It is my experience that when satire makes your blood boil, it is because it tells a truth that is really uncomfortable for you. As I anticipated, my recent satire has generated a lot of controversy and the people I expected to be upset are, well, upset. One commenter in particular has zealously defended John Dehlin, and as I was beginning to respond to some of her comments, I decided that it would be better to just to write another blog post rather than let this get buried in the comments section.
One constant theme I keep hearing from Dehlin’s camp is that this was “too far,” or “over the top,” or “counter-productive.” Productivity, however, is a matter of intended ends. If the end is build bridges, smooth things over, or rally people in “solidarity,” then yes, this is very much a counter-productive approach. But none of those things was the point. The intent was to make a point about the narrative that Dehlin and his followers have long been pushing, and to make it in a way that dispassionate reason cannot. Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I cannot make my point through reasoned analysis because my point just won’t stand up to such scrutiny, let me just explain that is not the case. I can make my point that way, and to prove it I am going to in this post. But I am not the first one to make this point through reasoned analysis, and I doubt I will be the last. Yet, the narrative has persisted. Satire is a powerful tool that can to be used to reach far more people, and often times makes a point far more effectively. And it does so specifically by going “too far” or “over the top”—that is the method of satire.
Satire also has the power to reach more people—especially more people who actually fall into Dehlin’s camp. Think I am wrong? Well, I’ll bet that this blog post will get far less traffic than the original satire. Woefully less. Why is that? Because Dehlin’s camp tends not to pay much attention to this sort of thing. They all come and read a controversial satire, because to them, it is a chance to reinforce another part of their narrative—that of the mean, nasty, and insensitive apologist. Posted only 2 days ago, it is already my post with the most hits—garnering more than 50% more hits than the previous leading post, which had been accumulating traffic for over a year. And it generated way more conversation (I think before this, one post got like 14 comments once). Go ahead and look through this blog. You’ll find it tends to be pretty sober, discusses various arguments for various things, highlights books to read, etc. There are couple other satires, and those posts also generated more traffic than others. Way more people want to see the apologist when he gets “mean and nasty” than when he is actually engaging with their cherished beliefs.
Again, I ask, you think I am wrong? Prove it. Prove it by actually reading and thoughtfully commenting on this post, sharing this post with others, even—especially?—if you are sympathetic to Dehlin’s narrative. Prove me wrong by getting this post more traffic than the satire. I’d love it if that could happen, but I won’t be holding my breath. A sober discussion of the evidence just does not get that kind of attention, especially from those who disagree with it.
Okay. So, now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about the narrative that Dehlin is promoting, and has been promoting for a long time. Note the opening paragraph of the NYT article:
Mormon leaders have moved to excommunicate the prominent founder of an online forum for questioning Mormons, charging him with apostasy for publicly supporting same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, and for challenging church teaching.
The article goes on to acknowledge that this is not actually what the formal letters say about his excommunication. It cops out of this by saying it was “far more general than the specific list of accusations that Mr. Dehlin said he was given verbally in meetings with his regional leader.” But if you actually take a look at the August 7, 2014 letter (which I have extracted for your convenience), we find not a more general list than what Dehlin is claiming, but a more detailed, bulleted list of the reasons. And while I don’t doubt that other issues came up in their private talks, including same-sex marriage and Ordain Women—as Dehlin details in his August 10, 2014 response to President King—these go completely unmentioned in the letters. In fact, in a correspondence from August 11, 2014, omitted by Dehlin (open and honest, right?) in his press release, President King feels it is necessary to clarify that while in private he has been willing “to engage in a discussion on all of the issues that you chose to address during our lengthy conversations,” he feels “my true concerns may have not been clear.” He then goes on to reiterate the same concerns in official letter from August 7. In short: Dehlin’s support of same-sex marriage and Ordain Women are only peripheral to the real issues, which are outlined in the letters, and which are pretty much indisputable apostasy. But that does not suit Dehlin’s narrative well, so he emphasizes points he knows are going to attract media attention.
