To question or not to question ‘The Church’?

A couple of years ago I was in a temple recommend interview with a member of the Stake Presidency.  I had just arrived through the door when unexpectedly and without any particular context associated with the TR questions I was told.’Sister McCluskey, I’ve heard you bare  beautiful testimonies of Jesus Christ, but I haven’t heard you bare your testimony of

‘The Church’ – would you kindly do so now’.  This was not a brilliant start to what I had expected to be a pretty straight forward  interview.   He seemed to be suggesting that my love for Christ simply wasn’t enough and that I needed somehow to match my enthusiasm for the saviour with a similar inclination toward the church.  It turned out that, that wasn’t good enough anyway because the Stake Presidency had already decided  that I wouldn’t get a TR on the basis that I had unnerved too many people with my lack of orthodoxy.

This was all indicative of a palpable fear that my difference would somehow infect ‘The Church’, that the non-conformist way I expressed myself was not helpful and needed to be disciplined.   It was saddening but not entirely unexpected – but no one has offered me a very good solution for stemming the tide of words and questions that just bubble up out of me in spontaneous bursts of curiosity so I’ve just decided to give into it. And to be truthful I don’t get the sense that God (and Mrs God) wired my mouth shut either. (BTW the TR thingy got resolved eventually).

Ecclesiastical abuse aside this brings me to an interesting pattern that I have noticed in the ways in which  we understand ‘The Church’.     Excuse me now as I do a bit of theorizing!

The shaping, unifying, and organising principles of any religion tend to be the ‘cumulative traditions’ which we construct across time and express through language, symbolism and ritual.  Yet as Terryl Givens (2007)  points out,  Mormon culture exists on a ‘field of tension’ where multiple sites with respect to doctrine and belief seem to be legitimate places to inhabit.  On the doctrine of polygamy for instance, while having been recently retracted as a ‘formal doctrine’ by GBH, the practice for some in our church is still  to imagine the principle as requisite for our salvation (though I think they are a bit barking mad – still, horses for courses). While it seems to have been made clear that the practice of the priesthood is available to all worthy men (my emphasis) I was recently in a Sunday School class where the teacher emphatically endorsed the McConkie position on the very 19th century protestant theory of the curse of Cain (to the nodding assent of a bunch of nice old white folk).

Stories, discourses, ideas, sermons, talks, narratives, scriptural expositions, conversations, correlated materials all get thrown into the mix and the way we try to make sense of that mix is very telling of our religion.  Joseph Smith himself (the perennial questioner) ushered in an era of spiritual limitless.  His ideas were sublime, transcendent, superlative and miraculous.  Yet he lamented:

I have tried for many years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them….[that] will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions; they cannot stand the fire at all.

I often wonder what he would make of the church today where all of the expository offerings given over the generations have been nudged by certain strong minded leaders and the equally bullish members to a place that sometimes feels for all intents and purposes like an assembly of a bunch of neo-liberal, far right, fascist, misogynistic, patriarchal, racist,  imperialistic, oligarchs.   The recent meteoric rise and adulation of the frankly unhinged Glenn Beck in Mormon circles in the US is testament to the kind of poverty stricken dialogue some Mormons have defaulted to.  My position is that this cultural rendering (and I would say the same if we had ‘gospelized’ a far left political agenda),  does not mirror the gospel of Jesus Christ, nor should it be conflated with the Church.  Sure it is a feature of the breadth of the ideological terrain that mormonism occupies through its members, but there is nothing universally redemptive about the free market ideologies or conservative  politics that seems to be the flavour of the Book of Mormon belt, and has found its way to New Zealand in an unholy and confused politico-religious bricolage (deep breath).   Only a couple of days ago I was confronted by a member who asked (as if it was a matter of worthiness) whether or not I was a (shock, horror) left-winger – as if that was incomprehensible in someone who claims a Mormon identity.  There is a deeply disconcerting conformism abroad in Mormonism which sometimes works to disenfranchise the margins by abusively calling into question their political orientation as a marker of their righteousness.

Nibley (1989, p.75) addresses an aspect of this state of fevered conformism  which seems characteristic of our community,  with his  searing indictment of Latter-day Saints who have lost the will to think, to question, query, dialogue, pursue understanding, but instead choose to  languish defiantly at a place of of religious ‘zeal’ alone.  Joseph Smith’s pattern of thought and enquiry he argues is a corrective for the Latter-day saints who find virtue in:

sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom.  We think it more commendable to get up at five A.M to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one – that [he argues] is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds.

