I have always had many awkward and misshaped shelf items. Experiences I’d had that didn’t fit into the gospel puzzle as I understood it. Experiences that I put on the metaphorical shelf because I couldn’t find satisfying answers. Sometimes when it was relevant to the conversation I would bring up one of these experiences. And on more than one occasion the friend at the other end of the conversation would say “Heather, I have no idea how you have a testimony.” Which always struck me as really odd. Of course I had a testimony, because the Church was true! Right? The narrative that I had been taught my whole life about how to live and achieve exaltation, all of this was true, right? So what if a few things don’t fit, I’ll just stick them on the shelf. I won’t go into all of my shelf items
because ain’t nobody got time for that, but I’ll share a few of my big ones.
- My Young Women’s experience was pretty dysfunctional. We were given that awful chewed gum/sex analogy that Elizabeth Smart publicly denounced. This was one of many, many times that looking back as an adult at what my leaders said to me I think ‘Who thought it was a good idea to put these people in charge of the youth? This is ridiculous.’ Most of our activities consisted of our leaders chatting while we watched their kids. As a crowning moment of dysfunction, shortly after I graduated one of my leaders killed her toddler that I used to babysit.
- When I worked at the MTC it was painfully apparent that Church leaders did not view tithing as sacred funds. This could be its own post, but someone in administration at the MTC got one of the general authorities to approve a remodel that greatly benefited his own pocket. And it was absurdly inefficient. As one example, they spent over a million dollars on a industrial dishwasher that had to be scrapped because it was incompatible with their system.
- When I was taking pathophysiology at BYU, our professor explained to us the principle of genetic mosaics, or when one organism may contain two cell populations. Sometimes intersex mosaics (hermaphrodites) may occur. And like any good teacher he told a story to help us remember and understand the concept. When he was on his mission there was an individual who was investigating the LDS Church and decided to be baptized. The missionaries asked this person the baptism interview questions and discovered that not only had this person had sexual experiences with both men and women, s/he was both male and female, born with all the functioning gender specific organs. The missionaries called their mission president for advice. The mission president called Church Headquarters. HQ said that in order for this person to join the church, they would have to select a gender. It didn’t matter which, s/he just needed to decided whether they wanted to be male or female and stick with that decision. To prove their commitment to their decision, they had to make it permanent and have surgery to remove the ‘excess organs’. The problem was, this was rural Central America. This person didn’t have the money for elective surgery, so they were unable to join the LDS Church. This brings up many many questions, but the one that most bothered me was ‘Would Christ really require an individual to have elective surgery before He would allow them to join the true church and come unto Him?’
- Aside from the complex questions of intersexuality, what about homosexuality? Even the Church’s own website states that homosexuality is not a choice. Mixed-orientation marriages are complicated and no longer recommended. “Marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices.”– Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, Reverence and Morality, p. 47 Faithful homosexuals in the LDS Church are expected to be abstinent for life. But it is also taught in the LDS Church that celibacy is an abomination. So where does that leave these people? For whatever reason, they were born this way. Are they really meant to live a life alone, to be sad and unfulfilled for their mortal existence? This doesn’t sound like a plan from God.
- Then there is how women are treated in the LDS church. The benevolent sexism is not benevolent. Separate is not equal. And I’m not even talking about women being ordained to the priesthood. It’s things like the boys gets 75% of the youth budget. It’s that YM are given an eagle court of honor for their projects
eh-hem, their mother’s projects, and the YW are given zero recognition for completing a whole series of projects. (I realize that in recent years, many wards and stakes have become more progressive and started recognizing the YW also, but that was not my own experience.) It’s that I have seen multiple ‘upstanding priesthood holders’ claim that their priesthood gave them the authority to beat and in other ways abuse their wives. Those stories are too ugly to share. What kind of a message do these practices send to young women, and young men for that matter?
- Racism in the Church. That is a huge can of worms, but it bothered me for a long time and it bothers me still. Recently, the LDS Church disavowed it’s racist teachings concerning blacks and the curse of Cain, Hallelujah! However, it still says in the Book of Mormon that Lamanites (commonly taught to be the ancestors of Native Americans) were cursed with a dark skin because of their wickedness. And how do I help the young Native American woman in my class who walked out of the Book of Mormon reading activity shortly after these verses in 2nd Nephi? I don’t want her to feel ashamed of her heritage. How do I help her feel loved? How do I give her a faithful explanation for these racist ideas?
