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This is the third of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger“ (see earlier essays on attachment injury and the pain of separation from the Saints). This is an updated version of an earlier essay, The Story John Told You, revised and clarified below after extensive feedback.
When a dear friend stepped away from the Church of Jesus Christ a few years back, she cited what she called “historicity” concerns laid bare after listening to a podcast called Mormon Stories hosted by John Dehlin.
I was surprised (and not surprised) that she had taken John’s insights about history and doctrine as uniquely trustworthy and objective. From the beginning, John’s casual, ball-cap-wearing style was disarming – with many over the years placing premature confidence in him as a reliable guide in more carefully investigating some of the central claims of their faith.
One interview at a time, John’s podcast gained popularity for parsing through little-discussed aspects of Latter-day Saint history and doctrine, like an archeologist bravely sifting through fragments of the past in search of the full truth. Always positioned as a free-thinking, but fair-minded inquiry – the podcast presented itself over the years as independent of any agenda outside of the full truth.[i]
As a result, people came to relate to the podcast as a way to really scrutinize the evidence – beyond the positive prejudice that infected so-called “True Believing Mormons.”
Putting it on the Shelf
With each passing Mormon Story interview, the worrisome evidence seemed to pile up. Taking up a metaphor once used by Camilla Kimball in the context of preserving faith,[ii] podcast participants would subsequently try to put certain historical wonderings “on the shelf.” But after so many discussions highlighting so many concerns over time, many ultimately reported a substantial internal shift taking place. As they describe it:
- At some point, the evidence of concern would become so compelling that the shelf would “break” under what they perceived as the sheer empirical weight.
- In that moment, many would feel compelled to conclude it must all be false. And contrary to their previous feelings toward beloved leaders, they now realized prophets must have been lying to them.[iii]
That dual motif, so often recounted on the Mormon Stories podcast, is the central part of what I’m calling John’s Mormon Story – the narrative he’s personally shared with the world over the last decade.[iv]
But some might protest: Is this really “John’s story” or the one arising from hundreds of people he has interviewed over the years? Of course, the answer is both: people obviously bring out their own experiences and personal stories in an interview. What I’m highlighting here is how these same raw experiences get framed up in a particular way during the course of any interview conversation – e.g., the Story about the Story.
In this case, I’m not the only one who has suggested more attention be paid to certain narrative themes apparent across M.S. interviews, especially this one: Troubling historical evidence is frequently discussed as (a) objective and clear (without major, reasonable dispute) and (b) when considered in its totality, simply too much – requiring one with integrity to do something.
In small and large ways, this is the Mormon Story that weaves its way through the podcast. After nearly 15 years of episodes, its message of Disconcerting Shelf-Breaking Evidence Forcing Me to Walk Away has been amplified to the world a million times over.
So dominant has this theme become online that it shows up everywhere now. One man, for instance, recently commented online:
The real issue is that the common body of evidence – when explored honestly and seriously…fully justifies negative conclusions about Mormonism at virtually every turn – including about common, routine religious/spiritual experiences that are interpreted as the “Holy Ghost” and “testimony.”
Many thousands of similar comments can be found in various groups online, full of similar assertions: it’s pretty simple – just follow the evidence!
That damning evidence, from this vantage point, “fully” justifies painful conclusions about what had previously been held as sacred, true and precious. Once someone has managed to wrap his or her head around this evidence, the only question left is whether one has enough personal integrity to “accept an honest picture” of science or history.
As if it were really this simple.
What Scholars Believe about History and Science Today
Few scholars today believe history or science are so simple, linear and clean. Nonetheless, the general public continues (almost universally) to see science as a simple amassing of cumulative evidence, and history as a mere aggregation of primary historical sources until the truth becomes unmistakably clear.
According to this account, the actual truth about Jesus, or Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon (for better or worse), is clearly laid out in the historical record for any honest-hearted person reviewing the evidence. If you spend time with either impassioned advocates or critics of the Church, isn’t that exactly what both sides will tell you?
On one hand, critics will give you plenty to read or watch or listen to that, in their judgment, constitutes nearly incontrovertible evidence that the whole thing is a ruse. And on the other hand, books like Tad Callister’s “The Case for the Book of Mormon” detail numerous, compelling evidences for the historicity of the text.
