The boogeyman of “Anti-Mormon literature”: A response to Papa Ostler’s interview with Taylor Christensen

I just finished listening to Papa Ostler’s interview with a young Mormon, Taylor Christensen. I first found Papa Ostler through his inspiring Facebook posts about being more understanding towards the experiences of LGBT Mormons (for instance, see the article here on KUER). Papa Ostler has since founded an inspiring podcast entitled “Listen, Learn, Love” with the stated intent of “to better understand our LGBGT+ brothers and sisters. We believe in God and in His decree to love one another, and this website is one of the ways in which we hope to foster that love and understanding.” Papa Ostler’s podcast has since branched out to many other topics that can use more empathy, including faith crises, pornography, sin and repentance, and chastity.

This specific podcast with Taylor Christensen deals with the complex issues at stake when confronting challenging issues in the church’s past. It begins with a discussion of the much-feared term “anti-Mormon literature”, and broadens to a discussion of making room for those who doubt, accepting those who choose to leave the Church, and how to approach difficult topics in Church history.

While listening to the podcast, I couldn’t help but reflect on many of my own experiences that have led to where I am today with regards to my faith. One of the most moving things I found in the podcast was Taylor’s statement that he no longer fears finding some small tidbit in Church history that will somehow shake him to his core and cause him to lose his testimony. The way that Church members deal with questions regarding Church history does inspire a certain amount of fear: that there is somehow information out there that would inevitably result in you forsaking your faith in the Church (it’s all built into the term “anti-Mormon literature”!). I too don’t feel that fear anymore. And it hasn’t come from ignoring questions of faith; it has happened by being comfortable with those questions, acknowledging some pretty big flaws and mess-ups in the Church, and acknowledging that some may come to different conclusions than myself. It reminded me of a beautiful analogy I just read on a post by a favorite author of mine Michael Austin:

I find the metaphor of the anchor especially interesting in matters of faith. The purpose of an anchor is to keep a ship from moving around. This is a good thing when a ship is in the harbor. It keeps it close to the shore and firmly rooted in place. Ultimately, however, being safely anchored in a harbor is not what ships are for.

But leaving the harbor is a dangerous proposition for a person on a ship. You might get lost. You might hit a storm and sink. And you might find someplace that you like better than your own harbor and stay there. It happens all the time. People don’t come back, or they change so much while they are at sea that nobody even recognizes them when they return.

I am, of course, talking about journeys of faith here. I don’t actually know anything about how real ships work. I read in Moby Dick, but that was a long time ago. I do, though, know a few things about trying to navigate the vast sea of my own faith without the anchors of my childhood belief. It is incredibly difficult.

After listening to the podcast, I thought how some of the stuff that gets lumped together as “anti-Mormon literature” can be broken up into four general categories:

(1) scholarly work and original documents that bring up difficult topics in Church history
(2) material meant to defame the Church or convince Church members to leave
(3) personal stories of faith crises and leaving the Church
(4) resources for former members of the Church

Taylor and Papa Ostler conclude that the Church is already being much more open in regards to (1), including the release of gospel topics essays that are very well-written, and encouraging Church educators to approach Church history in an honest and open way. Taylor is a brave soul, and chose to delve into (2), (3), and (4) directly, in order so he could better understand those who chose to leave the Church. I still have a hard time having any understanding towards (2), but I have deep feelings towards (3) and (4), and I hope to be better at loving and appreciating those who choose to leave. I would note there are no firm boundaries between each of these, and they often overlap, sometimes being included all together in one.

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Personal Encounters with Doubt

I wanted to relate three personal stories of my own following my mission that initiated a change in my approach to Church history, doubts, and faith.

The first involves my letter-writing activities during my mission. There was one particular girl I wrote every single week. She was one of my best friends during high school, and while we had never officially dated, I had thought that I imagined that we could be very happy together should we choose to get married upon my return. But during my mission, there was a period of about 6 months during which she didn’t respond to any of my letters. I kept diligently sending them, and she eventually wrote to my again. But something felt different.

When I returned from my mission, we met back up again. We were both attending the same university, and I was hoping we might even take a few classes together. But there seemed to be some tension that I couldn’t put my finger on. I did notice that she sometimes wore a cross necklace that I couldn’t account for, because that didn’t seem a very Mormon thing to do.

One afternoon after class, we went to lunch together. She seemed very serious. She related to me how her father had left the Church while I was on my mission, and that she and her family were struggling with the consequences. Her ward was anything but supportive, and some members had said some awful things. She had concerns of her own after talking to her dad, and she mentioned multiple accounts of the first vision and the many business interests of the Church as just a few.

I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know how I could help. Just mentioning leaving the Church seemed horrible to me. I didn’t know how to interact with people who left the Church, as I thought that most of them had to be bad people. We parted ways rather awkwardly, and it was kind of an unstated fact that we probably wouldn’t be dating in the future.

A few days later, her dad sent me a message over Facebook. He expressed sympathy for me, and that I probably didn’t know where his daughter was coming from. In order to help, he sent me a few materials that voiced some of the concerns Emily had mentioned. I opened them, but when I began reading, I recoiled like I had just encountered snake venom. This was anti-Mormon literature!

