Monday, October 19, 2015

The General Conference Buffet: Both Good AND Bad


I really tried--God knows I tried--to not let my skeptical side taint my desire to simply focus on the good and the positive. But implicit in my last post where I referred to General Conference as a "buffet" is the fact that we all pick and choose from multiple offerings what we individually find most appetizing. And sometimes we overdo it and get sick.

This General Conference started great for me. The music and President Uchtdorf's opening message to simplify was spot on. It was refreshing to have him remind the Church to "focus on 'the simplicity that is in Christ' and allow His grace to lift and carry us" rather than get bogged down by the behemoth of the institutional church. Not as refreshing was the implied fear of the internet, especially when the faith crisis of many a church member begins not from being bamboozled by the CES Letter but because they feel bamboozled by the Church itself after encountering the Church's own online historical essays. Many awaken to the realization that they hadn't been given the whole story until the internet forced the Church to become more transparent. Case in point: art commissioned by the church on the left versus art actually closer to the real history now acknowledged by the church on the right:


It's not that there was some vast conspiracy, but there was deception leading to really bad history. The folks in charge who favored a "heritage" approach rather than "historical" approach won out, and then the internet age happened and we're paying the consequences now. (I would like to believe those leaders would’ve changed their minds if they could have actually looked into the future of the internet age and see what consequences we’re paying collectively as a church by going with that approach. But of course that would have taken the actual gift of seer-ship. Today we sustain them to be the guys to seek such gifts, but typically we don't enjoy the actual fruits of those gifts.)

I was, however, delighted that in revisiting the Old Ship Zion analogy I actually sensed progress from Elder Ballard. I felt like he had actually read or heard feedback about my post "On Being Seasick While Staying In The Boat" after his last conference talk. In addition, version 2.0 was arguably an unprecedented acknowledgement of apostolic fallibility. I saw this as a very positive sign for the Mormon culture still desperately in need of repentance for its idolatry of infallible leadership.

However, soon after the afternoon session commenced, I felt embarrassed--even mad--that I had allowed myself to get my hopes up with such a historic opportunity to call in some diversity among the three open positions among the Twelve, only to be stunned as three white men from Utah were called. Again. I confess my initial reaction was a big letdown. I even confess I was too stunned to enjoy much of the rest of the session. The good news is, like Jana and Kalani and others, I've already found lots of good about them and their commitment to compassion--especially Elder Renlund and his wife--and there's no question that I'll sustain all of them, keeping in mind what sustaining really means. Nevertheless, despite great international growth, this remains a predominantly white Utah church led by white Utah men. This is particularly jarring in light of our indefensible and embarrassing racial history.

Elder Anderson may be Joseph Smith's biggest cheerleader these days. Last conference he called Joseph Smith "a holy man, a righteous man" even though Joseph Smith himself is on record saying "I don't want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous." This conference he recommended we "give Joseph a break" at which point I began to wonder if Elder Anderson is capable of demonstrating any sympathy for those of us who no longer hold to a white-washed and correlated paradigm of the prophet. History and truth require more than revisionist cheerleading or the dismissal of actual facts.

Russell M. Nelson's plea for women's voices to be heard was significant, though many have pointed out the irony that such few women are asked to speak in General Conference. But I love that he explicitly told women over the pulpit as President of the Quorum of the Twelve: "We need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices." Of course this comes a little too late for Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly who was excommunicated for trying to do just that, but it was a great message--and much welcomed by this male Mormon feminist (yours truly) even if I personally am ready for them to go further.

All in all, as Conference came to a close, I found myself at a loss for words. I struggled to articulate how I could feel both inspired but also sickened by the very same conference--sometimes by the very same talk. Thankfully, I no longer need to struggle to find the right words because Emily Grover has done it for me--quite beautifully I might add--with this thoughtful post: "Recovering My Sea Legs on the Old Ship Zion." An excerpt:
My Facebook feed is glutted with polarized responses to the recent General Conference: on the one hand, conference memes are ubiquitous to the point of becoming trite and status updates affect unparalleled enthusiasm for every conference talk; on the other, status updates bicker and criticize, nit-picking at all perceived weaknesses in the talks and the selected speakers. Despite how my feed implies that there are but two poles—unquestioning acceptance or critical outrage—I find myself agreeing with and being repulsed by both corners. I feel like I can’t publicly express gratitude for Elder Nelson’s or Elder Holland’s talks on women, because by doing so I might be seen as ignoring the fact that only 5 of the 39 speakers in this last conference were female (and 3 of those 5 spoke in the Women’s General Broadcast). I want to celebrate Elder Nelson’s call for women to “speak up and speak out,” but in the same breath I also want to argue that this message would have been more convincing had more women actually been invited to speak up and out during this conference. 
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I use this quotation to teach critical thinking to college freshmen, but it seems suitable to my testimony these days, too. Why shouldn’t I let myself see through multiple perspectives at once? Why shouldn’t I be bothered by the lack of a woman’s presence in baby blessing circles while still being able to appreciate the love and beauty already inherent in the current practice? Why shouldn’t I be disappointed that the three new apostles called are all white men born in Utah while still being able to love and sustain these good men in their overwhelmingly selfless and life-changing callings? Why shouldn’t I be inspired, uplifted, and elevated by the same conference talks that also bother me?
I absolutely concur with that. And I also just want to add an "amen" to her conclusion:
What will help many members desirous of staying in the boat in spite of their seasickness is if there is more room for discourse within the mainstream conversations of the church that would allow for questions, concerns, discomfort, pain, and frustrations. I think many members trying to hold on will find their legs miraculously strengthened beneath them just by being listened to and understood, by having their questions and concerns validated. In return, it would be good for those of us yearning for changes in the church to remove those filters that keep us from perceiving what is still already light and good and true before us. Our collective efforts could carve a larger space more conducive for minds that, like Fitzgerald’s, can work amid dissonance: a space that would encompass the fruitful, compromising middle grounds between the poles of dogmatic orthodoxy and full-on dissent. I would love to take my journey on a boat like that.

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