While it’s therefore hard for critics to conceive how someone could consider the Book of Mormon to be true, it becomes equally hard for believers to conceive how someone could consider the Book of Mormon’s origins as anything but inspired.[v]
This is not to say the evidence is a coin toss (it’s not!) It’s only stating what should be obvious: that even after reviewing much of the “same” evidence, we’re reaching very different conclusions about what it means or says.
And that’s not going to change anytime soon – no matter the evidence in front of us.
Consider this: After literally thousands of pages of grand jury testimony and evidence compiled about Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri by a white policeman (prompting 2014 riots), there are still wide disagreements on what actually happened.
By comparison, with the scant evidence available on early polygamy in the Church, voices on both sides sometimes assert the historical truth on Joseph Smith’s marriages is crystal clear.
I believe Joseph Smith was a good man and a true prophet, but not because the historical record has “convinced me.” My own communion with God has convinced me, and I see abundant confirmation of what I have come to believe in the historical record – and other “fruits” of the prophet’s mark on the world.
And that’s not dissimilar to what I would argue critics experience, as a growing skepticism of the man interacts with a particular focus on historical evidence they take as confirmation for those same feelings.
The Hidden Variable
In both cases, let’s be honest that even with abundant evidence, the full truth of a matter can be difficult to discern. And while repeated patterns of evidence should obviously be compelling to any thoughtful observer, there’s also a lot more going on in historical analysis these days (at least as long as human beings are involved).
Namely: the inescapability of human interpretation and values.
While people generally assume this kind of human element is “controlled for” in rigorous scholarship, that only applies to the most blatant of value interference. In reality, human interpretation and value permeate every level of scholarship. As paleontologist writer Brian Switek recently told Doug Fabrizio on RadioWest, “Science isn’t ‘we found a fact, and we’re going to put it on the shelf, and now we know this, and now we’ll move on’ – it’s this dance between fact and theory constantly going on. And the expectations you have going into something will influence the data you collect, how you interpret that data, how you think about that.”
Compared to the image of a scholar carefully trying to “listen to the data,” this points towards more of a dialogue with the data. Rather than “speaking for itself,” then, both historical and empirical data must be interpreted by a human interpreter (with his or her own distinctive values and standpoint).
This is what foils the simplistic accounting of an obvious historical or scientific report-out. Instead of a linear, mechanistic process of accumulating evidence, research needs to be appreciated as a human endeavor involving human interpretation, evaluation and judgment (constantly + at every level).
This is the central point I raised earlier about Jana Riess’s recent book, and the aspect I wish she had been more forthright about: amidst the ceaseless scrutiny of orthodox narratives in the Church, let’s pay a little attention to your own narrative too?
If we could do that, it would mean appreciating that when it comes to research commentary (from Jana to John and beyond), it’s not just evidence we’re consuming, but a particular interpretation of that evidence.
None of this, by the way, denies the complexity, seriousness and thoughtfulness of people’s journeys. I don’t doubt, as John himself reminded me, that former members are generally “very serious, very thoughtful people who are guided by years of deep, powerful study and reflection” nor that “their journeys out of Mormonism are sincere and authentic.”
That is abundantly clear and is uncontested here. Even thoughtful, serious people are subject to influence, however – and it’s that influence I’m trying to shine a clearer light on in this essay.
An Alternative to the Shelf Narrative: Conditions of Authentic Choice.
According to John’s story described above, the gradual accumulation of evidence is so compelling that it eventually reaches a point of undeniability (at least, once again, to observers with integrity).
In fairness, don’t members of the Church sometimes talk this way in the reverse direction? That the evidence of God’s hand in the world or of the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness are so undeniable that any thoughtful person paying attention should be able to see them? [vi]
In response to this perception, Terryl and Fiona Givens write, “An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads”—with the genuine freedom to choose whether to believe (or not) requiring a space “perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension.”[vii]
This isn’t an argument for relativism or a denial of the possibility of strong conviction about truth. It’s simply a reminder of what Latter-day Saints have been taught since the beginning: that God set up this Big Beautiful (and Often Terrifying) Plan of Progression ensuring that human agency remains wholly sacrosanct. As one of the songs from the first Latter-day Saint hymnal says, God will “never force the human mind.”[viii]
What the Givens are suggesting here is that God preserves our freedom by holding back (at least to some significant degree). That is, even though He could be clearer and more perfectly persuasive, He intentionally, lovingly does not. As one commentator nicely elaborated:
God has set up this marvelous place of tension between competing perspectives of reality. There are reasons and facts that point us in one direction or another, but in the end we choose a story that resonates with us, we choose a prophet to follow (Pres Nelson, John Dehlin, Sam Harris, Sean Hannity, etc.), and we construct a story for ourselves that agrees. “Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.”
