in Religion

CES Reply: Not Very Useful

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnells “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

(Don’t worry – we’re almost done!)

4.Anti-Intellectualism:

“Some things that are true are not very useful”:

Packer said the following:

“There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”

And I really wish he hadn’t said this, as it is open to the kind of misinterpretation you’re applying to it. Because when you consider the intent of his statement rather than his poor choice of words, this becomes a rather artless way of stating an undeniably true – and useful – principle.

In fact, the CES Letter is a perfect example of Elder Packer’s premise. Your purpose is to persuade people that the LDS Church is a fraud, so you cite truths that are useful to making that case, and you ignore the truths that are not. So you cite three different dubious hearsay statements about Martin Harris and repeat them over a dozen times, but you ignore the dozens of more reliable firsthand accounts that undermine your case, because those statements, while true, aren’t useful to your purpose. (Actually, the analogy isn’t really perfect, because the statements you quoted about Martin probably aren’t true. But I’m sure you get the idea.)

The word “useful” is instructive, especially when you consider the audience to whom Elder Packer’s remarks were addressed. He wasn’t talking to the general membership of the Church in Conference; he was talking to a gathering of CES instructors, who are in the employ of the Church for the specific purpose of building the faith of LDS youth. There are many truths that are not useful to that specific purpose. It is true, for instance, that I played the role of Schroeder in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in several productions in the Los Angeles area between 1981 and 1985. Is this true? Yes. It is a useful fact for CES Employees to use in their instruction of LDS youth? Probably not, no. (Although I’m proud that I’ve figured out a way to make both “Seinfeld” and “Dilbert” useful in this reply.)

Joseph using a rock in a hat instead of the gold plates to translate the Book of Mormon is not a useful truth?

Elder Packer probably didn’t think so at the time, no. I think he was wrong about that, and I think  the Church has recognized that mistake. That’s why Elder Ballard’s recent talk to a similar audience of CES employees takes the opposite approach to Elder Packer’s. This time around, Elder Ballard counseled them to know all the details of the recent gospel topics essays “like the back of your hand” in order to be able to provide true and useful information that allows the Church to get out in front of these controversial issues. And, yes, that includes your beloved rock in a hat.

The fact that there are multiple conflicting First Vision accounts is not a useful truth?

I think it would be useful to demonstrate the truth that the accounts don’t actually conflict.

The fact that Joseph Smith was involved in Polyandry when D&C 132:61 condemns it as “adultery” is not a useful truth?

No, because it’s not a truth. Joseph Smith wasn’t involved in polyandry. (Sealings, not marriage, no sex.) It would be useful, however, for CES instructors to point out the true reasons why this charge you continually repeat is not accurate.

He continues:

“That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith – particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith – places himself in great spiritual jeopardy.”

Again, this is not the way I’d teach this principle, but Elder Packer is entirely correct here. Look at the verb he uses – “delights.” It’s one thing for a historian or scholar to acknowledge or plainly state the “weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders,” especially if they do so in context and with an appropriate sense of balance. It’s another thing to “delight” in discussing those weaknesses above all else, as such an approach will paint a distorted picture of reality and, yes, destroy faith. It also would, indeed, place someone in spiritual jeopardy, as they would destroy their own faith, too.

Right, because being honest to members about Joseph’s “weaknesses and frailties” of secretly marrying other men’s wives while denying and lying about it to everyone for 10+ years just might destroy faith.

Again, this statement is neither true nor useful. Joseph did not secretly marry other men’s wives.

But let’s not teach this historical fact because “some things that are true are not very useful.”

I’d prefer we not teach it because it’s not a historical fact.

What’s interesting about Packer’s above quote is that he’s focusing on history from the point of view that a historian is only interested in the “weaknesses and frailties of present and past leaders.”  Historians are also interested in things like how the Book of Mormon got translated or how many accounts Joseph gave about the foundational First Vision or whether the Book of Abraham even matches the papyri and facsimiles.

Sure. That’s fine. Historians should be interested in such things. CES Employees have a different responsibility than professional historians. Should a CES instructor “delight” in focusing solely on controversies surrounding those other issues and not the whole picture, they would not be fulfilling their purpose, and they would be destroying their own faith and the faith of their students.

Besides, it matters in the religious context what past and present leaders “weaknesses and frailties” are. 

I think you’re absolutely right. Key word there is “context.” Elder Packer is talking about Church employees who “delight” in taking things out of context in order to focus on the weaknesses and ignore the strengths.

If Joseph’s public position was that adultery and polygamy are morally wrong and condemned by God, what does it say about him and his character that he did exactly that in the dark while lying to Emma and everyone else about it?

Thank you for providing an illustration of my previous point. This question represents a perfect example of taking something out of context in order to focus on the weaknesses and ignore the strengths.

How is this not a useful truth? 

It is not a useful truth because it is false. But it seems to be, for you, usefully false.

A relevant hypothetical example:  President Monson gets caught with child pornography on his hard drive. 

Relevant? I doubt it. I can think of few things that would be more unlikely.

This matters, especially in light of his current position, status, and teachings on morality.  Just because a leader wears a religious hat does not follow that they’re exempt from history and accountability from others.

