I took some time to ponder this issue a bit recently. I have some observations -
1: People are always influenced by their environments.
Bill here, is a great example of this. In the original post, he gives us a list. Now, the list itself isn't unusual at all. In fact, if I look all over the internet, what I find is that this list of issues is published in lots and lots of places. Mostly by critics and disaffected members. The narrative is often the same. Now, this doesn't mean that people aren't encountering information that disturbs them, what it means is that not only are they encountering information that disturbs them, they are also being given a template for how to discuss this disturbing information, they are given a pattern for how to respond to it, and so on. It isn't about facts that anyone can uncover, it is also about accepting the narrative of discovery, of rejection, and all of the rest of it.
2: Most members of the church don't have these issues - even when confronted by them.
This is an interesting personal observation. While I know that there are people out there who have experienced a faith crisis over these kinds of issues, I also know a lot of people who haven't. In fact, my personal experience with people I know personally is that other issues cause far greater angst with the church than these historical ones. I suspect that this is largely an issue of interpretation. Because while Bill has encountered issues that challenge his faith, I have (I am sure) encountered all of the same issues - and I haven't had the same response he has. I can think of a number of reasons why this might be the case - but it has very little to do with the source of the information (whether from believing sources or from critical sources). In fact, I tend often to be quite skeptical of both kinds of sources - because both kinds of sources have an innate bias that isn't helpful at building my own interpretation of the facts.
3: Why the emphasis on the internet?
This seems fairly obvious to me. As with everything else, the internet is great at decontextualizing everything. It is great at creating anonymity when it suits a persons purpose. It is great at eliminating perspective. What do I mean by this? John Dehlin created this survey of disaffected members. Looking at the survey, you would think that he had uncovered the root causes of people leaving Mormonism. The challenge, of course, is that the survey defines the narratives that it wants to present. What the internet seems to be doing is encouraging people to match their own issues with the gospel with a set of predefined narratives (John does this very well) so that whatever Bill's challenges were, as he encounters Dehlin's materials, he rewrites his own history to match what John has provided. Dehlin gives people a framework to understand their disaffection. The reality is that the approach is very problematic. Religion in general is currently in a state of decline here in the U.S. It's not the first time its happened (historically). It won't be the last. It seems (at least to those who track these kinds of things) that this is a cyclical process. If Mormons were losing members at a rate that was completely out of sorts with the religious community in the U.S. in general, we might look for explanations. But it clearly isn't out of whack - in fact, Mormonism is one of the few religions that is still seeing growth right now (even if it as at a slower pace) while most churches are losing overall membership. On some level, if we were losing all of the members that we are losing just to historical kinds of issues, that would seem to be a really interesting piece of the conversation - because it would mean that we weren't losing members for all of the other reasons people normally leave their church over. In a sense, because Dehlin is creating the narrative himself and not collecting it from others, it creates a self-fulfilling kind of situation. The internet isn't causing people to leave by revealing facts - it is causing people to leave by telling them that when we uncover these facts, this is how we should interpret them, and this is how we should respond to them, and ultimately, this is why we need to leave the church. That is the role of the internet, and that is what John Dehlin is doing.
4: Polemical language
Nearly all of these narratives are filled with polemical language. Bill's is no exception. And it clearly isn't built on any kind of personal knowledge or experience. Take this from his item number 2: "ex: not finding seer stones and treasure Hunting in any of the info we are taught from on sundays, no mention of polyandry anywhere.... try typing that in LDS.ORG's search engine, no effort in the material to correct any of these fasle teachings mentioned above." It is true, of course, the the word polyandry doesn't occur anywhere on LDS.ORG. (I am not sure this is an issue, since it is a relatively technical term that has never been used in popular discourse - it was never used to describe the practice when it occurred - its absence is something of a red herring). But seer stones? How about this from the Friend magazine: "Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone." It doesn't get a lot clearer than that. So we have this insinuation in part because Bill has never actually tried to do what he is so critical of. The fascinating thing for me is how easy it can be to find this information. But, Bill would rather take someone else's word for it (like John Dehlin) instead of actually looking. Where is the personal responsibility here?
