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So the weekend has been abuzz with the story of Hans Mattsson, an Area Authority Seventy who began to research Mormonism’s historical claims on the Internet and found his faith shattered. The article was most widely sought-after article yesterday.
Whatever one thinks of Hans Mattsson personally, it’s a story that resonates with a lot of people. They’re raised thinking that Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young, polygamy all worked in a certain way. Then you’re checking out the latest ridiculous YouTube video one day and you–who knows how?–stumble across a site that promises you the truth about the Book of Mormon, the reality of polygamy, and objective inquiry into Mormonism’s truth claims.
I respect and sympathize with Every Single Person who has gone through what Elder Mattsson has gone through. It breaks my heart. I wish he would have been informed sooner, better, more thoroughly. It breaks my heart to see people get blindsided. It’s happened to more friend than one. Some do a little hand-waving, hoping the whole thing
will magically disappear (typically accompanied by the spell, “The Church is perfect; the people aren’t”–a mantra that has always struck me as a not-so-ambitious way of ignoring the issue). Some, like Elder Mattsson, had their world shattered. I wish he would have reached out to someone in a position to know (and as bright as they are, General Authorities are not always those people). From his own account, people did reach out to him, but they were profoundly ill-equipped to answer his questions–leaving him feeling only more frustrated. Taking him at his word, it was a tragic story.
But even more, it was a preventable story.
I respect the lived experience of others–the trauma of feeling lied to by an institution, the trauma of realizing that you’ve believed in a mythology, the anguish of recognizing that the same people who helped you through thick and thin have also uttered rank falsehood, even if unintentionally.
I must also respect my own experience. Perhaps I’m a freak, but I knew Mormon history mattered at a time when my community really didn’t care. My neighborhood was not the place for history buffs, unless you wore a beard, owned buckskins, could carve bears from oakwood or were so old that people figured that you couldn’t help but talk about the good/bad ole’ days. The right to talk history was something you had to earn the right to do. Our ward had the endearing old doctor who liked to spout off in class: “Did you know that Jesse Gause…” Young men were supposed to shoot things, catch fish, blow things up, and if they must read, read adventure novels.
So perhaps it was because I was a curious kid. Maybe I found out that bears didn’t really sing and dance and was ticked. Could be that it was because I was an asthmatic with a particularly (and possibly over)protective mother and had too much spare time on my hands. Or maybe I just needed a life.
But I’ve been blessed to have some level of familiarity with the issues Brother Mattsson raised for almost twenty years. Have I been troubled? Absolutely. Was I right to be? Yes. Some things still do bother me. I don’t like reading about Brigham Young issuing a blanket order to kill uncooperative mountain men during the Utah War. I don’t enjoy hearing that Joseph Smith hid plural marriages from Emma, that he would perform pro forma excommunications for the sake of good PR (with the promise, of course, to reinstate them the next day–which he did). I don’t love Joseph’s or Brigham’s violent streaks, as compassionate I know both of them were capable of being. Saying “prophets are human” is a highly unsatisfactory answer, and it always will be. For me, it always registered as “I really have no desire whatsoever to deal with the implications of this particular point, and why, petulant child, are you bothering me with it?” It’s a very good way to get your presumably honest inquirer to look elsewhere. And chances are, that elsewhere won’t be saying the things you want your friend to hear.
So yes, I’ve grown up with an oversized awareness of these issues. But it was a fight I generally faced alone, even if my parents were tolerant of my weird interest. I eventually found friends who would (and could) talk to me seriously about the issues without awkward glances, avoidance, or dismissal.
So perhaps history (esp. Mormon history) isn’t your thing. Hey, I’m glad you can help me with fixing my car. But if a friend comes to you with serious, probing questions, I promise you that the best way you can help them is by doing the following:
1) Listen to them.
2) Allow for the possibility that their concerns might have some grounding in reality. They might be wrong, but that’s ok. 3) Don’t assume that they just want to sleep around or just want to get smashed. It might be true, but it probably isn’t. If by chance either of those things are happening, it only tells you that their spiritual crisis actually runs deeper than anything history could ever present to them. You might be tempted to focus on the “real issues.” Don’t. If you do, you’ll only be communicating one message to them: “You don’t care enough about me to listen to my superficial issues. Why would I want to discuss the issues that I myself haven’t even come to grips with?” An open dialogue about whatever’s on their mind–history included–is the best way for you to develop trust.
There’s more to this thing than just a hobby. There’s a lot at stake. You know it. I know it. And more importantly, your friend knows it. Do them a favor sometime. Take them to the nearest hokey restaurant (I recommend Red Robin; please don’t do Applebee’s. That insults everybody. Waffle House works, but only because it owns the bad gourmet). Sit down. And say: “So tell me what you think about this polygamy stuff. I’m listening.”