We Aren’t All the Same
Joanna Brooks was interviewed on The Daily Show just this last week (full disclosure – Brooks drives me a little nuts). A missionary I served with in Hawaii posted a link to the interview, and added that Brooks is an important voice in the world of contemporary Mormonism.
I replied, intentionally tactful, “Certainly interesting, arguably important, but far from definitive….”
He replied, “She may not be definitive, but that’s kind of the point…. Her viewpoint, along with the viewpoints of others, shows that there isn’t just one way to be Mormon. I’m excited that she will be able to show a wider audience that we aren’t all the same.”
It’s true that we’re not all the same. Mormons are diverse (I recently stumbled upon the Mormon Transhumanist Association, for example), and at this point, with more Latter-day Saints outside of the United States than inside of it, it’s wrong to force-fit everyone into the same Republican, Conservative, white, middle-class, Utahn mold.
What is the Same?
Still, it got me thinking – what does make someone Mormon? As different as we can be politically, socially, or economically, what is it that defines us?
For example, in her interview, she mentions a parental embargo against caffeinated soda. I’ve heard of similar practices among Mormon families, most often in the interest of living more fully the law of health that Latter-day Saints abide by (I, for one, am not one of those caffeine-free Latter-day Saints – I take my Dr. Pepper leaded, thank you).
Obviously, this doctrinal quirk neither qualifies nor disqualifies someone from legitimately calling themselves Mormon. But the question remains – if not soda-quirks, what is it that does define us? Ignoring for a moment the question about what things may disqualify us, what qualifies people as Latter-day Saints?
I think a good place to start is with the covenants we make when we’re baptized. It’s probably not a bad idea to look at the temple recommend questions, either. I’m still undecided on the question, so I’m open to your feedback.
(And if you’re offended by the mere idea of trying to define boundaries, check out my posts on the preface to C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.)
A Drunk Prophet is Better
There is one thing I feel fairly confident about when it comes to defining what makes someone Mormon.
Dan Jones was one of the early converts to the Church in the days of Joseph Smith, and had an intriguing experience with the prophet (there is a fuller account, and a far better treatment of it, on the Mormon DNA post “How Much Can Mormons Take?” for those who are interested).
In summary, Joseph decided to “test” Dan Jones. He went to the wharf in Nauvoo and acted like he was drunk, convincingly portraying the gait, speech, and hiccuping of someone who is inebriated. Intending to board Jones’ boat, he said,
“Boat ahoy, Hallo Come and help me aboard Captain [Jones], for I’m afraid to fall off that plank into the river. Now hold fast, steady there all safe. Now Captain you see I’m a leedl boozy tonight, been drinking a leedl wine with a friend; but what of that I’m a Prophet if I am drunk; that I am. Well look here Captain, you hold my note [in other words, "I'm in debt to you"], don’t you? Well I have just called to tell you that I don’t mean to pay you a cent of it, that I wont. Now ain’t I an honest man to tell you so? I tell you I never mean to pay you a cent, there now help yourself.
“You may think I am not a Prophet but I am a Prophet if I am drunk. There I told you what I came for, I wont pay a cent that’s all. Now help me ashore again, I know I’m a Prophet, don’t push me off the plank, or I’ll be a fallen Prophet, if not a drowned Prophet, Ha, Ha, there ashore safe let me go sue, sue away, I tell you I don’t care, good night.”
(I find this hilarious, by the way. You can’t tell me Joseph wasn’t a talented man.)
After this exchange, Joseph left the wharf and found Willard Richards, another notable early Saint. He asked Richards if he would go speak with Jones, and see what Jones would say about Joseph’s drunkenness. Richards agreed.
At the wharf, Richards met Jones, and asked if he’d seen the prophet. Jones said that he had. Richards offered that Joseph may have been drinking, and Jones agreed, adding,
“He had his three sheets in the wind or thereabouts.”
(I don’t know what that means, but I expect the modern equivalent would be that “He’s drunk off his….” Well, you get the picture.)
Richards asked what Jones thought of this, and Jones responded,
“If he drinks until doom’s day, he can’t drown that truth which is in him, nor the little that is in me neither. Tis true that I would rather have a sober Prophet, but then if we can’t get a sober one, a drunken Prophet is better than no Prophet at all, so I will hold on to the one we have got, drunken or sober. That’s what I think to do Doctor.”
Of this story, Mormon DNA writes,
“Dan Jones didn’t care if Joseph Smith was a drunk. That is, he cared, but it didn’t influence whether he thought Joseph was a prophet or not. Dan Jones had a spiritual confirmation that Joseph was a prophet, and that’s all he needed to know.”
I think this is a good starting point on the road to defining who “is” Mormon and who isn’t, whether or not your names are officially on the records of the Church. In this case, Jones didn’t allow personal feelings or beliefs to upstage his witness, his spiritual confirmation, that Joseph was a prophet, called of God.
While there is place in the Church for all kinds of people and all kinds of opinions, some things are paramount. I think that our willingness to follow (actively, and not blindly, mind you – but that’s a different conversation) Church leaders is paramount. What do you think?
[UPDATE] Michael Purdy, the Church Spokesman, said something recently that I think relates to the discussion of setting boundaries. He said,
“It is patently false for someone to suggest they face church discipline for having questions or for expressing a political view. The church is an advocate of individual choice. It is a core tenet of our faith…. Church discipline becomes necessary only in those rare occasions when an individual’s actions cannot be ignored while they claim to be in good standing with the church. Every organization, whether religious or secular, must be able to define where its boundaries begin and end.”
See the article here.