Friday, December 30, 2005

Why I read anti material

Every so often, people I know question my judgment. And my testimony. That’s fine, I can handle it. But sometimes, I feel I have to set the record straight. This is one of those times. Recently, members of my wife’s family found out I read so-called anti-Mormon web pages regularly. They couldn’t understand why I would fill my mind with such filth.

Well, I only heard about the conversation afterwards, and my wife satisfied them, but I suspect they still wonder at me. People wonder enough about me, as it is. I suppose I should put their minds at rest. To start, I will give a little of my history.

Part I: Encounters on my mission
I first encountered anti material before my mission, but handily ignored its existence. It was not worth my time, I thought. Why bother, when I know the truth? Once, when I was about 15, I attended a local Baptist church with two friends, both of whom were Mormon. We did this instead of attending Wednesday night adolescent program called Mutual, which was boring to us. While at the Baptist meeting, we stood out as outsiders and many approached us afterwards. When they found out we were Mormon, well, they had plenty to say. We were told many awful things in an attempt to change our minds. Our prophet is evil, the Book of Mormon adds to the Bible and Revelation prohibits that, etc. It ended up being a Bible-bashing session, and little was accomplished for either side. I suspect that all of us left that encounter without anyone changing their minds.

While on my mission, I had many opportunities to discuss and debate what others called false doctrine of the Mormon church. I hated not knowing how to answer the hard questions that others asked and spent a good deal of time reading up on how to defend my faith. Just one example out of several from the early months of my mission:

One time, while I was a junior companion, my companion and I encountered a well-dressed and well-educated man on the street. My companion began telling him about the Book of Mormon and how we can know the truth. As a second witness of the Savior, it removes the confusion that is found in the rest of Christianity. The man asked us, “If the Book of Mormon is supposed to cut through the confusion, then why are there so many Mormon factions?” He had a good point. I don’t recall how that conversation ended, except that the man with whom we spoke did not pursue the discussions and we left largely disappointed.

That conversation bugged me, because I did not have an answer.
I decided that that line of reasoning might work for a new investigator, but there has to be more. The church isn't true just because the Book of Mormon exists, or the RLDS church and all the others would also be true. No, it is the principle of continuing revelation that makes a church true. It is the unbroken authority that makes a church true. The Book of Mormon helps, but is not the only thing. It is the Holy Ghost that confirms which is true. You can't just use the Book of Mormon, because it is not enough. Neither is the Doctrine and Covenants (or Book of Commandments). Again, it is the Holy Ghost that will tell you the truth of all things.

Later on in my mission, I went with my companion and another set of missionaries to an appointment the other elders had arranged, a follow-up appointment. Upon sitting down on their couch, the African-American couple said that their pastor had given them something to watch. They pulled out a VHS copy of the Godmakers. I knew what it was, but had never seen it before. Well, I got my chance. The entire room was quiet, the entire way through the film. There was a dark feeling, most definitely not the spirit of God. Afterwards, even the couple admitted they didn’t like the feelings associated with the video. We all discussed it and laid to rest some of the concerns. However, in the end, we couldn’t address every point of the movie, and did not want to. We each bore our testimony and asked permission to sing “I Believe in Christ.”

The meeting ended on a positive note, but that night opened up an understanding to me. There are people who go to great expense and expend a great deal of energy trying to tear down the church. Lies and distorted truths are not beneath them.

Part II: Post-mission encounters
These were not the last time I saw such information. At least once or twice a month, people would give me pamphlets and books to read about how horrible the church is. In my naivety, I dismissed much of it, just because it didn’t fit with what I knew. In other words, some things I thought were lies turned out to be true, but taken out of context or blown out of proportion. And some things were true and just not spoken of by the church. However, I did read all I was given, and compared how it sat with me to how the scriptures felt. I could feel the spirit as I pondered the scriptures, for instance, compared to the anti material I had seen that night.

In 1996 and 1997, I continued to explore LDS themes, but this time, online instead of in books. Like many people, I had recently discovered the joys and perils of the world wide web. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not have any official web presence at this time, and anti sites proliferated. I read a great deal of garbage about the church, but also plenty of truths I did not previously know. My mind was not changed, but I learned to take anything I heard about the church, positive or negative, with a grain of salt. Just about anyone talking about it seems to have an agenda, either to push it or to pull others away from it.

In 1998, I had a friend named Jamie who was not a member of the church. Her only previous experience with the church was a friend named Joseph Smith. This ironically named young man had been raised in the church but now hated it. He had a website on Geocities that attempted to discredit the church. He also claimed to still attend church, because LDS girls are “easy.” He and I never met, but I was more confident at this time, more able to speak my convictions and back them up with information. We passed a few debates by email before we both gave up trying to change the other person’s mind. While ultimately fruitless in changing either of our minds, the exchange was educational. To that point, I had not personally talked to a lapsed member about the church.

