The Need For More Correlation

March 1, 2012    By: Matt W. @ 9:35 pm   Category: Life

In going through N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, I was quite interested in his discussion of the two currently competing myths of Jesus. Wright defines myth as a story which we hold to be true or historical which defines our beliefs, values, decisions and character. The stories he noted which were currently in competition were the one from the atheist view that Jesus was not the son of God, and therefore the stories about him are not true, but fiction, and possibly no person named Jesus ever existed, and the one from the theist perspective, where Jesus existed and was the son of God, and so on. Both stories, of course, can be broken up into multiple different versions of the story themselves, with Wright noting the two versions in contention today, that of the “liberal atheist” and the “conservative fundamentalist” have one striking thing in common, which is that they have little to do with the man represented by the current scriptural/historical record.

Another example of this use of myth could be taken from my last post, where the prophet, John the Baptist, had a particular story or set of expectations in his head for who and what the Messiah was supposed to be. This was different than what Jesus himself was and expected himself to be.

Both of these examples illustrate the importance of very clear myths which can then help us define our reality. They are the underpinnings of who we are, the maps by which we guide our lives. Stephen Covey called them paradigms.

Wright points out that one such myth that underpins most of life in the 20th/21st century is the need for progress in all things. Everything can be improved upon and be made faster, better, and more efficient. What this progress entails is constantly changing, but the constant idea of progress is pervasive.

In the 1960s the church began an effort to correlate its own story into one clear and coherent myth. It published new manuals, and consolidated various texts into a central corpus which not only connected with the stories of Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ, but also tapped into some of the progressive themes of the 50s and 60s such as globalization and volunteership, and acting as a counter-cultural foil to others, such as the hippy movement.

At any rate, this was very successful for the church, helping it achieve its highest compound annual growth rate in terms of members for any decade since the life of Joseph Smith. (5.6% per year from 1960 to 1970). This was pretty much sustained throughout the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, when I was baptized, this growth rate began to decline, and now, in the last completed decade, growth is down to where it was in the 1930s.

My own story for Mormonism is greatly shaped by the myths which I encountered as an early member. My Wife’s grandmother being “The Meanest Woman in the Mormon Church” (long story short, she cancelled primary from the pulpit one week because the Bishop wouldn’t call her any teachers. He called her teachers the next week), her grandpa being the doctor who had taught the Presbyterian church from “Jesus the Christ” for months before joining, her father’s large stack of Nibley books, and her own devotion to serving a mission all helped me define what it meant to be a good Mormon. This was added upon by branch presidents, mission presidents, members, and the online community.

I am sometimes surprised to discover how far my beliefs and understanding are from some other members. Take the recent Randy Bott scenario (poor guy) as an example, or when a friend wrote that God was a republican, or etc etc.

In all this I am wondering if it is time to take another look at the story of Mormonism and whether it could do with a full scale modern correlation. Steps have been taken towards this, with Mormon.org being a new fresh face for the church and Preach My Gospel being a partial step in this direction. But these items have been mainly geared toward messaging what the story is to non-members. What I am talking about is members. Are the myths of the church creating the character, value, and beliefs we believe God would want us to have? What values and beliefs do we believe should be primary for our members? Are they central in our messaging? Do we have good answers for the concerns perpetually facing the church and it’s members?

One modern Mormon myth is that somehow the idea of having a unified correlated front is somehow a bad thing. As for me, I am wondering if we don’t need more of it.

 

29 Comments »

  1. Sorry. Total aside from the intent of your post:
    I don’t like the use of the word “myth.” It connotes fiction or invention of facts or some other unprovable story.

    Comment by mondo cool — March 1, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

  2. I believe what is lacking here is not correlation of the publications of the church, but rather the announced and formal rejection and repudiation of certain propositions that are held to either not be or no longer to be doctrines of the church nor acceptable beliefs of any kind.

    I believe what ideally should have happened is the church should have canonized certain parts of the speech Elder McConkie delivered on the subject in 1978, and printed them in the D&C, under, or as part of, Official Declaration 2.

    This passage:

    “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

    We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

    It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles.”
    http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=11017

    It is not too late. Canonization is still an option, no?

