An LDS Exit Narrative Without the Exit

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As I was wrapping up my final terms at Brigham Young University I received word that I had been accepted to Yale Divinity School where I was to pursue the academic study of religion within an environment that both valued and promoted Christian worship, commitment and virtue.  At the time my primary interests were centered on the interplay between theology, religious practice, and the ethics within political society.  The timing of my entry to YDS was fortuitous as it coincided with an emerging personal angst related to my own religious tradition: Mormonism.  In the 2-3 years leading up to beginning my studies at YDS I had been exposed to several alternative views on Mormon history, doctrine, leadership, and theology and found myself in a position with questions not only in regard to Mormonism itself, but also, my own place within the Mormon cultural milieu.

During my time at YDS I went through a significant spiritual transformation.  I recall when I turned in my first paper related to Mormonism for a class on covenant and social ethics within the Hebrew Bible.  I had written on how Mormons consider themselves, in a sense, to be God’s “new Israel”; the reestablishment or restoration of the ancient covenant God made with the Patriarchs.  After returning the graded paper to me, my academic advisor said something along the lines of: “I get the feeling you are holding back; hesitant to explicitly ask questions that challenge your own views, as well as the theological claims made by your Mormon tradition.”  He was right, of course.  I had discussed several issues up to the point where serious probing questions could, and should, have been asked.  But at the time I was, perhaps this isn’t the best way to describe it, afraid to ask certain probing questions.  At that time I had absolutely no desire to be critical of the Church institution or its leadership and this hesitancy made itself clearly manifest in my writing.  My professor had challenged me — not to be critical of my own tradition, its theology, and its leadership just for the sake of being critical — but rather to ask critical and probing questions in an effort to increase understanding.  I decided to take the plunge and see if I could write critically about my own tradition without undermining the tradition itself.

In my next paper I took on race issues within Mormonism as they related to pre-1978 priesthood ordination policies.  In this paper I decided to “take the gloves off”, as it were, and really probe and question without fear of where such questions would lead me.  Such criticism was not completely foreign to me, of course.  I have written elsewhere of how actions of some Church leaders caused me to begin questioning claims of absolute and unquestioned authority as early as 2001, but this was the first time I had both the opportunity and willingness to tackle a difficult issue purely academically, ask critical questions, and draw conclusions even if such conclusions seemed to be at odds with a more traditional understanding of Mormon culture, theology, and practice.  Such an endeavor was an extension of a journey begun many years before.

In the summer of 2007 I had reached a point where some core LDS truth-claims regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, as well as issues related to the idea that Mormon faithfulness = willingness to obey Church leadership had caused me to question my faith in ways I had previously thought impossible.  During this time I gave serious consideration to resigning from the LDS Church but every time I sat down to write a resignation letter I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Not because I thought that problems of Book of Mormon historicity etc. could be resolved if I simply studied/prayed harder and more intently.  Quite the opposite.  I realized that while resigning from the LDS Church was an important part of the exit process for many, it just wasn’t the right choice for me.

I had a strong desire to stay connected to both my Mormon heritage and community, regardless of my emerging theological liberal views.  I came to recognize that for me, community, service , and simply the opportunity to worship with others who understood me and whom I understood, sat at the center of my spiritual life — just as it always had.  Some details had chanced, certainly, but my desire to fellowship with my fellow Saints remained (although it took me a good 2 years to realize this).

Because of my own questions and challenges I became keenly interested in the reasons why people resigned from the LDS Church.  In particular, why some felt the need not just to leave the Church but to join “oppositional coalitions” working to counter the activities of the LDS Church.  Eventually I became aware of the work of sociologist David Bromley and was inspired by his work on “new religious movements” to explore the specific phenomenon of the creation of exit or “captivity narratives” by those who left religious groups broadly considered “subversive.”

The details of my research in this area can be found in my recently-published paper: “Ex-Mormon Narratives and Pastoral Apologetics”  Sociologist Ryan Cragun offers up an interesting critique of my paper, “Apostates,” “Anti-Mormons,”, And Other Problems in Seth Payne’s “Ex-Mormon Narratives and Pastoral Apologetics”, which can be found either here or here.  My response to Cragun can be found here.

