The Atlantic cuts through much of the pessimism found in the media with data that should make us smile:
From Paris to Syria through San Bernardino to Afghanistan, the world witnessed obscene and unsufferable tragedy in 2015. That was on top of the ongoing misery of hundreds of millions who are literally stunted by poverty, living lives shortened by preventable disease and malnutrition. But for all of that, 2015 also saw continued progress toward better quality of life for the considerable majority of the planet, alongside technological breakthroughs and political agreements that suggest the good news might continue next year and beyond.
And their evidence?:
A 35% decline in violent crime rates in the U.S. since the 1995, with a 6% drop in homicide rates worldwide between 2000 and 2012.
While terrorism and war is up slightly in the last couple years, “across the globe, the numbers of ongoing wars and battle deaths are still far below their levels of the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, terrorism, war, and murder together remain a minor cause of death worldwide.”
“Famine deaths are increasingly rare and increasingly limited to the few areas of the world suffering complete state collapse. Related to that, the proportion of the world’s population that is undernourished has slipped from 19 percent to 11 percent between 1990 and today.”
Vaccines have nearly exterminated diseases like polio and measles, while new ones (such as the recent one to combat Ebola) may prevent future outbreaks. “Meanwhile, the UN reported this year that global child mortality from all causes has more than halved since 1990. That means 6.7 million fewer kids under the age of five are dying each year compared to 1990.”
“[T]he number of electoral democracies worldwide remains at a historic high…”
Greater LGBT rights worldwide.
Increased wealth worldwide.
Increased commitment to battling climate change.
Chris Smith over at Approaching Justice has his own list of “good news” stories from 2015, including:
Advances in treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Plummeting U.S. school dropout rates.
Women in Saudi Arabia voting and running for office for the first time.
And much more. Check out these links and remember that despite the bad news, the world continues to get better.
This is the fifth week of the General Conference Odyssey, and we’re covering the talks from the Sunday Afternoon Session of the April 1971 General Conference. Before I get to the talks, however, I’m going to start with three disparate exhibits.
Exhibit A: Affliction and Comfort
You’ve probably heard some variant of the phrase, “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” American humorist Finley Peter Dunne (writing as the fictional Mr. Dooley) penned the original.
Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward”.
It’s supposed to be about newspapers, but I’ve always felt it applied much better to the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a welcome haven for wayward sinners, but for those of us who are comfortable it can seem more like a frustrating and confusing bootcamp than a quiet refuge. That is not a bug. It is a feature.
Exhibit B: The Military Mental Model of Mormonism
One of the most important bloggernacle posts I’ve ever read is “The Military Mental Model of Mormonism.” In it, MC contrasts two models of Mormonism, the military model and the school house model. According to the schoolhouse model:
mortality is sort of like a giant high school where we are primarily here for self-improvement, and where the ultimate goal is to get good grades and hopefully be one of 50 million or so people tied for valedictorian
The schoolhouse model is optimally suited for comfortable people leading comfortable lives, and it has a lot of truth to it. However, it also has pretty serious drawbacks. The military model is not perfect either, but it has the potential to explain aspects of Mormonism that seem irredeemably problematic under the schoolhouse model.
I embarked on this General Conference Odyssey not because I found General Conference talks soothing and enjoyable but because I found them challenging. (You can see that in the Times and Seasons post I wrote before the Odyssey started: The Assurance of Love.)
For the first four weeks, I was pleasantly surprised by the talks I read, however. I wasn’t challenged by the talks. I was predominantly comforted, impressed, and reassured. You can see that in my posts from the third and fourth weeks: “Love Fervently” and “The Mormon Way to Love.”
For this fifth week, however, the talks were a little harder on me, however. And—as I alluded to earlier—I think that pattern is a feature rather than a bug. Christ’s Church is a shelter first, but once you start to feel comfortable it begins to feel more like an obstacle course.
President Harold B. Lee’s talk “The Iron Rod,” (the first in the session) seemed very stern to me. It includes surprisingly strong language that appears very political, as in his recounting of a friend’s statement that “A liberal in the Church is merely one who does not have a testimony.” Then he quoted Dr. John A. Widstoe:
The self-called liberal [in the Church] is usually one who has broken with the fundamental principles or guiding philosophy of the group to which he belongs. … He claims membership in an organization but does not believe in its basic concepts; and sets out to reform it by changing its foundations…It is folly to speak of a liberal religion, if that religion claims that it rests upon unchanging truth.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie also spoke during this session, and his talk “The Lord’s People Receive Revelation” contained more of what Laman and Lemuel might have called “hard things.”
“We do not come to a knowledge of God and his laws through intellectuality, or by research, or by reason,” declares Elder McConkie. Instead, revelation is the key. “Unless and until a man has received revelation, he has not received religion, and he is not on the path leading to salvation in our Father’s kingdom.”
He further elaborated the pitfalls of intellectualism:
I know people who can talk endlessly about religion but who have never had a religious experience. I know people who have written books about religion but who have about as much spirituality as a cedar post. Their interest in gospel doctrine is to defend their own speculative views rather than to find out what the Lord thinks about whatever is involved. Their conversations and their writings are in the realm of reason and the intellect; the Spirit of God has not touched their souls; they have not been born again and become new creatures of the Holy Ghost; they have not received revelation.
This is, to me, a fairly harsh line to take. If someone has “never had a religious experience,” my reaction would be one of concern first and foremost. But Elder McConkie’s stance seems to run the risk of compounding the sense of failure such an individual might feel when he says, for example, that “God stands revealed or he remains forever unknown.”
So I have explained some of the things that troubled me in these talks. Now I will talk about working my way through them.
