Faith-Promoting [Not] History

Several weeks ago we had a sacrament meeting talk that remains on my mind. The gentleman who concluded the meeting used most of his time to read a story that he frankly admitted came from his mother, who “got it from Google.” If you are thinking that the word “Google” is a bad sign in this context, your spidey sense is doing well.

The narrative he read was the highly embellished story of Gertrude Specht. You can read the Google version here and Jonathan Green’s research here. The bottom line is that the reality and the internet myth share only three points of contact: both talk about a German, both talk about a woman, and both indicate that the woman had at least one doctorate. Otherwise, the story appears to be what we will charitably call a fabrication in order to avoid offending any tender sensibilities with scatological references.

I must admit that I find it disturbing to hear this sort of thing in church – you want to think that what you hear in church can genuinely be called “worship.” But I must report that the irony runs even deeper. For the major emphasis behind the fabrication was an effort to make poor Dr. Specht, a housewife with a dissy in economics, into an expert who could affirm in detail the historicity of the complex of ideas we group under the term “Great Apostasy.” Yes indeedy, it was an unhistorical narrative contrived to lend the highest scholarly authority to the historicity of the LDS version of early Christianity.

 

 

So you might ask: Could the speaker have known it to be untrue? And I would have to say that he certainly should have realized something was amiss, even if he knew nothing at all about early Christianity, because the story is simply too good to be true. And then there’s that whole business of having gotten it from Google – which, by the way, would have confirmed the unsuitability of the story had he bothered to Google it himself. So I have to conclude that at the very least he failed to exercise due diligence.

Now it is not as if Mormons are the only folks with exaggerated micro-sagas. This sort of behavior has a long and dismal history. The thing about it is, though, we are supposed to be bringing the rest of the world more truth. And so you would think that we would have a heightened sensibility in precisely this area, if for no other reason than that we are known to run around telling others that their “truth” is deficient.

Does your gratitude for your membership in this church make you think more carefully about the truth of what you are saying when you talk about religious matters?  I have to say that until I started working on this post, I had never given the matter any thought one way or the other. And so I have begun to wonder why that might be. I cannot say I have all the answers, or even a good start. But I will share one aspect that I think matters.

For a fact, we are all conditioned to expect divine intervention in our lives because we read about it in scripture and in LDS history and we encourage each other in it at least monthly. This is a traditional Christian worldview! Nothing wrong with it! We are persuaded to regard such information as conveying spiritual truths, such as God’s care for his people, which is also traditional and good! However, we are not similarly urged to think carefully about the historicity of what we hear, or even to consciously distinguish between these forms of truth. If we have a spiritual witness, such as the “burning in the bosom,” does it follow that the matter is historical?

I hope I am not overstating the situation, but there seems to be a sense that sometimes the intersection of adequate faith and careful, discerning inquiry with respect to historicity is the null set. And this is deeply ironical in a church that was founded precisely to restore the truth. Do you think JS would have gone into those woods if he had had no skepticism? I have to say, I think skepticism is a religious virtue, and not least of all for Mormons!

Now I suppose that what I am trying to say here is that one reason we get silly faith-promoting anti-histories in church is that we have an attenuated approach to our search for truth. We do not have a shared theology of skepticism. Is skepticism a challenging quality? Yes, I think so. Skepticism can get the better of us, until it either destroys faith completely or renders us unable to tolerate the existence of doubt. But it cannot be avoided, especially if we value our own founding narratives and wish to safeguard the sanctity of our meetings.

  • http://trevorprice.net Trevor

    Do you think those who are born in the church have a different approach or appreciation for the truth than those who convert to it as adults?

  • Ray

    I agree with you, but when we’ve had such good training spreading internet falsehoods about the president or the congress or illegal immigrants or whatever else we don’t like, it’s a very short step to using that demonstrably false crap in church. The Book of Mormon tells us we should put the word of God to the test. Surely we should do as much with the words of mere mortals.

  • David

    It would be nice to have one source for good history, such as “Opening the Heavens” for accounts of BY’s transfiguration, etc. You said JS went into the woods because of skepticism. I think that idea was challenged by Mark Staker’s book.

