Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Notes on General Conference, Part II

It seems most of the controversial material (Cook, Oaks, etc.) was covered on Saturday, but Sunday's sessions still offered plenty to disagree with.  Again, probably not everything is a direct quote, but I got as close as I could with my note-taking.
...primary children can be missionaries too.
--M. Russell Ballard, Sunday morning session 
This is bad.

When I was in second grade, I made a new friend who was obsessed with the Atlanta Braves and convinced me to root for his favorite player, David Justice.  A few years later, when I met another kid in the neighborhood who liked baseball, I went on and on about how great David Justice was and why he should be my new friend's favorite player too.  Did I like him for his athletic prowess or his determination or his team-oriented playing style?  Did I respect him for his charity work and his family values?  Nope.  He was my favorite player because he was my old buddy's favorite player and, whether I could admit it then, the biggest selling point that won me over was the fact that Justice is a really awesome last name.

Young children can't possibly be expected to accurately understand the gravity of religion.  Openly preaching to your worldwide congregation that they can and should use their children to spread the word of beliefs that these children don't fully understand and haven't even been completely exposed to yet is reprehensible.  The depth of their comprehension of the product they're selling doesn't extend much beyond the positive reinforcement they get from their parents when they obey and claim to believe.

They're children.  Not the front lines of the member-missionary army.

Submitting our will to His may be difficult, but it is essential to becoming like Him.
--Jean A. Stevens, Sunday morning session 
Logically, this makes no sense to me.  God is the supreme ruler of the universe and the father of us all, with the power to lift civilizations out of ruin, topple earthly governments, direct masses of people and make covenants with his children.  These are all proactive, powerful attributes.  He answers to no one.

So it's essential to obey him to become like him?  Seems a little far-fetched.  The more we submit to his will the more we become reactionary instead of proactive, subservient instead of dominating and human instead of godlike.

After a long, full lifetime of obedience, God will hand us the keys to a new universe and say, "Here ya go.  You're in charge of literally everything.  Have fun."  And our immediate response will be, "Wait.  What am I supposed to do?  I'm not used to running the show, I'm used to you telling me what to do."  Some preparation.

This life is your four minutes.  While you are here, your actions will determine whether you will win eternal life.
 In a sense, your four minutes have already begun.  The clock is ticking!
Your four minutes will pass quickly and you'll have eternity to think about what you did in this life.
You've prepared for this for millennia.  This is your time.  This is your four minutes!
--Gary E. Stevenson, Sunday morning session 
Directed primarily at the youth, Stevenson's talk was easily my least favorite of the session.  He compared us all to Olympians who train over great lengths of time for competitions that will last only mere minutes.  He tried to sound positive and frame his message as a call to action, but the underlying theme was this:  "You can bust your ass your entire life only to fail by a slim margin.  If you screw up once, you can put everything at risk and you'll regret it for the rest of eternity."

Talk about fear mongering.

To any young man in the audience worried that he might not be found worthy to serve a mission and any young woman in attendance who fears that she won't make a good mother, this talk was a stab in the heart.  Mormonism already pushes its members to be better and meet every possible standard with the threat of losing the respect of their community, their place in the celestial kingdom and their eternal family looming over their heads.  This is just cracking the whip.

Those who thought they were doing well are told they need to do better.  Those who thought they weren't doing well are pushed closer and closer to the brink of desperation.

And one more thingwe prepared for this life for millennia?  How, exactly, did we prepare?  Because we passed through the veil and forgot every bit of training we may have done.  All that preparation doesn't seem to have amounted to much.  How many Olypmic skiers suddenly forget everything at the top of the course, can't remember how to maneuver their skis, don't know the rules of the event and have no clue what the objective is unless they're lucky enough to be informed while they're partway down the mountain?

Is the load I'm carrying creating sufficient spiritual traction so I ultimately can return home to Heavenly Father?  Sometimes we mistakenly believe that happiness is the absence of a load.  But bearing a load is necessary and essential part of the Plan of Happiness.
--David A. Bednar, Sunday morning session
Translation:  Miserable?  You're doing something right!  The more responsibility and fear of inadequacy you heap on yourself, the better off you are!  The more you're weighed down with the burdens of your church callings, the more spiritual traction you'll get so that you can lift yourself out of your church-induced depression and guilt.  If you're not getting out, you must need a heavier load!

