Sunday, April 3, 2016

Notes on General Conference, Part II

We don’t have to go searching through the philosophies of the world for truth that will give us comfort, help, and direction that will get us safely through the trials of life. We already have it.
—Bonnie L. Oscarson, Sunday morning session
This kind of closed-off thinking is not helpful.

Assuming you already know everything you need to know will not help you discover truth.  It will not help you grow intellectually.  It will, however, when practiced over the course of a lifetime and encouraged by trusted leaders, intensify your personal biases until it becomes nearly impossible for you to change your mind even when confronted with the most legitimate, undeniable refutations of your beliefs.

Our commitment to the Lord and his servants cannot be a part-time commitment.
 —W. Christopher Waddell, Sunday morning session
The inclusion of the words "and his servants" bothers me.  At what point during the ordinance of baptism does anybody make a covenant with the prophet or the local bishop?

Commitment to the Lord is all well and good, but when an ecclesiastical leader equates commitment to God with commitment to himself, that leader's motives should be called into question.  Does he want to help people or control people?  Waddell is demanding that his followers lead lives of full-time obligation to him and his general authority friends.  That sounds to me like a grab for power.  And honestly, considering the way he conflates himself with God, this should be seen as a form of blasphemy.

We call on media and entertainment outlets more often to portray motivated and capable fathers who truly love their wives and intelligently guide their children instead of the bumblers or buffoons or the guys who cause problems, as fathers are all too frequently depicted. 
—D. Todd Christofferson, Sunday morning session
This is just silly.  The Lord's anointed have nothing better to do than complain about unfair characterizations of fatherhood on television?  Where are the poignant insights into topical struggles?  Where are the calls to action to fight poverty and hunger and injustice? [In case you're aware of Kearon's talk, I should point out that I wrote this part between sessions, before I realized one of them was actually going to say something awesome.] Where are the honest-to-God prophecies?

One of my favorite shows when I was a kid was Home Improvement.  It centered on Tim Taylor, a husband and father who would be very aptly described with the titles "bumbler," "buffoon," or "guy who causes problems."  But he desperately loved his wife and, despite his many imperfections, he always did his best to express love and support for his children.  Did his many over-the-top pratfalls, his frequent conflicts with his wife, or his numerous missteps in the raising of his three boys make him a bad father?
In fact, I'd argue that, even with all Tim Taylor's absurdly disastrous blunders, he probably helped me build a positive but realistic concept of fatherhood.  Rather than being a one-dimensional paragon of paternal perfection to which my own dad's efforts could never measure up, Tim was a flawed but intensely human father figure whose deepest strength was found in his good intentions.  Tim screwed up time and time again, but to his sons he was a provider, a support system, an entertainer, a role model (in some ways if not all), and when things got serious, Tim was even a pretty damn good teacher.  Home Improvement made it very clear that Tim wanted great things for his kids, even though he usually made a mess in his attempts to provide them.  His good intentions helped me recognize my dad's good intentions when we disagreed.

Was Tim Taylor a perfect father?  Of course not, but no father is.  Instead, he helps to illustrate that buffoonery and honorable fatherhood are not mutually exclusive.  

Obviously, there are plenty of other depictions of fathers on television that are even less flattering. But none of this should be under Christofferson's purview anyway.  And from Tim Taylor to Walter White to Dexter Morgan to John Winchester to Jack Bristow to Cliff Huxtable to Raymond Barone and beyond, the variety of TV dads' strengths and weaknesses represents a full spectrum from which can be gleaned many useful insights into what makes someone a good father.

Most men don't watch Married...with Children and decide that spending the rest of his life sitting on a couch being rude to his wife is the best approach to raising a family, Todd.

...I'm a little surprised that this comment is what elicited my longest rant, too.

If you cannot say you know God is there, you can hope that he is. You can desire to believe. That is enough to start.
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Sunday morning session 
No.  It's not.  I can tell you that from experience.

When the time came for me to start working on my mission papers and I decided I needed to gain a real testimony of the church, I desired to believe.  I'm not sure I've ever desired anything more intensely.  I prayed over the Book of Mormon day after day, begging for that confirmation so that I could know of a surety that the church was true, that God was real, and that the Book of Mormon was his word.  I desperately hoped for all of those things because facing the alternative was too terrifying and too painful.