  • http://mormoninquiry.typepad.com Dave

    Yes, I think perhaps Mormons should be taught to show more respect for the pulpit — when you speak there, you are speaking for the entire congregation and should choose carefully the words you speak. In particular, care should be given to not preach false doctrine, false history, false science, false scriptural exegesis … false anything, really. Maybe people need to pay more attention to the footnotes published with General Conference talks. LDS leaders are now rather careful to cite sources for their statements, and it is probably fair to conclude that there are statements in first drafts of some talks that get edited out because no credible source can be found. Speakers in sacrament meeting should exercise the same sort of discretion in the material presented over the pulpit.

  • Stan Beale

    Three quick observations.

    1. If yu kindly try to correct a FPR from the internet or word of mouth, one often gets a hostile reaction. It appears to be very easy for a number of individuals to inculcate the myth as a real and true defense of the Church, so to attack the FPR is to attack them and their faith. It is probably not right to question, but I am always perplexed as to why they would put so much faith and energy into such stories..

    2. Intelligence does not seem to be an effective protection from such myths. One example that always amazed me was an engineer responsible for much of the development of early nuclear submarines. He seemed to never have met an FPR he couldn’t embrace. In other areas he would exhibit a healthy spepticism and intellectual curiosity.

    3. The only similar phenomena that I see is the RWPR (Right Wing Promoting Rumor) Now I do live in an area of California whose Church Members would make Mike Lee look like a member of Occupy Wall Street As an example, my wife and I were threatened by a Church Member while registering voters for the Democratic Party. As this “Brother”” charged us he called us socialists, communists, liars and . . . intelectuals. Several of us got up in front of the women at our booth, he looked at us and decided to leave. We did thank him for calling us intelectuals. The Republicans from the table nearby came over and apologized for his behavior.

    We have had to bar some Church Members from our e mail as they delight is sending the most obnoxious and false RWPR junk out there. I justt wonder if that is a local thing or is it a wider reality.

  • mogget

    Good grief, you folks are up late!

    Stan,

    Sorry to hear that the Righties have been being obnoxious. Around here, it’s the Lefties, though, so I think it has less to do with ideology and more to do with majority / minority status. This does not preclude what I have always thought to be the case: it is really the libertarians such as myself that have an uncontestable monopoly on truth and moral rectitude.

    ;)

    Dave,

    You make a good point. Due diligence in the citation of sources would help folks think about what they’re saying. In this case the gentleman in question seemed quite satisfied with declaring his sources as “googgle” and “mom,” which I personally find surprising.

    David,

    LOL, I shall have to be more skeptical of the JS story, no? However, I think that JS was skeptical about something, just maybe something more appropriate for a teenage boy than what he later chose to present.

    Ray,

    Yes, we are surrounded by crap, much of it now well-indexed by search engines. And you know, I think most people do know to be wary of what they read on the web. It might have something to do with our willingness to believe those narratives that reinforce our own opinions, no? So the time to be especially careful and apply due skepticism is precisely those points where we would most like the story to be true, perhaps?

    Trevor,

    You raise a very interesting question, one to which I do not know the answer but would like to see a good, solid study. That said, my thought is this: we spend so little time in church helping people deal with issues of historicity that it’s hard to say the church has much influence except to dampen our natural level of skepticism when it comes to the intersection of religion and history. Perhaps our larger appreciation of skepticism comes from secular influences and is then ported into our religious life? That being the case, I wouldn’t expect much difference between converts and lifetime members. Be interesting to find out, though.

    Mogs

  • Robert C.

    Nice thoughts, Mogget. I find this a deeply fascinating topic. For the non-strawman version of an argument showing the limitations of thinking about faith and historicity, I strongly recommend Jim Faulconer’s “Scripture as Incarnation”, if you haven’t read it. (And let me be clear, I’m not accusing you of creating a strawman argument, nor do I expect you are unfamiliar with the heremenuetic-and-faith issues that Jim addresses — I just really like this topic, and I like Jim’s article….)

  • g.wesley

    Been meaning to say

    “… it was an unhistorical narrative contrived to lend the highest scholarly authority to the historicity of the LDS version of early Christianity.”

    action packed!

  • http://aphoristikos.blogspot.com hopolios

    Founding narratives often elevate as virtues ideas that become threatening to the organization that was founded. If we praise pre-1776 armed rebellion against government authority, any presidential administration will nod their collective heads reverently in agreement. The Weather Underground or armed attendants at Tea Party rallies are viewed quite differently. The virtues of a founder are good for founding something new, not necessarily for smoothly administering something already founded.

    On another note, does anyone know of any good studies on how the LDS concept of an apostasy developed?


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