I said in a great thread over at the New Order Mormon discussion board that my friend John Dehlin has done more save my wife only to keep me in the church than anyone else in the world. John is now Executive Director of the independent Mormon Studies journal Sunstone, produces the excellent Mormon Stories podcasts, and has recently launched a new weekly podcast called Mormon Matters. Mormon Stories consists of one-on-one interviews that John conducts with people relate their experiences with Mormonism. Mormon Matters consists of a panel discussion moderated by John, in which each week three or four panelists interested in Mormonism discuss topics in the news and in the world of Mormon Studies. John’s goal with both Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters is to foster understanding of Mormonism and build bridges among people of varying viewpoints and perspectives concerning Mormonism. The podcasts are designed to appeal to anyone with an interest in Mormonism, from active, temple-going members to disaffected members to former members to those who have never been members of the church but nonetheless have an interest in the church and its people. I recommend both Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters to all who have an interest in hearing bright people discuss in depth the Mormon experience.
Some constructive criticism: I like the idea of having true diversity on the panel. I definitely enjoyed the podcasts in which John Fowles and Blake Ostler participated. I think having a “true believer” on each panel, if possible, is a great idea. I think some of the folks who post at Millennial Star might be good panelists (Geoff B., Clark Goble, for example). I also love having a well-informed “cultural Mormon” on the panel. John Hamer is perfect. I think the women who have been featured (Ann Porter, Rosalynde Welch, and Taryn Nelson-Seawright) have been terrific. The “Sunstoners” seem to be a bit overrepresented. But, then again, it’s a podcast by the executive director of Sunstone, so I guess that is to be expected. The glaring omission, in my estimation, is a representative from the disaffected Mormon realm. No, I am not talking about putting an “anti-Mormon” on the panel. We don’t need Ed Decker, or Tal Bachman. But there are thoughtful, articulate people posting in the DAMU who would provide a perspective and a voice of “reasoned opposition” that I think could improve the discussions. Folks like Hellmut Lotz, Chris Tolworthy, Kevin Mathie, to name a few. Or women like Belaja, Wry Catcher, or Sister Mary Lisa (all of whom post at Further Light and Knowledge, to name a few more. I mean, if Fox News can have Juan Williams on its panels, certainly Mormon Matters could stand to have one well-behaved denizen of the DAMU on occasionally.
Having said that, I think these podcasts are really wonderful. I'm amazed at the quality of the content and the professionalism with which John Dehlin pulls these off. He must be spending an inordinate amount of time to produce these and his Mormon Stories podcasts, as well as getting his feet wet in his new job at Sunstone while keeping a day job to support his family. Now, onto my thoughts on the individual podcast episodes.
The first episode of Mormon Matters dealt with the PBS Special The Mormons and an article in the Ensign about protecting one’s faith when confronted with pesky little things like reason, science, facts, and evidence. Panelists included Ann Porter, Julianne Hatton, J. Nelson-Seawright, and John Hamer. As the inaugural podcast, there were a few hiccups. As a fan of John Hamer, I had hope to hear him speak a little more on the segments in the show with Trevor Southey. And the panelists’ remarks basically defending the indefensible Dallin Oaks comment that it is wrong to criticize the leaders of the church even if the criticism is true left me fuming. At one point John Dehlin said that the general authorities of the LDS church have one of the hardest jobs he can imagine. I couldn’t disagree more with that notion. Of all ten episodes so far, this was my least favorite. But I figured I’d give them another shot, and I am glad I did. The ensuing installments have proven to be both interesting and entertaining, and mixing up the panel and providing more variety in the voices presented has been beneficial (and I am especially gratified that John Hamer in later episodes speaks up more).
The second episode dealt with the Romney campaign and much of the discussion centered around Romney’s statement on Good Morning America denying that the idea that Jesus would return to America and rule the world for a 1000 years from Missouri was a doctrine of the church. This panel included John Fowles, Tom Grover, and Ronan Head, three articulate and able participants. Whatever one’s political leanings, it is undeniable that the Romney campaign is focusing the media on the LDS church, and that it is impossible to discuss Romney without also discussing Mormonism. While some folks might find this objectionable, it is nonetheless reality.