Many will protest this Choose Your Prophet notion – insisting that they no longer follow any such authority (not with any degree of loyalty) and arguing that their own logic and reasoning alone dictate their path forward.
Even while recognizing that many have consciously chosen to shift away from following any idealized authority figure; even while respecting that many of these same people now see their focus of control and authority as centering on themselves – even then, I would submit that we cannot escape influence. We all lean upon someone’s word – even those who reject every religious voice as preposterous have placed (yes, often remarkable) confidence in someone else’s perspective. That’s human nature and human psychology. And it’s not to be avoided.
And if Terryl and Fiona are to be believed, it’s also precisely how God wanted it. In a world explicitly designed for conditions of authentic choice, they go on to argue that “one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial.” Rather than the sheer weight of evidence on one side or the other tipping the scale, the Givens go on to suggest that the thing that “tip[s] the scale” is the fact that each individual is “truly free to choose belief or skepticism, faith or faithlessness.”
Instead of a choice about whether to follow the “undeniable evidence” confirming that either the Church is true or false, the central choice becomes something else entirely: what do we really want the most? The Givens elaborate:
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we ‘get it right.’ It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. The content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe…When freely chosen, faith expresses something essential about the self.
Such a freely-made, transformative space of ongoing choosing is made possible, they ultimately argue, by being “confronted with a world in which there are appealing arguments for a Divinity that is a childish projection, for prophets as scheming or deluded imposters, and for scriptures as so much fabulous fiction.” At the same time, “there is also compelling evidence that a glorious Divinity presides over the cosmos, that His angels are strangers we have entertained unaware, and that His word and will are made manifest through a scriptural canon that is never definitively closed.”[ix]
No, this doesn’t mean the only way to believe in the veracity of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and the Church is to simply “make a choice” to believe. Neither side sees this as a balanced 50-50 contest (nor do I). It’s just to suggest that choice is always-and-forever a central part of that conclusion – in one direction or another. And however much evidence we may insist does exist to confirm the beautiful validity (or horrific deception) of it all, it also argues there will never be enough sheer evidence in this mortal sphere to conclusively, publicly, finally settle the big questions – at least not independent from our own decisive, guiding interpretation of that evidence.
In the end, our own hearts, faith and confidence (in something or another) lead the way…for all of us.
Stories of Suspicion – Acknowledging their True Influence.
Okay, so where does this all leave us? From the vantage point of this second way of thinking above (wherein conditions of authentic choice are paramount, and God will not force the human mind), the influence of a podcast like Mormon Stories or a book like The Next Mormons comes to be understood quite differently.
Rather than primarily a discloser of facts or a revealer of uncomfortable realities,[x] we come to understand John or Jana as missionaries like the rest of us: people raising a certain perspective and offering it to the world. In his case, interview by interview, John has indeed drawn out a certain framing of other people’s insights and experiences (as we all would, if we were conducting the interviews).
Subsequently, those listening in to this conversation have taken away gradual modifications and sometimes whole-sale renovations of their own assumptions and narratives. Compared then, with the way in which my friend characterized the influence of this podcast (forcing her to confront painful challenges represented in a more comprehensive historical picture), I would argue to my friend that a more accurate description of what is happening goes something like this:
You’ve been consuming much more than other people’s stories in John’s podcast (or Jana’s book). You’ve also been partaking of a particular vision of things – unwittingly adopting certain interpretations over time about precious questions of deep import. In this way, you’ve likely come to adopt (consciously or not) many other perspectives as your own – thus, ushering in a new, difficult reality in your own life.