Let’s start with something I mentioned at the outset: the Church ought to make you uncomfortable from time to time. This is true even in the schoolhouse model. When discussing secular education, we often talk about the need for children to be challenged. Well, being challenged is not always comfortable. It means stretching beyond what is comfortable. It implies being asked to do things you have never done before and are, in a sense, not ready for yet. In the Church we are always learning, and we learn by doing.
Additionally, the entire point of having a prophet is to have someone who can warn you of danger when you don’t recognize the danger for yourself. Of course there are times when—upon being given a warning—you will immediately look and see the danger yourself. In that case, gratitude is easy and instant. But the most valuable warnings are those which tell you to beware of something that you already see, but that you think is not dangerous. A grateful reaction is not as automatic in these cases. For starters, you might simply refuse to believe the warning, especially at first. What’s to be grateful for, if there’s no danger? Moreover, if someone is telling you not to do something and you can’t see any good reason for their restrictions, then there might be resentment at being bossed around. And lastly, there’s a risk that even if you do see the danger you will begrudge a sense of embarrassment that you didn’t see the problem yourself first. If a prophet is doing their job, then they are not very popular. That’s the whole point.
Now, the leaders are not perfect. If they were, this would all be very simple. We could simply turn off our brains and do what we’re told. Just as relevantly, the General Authorities give general advice. It’s up to us to understand where and how to apply what we hear in our own lives. There will be exceptions, and there isn’t a comprehensive guide to each and every possible exception. This means we cannot pass the buck to the leaders: we have to decide for ourselves what we’re going to do with their counsel.
But—given our understanding of a prophet’s role—we should be careful that dismissing their words as incorrect is not our first recourse. If you’ve got a prophet, you should use the prophet. And that means that you do your utmost to second-guess your own beliefs, your own cultural assumptions, and your own expertise. You can’t learn unless you’re willing to be taught, and there are times when you can’t receive more and better if you’re not willing to let go of what you’re currently holding.
And so, returning to Elder McConkie’s talk, something he said is worth highlighting: “It is the right of members of the Church to receive revelation.” His talk will be utterly incomprehensible without understanding that precept. At a minimum, it means that we can (and should) understand his stern statements regarding those who have not received revelation not as condemnation for failure, but rather as encouragement.
I also found Elder Hartman Rector, Jr.’s talk “Ignorance is Expensive” interesting. We’re all familiar with the idea that a theme develops in General Conference sessions, often when the talks touch upon the same themes in the same ways. But in this case Elder Rector’s talk—which immediately followed Elder McConkie’s—tackled many of the same themes with different emphasis.
In contrast to the almost anti-intellectual tones of Elder McConkie’s talk, Elder Rector’s seemed downright intellectual, using terms like “intelligence,” and “enlightened.” “We all should place the pursuit of light and truth, or intelligence, uppermost in our selection of goals, since we may have them eternally,” he said.
He also tackled head-on the issue of why we sometimes have difficulty receiving the light we seek:
But why do we receive not the light? The Lord tells us why over and over again in the scriptures. Simply stated, the reason we do not learn is because we are not in condition to learn. We are not in condition to receive the light because we are not willing to receive it. We just plain don’t want it.
We are prone to say that we are waiting on the Lord to receive light and truth when, as a matter of fact, the Lord is waiting on us—waiting for us to get into condition so he can reveal the light we seek and so desperately need.
Most importantly, he explained that “commandments are calculated to get us in condition so that we can receive light and truth, even intelligence.”
Elder Rector’s talk flowed seamlessly into Elder Loren C. Dunn’s (Drink of the Pure Water), which emphasized this importance of keeping commandments to revelation-seeking, and delineated what that revelation might look like:
If things go properly, you’ll notice some by-products, such as a growing awareness and concern for your fellowman and greater appreciation and consideration for other people.
Elder Bernard P. Brockbank’s talk (Love of God) and Elder Joseph Anderson’s (Eternal Joy is Eternal Growth) also had interesting insights into the idea of commandments. “The price the Lord has asked us to pay to be delivered from evil is to sincerely ask him,” said Elder Brockbank. In other words: the Lord stands ready to bless as soon as we are willing to receive the blessings. And “commandments are God’s laws—nature’s laws too,” said Elder Anderson, emphasizing that God’s laws are not capricious or arbitrary demands but rather wise and benevolent directions. God isn’t bribing us to jump through hoops. He’s trying to teach us to be like him.
So here are my thoughts on a session that was, at least initially, rather hard for me to read.
First, keep in mind the military model. The stakes are high and the decisions are real. This explains a lot of apparently troubling aspects of our faith: both individual commands and also the entire, hierarchical aspect of the Church. We are here to learn, but we’re learning under fire, as it were. Parents sometimes yell at their children out of love, for example not to run out into a busy street. Even if that is not A+ parenting, it shouldn’t be conflated with a lack of love or an unrighteous desire to dominate. Thus: even if our leaders do err in some ways, we should not assume that it is out of some kind of warped, selfish motive.
Second, keep in mind that discomfort is a feature, not a bug. We’re creatures of least resistance. We need to be prodded. And no one likes to be prodded. So you shouldn’t expect to feel comfortable in the Church. At least, not all the time. Sometimes it is a refuge. Other times, however, it is more akin to physical (spiritual) therapy.
Third, read what the leaders have to say in context. And not just in context of their own talks, but in context of how different leaders talk about the same issues. We have Twelve Apostles for a reason. We have dozens of Seventies for a reason. Revelation is neither easy nor precise. Not even for our leaders. But if we integrate their words together, I believe we can best discern the message that our Father has for us.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of the point of the General Conference Odyssey. No more cherry-picking what strokes your ego or what stokes your indignation. The goal is to read everything (at least starting in 1971). We’ll see where that takes us.
