UPDATE 9.14.15: This post periodically blows up online. Today it got three times more hits than the whole blog gets on an average day. People keep bringing it up on social media, apparently.
I’ve looked over some of those comments, and the biggest thing they tend to say is that I’m being judgmental. I’d like to address this with three points:
- I didn’t judge her value as a person. In fact, I diplomatically phrased much of this essay to specifically avoid the false appearance of condemnation. Sadly, it seems that some will see moral judgment, even in its obvious absence, no matter what someone actually says. To castigate me for an imagined insult shows not just a lack of charity, it shows a lack of reading comprehension.
- I wasn’t criticizing her as a person; I was analyzing her essay. Written documents, publicly published, are all fair game for discussion. That’s how discourse works. There are no privileged texts, immune to analysis. To suggest such is to create a caste of secular scripture, and to demonize someone who dares to analyze such a text is to practice an intellectual inquisition.
- Where I speculate about the author’s possible (possible!) motives and background, it is always in light of what’s explicitly or implicitly in her text. Criticize my analysis, and do so with better evidence and reasoning, but there’s nothing here to warrant an attack. Certainly, I have yet to see a substantial criticism of this post that uses actual citations and clear reasoning–nothing more, in fact, than simple invective. Anyone who wants to engage in civil dialogue is always welcome to, though.
This article made me sad. Not because it mischaracterizes my church, which it does, and not because I think Maren Stephenson, the author, is an awful person, which I don’t, but because I think she totally misunderstands what she rejects and needlessly misses out on something wonderful because of it, even though she must have been so close to it.
The author writes about how her husband, and then she herself, became intellectually disillusioned with the LDS Church, and became happier after leaving it.
For someone who calls herself a “scholar” in her own article, she doesn’t seem to know the difference between doctrine and urban legends, and she seems ignorant of some obvious facts that contradict her new worldview. It isn’t the factual errors that are heartbreaking, though–it’s the personal drama that accompanies (and perhaps fuels) the skepticism, which seems to lead her to a badly warped view of the LDS Church:
I waited anxiously for them to mention my heathen family, wondered if they’d heard that my eternity with my husband was now in jeopardy, that in the hereafter I’d likely be pawned off to some other righteous man as a plural wife…
I can’t tell if she really thinks this is a legitimate LDS belief or not (it isn’t; if she thinks it is, a citation would be nice). If she’s worried of being the victim of assumptions based on urban legends, then I sympathize with her—nobody likes being the butt of unfounded convictions.
It sounds like she feels judged and ostracized here—perhaps these feelings didn’t just suddenly start when she started questioning the faith? Maybe such feelings helped catalyze her journey out of faith? I’ve seen this happen plenty of times, and if this was a factor with her, I wish it was stated openly.
She was sincere, and trying to help, but she believed what the Church teaches — that a man would only leave because he’s disobeying the commandments. She couldn’t understand this was a rational inquiry. She saw everything as the result of sin.
Again, the author’s perception of an individual’s treatment of her is the noteworthy step in her dissatisfaction with the Church, not the Church itself. The author seems to truly believe what she writes, even though there is no church teaching that inactivity is always the result of, as she puts it, “pornography and R-rated movies.”
I knew that if Sean was right, then Joseph Smith was a fraud.
Why? Even if her accusations about Smith were accurate, which they’re not, that hardly accounts for the vast majority of his life and the evidences for the authenticity of his work. If the author’s as literate in the church as she appears, why not address these things? Why only include gossip and folklore?
Whoa, we suddenly have 10 percent more income. Whoa, our weekend free time just doubled. Whoa, we can try alcohol, coffee and tea — the trifecta of forbidden drinks.
If these things had never occurred to her before, then perhaps she was keeping these rules for the wrong reasons: not out of personal devotion, but out of social convenience. Her attitude suggests that she may not have understood the spiritual dimension of these commandments, and had only kept them because she always had and so had others around her. Oddly, “realizations” like these can only happen from a lack of previous critical thinking.