I think it would matter a great deal, yes.

The question should not be whether it’s faith promoting or not to share ugly but truthful facts.  The question should be:  Is the right thing to do?  Is it the honest thing to do?

In your hypothetical, the right and honest thing to do would be to call the police and have President Monson arrested. Few things are viler in the eyes of the Lord than using ecclesiastical influence to assault the innocence of a child. As I mentioned previously, that’s a truth that the Spirit confirmed to me while I was watching an R-rated movie.

Do you truly think President Monson is depraved enough to have child pornography on his hard drive?

Criticizing leaders:

  • Dallin H. Oaks made the following disturbing comment in the PBS documentary,

The Mormons” (0:51):

“It is wrong to criticize the leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.”

The full quote here is helpful:
“I also said something else that has excited people: that it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord. One can work to correct them by some other means, but don’t go about saying that they misbehaved when they were a youngster or whatever.” [Emphasis added]

As with Elder Packer’s statement, this is something I wish Elder Oaks hadn’t said, as it, too, is open to misinterpretation. In addition, the snippet you link to is a sort of “preview of coming attractions” for the next episode of the series, so in that footage,  the one sentence gets yanked out of any surrounding context and is even more susceptible to being misunderstood.

His point is not, as many critics imply, that the church does not tolerate disagreement. It is that public criticism, especially that which is focused on how they “misbehaved as a youngster or whatever,” is the wrong way to handle disagreements. One should “work to correct them by some other means” other than publicly embarrassing leaders, especially on irrelevant points that are discussed solely with the intent to embarrass.

This is actually a Biblical principle. “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” (Matthew 18:15, emphasis added)


Researching  “unapproved”  materials  on  the  internet:

Elder Quentin L. Cook made the following comment in the October 2012 Conference:

“Some have immersed themselves in internet materials that magnify, exaggerate, and in some cases invent shortcomings of early Church leaders. Then they draw incorrect conclusions that can affect testimony. Any who have made these choices can repent and be spiritually renewed.”

Why do you put the word “unapproved” in quotes? Elder Cook didn’t use that word or anything like it. His counsel – don’t “immerse” yourself in materials that provide distorted or false information – is good counsel. Do you advocate immersion in materials that provide distorted or false information?

Elder Dieter Uchtdorf said the following in his CES talk “What is truth” (33:00):

“…Remember that in this age of information there are many who create doubt about anything and everything at any time and every place. You will find even those who still claim that they have evidence that the earth is flat. That the moon is a hologram. It looks like it a little bit. And that certain movie stars are really aliens from another planet. And it is always good to keep in mind just because something is printed on paper, appears on the internet, is frequently repeated or has a powerful group of followers doesn’t make it true.”
With which part of this entirely reasonable, common-sense statement do you disagree? And why do you cite this as evidence that the Church is cracking down on “unapproved” materials when President Uchtdorf doesn’t use that word or anything like it?

Who cares whether you received the information from a stranger, television, book, magazine, comic book, napkin, and even the scary internet?

Certainly not Elder Cook or President Uchtdorf in the quotes you cite. There is no counsel here to avoid any medium of information; the counsel is to make sure that information is true, regardless of where it is found.

You repeatedly use the phrase “scary Internet,” as if that phrase represents the mindset of the Brethren. It doesn’t.

“We are blessed to live, learn, and serve in this most remarkable dispensation. An important aspect of the fulness that is available to us in this special season is a miraculous progression of innovations and inventions that have enabled and accelerated the work of salvation: from trains to telegraphs to radios to automobiles to airplanes to telephones to transistors to televisions to computers to satellite transmissions to the Internet—and to an almost endless list of technologies and tools that bless our lives. All of these advancements are part of the Lord hastening His work in the latter days.”

“Whatever the question is, if we need more information, we search it online. In seconds we have a lot of material. This is marvelous. The Internet provides many opportunities for learning.”

  • If Ye Lack Wisdom, by Marcos A. Aidukaitis (First Quorum of the Seventy), April 2014 General Conference

“You live in a world where technological advances occur at an astounding pace. It is difficult for many of my generation to keep up with the possibilities. Depending on how technology is used, these advances can be a blessing or a deterrent. Technology, when understood and used for righteous purposes, need not be a threat but rather an enhancement to spiritual communication.”

For Peace At Home, by Richard G. Scott (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles). April 2013 General Conference

And on it goes. You are making an accusation that your citations don’t in any way support.

Elder Neil Andersen made the following statement in the October 2014 General Conference specifically targeting the medium of the Internet in a bizarre attempt to discredit the Internet as a reliable source for getting factual and truthful information:

“We might remind the sincere inquirer that Internet information does not have a ‘truth’ filter.  Some information, no matter how convincing, is simply not true.”

How is this “specifically targeting the medium of the Internet?” It’s specifically targeting information that is not true. In the same talk, Elder Andersen mentions false information that appeared in Time Magazine. Are we to interpret that as Elder Andersen specifically targeting Time Magazine? I don’t think so.