Other General Conference Odyssey blog posts for this week:
Bernard Brockbank’s talk struck me as just another roundabout way of saying, “If you love God, pay your tithing.” I never find this kind of talk inspiring or even effective. I’d much rather see tithing’s connection to consecration highlighted, but too often our cultural and historical conception of tithing is wrong.
In the most Southern Baptist-sounding talk I’ve ever heard in General Conference, Hartman Rector, Jr. provides the quotable phrase, “Ignorance is expensive.” While he doesn’t develop this thesis in an entirely satisfying way, I think he sums up his point well with the following:
But why do we receive not the light? The Lord tells us why over and over again in the scriptures. Simply stated, the reason we do not learn is because we are not in condition to learn. We are not in condition to receive the light because we are not willing to receive it. We just plain don’t want it.
We are often unwilling to do what is necessary to receive the light. This relation between knowledge and action reminds me of the late biblical scholar John L. McKenzie, who translated hesed in the Hebrew Bible as “covenant-love,” viewing it as a parallel to the “knowledge of God” in the book of Hosea: “[K]nowledge, to the Hebrew, was not a mere intellectual apprehension, but a vital union of possession. Knowledge of Hebrew morality did not mean ethical science, but a vital union with the traditional morality which qualified the whole human life; one knows this morality by having it, by living it.”
Joseph Anderson states that eternal life consists “not only [of] eternal existence but eternal growth and activity. This is the joy of which Lehi spoke.” I would’ve liked to hear more about this “eternal growth and activity” given some of my research into a Mormon theology of work. But this largely serves as a springboard for his discussion on the importance of obedience, with the grace of Christ being largely associated with the resurrection.
Now we move into more interesting territory.
Harold B. Lee provides a fantastic quote from a Columbia University theologian that I think captures the essence of what religion actually is: “Religion represents the accumulation of man’s insight over thousands of years into such questions as the nature of man, the meaning of life, the individual’s place in the universe. That is, precisely, the question at the root of man’s restlessness.” Lee blasts those “liberals” who attempt to answer this inner restlessness with man-made theories. Lee doesn’t hold back. He describes these liberals as “the scoffers in Lehi’s vision,” those who “read by the lamp of their own conceit” (quoting Joseph F. Smith), and “one who does not have a testimony.” While likely overly harsh, it is a reminder that the scriptures not only tend to condemn the rich, but the learned as well. Lee believes that “more professors have taken themselves out of the Church by their trying to philosophize or intellectualize the fall of Adam and the subsequent atonement of the Savior.” This may be true, but if so, we should be very careful in our dismissal of things like the Trinity due to their supposedly “incomprehensible” nature when we can’t even explain a central doctrine like the Atonement. Nonetheless, Lee provides this important reminder: “Conversion must mean more than just being a “card carrying” member of the Church with a tithing receipt, a membership card, a temple recommend, etc. It means to overcome the tendencies to criticize and to strive continually to improve inward weaknesses and not merely the outward appearances.”
The talks by Bruce R. McConkie and Loren C. Dunn go hand-in-hand and nicely complement Lee’s above. McConkie reminds us that “we cannot comprehend what is involved [in scripture] until we see and hear and experience for ourselves.” This is because “the only way to gain true religion is to receive it from the Lord. True religion is revealed religion[.]” While McConkie–without a hint of irony–disdains those who “defend their own speculative views rather than to find out what the Lord thinks about whatever is involved,” he does emphasize the most essential element of the spiritual life: “Religion must be felt and experienced.” Dunn recalls a story in which he challenged a couple doubting young men to a three-month experiment in which they would reintegrate certain aspects of the gospel back into their lives: attend church meetings, say personal prayer, keep the Word of Wisdom, read the Book of Mormon, etc. According to Dunn, this was a way to see if the young men’s doubts “represented the symptoms of their problem and not the cause. Wasn’t their real question whether or not this church is true? Whether or not it is actually the Church of Jesus Christ? And whether or not it is led by divine revelation?” He admits that “what was really hoped for was the experience that every member has a right to enjoy and everyone else has the right to receive, and that is the knowledge of a personal testimony.” Dunn’s challenge reminds me of a similar one put forth by Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart:
It cannot be gainsaid that Christians have faith in Easter largely because they belong to communities of believers, or that their faith is a complex amalgam of shared confession, personal experience, spiritual and ethical practice, and reliance on others, or that they are inevitably obliged to make judgments about the trustworthiness of those whose word they must take. Some also choose to venture out upon the vast seas of Christianity’s philosophical or mystical traditions; and many are inspired by miracles, or dreams, or the apparent working of grace in their lives, or moments of aesthetic transport, or strange raptures, or intuitions of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and so on. None of this might impress the committed skeptic, or seem like adequate grounds for faith, but that does not mean that faith is essentially willful and irrational. More to the point, it is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature or credibility of another’s experiences from the outside. If [a skeptic] really wishes to undertake a “scientific” investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion (which, again, does not really exist), and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its phenomena from within. As a first step, he should certainly–purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor–begin praying, and then continue doing so with some perseverance. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt; but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or of what it is not.