But you know what?  Wanting to believe wasn't enough.  I mean, I took that desire and ran with it for weeks, studying the scriptures and praying during every quiet moment I had.  If simply desiring to believe were enough to start building a lasting testimony of the gospel, I would be a returned missionary.

If the church isn't true, wanting to believe isn't enough.  If there's nobody answering your prayers, hoping that God is real isn't enough.

Satan’s proposal would have ensured perfect equality. It would redeem all mankind that not one soul would be lost. There would be no agency or choice by anyone, and therefore no need for opposition. There would be no test, no failure, and no success. There would be no growth to attain the purpose the father desired for his children.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
Oaks's talk was a veritable gold mine of hardline asshattery, and the above paragraph is a prime example.  Here, he links the term "equality" very closely with the word "Satan."   And he also explains that Satan's plan wouldn't have accomplished anything because without opposition we are incapable of improvement.

I was pretty terrible the first time I played RollerCoaster Tycoon back in the day, but as I practiced, I got used the the patterns and the cause-and-effect relationships.  With time, I learned how to adeptly provide the best possible experience for my guests.  The same kind of philosophy could apply if I had my own planet, right?  So why didn't God just go with Satan's plan, bring to pass his work and his glory with a one hundred percent success rate, and then let us start creating our own universes and progressing as we learned on the job?

If you ask me (and nobody is), there's way too much about the narrative to our premortal existence that basically comes down to trusting the storyteller.  Oaks doesn't really explain in detail the mechanics that may or may not exist behind why Satan's plan was so awful.  He kind of says "it wouldn't attain God's purposes because I said so" and moves on.

Some who use personal reasoning or wisdom to resist prophetic direction give themselves a label borrowed from elected bodies: the loyal opposition. However appropriate for a democracy, there’s no warrant for this concept in the government of God’s kingdom, where questions are honored but opposition is not.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
Oh, look!  An indirect little pot-shot at the Any Opposed movement!

This policy of "questions are okay but opposition isn't" doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  If you have a question about something, it's generally because you're seeking a truthful answer.  If it turns out that a truthful answer is in opposition to what your church teaches, then you might wind up in opposition to your church. "Questions are honored but opposition is not" is essentially scribbling out half of the truth table—the half in which the church's claims are false.  It's disingenuous to welcome questions in one breath and stigmatize anyone who arrives at an answer you disagree with in the next.

Translation:  You're allowed to ask questions, just make sure the answer you choose to accept involves the church being true.

Come to think of it, this sounds a lot like the vote to sustain church leaders—why pretend it's a vote if you're expected to vote a specific way?

God rarely infringes on the agency of any of his children by intervening against some for the relief of others.... He does not prevent all disasters...he does blunt their effects, as he did with the terrorist bombing that took so many lives in the Brussels airport but only injured our four missionaries. Through all mortal opposition we have God’s assurance that he will consecrate our afflictions for our gain.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session 

Really, Dallin?  Brussels?  You're going out of your way to mention that God thought it was cool to protect missionaries against terrorists but not to protect the poor people who actually died? might be too soon.  Couldn't you have found a nice Holocaust story or something that wasn't quite so fresh and horrifying in people's memories?

Moving on, what's the deal with "infringing" on agency?  You're telling me it was more important to infringe on Joseph Smith's agency by forcing him into polygamy at angelic swordpoint than it was to infringe on a terrorist's agency by forcing him not to set off a bomb?  I think maybe you should go into a little more detail about God's decision-making tree, because this is starting to sound pretty out of perspective and hugely disrespectful to the value of human life.

But it's good to know that our afflictions will benefit us in some unspecified way at some unspecified point in time.  I mean, that statement can be very easily mimicked by the philosophies of men ("whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger"), so it's great to see that your God can provide us with such eloquent, useless platitudes.  I'm sure it means a lot to people who suffer from intense physical and emotional pain on a daily basis.

Some things can only be learned by faith.
Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session

Faith is the antithesis of learning.  Faith is putting your trust in something without being able to see or analyze the movements behind the curtain.  If you have a detailed understanding of something, it's knowledge, not faith.  Telling people they can learn by faith is merely a ploy to string them along a little further.

