Steven Pynakker is the evangelical host of Mormon Book Reviews. He and I sat down to discuss why I started Gospel Tangents.
GT: When I went back to get my master’s degree, I quit my job, and decided to go back to school and I got a part-time job. I had a lot more time, plus I was commuting up to the University of Utah, and I got into podcasting. I decided to start my own blog. I did a little bit of blogging for about 10 years. Then, I thought, “You know what? I like this. I’m going put my name out there, and we’ll see if anybody listens.”
So, I decided to start Gospel Tangents. Let’s see, this is my fifth year, so about four and a half years ago. I should mention the name, Gospel Tangents. I had a couple of friends in college, and they were debating about whether Adam had a belly button or not, which, apparently, I didn’t know at the time, somehow related the Adam-God doctrine. I don’t know how that works. So, we were standing there talking, kind of debating this, and I don’t know that anybody even would ever know, but the one guy made the quip, “Yeah this is the Gospel Tangents class out in the hall.” I just thought that was the coolest, so that’s kind of where I got the name.
When my kids were younger, they were probably 8, 9, 10, around there. I had told them a Book of Mormon story and they didn’t know it. I was like, “You don’t know about Nephi and Laban and all that stuff?” So, I was like, “Alright, well, we’re going to make a little Book of Mormon for Kids.” Then, my 10-year-old goes, “We could sell it.” I’m like, “Nobody’s going to buy this. Are you kidding me?” But, then I thought, “Oh, Amazon has this thing where you can publish it.” I was like, we’ll sell it for $1. I was shocked. My kids drew these little stick-figure drawings. They’re not good at all, but they were what they did. The purpose was just to teach them about the scriptures, and I printed out a copy. II was shocked that people were buying these things. For $1, who cares? So, then so we did the Bible for Kids. We were like, “Oh we’re going to sell that for $3, because anybody will buy that. So, I kind of did that under the Gospel Tangents umbrella at the time. But, it was about four and a half years ago when I finally said, “I love Mormon history. I’m going to start doing this.”
 We also did a Triple Combination called “LDS Scriptures for Kids” for sale at https://amzn.to/2X4tZxX . My daughter complained there weren’t enough stories about women, so we created “Women of the Bible for Kids,” which is available at https://amzn.to/3fK0zMc .
What are your thoughts about Gospel Tangents?
Some people don’t like the academic study of the Bible and think the two are incompatible. That’s not the case with Steve Pynakker, evangelical host of Mormon Book Reviews, and myself. We’ll talk about some of the biblical stories that cause us to struggle. Does that help strengthen faith?
GT: Patrick [Mason] is one of the nicest people that you can meet, and I think he acknowledges most of the problems with Church history. I think the world of Patrick. Patrick’s a good guy. I think Patrick’s fair. But one of the things Patrick said was, there’s kind of this narrative, especially in the ex-Mormon communities of, “Hey, if you study Church history, you’re guaranteed to lose your testimony.” Patrick said, “That’s just not true. For one, I know all this stuff, and I’m a believer.” I would put myself in that category, too. It’s not a given that you have to lose your testimony. If you study the Bible. I mean, there’s lots of problems with the Bible with the Exodus story. Did Moses even exist? We’ve kind of touched on that. I’d like to get more into Biblical commentary and that sort of thing. I did that with Colby Townsend earlier, and we got into a lot more than I expected with that interview. There are lots of people who know the issues of the Bible, of the Book of Mormon, of Church history, of Mountain Meadows Massacre, that still believe. So, it just feels like a false narrative that, “Oh, if you study Church history, I’m compelled to disbelieve.” I mean, I acknowledge there’s lots of problems. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is one of the worst. I would say it is the worst chapter in Mormon history. Probably the second worst is the Mark Hofmann bombings. I think the Church is more of a victim in that, than they were in Mountain Meadows. But, if we look at the Crusades, all of us, if we’re Christians, we, in a sense, bear that terrible atrocity.
GT: There’s lots of stuff, lots of skeletons in everybody’s closet, whether you’re Muslim or Jewish. When I look at the stories of the walls of Jericho, and how the Jews, they walked around seven times and then killed every man, woman, child and animal. I mean, that’s genocide. How can we, as Christians, or Jews or Muslims, how can we defend that? That’s terrible. That’s not what Christ taught. That’s terrible. So, I don’t care who you are, if you’re a student of the scriptures, whether it’s the Bible, the Book of Mormon, whatever, you’ve got to deal with these issues.