If I had had any sympathy before, it was gone then. I determined I would defend the faith, and I wrote a vitriolic letter. I viewed myself in the pattern of Jesus’s apostles when he instructed them:

And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, that for that city. (Matt 10:14-15)

I sent it in the mail to distance myself from him, and blocked him on Facebook so he wouldn’t send me any more poisonous material. I still regret my overreaction to this day.

The second story involves my penchant for reading. While at a good friend’s house, I stumbled on a book with an eye-catching title: The Second Comforter: Conversing with the Lord Through the Veil by Denver Snuffer. I borrowed the book, and I read it in a single night. It was one of the most insightful doctrinal treatises I had read. It made the gospel a living thing. It took the prophets at their word, the basic premise being that having a personal encounter with Christ shouldn’t be unheard of experiences, but can be achieved by following the pattern outlined in the scriptures. I should note that most of what Snuffer teaches was all stuff I had heard at Church or in the scriptures in one form or another, and that it felt like familiar territory.

After finishing the book, I wanted to know if Snuffer had published any other books.. I found a few more titles on Amazon, and I read everything I could get my hands on. There were a few critical remarks here and there, where he implied that sometimes the Church played the role of the Pharisees. I agreed that some members definitely could be like that, but it didn’t take my overall view of Snuffer. But one day, I decided to look up his Wikipedia page, and I was stunned to find out that he was no longer a member of the Church. He had been excommunicated after he refused to stop publication of his most recent work Passing the Heavenly Gift, as it asserted that the Church was in a state of apostasy and had lost authority after Brigham Young took control of the Church. I was heartbroken, and I didn’t know how to reconcile the new gospel understanding I had come to treasure, and my confidence in the men I viewed as apostles and prophets.

The third story occurred during my calling as elders quorum president in my singles ward. As the EQ president, I made many good friends, often being able to discuss with them some of their personal struggles. One brother asked if he could meet with me at my house. I wasn’t sure what he had in mind, but I agreed. He had discovered a book that he was convinced was the translation of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. I was very skeptical, but he pulled a copy up right on his computer and asked me to read the introduction. It explained how the translator, Christopher Nemelka, had come to the conclusion that the Church was no longer inspired, and how Joseph Smith had appeared to him in the temple and instructed him to translate. He had sent a copy to the First Presidency, who had rejected it. And he now considered himself called to start a new religious movement.

I was again stunned, because this seemed to be a second man who claimed authority to re-initiate the Restoration and reject the LDS Church that I had found within the course of a year. I didn’t know exactly how involved this brother was in this other movement, and I didn’t know how to counsel him. I advised him to do two things: to meet with the bishop before taking any action, and to take Moroni’s counsel at the end of Book of Mormon and prove all things by the power of the Holy Ghost. He assured me that he would, and that he really already had had his own confirmation. He left, but I felt powerless, and concerned: how did people who seemed to start with the same assumptions and information that I did arrive at such wildly different conclusions?

I would note again that while I was dealing with all of this, I was simultaneously coming to terms with being a gay member of the Church, and it was just all very difficult to take in all at once.

A few major influences on my faith

I wanted to share a few of the tools that helped me reconcile my concerns and my faith. It didn’t occur at once, and I still consider myself seeking after truth. I continue to believe in the Church and to act on that belief. But I have found that involves a lot more nuance that getting up on Fast Sunday and boldly stating that I know the Church is true.

First, unlike Taylor, I didn’t have the gumption to pull up to find out exactly the perspective of former members and what caused them to leave. I was super-scared. The resource I turned to was FairMormon. It has changed over the years, but what I really liked was how it addressed critiques of the Church point by point. I was able to read documents like the famous “Letter to a CES Director”, and immediately read a faithful response to any challenges brought up. This was a good starting point for me. Whenever I found a new question, it was highly likely that someone had already addressed it on FairMormon. Since then, I don’t always agree with the approach to apologetics that FairMormon takes, but they definitely have a place.

Second, I found the scholarly articles available through BYU very helpful. The Maxwell Institute has so many great resources for those interested in learning more about Church history. One essay I found on that that sparked a lightbulb for me was “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church” by Davis Bitton. A quote:

I do not have a testimony of the history of the church. In making this declaration, I have no need to deny that our church history is peopled with many inspiring individuals. What they preached and taught can be studied. In the course of enhancing my historical understanding I often find reinforcement for my faith. But I uncouple the two—testimony and history. I leave ample room for human perversity. I am not wed to any single, simple version of the past. I leave room for new information and new interpretations. My testimony is not dependent on scholars. My testimony of the eternal gospel does not hang in the balance.

Third, I found great power and strength in the writings of Christian authors not of our faith. While many questions of faith revolve around specifics of LDS history, others come down to having faith in general. I was inspired by the insights in the gospel, and the legacy of Christian apologists that is so much older than our own. We have a great pedigree. Two particular authors who I admire and respect are C. S. Lewis (for his depth of understanding) and G. K. Chesterton (for his wit, humor, and use of paradox). One iconic quote from Lewis that I still love:

“You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him & kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet & call him Lord & God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

These Christians showed me that I can be confident and not timid in my faith.