And telling them that there are some things that can only be learned by faith makes it even worse.  Oaks is trying to convince his followers to leave their "personal reasoning or wisdom" out of the equation because it has no power here.
In this analogy, Théoden is Oaks and Gandalf is Personal Reasoning.  Try to keep up.

President Monson recently reminded us that the blessings of the temple are precious. No sacrifice is too great.
Kent F. Richards, Sunday afternoon session
Of course there are sacrifices that are too great!  Are you crazy?

My parents attend the temple almost obsessively, regardless of the season and often regardless of the weather.  Every time I read an email from my mother relating a dangerous situation on wintry roads while traveling to or from the temple (which, to be fair, has only happened a handful of times), I want to steal one of those wrecking ball trucks and see if I can put the house of the Lord out of commission for a while.

The people waiting in the Spirit World for their ordinances to be performed have plenty of time, especially considering the mad rush of temple work that's slated for the Millennium.  There's no harm in waiting a week to make the three-hour trip once the snow is cleared off the Interstate.

There are plenty of sacrifices that are too great to risk, even for the temple.

Though I usually comment on General Conference excerpts in chronological order, I saved one quote for last, because I found it unique and special:

Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in God and in our fellowman, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Father in Heaven.
—Patrick Kearon, Sunday afternoon session 
Standing ovation.

Seriously, this is what I wish Mormonism could be expected to produce on a regular basis.  Love, compassion, charity, bridging gaps, mending fences, uniting as a species instead of dividing ourselves along cultural, ideological, or dogmatic lines...these are the kinds of things everybody should want.

It was a little disheartening that Kearon began his talk with an exhaustive disclaimer about how he was not commenting on any legislation or policy, though.  Representatives of the LDS church can weigh in on hot-button political issues like gay marriage and religious freedom all they want, but they have to tiptoe across eggshells to discuss an ongoing global refugee crisis?

But disclaimer or no disclaimer, the substance of Kearon's speech was refreshing and touching.  Once the full text is released, it'll probably be worth popping over to to review it.

And with that less-than-bitter closer, that concludes my notes.  It was pretty uneventful, I thought, other than Oaks doing his usual awful Oaksy stuff.  Monson had about eight minutes of screen time, and he looked pretty rough, but he sounded chipper on Sunday morning.  But for those of you unwilling to torture yourself through a ten-hour weekend, you didn't miss much.

Not unexpectedly.


  1. Great recap, Alex. I tried to listen to some of it but ended up tuning out simply because I can't take the droning cadence of their voices. So there was a rant about fictional dads in movies and TV? Really? These guys have too much time on their hands. Although I have to admit popular culture is missing a prime opportunity. A sitcom featuring a perfect LDS patriarch who goes about his self-righteous business, completely clueless about what everyone thinks of him would be hilarious. But then, who outside of Mormonism would believe such a character could exist - even in fiction?

    1. Hey, I'd watch that sitcom. It might be too much for normal TV, but you could probably pitch it to Showtime or Netflix!

    2. Great to see a comment from you, Donna. You're awesome!

      Now that sitcom would be the one with the bumbling, buffoon dad in it.

  2. Thanks for watching for us Alex. I was on the road and didn't want the brethren to put me to sleep while driving.

    I know a kid who got in a car accident on his mission, was trapped in his car, and burned to death. He was a great guy. Too bad God didn't stay his hand there. Oaks just doesn't get it! Those old men are out of touch. I can't believe in a God who would allow that to happen to one of his faithful servants in such a horrible way and then have one of his leaders cherry pick other incidents to try to build people's faith upon it.

    I based my testimony on that of my mother who sacrificed more than anyone I know for the church. We're taught that faith is a gift, but so is faith to believe in another. The problem is that she just had too many really strange beliefs that just don't hold up under any amount of reasoning. I couldn't take it anymore.

    Again following those misguided men comes up. Blind obedience that they teach is not a virtue. You are right. We do not need to and should not commit to them.

    1. Yes, it's the cherry picking! I knew something else about Oaks's comments made my skin crawl, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

      You nailed it. It's the cherry-picking. It's not just that God saves missionaries and lets children starve, it's also that God usually doesn't save his missionaries. How useful is his protection if it's applied arbitrarily? How faith-building is his mercy if you have to sift through piles of indifference to find it?