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|The Prophet Is Dead: Thoughts on the Mormon Culture War|
Jun. 3rd, 2010 at 6:11 pm
When Roland Barthes declared the author dead (I paraphrase), he didn’t know he was talking about Mormon doctrine (which is an excellent demonstration of his point, it turns out). When it comes to “eternal truths,” who has the final author-ity? Who is the definitive last word on what we accept as God’s will? The obvious answer is, of course, the prophet(s).They speak, we believe and follow. It’s as simple as that, right? Not so fast.
Not too long ago, one of the most prolific people at FARMS (whom I don’t want to mention by name because I bear him no ill will) gave a fireside in my unit. I had a hard time buying anything he had to say because his argument consisted entirely of his own close reading of one of Jesus’ sermons. It was a nice, tidy Sunday School lesson, but hardly anything that FARMS should be publishing if it wants to be taken seriously. Now, I love a good close reading as much as the next literary critic. It broadens a text’s appeal and improves it with each subsequent reading — it’s what makes reading the scriptures over and over worthwhile. However, as evidence or proof of something or other, mileage varies a lot.
An active reading of a text is highly subjective. It requires that the reader act upon it, privileging his own perspective or interpretation over the author’s. In the church, though we seem to be obsessed with authorial intent on the surface, in practice this seldom happens. Whether we know it or not, usually when we find a “hidden gem” in the scriptures or a conference talk, it says more about us than it does the text or its author.
There are many advantages to this approach, but the major downside is that it makes finding “scriptural evidence” for anything pretty hard to do. In the FARMS case I mentioned above, for example, only a Mormon would have found this man’s argument compelling. Mormons naturally think the scriptures are Mormon — evangelicals think they’re evangelical, etc. — and choose to read them as such. We like to think that Joseph Smith ended all of these sorts of scriptural controversies; but, that’s just the way we read things. If you ask me he actually made things worse.
So, where does that leave us? The scriptures are full of contradictions and are hard to understand (if you think otherwise then you probably haven’t read them enough). Not only that, but much of what we practice in the gospel today we can’t find there, and much of what we find we no longer practice. Consequently, we engage in active reading to reconcile these issues in our minds. Things that we don’t like or won’t accept we rationalize and read less often; passages or ideas that we like we mark and read with more frequency. Consciously or not, we start to piece together, revise, and interpret what loosely congeals as our own concept of “what the scriptures teach.”
However, sometimes prominent passages strike us as so clearly in opposition to each other that, even armed with the most creative interpretive mind, we can no longer reasonably reconcile or dismiss them. Naturally, we turn to the modern prophets.
The Modern Prophets
“Well, modern revelation will clear things up,” you say. “No more of this subjective silliness. Just pull out the old ‘general authority trump card’ — end of discussion.” Not so fast. Remember, most of the modern prophets are dead too. It’s all too easy for us to play the same game with their words.
Quotes and teachings we like show up more often. We perpetuate them. They catch on and start to be repeated more. They begin to crop up in General Conference talks and correlated materials — at which point they gain momentum like books on a bestseller list. Just as we have a collective, living idea of “what the scriptures teach,” the same phenomenon occurs with “what the modern prophets teach.”
What we don’t like or understand gets left behind (sorry, Brother Brigham). When we don’t continue to give life to an idea or quote through repetition, it falls out of use, memory, and, dare I say, orthodoxy. While a few pesky ideas are problematic or shocking enough to gain a little notoriety and still drop in occasionally for a good session of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth, these things are easily passed off as “opinion” or “speculation.”
What then is the deciding factor between speculation and doctrine? Is it the source? No, both can come from a sitting prophet. Is it the venue? No, General Conference addresses are a fertile field for both — while some “true” teachings don’t even necessarily come from a prophet or General Conference. We make the distinction. What we accept as true we perpetuate and canonize, what we reject we don’t. The body of the church members has the final say. In time, this consensus of orthodoxy eventually trickles up, as newer, younger leaders are called.
The Living Prophets
“Whatever,” you say, “that’s why we have living prophets: a living prophet trumps a dead one, after all!”
Kind of. It is true that living prophets can present entirely new teachings if they wish. They can also sponsor an idea or quote from the past, giving it a higher profile and a moment in the spotlight (think of it as the doctrinal equivalent of being on Oprah). In this, I have to concede that they can manipulate the consensus to a certain, often large, degree. In the long run, however, the same process takes its toll. If there is no consensus of acceptance among the members, once the initial zeal and thrill of following the prophet wears off, it doesn’t last. Oprah can make a bestseller, but she can’t make a classic (yes, I know they aren’t mutually exclusive).
Take Elder Bednar’s “tender mercies,” for example. It’s all the rage right now. It seems to have gained wide acceptance. Will it last? Is it “true” or is it merely his “opinion”? Only time will tell.
The Mormon Culture War
Clearly, we don’t, and never will, agree on everything. But what we do agree on (statistically speaking) is consolidated in what one might visualize as an enormous, constantly shifting Venn diagram that correlates with how we “read” our culture and beliefs. We frequently criticize Mormon culture for perpetuating practices or ideas that are “not part of the Gospel.” However, I am not convinced that there is a significant difference between Mormon doctrine and culture — that is, Mormon doctrine is only a subset of Mormon culture, a living hegemony of accepted orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In many cases the distinction between the two may only be a question of degree of adoption.
Let’s look at a few examples:
In the end, the author-reader / prophet-church dynamic is more of a dialogue, though one where the second component has the last word. Leaders can force some issues in the short term because we have a strong culture / consensus of obedience; however, over time, if the membership at large remains uncomfortable with the change, it eventually gets dropped. A prophet’s counsel or directives — scriptural, dead, or living — are only valid to the degree that the body of the saints is willing to accept them. From this perspective, the sustaining of church leaders takes on new significance.
Why I Am Not a Heretic
So, is this a heretical viewpoint? Many probably would say so (the consensus would be against me, I fear), but I disagree. The key is that we only get to decide what we accept as God’s will, we don’t have a say in what his will actually is. Much of what we reject as prophetic speculation might actually be the word of God. Some of what we accept probably isn’t. So, if anything, it’s a comforting affirmation of the Lord’s respect for our agency that he allows for this dialogue with our leaders and does not — à la Satan — compel us to accept his will.
This is not without scriptural precedent. (See how I did that?) Consider the children of Israel. Moses comes down from Sinai with a law. They can’t / won’t accept it, so he is forced to go back and renegotiate with God. What results from the whole episode is the Law of Moses (sparing God the embarrassment of many of its more unsavory aspects). Moses folded to the people a little fast, perhaps, but he’s not the only example. Joseph Smith’s life is replete with similar situations. Who is to say how many times the Lord has let a matter drop because we couldn’t handle it?
Besides, this way of looking at things allows us to fault our own mortal fallibility for the bad and give God the credit for the good. Not only that, but who’s to say that it isn’t the Spirit of the Lord guiding our hearts to a communion of “common consent” after all?
Most importantly, if, as it says in Hebrews, Jesus is the “author” of our salvation, the word acknowledges the role we have to play. It’s a terminology (says my own reading) that serves to emphasize the importance of our active part as “readers” of our salvation in the continuing process of perfecting ourselves and the saints.