Looking back I can say that my transition from being a fairly theologically conservative Mormon recognizing the unfettered authority of Church leadership to one who rejects most aspects of literalism and eschews any claim of authority by leadership over the spiritual life of adherents, was a very difficult one.  I am grateful that I had an academic outlet to explore and express my questions and views.  For me, the critical academic study of religion has produced unexpected results.  Rather than reject faith, I embrace and defend it enthusiastically.  Rather than leave the LDS Church, I have been inspired to remain in fellowship with the Saints because regardless of any theological difference of opinion, I find myself being constantly overwhelmed by expressions of love, charity, and compassion and in turn, seek out opportunities to become a conduit of that love and compassion myself.

 

An Open Letter From a BYU Football Fan

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To All College Football Fans:

If you haven’t seen it already, there is increasing talk about the possibility of BYU going undefeated this season and causing a possible headache for the CFB playoff selection committee.  But getting past questions of the sheer silliness of “Power” conferences — conferences with such illustrious football teams as Duke, Vanderbilt, and the University of Iowa —  I wanted to share my thoughts on BYU football and hopefully put some minds at ease.

I have been a BYU fan since as long as I can remember.  I used to watch away games with my Grandma and attend home games with members of my family.   I was there when Ty Detmer scrambled to throw a touchdown against #1 Miami in 1990.  I was there in 2002 when Brandon Doman and Luke Staley lifted the Cougars over the Utah Utes in the final seconds.

Of course, I was also watching when Hawaii didn’t just beat the 1990 and 2001 teams, they demolished and embarrassed them.  In 1991, just hours after receiving the Heisman Trophy, Ty Detmer led the Cougars to a 28-59 loss, thus dropping the Cougars from the top 10 and putting them out of consideration for a national title.  In 2001 the Cougars beat most of their opponents without problems only to go to Hawaii to lose 45-72.  Both teams followed up these losses to Hawaii with poor bowl performances.  In 1990 matters weren’t helped when Texas A&M’s Slocum instructed his team to injure Detmer, which they did.  Twice.  Oh…. and then they kept their starters in an ran the score up for a 15-65 BYU loss.  Super classy! With the emergence of Johnny Manziel I am now convinced that Texas A&M has one of the most robust policies regarding sportsmanship in all of college football.  *cough*

At this point in the season all this talk of being undefeated is nonsense.  If anything, BYU has shown an uncanny ability to have a standout season marred by an embarrassing defeat.  So if the Cougars go into the 2nd week of November undefeated, let’s have the conversation then.

Should BYU be in one of the so-called “Power” conferences.  Probably.  They are better than many teams in those conferences but certainly don’t compare with teams like Florida State, Ohio State, and others.  Within a Power conference the Cougars may win the occasional conference championship but, I suspect, would most often find themselves in the middle of the pack.

For that reason I don’t mind BYU being independent.  Even with all the scheduling difficulties etc…  Due to its Honor Code and religious education requirements, BYU will always be a middle-tier CFB program.  One that will occasionally pull off a huge upset win over a top 10 school but mostly, a team that will always be competitive against the likes of Boise State and TCU.

BYU has an incredibly limited recruiting pool which is, mostly, limited to Mormon kids who embrace the BYU culture of no sex, no drugs, no drinking.  Any amazing Mormon HS football player is almost sure to go to a big school in a “Power” conference.  BYU will simply never attract the top HS talent because attending BYU is, shall we say, a unique experience not generally appealing to those without Mormon religious convictions.

As a huge BYU fan I have to say that I am completely OK with BYU being a mid-tier team with the occasional big win.  I’m always glad to see BYU put their standards above athletics.  Don’t get me wrong.  Some of the Honor Code is just downright silly and as a BYU student I certainly didn’t enjoy some of the more pharisaical mandates.  But it is what it is.  BYU is a good place to receive an education and also a good place to root for a pretty darn good football team.

Seth

 

Apologists Behaving Badly: Dan Story

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I am fascinated by religious apologetics.  Apologetics is the defense of faith or a defense of THE faith, given the particular religion of the person offering a defense.  I consider myself to be an apologist for faith, generally, and have no interesting in defending any particular dogma, belief, or practice.  I have found, however, that most religious apologists engage in the defense of specific religious truth-claims.  Dan Story is one such apologist and defends conservative Christian theology quite confidently and aggressively.  And, while I appreciate Story’s sincerity and faith, I have been disappointed with some of his specific arguments/claims made in regard to 1) the exclusivity of Christian truth and 2) criticism of other religions and/or philosophies.