It is also clear that Dehlin is doing more than merely “asking questions,” or “thinking rationally,” as some would have it. He is in open rebellion and is openly trying to harm the Church. Don’t believe me? Well, read on.
In response to my satire, Monica Pignotti, a zealous—I would even say fanatic—follower of Dehlin stated:
John Dehlin has never said others should believe what he believes. When asked, he has honestly stated from time to time what he currently believes or does not believe about the church. He has also repeatedly stated that he supports people, regardless of what they believe about the church. All he ever wanted was open discussion and for all the facts about the church to be available, rather than just the correlated version that even insults the intelligence of some faithful, active members I know.
This is the narrative. But it is not the facts. What Dehlin has actually said is quite a bit different. (Hat tip to the anonymous poster at DearJohnDehlin for having collected these quotes for the rest of us!)
In my experience, anyone who is smart, who has looked at the evidence, and who is not willing to concede this [the truth claims of the church] — almost always has some set of forces bearing down upon them (e.g., familial, social, financial, psychological) that prevent them from being able to acknowledge this reality.
He has also stated:
The evidence summarized in http://cesletter.com shows pretty conclusively (to me, and many others) that neither the Book of Mormon nor the Book of Abraham are translations of ancient records. An analogy would be….if we found a photography of Abraham Lincoln wearing an iPod, we would know for sure that the photo was a fake. The evidences against the Books of Mormon and Abraham are equally troublesome (or even worse) for anyone willing to seriously consider the evidence
He feels that, “evidence honestly leaves no room for plausible doubt…it’s overwhelming,” and “In my view, anyone willing to fairly review the evidence, with an open mind, will conclude that the Books of Mormon and Abraham are NOT what they claim to be. At all. They are not translated ancient records. They are fiction. Authored by Joseph Smith.” Of those who still believe in these truth claims he says:
But because the familial/social/financial/psychological stakes are so high if you were to leave the church….you remain. And you make excuses for the books (They make us feel good! They teach some important truths! Plus…there’s still a very, very remote and purely philosophical chance that they are true!!!).But you are not acknowledging that at their core, these books are based on a deception. Likely because deep down, it makes you really uncomfortable to admit this.
Now, tell me, does that sound like someone who genuinely respects and supports people who choose to believe in the Church’s founding narrative? Like, at all? Who just believes people should “have the facts” and decide for themselves? He unequivocally states that there is no way a truly rational person could possibly disagree with his point of view. I must be an idiot, or dishonest, or psychologically impaired by my need for something—family support, financial assistance, the ego boost I get for laboring for free to defend the Church, or something—because I know the same evidence and I think that Dehlin is utterly and completely wrong.
What’s more, when I read those statements, as a believer, I absolutely do not feel like he supports me or respects me and my right to believe and interpret the evidence differently from him. If I were in a faith crisis and wanted to maintain faith, I certainly would not feel comfortable turning to someone who said those kinds of things about my beliefs. And I would not recommend family members who were struggling either.
His opinion of Church leaders is not much better.
To me, this is perhaps the most insidious and damaging thing about 21st century LDS authority. After almost two centuries of often egregiously disappointing behaviors, LDS church leaders still expect church members to equate the church’s will with God’s will. So damaging. And so disappointing. We deserve better. You deserve better.Advice is fine. Suggestions…ok. But please stop insulting (and damaging) us by perpetuating the idea that you speak for God. You don’t. You do your best…and sometimes your best is helpful, and sometimes it is very, very damaging. And so it is more important than ever that we learn to discern for ourselves.What we need is an article that says, “We’re really, really sorry. And we’ll try to do better. And we can learn from you as much as you can learn from us.”
So this is not someone who is simply asking questions. This is not someone who privately holds some unorthodox beliefs. This is someone who openly propagates the views: (1) That the Book of Mormon—the “keystone” of the Mormon faith—is merely “bible fan fiction,” as is the Book of Abraham. He does not even opt for the “oh, well, it is inspired fiction,” bit. He straight up considers them hoaxes by Joseph Smith. (2) That anyone who denies this view does so for purely irrational reasons. (3) That the witness of the Holy Spirit is simplynice emotional feelings and nothing more. (4) That the Church as an institution does more harm than good, and has done so for pretty much the entirety of its existence.