GT: I look at Abraham. One of the most appalling things–we talk about Abraham, the father of monotheism. He was the original Moses, in a sense. The fact that he sent out his wife, Hagar and child to go die in the desert, that’s appalling to me. Then as Christians, we’ve been conditioned to say, “Oh, but God had a plan and [Issac] was supposed to be the guy, not Ishmael.” I mean, if you really look at that, I think there’s some serious spiritual problems that you have to deal with, no matter what your background is. You can still choose to believe and in some cases, it is a choice. But, I guess the Article of Faith, I’m trying to remember which one it is, “We believe all things…” Let’s see, I’m going to butcher it, now. I had it a second ago. Seek after the good things: Faith, virtue, love, charity, kindness, humility, diligence. Indeed, we follow the admonition of Paul. Seek after the good things. I’m not going to defend Abraham sending Ishmael out to die in the desert with Hagar. I’m not. To me, no Christian would do that.
GT Whether or not I have a testimony of polygamy, which I don’t, that’s just appalling behavior. There’s lots of things that every Christian, I think, if you’re a serious student of the Bible, you need to look at and come to grips with. You can’t just say, “Oh, it compels me to disbelief.” Maybe it does. If you’re happier outside of a church, I don’t want you to be miserable. You shouldn’t be miserable. Maybe Christianity is not for you. But there are a lot of good and bad things with every church, with every institution.
GT: I actually like wrestling with these dilemmas. But, it’s not for everybody. I’m sure there’s probably some people that are like, “How can he attack the story of Abraham?” But I’ve got problems with that story. I’ve got big problems.
Steve: And you should. I think that those are things that I’ve struggled with, as well. I mean, there’s many things in the Old Testament, and there’s even things in the New Testament. Even Christopher Hitchens said, “You think the Old Testament is bad, well, Jesus gave us hell,” the concept of hell. It’s like, “Oh, boy, that’s a good point, Chris, yeah, point taken.” So, that’s the thing about having a real, challenged faith. If your faith is never challenged, and your view of faith is basically what you were taught as a child, and you never wrestled with it… We should wrestle with God every day. That’s part of the faith journey. It actually strengthens us. When you’re not wrestling with him, and–you’re absolutely right about everything. He said, “You got to wrestle with that.”
What are some of the stories in the scriptures you struggle with? Do you think studying Church history is a ticket out of a testimony? If so, how do you explain all the Mormon scholars who still believe? Are faith and intellect compatible?
Good work God bless you
As Joshua Reuben Clark, Jr. famously stated: “ If we have truth, [it] cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not truth, it ought to be harmed.”
The story of Hagar deserves much more attention than it gets in Gospel Doctrine lessons. Even the brief mention in this post is a direct slight.
For Hagar did what her culture and time period compelled her to do to survive. And yet, her reward was to be tossed out into the desert with her young son.
But that is really no different than the experience of many women in the church today. They are vastly underrepresented in General Conference, which gets repeated in stake conferences and sacrament meetings. Much like tossing Hagar into the wilderness with no thought of the consequences.
If you define faith as a set of statements of fact / opinion (beliefs) that you have to assent to, then yes, there can be a lot of conflict with intellect.
If you define faith as trust in God, then I don’t see a necessary conflict.
Unfortunately, we tend to use the first definition of faith as beliefs rather than faith as trust, and it can be very hard to keep participating in a faith-as-a-list-of-beliefs Church when you can’t get your intellect to accept those beliefs but you’re supposed to do that in a temple recommend interview every two years — not to mention every Sunday.
^ those ideas aren’t my own. Credit to Brian MacLaren’s “Faith After Doubt” and Pete Enns’ “The Sin of Certainty.” Very helpful in understanding the distinction between beliefs and faith.
“Do you think studying Church history is a ticket out of a testimony?”
It was for me. It is for many others. But I acknowledge it isn’t for some TBMs.
The thing is, the Church (unlike most other Churches) is very young. It’s only 191 years old. It’s first major event (the First Vision) took place 201 years ago. So it’s relatively easy to link history to truth claims. And if the history is flawed, the truth claims are certainly questionable. There are so many simple examples:
1. multiple versions of the First Vision (history) calls into question whether Joseph Smith actually saw two separate beings: God the Father and his son Jesus Christ (truth claim).
2. source materials such as the 1769 KJV of the Bible and the 1823 View of the Hebrews (history) calls into question the truth claim that the BOM was translated (truth claim).
3. acknowledgement that Joseph Smith used a seer stone and a hat (history) calls into question that the BOM was translated from gold plates (truth claims).
4. the lack of any contemporary record of the M priesthood restoration (history) calls into question whether Peter, James, and John actually appeared (truth claim).
5. The Book of Abraham: obvious non-Abe material on papyri
6. Temple ordinances: obvious Masonic ties
7. polygamy practiced (history) before sealing powers restored (truth claim).