    Comment by Mark D. — March 1, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  3. Are the myths of the church creating the character, value, and beliefs we believe God would want us to have?

    Such a profoundly important question.

    Comment by Gina — March 2, 2012 @ 12:03 am

  4. Correlation is not a substitute for revelation. Can anyone point to a recent new flood of intelligence and light? Can anyone argue revelation through Joseph was infrequent? This is what is missing correlation merely rearranges the same old myths. Why are we stuck in a 1950′s paradigm? Where is our proactive divine leadership? Clearly they are not the Prophets Joseph was and seniority succession insures that they are old which makes for a steady course as the secular world accelerates in growth, change and enlightenment. Clearly we are out of phase and out of touch.

    Comment by Howard — March 2, 2012 @ 7:29 am

  5. Mondo: I agree, but since I am riffing of off Wright, I am stuck with his word. He actually says about the same thing, but goes with it anyway. I tried to use the word “story” as much as possible, in the post, to avoid the connotation. I guess I wasn’t successful in that.

    Mark D: I once heard that we have 5-6 (can’t remember the source) lessons a year that focus solely on the priesthood. What if one of those lessons focused on it’s universality and the repudiation of past teachings. I think McConkie would be a fantastic footnote on OD2, like Woodruff is footnoted on OD1. That way we could get canonization without the process of canonization.

    Gina: thanks.

    Howard: Your comment is extremely pessimistic to me. I think in aggregate the is a flood of intelligence and light that has come forward since I joined the church. Yes it isn’t like Joseph Smith days, but these aren’t Joseph Smith times. The church is still a toddler, and we still have growing up to do, but the church is still God’s church, with priesthood authority and divine sanction. I still love the church and could not live without her.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 2, 2012 @ 9:14 am

  6. Interesting enough, both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young tried very hard to teach the members to have their own revelations and their own visions. They actually *didn’t* want the membership to rely on the leadership for all the light and knowledge. That is kind of what the Book of Mormon is about. Yes, the revelations on the Priesthood and its responsibilities put the final authority on the Prophet, but only so far as the whole church is concerned.

    I also think that we over represent the revelations of the Gospel given to Joseph Smith. He was tasked to re-institute from the ground up and that takes lots of Divine communication. After that I see the usual testimonies and moral preachings that are the actual substance of the Gospel’s intent. If we don’t see the revelations and visions that we feel entitled, then by the Book of Mormon’s own warning it is our own fault either collectively or individually. As for me, I see “recent new flood of intelligence and light” every time I open the Scriptures or read the talks given in Conference. How? Because the burden is on me and not particularly on them to seek out the Spirit of the Holy Ghost.

    “In all this I am wondering if it is time to take another look at the story of Mormonism and whether it could do with a full scale modern correlation.”

    I think they have done this with the Teachings of the Prophets. Incomplete so far as an historical record is concerned, but as teaching and reference materials I have found them Pearls without Price. Quotes and even lengthy sermons by Joseph F. Smith, Brigham Young, and the often neglected long serving Heber J. Grant are at member’s fingertips. My own respect and awe for George Albert Smith who I never thought of as more than a minor figure has jumped ten fold. That, by the way, was a revelation.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 2, 2012 @ 10:17 am

  7. Matt,
    It’s fine that you love the church, I don’t but I do love the gospel and the members of the church and I love what the church once was and what it could be. Pessimistic means the gloomiest possible view and extremely pessimistic is apparently somehow worse than that. What have I said that is not accurate? Please share a summary of the aggregate flood of intelligence and light that has come forward since you joined the church. Apparently I missed it unless you’re referring to the family proclamation but that isn’t even canon.

    Comment by Howard — March 2, 2012 @ 10:19 am

  8. Jettboy I recognize Joseph was tasked starting a church. The church he started now has a serious growing retention problem do you believe Monson’s The Rescue is divine revelation and will contain a magic bullet that will somehow turn this around? Or will it resemble more of the same?

    Comment by Howard — March 2, 2012 @ 10:43 am

  9. “do you believe Monson’s The Rescue is divine revelation and will contain a magic bullet that will somehow turn this around?”