While some will argue that ‘The Church’ belongs to the Lord and must be left alone, defended and remain unquestioned I wonder if we are not drawing upon a popularized political rendering rather than a working and thoughtful definition of the ‘The Church’.  To me, the church is us.  The church is a community of similarly inclined worshipers, who, like an oil slick, will list where the waves take us without some thoughtful, well considered questioning and critique.  ‘The Church’ is also the corporate church, and the ecclesiastical church both of which has a duty of organizational care for us ‘the common church’.  The idea that its the Lord’s church does not indicate that we are to be hands off in a kind of ‘arc of the covenant’ way.  It means that inasmuch as it belongs to the Lord we need to model the kind of care, charity, succoring, stewardship, correction and evaluation that will keep it relevant, inviting and cherished by all.

Some suggest that ‘the church’ is not helped by critique.  I wonder if they would suggest that of themselves.  I know I have been constantly, and sometimes uncomfortably moved and changed from places which were not helpful for my soul.  I have been afflicted in my comfort on more than one occasion, and have been better off for it.  Isn’t that the power of community?  Isn’t that why we are bought together to worship so that in our isolation we’re are not left to flounder in self-satisfied ignorance?

I love ‘The Church” and while it might come as a surprise to some, I love being a Mormon.  Its who I am in my blood, in my bones and in my heart.  You could take me out of the Mormon but you couldn’t take the Mormon out of me.  When the Lord speaks of His church I do believe that he is  more than marking His territory,  He is claiming us and making us His.  And for this Mormon, there is tremendous comfort and ecstasy in the notion of us belonging to him and to each other in a vibrant, beautiful, messy, wounding, healing, brilliant, complex, diverse, changing and organic church.

  • http://gravatar.com/melanierc melanierc

    I think you raise some good issues, but I am not sure that questioning “because I have a right to do so” or because I think it shows spunk is necessarily the best way forward – the challenge often being how we do things and our motivations for doing so. Q: What is it that by asking this question, in this way with this audience is it, that I want to achieve? – and will it be achieved without harm (or minimal necessary harm) to others if I do so this way? or is there a better alternative action that will achieve the outcomes that I believe are wanted/needed?
    Often I wonder if we really are asking questions, or actually just casting our own judgements. It’s a slippery slope.
    I too believe that the Church is the people, but it is not a democracy to pander to popular thinking or the squeakiest wheel. As members I think it is constructive to consider questioning for the purpose of gaining greater spiritual knowledge, for helping to improve temporal systems and to benefit our own understanding and the conditions of our brothers and sisters. If its the safety of individuals or if there is harm being caused through abuse of power – we SHOULD ACT IMMEDIATELY. But these speak to motivation, and audience still needs to be considered.
    This is where I believe we need some “ego” caveats and awareness that everyone is at a different place at a different time. Consider that the path we take is ours, and others put on the same path may or may not have the same conviction of “Mormon through-and-through” – this can become a fast separation for them from an environment that supports them in accessing ordinances and covenants that link them to the Savior. So maybe that is the litmus test – will asking this, in this way, result in people being closer to Jesus Christ? If so, great!
    Sometimes we do need to battle those “urges” or opinions that “bubble-up” – whether it is like what you raise here re the Church, or in the form of other “urges” that can be harmful to families and relationships. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should do. Other times, we need people to step up and discuss, challenge and propose new and better ways forward – I guess the challenge is knowing the difference.

  • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

    Some really thoughtful points Melanie and certainly worth considering. But the way I look at it is one persons harm is another person’s balm. So we provide both, a nice cozy, safe, sanitized and comfortable experience for those who need it, and a messy, complex, challenging and forthright dialogue for those who need that. There is more to the Mormon story than the correlated materials, and faithful mormons are finding out all kinds of things about the church that don’t appear in our Sunday conversations. As a result the church is hemorrhaging members, not because of what was historically done or said, but because of what was NOT said.

    There is a certain tyranny in privileging silence. Buttoning up and pushing down questions doesn’t seem healthy at all. In fact on 4 May 2007 the church announced ‘we welcome inquisitiveness’ in response to the question of church doctrine and practice.

    Some people will find the things that I say deeply offensive and troubling – I know that and I’ll wear that. But others will hopefully find it a safe place to feel what they have long felt – they’ll put on their big girl panties and go to church on Sunday knowing that they aren’t alone. The Mormon tent is big enough to accommodate many different ways of being Mormon. If as a religion it is as good and true as it says it, it will weather the interrogation and be the better for it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002233755926 Sharon Ruth Doty

      I was looking back over past articles and noticed this good statement:

      “If a religion is as good and true as it says it is, it will weather the interrogation and be better for it.” THAT is a mouthful…and what I believe as well (as a non-Mormon).

