday School. What a bishop’s interview is all about. The whole bit with the grey envelopes that you sort of slyly hand off to a counselor or the bishop, like you’re quietly slipping a payoff to the local beat cop. Heck, most newbies don’t even know which door to use (because almost no one uses the front door).
Let me throw out a few titles I read as a young convert. Essentials in Church History by Joseph Fielding Smith. That was good for learning the orthodox LDS narrative, but it’s more like a hardcover manual than a work of history. The First Two Thousand Years by Cleon Skousen. Almost as entertaining as books I was reading about the same time by Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Of the three, Asimov and Clarke are still readable. An Approach to the Book of Mormon by Hugh Nibley. Terribly impressive to a young convert. Mormon Doctrine by Elder McConkie, which no one actually read because it was in encyclopedia format, you just looked up a topic or two, which was probably just as well. Eternal Man by Truman G. Madsen. Full of speculation about the Preexistence (now called “the premortal life”), but still a good book. Madsen did a lot for Mormon Studies (before it had that name) and built bridges with a lot of non-LDS scholars.
Bottom line: There really was no “missing manual” when I was a young convert. There was no Mormonism for Dummies. There was no Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Mormonism. But there are a lot more books and journals and sites and groups and pages out there than a few decades ago. What books have converts read that filled in their Mormon gaps? What Goldilocks sites have converts visited that were just right (not too hot and not too cold). Were any official LDS materials actually helpful? Please share. (Not limited to actual converts. All are welcome to contribute.)
A no longer active blog called ‘Things of my Soul’ was really formative in helping me get comfortable with my non conformism, and validated and articulated a lot of what I was thinking. I miss that guy, but I also get that sometimes you need to give yourself a little peace from the chatter in your head.
Love this post btw.
I’d love for a theoretical manual to put in place rules for determining what is and what is not doctrine (and maybe require a majority vote? Pour one out for the doctrine of common consent). Those rules can allow for ideas, ceremonies, and beliefs to move in and out of doctrinal status, but the completely ephemeral nature of “doctrine” as it currently stands within the COJCOLDS is frustrating as it leads to this attempt to bury or contextualize embarrassing statements of previous leaders rather than be able to say that whatever they were saying was simply not doctrine. And yes, I know there are many, many problems with what I’m proposing.
It would be good if the Church produced a manual that said:
1) These are the things that are doctrine;
2) These are statements by leaders that are not doctrine;
3) We sincerely apologize for those statements that were not doctrine because we realize they have caused confusion and pain; and
4) Leaders should stick with doctrine, and should not give personal opinions on cultural aspects.
If the COJCOLDS ever gets around to producing an actual manual like the one you are suggesting, it will have to be electronic, not hard copy. That way, when we disavow previous doctrine, it’s easier to delete and say we never said that.
That bit about tithing being like “slipping a payoff to the local beat cop” really made me laugh. And I needed it this morning. Thank you.
I’m reminded of BKP’s “The Unwritten Order of Things” trying to codify the random cultural expressions of patriarchy that aren’t even official policy just…because? What could be more stressful than the idea that there are rules everyone should follow even though they’re not written down or talked about?
@Rudi Starnberg: [begin sarcasm]But Rudi, doing those things would violate the Church’s Modus Operandi (see Happy Hubby’s post here: https://wheatandtares.org/2020/07/03/modus-operandi/ )[end sarcasm].
Linking that little piece made me think — I expect that there are several posts here at W&T (and similar blogs/facebook communities/discussion groups) that would be useful in such a “Missing Manual”. It could be a fun exercise for readers and or permabloggers to compile a list of these kinds of posts/discussions that would make good entries for this manual.
Missionary discussion disclaimers would largely obviate the need for some of these manuals. For instance, after the Alma 56 Stripling Warrior story, the quote by archeologist Michael Coe: “ The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.”
Pro-truth should not be misconstrued with anti-Mormon. We LDS should be all about truth wherever it’s found. I am very frustrated with the church I love on this score.
Interesting post and comments. Thank you.