8. Adam-God theory (history) contradicts truth claims of LDS doctrine
9. Church’s disavowal (truth claim) of theories (truth claims) for justification of discrimination of blacks (truth claims).
I could do this all day. The history of the Church highlights how the truth claims can not be true, I take no joy in saying this.
Are faith and intellect compatible? The short answer? No. The longer answer? It depends. To Elisa’s point, the simple one keeps the faith statements, the less conflict there is. If one says, for example: “I believe in God,” there really isn’t much there to dispute from an intellectual standpoint; one can suggest that there is not a God in response, but since the existence of God can’t be proven intellectually, you’ve just end up with two opinion statements. However, if one were to say, “I believe that the Book of Mormon is the translation of an ancient book and that there really were such things as Lamanites and Nephites,” well, that’s different. Even if one can’t definitively prove the truth or falsity of the Book of Mormon, there’s a lot more there to unpack and discuss.
I actually think the church, its apologists and “scholars” do a great disservice to the faith of church members. There’s such a push to “prove” beyond the shadow of a doubt things that are solely matters of faith that a false binary is created; one either believes the “facts” that apologists and the church presents or one believes scholars who possess integrity and who approach questions objectively and logically. That, of course, is the creation of a harmful false dilemma; faith is, by definition, a belief, not a known fact, yet so much of Mormon scholarship so-called is about “proving” the “truth” of the church’s claims. Quite a wrong-headed approach, IMHO.
@Brother Sky, yes, but I don’t even think that faith is “a belief not a known fact.” Faith is trust. Belief is the acceptance of a specific premise. So actually, the scholars have made an even more fundamental mistake not just by trying to prove or disprove “facts” but in conflating assent to the existence or nonexistence of a set of facts with “faith” in the first place. But they come by that mistake honestly since that’s the set up we’ve been given in Church (and not just our Church – a lot of churches).
I wish we would make Church less about reciting specific beliefs that we share, and more about how we practice our trust in God. It would make for a much bigger tent.
I think it has a lot to do with temperament, and it’s nearly impossible to clarify how that works exactly. For example, I think it was Jana Reiss who observed that more men left over history, but more women left over how sexist the Church is and/or LGBT treatment. That seems to go with the stereotypical view that men have privileged treatment in the Church (which is indisputable), and women don’t have time to get to the history issues because how the Church treats people is not good enough. They might have been upset over history issues if they had gotten past the treatment issues. So that’s one observation. (And I have known women who’ve left over history, ostensibly, and men who’ve left over treatment issues).
There’s also sunk cost fallacy for some. A conversation we used to have in the bloggernacle years ago was that Church is really different things to different people, and how you perceive history problems is different depending on what you were getting from your Church experience. Some options: 1) opportunities to serve others and do good, 2) a sense of belonging & community, 3) being *right* or belonging to the *true* church, 4) family tradition, 5) personal experiences that are spiritual, 6) the worship service itself, the singing, the talks, etc. If #3 ranks high enough on your list of what you get from Church, yes, history is going to lead you out because the history is both unsavory and has been obfuscated intentionally repeatedly dishonestly. The other things would have to have enough of a pull on you for you to stay. Sometimes, though, when you see the history problems, suddenly it throws your belonging out, the talks and songs ring false, and then suddenly additional factors that were keeping you in might change as well.
Elisa: Yes, I think you make an important distinction and, as you say, that actually makes matters worse. It’s so odd that churches try to take something as subjective as feelings about deity and universalize them as “truths”. I’ve never understood that; it strikes me as a strategy that makes a number of fundamental errors, including the assumption that individual, subjective spiritual impressions are somehow able to be unproblematically universalized. I’m working on a book about Mormon aesthetics and one of the arguments I make is that one reason why Mormonism has a problem with expressive, “non-faith affirming” art is that Mormonism embraces a form of universalism that it rarely articulates, thus foreclosing the possibility of an artist of faith having an artistic vision that fundamentally differs from mainstream Mormonism. I think that’s also where the tendency to want to “prove” spiritual truths originates from.
Are faith and intellect compatible?
That depends on how you define faith. The first hurdle we have to clear is why we usually start from a position where one group owns the definitions to the words faith, testimony, belief, doubt, etc.
Faith and intellect probably aren’t going to be compatible when the entity we allow to define the word faith for us defines it in such a way that makes it incompatible with intellect.
In my formative years in a progressive ward in the Midwest, I was taught that the gospel incorporated all truth. I took that to mean that science and religion were not only compatible, but soulmates. I still believe that. Unfortunately, the Church has moved on. In order perhaps to curry favor with the Christian Right, there has developed a strong anti-science group among the TMBers. Biblical literalism has gained a strong foothold among the Church base.
