Thursday, January 16, 2014

Can We Pull the Rug out from under Obedience?

The following video is causing quite a ruckus within certain Facebook groups. If you go to the video’s YouTube page, the comments (thus far) are not too flattering. I wonder if the video will be yanked before long. If it has been yanked before you get a chance to watch it, my comments won’t make as much sense. Oh well. Here’s the video:

Some of the negative feedback is related to the boy in the video, who is obviously terrified. That’s unfortunate, I agree, but I don’t think Elder Bednar is at fault. I think the kid is incredibly shy and was tearing up the moment he felt the attention was on him. I think Bednar tried to press forward without calling attention to the boy’s emotions, in part to avoid making the boy feel more awkward. We can say that Bednar should have acted differently or more sensitively, but that’s how I think a lot of us would handle this if we were truly in Bednar’s shoes. We would just press forward, unsure of what else to do.

I don’t want to focus on the boy in the video, however. I want to focus exclusively on Bednar’s response to the boy’s question and what we can glean from that response. (To be fair, I don’t think Bednar even answered the kid’s question, but that’s another complaint I’ll let slide.) I wanted to share this video because I think it is indicative of a major problem in cultural Mormonism today, a problem I think can be summed up as a failure to engage with reality. I see great potential in Mormonism, and yet so often we Mormons refuse to let our religion impact our lives in ways that aren’t shallow. We keep Mormonism trapped in its own little bubble and try to keep the evil, wicked world away from it. We try to close ourselves off from, rather than engage with, the flawed world in which we live. We seek to shut out imperfections, in ourselves and in others, rather than to interact with those imperfections in increasingly perfect ways. We effectively compartmentalize our spirituality, and in doing so we misconstrue anything that isn’t in complete harmony with our values and beliefs as a threat that must be avoided at all costs. It’s a crying shame. Maybe that’s why the boy in the video has tears in his eyes.

What follows is part of a comment I made on a Facebook thread discussing the above video:
Bednar has reduced the value of the scriptures to their ability to keep us from sinning. Sure, he talks about being “in the Lord's territory,” but presumably that means little more than not watching R-rated movies or something. “Satan’ll getcha if you don't read your scriptures!” That's the take-away message. Why can't we ever focus on the positive effects of seeking and drawing nearer to God? Why must we always couch things in terms of how dangerous and bad “disobedience” is? That's not inspiring, it's shame- and paranoia-inducing.
Over the last couple of years, I have come to see the obedience rhetoric as one of the greatest problems of Mormon culture. It is such a superficial approach to spirituality. Rarely is it discussed why and/or how “obedience” is meant to improve your life. Usually, we are more concerned with what happens if, God literally forbid, you slip up. Why should you read your scriptures every day? So Satan doesn’t get you! Why should you say a prayer every morning? So Satan doesn’t get you! Why shouldn’t you try coffee? So Satan doesn’t get you! When the benefit of following the “rules” is discussed, it is typically presented in generic terms: to qualify for blessings. Unfortunately, these blessings are rarely connected (in any obvious way) to the rules one is asked to follow. Read your scriptures every day and God might help you get an ‘A’ on your next math exam. Don’t watch R-rated movies and God will make sure your car starts in the morning. It’s as if God is a dolphin trainer tossing fish into our open mouths as a reward for jumping through hoops. Meanwhile (and please excuse my abrupt shift in analogies here), Satan is an outlaw shooting at our feet, making us dance a jig in order to avoid injury. Shop for groceries on a Sunday and your big toe gets blown off. That makes it harder to dance, and before you know it, you’re lying on the floor with a belly full of lead. Either perspective fails to appreciate the way in which spiritual practices can empower us as agents in a fallen world—an odd oversight, given that two of Mormonism’s central themes are (1) the importance of personal agency, and (2) the necessity of living in this world in order to grow in knowledge and understanding of things both good and bad.

I don’t see God as a being I must placate in order to extract favors. Nor do I find spiritual practices, such as praying and studying the scriptures, to be worthwhile primarily because of their preventative benefits. Consider scripture study. Studying the scriptures is important to me because I am enlightened and inspired by them. When I search them, I commune with the divine, and I come away more optimistic and confident and full of love for myself and others. How disheartening to say of such sacred texts that their importance lies in keeping a boogeyman at bay, as Elder Bednar has suggested. Even if “keeping the commandments” truly does put space between the devil and myself, this is better seen as a natural consequence of my having values inconsistent with those of Ol’ Scratch. True, if you seek the good, you inevitably shy away from the bad. But the matter of perspective is telling, and I think quite important. I prefer to see my prayers as motivated by my desire to draw nearer to God, whom I love, rather than by my fear of Satan. Allow me to illustrate the difference with yet another analogy, one relating to marriage: I sincerely hope that my wife goes on dates with me because she loves me and finds value in sharing her time with me. I hope that is her primary motivation. I would be crestfallen to learn that the main reason my wife goes on dates with me is because she lives in constant fear of falling in love with someone else. Call me selfish, but I’d rather the emphasis be on cultivating a relationship with me. I don’t want her to date me simply to please me, nor to avoid dating others, but to get closer to me and (hopefully) enrich her own life in the process. That’s what a loving relationship involves.

It’s funny to me (in a very non-humorous way) that a religion as progressive in its theology as Mormonism would so often fall back on thinly-veiled “Hellfire and damnation” rhetoric. Here is a religion that teaches (with less emphasis than I’d like) that human beings have the potential to learn line upon line, precept upon precept, how to be like their Heavenly Father. Here is a religion that celebrates personal revelation, claiming it is an infinite reservoir from which the earnest seeker may find truth. Here is a religion that proclaims the heavens remain open, that God has not ceased speaking to us collectively nor individually. The Book of Mormon is heralded as evidence of this, and Mormons are assured that they can draw nearer to God by reading its pages. These are the official positions of the LDS Church. But when you raise your hand and ask one of the highest leaders in the Church how to make better use of its sacred texts in your life, what is the response? “Keep reading, or Satan’s gonna get you!”

What a bummer.


  1. AMEN! I often have similar thoughts and I am so glad that you can express yourself so well. Thanks Ben.

  2. You make some really good points. I also quite enjoyed your post on FB about Sunday being a day of rest. I have thought a lot about that topic as well since becoming a mother.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post... although I am quite late getting to it.