Historian and Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman once recalled a conversation with a Catholic colleague regarding the reasons for his testimony. “Not stopping to think,” Bushman relayed,
I told him I remained a Mormon because when I followed my religion I became the kind of man I want to be. No philosophy, no evidence, nothing elaborate. Simply the personal reality that my religion helps me get better. That’s what it comes down to in the crunch. The scripture verse explains what will happen when you listen to the spirit speaking in the wilderness: “My Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound.” For me that promise becomes a simple matter of fact: when I hearken to the spirit, truth seems to abound in me as the verse promises. By that I mean not just truth as propositions about the world but truth as in the true and highest way to live.
Returning to Dunn, he seems to echo the sentiments of Harold B. Lee about man’s restlessness and yearning:
To youth who associate themselves with various causes, some popular, many designed to accomplish much good, and a few militant; to the adult who can find no satisfaction in his vocation and perhaps only frustration in his marriage and emptiness in his life; to the militant who spends his life bitterly denouncing what he is against but never quite certain what he is for; to the person who turns to drugs, perhaps even attempting to equate it with a spiritual experience, and then realizing that for every high there is some kind of dismal low—perhaps these people and many others seize upon special issues and act unpredictably more from an inner need to satisfy a yearning soul than because of the face value of that in which they are involved, however worthy it may be.
This yearning can only truly be satisfied by “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6); by revealed religion; by the Spirit abounding within oneself.
For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. – Moses 1:39
I often cite the above as my interpretive paradigm of commandments. Eternal life or “exaltation” in Mormonism is, by every definition, a family ordeal. It is about relationships. As I’ve written elsewhere,
Continual research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, primatology, and others find that we are wired to connect. Supportive, loving relationships help us to flourish because they help us become more of what we are: social beings. When we explore the theology of Joseph Smith and the rituals and practices of Mormonism, we find that God is plural and indwelling and that salvation is about kinship. In essence, as Blake Ostler put it, “I’m not saved unless you are. My exaltation depends on your exaltation. So when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really mean a thing unless you’re all there with me. Because if a single one of us isn’t there we’re all diminished by your absence.”
Eternal life is eudaimonia–the good life–on an infinite scale. This theme runs throughout a majority of the talks in the first Sunday session of the April 1971 Conference.
In “last lecture” style, N. Eldon Tanner presents Joshua’s famous phrase, “choose you this day whom ye will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” His reasons for “serving the Lord” go back to human flourishing: “As we read the scriptures and as we read the history of the world, we find numerous examples where individuals, communities, and even nations who chose to serve the Lord were saved and prospered—not through their human genius alone, but by the will of God—while others who refused to do so suffered his wrath, were defeated and destroyed.” He continues: “I suggest to you that if we were spiritually sound, if we were living the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom we must serve if we are to survive as individuals and nations, then the political and economic problems already would be solved, because by living the Ten Commandments and other teachings of God we could all live together in peace and prosperity. As we review these teachings we can find nothing in them which, if lived, will not make us better and happier in every way.” As he acknowledges our “great strides of advancement in scientific fields” and “in the methods of war,” he wonders “what have we done in the interest of peace? What have we done in the field of human relations? What progress have we made in spirituality?” He asks, “If we were to be arrested for being Christians, I wonder if there would be enough evidence to convict us?” He thus calls for “a spiritual renaissance. Can you imagine what a glorious world it would be to live in if everyone were living the teachings of the gospel, loving God, and keeping his commandments? If we all loved one another, if there were no backbiting, no killing, no stealing, if everyone were honest, true, chaste, and benevolent? We would have no wars, but peace and heaven here on earth, and we could use the money now spent on war, law enforcement, and crime for worthy purposes to aid the needy, the sick, and unfortunate.” Serving the Lord will “contribute greatly to our success in the worthwhile things of life, both temporally and spiritually. We will raise better families and contribute more to the community than those who deny the Lord and ignore his teachings.”
Similarly, John H. Vandenberg recognizes that the basic needs of man–according to the poet Edwin Markham–are “bread, beauty, and brotherhood.” These things, Vandenberg says, require sacrificial love:
What is the seed of mother love? Is it not sacrifice? Such love is considered to be the deepest and most tender. Is this because a mother passes through the valley of the shadow of death to give birth to her child and is continually sacrificing for that child’s welfare? Is this why Christ loves the world? Because he toiled to make it? Because he sacrificed his life for the world and its people? We are told that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to save it from ruin, and the Son was willing to suffer for the salvation of that for which he had toiled. We all love that for which we sacrifice. Giving and serving to the point of sacrifice creates love. The term religion encompasses concern for our brethren, as we are told in James 1:27: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. …” [James 1:27] When people say, “Religion is all right for some, but I am not religious, and it means nothing to me,” is it because they have not experienced the uplift that comes from sacrificing for and serving their fellowmen?
Once again, sacrifice creates love. Sometimes we wait for love to come around before sacrificing. But if you want to love your fellow man, remember: “The chips are down someplace every day.”
I’m skipping A. Theodore Tuttle’s talk on “the message of the restored gospel.” The Church is the same as when Christ was around, He was the Son of God with special Jesus DNA, Joseph Smith had a vision, yada yada yada. Moving on.
I was happy to hear Gordon B. Hinckley’s voice again given that he was the Prophet I was most familiar with growing up. His talk adds to the ones above, offering four cornerstones upon which to build one’s home:
Respect: “the kind of respect that regards one’s companion as the most precious friend on earth and not as a possession or a chattel to be forced or compelled to suit one’s selfish whims…This respect comes of recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God, endowed with something of his divine nature, that each is an individual entitled to expression and cultivation of individual talents and deserving of forbearance, of patience, of understanding, of courtesy, of thoughtful consideration. True love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the well being of one’s companion.”
The Soft Answer: “We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention.”
