I listened to the Mormon Stories podcast with John Delhin interviewing Zelph on a Shelf bloggers Tanner Gilliland and Samantha Snyder. I have to admit I went into the podcast, looking to find fault in Tanner and Samantha. I’ve read the Zelph on a Shelf blogs and sometimes I feel they’re a bit snarky and condescending. I get butt hurt just like everyone else does when they feel attacked.
But I was really impressed with Tanner and Samantha, and don’t find much to fault them with. They are good looking, creative, and well-spoken young adults. Exactly the kind of person Marlin K. Jensen had in mind when he said we are losing the best and the brightest.
I’ll focus on Tanner’s story, because that was more similar to my own. Tanner was raised very active LDS. He talked about how he did Book of Mormon trivia in his family as a youth and would sing seminary songs walking down the aisles of his high school. He took Mormonism seriously. Very similar to my own background. He served diligently on his mission and graduated from BYU Idaho upon return. He stumbled into LDS historical research first by trying to find answers to explain the priesthood ban issue, and that led to open study of a lot of the regular topics: BOM evidence, Book of Abraham, polygamy, First Vision accounts, etc. This troubled him greatly. He wanted to make Mormonism work and looked hard for answers. It’s easy for Mormons to look at those that leave the church and think “oh he wanted to leave the church, and he found some weird information on the internet, and it gave him permission to do what he wanted to do already, and he’s out on the first train.” You can’t listen to Tanner and think that about him. His process was an excruciating one with thousands of hours of research over several years. I take his word for it, because I know my process was similar.
So rather than criticize Tanner and Samantha, I’d like to take the opposite approach and see what we as a church can do to retain people in their shoes.
How do we keep the Tanners and Samanthas?
1. Back off the adamant stance on church origins.
A hard fact you realize when you study LDS historical issues, is that it’s very messy. It looks like Joseph made it all up. A hard fact you realize when you study the New Testament, the basis for historical origins of Christianity, is that it’s also very messy. It looks like the early Christian fathers made it all up. A hard fact you realize when you study the Old Testament, the historical origins of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is that it’s even more messy. You study long enough and you realize the origins of Hinduism and Buddhism and other major world religions are also just as messy.
It would be really nice to study all the historical origins of all the religions and figure out that one of them is true in the sense of being factually accurate. But that religion doesn’t exist. What we discover about religion is that a sacramental or metaphorical paradigm of viewing religion is much more useful than a literal paradigm. Religion and scripture is bottom up. It is man’s effort to approach God and describe God’s character and man’s relationship with God. Religion and scripture is not top down. It is not God dictating to man about God’s character and plan for us.
The importance and value and truth of a religion is in what it offers to the lives of its members in facilitating them to worship God, serve each other, and enable them to live an enriched, abundant life.
This is a radical change for the church, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But if we want to keep the Tanners and Samanthas, we need to move in this direction.
2. Get more open about church history.
A common theme in stories like Tanner’s, is that they felt lied to by the church. The historical weirdness is bad. But it’s even worse because there’s a trust element added to the equation where the person feels the church has hidden stuff or lied.
I think there are reasons why the church history that my generation grew up understanding doesn’t correlate to the actual facts, so I try to be generous with the brethren in how they’re handling this issue. The essays are a great start. I’m hopeful the church will continue to be more open about its history.
3. Make the focus be on how the church helps improve the lives of members
If the church fails the historical test, many members assume it’s of no worth. That’s because they’ve been trained to view the church this way. We can start to show members that the value of the church is how it improves the lives of members.
Samantha was a convert to the church in England as a teenager. She joined largely due to a Mormon family she knew that was a great example for her, and church principles were attractive to her. She said on the podcast “when you introduce a 16 year old to church principles. Don’t drink, work hard in school you’re nice to people, those are great life principles, most people’s lives are going to improve if you apply those principles.” She also talked about how she loved her experience at BYU-Idaho, attending college in a spiritual environment. I’m presuming a lot, but I look at Samantha and see exactly WHY the church is true, not why NOT it is true. Based on her story it seems her eight years in Mormonism left her in a much better place. This is the message we need to articulate.
Samantha said “What’s good about the church isn’t unique. And what’s unique about the church isn’t necessarily good.” I disagree with this statement. Strongly disagree. But this the battleground. The battleground to preserve Mormonism is not in correlating the Book of Mormon to Mesoamerica. The battleground is in convincing people why Mormonism is good, unique, uplifting, and beautiful. I believe Mormonism is beautiful and true, and I believe we can articulate this and emphasize it over the origin claims.
4. In this process, don’t lose what is already working
The church is working in the lives of many members. Changing it too much too fast would be difficult for the members where the church is already working. This is the challenge the brethren face.
Joseph Smith said “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation”. What is wonderful and good in the lives of many members is the faith that is created from the sacrifice and obedience they offer. A fair criticism of a more secular religion like the Unitarian Church, is that you don’t empirically see this same level of faith. We have to figure out as a church how not to lose this while we make the transition from literal to metaphorical paradigms.
This isn’t a demand on the church. This is a difficult challenge. Change is slow. I’m grateful for the church in my life, and I support the brethren. This is just one guy’s opinion on how to address those with questions that are not getting the answers they want.