In short: It’s not just the evidence that broke your shelf, then: it’s the intensity of suspicion around that evidence (and everything else) that made the critical difference. Once you’ve embraced such a troubling new narrative, you probably then do what we all do: attune to any further pieces of evidence that might justify this newfound aching suspicion and frustration. Consequently, any perceived missteps by Church leaders (or some Bishop, or some seminary teacher somewhere) – whether now or in the past – add further incontrovertible evidence confirming the truth of this new, predictably painful understanding.
The longer people consume a growing aggregation of disconcerting evidence (especially when framed up as clear and damning), the more shock sets into the system. From this place, virtually everything seems to confirm the sobering truth one has felt compelled to bravely accept.[xi] Even when unsettling historical moments or doctrinal points could be understood in a broader light (as in the new Saints history or gospel topics essays), it’s remarkably common to hear former members dismissing it all, while referencing their own critical historical narrative as plainly, patently true.
Throughout this process, it’s striking the degree to which human fallibility can be selectively overlooked. It was Jordan Peterson who once called “the capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimize, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalize, bias, exaggerate and obscure” both “endless” and “remarkable.”
While the possibilities of mental blind-spots in the leadership of the church are endlessly dissected and scrutinized with remarkably little generosity, much of what John (and others) have concluded has been embraced by my friend and many others with a great deal of trust.
The imbalance is striking. (No doubt, critics would see imbalance in the reverse direction). In either case, once downloaded into someone’s day-to-day experiences, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the substantial, real-life shifts these new understandings elicit as they play out in people’s lives.
We don’t just tell stories, after all, we live them.
If so, maybe it’s time to rethink how we’ve come to understand the etiology of this new epidemic of faith crisis. Rather than the internet unleashing a barrage of shockingly clear evidence overwhelming people with integrity, I’ve argued here that it’s a particularly accusing narrative of denunciation, suspicion and distrust that is overwhelming people – eroding faith to the point that someone’s precious confidence and trust in prophetic leadership itself breaks.
In other words, what we might be seeing is the extent to which John’s Story shreds faith.
If the above analysis is true, it suggests a significant revision in how to understand the major challenge John Dehlin’s work lays before us. As outlined above, the idea that one must choose between having integrity to follow the full truth of the evidence (or not) is misleading. The choice is not between simply between following the evidence or not, but rather whose interpretation of the evidence you decide to be most trustworthy. That’s the choice in front of us all: who do we have confidence in to help guide us in these important conclusions and their inevitable influence in our lives?
To my dear friend and others who have adopted this new way of seeing the world (unwittingly or not), I plead for you to reconsider.
Do what meditators do and push back against the thoughts and stories in your head. You did this once with the gospel narrative. Now, do this again with John’s Mormon Story, seeing it for what it is: one particular perspective and narrative reflecting many different assumptions, like all stories do.
Once you do that, ask the Source of highest wisdom you can still call towards: Is it true?
Then, ask yourself: Do I trust John’s particular perspective to direct my paths and have such a profound influence on my life and family?
Or are you looking for someone of greater humility, faith and joy? Listen to the messages of President Russell M. Nelson once again this Christmas season, and ask yourself: Is there light in this man? And more importantly, is there light in his message?
The Healer who binds up broken hearts also knows something about fixing broken shelves. Will you let Him try?
However complex that repair may feel, imagine the joy it could mean for you and your family.
thanks to Rock Hudson and Michael Taylor for thoughtful feedback on earlier
drafts of this manuscript. And I’m also grateful to John Dehlin himself for providing
what I found to be sensible push-back as well on an earlier draft – all of
which helped me refine this manuscript further.
[i] The “independent”-minded Salt Lake Tribune likes to say the same about itself. Over time, even John’s devout followers have acknowledged the extent to which his work has come to feel like less of an archeology expedition – and shaped by his frustrations.
[ii] From, Lavina Fielding, Camilla Kimball: Lady of Constant Learning (Ensign, 1975). Sister Kimball shared this in 1975, in the context of exercising faith over things not fully understood: “I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them.” She twinkles, ‘I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.’”