My recommendation is that the Church deemphasize the OT. It contains bad doctrine, poor history, and is based on a vengeful God. Christ’s God is a loving God. I don’t need Christ’s miracles, I need his teachings and example.
Simply, yes they are.
In regards to testimony, Mason is right in one sense and wrong in another. Someone can study church history and remain active and faithful to the church and its leaders; it isn’t a forgone conclusion that anyone has to defect after reading about the issues. But if that person initially bears testimony that the Q15 are prophets who speak for God, then reads church history, and then bears testimony that the church leaders are, in many cases, inspired, and are good examples to follow, can we say that that person hasn’t lost a testimony? If someone bears testimony that the BoM is “true,” a historical record, reads about geography and archaeology and DNA, and comes to the conclusion that it is inspired fiction, can we say that person hasn’t lost a testimony?
In short, people can remain in the church as nuanced believers. As long as someone is devoted enough, they can overcome all obstacles (intellectual, political, moral, conscientious, etc.) to remain in the church. But this typically does involve losing a testimony of sorts. Richard Bushman’s comments about the dominant narrative being untrue come to mind.
@ Roger Hansen
I like your thoughts, though there is one thought worth exploring more.
I don’t think we need to discard the whole Old Testament. The last time I read it completely, the many times its teachings emphasize helping the poor, needy, widows, and fatherless really stood out to me.
The better known scriptures on this are instructions to land owners to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor may glean them, and Isaiah’s “grinding the faces of the poor”. The OT is replete with social justice teachings.
February last year, Michael Austin wrote a post at BCC noting that when the word judgement is used in the OT, it is sometimes translated as justice in other versions. Justice, with a meaning to what we now refer to as social justice.
One clear example of the social justice use is in Jeremiah 5:25-31: [the rich] they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, … , and the right of the needy do they not judge (v. 28). This verse does not isolated, such teachings show up repeatedly.
We can teach the OT, with an emphasis on caring about and for people. And, hopefully disavowing the genocide, “bad doctrine, poor history, and … vengeful God”. The social justice emphasis is later reiterated by Christ, when he relates his great parable of serving Him by meeting people’s needs.
Sasso, thx for the comment. I just wonder if it’s worth reading all of the OT to get at the nuggets you mentioned. Isn’t the NT enough. Christ directed much of his teaching to assisting the marginalized. And there’s always King Benjamin strong suggestion that we succor those who need succor.
One of my favorite aphorisms is “You can take the Bible seriously, or your can take the Bible literally, but you can’t do both.” That strikes at the heart of many folks’ underdstanding and use of the OT. It’s not history (at least not in any kind of journalistic way). You can’t simply lift doctrine from it. And the images of God, which change/transform considerably from beginning to end, are not so much about God as people’s understanding of God. The Hebrew tribes and kingdom of Israel believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, so maybe it’s not too surprising that their God repeatedly would sanction murder and brutality in their defense.
All to often Christians like to oversimplify things:the OT is about Law and the NT is about Grace; OT God is vengeful and the NY God of Jesus is loving. A primary thread throughout the OT is how God deals with the Hebrews/Israel: they repeatedly screw up yet God continues to uphold the divine end of the covenant relationship. I guess you could say God just can’t quit them. For the apostle Paul, the chief question was “How can Gentiles be brought into the family of God alongside the Jews?” His answer was that we are the late-comers adopted in. Of course, over the centuries Christians eventually turned that around to ask, “How can Jews be saved?” More than a few churches take it a set further by stating that nobody can be saved (exalted?) who is outside the membership of that denomination.
If indeed6″ the Glory of God is Intelligence,” then it would appear appropriate and essential that we use our brains and critical thinking skills. I recognize there are leaders in practically every church denomination (as well as locally) who’d prefer we just believe what we’re told. I think we have a duty to counter that as best we can.
The Old Testament does have much awful stuff, no argument. However, knowing the Bible’s contents and teachings is part of being literate.
I think there’s much merit in recognizing that helping those in need has always been a core Judeo/Christian value. That has been co-opted by conservatives. I’ve heard some say, “With Jesus, it’s personal”.
Notably, both the scripture in Jeremiah, and Christ’s great parable identify the responsibility is on the nations.
There could be a profound shift if lawmakers, judges, and church leaders recognized a righteous mandate to help the poor, needy, fatherless, widow, (along with others in similar circumstances).
“However, knowing the Bible’s (OT’s) contents and teachings are part of being literate.” I’m not so sure. Some books of the OT are great literature. Think Job and Ecclesiastes. The latter was a brilliant existentialist. Got to love that in the Bible. But the OT is hardly necessary to be literate. And think of all problems it creates for biblical literalists.
It you need an additional push to help the poor beyond Christ’s message, Mormons have King Benjamin. His oration is much shorter than the OT.