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|Shaken Faith Syndrome’s Hard Medicine|
May. 28th, 2009 at 9:38 am
My wife and I recently had a group of friends over for dinner, and at one point in the evening one of my friends saw my copy of Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling on a table in our living room. This provoked an unexpected conversation about Church History, as my friend mentioned that a co-worker of his in the office had recently showed him the wikipedia page on Joseph Smith. My friend’s reaction to this wikipedia page was typical of a member of the Church unfamiliar with the details Joseph Smith’s history: the word “shaken” is definitely the best way to describe what his thoughts and feelings were. Unfortunately, a dinner party is not the best venue for having the kinds of long conversations that can really help someone in that situation. I told him some of my thoughts on how to approach that material, and I promised to send him some more literature to help him work through his concerns.
I had recently read an article by Michael Ash discussing his book Shaken Faith Syndrome, and based on my favorable impression of the article I read, I ordered one copy of the book for my friend, and another for myself. The book begins with a discussion of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when people come across information that challenges their beliefs about the gospel, and Ash outlines four ways that people respond:
He then devotes chapters to concepts such as dealing with doubt, unrealistic expectations of prophets and/or scripture, the nature and limitations of scholarship, and other topics before doing a topic-by-topic overview of apologetic research on many of the most perplexing issues of Church history and doctrine.
One of the chapters deals with the credentials of LDS apologetic scholars, which I thought was unusual, but I think Ash’s reasoning for doing that was illustrated in this review of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Interrupted:
That quote illustrates our tendency to devalue scholarship that contradicts our own thinking, and Ash wanted to make sure his readers understood that however LDS apologetic scholars are viewed by others, they do bring outstanding credentials to their work.
If Shaken Faith Syndrome seems written to reassure people who are struggling in their faith, that objective is only partially achieved. Someone who has stumbled across wikipedia pages on Church history topics will find some comfort in Ash’s plausible explanations of a host of challenging issues. However, the book’s hard medicine is its treatment of the reliability of prophetic pronouncements. Quoting the author,
I believe that statement and I appreciate the intellectual and spiritual freedom it proposes, but I also find it very troubling on a personal level because I believe my acceptance of that statement puts my approach to the Gospel at odds with that of the majority of active members of the Church. I doubt if even 5% of people I go to Church with would agree with the statement that it is up to us to discern when prophets are speaking for the Lord, and if President Monson were to make the same statement from the pulpit in Conference, I would bet the majority of the Church would find this responsibility in discernment to be a disappointing burden, rather than a liberating opportunity. There is a comfort that we members of the Church feel in repeating the simple statement prophets speak for the Lord here on earth, without adding caveats and qualifiers to that statement.
In conclusion, I think Shaken Faith Syndrome is a fantastic book to give to someone whose faith in the Gospel has been rocked by some new information. It not only gives the reader a host of plausible alternative explanations for troubling criticisms of the Church, but it also equips the reader with intellectual tools for reevaluating faulty assumptions that are already carried by most members of the Church. Unfortunately, a new set of intellectual tools are not always welcome among those of us who have developed a belief that the work of discerning doctrinal truth is the sole responsibility of someone else far away in downtown Salt Lake City.