Friday, July 26, 2013

A Horrible Piece of Journalism from the New York Times

      Here's a blatantly biased piece of journalism on Mormonism: "Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt," by Laurie Goodstein, published in the New York Times on July 20, 2013. This article has so much wrong with it, I'm going to just copy and paste the whole thing and insert my comments in bold.

LDS publications tend to only cover the basics
      I'll skip right to the chase and share the takeaways before I plod through this. First, I agree that the Church could do a better job of how it presents its history in its standard curriculum. Go back a few decades, and lesson manuals include stuff on the sophistication level of Hugh Nibley's An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Much more recently, the Ensign (official Church magazine) included fairly heady material, including the "I Have a Question" column, answering doctrinal, procedural, apologetical, and historical matters. Today, the emphasis tends much more heavily toward applied life lessons and personal spiritual development. There is the feeling that if one intellectualizes the study of the gospel too much, it's easy to risk depriving it of its spirituality, making it merely an academic exercise rather than a personal relationship with Deity.

...in order to be accessible to all its members.
      But I don't think that's the reason for the shift toward the basics in Church curricula. New members of the LDS Church often find the amount of new knowledge to absorb overwhelming--not only is there plenty of doctrine to learn, but also history, vocabulary, and culture unique to Mormonism. The Church has a moral obligation to be a welcoming organization, so it tries to make itself as accessible to newcomers as possible. The tradeoff is that the standardized Sunday School curriculum is pretty much the basics set on a repeating loop.

Mormons should take responsibility for their own religious education.
      Second, seasoned members of the Church need to realize that it isn't the Church's responsibility to ensure that they are well-versed in the details of their faith. At some point, you have to stop relying on Sunday School, the Ensign, and General Conference for all your information and go read some books. It's not like the Church is covering anything up; in fact, it's striving mightily to be as open as possible with historical data. It's just that the more complicated issues aren't tackled in Sunday School. When you have a lay ministry, there is a good reason for that. But the fact that it's a lay ministry also means that at some point, members of the Church have to stop thinking about "the Church" as a closed inner circle that owes us, "the members," the truth. We have to realize that we ARE "the Church." There are virtually no career clergy in Mormonism; even the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in most cases, were average members holding average positions in their local congregations until their 40s or 50s. It is hypocritical for the former Area Authority Seventy in this article (a position midway between the local and worldwide church leadership hierarchies) to accuse "the Church" of failing to fully inform him of its history.

...and journalists should be unbiased and tell both sides of the story.
      Third, I find the article's attitude that Mormon apologetics needn't be taken seriously or its existence even acknowledged particularly grating. The article all but overtly states that objective fact contradicts Mormonism. What makes this presumption even more egregious is the fact that every one of the doubts and criticisms expressed in the article have been quite thoroughly examined and answered, yet the pro-LDS side gets no coverage. Ironically, Laurie Goldstein is guilty of doing exactly what she accuses the LDS Church of doing: presenting a one-sided version of events, omitting information that contradicts her position.