  • http://gravatar.com/melanierc melanierc

    When we get too hung up on the imperfections I would think that we need to learn how to practice the two scriptural injunctions, (i) judge not that ye be not judged, and (ii) so likewise will your father and heaven do unto you if ye forgive not those who trespass against you (parable of the unforgiving servant).

    What surprises me is the intensity and consistency of negativity that I read in your posts. I was going to write that I am willing to accept that the Holy Ghost may in fact whisper to some – “go forth and be destructive”, or maybe even “selectively destructive” but I don’t think that at all. I have no problem with questioning – but time, place, circumstance and manner are factors to weigh how we communicate that – if you want to judge being informed, respectful, constructive and purposeful as being sanitized, then I’m okay with that.

    I do feel for the missionaries being judged for their hair or cut of their suits. Who is to say their sacrifice to serve the Lord doesn’t count because you don’t like how they look and they have an accent? Does that also apply to our NZ missionaries who serve overseas? What about Pasifika people who serve here – they can have an accent and different hairstyles – or is it just white people we should be weary of?

    And are you saying to judge or not to judge? Or judge only when it causes discomfort because it is good for people? If you are rich? poor? academic? Or only if it is about people from other cultures – and only about how they look because that’s okay? Or about Men because they are bad? Or people who haven’t served missions because they can’t be trusted? Or people who drive flash cars…or dye their hair…or who chose not to answer questions that you ask? Or maybe just people who you think conform? What if they confirm with you?

    The problem is that you are presenting from a paradigm that is ideologically set – Im pretty sure it won;t matter what rationale you use, “Stick it to the Man”, “Love thy neighbour” can’t exist concurrently, if targeted at any group of people.

    I get that you have a perspective and a good endowment of knowledge. I’m just saying that there are a quite a few scripture examples of people who have used the teachings of (wo)men mingled with scripture and it generally didn’t work out to well for them or others around them – I’m also pretty sure their intent wasn’t cognitive dissidence for the purpose of bringing people closer to their Father (or Mother) in Heaven.

    As for our beloved Prophet Joseph, love him too. His persistence with questioning cost us the 116 pages of the Book of Lehi and he uses that experience to teach us as well. He was humbled, accepted he was wrong, had consequences from the Lord and then, later, was able to return to his work.

    Must go bake my bread and milk the cow (sorry, that’s not true – I don’t have a cow).

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      I hear you and as you are the church PR I can understand where your concerns lie. But I’d like to make my case with a couple of points:

      In 1838 Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated because (among other things) he made allegations about Joseph’s affair with teenager Fanny Algers. This was way before he had revealed to the inner sanctum his revelation on polygamy. Now, was Oliver entitled to express his concern? Joseph (who never denied his affair with Fanny Algers) was not happy about it and felt that Oliver had to go. Who was right? Oliver for making the allegation or Joseph for getting rid of him because he couldn’t stand the criticsm?

      For years the justification for keeping all of the stories in the church ‘nice’ and ‘clean’ was that the weaker members of the church might ‘fly to pieces’. But that hasn’t been sustainable, and has done more harm than good because when people have discovered these histories for themselves they feel betrayed that the church that was supposedly ‘true’ actively withheld information. Recently the church lost a wonderful couple in Colorado Springs (the McLays). He worked for CES, spoke regularly at EFY and made an amazing and high profile contribution to the church. He picked up a couple of history books, found out some thing about the early church and promptly but agonizingly resigned his life-long membership. Now, I don’t think that was because of the actual historical facts as much as it was because of the ‘lies by omission’, that caused his withdrawal. I read Fawn Brodie’s book when I was 16 and admittedly it raised some eyebrows but what was more concerning was that nobody at church would talk about it and told me (and I recall) ‘we shouldn’t talk about Joseph Smith’s plural wives or Emma’.

      A couple more cases in point; Fawn Brodie was excommunicated for raising the same points (perhaps not as sympathetically) as Bushman who is still a faithful member. Juanita Brooks was ostracized and vilified for writing a history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950. Since then the church recently made a formal apology for their historical role and erected a statue to honour those who died. All kinds of people were excommunicated over their objection to the racial exclusions placed on the priesthood prior to the 1978 declaration and now we couldn’t imagine going back to those racist policies.