While there's some truth to the idea that stress or opposition can help us thrive, I don't think the church's version of a "load" is conducive to psychological health and happy living.

Their words are my words.
--Boyd K. Packer, Sunday afternoon session
Instead of directly testifying of the gospel, Packer quotes Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon's powerfully-worded testimony and pretty much says, "What they said."

He added a little bit after that, but the eloquence and the fervor of his testimony is far outshined by the quote from almost two centuries earlier. It's a little sad that an apostle of the Lord has to rely on someone else when he needs the big guns instead of imparting his own Spirit-infused wisdom.

It would be a wonderful thing if every Latter-Day Saint knew the conversion story of their forefathers.
--William R. Walker, Sunday afternoon session
An entire talk devoted to this.  Surely there's something a little more important, relevant and central to salvation that he could have spent his time on.

Two things about his talk popped out at me.  First, when he was talking about Wilford Woodruff's mission in England and his supposedly inspired jaunt to Herefordshire and the congregation of unaffiliated truth-seekers he encountered there, the numbers seemed a little wonky.  Woodruff baptized 541 people and organized 33 branches in the area.  That's less than 17 people per branch.  If this was a pre-existing group of people all in the same approximate geographical area, why so many branches with so few members apiece?

Second, and more importantly, he old the story of some guy who led his family across the plains to Utah and, while stopped at Winter Quarters, he heeded the call of Brigham Young for enlistment in the Mormon Battalion.  He left behind his children.  And his wife.  Who was pregnant.

This man is not a role model.  I don't care if you think wandering across the country for a few months because a prophet wants people to do it is an honorable thingyou do not abandon your family during a time when they need you more than ever.

I remember an instance when I was a kid in which my dad explained his priorities in life as "family comes first, then the church, then work."  This motto became increasingly difficult for him to abide by as the church gave him more demanding callings that required him to spend large amounts of time away from his family.  But as much as a hypocrite as he may have turned out to be, he never disappeared for six months during a time of high stress and exceptional need on the whim of a prophet.

There is no reason a church leader should be praising this kind of behavior from the pulpit.

A team of horses must always know who is in charge.
The only way for a horse to know he's doing the right thing is to be obedient. 
--L. Tom Perry, Sunday afternoon session
Not in so many words, L. Tom Perry boldly proclaimed to the membership of the church:  "You guys are like clueless animals.  The only way for you to stay spiritually safe is to submit unconditionally to the church's orders.  You are not in charge.  Do not make your own decisions."

Too often we think of obedience as passive and thoughtless, following the orders or dictates of a higher authority.  Actually, at its best, obedience is an emblem of our faith and the wisdom and power of the highest authority, even God.
--L. Tom Perry, Sunday afternoon session

Okay, those aren't opposites.

That's like saying, "Too often, people think of World of Warcraft as being nerdy.  Actually, at its best, it has excellent graphics."

That's great, but you didn't refute the first half of your statement.  "An emblem of our faith" is not the opposite of "passive and thoughtless."  You didn't tell us why obedience isn't passive and thoughtless.  You didn't even tell us that it's not passive and thoughtless.  Fact is, the kind of obedience he's talking about here is passive and thoughtless.  Accept and do what you're told...passivity.  Don't question God's wisdom and authority...thoughtlessness.

Strong, proactive obedience is anything but weak or passive.  It is the means by which we declare our faith in God and qualify ourselves to receive the powers of heaven.  Obedience is a choice.  It is a choice between our own limited knowledge and power and God's unlimited wisdom and omnipotence. 
--L. Tom Perry, Sunday afternoon session 
How, exactly, can obedience be proactive?  You can't obey before you're told what to do.

Perry is simply trying to tell people to do as they're told without making it sound bad.  If you get to think of yourself as "strong" and "proactive" and "declaring your faith" and making a "choice," maybe you won't think it's so bad when you blindly follow the drivel spouted from the pulpit.

Of course obedience is a choice.  So is disobedience.  Neither one is inherently better.  The quality of the choice depends on what you're choosing to obey or disobey.  If you obey the prophet's call by abandoning your pregnant wife in the dead of winter, you're making a bad choice.  If you disobey the prophet's call to serve a mission because you're not sure you really believe the church is true, you're making a good choice.  The lone fact that something is a choice doesn't define it as good.

And just in case you were wondering, God is smarter than you.  So choose to obey him because he knows what's up.