Honesty with God and One Another: “As you discipline yourselves in the expenditure of your means, beginning with your obligations to your Father in heaven, the cankering selfishness that leads to so much strain in domestic affairs will go out of your lives, for if you will share with the Lord whom you do not see, you will deal more graciously, more honestly, and more generously with those whom you do see. As you live honestly with God, you will be inclined to live honestly with one another.”
Family Prayer: “I know of no single practice that will have a more salutary effect upon your lives than the practice of kneeling together as you begin and close each day. Somehow the little storms that seem to afflict every marriage are dissipated when, kneeling before the Lord, you thank him for one another, in the presence of one another, and then together invoke his blessings upon your lives, your home, your loved ones, and your dreams. God then will be your partner, and your daily conversations with him will bring peace into your hearts and a joy into your lives that can come from no other source. Your companionship will sweeten through the years; your love will strengthen. Your appreciation for one another will grow.”
Hinckley promises “that if you will establish the home of which you dream on these foundation stones, the perils of your married life will be diminished, your love for one another will strengthen through the years, you will bless the lives of your children and of your children’s children, and you will know happiness in this life and joy eternal.” These things can help avoid the “nagging, corrosive evils of domestic misery, of separation, of abandonment, and of immoral and illegal relationships.” The consequences of broken homes are recognized by Hinckley as well: “Here is one of the tragic reasons for mounting juvenile delinquency: literally millions of children who come from homes where there is no parental love and consequently very little child security. Here is a root cause of our soaring public welfare burden, which is devouring billions of our treasure. Here is a denial of the kind of family ordained of God from the beginning. Here is heartbreak and failure.” Love and stability at home are not only necessary for the blooming of individuals, but for thriving societies as well.
Richard L. Evans’ final talk reminds us that “every day is part of eternity. What happens here and now is forever important.” It is easy to forget this, which is why “[w]e use much of our time in rushing around, not thinking always what we ought to be, nor what it is that matters most. Sometimes we set our hearts on things we feel we have to have, and when we get them find they don’t mean as much as once we thought they would. And so the years move by—and even while yet young we become aware that we are older than we were. Soberingly, more than one-fourth of this year already has passed—partly in pursuit perhaps of things that don’t matter very much…” This was a nice reminder, given my interest in finding the sacred in the mundane. But also because it is easy to forget the things we ought to be focusing on. “Well, we ought to live as we ought to live,” says Evans, “not only because it would please God, not only because it would please our parents, but as a favor for ourselves—for every commandment, every requirement God has given is for our happiness, for our health, and for our peace and progress. O my beloved young friends, even selfishly it is smart to keep the commandments God has given.” This is why he finds, “If someone tells you, my beloved young friends, that you can set the commandments of God aside without realizing the results—if someone tells you that, then you may know that you are listening to someone who doesn’t know, or isn’t telling you the truth.” Commandments are relational in nature and should draw us into deeper connection with one another.
The General Conference Odyssey is a group project by a number of Mormon bloggers. We decided to read all the talks from one session of every General Conference per week starting with the April 1971 session and continuing until we catch up.
Our first post went live on December 1, 2015. We’ve posted every single Tuesday since then. Every week, we all post our reviews of the talks from that week’s session along with links to the other folks blogging that week. The only exception are current General Conferences, when we all take a break from reading the historical sessions to give our full attention to the current ones.
We call it the General Conference Odyssey because–assuming that future General Conferences maintain the 6-session format–we will not finish this task until 2029. Late in the summer of that year, we will finish re-reading the talks from the April 2029 General Conference before the October 2029 General Conference begins. If future General Conferences have more than 6 sessions, our odyssey will take longer. If they have less, then it will take shorter. In either case, however, an approximately 14-year blogging project seemed to merit the term “odyssey.”
The goal of all the participants is pretty simple. We say that we sustain the general authorities of the Church as prophets, seers, and revelators, so it makes sense to put our time and effort where our mouths are. Reading and then writing about these talks is one way of making sure that we have an eye on the watchmen on the tower.
It is also important, in a time where controversies and viewpoints abound, to keep track of the message that the leaders choose to reiterate. As Elder Eyring taught, “When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention.” The only way to know which messages are being repeated, however, is to make sure that we’re paying attention to all of them.
Finally, we hope that in surveying a large number of talks over a long time period we will also be able to see trends or changes in emphasis that can help us better understand the Lord’s counsel through His prophets in response to a changing world. The Gospel doesn’t change, but the particular opportunities and dangers we should be most attuned to do change as the world does, and that is another good reason to pay close attention to the words of our prophets over an extended period of time.
This post serves as an introduction to the concept (which you’ve just read) in addition to a more detailed history, a FAQ, and a continuously updated index of all the blog posts in the General Conference Odyssey.
On October 25, 2015, J. Max Wilson shared a quote from a talk President Hinckley gave during the Saturday Morning session of the October 1981 General Conference: “Faith: The Essence of True Religion.” I was very struck by this quote, and I spent quite some time mulling it over and discussing my thoughts with friends and family. Eventually, I wrote a blog post for Times and Seasons detailing how I worked through incorporating the talk into my own beliefs. The post I wrote included this paragraph:
President Hinckley’s talk was given 34 years ago. I was a baby then, so of course I have no memory of this talk. I did not know that it existed until last week, when I read the excerpt. And I must confess a sense of shame as I read it for the first time and realized that this past year was the first year (since my mission) that I even tried to listen to all the sessions of General Conference. How many more talks have been given over my lifetime that I have never heard? Never read? Never considered? I say that I sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet I have nearly two centuries of their official talks given in General Conference and I have never even considered that I might want to go back and systematically read them to see what they had to say. I think it’s time I change that.