What I found most interesting in this discussion was how the panelists, all of whom I understand to be active Latter-day Saints, seemed to be so willing to cut Romney slack on his obfuscation. Ronan said it wasn’t a lie: Romney is only fudging. Tom said even if it was a lie, all politicians have to lie, including Mormon politicians, and that is just how the game is played. John, to his credit, said that if it was a lie, it wasn’t the best answer, because the best answer is never a lie (Abraham’s example notwithstanding, I suppose). But John used his lawyer brain to parse Romney’s words so that they could be viewed as something other than a lie. It was interesting to me that none of the panelists suggested that Romney’s best strategy might be to simply say “yes, that’s right” and move on. I am not being facetious. Tom pointed out that Romney has a stock answer for all questions about his religion: say that he is not running as a Mormon, then downplay or minimize the doctrine, and seek to find common ground with mainstream Christianity. And that’s the model he followed here. I think such an approach, over time, might actually alienate more voters than it attracts. Those who are bigoted against Mormons won’t vote for him no matter what. Those who are not of the Mormon faith but willing to vote for a Mormon, it seems to me, will appreciate someone who sticks to his guns and is not ashamed of his religion. If Romney always seems to be embarrassed by the doctrines of the church, he might face not only the wrath of Mormons who get tired of his schtick, but also risks losing the respect of those who would vote for him on policy reasons despite not sharing his religious beliefs. I think Romney may be selling the voters a little short here. The best answer he could have given would have been to say that he doesn’t expect others to adopt his religious views, that yes, his church teaches things that are unique and different but that it also teaches many things that are common to all the world’s religions and that, as President, he would seek to find common ground with people of all faiths. If pressed on the specific doctrinal point, he should just say, yes, the church teaches that. If pressed again, he could make a joke out of it: “well, George, I’ve answered your question, but it seems like you have a lot more questions about my church—why don’t you let me send the missionaries by.” (OK, I’m half-joking about that last part).
All in all, a great podcast. I’d love to hear these folks on future panels. And I think the Romney campaign provides a lot more fodder for interesting discussions about Mormons in public life, about the mix of religion and politics, about the degree to which high-profile members of the church can or should be viewed as representatives of the religion, about how a President’s religion might affect policy (and whether it should), about how a President’s religion might affect the rest of the world’s view of America, etc.
The third episode dealt with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. John Hamer, J. Nelson-Seawright, and Ann Porter were on the panel moderated by John Dehlin. The LDS church recently published an article on MMM in the Ensign, in which many of the dark details of the massacre previously denied or not discussed by the church were brought to light. The article stops short of discussing Brigham Young’s culpability, either as one who ordered the massacre or as one who covered it up and protected the perpetrators for years afterward, but the panelists all agreed that the article was something of a watershed moment for the church. All three panelists are very knowledgeable about the events surrounding Mountain Meadows, the historical context in which it occurred, and the controversies that surround this topic to the present day. Everyone should listen to this podcast, then read the comments at the Mormon Matters blog that follow. Of interest to me is the way some members of the church, even after seeing and hearing evidence concerning Young’s culpability both before and (certainly) after the massacre can still apologize for and try to excuse it. While I would not leave the church over the MMM, it is fascinating to me how people who know the story can dismiss it as irrelevant or as a mere footnote in Mormon history. As I said after the PBS special aired, Mountain Meadows is a stunning illustration of the fruits of unblinking obedience to church leaders.
The fourth episode dealt with feminism generally, in preparation for the fifth episode that dealt with feminism in the Mormon context and the influence of Claudia Bushman on feminism within Mormonism. A thoughtful discussion between Taryn Nelson-Seawright and Rosalynde Welch. I have read much of what Rosalynde has written over at the Times & Seasons blog. She is erudite and knowledgeable; however, I find her writing style to be a bit inaccessible. Not so aurally. Her voice is warm, inviting, and engaging. It’s an example of the Internet text-only medium creating a false image of the person behind the words. One of the more interesting exchanges in this episode is not really on the topic of feminism at all—it’s a discussion of their varying experiences with the social aspects of life in the church post-correlation.
In the sixth episode, panelists Blake Ostler and PaulM join Mormon Matters veterans Ann Porter and John Hamer for a discussion of church finances and the LDS church’s recent press release on doctrine and history. Another great podcast. I actually enjoyed hearing from Blake Ostler, with whom I have sparred on occasion at various blogs. There is something about actual talking and interacting on a personal level that I think softens things up compared to on-line written communication.
On the press release dealing with Mormon history, I enjoyed the discussion but would have liked to have heard from the panel on the basic issue of whether setting policy or explaining church policy through anonymous press releases is really the way the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be communicating to its members and the world. I think a good discussion could be had concerning how the church is choosing to get its messages out now compared to the way it did things in the past. I can’t imagine Joseph Smith leaving the answers to the big questions that came his way to a PR spokesperson, for example.
