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John Dehlin’s “reconstruction” of faith

JohnDehlinThose of you who know who John Dehlin is probably don’t need an introduction about him, and those of you who don’t probably wouldn’t care.  But suffice it to say that John has been a divisive character in the outskirts of Mormonism.  In the midst of his own faith crisis, John created the Mormon Stories podcast to interview prominent Mormons, ex-Mormons, Mormon critics, conservatives, historians, psychologists, you name it.  There were podcasts and websites that offered these things from a conservative Mormon point of view, and there were ex-Mormon and anti-Mormon sites online, but John wanted to try to navigate a middle way between them.  In other words, John wanted a mixture of faithful and critical voices in Mormonism.  He was trying to create a space for Mormons who struggled with their testimonies to be exposed to the tricky and difficult issues of Mormonism without a strong bias one way or another.

At least, that was the idea.  Such lofty ideals about eliminating bias and presenting objective information are practically impossible to carry out in real life, especially since John was one man with his own set of concerns about the church, and these concerns tended to leak out and take center stage no matter who John interviewed.  Complicating this was the fact that John was frequently very critical of apologists for the church, whom he criticized as insensitive to the emotional concerns of struggling Mormons.  Most of the apologists, especially Dan Peterson and his crew, returned these volleys with the accusation that John was nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing, intent on causing people to lose testimonies and leave the church.  But they were not John’s only critics – he has been criticized by various members of the Bloggernacle, the ex-Mormon community, and even members of his own family.  Such seems to be the fate of anyone who tries to forge a middle path: anger from both sides.  But John has maintained a very strong following of people who appreciated his attempt at a fair hearing of the issues of modern and historical Mormonism.

Now things have gotten interesting, as John has very publicly been interviewed on his own podcast regarding his return to faith.  He recounts in great detail his interesting journey through Mormon Stories.  He talks about losing his testimony based on hearing lots of the difficult areas of Mormon history (polygamy and polyandry, supposed DNA evidence regarding the Book of Mormon, and the LDS church’s treatment of blacks and gays seem to be chief among his concerns), met with high-ranking general authorities and even an apostle, talks about his relationship with his brother Joel Dehlin (who was CIO of the church during a long stretch of the story), his strained relationship with his wife and children throughout this journey, and his creation of nation-wide support groups for disaffected and questioning Mormons.  Finally, John recounts how he hit rock bottom and looked around himself.  He believed that many people who left the church “traded down.”  That is, their lives became worse, their families fell apart, and they found themselves experimenting with unhealthy lifestyles.  John felt quite anxious and guilty about this, as though he shared some responsibility.  The last half of the episode recounts how John began working with his Bishop and trying his best to get back into full activity in the church.  He hopes to baptize his son, who is 9 years old, soon.

The most interesting thing about this podcast is that many of John’s fans were outraged by it.  Many have withdrawn support for his site and others have publicly criticized his decision in the comments section of the episode as well as in message boards all through the disaffected Mormon underground.  The main criticism seems to be that John was implicitly stating that people leave the church just to do bad things, leave their families, drink alcohol and smoke weed, etc., even though John specifically stated that this was not the case.  Others state that John is simply foolish to go back to the church, especially since John still is unsure, agnostic, or just disbelieving of many of the church’s truth claims.  I can kind of see that point, though I would probably be hypocritical for saying it.

However, John has, on his Facebook page, expressed wonder that so many seemed personally insulted by his decision.  His intention was to make Mormon Stories a more neutral, objective website, not a long podcast about his own personal journey.  However, it seems that people have become personally attached to John and were personally, emotionally invested in his journey because they felt his journey represented their own.

That’s the thing I don’t think John realized – Mormon Stories was about him from the beginning.  At least, that’s how I see it.  That was the point.  That’s the reason it became so popular.  That’s why he has over 5,000 subscribers on his Facebook page and people emailing and calling him from all over the country.  The questions he asked listeners were tailored to his own interests, and reflective of his own struggles.  He gave lots of air-time to people who he was personally interested in speaking with, and de-emphasized answers and topics he found unimportant.  And that’s why so many people were crestfallen when John fell back in line with the orthopraxy of the church – they were losing what they saw as validation of their own struggles.

Now I am unsure about John’s whole approach to begin with for many reasons.  I know that people left the church before Mormon Stories, and found solace in friends before Mormon Stories, and reconstructed their own faiths before Mormon Stories.  So I don’t know if John was really helping those people or keeping their wounds fresh.  I also don’t know if Mormon Stories ever really accomplished its goal of being “fair and balanced.”  And if people saw it as a neutral and unbiased site where they could just hear the stories of people connected with Mormonism, why would they get outraged and withdraw their support when John goes back to the church?  And finally, is it really healthy for John to keep flip-flopping publicly about his testimony while thousands of fans, with a stake in the outcome, support him financially through donations?  However, John is clear in this podcast that he did not feel up to the task – he said he was “not a good enough man” to shepherd all those thousands of people to begin with.  I think this says a lot about him, flaws and all.

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