Smith, Dehlin, and Constructing Exit Narratives
Since I’ve already brought up John Dehlin on this blog before, and since a lot of the Bloggernacle is generally silent about both the “traditional” apologetics of Mormonism and Mormon Stories, I guess I should say a few things about the recent news. I am guessing this will be a long post anyway.
The recent news being that Dr. Greg L. Smith has written a piece criticizing John Dehlin and his online project Mormon Stories. It’s way more complicated than that, actually – Smith wrote the piece intending to publish it under the auspices of the Maxwell Institute, Dehlin heard about it and got an unnamed LDS General Authority to suppress the piece, the new Maxwell Institute director (Gerald Bradford) instructed Smith not to publish it, a bunch of rumors and innuendo “swirled” around the piece for a year or so (according to Daniel C. Peterson), and Smith has now released the piece plus an analysis of the reaction to it at a different venue. Both articles are heavy and long reading, and I am guessing that other/better bloggers will write reactions to it. I don’t really have time to break it down and write an in-depth reaction, but I do want to at least collect some thoughts.
- Dehlin has been calling this a “hit piece” ever since he first heard about it (though he hasn’t read it, at least not till today). He justified calling it a hit piece based on what he knew about it from a person in the Maxwell Institute. After reading it, do I think it’s a “hit piece?” Well, I don’t know exactly what a “hit piece” is. It’s a slang term that seems to be used quite elastically by people of many political persuasions for many reasons. However, I do think that the purpose of the piece is to openly question Dehlin’s motivations and loyalties, using his own quotes against him, sometimes pulled a bit out of context and without the acknowledgement that people sincerely change opinions over time (especially John Dehlin). There isn’t too much on the whole Mormon Stories Foundation, it really does seem to focus on John. So if a “hit piece” is a piece solely devoted to tearing down a single person using taken-out-of-context-quotes, then maybe this qualifies. But I think Dehlin deserves as much scrutiny as he gets (as should anyone who gathers that much influence on people’s spiritual lives).
- Admittedly, John has been all over the place since he started Mormon Stories. His testimony has been up and down several times, he has changed his mind several times, he has tried to re-write his own history or silence his detractors, and he has made a ton of contradictory, off-hand remarks all over the Internet. Writing a piece making him look duplicitous or contradictory couldn’t have been that hard.
- That having been said, I don’t think John has ever been intentionally deceptive. Partly because I do think he’s an honest guy who says what’s on his mind, and partly because he’s not nearly as good at hiding his true intentions as he thinks he is. When he interviews people, it’s obvious what is important to him. I think when it comes down to it, John’s confused and contradictory statements are the result of a guy who is both confused and contradictory. I don’t think it needs any more analysis than that.
- Attempts to paint John as some kind of “wolf in sheep’s clothing” are going to fail for anyone who is familiar with John’s work, because he is obviously not intending to harm anyone and they all know that. That people are harmed by his work might be true, but it’s obvious that it’s not John’s intention for this to happen. John really thinks the case against the LDS church is very strong and wants to get the issues he’s concerned with out in the open. I think the things that bother him can be kind of silly, but that’s just because we’re different.
- As such, I really applaud the decision not to publish this piece in an official church publication. It seems like the purpose is to invalidate everything on Mormon Stories by tearing down John and implying that he has a secret, evil agenda – then the apologists are doing exactly what John is accusing them of doing. No one should be able to shoot down such a huge project with a lot of voices by discrediting a single person’s character. That is, by definition, an ad hominem. I think apologists ought to stick to discrediting (to the best of their ability) any arguments or historical problems that anti-Mormons make, rather than trying to paint the messengers as evil.
- I think the Bloggernacle is right not to give too much regard to Mormon Stories or this whole controversy (though some blogs have mentioned it). They are really targeting different crowds. For instance, when By Common Consent recently ran a piece that seemed to border on the Mormon Stories/Wheat and Tares approach (don’t regulate heavily and just let anyone comment even if it means accusing the Prophet Joseph of letting his libido run the church), a bunch of regulars took issue with it in the comments section. It’s just a different crowd, and the Mormon Stories approach doesn’t work with them.
- I disagree with several minor points of the essay, including the implication that anyone who doesn’t fully, literally believe in the church should turn in their temple recommends (this would include good people who are sincerely struggling or in doubt), but those are the sorts of things I expect conservative religious people to say, so I’m going to ignore them. Liberals and conservatives are going to naturally disagree on what the proper threshold of doubt is before we must withdraw from participating in church.
- Finally, I do think the article made a great point at the end, and that is about reifying exit narratives. More below.
So about reifying exit narratives. Smith made a great point by arguing that John is basically constructing exit narratives that may not have existed before. I have long held (based on some psychology studies) that people often don’t know the reason why they do things. People are largely rationalizing creatures rather than rational creatures. It would be nice if we could be like St. Thomas Aquinas wants us to be: rational creatures who use logic and reason to come to decisions and follow through with them. However, we are not naturally wired to do that.
That’s why a lot of psychological research does not ask people to simply say why they do things. Often, they are completely wrong, and they construct “reasons” why they did things after the fact.
So it’s possible that when John asks people to report the things that caused them to doubt the church by giving them a big list of possibilities, he is not really getting at the root of the issue at all. In fact, it’s possible that he’s making a list of “reasons” to doubt the church, constructing coherent “exit narratives” for all his podcast listeners, and then the listeners use those exit narratives to rationalize their behavior. Then, when they take his surveys, they check off the things that bother them about the church, but it’s no guarantee those were the actual reasons why the people left or are dissatisfied with the church. Now don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of the classic “problems” of Mormonism really are problems – so I’m not suggesting that we should minimize them. Nor should we leap to assuming that people who say they struggle with blacks and the priesthood are actually just sinners who want to party and get drunk all the time. But I do think the article is right that we should be wary of self-report surveys of this nature.
Despite the fact that I am a “thinker” type person (my wife might actually say I’m an over-thinker) and try to make decisions based on reason, AND the fact that this very blog is a discussion of the intellectual tensions between the two sides, I don’t think I’m immune to irrational thinking or post-hoc justification at all.
Because when it comes down to it, a few years ago I was very much a Mormon “apologist” and used lots of the arguments for the Mormon church that I now find untenable. It’s just that gradually I had what psychologists call a “Gestalt switch.” I was looking at the same data and same arguments, but they stopped having the force that they used to. Then, just as gradually, the arguments for Eastern Orthodoxy seemed stronger and stronger. It would be wrong of me to act like I really knew the psychological reasons for this shift. The purpose of this blog is to explore some possible reasons and the interaction of ideas, but I would be lying if I said that every decision I made – including the decision to leave a church or join a church – is entirely rational.
All I can do is continue praying that the Holy Ghost guide my decisions and save me from making decisions that will spiritually harm my family. My head and heart can be allies in this endeavor but both can be lead astray.
~ by Syphax on February 24, 2013.