I have been wondering lately whether we are seeing the dawn of a new age.
Well, OK. Not the dawn of a new age but the dawn of a new age with respect to certain things.
First thing you should know is that I am a Mormon. Or, as the church prefers it, “I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” In other words, I’m a Mormon. Yes, I tithe. Yes, I wear the magic underwear. Yes, I have attended services in a temple. The whole smash.
Now, for a Mormon, I’m fairly liberal. That’s made easier because I live in Blue state. What’s more, my beliefs tend to be more than a little heterodox–made possible by growing up in an agnostic Jewish family, becoming a Lutheran in my teens, having seen the Charismatic Revival of the ’70s, having become increasingly agnostic myself (a return to my roots, yeah!) and, finally, having met my partner of 28 years (so far) when I was 26, having proposed marriage, and having learned that I would have to be a Mormon to marry her, having become a Mormon.
I like to think of myself as as “faithful agnostic.” Maybe I’ll write about that more later. Maybe I won’t. Now, back on topic:
When I was young, a friend of mine loaned me a reel-to-reel tape that contained, inter alia, National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner, which featured, inter alia, the Deteriorata.
Now, to understand Deteriorata, you must first recognize this poem, Desiderata, which had become rather popular by the time I heard the former in 1976.
Where Desiderata included the following:
Take kindly the counsel of the years,gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Deteriorata substituted this:
Gracefully surrender the things youth: birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan.
I think the Mormon (“LDS”) church is now, at long last, gracefully surrendering the things of youth, and that one of those things is the notion of enemy.
When I first joined the LDS church, I often heard mention of so-called “anti-Mormons,” people who sought to do the LDS harm through scurrilous publications, casting aspersions on church history and leaders, and so on and so forth. In my youth, I had certainly heard plenty of aspersions cast on the church: that it continually revised its scriptures, rewrote the bible, that Joseph Smith had been a fortune-seeker and had many youthful “wives,” that Mormonism was an unChristian cult, etc. As it happens, many of these allegations–with the exception of the last–are to some extent true. However, none–with the exception of the last–undercut Mormonism any more than the following snippet from Emo Phillips undercuts mainline Christian divisions (or, as Emo calls them, “franchises.”):
Frankly, most of, and the most scurrilous of, these attacks came from a book lent me by my youth pastor, R, Walter Ralston Martin‘s Kingdom of the Cults. I was dating a girl whose family was a member of the RLDS church (an offshoot of the LDS) at the time, and this was R’s attempt to make sure that I didn’t absorb any false doctrine. It certainly helped to end that relationship.
Anyway, anti-Mormons. These were the bugaboos of the LDS church, and by that I mean bugaboo in its most traditional sense: “a common allusion to a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults or older children to frighten bad children into good behavior.” Or as the sociologist Émile Durkheim might have said, the bugaboo is an outgroup against which an ingroup can contrast itself in order to strengthen its solidarity.
Having come through Lutheran Christianity (which is an amazing diverse thing, portions of which I greatly admire) and the Charismatic movement (of which I became greatly suspicious), I found myself studying sociology, and Durkheim spoke to me. I think it was then that I started to become skeptical of the “unseen enemy”–as if the politics of the 1970s and the internal skepticism of Stalinist and Nazi approaches to life in Animal Farm had not already taken deep root in my mind.
I came to see most enemies as bugaboos, and continue to do so.
So when I encountered talk of anti-Mormons, I saw these as bugaboos. That’s not to say they don’t exist (they do, as I have outlined above–and for the same reasons as the bugaboos of the LDS franchise). But it is to say that such bugaboos are the focus of youth. They are the fictions used by minds that are not quite sure of themselves, or of their followers, to help keep things in line. Remember, if you venture too close to the edge of the earth, you’re going to fall off!
Now, when you have such bugaboos, you tend to be overly cautious of things that might let them undercut you. You sweep a lot of stuff under the rug, where they can’t see it, and you try not to (hence the Salamander controversy). Don’t look too closely, just believe, you are told: “My country, right or wrong.”
Recently, the LDS church has begun to make public a lot of its historical documents, including those that could–in theory–have been used by anti-Mormons to attack it (see, e.g., this essay on polygamy). To me, this is morally on a level with Nixon saying “OK, here are the tapes,” or Clinton confessing that he did in fact, “have sex with that woman.” It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen, especially, the sort of thing that doesn’t happen when you think you have enemies.
Have the anti-Mormons disappeared? Probably not entirely. And they probably won’t for a long time. But I think that this new openness is testimony that the LDS church is growing.
When I was in college, there was a company called Argus that printed wide variety of motivational and “spiritual” posters (turns out it’s still around) which were sold by the Logos Christian Bookstorein Dinkytown, Minneapolis. One of them included a partial quote from Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)–the last line from the verse which is reproduced in its entirety below:
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying
I think that the LDS church is gracefully surrendering the things of youth, which include enemies. I believe that the LDS church is growing, overcoming the problems with its theology that have dogged it through its blossoming in upstate New York through its transformation into a worldwide community. It will never be the same as other churches, which is fine (else what’s a franchise for?) but it is growing, not dying. It has a place for the orthodox, and it is starting–just, and not yet very much–to make a place for those who don’t quite fit. Its response to the heterodox is still defensive, but it’s possible that the church will yet widen its embrace, and that gives me hope.
Would that we could all at least begin to surrender our enemies.