Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tipping Point or Tripping Point

I feel like I have just spent a week in liberal Mormon heaven. Last Saturday I attended Sunstone. It was full of interesting people with interesting ideas. Sunday my Gospel Principals class had a very engaging discussion about how to serve others. Sunday night I heard Richard Bushman speak at a fireside, and yesterday I attended a book signing and address by the authors of the just-released Massacre at Mountain Meadows. For a Mormonism junkie dweeb it doesn’t get much better.

Meeting and listening to Richard Bushman was probably the highlight of the lot. I have read Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) and a few other Bushman books, and think highly of his work. I am aware of his credentials and talent, but I was taken aback by how good he is from the pulpit. It was not so much his presentation – he is no fire-eating orator. It’s more his understanding of his audience, where they are now, and where he can take them.

I think he knows very well going into these types of events whom he is addressing and what he hopes to achieve. I have been reading On the Road with Joseph Smith, Bushman’s account of the rollout of RSR, in which he details his feelings and approach to addressing many such forums. As such, I was very keen to see how he would “work” the crowd.

The setting was my sister’s stake in Sandy, Utah. Not exactly a hotbed of liberal Mormon thought. One of the first things Bushman did was announce that after making his prepared remarks, he would take questions and that nothing was off limits. Anybody could ask anything they liked. To some that may not seems like a big deal, but when was the last time you heard someone say that to a Mormon congregation from the pulpit?

Bushman was super smooth in how he introduced the congregation to tricky historical problems without seeming to do so. He was very respectful and deferential. He even used an Elder Packer quote about Emma Smith. He seems a master of working change from within. He matter of factly discusses topics that are traditionally more fit for Sunstone than a meeting house. Maybe I am reading more into this than is warranted but I think he cleverly builds credibility with the congregation by saying the right things and quoting the right people before he casually mentions something like Joseph marrying a 14-year-old.

His remarks focused on the humanness of Joseph Smith, the esteem in which he holds Emma Smith, and the practice of polygamy. When he was done the audience took him at his word and peppered him with the type of question that doesn’t usually get asked in Sunday School. Someone wanted to know why Joseph married women who were already betrothed. Bushman said it was Joseph’s way of linking his eternal family to others. Another wanted to know his feelings about the FLDS church in light of the Joseph polygamous experience. Bushman said that while he in no way condoned any type of abuse or pedophilia, he felt we should be very sympathetic to the FLDS. He said that their troubles gave us a glimpse of the troubles early Mormons faced. I asked him why Emma let her boys believe that their father had not practiced polygamy? Hadn’t she done a great disservice in allowing them to proclaim wrongly in public that their father never practiced polygamy? He said that Emma was ashamed of the practice of polygamy and that if you read her words carefully, you’ll notice they are carefully worded to leave herself some wiggle room.

When he was done taking questions, the meeting ended and several people lined up to shake his hand and have books signed. When my turn came, I asked him if he thought that RSR had gotten too far out in front of where Mormons are willing to see their prophet. He said that he had written that book according to how he saw things and that although some members did not want this information, many did. He said that he thought the Church was at a tipping point in term of a candid appraisal and discussion of its history. I was struck by this. A tipping point to me suggests that we may soon experience a much more open approach to church history. Not just a gradual change but a wide and thorough change that will become the rule rather than the exception.

The presentation by the authors of Massacre at Mountain Meadows was very interesting. I sat about 4 feet from the authors (a small room at Benchmark Books with a lot of people). They seemed to have very different personalities and they emphasized very different things in their presentations (they each spoke about 10 minutes). Richard Turley talked a lot about the research process and methodology. Ron Walker focused more on the narrative and Glen Leonard zeroed in on how the event might have been avoided had a few individuals stood their ground when their priesthood and militia leaders pushed for their acquiescence. When they were done speaking, Curt Bench, the bookstore proprietor, talked about how extraordinary and unprecedented the book was and the openness with which the church facilitated the project. He strongly expressed his feeling that we are entering a new phase of openness and candor. He said he had never seen anything like this before. Curt has been dealing books and Mormon document since before Mark Hoffman and has spent his career following Church goings-on. I don’t think he is one given to hyperbole.

Perhaps I am reading too much into these experiences, or maybe I just heard what I wanted to hear. But it seems that two very keen observers of Mormonism see a shift to and perhaps a widening of candor and openness in the Church. Are they up in the night? I hope not.