Uninteresting. Unsurprising. Uninspiring.
I don’t mean to be flippant or offensive, only honest—and those three words honestly sum up my impressions about this past weekend’s LDS General Conference. I could probably leave it at that, but I’ll expound a bit. Brevity isn’t my style.
Last October, I attempted to blog conference and failed. There was so much to address in that conference that I felt a short response was too inadequate, and an appropriately long response too overwhelming.
In contrast, I’m finding this most recent conference rather easy to blog, because it was devoid of depth and substance. If I may, it put the general in General Conference.
To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. I had hoped—in the aftermath of the Senator Reid controversy—that a church official would stress the importance of political civility, and Bishop David Burton’s talk did just that. An answered prayer, perhaps. And like most conferences, this one had some heart-warming stories of kindness and charity.
But frankly, I expect more of prophets and apostles than heart-warming stories. If that’s all I wanted, I’d go read Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul. (What would the atheist equivalent be? Organic Vegan Soup for the Inducement of Dopamine in the Brain?)
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was among the only speakers to deviate from this feel-goodery. His Saturday talk concerned pornography, a topic that—among Mormon males, at least—evokes more a “sinking in the bosom” than a burning.
Holland consistently delivers powerful and impassioned talks. This talk was no exception. It was also the one slight surprise of this conference. The issue of pornography was a fixture in conference talks when I was growing up in the church, but it has been largely (and curiously) neglected in the past few years. So it was interesting to hear the sticky subject explicitly mentioned again.
President Thomas S. Monson is another person who can generally be counted on for a good talk. But this conference, I was sorely disappointed. In both his Saturday and Sunday addresses, I swear Monson simply rehashed previous talks he had given. And I wasn’t alone in experiencing déjà vu. Ben Clarke, a friend of mine, also noticed Monson’s penchant for “recycling”:
I estimate that President Monson has a corpus of about twelve sermons and about twenty stories. For the past few decades, Monson has generated his addresses to the church essentially by tweaking his past talks; I would call it ‘variations on themes,’ but variation is too strong a term. Some of his sermons are a kind of pastiche of his previous talks, but most are mere retellings, often word-for-word quotations of them. Thus, President Monson holds the rather dubious distinction of being the least creative prophet in the past twenty years.
This isn’t to suggest that Monson is lazy. The man is just getting old, and that fact is becoming increasingly apparent.
Ben then perfectly articulates my larger frustration with conference in particular, and the modern LDS Church in general:
Ultimately, I suppose, it is in Thomas S. Monson that the LDS church has found its paragon of leadership in the 21rst century. Gone is the doctrinal daring of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, along with the willingness to speculate or even to generate new interpretations of the scriptures. Of the 2,478 pages of canonized LDS revelation, only 9 pages (.03 %) have been added in the past century. A religious movement with the audacity to produce three new books of scripture has grown silent, matching the muted quality of the traditional Christianity it now so earnestly strives to become reunified with. In the age of ecumenicism, the church has attempted to assimilate without assimilating. While refusing to revise traditional understandings of church doctrine, the leaders of the church have covered arresting potential of continuing revelation with a patina of platitudes, with endless repetitions of the fundamentals, at the expense of doctrinal growth. Last year’s fateful move to change the Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum has been emblematic of the theological dilution of the church, well over a century in the making. President Monson embodies this very dilution; his sermons are Music and the Spoken Word without a tune, polished reflections of an aborted revolution. Churches don’t change by spontaneous irruptions of divine revelation, but by thinkers willing to bend the heavens to their purged understandings.
Maybe this devolution is just the price of becoming a worldwide church. I don’t know. Nevertheless, I find the trend upsetting. Like Ben, I want to see Mormonism back on the “theological frontlines” it once occupied. I mean, why even have prophets when all you’re going to do is trot them out twice a year to give a pep talk?
To my LDS friends: There are deeper reservoirs of Mormon thought and spirituality than General Conference. I think you really stunt your spiritual development by staying within the confines of conference.
You would be better served by engaging the works of Eugene England, Philip Barlow, Blake Ostler, and other thoughtful Mormons. They’ll introduce you to a Mormonism with a greater fidelity to reason. A faith that admits error and is comfortable with doubt. In short, to quote St. Anselm, a “faith seeking understanding.”
I disagree with this more reflective faith still, but it’s preferable to the comparatively empty and blind faith on display last weekend.
That’s this apostate’s sincere and humble advice. Take it for what it’s worth.