Not long after my post went live, J. Max sent me an email. He shared that he had been working through General Conference talks starting with his birth year. We got together with a few other bloggers we know (basically: the earliest participants in the General Conference Odyssey) and started talking about doing a group version of J. Max’s personal project. We settled on starting with April 1971 because it was the oldest easily available. We settled on a pace of one session per week because it seemed manageable over a long time-frame. I put together the schedule and a Google Doc we could use to coordinate and share links, and then suggested Dec 1 as the start date because: why wait? The holiday season is busy, but if we couldn’t make it through the first one I didn’t see any chance of making it through 14 years of them.
And so our first posts went live on Dec 1, 2015. At that time, we still didn’t have a name of the project. Michelle Linford said she liked the term “odyssey” that I’d used in my first blog post, however, and with no other contenders, the name stuck.
Q. Who can join the General Conference Odyssey?
A. If you’d like to be included as a blogger in the General Conference Odyssey, please contact any of the current bloggers and ask. In general, we’re looking for anyone who wants to read the General Conference talks for the same reason that we do: to better understand the words of Lord’s modern prophets.
Q. Who is in charge of the General Conference Odyssey?
A. The General Conference Odyssey is strictly a volunteer, team effort with no official leader or leadership. I do my best to facilitate by maintaining our schedule and sending encouraging emails and writing posts like this one, but anything else is decided by informal consensus.
Q. Why didn’t you answer my question yet?
A. Because we didn’t think of it. Go ahead and send it to any of the participants or just use this site’s contact form.
I’m going to start my discussion of the talks from the Sunday Morning session of the April 1971 General Conference in a slightly different place: science fiction and fantasy. There’s going to be some wind up (which I hope you’ll find interesting), and then I’m going to tie it into President Gordon B. Hinckley’s talk “Except the Lord Build the House…”
During the past week, Utahns have done more Star-Wars related Googling than people in any other state. People in Utah are about 25 percent more likely to Google “Star Wars” than their nearest competitors in fandom, Californians. And they are more than twice as likely to Google the topic as people in Oregon and Mississippi, the two least Star Wars-crazy states.
Ingraham doesn’t have any idea why this is so. He doesn’t even speculated. Instead, he concludes his article with an invitation: “If you have a pet theory for why Utah is home of the nation’s #1 Star Wars Googlers, drop me a line.”
The connection is not between Mormons and Star Wars in particular. It’s between Mormons and all forms of geeky entertainment: Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, The Lord of the Rings, etc. The connection between Mormons and sci-fi and fantasy is so well known that the question (What’s the connection between Mormonism and speculative fiction?) is a recurring topic that many in the genre have taken a crack at. (Including me, one time for Times and Seasons. And also Matt Bowman, more recently and also at the Washington Post.)
In fact, one of my hobbies is to try to suss out Mormon influences in the work of Mormon authors. Historically, you’ve got Orson Scott Card as the big one. There’s also Stephanie Meyers as a really prominent Mormon author, but let’s not go there today. A trio that I’ve been following with great interest, however, are Brad Torgersen, Larry Correia, and Brandon Sanderson. Torgersen’s excellent short story collection Lights in the Deep has a great story called “The Chaplain’s War.” In it, Torgersen deals with issues of faith and the relationship of religion to secularism that–to my mind–show a distinctive Mormon perspective.
Then there’s Larry Correia, whose recent Son of the Black Sword is an incredible epic fantasy tale with some really interesting Mormon influence, which I outlined in my Goodreads review.
But it’s Brandon Sanderson I want to talk about for a moment. Like Correia, Sanderson’s work frequently contains echoes of Mormon theology, culture, and scripture. The quote “it was better that one man suffer than an entire nation continue in heresy” from Elantris, for example, is an obvious echo of “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” In my favorite series, Mistborn, themes of apostasy, restoration, and religious pluralism that borrow heavily from Joseph Smith’s writings are very prominent. In the conclusion of the first Mirstbon trilogy, the character Sazed’s understanding of numerous different religious traditions helps him rebuild the world and he remarks, “The religions in my portfolio weren’t useless after all. None of them were. They weren’t all true. But they all had truth.”
Compare this expansive view with quotes from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young:
“We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.” – Joseph Smith
“I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth, or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. we believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” – Brigham Young
But one of the most Mormon aspects of Sanderon’s writing (especially in the Mistborn books) is his treatment of romantic relationships, and that’s where we’re going to finally bet back to President Hinckley’s talk. Here’s an excerpt from my review of The Well of Ascension (the second in the original Mistborn trilogy):
[Sanderson’s] take on relationships is very Mormon… You can tell this is a guy who grew up in a culture saturated with reverence for and wisdom about making marriages work. That’s an incredibly refreshing breath of fresh air in a genre fiction novel. Dynamic, fun, believable, and healthy relationships are just incredibly rare in popular entertainment, which almost always emphasize the pursuit and never spare time for the relationship itself.
So what are the hallmarks of a Mormon view of relationships? I would say there are two: prominence and practicality. Marriage matters to Mormons, and it matters a lot. That comes across in Sanderson’s writing, which not only focuses on romance but does so in a way that emphasizes relationships over sex. This gives Sanderon’s writing—and Mormon culture in general—a very romantic attitude. (There’s a reason Jane Austen is so popular with Mormons, leading to novels like Shannon Hale’s Austenland.)
