Today we dissect the Mormon Channel’s video titled “How to Answer Questions about Church History” hosted by Amy Iverson where she interviews Steven Harper on how he as a Church Historian deals with tough issues within Church history.
You might expect a Church historian who is on such a program due to his immersion and professional understanding of LDS Church History to use Church history to show that the tough questions have solid answers. You might expect him to encourage members who come across a tough issue to dive deeper, to find original sources, or refer them to the Gospel Topic Essays, or at least the Joseph Smith Papers Project as he had a major hand in it. You might expect him pick out a few tough issues and then show how a more informed understanding of Church history helps to sort these issues out. BUT…… As you will see he does anything but this.
– Notice his hesitancy to discuss the specifics of Church history. He seems to, as a Church historian, not want to talk about Church history, and it feels his reason is he senses there is little there to build faith on.
– Notice when asked if Church history has built faith and has resolved his questions he constantly deflects from answering such questions directly and imposes that his testimony is not based in Church history.
– Notice his progression from A.) Questions always resolve themselves B.) We have some questions that are yet unresolved but We have a lot of answers and I have faith the unresolved will yet be resolved. C.) There are both several questions resolved as well as several questions unresolved. D.) I have way more questions than answers and the more I learn Church history, the unresolved questions grow exponentially. and finally where he ends up E.) I hate to burst your bubble but dealing with the data causes us to reconstruct the Church in ways that have our faith in “what the Church is” being similar to how we reconcile Christmas after deconstructing the literalness of Santa Claus.
While Amy imposes that Church history has been, to Steven Harper, “an illumination to his soul”. Radio Free Mormon and Bill Reel’s analysis shows it to have been anything but.
In the end it becomes obvious that not only does a Church historian avoid using Church history to resolve concerns, but also that he realizes avoiding Church history is the only way to tackle the difficult questions as to dive into the history is anything but faith promoting.
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Great episode, Bill and RFM. I love your work and especially enjoy your tag-team episodes. Bless you both for your insights and your dedication.
To me, Steven Harper did provide *an* answer to questions about church history (honestly, *the* answer to church history). He just didn’t provide a *faithful* answer (i.e., one that preserved the magical/supernatural aspects of the LDS church’s truth claims).
As one teacher said, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”. Steven’s answer was the Santa Claus answer — an answer that does not preserve the magical/supernatural aspects of the LDS church’s truth claims — an answer in which one does not retain a “sure knowledge” of the magical/supernatural aspects of the LDS church’s truth claims.
But as parables were lost on many, the Santa Claus analogy will be lost on many true believers who lack the ears to hear. But you, Bill and RFM, have the ears and heard loud and clearly.
I suspect the interview worked perfectly for its intended purpose. It reassures true believers that smart people have answers or are confident the answers will come. It makes the case for utilitarianism (via the Santa analogy) for non-literal believers who still see the LDS church as a net positive. This video was never meant to provide apologetic answers to specific issues. I expect this video will remain posted for some time.
I really liked this podcast, but I think you knew the purpose of the video was to say to believing members that there is nothing scary in Mormon History.
Not to address concerns of questioning members.
I think you went a little far on the Santa anology. I’m sure Steven still sees Joseph as a prophet but very fallible man. But like you said it would be interesting to have him clarify.
Bill – I think you should have mentioned that you interviewed him about the First Vision in a previous interview for full disclosure.
The analysis of going from all questions have answers to most questions don’t have answers and the answers require a full recalibration of his testimony was brilliant.
Keep up the good work!!!
You guys are very thorough. You’ve covered every angle!
I’m listening to this podcast and I think the church has put the focus on “historical issues are encouraging people to leave the church” when the reality is that it is NOT historical issues that cause people to leave but honesty issues that force people out. How can JS restore the full truth of the gospel when Joseph doesn’t seem to understand the value of being honest and true. Once someone has looked you in the eye and lied to you, from that point you have the knowledge that this person can and will lie. The church tries to present all wrongs done by Joseph as “Faults and Foibles” (minor character weaknesses) when the reality is is that he tried to make people believe that black is white. I don’t consider it a minor fault that you can look at your spouse, the person that you should cleave unto, and repeatedly lie for a decade. How can you know how much you’ve hurt someone with your actions/lies and keep on committing the same offense over and over? If Joseph could lie to Emma so smoothly then how easily would he be able to lie to people that he has no emotional connection to?
I felt my world shift when I stumbled across the gospel topic essays. Discovering that not only was Joseph an accomplished liar but that current leaders are lying to cover for Joseph’s lies has filled me full of doubt. I’m Mormon. I’m weird. Sometimes I hate being a weird Mormon but I can handle it. What I can’t handle is the distrust and uncertainty that I now feel. Church leaders are putting the focus on “history” when in reality this is a character issue. You can’t teach truth with deception. It’s not necessarily the unanswerable questions but the dishonest answers that drive people away. IMO.
Thanks for dissecting and presenting this stuff.
I can’t agree with you enough. In my book, the church is both an intellectually dishonest organization and a straight-up dishonest organization. It’s not just that perspectives differ based on faith and lack thereof. The church has had numerous opportunities to present historical events in a truthful manner. They chose not to. No one will ever stand at the podium during conference and say, “Leadership has been dishonest with you and we’re going to take responsibility for that dishonesty,” so in my mind the entire enterprise is responsible. Let the hemorrhaging continue.
Thanks, Bill and RFM, for your continued illumination of actual facts and tactless deviations. I’m sure, as Lord Acton said, it has been an illumination to your soul.
Mr. Harper has defended his job and salary quite nicely. Those currently contributing to his paycheck, are more likely to continue doing so after this video. Those who currently do not pay his wage, were never likely to change anyway. Mission accomplished.
I once had a “wonderful feeling” when I saw Luke Skywalker use the FORCE. I’m not being flippant. Because I had such a good feeling, I can now claim I have a testimony of “The Force”.
The criteria is so loose, so imprecise, you can use it for ANYTHING…even things that are clearly fiction.
What you talk of rob4hope has been the single biggest wake-up call as well as the most unsettling thought that I’ve recently embraced in the last year. The fact that most religious people claim that the ‘spirit’ confirmed the ‘truth’ of their religion to them by good feelings really derails (at least for me) the reliability of my own ‘spiritual wittnesses’ I had in this religion. What can I trust to discern truth for spiritual things now? Certain!y not what I had been taught almost literally from the cradle.
These were great! Thanks for them!
I love how many times you two laugh!! It helps and is much needed after listening to a clip. It’s a gruesome interview to sit through, almost as bad as the Cook an two historians face to face for Saints. That one made me crawl the walls and say potty words in disgust and frustration I don’t normally say. Thank you for your thoughts an research in this podcast. I see these three podcasts as a perfect jumping off place for discussing church history, my current views and feelings and reasons for removing my and my family’s names from the records with my parents and adult siblings. The Santa comparison says it all, I never thought I’d hear an authority be so frank and definite on the unfaithful side of church history!!!
Lord Acton also said, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This quote wouldn’t be so helpful to their cause… but perhaps it’s more truthful and ‘ illuminating ‘ than the quote the interviewer picked.