[iii] Although not taken up extensively here, it’s also important to look more carefully at the equally widespread accusation that Church leaders have been lying about history. For a generation that came home from war and didn’t talk about it, typically didn’t talk about painful situations such as abuse, and wrote American history with (yes) a uniquely positive focus on the affirming pieces – I suppose we could accuse them all of lying in every respect. OR we could acknowledge that there was a different way of approaching history and a different way of dealing with uncomfortable things in that generation. (And is it really that foreign to us, this tendency to push away from and avoid talking about painful things?) While appreciating the advances we’ve made in telling a more comprehensive history, it would be good to pay attention to our tendency to demand (with striking ethnocentrism) that previous generations act like our Tell-All, Share-All generation today. This was explored in more depth in an earlier piece, Did the Church Lie to Me?
[iv] John has clearly gone through many evolutions of his own in his sharing over the years, as acknowledged by one long-time listener: “John’s gone through his own story. He’s been, at times, angry, sad, conciliatory, open minded, close minded, frustrated, grateful, happy, helpful. He wanted to stay, he wanted to help others stay, he wanted to get others to leave, he wanted to leave, he didn’t want to be excommunicated, but he practically dared the church to do so.”
[v] Reflected in this assignment Hugh Nibley used to give his class (thanks to Maureen Procter for the head’s up on this): “Since Joseph Smith was younger than most of you and not nearly so experienced or well-educated as any of you at the time he copyrighted the Book of Mormon, it should not be too much to ask you to hand in by the end of the semester (which will give you more time than he had) a paper of, say, five to six hundred pages in length. Call it a sacred book if you will, and give it the form of a history. Tell of a community of wandering Jews in ancient times; have all sorts of characters in your story, and involve them in all sorts of public and private vicissitudes; give them names–hundreds of them–pretending that they are real Hebrew and Egyptian names of circa 600 B.C.; be lavish with cultural and technical details–manners and customs, arts and industries, political and religious institutions, rites, and traditions, include long and complicated military and economic histories; have your narrative cover a thousand years without any large gaps; keep a number of interrelated local histories going at once; feel free to introduce religious controversy and philosophical discussion, but always in a plausible setting; observe the appropriate literary conventions and explain the derivation and transmission of your varied historical materials. Above all, do not ever contradict yourself! For now we come to the really hard part of this little assignment. You and I know that you are making this all up–we have our little joke–but just the same you are going to be required to have your paper published when you finish it, not as fiction or romance, but as a true history! After you have handed it in you may make no changes in it (in this class we always use the first edition of the Book of Mormon); what is more, you are to invite any and all scholars to read and criticize your work freely, explaining to them that it is a sacred book on a par with the Bible. If they seem over-skeptical, you might tell them that you translated the book from original records by the aid of the Urim and Thummim–they will love that! Further to allay their misgivings, you might tell them that the original manuscript was on golden plates, and that you got the plates from an angel. Now go to work and good luck! “To date no student has carried out this assignment, which, of course, was not meant seriously. But why not? If anybody could write the Book of Mormon, as we have been so often assured, it is high time that somebody, some devoted and learned minister of the gospel, let us say, performed the invaluable public service of showing the world that it can be done.”
[vi] Although Moroni says something similar at the end of the Book of Mormon, it’s not quite the same. And the difference between the two is important. As reflected in the verse below, Moroni is not saying “this should be so obvious to you – how silly of you not to see it!”
“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:4-5).
[vii] Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012), 4.
[ix] Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012), 4–5. In an interview after the book’s publication, the Givens pointed out they weren’t intending to suggest in these passages that the evidence was always 50/50 so someone must flip a coin – clarifying that they believe there is stronger collective intellectual and spiritual evidence for the restored gospel than not, while pointing out simply that God makes space for plausible explanations on both sides.
[x] One helpful reviewer cautioned at this description as a potential strawman, noting “I think you’d be really hard pressed to find anyone who sees John as a mere discloser of facts.” To that, I would point out that my friend (and many others) definitely see him as having disclosed facts and revealed a hard reality. That is, this language accurately reflects how John’s work has practically functioned in many people’s lives.
[xi] To be clear, followers of John are not unique in doing this. All of us – once settling on a narrative we embrace as reality, move forward assembling evidence to support the story of our choosing. That’s not necessarily bad, and more of a feature of human experience. The problem arises when we stop being aware that we’re doing that! (Most members aren’t aware of this either. It can feel like a threat on both sides – and a potentially terrifying realization. But it doesn’t have to be! What this means practically is added scrutiny to truth claims in all directions so we can really consider whether we believe them or not).