But the other aspect is a very interesting contradiction with the romantic aspect of Mormon culture: practicality. Sanderson tackles this issue in the newest Mistborn novels, The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self. These books includes the most unique and the most Mormon relationship plotline I have ever read in my life. The protagonist (Waxillium “Wax” Ladrian) returns from self-imposed exile on the frontier to take control of the struggling family business. He soon faces a dilemma. A marriage to Steris will restore the family fortune, but is a marriage of convenience for both of them. Or there is Steris’ half-sister Marasi: she is younger, prettier, and completely infatuated with Wax, but has no fortune to offer.
The Disney expectation is clear: Wax has to put his heart first and marry Marasi, which is what his friend encourages him to do. The darker, more contemporary approach would be for Wax to marry Steris, but then cheat on her. Or maybe relapse into bitterness and regret. Sanderson—taking the Mormon approach—does neither. He has Wax move forward with the engagement to Steris, remain completely honorable, and slowly—very, very slowly—the two begin to find a mutual affection for each other despite their differences.
Now this is a long digression, but I think it was worth taking, because it shows how deeply the teachings that President Hinckley discusses in his talk have permeated Mormon culture. Sanderson shows Mormonism’s romantic view of the importance and possibility of love, but also the practical side of Mormonism that insists: all marriages are compromises.
Compare that with President Hinckley’s talk, “Except the Lord Build the House …” The talk begins with President Hinckley expressing concern for divorce (the symptom) and marital dysfunction (the disease):
Even in those lands where divorce is difficult if not impossible to obtain, the same disease is evident—the same nagging, corrosive evils of domestic misery, of separation, of abandonment, and of immoral and illegal relationships.
But, ever the optimist, President Hinckley quickly turns from what can go wrong to a discussion of what can go right, providing these four principles for building a strong and happy marriage:
Respect for One Another
The Soft Answer
Honesty with God and with One Another
Here are some specific quotes from each section:
Respect for One Another
This respect comes of recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God, endowed with something of his divine nature, that each is an individual entitled to expression and cultivation of individual talents and deserving of forbearance, of patience, of understanding, of courtesy, of thoughtful consideration.
The most important thing to note here is that the “recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God,” is entirely generic. It applies to everyone. This is a major departure from modern views of love, which enshrine the idea of compatibility between two specific people above all else. That ides is totally absent from this view, which leads to President Hinckley’s stark statement:
True love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the well being of one’s companion.
This is pretty much exactly the opposite of what the world believes about love and marriage. Not coincidentally, it is exactly the kind of relationship that is beginning to develop between Wax and Steris in Sanderson’s books.
Companionship in marriage is prone to become commonplace and even dull. I know of no more certain way to keep it on a lofty and inspiring plane than for a man occasionally to reflect upon the fact that the help-meet who stands at his side is a daughter of God, engaged with Him in the great creative process of bringing to pass His eternal purposes. I know of no more effective way for a woman to keep ever radiant the love for her husband than for her to look for and emphasize the godly qualities that are a part of every son of our Father and that can be evoked when there is respect and admiration and encouragement. The very processes of such actions will cultivate a constantly rewarding appreciation for one another.
This is another example of President Hinckley’s teaching that the love within marriage doesn’t depend on finding your soulmate, on being compatible, or on any particular attribute of the spouses. It’s also a very realistic view of marriage, and one that emphasizes work. According to this view, it is a husband’s duty to protect his own love for his wife (and vice versa). Mormons don’t believe in finding soulmates. They believe in making soulmates.
The Soft Answer
President Hinckley’s second principle is very simple: “We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly.”
It is also an opportunity for President Hinckley to again emphasize the importance of work within a marriage: “There is need for a vast amount of discipline in marriage, not of one’s companion, but of one’s self.”
Honesty with God and with One Another
President Hinckley’s observation here is both practical and profound:
If you will share with the Lord whom you do not see, you will deal more graciously, more honestly, and more generously with those whom you do see.
President Hinckley’s last principle includes a long series of beautiful promises that any husband and wife will cover for their family. It doesn’t really fit the theme of this post (emphasizing the collision of practicality and romance), but it is beautiful so here it is:
Your children will know the security of a home where dwells the Spirit of the Lord. You will gather them together in that home, as the Church has counseled, and teach them in love. They will know parents who respect one another, and a spirit of respect will grow in their hearts. They will experience the security of the kind word softly spoken, and the tempests of their own lives will be stilled. They will know a father and mother who, living honestly with God, live honestly also with one another and with their fellowmen. They will grow up with a sense of appreciation, having heard their parents in prayer express gratitude for blessings great and small. They will mature with faith in the living God.
The destroying angel of domestic bitterness will pass you by and you will know peace and love throughout your lives which may be extended into all eternity. I could wish for you no greater blessing, and for this I humbly pray in your behalf, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
I thought it was fun to compare Brandon Sanderson’s writing with the teachings of President Hinckley to show how extensive the Mormon adoption of President Hinckley’s (and other leaders’) teachings on marriage and family peace and unity and harmony had become. These are clearly some of the lessons that many Mormons have taken to heart.
And now, here are just a few of quotes from other talks from this session that struck me.
In “Choose You This Day” Elder N. Eldon Tanner writes that “there is strength in humility and weakness in pride.” That is a good thing to keep in mind.
In My Brother’s Keeper Elder John H. Vandenberg writes about the connection between sacrifice and love, reversing the ordinary causality:
What is the seed of mother love? Is it not sacrifice? Such love is considered to be the deepest and most tender. Is this because a mother passes through the valley of the shadow of death to give birth to her child and is continually sacrificing for that child’s welfare?
Is this why Christ loves the world? Because he toiled to make it? Because he sacrificed his life for the world and its people?… We all love that for which we sacrifice.