I think that everyone has experiences somewhere along their own religious journeys that just don’t fit the paradigm that they have been taught. All of these above points raise questions, but not one of them proves that the LDS church isn’t true. After I was confronted with these new and uncomfortable facts about polygamy I made an appointment to see my bishop. My local bishop is just one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. In some ways he reminds me of the new Catholic pope. His whole focus is on caring for other people. So I went to see him and I told him what (some, I hadn’t even learned all of them at this point) I had recently learned of polygamy and how it was completely rocking my world. Rocking my world doesn’t really cover it. It felt like more of an implosion. He listened respectfully and said that he was aware of these things. He said that he had read Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and yes, some of the things were very startling, but it didn’t change his testimony. That’s when he recommended that I listen to the Mormon Stories podcast. He also recommended that I read a couple of general conference articles, the essence of which were ‘calm down’ and ‘put it on the shelf’.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley
I don’t think he realized how precarious my shelf was. I didn’t even realize how precarious my shelf was. It was so full and so heavy there wasn’t room for any more misshapen items. Trying to stack more items up there just made all of them fall down. ‘Just put it on the shelf’ was not an adequate answer. So I started trying to picking up the pieces, closely examining them and trying to put them back together.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates
The next big issue I looked at was the First Vision. It’s where the whole thing started. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the story, and it’s kind of a big deal. “Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. … Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life.” October General Conference 1998, Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley)
14 year old Joseph Smith (1820) goes into the woods to pray to see which church is true. Satan tries to overpower him, before Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father tell him to join none of them. Or at least that is what I had always been taught. As it turns out that is not exactly how it was recorded. The first time that Joseph Smith mentioned the First Vision was 12 years (1832) after it happened, and it was not taught to the general church membership until 22 years (1842) after it happened. If it was so important, then why was it not mentioned in the first edition of Church history written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery or The Book of Commandments (precursor to the D&C)? And most importantly why is it that there are at least nine different accounts of the First Vision? Here’s another quote about the First Vision:
I can see no reason why the Prophet, with his brilliant mind, would have failed to remember in sharp relief every detail of that eventful day. I can remember quite vividly that in 1915 I had a mere dream, and while the dream was prophetic in nature, it was not startling. It has been long since fulfilled, but I can remember every detail of it as sharply and clearly as though it had happened yesterday. How then could any man conceive that the Prophet, receiving such a vision as he received, would not remember it and would fail to write it clearly, distinctly, and accurately? April General Conference 1957, Elder S. Dilworth Young of the Seventy
Recently the LDS Church wrote an essay discussing the problem that there are multiple accounts of the First Vision and state that “various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story”. The problem is that they don’t. If you follow the links provided on lds.org, it shows that the accounts are anything but consistent. If you read the accounts, the circumstances vary, his age varies (sometimes it was 14, 15 or 16), the message varies and the person/persons who came to give the message varies. First it was the Lord, then an angel, then a host of angels and then Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, then a few accounts with two personages (which arguably could be claimed to be Christ and the Father, but that seems like an important enough detail to mention).
Now I can have faith that there is a God and He loves us and maybe even on miraculous occasions He speaks to people on earth. That is not my issue. I have also had experiences that might be considered miraculous. The problem is that when I have had miraculous experiences and when other people I know have claimed to have miraculous experiences, the experiences do not evolve over time. The story doesn’t change. In my dream, my grandfather did not evolve from himself, to an angel to God to a host of angels to two people. And different versions didn’t coincide to when I was experiencing a personal crisis. My grandfather was a big fan of Mark Twain and I find this quote to be very fitting to this subject.
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” — Mark Twain
It seems to me that Hinckley was right, the entire case for the testimony of members of the LDS Church rests on the validity of the First Vision. And the case is much weaker than I realized. Add shelf items like the Book of Abraham, anachronisms in the Book of Mormon and that the LDS Church spent more than three times as much on the City Creek Mall than it did on 25 years worth of humanitarian aid and that shelf won’t hold.
I recently read a metaphor of an apartment building. Go read it, it’s short and well written. Essentially you wouldn’t want to live in a high-rise apartment building if you thought that the foundation might have structural integrity issues would you? Even if all of your friends and family lived there? Even if your apartment was beautiful and had a great view? Even if it was a great location for work and shopping? No! Because the foolish man builds his house upon the sand! In my research I found that not only did my shelf have cracks, but the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was full of them too. It wasn’t what I was looking for and it hurt. I felt like a part of me had died.