What Makes Me Mormon

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.

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7 thoughts on “What Makes Me Mormon”

  1. I am not even sure how I came across your site, but I think it might be a good idea to take a step back for a second. The question you pose might be better understood if we don’t use the terms “Latter-day Saint” and “Mormon” interchangeably. Because “what defines a Mormon?” is a lot different question than “what defines a Latter-day Saint?”

    I think we can talk about Mormons all day and not come up with some definition that doesn’t alienate, pass judgement, or socially excommunicate another. Looking at what defines a Latter-day Saint however, would be an individual exploration that encourages self-reflection and prayer. You seem to think that Ms. Brooks is not “Mormon” by some yet-to-be-defined standard, but I would suggest that she is a Latter-day Saint to the highest degree. She is a woman who has left the Church and returned, and through her own self-refection and willingness to “put herself out there,” she has given many people the strength to return to church or even stay when forces are pulling them in other directions. While I don’t agree with everything she has/will say, I will not join with you in calling her “crazy” or somehow implying she is less of a Latter-day Saint than me, (especially seeing that I haven’t done my home teaching this month.)

    I would also caution us men in the church to be careful in how we word our criticisms of women. We have this tendency to hold men to a different standard than women – (Joanna Brooks gets called crazy, because of course, a woman with a strong opinion is crazy.) But in the end, what defines LDS members should be a personal quest – and not a list of requirements or checks on a list. That puts us in one ‘moment’ – and denies the constantly changing and striving to be better as we work out our salvation.

    1. I’d like to respond to some of your concerns. You make some good points, but I’m not on board with all of them.

      First of all, I think you’re totally off base (not a great way to start off a mild-mannered response, but this is that important) with the insinuation that Joanna Brooks drives me crazy because she is a woman with a strong opinion. She drives me crazy because… well, anyone can read in the links above why she drives me crazy. There’s no need to reiterate that here. Regardless, nothing in anything I’ve written about her would suggest that her gender is what I find offensive. That is wholly inaccurate, and little more than a red herring. Further, I find your anecdotal warning about holding men and women to different standards to be, let’s say, less than substantiated.

      Whew. Anyway…

      As to some of your other points, I can agree with your caution. The last thing we want to do is to be exclusive and “alienate, pass judgment, or socially excommunicate” each other. That being said, I’m not troubled ethically by asking the question, “What makes someone Mormon?” I was just musing over how we might define such a diverse group of believers. It was similar musing, I’d imagine, that led C.S. Lewis to write Mere Christianity. But fantastic point – don’t want to be exclusive.

      Beyond that, I have to tell you that I’m not sure what you mean when you differentiate “Mormon” and “Latter-day Saint”. Could you say more on that? I didn’t have a problem using them interchangeably.

      It may have something to do with where we are on our own personal path, though, if I understand you correctly. I recently watched an interview with Mitt Romney that aired on EWTN, and he said something that may resonate with you. He said that he was once advised that “the difference between a sinner and the saint is not where they are in the ladder toward heaven but instead what direction they’re headed.” Romney added, “And I’m trying to head towards the north.” I think those are wise words, and they recognize that we’re all at different places. They match up, if I can be sold bold, with your suggestion we avoid alienating, judging, or socially excommunicating others.

      But I’ll push back just a bit, and say something about tolerance at the same time. Tolerance is not, as many today might suggest, never disagreeing about anything. It’s about understanding someone, still disagreeing with them, and being okay with that (or, in the case of the Christian, loving them anyway). I’m more than happy to be tolerant of Brooks (in the real meaning of the word), but that does not mean that I cannot disagree with her (or her with me, should she ever, like you, by happenstance find my website). And as long as I’m disagreeing with her, I believe she provides an opportunity to ask the fascinating question, “What unites this growing and increasingly diverse community of believers?”

      As you say, the standard is probably yet-to-be defined, and I am not the one to define it, but why not ask the question? People of faith are too often criticized for not using their minds. Let’s prove them wrong! Let’s wonder aloud, “What makes someone Mormon?”, and perhaps in the answer find a way to live closer to the Savior. Might a possible answer include, in addition to making and keeping sacred covenants, sustaining the leaders of the Church, as we have opportunity to do every six months in General Conference? Why is it so awful to suggest that perhaps being Mormon means “fac(ing) the right way”?

      Or, in more of the ladder-analogy terminology, trying to sustain the prophets, actively headed in that direction.

      I do think, though, that it’s totally inappropriate to judge others’ place on the “ladder”, as President Uchtdorf suggested. I did not mean to suggest that I have judged Brooks, though I can’t say I didn’t expect the danger of others assuming I’d done so. Hazards of using her as a case study. I assure you I am no more interested in Brooks’ personal salvationary state than I am in any other of my fellow men’s salvation. For any good she does I am thankful, and I wish her the best in her continued ladder-climbing.

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