This whole thing was a poorly veiled attempt to remind everyone to fall in line and stroke their egos at the same time so they won't complain about it.  Instead of preaching about doing what you think is right, Perry preaches about doing what you're told.  What a disgusting talk.

Which is more likely?  That he dreamed it all up on his own or that he had the help of heaven?  Do the scriptures he produced sound like the words of man or the words of God?  
There aren't many options.  He was either a pretender or a prophet.  Either he did what he did alone or he had the help of heaven.  Look at all of the evidence.  Not just any single piece but the entire mosaic of his life. 
--Lawrence E. Corbridge, Sunday afternoon session
Um...you didn't...really...want to say that, right?

People write novels all the time!  It's totally plausible that he dreamed it all up on his own and eventually decided to write it down, especially considering that some of the "truth" he imparted in the Book of Mormon was changed later on (polygamy, the nature of the godhead, etc.)  Isaac Asimov's Foundation is a much more believable fictional history in my opinion, and that's kind of funny considering that he based his plot on a fictional science called psychohistory.  But Foundation's psychohistorical predictions make a lot more sense than the Book of Mormon's Godthe God that told his prophet to kill a sleeping drunk, let hundreds of righteous people die because he needed them as evidence, and continually punished his favorite people for being wicked to the point where he let the even more wicked people kill every last one of them...among other things.  So yeah, I totally buy the theory that Joseph Smith made it all up.

And...the entire mosaic of his life?  Do you really want to encourage your members to look up all his polygamous wives, their ages and his threats to some of them?  All his self-important positions including Prophet, Mayor and General?  All his experience with Freemasonry?  His order to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor?  His varying stories of the First Vision and the appearances of Moroni?  The entire mosaic of his life includes some very not-faith-promoting tidbits that can paint Joseph Smith as an untrustworthy, power-hungry womanizer.

Just sayin'.

In the Kingdom of God, the search for truth is appreciated, encouraged and in no way repressed or feared.
--Marcos A. Aidukakis, Sunday afternoon session
Spoken like someone who's been accused of fearing and repressing the truth.

In the LDS church, the search for truth is appreciated and encouraged...so long as it is done using church-approved methods and church-approved sources.  We are repeatedly warned not to visit websites that contain "anti-Mormon" materials and reminded that the way to learn the truth is to pray about it.  There's no talk of reading material from both sides and weighing their authenticity and veracity against each other.  There's no talk of deduction or logic or reasoning.  There's only talk of reading the scriptures and the words of the church leaders and then receiving a burning in your bosom while keeling in prayer.

That's a little bit repressive.  "Search for truth...but only do it this way" is not an open way to encourage honest discovery of truth.

This could be compared to a scientific experiment.  We are invited to test the word.  We are given parameters.  And we are given the outcome of the test if we follow the instructions.
--Marcos A. Aidukakis, Sunday afternoon session 
What?  No!  What's wrong with you?  That's not scientific at all!

In science, you start with a hypothesis, then you experiment, and then you draw the best conclusion you can from the observable data.  You don't start with an answer, experiment, and then compare your results to the answer to make sure you did the experiment right.

I guess Aidukakis was trying to make the emotions-only approach sound more reasonable by likening it to the scientific method.  But Moroni's Promise is hardly scientific and hardly reliable.  How do you measure "a burning in the bosom?"  How do you protect against false positives?  How can the experiment be valid without a control group?  How can you be sure the experiment was conducted exactly right?  (Did I really ask with real intent?  Was my heart sincere enough?  Did I have enough faith in Christ?)  And how do you know outside variables didn't affect the outcome?  (Maybe I didn't get an answer because I didn't have the Spirit because I thought about looking at porn earlier today.)

Science can be wrong, but it's conducted in ways that make it easier to be held accountable for its failures and to course-correct itself.  Emotions-only is subjective, flawed, and ineffective.  Nice try, Aidukakis.

...and that brings me to an end of my notes.  I had something I wanted to say about D. Todd Christofferson's circular logic, but I didn't get a full quote and it's kind of a big concept that deserves a full quote in order to discuss.

This morning's family emails confirmed a sadly positive reaction from my family concerning the General Conference weekend, although a few of them were troubled by the tone of the Saturday morning session (which was the only one I missed, unfortunately).  There's so much wrong with what was said.  I don't know how they don't see it.

But then I remember that I used to be like them, and I didn't see it either, so I guess I shouldn't hold that against them.  It's the church that made them this way that's at fault.