With all this talk from General Authorities against the scary internet

You’ve provided no examples of “talk from General Authorities against the scary internet.”

and daring to be balanced by looking at what both defenders and critics are saying about the Church,

You’ve provided no examples of General Authorities counseling anyone to avoid “looking at what both defenders and critics are saying about the Church.”

it is as if questioning and researching and doubting is now the new pornography.

You’ve provided no examples of General Authorities saying anything that would justify this ridiculous analogy.

Truth has no fear of the light. 

Agreed. Which is why General Authorities are encouraging members to seek truth and not falsehood in the statements you’ve provided.

President George A. Smith said, “If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak.”

Correct. You’ve provided no examples of General Authorities discouraging investigation of their faith.

Under Cook’s counsel, FairMormon and unofficial LDS apologetic websites are anti-Mormon sources that should be avoided.

That’s like saying “the sky is green.” Elder Cook said nothing that could possibly be tortured into meaning this.

Not only do they introduce to Mormons “internet materials that magnify, exaggerate, and in some cases invent shortcoming of early Church leaders”

Elder Cook’s verb was “immersed,” not “introduce.” Big, big difference. FairMormon does not immerse people in material that magnifies, exaggerates, or invents shortcomings of early Church leaders.

but they provide many ridiculous answers with logical fallacies and omissions while leaving members confused and hanging with a bizarre version of Mormonism.

We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one. The logical fallacies and omissions that have piled up in the CES Letter give this accusation a “mote v. beam” vibe.

What about the disturbing information about early Church leaders and the Church which are not magnified, or exaggerated, or invented?

What about it? All the statements you cite here encourage people to seek truth and not falsehood. We have nothing to fear from truth, no matter where it’s found.

What about the disturbing facts that didn’t come from the flat-earthers or moon-hologramers but instead from the Church itself?

Elder Ballard’s recent talk insists that you should learn as much as you possibly can about them.

“Church leaders today are fully conscious of the unlimited access to information, and we are making extraordinary efforts to provide accurate context and understanding of the teachings of the Restoration. A prime example of this effort is the 11 Gospel Topics essays on LDS.org that provide balanced and reliable interpretations of the facts for controversial and unfamiliar Church-related subjects.

It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand. If you have questions about them, then please ask someone who has studied them and understands them. In other words, “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” as you master the content of these essays.

You should also become familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers website and the Church history section on LDS.org and other resources by faithful LDS scholars.

The effort for gospel transparency and spiritual inoculation through a thoughtful study of doctrine and history, coupled with a burning testimony, is the best antidote we have to help students avoid and/or deal with questions, doubt, or faith crises they may face in this information age.”


– M. Russell Ballard, “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century,” February 26, 2016

Are those facts invalid when someone discovers them on the scary internet?

No, and, again, no General Authority has ever referred to the “scary internet.”

What happens when a member comes across Elder Russell M. Nelson’s obscure 1992 talk or the Church’s December 2013 Book of Mormon Translation essay where they learn – for the first time in their lives – that the Book of Mormon was not translated as depicted in Sunday Schools, Ensigns, MTC, General Conference addresses, or Visitor Centers?

Depends on the person, I guess. You and I certainly reacted differently. In any case, we’re about to find out, as the Church is making a concerted effort to get this information in front of as many members as possible.

Is this member in need of repentance when he’s troubled by this inconsistency and deception?

I wasn’t, as I didn’t consider it inconsistency and deception. And no General Authority said that doubts make anyone in need of repentance.

Is it the member’s fault for discovering the Book of Mormon translation deception still perpetuated by the Church? 

This is a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question. It is not axiomatic that people who learn about the infamous rock in the hat will assume that it is a “translation deception still perpetuated by the Church.”

Why is the member required to repent for coming to the conclusion that something is very wrong?

I think the Church is confident that if members get all the facts and context, they won’t come to that conclusion.

Most of the information I discovered and confirmed online about the Church is found from Church friendly sources. I confirmed Joseph’s polygamy/polyandry from LDS- owned FamilySearch.org. 

Except you have woefully distorted and misinterpreted that information. Joseph was not engaged in polyandry. Sealings, not marriage, no sex.

I confirmed Adam-God theory and other doctrines taught by Brigham Young from the Journal of Discourses.

And you have interpreted that information in the worst possible light by ignoring how this anomalous theory fits in a broader historical context.

I confirmed Nelson’s rock in the hat endorsement from his 1992 talk buried on LDS.org.

What rock in what hat?

Even reading the scriptures and seeing all its problems can cause members to question and doubt. 

Of course. That’s why President Uchtdorf said, “It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty.”

If it wasn’t for the internet, I’d still find the information from physical books. Like the internet, books contain positive and negative as well as true and false information about the Church and everything else on earth.  Are physical books to be avoided as well?

No. And neither is the Internet. That’s why no General Authority has ever counseled people to avoid the Internet.

“And it is always good to keep in mind just because something is printed on paper, appears on the internet, is frequently repeated or has a powerful group of followers doesn’t make it true.”  The exact same thing can be said of Mormonism and LDS.org.

Yes. The exact same thing can be said of any information found anywhere.

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My Father's Final Sermon
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