Little Black/White Lie
Humans use story to understand and make meaning of their existence. Sometimes life happens in a way that shakes your foundational paradigms and they crumble, as mine did. As a Mormon child, the theoretical framework by which I understood my world was very black/white. I came by this honestly, as weekly indoctrination had taught this both implicitly and explicitly.
This talk by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland demonstrates the worldview I am talking about:
“Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is or this Church and its founder are false, fraudulent, a deception from the first instance onward. Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from his lips, eventually receiving at his hands a set of ancient gold plates which he then translated according to the gift and power of God—or else he did not. And if he did not . . . he is not entitled to retain even the reputation of New England folk hero or well-meaning young man or writer of remarkable fiction. No, and he is not entitled to be considered a great teacher or a quintessential American prophet or the creator of great wisdom literature. If he lied about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he is certainly none of those. I am suggesting that we make exactly that same kind of do-or-die, bold assertion about the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. We have to. Reason and rightness require it. Accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the book as the miraculously revealed and revered word of the Lord it is or else consign both man and book to Hades for the devastating deception of it all, but let’s not have any bizarre middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.” (June 1996 Ensign)
This worldview which I internalized is a setup for faith crisis and collapse of epic proportions. Why? It basically says that if any aspect of church history doesn’t turn out to be just as we were taught it was then we should abandon the whole religion altogether.
Do you think I’m being extreme? I wish I were! President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Each of us has to face the matter — either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.” (May 2003 Ensign) And guess what? Church history is absolutely not the rosy whitewashed picture we were all taught. In the internet age we are learning there are a lot of questionable aspects of Joseph Smith’s story. For example, he was indeed a treasure-digger who sought buried Indian gold with a seer stone in a hat (which he then later used to translate the Book of Mormon). There are 9 differing versions of the first vision story, and they do not give a cohesive narrative ‒ his reason for inquiry was different, those who answered him were different, and what they said to him was different. The Book of Mormon seems to be a product of Joseph Smith’s time period with 0 archaeological evidence of its historicity. Joseph Smith had himself married plurally to 35 women (give or take), several of whom were teens, and several who were already married to other men (Gospel Topics Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo); and caused a deep rift in his marriage with Emma Hale. There so many dark and troubling aspects of church history ‒ massacres at Mountain Meadows and Circleville, the teaching of blood atonement and Adam-God doctrine, the Book of Abraham, and the acceptance of the Salamander letter. If we insist on the entire narrative being true, or none of it, people are left with nowhere to turn if small pieces crumble. The black/white, good/bad, true/false narrative is a setup for failure. The worldview they were taught tells them, “If every piece isn’t true, then none of it is.”
Please, dear Brethren, do not set us up with an all or nothing paradigm any more. You are driving people away. You have taught them that if there are any problems in church history that the entire thing has no value whatsoever. If there is anything I know now, it is that this is a false dichotomy. When you set us up that there are only choices A and B, one of which is all good and the other all bad then no amount of inoculation can really help. But people can be innovative and creative when they feel freedom to choose, inventing options C-Z.
Life is complex, morality complicated. Black and white thinking makes us lazy agents, remaining children morally by ceding all important moral decisions and thinking to some vague hierarchical power structure. When we give our agency away, we lose touch with our moral authority and become more judgemental of ourselves and others as we try to reinforce the rules rather than deal with the complex nuances of all the shades of color in our world. I support people in clinging to the good in our tradition, and in letting the bad go. The middle road in Mormonism is not easy and Elder Holland was mistaken in saying this was an unacceptable position. If that is the only position that works for you, it is okay. There are more colors than black and white in this faith journey, if you are not colorblind feel free to embrace them and find your way with God. “May we ever choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” – Thomas S. Monson (Apr 2016 Ensign)