Part III: Which brings us up to the present
I laid off on actively searching out anti material for a few years. I still would see things occasionally, online and in print, and would read it. However, I spent some time reading more faith-promoting things, but only the deeper doctrines, such as those presented by Hugh Nibley. However, I had been maintaining a web page since 1997, in some form or another. I found myself with a plethora of LDS links, hosted on my web page, a listing that just kept growing. I started to organize it and eventually gave the list its own page. Then, in just the last few months (meaning, earlier in 2005), I decided to try my hand at writing LDS-themed articles. No real reason except that it interested me. My brother, who has long been interested in this topic, started contributing links and we started collaborating. Guided by the lessons I had learned in the past, I decided to maintain that balanced look at the LDS church.

I am still a believer and an attendee of church. However, I view the church as a human institution, no matter how divine the interventions that led to this church’s creation. Why? Well, I cannot escape the conclusion that imperfect humans lead the church and their fingerprints are on everything the church does. Is this bad? I do not think so. I believe that if it continues to ennoble and uplift, to inspire and uphold good values, it is a good thing.

Of course, there will be those bad elements who try to use guilt instead of teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves. There are going to be those who do not live the Christ-like life they claim to espouse, who are hypocrites, prideful and spiritually void. However, there are enough honestly good people trying their best to find salvation through Jesus Christ.

Part IV: Why I continue reading anti literature
I read an article not too long ago titled The Impact of Mormon Critics on LDS Scholarship, by Michael R. Ash. Michael builds on the statement from Hugh Nibley, "We need more anti-Mormon books. They keep us on our toes." Brother Ash tries to show how opposition to the church has improved the quality of Mormon research. He gives numerous examples of where lazy research and just wrong statements have been accepted for years by members. Eventually, our mistakes get aired and LDS scholarship flourishes around that mistake, bringing out new understandings. “Sometimes, the critics are right. Sometimes, they can help point out our errors,” opines Ash. I agree. Without critics, we are too blind to our own faults. It takes outsiders to keep us humble.

I have learned much by keeping my eyes open and reading other histories and essays not favorable toward the church. What I’ve learned is that these were ordinary men and women who founded and built up the church, not demigods. They had mistakes and flaws, passions and egos, intelligence and blind spots. I have learned that the gospel of Jesus Christ, in any dispensation, has been passed by God to men and women. It came to them perfect, but was and is distorted by the hands of humans. And I have learned that this distortion is OK. It is just how things work in this world. God works with it.

I’ve learned there is absolute truth, and relative truth. There are some things that do not change, that can be considered absolute to the belief system of a Latter-day Saint, like the belief that Jesus is the Christ, and Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Then there are things that can change. The mode of sacrament, from wine to water, is one such example. The temple endowment is another. These relative truths are the ones that get changed from prophet to prophet or dispensation to dispensation. They are not wrong for their changes, just altered. They still attempt to draw people toward the absolute truths. That is their purpose. See http://www.fairlds.org/apol/brochures/templechanges.pdf for more development on this subject.

The church is not perfect. I am the first to admit this. And so, I must say this: however much good it does, the LDS church must always strive to do better. We can never rest in our effort to do more, to go the extra mile, to extend beyond ourselves. If that means listening to critics sometimes, then it is worth it. I believe that for this reason alone, we should not dismiss anti-Mormon literature.

In addition, I dislike not knowing what others were saying about us. How could I make a rebuttal, or stand on my own knowledge when confronted by critics, if I failed to prepare beforehand? Those against the church are always searching for new ways to tear down that which is good. It is irresponsible to ignore those efforts. I think back to my ignorance as a missionary, and it bothers me. When confronted by Jehovah’s Witness material against us, bringing up the Adam-God theory, I had no idea what to say. My defense was indefensible, feeble. I remember doing the best I could, struggling with the quotes from out of the Journal of Discourses, and eventually, I came up with the explanation that it was a purposeful misquote. That was enough to satisfy the investigator who asked me, but I know now that it was not enough. I demanded more of myself. I feel we all need to have higher expectations of ourselves. Turning a blind eye does not solve the problem. Neither does hoping it will go away.

I would not suggest to all Saints to read “anti” material. It is not always easy. It can make you doubt. It is not always comfortable. Some people do leave the church after reading or watching this kind of material. I will not call such people weak-willed, where others might. I feel everyone has the right to feel and believe as they wish. I would only hope that any decision would be made after weighing all the evidence, but even then, it is your right to let another tell you how to believe. In the end, each person has to take a stand and decide what they really believe.