Her view of these standards of living, though, was likely based on how we as a church culture do a poor job of teaching them: we demonize things outside our standards, instead of emphasizing the opportunity to be blessed by choosing to align ourselves with God’s will. Unfortunately, our out-of-focus approach does result in plenty of people losing faith when they try and find that such things as skipping church or drinking alcohol don’t automatically destroy you. The immediate spiritual loss is usually less tangible than the instant pleasure, as Stephenson demonstrates here.
When I shed my garments for slippery Victoria Secret panties, my self-esteem skyrocketed, and our late nights shifted to other things. We were finally adults, taking our firsts together, learning about each other without barriers.
And this is why the article is so sad. Her picture of the church is one of repression and grim, Puritanical dreariness. If she never had much joy in living the gospel, then she may not have been living it very deeply at all. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t know her and I’m not accusing her of doing anything bad, but I’ve known enough people with experiences like hers that I think it’s likely she wasn’t doing some things that are good. I don’t know that for sure, and I don’t know what aspects of discipleship her life may have been missing, but obviously she felt her life was connected more to her social circle than directly to God. That is tragic, but it is not her social circle’s fault. She’s an adult. We choose to do the things that develop private spiritual strength, or we don’t.
For what it’s worth, here are her few actual claims of malfeasance in the LDS Church that apparently damaged her faith:
Our prophets had made it clear that anything written outside church documents was suspect and anti-Mormon, fabricated for the sole purpose of destroying faith.
Citation needed. But there isn’t one, because this isn’t true. (So the syllabus of every class at BYU consists solely of LDS publications? Does this even pass a basic test of sounding reasonable?) Yet again, a cultural assumption is being used against the church, instead of facts. Why?
Joseph Smith mistranslated some Egyptian hieroglyphics that are part of our canonized scripture…. he translated the Book of Mormon while looking at a stone inside of a hat.
Regarding the hieroglyphics, how can we know whether or not any symbol ever had a certain meaning in any time or place? Maybe some of those interpretations are only for our time and place. So claiming that any are in error is subjective. What’s objective is all the hieroglyphics he clearly got right. How did he do that? Why doesn’t she mention that?
As for the stone in the hat, this is hardly an obscure secret. It’s been mentioned many times in official publications, including those for children (see end of page here). If she didn’t know about it, then I’m not sure I can trust her authority as a critic. Also, how does learning one new aspect of a text’s production somehow invalidate the claims of the text itself, despite the mountains of evidence in favor of its veracity? That’s not scholarship. That’s wishful thinking.
“Did you know that Joseph Smith married a 14-year-old girl against her will? Did you know that he’d send men on missions and marry their wives in secret when they were gone?”
This is probably a reference to Helen Kimball. It’s addressed about halfway down on this page. Short version: it wasn’t sexual, and it wasn’t against her will. The other “marriages” referred to here weren’t sexual either, and were never done without the permission of anyone involved. There are a ton of facts about Smith’s sealings that don’t get much press and that devastate critics’ insinuations (Smith had no children by any plural wives, several were old enough to be his mother, etc.). The wording of these accusations is so biased as to constitute slander—they’re not at all accurate. Why rely on exaggeration and fabrication if the truth is on your side?
I’m sad because the author had an unfulfilling experience in the Church, and I’m sad because she has left the Church based on mistaken information. I’m glad, however, that she is happy now. I only wish that she, and everybody else in the world, would really come to know the unique and profound joy that comes not just from being a member of the Church, but from a personal spiritual witness of the truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
As one of our leaders put it in an address in a worldwide conference two months ago:
Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire. If we attend our meetings, hold and fulfill Church responsibilities, and serve others, it is publicly observed.
By contrast, the things of the gospel are usually less visible and more difficult to measure, but they are of greater eternal importance. For example, how much faith do we really have? How repentant are we? How meaningful are the ordinances in our lives? How focused are we on our covenants?
I repeat: we need the gospel and the Church. In fact, the purpose of the Church is to help us live the gospel. We often wonder: How can someone be fully active in the Church as a youth and then not be when they are older? How can an adult who has regularly attended and served stop coming? How can a person who was disappointed by a leader or another member allow that to end their Church participation? Perhaps the reason is they were not sufficiently converted to the gospel—the things of eternity.
I wish Maren Stephenson, and those like her, the best of luck in life, and hope that we can all come to understand each other better, and do so with full honesty and compassion.