    Those are two separate questions. As to the first, yes I do, although my understanding of divine revelation seems to be much looser and common than yours. I have no idea on the second part of that question because I believe in free agency on the part of individuals. Mormon had revelations and visions galore and in the end he and his son failed to save the Nephi nation.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 2, 2012 @ 11:05 am

  10. So God is incapable of predicting how humankind will vote with their agency within a meaningful range?

    Comment by Howard — March 2, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  11. Howard, why do you think it has a serious retention problem? (8) Certainly we don’t have the retention we once did, probably due to the rise of secularism. But according to most studies the retention rate for people born in the Church is between 65% and 70%. That’s frankly a rather astounding rate for a church that demands as much as ours does. Our growth has decreased of late – primarily due to missionary work issues in my opinion which in turn are probably tied to societal changes. I think though that we just expect more than we should if we’d take a step back and see what we do accomplish. (I’ve been writing a few posts on this of late at my blog – Pt 1, Pt 2, and Pt 3.

    As for “magic bullets” to change the growth rate I don’t think there are any. All the sociological evidence is that has societies become safer and more affluent they become less religious. I think we delude ourselves if we think we can keep the growth rate we did in the 20th century.

    Comment by Clark — March 2, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

  12. Matt, I think there is ample evidence to suggest that as a tool for ensuring correct teaching, correlation has utterly failed. I was barely coming into adulthood when correlation began to take firm hold and I certainly rememeber plenty of whack being taught. But here we are, 30 years later, and guess what? Same old, same old.

    While I think correlation as a teaching device is a flawed concept, I can certainly see how someone else might see it as a good thing which we just need more of before we see the benefits. And that view might be correct. However, my personal inclination is to think that doubling down on strictly scripted lessons will be like continuing the beatings until morale improves.

    By the way, I think your example of Preach My Gospel is actually an example of moving away from correlation, at least as I understand it. When I served a mission, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we had to memorize the lessons and give them in order, no exceptions. Now, with Preach my Gospel, the missionaries are given much more leeway and we aren’t constraining the Spirit with pointless rules.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 2, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

  13. Clark,
    If you haven’t seen this 2012 Reuters article quoting Elder Marlin Jensen you ought to take the time to read it. He told Reuters that attrition has accelerated in the last five or 10 years. Census data from some foreign countries show that the retention rate for their converts is as low as 25 percent. Sociologists estimate there are as few as 5 million active members worldwide. With defections rising, the church has launched a program to staunch its losses. The head of the church, President Thomas Monson, who is considered a living prophet, has called the campaign “The Rescue” and made it his signature initiative, according to Jensen. The effort includes a new package of materials for pastors and for teaching Mormon youth that address some of the more sensitive aspects of church doctrine. “If they are not revolutionary, they are at least going to be a breath of fresh air across the church,” Jensen told the Utah class.

    Why would Monson attempt a “Rescue” if there were no problem?

    Comment by Howard — March 2, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

  14. Jettboy, Howard, Clark- this is going away from topic, so I’m gonna discontinue engagement. Clark, I did comment on your pt 1, as responding there seemed more on topic.

    Mark: 30 years ago was 1981, when the correlation I am talking about began in the 60s and ended around 1981. It brought forth new scriptures which consolidated doctrine and had a bible dictionary, greater emphasis on Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon, New lesson manuals, standardized missionary lessons (admittedly in 1952, so possibly pre-correlation), visiting and home teaching were reorganized, we moved to the 3 hour block instead of daily church, the priesthood ban was lifted, and so on.

    I think we just have different definitions of correlation, I see it as the church making active changes to its bureaucratic system to stay current and progressive. You see it as the bureaucratization and stagnation of the church, a false safety net of suits and ties and orthopraxy which doesn’t get us where we need to go. (if I am reading you right). I can eagerly concede that some bad moves were made which fall under the correlation umbrella, but I don’t see the general idea of having standard operating procedures and rules in the church as bad, but necessary for it to function at an optimal level.

    On my mission, we taught from the 6 missionary discussions in a very “Preach my Gospel” way. Preach My Gospel was introduced and I didn’t understand what the big deal was at first. Then I realized it was taking my mission’s rules and practices and universalizing them.

    So we probably just have different definitions of correlation.

    If we remove that word from the discussion and instead used something like “update”, would you still find the post objectionable?