      The lingering fall out for the church over the purge years and the excommunication of the September Six has caused more head aches for the church than not. So much so that Grant Palmer and other authors have written similarly thoughtful and critical pieces for which they have been largely left alone because disciplining and silencing people for having thoughtful conversations, raising historical issues, and critiquing church culture does more damage than not.

      I get that you might think I’m being negative. Some have called me anti-Mormon because of it and some think I’m an apostate. But some don’t and quite enjoy it and get something positive from it that strengthens them because they appreciate honesty. I will say also that a number of people who follow this blog are members of other denominations who have expressed to me an affection for Mormonism that they didn’t previously have because of the outspokenness that some in the church can’t stand. There are less active members who read my blog who are thinking about mormonism for the first time in years. That to me is the raison detre! PR can have the centre – but they haven’t had the periphery for a long time. Like I say, Mormonism isn’t just those who toe the line and behave circumspectly, its the rabble as well. And all healthy organisations need the rabble! You never know Melanie, the thorn you feel in your side might just be the thing you will need one day to scratch your back!

      • GACP

        Yah for you … So well articulated!

        • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

          Cheers!

      • Kate Graham

        Hooray that we have someone like you who can articulate what so many of us feel!!! Thank you!

  • Andy jones

    What a heated and interesting thread you ladies are having. Sorry to intererupt this ” healthy” banter that you are having with my humble two cents. You both have very interesting views which I value . I am interested by mels view that missing pages of the bom are a punishment for josephs questioning. From this are we to accept ??? If you never questioned we would not even be Mormons . We and I presume this because I am a convert,that you had a similar experience, that to. Have a LDS testimony you have questioned the. Veracity or truthfulness of the gospel at some point. My read of this blog is that exists for the purpose of Gina sharing her own thoughts. I subscribe because I to question some aspects and seek answers. I respect both of you as women ,academics and fellow saints. This kind of discourse could upset people in your average Sunday school class and therefore is best kept out of there .however we are all consenting adults if you don’t like what you find here, comment or cease to subscribe. Developing a faith is never an entirely comfortable experience .our. Church like all faith based organizations has it’s brickbats as well as it’s bouquets. To pretend it all smells of roses is to ignore the manure necesary to make it grow. And cultural Mormonism is not the same as the gospel of Jesus Christ. The error comes when we fail to see this.We are all on an individual spiritual journey but it helps us to meet like minded individuals along the way.
    Long may kiwimormon keep posting. Chill out you two, it’s all true except for the false bits. Love Andy .

  • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

    You make me laugh Andy! Soooo funny! I don’t want Melanie to not comment! I love it, its cool, and I’m open to the challenge and debate (notwithstanding the barbed comments about my ego – but we’ll let that one ride eh?)

  • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

    Reblogged this on kiwimormon.

  • Kate Graham

    I have recently come across your blog and find it brilliant, respectful, and well written. I read this one and cried. So nice to feel true community that is found when people are honest and thoughtful concerning our faith. Thank you. It makes my heart sing!

  • Kassie

    The more I read your posts, the more I’m grateful to have stumbled upon your blog! Your ideologies are so honest, it’s refreshing. I’m so glad to know now that there are others out there that do question and are curious… and now I see that it is okay! For the past few months, I’ve felt ostracized (I live on BYU campus) and last week I went as far as to tell myself I was never going to church again. I would say it was inspired that I found this blog… There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s healthy to question, and my testimony has grown because of it. The only time I feel “vile” whenever I question or inquire is when I’m talking with others and they seem to feel that I’m deviating from the church. However, I never feel this way when I’m alone and am sincerely asking Heavenly Father! I guess I just needed to see that there are faithful members out there that don’t take these judgements to heart. I’ve found that my feelings for the gospel outweigh all of the fallacies and contradictions that I seem to readily find in “the church”. Although it will take a lot of patience on my part (for now) to drag myself to church, I know I will be doing what the Lord wants of me. I need the gospel and the members of the church… and the LDS community needs more members like us! ;) Thanks again!

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      Hey Kassie! This is about the best comment anyone has written on my blog. Thank you. I know for a fact that even at BYU you aren’t alone in both the pain and loneliness of dealing with that paradox. There are so many people all over the world who have found the Christ they love in the context of a church they struggle with. So next time you go to RS or SS and feel white knuckled at the prescriptive and sometimes brutalzing drivel that comes out of peoples faces, try to imagine myself and all of your sisters who are similarly wired sitting with you through it all, smiling knowingly when you roll your eyes but finding a transcendent comfort all the same in a relationship with the divine that puts all of the crap into perspective.


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