In Story’s book Engaging the Closed Mind (Story, Dan. Engaging the Closed Minded: Presenting Your Faith to the Confirmed Unbeliever. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999.), Story brazenly states:

Anyone who lives an active Christian life, that is, anyone who is not too embarrassed or intimidated to let people know he or she is a believer, will be called upon to defend his or her faith. It’s one of the ironies of the modern world that Christians must continually demonstrate that what they believe to be true is true. Christians are always put on the defensive.

It shouldn’t be this way. Why? Because Christians are the ones who possess the truth, not unbelievers. We are the ones with a grasp on reality as it really exists. We are the ones who can demonstrate the legitimacy of our truth-claims. Unbelievers—not Christians—are the ones who should defend their worldview. (pp. 63-64)

It is no surprise that Story boldly proclaims his Christian beliefs.  However, Story’s suggested approach is anathema — in my view at least — to the core faith Story is trying to defend.  If Christians had absolute assurance that their beliefs explain “reality as it really exists” then what is the purpose of faith?  Peter counseled the Saints to defend their beliefs with gentleness and reverence.  Trying to shift the burden of proof to critics circumvents this counsel.  No longer is the Christian simply defending their beliefs but rather, they are becoming critics themselves; attacking the beliefs of others, albeit politely.

Story continues:

But there is another apologetic strategy that we will examine in this chapter. In this approach, rather than defending our beliefs, we challenge unbelievers to defend their beliefs. This is “positive” apologetics or what I prefer to call offensive apologetics. I don’t mean offensive as in bad taste, but offensive as in a football game. We become the aggressors. We force the unbeliever to take the defensive position and account for his religious or philosophical beliefs. In this approach, the “evidence” for Christianity becomes the unbeliever’s inability to defend his worldview. Christianity is supported by default. (p. 64)

Story surely realizes that poking holes in competing views does not establish the fact, or reality, of one’s own position.

Story advocates using the Socratic method to essentially tie Christian critics up in knots.  But again, even if a Christian is successful in demonstrating flaws in the metaphysics of others, this does absolutely nothing to promote — or even defend — the worldview of a Christian believer.

Do you see what’s being done here? Rather than defending our beliefs, we are challenging unbelievers to account for their beliefs. We are shifting the burden of proof away from Christianity to the non-Christian. (p. 76)

This advice is completely contrary to the counsel found in 1 Peter 3.  Christians are to defend their faith by answering critics with gentleness and reverence.  What Story is advocating is a rhetorical word game which, ultimately, accomplishes nothing.  Apologetics isn’t about winning debates.  It is about expressing Christian devotion by demonstrating 1) a firm commitment to Christian discipleship and 2) showing respect to critics through understanding their viewpoint and offering a substantive explanation of the Christian position.

I do agree with Story on one important point, however.  And that is the need for Christians — or any religionists — to be prepared to answer questions about their faith with a working knowledge of competing worldviews.

Using the Socratic Method demands that we know the Christian solution to the problems inherent in the unbeliever’s position. If we don’t know the subject at hand, we can’t identify hidden assumptions, inaccurate data, or misconceptions.

Moreover, once an unbeliever concludes for herself that her present view possesses fatal flaws, it’s necessary to demonstrate that the Christian alternative is correct. Otherwise, the unbeliever may opt for still another erroneous worldview, and you are back to square one. It’s impossible to be effective using the Socratic Method (or any apologetic tactic) without a background in evidential apologetics.

Fortunately, a good self-education in apologetics is available to all Christians. The answers to 99 percent of the questions unbelievers ask, and the arguments they present, can be found in many introductory books on apologetics. (p. 84-85)

Of course, I find Story’s confidence to be both misplaced and potentially damaging to the Christian position.  I will provide more detail in subsequent posts but suffice it to say, Story’s grasp on competing views is problematic and his claim that “99 percent” of answers can be found in existing apologetic literature is simply false.

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