    Comment by Matt W. — March 2, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

  15. Howard, if your so smart compared to everyone else on this subject then what would YOU suggest for improvements both in receiving more revelations and increasing the membership of the LDS Church? Unless you believe that we are either in a second Great Apostasy or are hoping that the end result will be the complete destruction of Mormonism.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 2, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  16. Jettboy I will ignore your snarky so smart comparison. Off the top of my head I suggest that correlation be tasked with an honest presentation of the facts or the known history in all that they do. Judgement will be required as to what to put in and what to leave out. I’m not suggesting that church becomes a study of all the controversial issues but presenting Joseph as monogamous or implying that he was is anything but honest. This kind of B.S. places the testimony of naive members in jeopardy. The brethren need to step down from the celebrity they enjoy from their TBM base and proactively spend some time on their knees regarding women and gays and they should follow President Beck’s example of taking questions from her audience hugging them and from taking questions from Mormon bloggers. This kind of warmth, connection and openness is welcomed and hopefully will lead to more dialog and transparency than the 1950s corporate style top down monolog from the stage that we’re used to seeing. The leadership is three generations older than young members who are marring and starting their lives together today yet the world has never changed at a faster pace. How well do you relate to your great grandfather’s ideas about things? The church should strive to embrace all of it’s members, a woman should not be given the impression that she is less than a man or less than a stay at home mom if she works, or less than a mom if she is childless or less than a married woman if she is single. Young women should not be held responsible for young men’s worthiness it isn’t psychologically healthy. Someone who is gay should not be given the impression that they are broken and need to be fixed. To this end boyd would do well to remain silent on these matters for the balance of his term. The church needs to move away from sin avoidance through sheer obedience and will power that is Old Testament paradigm replacing church discipline and the dos and don’ts list with the beatitudes, they are 2,000 years old isn’t it time? Make church more interesting and fun I’m sick of reading the priesthood manual to each other and straining to hear. Aren’t you? Fix the music I’m sick of dragging through 4 or more verses. Aren’t you? Make the tithing money count, more than 90% leaves your ward it’s mostly spent on buildings but third world residents need clean water sanitation and vaccines to save their lives. Let’s see buildings vs. lives? Which are more important? Well, buildings of course!

    Comment by Howard — March 2, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  17. Howard (13) I have seen that quote and indeed refer to it in my posts. From what I calculate 25% retention for converts would be fantastic and probably better than we’ve seen in decades. So I’m actually skeptical it’s that high. I never saw anything remotely that high in my mission or where I grew up.

    The problem is that while I’m somewhat confident about some recent studies I’m really skeptical about claims about older retention rates. The growth rate has unarguably slipped the past 15 years. As I said I think the reasons are complex. I think internationally we do a horrible job accommodating to local culture. But most of my focus was on the US where, all things considered, we’re doing pretty good. The growth of the Church in the US has been fairly consistent the last 22 years in terms of self-identification despite lower numbers of converts. The implication of that is that in the US we’re doing better with retention overall.

    Comment by Clark — March 2, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

  18. Just to note, I think there are worries among some. And I think attempting to increase retention is a good idea in general. But I don’t think people have delved into the statistics everyone quotes enough. For instance the 92% -> 65% retention of young members is just baloney. I looked up the GSS data they used and the sample size is so small as to be meaningless. The Pew data everyone is quoting has so many blatant erroneous statistics that I think it’s untrustworthy. The best data is the ARIS self-identification survey (although the recent stats have a smaller sample than I’d like). According to that as I said the growth has been remarkably consistent. If baptisms are down significantly but the growth rate in terms of self-identification is about the same…

    Comment by Clark — March 2, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

  19. Clark I looked at your links and it appears you’ve done a great job given the difficulty of finding hard data to work with. But I’m stunned that you find a 25% convert retention rate fantastic. In any case President Monson and Elder Jensen believe there is a problem and I suspect they have access to better numbers than we do to look at.

    End threadjack.

    Comment by Howard — March 2, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

  20. If you want to see what a really serious correlation system, born of centuries of experience, looks like, I suggest you take a look at this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihil_obstat

    I don’t know if that would be overkill or not, but for religion professors at BYU, other CES folks, and of course any authority in the church, it sounds like a good idea. For general authorities, I believe such a system is in place already.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 2, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  21. Matt, I have few quibbles with correlation as you have defined it.