What's the deal with polemical language? There is a notable issue in the study of comparative religions. That is, quite naturally, a fairly small scholarly field, and its publications are probably not widely know. One of the most recognized though is Johnathon Z. Smith (no relation that I know of to any of Mormonism's Smiths). You can read a bit about him here: http://en.wikipedia....nathan_Z._Smith
). In his book Drudgery Divine, he talks about this issue quite a bit. In particular, he makes this observation:
The uniqueness of the ‘Christ-event’, which usually encodes the death and resurrection of Jesus, is a double claim. On the ontological level, it is a statement of the absolutely alien nature of the divine protagonist (monogenes) and the unprecedented (and paradoxical) character of his self-disclosure; on the historical level, it is an assertion of the radical incomparability of the Christian ‘proclamation’ with respect to the ‘environment’. For many scholars of early Christianity, the latter claim is often combined with the former so as to transfer the (proper, though problematic) theological affirmation of absolute uniqueness to an historical statement that, standing alone, could never assert more than relative uniqueness, that is to say, a quite ordinary postulation of difference. It is this illicit transfer from ontological to the historical that raises the question of the comparison of early Christianity and the religions of Late Antiquity.
Now that may be a bit Greek, so let me explain. Religions always have two aspects. One is a historical aspect (religions are made of real people living at a real point in time, using language that is shared with their contemporaries, incorporating ideas from their social and cultural backgrounds into their faith). The other is the meaning of the faith - represented often in its theology, its notions of salvation, the meaning of faith, and so on. In examining religion, Smith tells us, the problems begin when we substitute one for the other. So, when I read Bill's set of issues, I see all sorts of things that are doing just this. They are moving historical items over into the realm of theology - in ways that the actual historical members of the church didn't. Bill is frustrated with the church for exactly the kind of things that would occur in any American church (how many churches today are vocal opponents of Evolution)? To use one he didn't mention, we have the pre-Adamites right? It was a fairly popular theory through to the tail end of the 19th century. The idea is to take the part of Mormonism that is culturally based, and pretend that it ought to have been revealed. But this is itself a sort of fabricated look at religion. Scholars of the history of religion see things quite different. Everett Ferguson writes this (and I have taken the liberty of substituting "Mormonism" for "Christianity"):
That Mormons observed the same customs and used words in the same way as their contemporaries is hardly noteworthy in itself. Those things belonged to the place and time when Mormonism began. The situation could not have been otherwise for Mormonism to have been a real historical phenomenon, open now to historical study. To expect the situation to have been otherwise would require Mormonism to be something other than it is, a historical religion. Indeed, if Mormonism did not have these linguistic and cultural contacts with [contemporary culture] the presumption would be that it was a fiction originating in another time and place (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 1–2.).
In point one, probably some of the issues do in fact have significant doctrinal or theological consequences. The restriction of the priesthood would be one of these. Lamanites skin getting lighter? That is not a major doctrinal difference. Bruce's identification of the Great and Abominable Church as Catholicism (stemming from the popular view that Babylon in Revelations was the Catholic Church) is not a major doctrine. Part of the polemical argument is giving these issues an importance that they never had.
5: How to decide?
There is this funny statement in Bill's comments. One of course, that many LDS simply do not have issues with in my experience. He tells us he has a problem with "the effort to teach everyone that we should all follow the prophet, that he can not lead the church astray, that we will be blessed for following him regardless of what he asks and then on the other hand being told to know that these are men and they make mistakes and you are not obligated to follow them when they are wrong. That you should have the spirit and it will direct you when one is acting as a prophet and when they are not." Does this paralyze him? Does it make him unable to make judgment calls on his own? There is great irony for me in this statement because, quite simply put, he is already making these decisions - and some of them he is allowing to be made for him. Yes, he tells us about Bruce R. McConkie and his anti evolution stance. But where in the question is the views of James E. Talmage, or John A. Widtsoe or Henry Eyring. Where are the statements from the church on the subject? Bill presents a single side of the story - the side aimed at causing the most angst if provided without the other half - a corresponding context. And all of this while bemoaning have to make meaningful choices. Obviously access to information in our digital age is not that hard. But in repeating the same kind of claims that others make (almost as it were a mantra), Bill lets me know that he has simply read the claims and hasn't bothered to do any kind of personal study or research. If they don't spend the time to look at what is already there, then why should I believe that the church adding to the accessible materials will make any difference at all?