Episode seven was in two parts. The first dealt with the Pope’s recent declaration that the Catholic Church is, essentially, the “only true church.” The panelists (Ann Porter, David King Landrith, and John Crawford), surprisingly, didn’t really have much to criticize about this statement, which I found interesting. I think the conversation suffered from not having John Hamer on the panel, who I am sure would have pointed out that most churches do NOT make a claim to “one true churchness.” I think that a little bit of LDS-centric myopia was evident in the discussion. The panelists also discussed the flap between Romney and Obama on sex education. The panelists agreed that the brouhaha was more a media creation than anything else.
In part two, the panel discussed what exactly the church means now when it says fathers “preside” in the home. And they discussed raising gay children in the church. Again, the discussion would have benefited from Hamer’s perspective. I did enjoy the panelists’ responses to John’s question “what is your ultimate hope for gays in the church?” A good question. It would have been interesting to see what a “conservative” voice might have said on the subject. My hope is that centuries of bigotry, ignorance, and slavish adherence to ancient texts will eventually be cast aside, and that gays and lesbians will be able to enjoy full fellowship in the church and in the temple. I see no reason why, given the history of the church, gays could not be sealed together as eternal couples and have children sealed to them. If multiple wives can be sealed to men; if men could, in the 19th century, be sealed to other men, why not make the change? And couldn’t any worries about how things would be ordered in the eternities be dealt with the way we deal with all the difficult questions about the ultimate ramifications of Mormonism’s cosmogony?
In episode eight, Rosalynde Welch returns to discuss with Brian Gibson the Richard Dutcher film States of Grace. They discuss the impact of Dutcher’s departure from orthodox Mormonism on how they view the film. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen States of Grace and while the discussion touches on some interesting points, I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had seen the film. The second half of this episode finds Rosalynde interviewing David King Landrith talking about an article written by an orthodox Jew who suffers cultural shunning by his community when he marries a non-Jew. I think this discussion definitely would have been improved by having a disaffected Mormon join in. Clearly, Rosalynde and David don’t really “get” what the author was talking about. Their unsympathetic response to the author’s experience was striking to me.
Perhaps my favorite one so far, episode nine concerns the HBO show Big Love and an examination of the roots of Mormon fundamentalist polygamy. I did think it odd that only one of the panelists discussing Big Love had actually watched the show. I think a whole episode dedicated to Big Love would make for a lively and fruitful discussion. I’d love to hear a panel that included a mainstream devout Mormon, a polygamist, and others who watch the show regularly. But what a great discussion overall. I have been studying Mormonism fairly intensely for nearly 20 years (first from an academic, outsiders’ perspective as part of my religious studies curriculum in college, then as an “insider” convert, and now as a “disaffected” member with nominal membership in the church). I learned in one hour listening to this podcast a host of things I never knew before (one example–that Apostle Richard Lyman’s “adultery” was actually with someone he considered a plural wife; I had read that he had had an “affair” with his secretary).
On the discussion of the 1886 John Taylor revelation and subsequent ordinations, I think it is fair to say that there is at least as much historical evidence to support the argument that the revelation and ordinations actually occurred as there is to support, say, the restoration of the Melchizidek priesthood (at least we have a date for the Taylor revelation and ordinations). As the panelists pointed out, it is a faith claim for the fundamentalists, but it seems to me it requires no greater faith to believe in the Taylor revelation and ordinations than it does to believe in the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the delivery of the gold plates by the angel Moroni (or Nephi in the early accounts), the priesthood restorations, etc.
I think one reason the revelation had such traction, as Tom observed, is that the revelation simply provided a gloss of additional authority for things that were already being taught, and taught repeatedly and quite forcefully, by the apostles. It wasn’t some new and different thing–rather, it served as an exclamation point on what Brigham Young, John Taylor, Jedediah Grant, Orson Pratt, et al. had been teaching for thirty years, and with increasing fervor in the 1880s. I could (but will spare you) trot out quote after quote from the Journal of Discourses in which the apostles are saying that polygamy will never leave the earth, that the church will not and cannot reject it, that no man can be exalted who does not accept the principle, etc. So, it should come as no surprise that the 1886 revelation would get traction, or that the Manifesto would be met with suspicion and disbelief. Episode ten continues the discussion of Mormon fundamentalism.
The latest edition of Mormon Matters, episode eleven, consists of book
recommendations from John Dehlin, J. Nelson-Seawright, and David King
Landrith. The panelists discuss their
recommendations for the best books on Mormonism, focusing mainly on Mormon
history. The discussion of Fawn Brodie’s
No Man Knows My History and Juanita Brooks’ Mountain Meadows Massacre is
insightful and lively. I thoroughly
enjoyed this podcast, and hope that future installments might include book
recommendations in Mormon fiction, exegetical works, and general religion.