And fourth, was a complete realignment in my understanding of what it means to have faith. Have you ever had a Sunday School lesson where the teacher tries to nail down exactly what faith is? Inevitably, someone quotes Alma 32:21, but it still leaves you unfulfilled. In the end, faith still seemed to be intellectual assent to doctrines that you couldn’t entirely prove. But now I see faith goes beyond the mind, and I look at it in terms of a relationship. I love Samuel M. Brown’s comparison of faith to marriage in First Principles and Ordinances:

Ultimately, faith is about commitment and fidelity. By intertwining us in the lives of our fellow saints, faith allows the community of the saints to affect us durably and profoundly. Faith and marriage are similar in many ways. In our culture, ideally marriage is freely chosen at the beginning, driven by a particular kind of passion. Ultimately, marriage is a question of profound commitment and fidelity. Marriage is creative and transformative; through the risks of marriage we allow others to have a profound influence on us, our identity, and our future.

Belief is a choice, not something that is passively accepted or made with the appropriate argument or set of facts. I like this example from Catholicism quoted by Richard E. Bennett in the book A Firm Foundation: Church Organization and Administration:

In Robert Bolt’s classic drama A Man for All Seasons, the ever-principled and incomparable Thomas More, England’s stout defender of the Holy Catholic faith, responded with unflinching conviction when pressed by the Duke of Norfolk about the reasonability and historicity of the Roman Catholic claim to priesthood legitimacy. “The Apostolic Succession of the Pope is—Why, it’s a theory yes; you can’t see it; can’t touch it; it’s a theory. But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.

And what I find deeply profound in Mormonism is the centrality of covenants. Covenants are the solid form of our faith and commitments. I find covenants to be a very powerful doctrine, one that gives me great interpretive power in my life. I like this quote from the Jewish author Rabbi Sacks as quoted by Clark Goble:

In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment. It is more like a marriage than a commercial transaction. Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about “Me” and “You”; covenants are about “Us.”

There is so much more I feel that I could say on this topic, but I need to be bringing this to a close. I will include additional resources that have helped me bring more nuance and power to my faith. I am grateful to Papa Ostler and Taylor Christensen, and I look forward to many more great podcasts.

Additional resources

I love the concept of Generous Orthodoxy as explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his masterful podcast Revisionist History.

I find Clayton M. Christensen’s statement of why he believes absolutely profound, particularly how the Church gives him a chance to practice Christianity that no other settings really give.

SOO many of these topics arise in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives including human frailty, doubt, and commitment.

I loved the essay on pastoral apologetics in Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics by Seth Payne. Here’s a quote of the basic premise:

Broadly speaking, pastoral theology asserts two primary truths: suffering exists and all Saints are called to act as the agents of God’s love in alleviating that suffering. Such a theology cannot be bogged down by dogma, policy, tradition, or authority. Its claims are motivated by, but completely independent of, other LDS doctrines. No belief in or agreement on any abstract idea or assertion is requisite to feed the hungry or comfort the sick. There is a well-known traditional Zen Buddhist story wherein a student asks his master: “What is enlightenment?” The master replied: “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” Pastoral care is just as simple. When you meet the hungry, feed. And when you encounter the sick or afflicted, provide comfort. If we find ourselves giving greater allegiance to abstract ideas or organizational practices more than to those we are called to serve, we have fundamentally misunderstood the beautiful simplicity of pastoral theology and the pastoral approach to apologetics.

There is a great podcast on LDS Perspectives about religious tension, and how faith shouldn’t be about eliminating tension, but by engaging with it.

Terryl Givens and his wife Fiona Givens are beautiful writers that explore many of the complexities of faith in Mormonism. The book that most explicitly covers the topics relevant to this podcast is The Crucible of Doubt. A quote:

There is a type of flower that can bloom only in the desert of doubt. Faith that we elect to profess in the absence of certainty is an offering that is entirely free, unconditioned, and utterly authentic. Such a gesture represents our considered and chosen response to the universe, our assent to what we find beautiful and worthy and deserving of our risk.

Peter Enns is a favorite scholar of mine who engages in similar discussions of nuanced faith and the role of doubt in context of Christianity as a whole. I haven’t read his book Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs, but I have read his The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, and it is fascinating.

Finally, Craig Harline has a beautiful account of his mission Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary that shows how he developed a more nuanced approach to his faith on his mission. For instance:

“It was a total shock to me, realizing that — a shock on the level of Peter’s when God told him that Gentiles weren’t unclean after all, or of people when they saw Jesus touching beggars and unwanted children and sinners and lepers. I not only was shocked to feel goodness that big, but I especially was shocked to feel it in a place so far away among a bunch of strangers speaking a strange language and almost all belonging to the great and abominable church of the devil. I’d have bet-my-life supposed instead that I was there enlightening and saving them, but now it looked like they were enlightening and saving me, and maybe even causing me to go a little native.”

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