It is with these facts in mind that I read comments like this, from Monica: “Many people are posting testimonials about how John's work encouraged them to stay in the church. John himself wants to stay in the church,” and I wonder: Sure John may want to stay, but to what end? Why does he want to stay? Why do the people he’s “encouraged” to stay want to stay? And, just because someone wants to stay, does that mean that we, the Church, as both a community and an institution, should let them? (After all, didn’t Satan want to stay in heaven, too?)
What if I joined a feminist group, but then I repeatedly and publicly talked about how wrong the group was, how misguided they were, and how much harm they did? What if more people were taking my accusations seriously because I was a member of the group, so hey, that must mean there is merit to the views, right? After all, I wouldn’t criticize my own group unless it was justified, would I? Should that organization let me stay just because I want to? I can’t imagine anyone thinking an organization should allow people stay under those circumstances. Especially if I wasn’t paying my membership dues, or fulfilling any of the responsibilities expected of a member of the group. And yet, when it comes to the Church and vocal dissidents, like Dehlin, that is exactly what everyone thinks the Church should do.
It’s absurd. And that was the point of the satire—I expect everyone to see how absurd it would be to insist that God let Satan stay in heaven, and so it strongly illustrates—yes, in an over the top way—the absurdity I see in everyone who puts up a “I Stand With John Dehlin” picture on Facebook.
But what about all the other people who will leave if John Dehlin is ex’d? Well, what about the 1/3 of heaven’s hosts who left with Satan? I am saddened that some might feel more loyalty to John Dehlin than to Jesus Christ and his chosen servants, but I think we can legitimately ask the same questions: to what end do they stay in the Church? And should we really want them to stay? The Lord wants all people to come unto him— but that is just it: they must come unto HIM. Not to John Dehlin. This is not the Church of John Dehlin of Latter-day Saints. Would you expect the hypothetical feminist group to want to keep a bunch of members who were more loyal to me (after I have publicly criticized the group as explained above) than to the actual group leadership, and even the groups actual cause? Why should they?
I am not trying to be rude. I am not trying to be harsh. And I am not trying to kick anybody out of the Church. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, and if you choose to leave because of what I am saying, then I must wonder why you let such an irrelevant blogger hold so much sway on your life’s choices. But I think it is legitimate to ask why we—those Saints who believe in the Restoration—should let people who are not loyal to our cause, and are in fact more loyal to someone who publicly fights against our cause, remain within our midst? Is our community really healthier if we let them stay?
The knee jerk reaction to all of this would be to throw your hands up, and defiantly announce, “Alright, fine. If that is how you feel, then I am going to leave. It’s clear that you don’t want me here anyway.” But I would hope that some of you could fight past that reaction and thoughtfully engage these questions. They are important questions, and they are questions almost no one in the Dehlin camp wants to think about, consider, or engage. Am I wrong? Prove it. Show me that you are willing to seriously, thoughtfully, and dispassionately discuss these issues—the real issues involved in the choice to discipline John Dehlin and other dissidents in the past and future.
A Post Script on ad hominem
Because I know it is bound to come up—if much of any conversation is generated at all from this—I would like to preemptively discuss ad hominem. It is important that this whole conversation—pro or con—is ad hominem, that is, “about the man.” More accurately, it is about the image and narrative of the man that he himself is publicly trying to perpetuate in order to generate sympathy toward him and his cause. And as the public—not just as Latter-day Saints, but as the public—we have a legitimate right to question and challenge that narrative, to investigate it, and ask ourselves if he really merits our sympathies. He is the one who has made the public appeal, inviting members of the interested public to respond to his and Church’s actions. He is hoping for support, but we the public—and I, as a member of the interested public—have a right to deny that, and to respond with disagreement. So please spare me the accusations of fallacious ad hominem.