  1. Wow! Where to start. You make so many good points that I'm going to need to split my comments up. I didn't watch much of conference this time, however, I have gone back to watch some based on comments you made. Here are some of my observations:

    I went back and watched Bednar’s talk. It was a load of crap (pun intended). Did you notice that the man didn’t think to pray? He just did his work, and without the Lord’s help, made it down the mountain.

    Did you also notice that he followed the tried and true approved format for a conference talk, tell a story, and then tell what the story means in gospel terms? Oh, and he boringly read if from the teleprompter to make sure he didn’t stray and throw off the translators. I can write a talk like that too using the same formula.

    Once there was a school bus full of children that was driving on a country road. As they approached a tunnel, the driver slowed to go through and hesitated but decided to go anyway. He was in a hurry, and didn’t want to disappoint his bosses, and the children’s parents by being late. As he entered the tunnel, there was a loud noise of metal on rock and a sudden stop as the bus became stuck. It was an inch too tall to make it. The driver tried backing it out with no luck. They tried pulling the bus out with a tow truck, but nothing worked. They didn’t know what to do. They even thought of calling in crews to cut or blast away some of the rock from the tunnel. They let the load of children off of the bus, and had them stand on the side of the road, so they could be picked up and taken home. As he exited the bus, one of the little boys went up to the driver and said, why don’t you just let a little bit of air out of the tires. They did and the driver was able to back the bus out of the tunnel where it was stuck. Like the bus, sometimes we take on too much. We try to do more than we’re able, and we get stuck. Sometimes, we need to ask to be released. In so doing, we release air from our tires. That allows us to back out of the bad situation we’re stuck in so we can continue on with our lives. That’s how I feel about the church. My parents pushed me into a false religion. I was stuck. Fortunately, I have been able to let some air out of my tires, back out, and now I’m driving down another, safer, more beautiful path.

    I watched part of Stevenson’s talk and agree with you. Fear mongering is a good description. Also, you’re right about the preparation part. The BOM says: “This life is the time for men to PREPARE to meet God.” He even quoted that scripture, but he got it all wrong. Aren’t we actually supposed to be preparing NOW (according to false church doctrine)? As I watched his talk, I thought of this. It’s like telling the kids, you have one chance at beating the video game. By the way, you prepared to play it before you were born, but you’ve forgotten now. Oh, and if you don’t win this one and only time you try playing it, you’ll go to hell. It’s another pile of crap. What about the atonement?

    1. I hadn't noticed that Bednar's hero didn't think to pray. That seems so obvious now.

      The tried-and-true format, I feel, is supposed to humanize the stiff teleprompter-reading old men. The stories at the beginning remind us that these soulless, decrepit speakers used to have lives and friends and interesting experiences just like the rest of us. Plus a little extended metaphor is always helpful to drive home a point memorably.

      I like your stuck bus story better than Bednar's stuck truck story. Releasing a little air from your tires, in this context, is a pretty apt description of leaving the church. Here's to the safer, more beautiful path.

      And Stevenson did kind of conveniently forget about the atonement, didn't he? Anyone who makes the argument that Mormons believe in grace needs to take another look at talks like this. Because it seems like you need to do a hell of a lot of works just be be allowed to take advantage of the grace part.

      I wish I'd watched the first session, too, because I really would have liked to hear Cook's talk about gay marriage. I guess I'll have to wait for the church to publish a possibly watered-down transcript of it online.

    2. You can watch all of them on demand at lds.org. That's what I did.

      I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your take on all of this. Thanks for doing it.

    3. Wait...really? I wanted to get a full quote for that bit by Christofferson, so I googled his name and the year and I found some tiny little clips of General Conference on Youtube. The church site didn't come up in the top few results so I figured they hadn't uploaded anything yet.

      I just went straight to the church website. You're totally right. Thanks for that tip. It should have been obvious, but thanks!

      Thanks for reading and participating in discussion. It's reassuring that, after I point out all the stuff I didn't like, you find even MORE stuff not to like. There's plenty of bad teachings to go around!

    4. Actually, I just checked, and they've posted the transcripts now too.

      I'm curious about your take on Elder D. Todd Christofferson. That's the one talk I actually watched a little bit of. I even mentioned to my wife how he used very poor logic.

    5. Yeah, I went with the transcripts! Much easier than watching the whole session.