The article (plus my inserted comments)
      "In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, (Where? Are we to believe that he lived a sheltered life in an all-Mormon community without exposure to other ways of thinking...in Sweden?) Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.
      "When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet (whose credentials for accuracy apparently require no further elaboration) that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” (note the scare marks, suggesting it is an unfair label for serious research; that it is the Mormon side that is biased and not the other way around. Of course, the reality is that there is bias in both directions, and good journalism should not take sides) the whisperings of Lucifer. (Mormons rarely use the term "Lucifer"; this sounds more like an outsider's characterization of a Mormon perspective than it sounds like something a Mormon would actually say. Perhaps I'm nitpicking.) He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation. (Okay, he was a Seventy and he'd never encountered anti-Mormon claims before? Every 19-year-old missionary encounters and learns to deal with this stuff. And it's nothing new. Anti-Mormons have been recycling the same material for decades. Yet we're to believe that he had never heard of it?) 
       "But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist (The Church's canonized scripture includes the revelations instituting polygamy [D&C 132] and ending it [Official Declaration 1]. Had he never read the Doctrine and Covenants?) and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, (At this point, all semblance of neutrality has been obliterated. You might as well say, "Mormons struggle to reconcile their faith with scientific evidence that disproves their basic beliefs!") Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.
       "Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church. (Nice source citations. A whopping sample size of "dozens" of unnamed Mormons out of a worldwide membership of millions, whom we are asked to believe that the author interviewed despite not producing quotations from any of them, plus an appeal to the [academic?] authority of more unnamed persons who study the faith.)
       “'I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,'” said Mr. Mattsson, now an emeritus area authority. “'Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.'” (We're to believe that this guy, who apparently lacked even the most basic knowledge of Church history and apologetics, is the enlightened one, while the ones who stay in the faith are the brainwashed ones who haven't been able to confront the truth?)
      "Mr. Mattsson’s decision to go public with his disaffection, in a church whose top leaders commonly deliberate in private, is a sign that the church faces serious challenges not just from outside but also from skeptics inside. (What, there are skeptics, inside and out? Big news. But this article is trying to say that this is some kind of sweeping crisis. Anti-Mormons have been proclaiming that Mormonism is in the midst of a crisis and on the verge of collapse ever since 1830, and every time they paint it as big news.)
      "Greg Prince, a Mormon historian and businessman in Washington who has held local leadership positions in the church, shares Mr. Mattsson’s doubts. "Consider a Catholic cardinal suddenly going to the media and saying about his own church, ‘I don’t buy a lot of this stuff,’” Mr. Prince said. “That’s the level we’re talking about here.” (Eh...maybe the equivalent of a bishop or archbishop. Mattsson was not a General Authority; he was a member of one of the lower quorums of Seventy. It is indeed noteworthy that someone who had served in such a high-ranking position is waffling, but let's not exaggerate.)
       "He said of Mr. Mattsson, “He is, as far as I know, the highest-ranking church official (I think this is true, but only if we add "since 1915") who has gone public with deep concerns, (let's be clear: the problem isn't so much that he's uncovered deep issues that no one can answer; the problem is his deep ignorance) who has had a faith crisis and come forward to say he’s going to talk about it because maybe that will help us all to resolve it.” (Having a faith crisis is not unique. Failing to have your faith crisis until after you're already a Seventy is unprecedented, at least in recent memory. The real story here is the Church's apparent failure to vet this guy, although I have my doubts that he was really as clueless as he says.)
       "Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.
       “The Roman Catholic Church has had 2,000 years to work through the hiccups in its history,” said Terryl L. Givens, a professor of English, literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon believer. “Mormonism is still an adolescent religion.”
       "Mr. Givens and his wife, Fiona, recently presented what they called “Crucible of Doubt” sessions for questioning Mormons in England, Scotland and Ireland. Hundreds attended each event. (The Givens are great. Fiona sat on a panel discussion on Mormonism that we hosted last year at the University of Virginia.) 
       “Sometimes they are just this side of leaving, and sometimes they are simply faithful members who are looking for clarity and understanding to add to their faith,” said Mr. Givens, who hosted a similar discussion in July in Provo, Utah, and has others planned in the United States. The church is not sponsoring the sessions, Mr. Givens said, but local bishops give their permission. (They "give their permission"? I presume this means they give their permission for the use of the church building. As written, it makes it sound like Mormons would need permission to attend from their church leaders, as if your bishop exercises control over where you go and what you attend.)
       "Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, said that “every church faces this challenge,” adding, “The answer is not to try to silence critics, but to provide as much information and as much support as possible to those who may be affected.” Mr. Hawkins also said the Mormon Church, which counts 14 million members worldwide, added about one million members every three years.
      "But Mr. Mattsson and others (who?) say the disillusionment is infecting the church’s best and brightest. A survey of more than 3,300 Mormon disbelievers, released last year, (what Goldstein doesn't say: this survey was conducted by a group called "Mormons Stories" whose purpose is clearly to foster doubt in Mormonism's core teachings) found that more than half of the men and four in 10 of the women had served in leadership positions in the church. (This may sound very persuasive to anyone unfamiliar with Mormonism, until you learn that Mormonism has a lay clergy, so nearly all active Mormons have served in some sort of leadership role.)
       "Many said they had suffered broken relationships with their parents, spouses and children as a result of their disbelief. (Ask those family members, and you may get a different version of events. Too bad the studious study didn't try to get the other side.) The study was conducted by John Dehlin, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Utah State University and the founder of “Mormon Stories,” a podcast of interviews with scholars and church members, many critical toward the church. (I'll give full disclosure, since the author didn't: "Mormon Stories" is the same group behind the survey she just mentioned. I'm beginning to suspect the "research" for this article consisted of surfing that one website.)
      "Some church leaders are well aware of the doubters in their midst. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who serves in the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the governing body just below the three-member First Presidency), said in April while addressing the church’s semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City: “Please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood and resolved. They do, and they will.” (Wait, let me see if I follow: 1. This quote shows that Elder Holland is aware of the presence of doubters. 2. He said it during a live broadcast of General Conference, with the entire senior church leadership sitting behind him and millions of people watching him. 3. Yet only "some" church leaders are aware that the church contains doubters; the rest think that it's a doubt-free church.)
      "Mr. Mattsson served as a young missionary in England; (where he never encountered any of these standard anti-Mormon doubts?) his wife, Birgitta, is a convert. They raised their five children in the Mormon Church in Sweden, which dates to the 1850s and has about 9,000 members.
       "He and his twin brother, Leif, both rose through the ranks of leadership, and in 2000, Hans Mattsson became the first Swede ever to be named an area authority. (He served until 2005, when he had heart surgery.) During the week he worked in technology marketing, and on the weekends he traveled widely throughout Europe, preaching and organizing the believers.