So, instead of loving motivating sacrifice, sacrifice can engender love. Elder Vandenberg also included a poignant reminder that is work keeping in mind as we think about everyday service: “The chips are down someplace every day.” There is always someone who needs our help.
Here are the blog posts from the other participants in the General Conference Odyssey.
“We have this large body of evidence covering many, many years that consistently shows if you happen to live in an area with only one hospital you are going to pay a lot more,” [Carnegie Mellon economist Martin] Gaynor said.
That helps explain why a C-Section in one Oregon market costs more than $15,000 and can run for as little as $3,000 in St. Louis, where there’s lots of competition. For years, hospital executives have defended these prices saying it’s about quality, or that they see sicker patients, or lots of folks on Medicare. “That’s just not true,” said co-author Yale economist Zack Cooper.
I mention Pethokoukis’ blog specifically because it provides a number of informative links on the subject, including one from The New York Times appropriately titled “The Experts Were Wrong About the Best Places for Better and Cheaper Health Care.” This is what makes central planning so dangerous: experts are often wrong when it comes to making sweeping societal changes via laws and policies. When the market is allowed to work, as in the case of hospitals, prices drop and quality improves.
One of the best-written pieces in the aftermath of the Paris attacks has not received significant exposure so far. It is a pity, because Shai Held’s 4 Mistakes To Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam goes right to the heart of how public dialogue on religious extremism should be handled. As Held indicates, “the public conversation about radical Islam is often tedious at best, and downright toxic at worst,” because, predictably, each side cares more about defending its own worldview than engaging in nuanced consideration of the problem posed by radical Islam (or any other religious extremism, for that matter). Both sides become entrenched in their opinions, something which isn’t helped by the nature of social media. Those with a positive view of Islam and Muslims are understandably inclined to distance ISIS and other expressions of extremism from Islam as practiced by millions. On the other side of the debate are those who are legitimately concerned with violent acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, but wildly exaggerate its role in Islam. Each view feeds on the other. How do we step out of yet another vicious circle of partisan strife and find effective solutions to the problem posed by radical Islam?
In facing the current moment, there are four pitfalls we must avoid. The first two, the mistakes of misguided liberals, are (1) denying that Islam has anything to do with ISIS, and (2) refusing to admit that Islam is in unique crisis. The latter two, the mistakes of reactionary conservatives, are (3) declaring that Islam is irredeemably evil, and (4) painting all Muslims with the same brush. All four of these illusions are appealing to some, but all are false, and ultimately noxious.
I highly recommend reading the rest of Held’s piece, it is a reasoned and reasonable response to a controversial topic that does not dismiss legitimate concerns on either side. Something rare indeed.
My friend Chris Smith recently authored a piece over at Approaching Justiceon how minimum wage opponents get it wrong on economics. As I commented elsewhere, providing nuance to the discussion by pointing out some studies that find no effect on employment or by discussing trade-offs is important. But I think it is quite a stretch to say that minimum wage opponents believe in an “oversimplified economic theory that is not borne out by empirical research.” It’s not just that “many studies” show an increase in unemployment among the least skilled and least educated. That’s what most studies over the last couple decades have shown (as Neumark’s MIT-published book from a few years ago demonstrates as well as his literature reviews) along with plenty of recent research. There is also a difference between low-wage workers and low-income families. Many low-wage workers are not the primary breadwinners and are simply bringing in extra money for middle-class families.
Other studies show that an increased minimum wage causes firms to incrementally move toward automation. Now, this too could be seen as a trade-off: automation and technological progress tend to make processes more efficient and therefore increase productivity (and eventually wages), raising living standards for consumers (which include the poor). Nonetheless, the point is that while unemployment in the short-term may be insignificant, the long-term effects could be much bigger. For example, one study finds that minimum wage hikes lead to lower rates of job growth: about 0.05 percentage points a year. That’s not much in a single year, but it accumulates over time and largely impacts the young and uneducated.
Princeton’s Thomas Leonard has looked at Progressive Era policies and found that the minimum wage was wielded by progressive economists as a form of economic eugenics; a way of ridding the labor force of those considered “unemployable” or “unfit” such as women, immigrants, and blacks. It was a matter of social control rather than social justice, but now it is heralded as the latter.
I was reminded of all this when I read David Neumark’s (mentioned above) new Wall Street Journal article on this very subject. He explains, “Economists have written scores of papers on the topic dating back 100 years, and the vast majority of these studies point to job losses for the least-skilled. They are based on fundamental economic reasoning—that when you raise the price of something, in this case labor, less of it will be demanded, or in this case hired.” He cites some of the same research I mention above. He addresses some of the recent research showing no effect on low-skill employment:
But as Ian Salas of Johns Hopkins, William Wascher and I pointed out in a 2014 paper, there are serious problems with the research designs and control groups of the Dube et al. study. When we let the data determine the appropriate control states, rather than just assuming—as Dube et al. do—that the bordering states are the best controls, it leads to lower teen employment. A new study by David Powell of Rand, taking the same approach but with more elegant solutions to some of the statistical challenges, yields similar results.
Another recent study by Shanshan Liu and Thomas Hyclak of Lehigh University, and Krishna Regmi of Georgia College & State University most directly mimics the Dube et al. approach. But crucially it only uses as control areas parts of states that are classified by the Bureau of Economic Analysis as subject to the same economic shocks as the areas where minimum wages have increased. The resulting estimates point to job loss for the least-skilled workers studied, as do a number of other recent studies that address the Dube et al. criticisms.
Overall, I think all of this is good evidence for a healthy skepticism toward the minimum wage. Future evidence may convince me otherwise (I’ve been known to change my mind), but as of now, I think my position is as empirically grounded as any.