    My objections are to a very narrow definition of correlating the ways we interact in classrooms. I don’t even mind standardized manuals, although I wish they’d get updated more frequently than every 30 years. The downside, and it is a big downside, as we have discovered this week, is that we let our guard down completely and assume that things that get taught authoritatively in the classroom are pre-vetted and don’t require our careful engagement and scrutiny.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 2, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

  22. Mark, I may have to partly agree with you on this. I just commented over at Barney’s Post at BCC. Part of the Problem with the Bott situation is that what he was teaching is in the institute manual and is on the church website. We let our guard down and then we find material in our own text books that betray us.

    The Problem isn’t having a guard, it is that our guard doesn’t seem to be quite up to the task. Tonight I am stumped for why that is…

    Comment by Matt W. — March 2, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

  23. Matt W, problematic as those passages are, what Bott was teaching was much worse (read the whole thing):

    In his office, religion professor Randy Bott explains a possible theological underpinning of the ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

    It’s not clear whether Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, who ordained at least one black priest, supported the ban. But his successor, Brigham Young, enforced it enthusiastically as the word of God, supporting slavery in Utah and decreeing that the “mark” on Cain was “the flat nose and black skin.” Young subsequently urged immediate death to any participant in mixing of the races. As recently as 1949, church leaders suggested that the ban on blacks resulted from the consequences of the “conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence.” As a result, many Mormons believed that blacks were less valiant in the pre-Earth life, or fence sitters in the war between God and Satan. That view has fallen out of favor in recent decades.

    “God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

    “What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-genesis-of-a-churchs-stand-on-race/2012/02/22/gIQAQZXyfR_story_2.html

    Comment by Mark D. — March 3, 2012 @ 1:34 am

  24. Howard, I think 1 in 5 becoming long term members would be fantastic. I think that would be great because you have to deal with the fact you have some people interested but who are just intrinsically flakey people. They just aren’t going to hold to anything long. Then you get people who just like the Elders. It’s a social connection rather than a real religious connection. Then you have people who think they’re going to get something economical from the association. (Either welfare food or maybe just the middle classiness rubbing off – this never made much sense to me but I’ve seen a lot of people who think that way) Then you have people who believe but simply face a lot of opposition. I had a lot of investigators like that. They have a testimony but it’s still fairly weak. If they run into big problems then they’ll likely fall away. Throw in the people struggling with Word of Wisdom issues and honestly I think 1 in 5 is pretty great.

    Comment by Clark — March 5, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  25. Clark,
    Have you seen this Cumorah.com article? LDS Church Growth, Member Activity, and Convert Retention: Review and Analysis

    I found this interesting:
    LDS sociologist Armand Mauss observed: “The key to the church’s future growth will be at least as much a function of retention as conversion. While our numbers continue to grow, the rate at which we are creating new stakes has noticeably slowed down. That is a clear indication of a retention problem.” [Stack, Peggy Fletcher, "Growing LDS Church Goes Global," Salt Lake Tribune, February 10, 1996.]

    Comment by Howard — March 6, 2012 @ 8:23 am

  26. Yeah, it’s a great article although he hasn’t updated it with the latest info. He had some really good suggestions in changing missionary work although I don’t know if he still has that up in the current version.

    Comment by Clark — March 6, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

  27. “In the 1960s the church began an effort to correlate its own story into one clear and coherent myth.”

    I’d say the Church took new or somewhat adjusted measures to correlate. Efforts to get a narrative history going are present in Mormonism from the get-go. We talked a little about this at the JSPP blogger’s event earlier this week.

    Comment by BHodges — March 23, 2012 @ 10:09 am

  28. Interesting observation about directing messages inside as opposed to outside. Gearing most materials, teaching-wise and proselyting-wise, makes for some of the watered down stuff we’ve seen recently. I like the idea of considering what values and beliefs we want members to consider most.

    Comment by BHodges — March 23, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  29. Blair, totally agree. The 1960s correlation was just a shift in approach of how we built this narrative.

    Thanks for the comments.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 24, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

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