       “I was just in a bubble, and we felt so happy,” Mr. Mattsson said. "The first doubts filtered up to him from members who had turned to the Internet to research a Sunday school talk. There are dozens of Web sites other than the Mormons’ own that present critical views of the faith. (Dozens? There are probably thousands.)
      "The questions were things like: (note how the author presents a list of arguments against Mormonism here, with no space given to their rebuttals)
■ Why does the church always portray Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates, when witnesses described him looking down into a hat at a “peep stone,” a rock that he believed helped him find buried treasure? (Probably because artistic depictions tend to idealize and stylize historical events. Scandalous! Also because showing someone with their head covered doesn't make for a very good painting. Given the fact that Joseph Smith used several different methods to translate the Book of Mormon, one of which was reading (or revelating, as the case may be) straight off the plates, which one would you depict if you were the artist? I recommend Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 48-76, for anyone interested in a more thorough look at the translation of the Book of Mormon.)
■ Why were black men excluded from the priesthood from the mid-1800s until 1978? (We're to believe that Mattsson, who was raised in Mormonism from his childhood and looks like he's in his 70s, never encountered this issue before? Where was he in 1978? Has he never read Official Declaration 2? Here's what I said on this blog about the issue.)
■ Why did Smith claim that the Book of Abraham, a core scripture, was a translation of ancient writings from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, when Egyptologists now identify the papyrus that Smith used in the translation as a common funerary scroll that has nothing to do with Abraham? (The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) has a wealth of information on the origins of the Book of Abraham, including what connection it had to the papyri, and also some very interesting ancient connections.) 
■ Is it true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?
       "About that last question, Mr. Mattsson said, “That was kind of shocking.” (Polygamy is not often discussed in the LDS Church; it's not seen as particularly relevant. But there's no way you can be an active church member for years and not hear about it. And at what point did Mattsson have an obligation to do some reading on his own? He blames the LDS Church for his failure in that regard? Again, I recommend Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 323-27 and 437-46. Briefly: Joseph Smith was a polygamist, and he certainly consummated some of his marriages. But many of these marriages were of a spiritual nature only, entered into in order to establish the plural marriage principle as Smith understood that God had revealed it. Nothing indicates that he consummated any of the "marriages" with married women. It is also no secret that Emma wasn't comfortable with polygamy. She approved some marriages but never learned about others, and it strained their relationship, as well as her relationship with the church. After Joseph Smith's death, she never migrated to Utah, and for the remainder of her life, because she had been serving as president of the Relief Society (the Mormon women's organization), that post remained vacant. These are all familiar facts in Church history.)
      "Mr. Mattsson said he sought the help of the church’s highest authorities. He said a senior apostle came to Sweden at his request and told a meeting of Mormons that he had a manuscript in his briefcase that, once it was published, would prove all the doubters wrong. But Mr. Mattsson said the promised text never appeared, and when he asked the apostle about it, he was told it was impertinent to ask. (Hearsay. And given the implausibility of the other things he's said, I don't find Mattsson particularly credible.)
      "(Mr. Mattsson refused to identify the apostle, but others said it was Elder L. Tom Perry, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Perry, now 91, confirmed through a church spokesman that he did visit a branch in Sweden with skeptical members, but said he recalled satisfying their questions with a letter written by the church’s history department.) (An attempt to present a controversy and then let the other side speak! If only there were more of this.)       "That encounter is what really set off Mr. Mattsson’s doubts. He began reading everything he could. He listened to the “Mormon Stories” podcasts. And he read “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” a biography by Richard Lyman Bushman, a historian at Columbia University and a prominent Mormon.
       "Mr. Bushman said in a telephone interview: “You would be amazed at the number of Mormons who don’t think Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. It just wasn’t talked about. It was never mentioned in church periodicals. That was policy.” (Put this in context: This does not mean that most Mormons didn't think Smith was a polygamist. What amazes Richard Bushman might be something like 10% or 15% of active Mormons being ignorant. In a Pew Forum survey on religious literacy, Mormons proved better informed about religion that any other Christian group.) 
       "In the last 10 or 15 years, he said, “the church has come to realize that transparency and candor and historical accuracy are really the only way to go.” The church has released seven volumes of the papers of Joseph Smith and published an essay on one of the most shameful events in church history, the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which church leaders plotted the slaughter of people in a wagon train in 1857. (Yes, there were local church leaders involved, but this makes it sound like the leaders of the entire LDS Church plotted the massacre, shifting guilt to the church rather than to the individual Mormons who perpetrated it. True, Brigham Young probably contributed to the tensions that led to the massacre with his militant rhetoric, but then, the U.S. Army was about to invade Utah to crush what they incorrectly believed was a Mormon rebellion. So there's some context here that--surprise!--Goldstein didn't provide.)
      "But the church has not actively disseminated most of these documents, (They're posted on the Internet. You can buy the hardbound volumes. BYUTV has a series on them. Is that not active dissemination? What do you want--the scholarly papers project to become Sunday School curriculum?) so when members come across them on Web sites or in books, Mr. Bushman said, “it’s just excruciating.”
       “Sometimes people are furious because they feel they haven’t been told the truth growing up,” he said. “They feel like they were tricked or betrayed.” (Yes, some people may feel that way, but it's important to note that the Church was not lying to or tricking anyone. It just presented a simplified version of its history in its Sunday School curriculum. Part of that was from a desire to avoid controversy, which tendency admittedly persists. And part of the dumbing-down is because the LDS Church realizes that it has to be accessible to members of all backgrounds and education levels. Spending time on complicated historical matters can alienate those who find it a distraction from the more important pursuits of personal spiritual development.)
       "Mr. Mattsson said that when he started sharing what he had learned with other Mormons in Sweden, the stake president (who oversees a cluster of congregations) told him not to talk about it to any members, even his wife and children. He did not obey: “I said to them, why are you afraid for the truth?” (See, he's the brave warrior for truth, standing up to authority! Do you think this is the version of events you would get if you asked the stake president? There are always two sides to this sort of thing, except in this article, where we only get one.)
       "He organized a discussion group in Sweden, and more than 600 participated, he said. In 2010, the church sent two of its top historians, Elder Marlin K. Jensen and Richard E. Turley Jr. to allay the Swedes’ concerns. They had a remarkably frank and sometimes testy exchange, especially about Smith and polygamy. (And this from the church we've been told covers up the truth and tells people to be quiet and stop thinking.)
       "The Mattssons have tried other churches, but they are still attached to their Mormon faith. (So apparently his wife feels the same way. Strange that we didn't hear a word from her--or even about her views or "Mrs. Mattsson declined to be interviewed for this article"--nothing.) A few weeks ago, they moved to Spain for health reasons, they said. They left behind some family members who are unhappy with Mr. Mattsson’s decision to grant interviews to The New York Times and to the “Mormon Stories” podcast. (And now we know why.)
       “I don’t want to hurt the church,” Mr. Mattsson said. “I just want the truth.” (Hint: At least in regards to Mormonism, the New York Times is not where you'll find it.)