6: The narrative
Bill concludes with this:
Now with the internet the church is forced to deal with much of the above issues but until their hand was forced they did all they could to let this stuff stay below the surface and went out of their way to dismiss having to deal with any of it. ex : prior to 1990 when did we hear of seer stones, evolution can be true, polyandry, treasure hunting, Mormon leaders were racist in their comments about afircan americans, ADAM GOD was taught by Brigham Young and was wrong. Do you feel like things were kept from you? and if so how do you reconcile that?
And here again is the rich irony. Take Adam-God. In the Ensign, in 1976, then prophet Spencer W. Kimball wrote this:
"We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine." Where do we read about Adam-God? Is it spelled out on LDS.ORG? No. In fact, if you search there, you will find a couple of passing allusions to it, and the one statement from Kimball rejecting it. So, here we have it. Obviously there are warts in the past. There are things we have moved beyond. But, we have this sort of challenge here where people like John Dehlin (and his fan Bill now in this thread) want to define the church by these issues. Even in raising them though there is sort of polemical outcry. We could pick the ten biggest issues that Dehlin might raise and include them in the curriculum as past beliefs that we no longer practice. We could talk about the racism of the past. Every church in America has past beliefs that they no longer practice. Every church in America has racism in its past. These are the things we expect to find. It shouldn't be a surpries. What makes it a surprise is not the discovery, but the narrative.
As the church makes more and more historical resources available, the cry hasn't changed. It hasn't diminished. If anything the critics take the historical record and try to fit it to their own preconceptions of what is wrong with the church - and what they really want is some kind of historical interpretation (not the historical documents themselves) in which the church admits how wrong it is, and was, and that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Anything short of that, for most of the critics, will always be a narrative that conceals and hides the truth. I reject that. In giving so much attention to this issue I think we need to remember that despite claims to the contrary, many memebrs of the church are aware of these issues, they remain faithful. It's not the facts that cause disbelief, it is the inability to handle ambiguity in faith and it is the narrative that tells people that they need to stop believing once they uncover historical inconsistencies.
I suppose we can always argue that things were "kept" from us. It is so easy to play the victim - to suggest that we have no responsibility for ourselves to look things up, or to read. We can argue that because its easier to read a synopsis on a critical site than to look at a source and read it for ourselves that we can feel justified in accepting and believing their narrative. But then, I became aware of a lot of this stuff at a very early age. And my response was quite different from Bill's. So I don't think that I am going to accept a Dehlin like narrative that the church has been hiding all of this stuff, and that we should be disturbed by it. Or that if I am not disturbed by it, I must be an apologist with some kind of ulterior motive that keeps me from questioning my faith in the same way (or more importantly just rejecting it). I simply reject the narrative that seems to be informing others about how they should respond - the narritive that really makes a lot of people sound virtually the same when they make their complaints. The narrative that has hand picked its issues and cherry picked its support. I suppose some people are willing to just substitute one authority for another instead of actually trying to find their own understanding.
... suppose, contrary to legend, that Oedipus, for some dark oedipal reason, was hurrying along the road intent on killing his father, and, finding a surly old man blocking his way, killed him so he could (as he thought) get on with the main job. Then not only did Oedipus want to kill his father, and actually kill him, but his desire caused him to kill his father. Yet we could not say that in killing the old man he intentionally killed his father, nor that his reason in killing the old man was to kill his father. (Davidson)