Book Review: Bridges by David B. Ostler
David Ostler is a traditional Latter-Day Saint who has joined the ranks of Patrick Mason, Thomas McConkie, Adam Miller and Terryl & Fiona Givens by diving into the milieu of the current Mormon faith crisis. His efforts culminate in his recently released book, Bridges, Ministering to Those Who Question, published by Greg Kofford Books. In the past few months Ostler has been featured on podcasts including: A Thoughtful Faith (Gina Colvin), Leading Saints (Kurt Francom) , Live Love Laugh (Richard Ostler-his brother), Mormon Tangents (Rick Bennett), Marriage on a Tightrope (Kattie and Allan Mount), Mormon Stories (John Dehlin) and others. I have listened to all of these interviews and eagerly read his book.
The intended audience for this book is active, practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His intentions are for believing members to understand people that question or no longer believe specific doctrines or truth claims of the church; to explain why people question and why they leave the church; to build a bridge between active believing members and those that are less orthodox; to educate leadership at the local level–in wards and stakes–so that people in crisis can be loved and respected and ministered to by people who understand what they are going through. I feel his sincerity in the written word and through the interviews. He is someone that ‘gets it’ and wants to help.
Ostler has served in multiple leadership callings within the church. In recent years he and his wife Rachelle were called to minister to members of their local area that were no longer attending church. They began by reaching out to people via mail and email, asking them to explain why they were not attending. From there he developed two surveys, one for members in leadership positions and one for members who identify as being in a faith crisis. He conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with multiple people. He began disseminating his findings locally, which ultimately lead to the publication of his book.
Bridges is organized in a way that explains why and how he conducted his research, and presents the findings. The last few chapters focus on what to do with this information going forward.
There are three sections:
Section 1: A Crisis of Faith
Section 2: Trust, Belonging and Meaning
Section 3: Ministering
In Section 1 Ostler does a good job of explaining what a faith crisis is and why it is more common now than in days past. He discusses the changing society’s effect on belief, highlighting the millennial generation. He discusses a lack of trust, advanced technology, the decreasing “switching costs” associated with changing one’s views on marriage, jobs, political parties and religious affiliation. Ostler quotes President Ballard from a CES address advising teachers to be informed and not avoid tough questions from students.
In the chapter titled, “Why People Leave” he discusses the following topics in some detail:
- Church History
- Church LGBTQ Policies and Practices
- Unequal Gender Roles
- Feelings of Judgement and Anxiety at Church
- Concern about Prophetic Leadership and Revelation
- Cultural and Language Issues
- Political Conservatism
- Mental and Emotional Challenges
- Unique Millennial Issues
He encourages readers to reconsider some commonly held assumptions about people who struggle. He cites data from the surveys regarding the faith crisis members. The majority were keeping all the commandments, reading the scriptures, attending church weekly, attending the temple and having meaningful personal prayer at the time of their faith crisis. He concludes the chapter with a call to establish “…faithful avenues for people to discuss challenging issues with other Latter-Day Saints who know about the topics.”
In a chapter, “Confronting Today’s Challenges of Faith,” Ostler make direct recommendations to Study church history including the Gospel Topic Essays and to focus on Jesus Christ. He makes a plea to acknowledge that church leaders make mistakes and have some compassion for them and the callings they bear. Ostler wheels out the “truth cart,” a metaphor introduced by Patrick Mason. He encourages us to examine what is in our truth cart and what does not need to be there. Several of his podcast interviews went deeper in this conversation. He was asked if the “truth cart” was the same as “Cafeteria Mormons.” Ostler explained the “truth cart” as believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior. Items that didn’t need to be in the ‘truth cart” were the historicity of Jonah actually being swallowed by a whale, or the flood literally covering the entire earth, or Job being a real person vs a mythical figure. When he was pushed further to distinguish between ‘truth cart” and Cafeteria Mormon” Ostler stated he could see how they might look like the same thing but he saw a difference. His point was the “truth cart” can be limited to a few certain things.