I doubt that we will ever get emphatic, clear distinctions between doctrine and practice on all issues, because I think our doctrines are still evolving. If a practice stands the test of time, then it tends to solidify into doctrine. And, conversely, what was once thought of as doctrine can be re-evaluated as practices that fit the attitudes of a past era. Notice how the Church has quietly de-emphasized McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine” in recent years.
Notions of right and wrong are related to doctrine, and it takes time for those to develop. The best example is the Church’s changing attitudes on racial questions.
I also think that the Mormon Church doesn’t have much doctrine, compared to other Churches, but what we do have can be quite distinctive (the BOM being the word of God, for example).
I recently read a book on ETB’s arch-right politics. That book quoted a letter written by J. Reuben Clark when he was in the FP, reassuring a woman who lived in Logan that she did not have to agree with ETB’s politics to be a good member of the Church, that disagreeing views among Church members are okay, and besides, the FP and the Q12 can’t agree of what is doctrine, anyway!
Russell Ballard made that point more recently during a talk he gave to missionaries in the Baltimore Mission a few years ago. He candidly said that it is very hard to get unanimous agreement among the FP and the Q12 on any important issue. I would add, what is doctrine is an important issue.
I don’t think any Church leader is ever going to say that Jesus is NOT the Christ, or that Joseph Smith did NOT see the Father and the Son. Those I would call hard and fast doctrines. But the APPLICATION of the WOW has changed over time. The Church’s handling of LGBT issues has also begun to slowly change, if not as fully or as rapidly as some people would wish.
Even the General Handbook of Instructions gives Church leaders lots of flexibility on a lot of issues.
My thinking on the idea that the church should be more specific about what is doctrine is: be careful what you ask for :). Sometimes, the mushiness of what is doctrine is actually a good thing, because it allows us to change (albeit at a glacial and frequently frustrating pace). My counter proposal would be that, instead of being super clear about what we consider doctrine, we just get more humility about what doctrine is. If we define it as our current best understanding of God, God’s will, the universe or whatever, and acknowledge that even some fundamental things can and will change, it leaves us in a much better place. Thinking about it a bit more, if we had that understanding of doctrine, I would be fine with them publishing a clear list of what doctrine is, because we would all have the understanding that those things aren’t immutable and could change as we learn and grow as a body of Christ.
What is LDS doctrine? We were reminded in 2013 by Elder Christofferson that not every statement made by Church leaders represents doctrine. Fair enough. But he added: “Council deliberations will often include a weighing of canonized scriptures, the teachings of Church leaders, and past practice. But in the end, just as in the New Testament Church, the objective is not simply consensus among council members but revelation from God. It is a process involving both reason and faith for obtaining the mind and will of the Lord.”
I was taught growing up that the difference between our church and other churches was that our prophet received revelation to tell us God’s will, while other churches debated their doctrine. And we mocked the Council of Nicea for voting on things. How was that council different than what Elder Christofferson is describing above?
I’m not a convert (at least by Church records), but I found the Family Home Evening Resource Book from the 80s extremely helpful. My parents used it a lot in our powerful FHEs, but I found it extremely helpful as an adult as well. Despite being geared toward families with young kids, it never seemed condescending, and did as much or more for helping me come to know and understand the Spirit as anything else did in forming my testimony and conversion.
This reminds be just of bit of Bishop Bill’s recent post about members who want it all spelled out, but rather about doctrine this time instead of the law. There’s obviously a hard area where member views and official doctrine have to align, but I do appreciate the Church’s emphasis on personal revelation. Yes, you get some occasional far out views from people claiming revelation and/or sharing it when it isn’t at all true or appropriate, but I think there is also more consistency among members than many might realize.
I think the Church is counting on us to search for and fill the gaps more than we give them credit. I’d love to see an independent study of members of the Church and the specifics of specific doctrine, especially aspects that haven’t been spelled out, and see what that study yields and how consistent views are from member to member. I do think there would be quite a bit of variation, but I think members would be closer to each other than a lot of churches.
Josh h writes “How was that council different than what Elder Christofferson is describing above?”
