Monday, January 11, 2010

"Why am I so afraid?"
or, The Scientology Test

First, watch this:

Comedy Central PresentsFriday 10pm / 9c
Maria Bamford - Cult
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I was surprised this week to read this article.

You ought to read the whole thing, but let's just start with the little story that opens the piece:

A woman sat at her dining room table, buried in dozens of books and magazines. She looked discouraged. Her daughter asked if she could help.

The woman said she was preparing a Relief Society lesson. She told her daughter she didn't know how she could possibly "boil down all the information" she had collected for the lesson. The process, the woman acknowledged, was both time consuming and frustrating.

The daughter looked surprised.

"Why," she asked, "are you trying to boil down information? An inspired* Church-writing** committee has already done that for you."

The committee's work, the daughter continued, has been approved by the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. It has been translated into dozens of languages and sent around the world. It corresponds with the lessons and information taught at the same time to other auxiliaries and quorums in the Church.

Now the woman looked confused.

"Everything you need––and more––is in your manual," the daughter said. "Now, here––drink this kool-aid. I made it specially."
(Okay, so that last little bit I made up, but seriously...)

The story concludes later:

Following the advice of her daughter, the woman above turned off her computer, shut the dozens of books open on her dining room table and picked up her manual and scriptures. The frustration she had previously experienced disappeared. She knew the material was doctrinally accurate. She knew its source was valid. It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. She had won the victory over herself. She loved Big Brother.
(That last bit I did NOT make up... George Orwell did.)

Mormon blogger, Ronan James Head, invented a little examination that would prove extremely useful if more LDS folk employed it. It is called "The Scientology Test." It is safe and easy to use, plus it's absolutely free. Here's how you perform it:

1. Select a statement or text to examine.
2. Read and/or listen to it carefully.
3. Pretend that this statement/text actually came out of The Church of Scientology.
4. In that context (i.e. Scientology), does the statement make you think, "Wow. What a creepy cult..."?
5. If your answer is "Yes," the text in question has just failed the Scientology Test.

Brothers and Sisters, that article just failed the Scientology test... BIG TIME.

Brother Louis Midgley, a Mormon scholar, wrote the following about an LDS book of scriptural commentary, but it is quite germane to the subject at hand:

Such [approaches] also tend to close the door on the untapped possibilities within the scriptures. Our tendency is to rely upon presumably authoritative statements on matters that may seem urgent to us, but which may not have been of concern to those responsible for providing us with the [scriptures]. [We] seem to approach the text ... already knowing ... both the questions and the answers. Hence there are really no new insights, no discoveries on the teachings found in the text, that are not already accessible from sources already familiar to the Saints.
This injunction is somewhat like gun-control legislation: those who are going to use the guns illegally won't scruple at obtaining them illegally. Gun owners conscientious enough to be properly licensed probably aren't going to shoot anyone anyway, licensed or not. Similarly, teachers that are going to use crazy-go-nuts materials will likely use them regardless. Teachers who will fastidiously follow this counsel are probably responsible enough to be trusted to select and use outside materials in a way that does not detract from the lesson's intent.

If I were running the show (and we can all be thankful that I'm not), I would try to implement the following:

1. Focus the materials back on the scriptures. "Text, without context, is pretext." The manual should be designed to guide us through the canonical text––on its own terms! Currently, the approach is often the opposite: we use gobbets from the scriptures, stripped of their setting, and mix them willy-nilly in a kind of theological hobo stew. This approach is in many ways demeaning to the scriptures; we pull them apart, take just the bits we like, and then force those bits to fit into our molds. This is called "proof-texting," and it sucks.

2. Institute more Teacher-Improvement classes, and broaden their focus. These classes are currently a possibility, but they don't get used very frequently, which is a shame. It would be nice if these classes could also cover some basic skills of scriptural interpretation (helping class members to find and avail themselves of all the great material and resources that are out there), and preparing talks to help them practice public speaking skills.

3. Remember that memory is the residue of thought. (See here.) I don't know really how to implement this institutionally, other than saying we need to become comfortable with having questions, capable of accepting a certain degree of ambiguity. I think that we are supposed to have questions to wrestle with. Wresting can make you tired and dirty, but it was the closest Jacob ever got to an angel. We don't like the questions that cannot be answered neatly and wrapped up with a bow––consequently, much of our teaching feels... well... packaged. It's like Velveeta. Not that there's anything wrong with Velveeta, and I'm sure it delivers some basic nutrients, but wouldn't you rather have Stilton?

*Inspired? Sure! But let's not get carried away and suggest that "inspired" always means correct. For instance, read the following story from BYU Professor, Daniel Peterson, who has written lessons for Church manuals for years:

Having, some time back, served on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee of the Church for nearly ten years, I would never, ever, take a Gospel Doctrine manual to be an official and binding declaration of Church doctrine. We tried to get things right, we prayed about our work, and what we did was reviewed in Salt Lake before publication, but it scarcely constituted scripture.