In summary
Mormon preaching and Sunday School lessons tend to focus on practical applications of faith and only cover the basics on matters of apologetics and history, in order to be accessible to all its members. Mormons need to avail themselves of the wealth of published information available to them on Church history and doctrine rather than expect to learn everything in Sunday School. As a final lesson, this articles illustrates that when the public has virtually no exposure to an opposing viewpoint, even supposedly respectable publications like the New York Times ignore it altogether.

4 comments:

Joran said...

You are right; there is a clear slant to the article, and the quality of journalism is shoddy.

I believe the church is true, despite unresolved questions I have. But you are also right to point out that the issues over which Mr. Mattson takes umbrage are petty and rote historical points.

Any religion you can think of has dirty laundry. Catholic popes subsidized prostitution for their clergy for years. Martin Luther encouraged the eradication of Jews. Calvin urged the slaughter of the other "bad" protestants. The hindus slaughtered the sikh, and the sikh the buddists, and it goes on and on. However, these horrific instances do not highlight the wrongness of a religion, but the failings of human nature. Nor do these events diminish the good accessible in each of these religions.

Ultimately, religion is a matter of faith, not science, and true faith and true science peacefully coexist and compliment one another. Finding out about some unexpected historical episode (science) is only detrimental to those whose faith AND science are weak.

desertskyquilts said...

Anyone who seeks the negative can find it. Anyone who wishes to pursue doubt rather than faith, will enlarge their doubts. How much better it is to read the scriptures for one's self, to read the books written by those who are our spiritual leaders, than to read anonymous websites or anti-Mormon websites to find one's information. No one who is anti is likely to be telling documented truth in its entirety, or giving an unbiased version of events. It is easy to be distracted by the pebble in our shoe and forego the journey that is important.

Garsha said...

Have you ever contacted Goodstein on how the article should be corrected?

Travis Brinton said...

@Garsha: I hadn't, but after reading your comment I sent her an email. So far, I haven't heard back.