I’ve heard similar stories, but added by some of the brethren that the Spirit, more often than not, really does offer some sense of finality, even for those who disagree with the decision right up until that witness. Additionally, discussing anything always helps me understand the situation better before a decision is made, and helps prepare me for further decisions down the road, regardless of how much the Spirit aids me. I think this a large part of “studying it out in their mind” for the brethren.
I’m torn. Reading a number of the creeds and confessions (that we all made fun of in seminary) I judge them to be difficult to change and adapt to new knowledge (hard and soft sciences, social sensitivities). On the plus side, they do allow one to “put a pin in it” and take comfort that actual theologians have studied, debated, and settled (compromised) on something definitive.
In contrast, one non-LDS theologian referred to Mormon theology as “bringing Jello to a gunfight”.
From the OP, “Danger, Will Robinson! You can’t believe everything you read about the Church . . .” and then listing several unapproved categories of information. I would add that you also can’t believe everything you read about the Church in their own manuals, websites, Gospel Library, etc. Just sayin’.
@Eli: There might be more consistency that some would expect, but I also think there is more variability than others would expect.
For example, one of the things I most remember from Knowles and Riess’s Next Mormons Survey is how many who claimed to be active temple recommend holding members also claimed to drink coffee. According to this (https://religioninpublic.blog/2018/03/29/one-in-three-mormons-have-had-coffee-recently-another-quarter-drink-alcohol/ ) it is 18% (about 1 in 5). If I recall correctly, the percentage was higher among younger members than among older generations.
In response to my comment on the Mormons & Psychology post (https://wheatandtares.org/2021/04/14/mormons-psychology/ ), Elisa claimed that “many” of their acquaintances in the Church (including some leadership) believed in giving women more authority and accepting same sex marriage, but that these opinions are kept close to the vest.
So, yes, I agree that there is probably more consistency than some might believe — especially when measured by public comments in classrooms and/or F&T and sacrament meetings, but I also wonder if there is more variation and disagreement when we look at what people say and believe and do in the privacy of their own homes.
I think this blog and the variety of comments that come through are proof you are correct, but over the years, I’ve felt this blog gives an accurate view of the varying opinions of about 20-40% of the Church (a guess based purely on experience) rather than the entire Church. I’d like to think most members I’ve met feel comfortable enough around me to be themselves, and are the same at home and at Church, more often than not. Admittedly, I could just be hanging out with a different crowd.
I’ve appreciated the writings of Matt Harris and Greg Prince who have put so many issues into a context that helps me to navigate my faith journey based on sound rational thinking. I find it helpful to see their approaches to difficult issues where they do not try to justify what should not be justified, but rather to deal with difficult issues in a straightforward and forthright manner. I cannot recommend their books highly enough.
David Ostler gives a great perspective on how we can navigate varying approaches to faith differences that exist among us.
Totally agree, MW. Greg Prince is a treasure.
For a quick broad intro to latter-day saints, I really enjoyed reading Mormonism For Beginners by Stephen Carter. It covers some history, our scriptures, some doctrines, etc. It was interesting and brief. It touches on several controversial topics (e.g. polygamy, same-sex marriage, and the role of women in the church) in an even handed way, and the illustrations were comic-like and fun.
I am afraid that a manual put out by the church would just be the 14 fundamentals of following the prophet. And that isn’t al all what we really need
I think the biggest gap between any manual that could have been put out to help people understand Mormonism and how it would function today is that the manual for society at large has shifted so much, and now the gap is great. Why some Church members insist that the world is getting *worse* while the Church stays *true* I will never know. It feels a whole lot more like the Church is staying put past its shelf life while the world is getting better in leaps and bounds.
But to answer your question, I will point to an effort I made several years ago to come up with a Devil’s Dictionary (h/t Ambrose Bierce) for Mormon terms to encapsulate what we really mean with the terms we use: https://bycommonconsent.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/mormon-jargon-2/
I love this post, Dave. Thinking of people’s experiences in individual wards, I think Max Müller’s line about religions holds true: “He who knows one knows none.” Until you’ve been in a couple of wards (or many) or at least in wards run by different bishoprics, I think it’s really hard to get a sense of what you’ve experienced is idiosyncratic and what is common across a greater part of the Church.