A story:

Once, the scriptural selection about which I was assigned to write a lesson included, among other things, Acts 20:7-12, in which the apostle Paul drones on for so long in the course of a sermon that a young man (ironically named Eutychus or “Fortunate”) dozes off and falls from the rafters. Paul has to restore him to life. As a joke, I inserted a passage in my lesson manuscript that read somewhat along the following lines:

Have a class member read Acts 20:7-12. Have you ever killed anyone with a sacrament meeting speech? How did it make you feel? What steps can you take in the future to ensure that it does not happen again?

Members of the committee laughed, and the committee chairman sent my lesson on up, incorporating their suggested revisions but also still including my little joke, to Salt Lake City. Where it passed Correlation. (I can only assume that each member of the committee chuckled and then passed it on, expecting that somebody else would remove it.) When I received the galleys of the lesson back for final approval just before it went to press, the joke was still there. I faced one of the greatest moral crises of my life, but finally called Church headquarters and suggested that they probably didn’t really want the lesson to go out to Church members entirely as it stood. So the joke was removed.

The point being that Gospel Doctrine manuals are not to be confused with authoritative divine revelations.

**I have no idea why they hyphenated that; it makes no sense grammatically. A "brick-laying committee" is a committee that lays brick. Thus a "Church-writing committee" would be a committee that writes Church. But I digress...


Sherwood family said...

Just so you know, I had a one on one class with Dan Peterson. We were supposed to be translating from Ibn Khaldun (an Arab historian) but most of our meetings were made up of interesting observations and anecdotes. (Not that we didn't get some work done.) He is a really interesting person to talk to and delightfully humorous. And he probably has examined doctrinal issues more thoroughly than almost anyone you can think of. As to your article, I can only say that I agree but that we have made progress in the last decade. Manuals are getting better. Slowly but surely. Compared with the terrifying stuff that we used to have we have made a lot of progress. Still, the point is that we need to be careful in meetings to be clear about what we know and how we know it and then be relatively relaxed about what we don't. Correlation isn't the group that either introduces doctrine or that canonizes it. The prophet introduces and via the law of common consent we canonize or at least give the imprimatur of the assembly to a particular teaching. Correlation tries its best to corral and systematize those things that have been introduced and received the imprimatur. Sometimes it doesn't do that very well. I would like to see a break down in teachings that could and would label teachings as A: Binding Doctrine B: Prudent Practice C: Perceived Pattern or D: Doctrinally Ambiguous. That way we could be clear about the status of a thing. For example: No dating before age 16: is not A. It is B. Giving the sacrament to the bishop first is C and the location of Kolob is D. See how easy that was.

Latter-Day Guy said...

Yes, I quite agree that things have gotten better, and I am sure things will continue in that direction. The article itself––or at least what I assume was its intended message––wasn't too horrible. I just wish it would have been written in a way that sounds less like a freaky cult. "Everything you need––and more––is in the manual... blood atonement, blood atonement, blood atonement..." I mean, come on!

I really like your model for classifying various teachings. I have felt that a similarly tiered system would be useful for referring to scripture:

Tier 1: Standard Works
Tier 2: Official Declarations (Family Proclamation, etc.)
Tier 3: General Conference addresses
Tier 4: All other statements made under the influence of the Spirit.

Ronan said...

He, L-dG, can you email me? ronan at jhu dot edu.

Shelli said...

Nick, I appreciate your ability to call things the way they are. Yes, that was a creepy way to write the use-the-manual message. And yes, manuals aren't perfect. And yes, many (I'd say most) members struggle when they don't find clear answers to inquiry. And double yes, the clueless teachers will remain clueless until they are released with a perceived pattern of voting of thanks, no matter how many of these articles they read or don't read. And they are spectacular tools in the Lord's hand to 1) reinforce to the clue-catching population the validity of their own common sense, and 2) increase the clue-catching population's patience. I think that falls under E. Maxwell's category of "the economy of heaven."

Latter-Day Guy said...

"increase the clue-catching population's patience"

Yeah, although it's never wise to say amen after a prayer that asks for us to learn patience or humility... those ones get answered INSTANTLY! ;-)

Anonymous said...

1. LOVE that Scientology Test! :)

2. "The point being that Gospel Doctrine manuals are not to be confused with authoritative divine revelations."

Wow, maybe I'll send Midgley's account to my GD teacher, who was (apparently) a central figure in the Correlation committee, who also seems to believe (and has spread that gospel throughout our stake) that manuals ARE scripture and that if it's not in the manual or the scriptures, it isn't to be brought up in Church.

Personally, I have been on a quest for decades to learn how to be a loving person (ie. celestial). A year or so ago, I finally realized that God could help me in that pursuit. So, I prayed for help in developing charity. Within a month's time, I was led to the most helpful resource I have found -- and it is not a church manual, but a book purported to be real-live revelations from God to a non-LDS WOMAN (gasp!)

Those unorthodox writings have helped me to become much less judgmental, much more compassionate and more willing and ABLE to cut people a great deal more slack. For me, this book passes the "By their fruits" test with flying colors, as well as the "if-it-leads-you-to-believe-in-Christ" test.

Now, there's no way that anyone in my ward would read that book with an open mind and benefit from it as I have. Yet, most of the principles in the book can be easily supported by LDS scriptures.

Why are we LDS so afraid of outside sources? Didn't Brigham say we accept truth no matter the source?

- (Name withheld to prevent religious persecution.)