In the chapter, “How Faith Changes,” Ostler introduces the concepts of faith development and changing paradigm shifts that occur in some people as they experience life’s challenges. He explained Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development focusing on stages 3 (strong, literal faith) and 4 (questioning, deconstructing belief). Ostler discusses “The Dark Night of the Soul,”a term frequently used to describe people in a faith crisis when they experience the absence of God, friends and support. He concludes the chapter with a call to minister to those in crisis. He acknowledges it is difficult for those in Stage 3 to understand what is like to be in Stage 4, which is ultimately why he has written this book.
Section 2 “Trust, Belonging, Meaning” has a chapter dedicated to each of these topics. Ostler’s premise is that if trust, belonging and meaning can be achieved, people will be more inclined to find value in their church affiliation and continue to participate. He shares data from the surveys and interviews that explain how each of these attributes are currently missing for people in a faith crisis. Those of us that are regular readers of The Exponent II blog, magazine and social media sites know these issues all too well.
For example, in the chapter on Meaning, Ostler’s research says the Church doctrines are not spiritually meaningful to 54% of those in a Faith Crisis. In this same survey, eighty percent said the Church does not address spiritual issues that are most important to them. Their longing for meaning goes beyond sitting through boring or repetitive talks and classes. People in a faith crisis are deciding what they believe and how to make peace with what they no longer believe. They are asking themselves who they can trust, where do they belong, how to raise their children, what does it mean for their temple covenants? Where can people talk about these topics?
Ostler plants a bold quote in the middle of this chapter, from Rabbi Abraham Heschel (1955):
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living foundation; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”
Ostler then explains how to walk the walk rather than just talking about issues.
In section 3 “Ministering,” Ostler moves the conversation on ministering from motivational to ability-focused. He encourages listening skills and notes there have been few talks on this subject in recent years. He offers leading questions that invite people to share their experiences. He recommends that the listener really listen without thinking about what to say next. His suggestions are good.
He discourages labeling others, turning conversations back to ourselves, preaching, offering unsolicited advice, judging, manipulating and gaslighting.
He recommends ways to create a loving relationship through Christ-like empathy, building positivity in relationships, validating the other person by accepting and respecting their own experiences. He suggests phrases that can be used during conversations that demonstrate an openness and willingness to engage in dialogue.
Ostler encourages us to consider within each ward there are members who are in a faith crisis and have not shared their experiences openly. He uses an example of a couple who met with their bishop for tithing settlement and shared with him that they no longer believed and were leaving the church. The bishop had no idea prior to that meeting.
How can a ward effectively minister to each other if the ward culture does not allow for true expression of thought and feeling?
Ostler cites possible ways to address faith challenges such as an introduction to the Gospel Topic Essays, Special 5th Sunday meetings to address challenges, separate Sunday School classes to discuss difficult topics, special callings to help leaders support members in a faith crisis, focused discussions in ward council etc. In this Local Leader Survey he asked if any of these things were taking place. In general these things were not happening.
Ostler calls for a welcoming atmosphere and inclusivity. There is a section titled, “Being Inclusive in Church Classes.” He begins by citing George Orwell’s 1984 and the concept of “thought-crimes.” He encourages us not to police each other’s opinions. He shares several first hand experiences of policing he has witnessed. His interviews confirm that people felt policed at church, which for some, inhibited their ability to freely participate.
In Bridges Ostler goes as far as he can go while still being a committed member. In his interviews Ostler shares he has 6 adult children, some of whom no longer believe as they once did. He says nothing can separate him from his children. He wants everyone’s children to feel love and belonging. His goal with this book and his many interviews is to effect change at the local level and within families. and isn’t that how all good things come about?
If our intention is to create positive change in our wards and stakes I encourage you to read this book or listen to a podcast or two and then forward the book or podcast link to members in your circle of influence and encourage them to do the same.