I cannot claim to be a great defender of the faith. I cannot claim my testimony is unshakeable. I cannot claim to know everything. I cannot claim I have never doubted. What I can say is that I have examined as many viewpoints as I could. I can say that I read “anti” material and give it equal time to faith-promoting material. I can claim to know enough on which to base a decision. And what is that decision? To stay where I am, despite historical discrepancies, despite the flaws and mistakes of men and women, despite valid complaints against the society of the saints. That is where I make my stand, willingly and with my eyes open.

8 comments:

darth_ender said...

Very good. My reasoning is very similar for reading the work of those who are hostile towards the Church. I find it interesting how you and I thorugh different experiences, even without a whole lot of communication on the subject, tend to gravitate towards the same interests and conclusions. Good essay.

Dave Norris said...

If you truly desired communication, you would post an email address as I have. The Book of Mormon and the Bible stand agreed on Malachi 4:5 whereas the Doctrine and Covenants and The Testimony of Joseph Smith have a great difference to them. At any rate, just prior to Smith's vision of the Priesthood Ordinance, he was a member of the Masons and was it not coincidental that he received this vision after learning of how the Masons Priesthood Ordinance worked. I will be posting on this in the near future. And, you are most incorrect in your assumption I know little about the Mormons. One of their leaders here in town has been witnessing to me for over ten years on your dubious book. How can one of your Quorum of the Twelve not know what a familiar spirit is? I never publish pro-Mormon comments. It is poison in the pot.

mathoni said...

No one asks you to post pro-Mormon material. Clearly, you don't read this very closely, because your posts do not match what is written and you comment to both of us as if we were the same person. There are two of us, and we do not hide this fact. We are not hiding anything.

If you truly desired communication, you wouldn't be so aggressive. Communication is about a two-way exchange of ideas, not vomiting up and spreading evenly your biased and angry ideas. We are both willing to debate and reason, but if you choose to continue being belligerent, we will have to ignore you. And we don't post emails because we don't like spam-bots picking up our addresses and spamming us to death. I hope you can learn to deal with it.

darth_ender said...

I am the one who commented on your article. I notice you didn't bother to let it fly. Oh well. I do believe I was quite a bit kinder in my comments, but again, no matter. I never said you didn't understand my Church, but only that I'd read more from your angle than even you have. I know the criticism of my Church, and still I stick with it. Perhaps that is the beauty of looking at both sides of an argument. If you want to read what I meant as a response to your "thick darkness" comments, look at my Brigham Young essay. My brother has his own work and reasoning. Also, in the future, note which of us is writing.

Jeremy said...

I will stand and quote the bretheren on this issue. President Thomas S. Monson has specifically and boldly called all forms of anti-mormon literature spiritual pornography and just as we must avoid all forms of pornography as an "evil plague" we must hold that true with all forms of spiritual pornography. We are not in this church to compare ourselves with others, but just as Paul stated, we are a peculiar people and we should thus live as such and seek truth. Because the "wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth through disobedience, from the children of men" (D&C 93:39) We have so much truth and light to feast from so why not focus the little time we have on that instead of waisting our time on the things that do not edify (see D&C 50) Be Faithful, Be True, Know that God Lives and Joseph is His Prophet.

Schnipp said...

I suppose my comments are much belated. Nonetheless, I, again, would like to express my appreciation for being able to read your thoughts. I, myself, do not take the time to read anti-literature...simply not a priority...but, have come across enough to recognize the positive effect it has had on my desire to learn & understand more about gospel history and doctrine. Unfortunately, there are waaay too many of the LDS Faith who fear it - as a result of their own gospel ignorance. I do not recommend reading it on a regular basis to anyone - I am one of those of the opinion that it is mostly a WASTE of time - but, also recognize that opposition usually sparks curiosity, which, in turn, motivates taking action to learn.

Thomas Carver said...

I am moved to write a comment years after this article was posted because it so beautifully captures the suffocating lifestyle the Mormon church offers. The way you gingerly present your fear of being ostracized from your own family for reading some bit of theology, combined with your fellow churchgoer Jeremy's condemnation of your "spiritual pornography" paints a more anti-Mormon picture than any mere pamphlet or video.

Thank you for sharing this deeply personal story. It takes a lot of courage to be willing to expose the effects of the bigotry which have taken root in your life. Even if you don't clearly acknowledge it, the tone of your writing shows a sad awareness of it. I hope these past two years have treated you well.

Rebecca said...

I am an exmormon who often gets questions from my friends as to why I read Mormon literature; it's very much for the same reasons. I think it's because you are able to empathize with others' criticism that makes it okay for you to read anti-Mormon literature. I've found that I am not nearly as hostile towards the Church as many former members, simply because I keep up to date and understand the Church and the way it works. More power to you! Keep reading!