Following up on John Dehlin’s feelings on how the Bushman interview has progressed so far, Bushman discusses why it’s hard to help the disaffected.
Dehlin, “Now, about this episode, after four hours of interviews with me, it was clear that Dr. Bushman felt as though, in his words, I’d gotten the best out of him. Once we realized it was time to wrap up, there were a few final thoughts that Dr. Bushman wanted to share with my listeners, so the first part of this episode represents his final thoughts about the interview, and the challenges of dealing with tough Mormon history in general. The last part of the interview however represents something that was very important to me. After drilling down so deep in the controversy of Joseph Smith’s life, I didn’t feel comfortable ending on a negative and controversial note. So I asked Dr. Bushman to share with us a story or two that would encapsulate his view and even testimony of Joseph Smith the Prophet, after a lifetime of studying the both the man and the prophet. This segment ends with that story and those expressions by Dr. Bushman. As a final request, if you end up appreciating, finding value, or even experiencing renewed faith because of this interview with Dr. Bushman, please take the time to send me an email at mormon stories at gmail dot com addressed to Dr. Bushman, and I will make sure he receives the email.
Since Dr. Bushman is quite likely to receive some grief simply for coming on Mormon Stories Podcast, given our open format and our willingness to explore all sides of an issue, I would really appreciate it if the listeners of mine who felt inspired or appreciative of the interview would take the time to let Dr. Bushman know how much his scholarship and faith have meant to them. And who knows? Maybe we can even convince him to complete the series when the time is right, of course. And now without any further ado, on with the final segment of my five part interview with Dr. Richard Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Your story, today on Mormon Stories.
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Bushman, “So all of that got me to thinking about the whole business of responding to Grant Palmer or other of these people who write attacks on Joseph Smith. I keep trying to figure out why it is I can’t really respond. It’s never satisfying. It always seems partial and ineffective. And the image that came to my mind is someone being attacked by a swarm of bees and being stung all over all at once, so I come up and say what can I do for you?
They say, ‘I’ve been stung by all these bees’, so I go to one of the bee stings, and I try to take out the stinger and I try to administer some ointment and it gets better a little bit, but it still kind of hurts. Now I say, do you feel better? Well no, I’ve got all these other bee stings and it’s so difficult to sort of go back one by one and pick off each one of these little problems and satisfy them, because it usually ends up as being not completely satisfying. It’s always sort of in the middle, like in this case. Well you can say well, that definitely discounts the witnesses altogether so far as I’m concerned, or you can say well I can see they were witnessing to something that was very powerful, something that persuaded them so we still have to take the witnesses seriously. So the result is not clean cut, and you don’t really feel you’ve answered it, you’ve just sort of moderated the problem. So those are a couple thoughts I had, I have some others, but do you want to jump in and say something in response?”
JD, “No, I just have to tell you how good of a sport you’ve been because yeah, it is overwhelming, and it’s overwhelming to be as you know and you’ve acknowledged, it’s also overwhelming to be on the end of the bee stings, and to not–because sometimes when someone stumbles on to this stuff they’re accused of adultery or their accused of kicking against the pricks or disobedience. But it’s usually, you know people don’t fall into this because they care too little. It seems like the ones who take the time to actually study the history, most often they are motivated because they care so much, and that’s what makes those bee stings so painful is that I didn’t ask, and I just have to tell you that people that sent me feedback on your interview so far, I’ve had one lady actually tell me that she’s now believing in Joseph Smith again after years of disbelief just from hearing your testimony. So I just want to say that it is overwhelming for you and for anyone to try to respond to the critics and it’s also a sad situation because it’s overwhelming for a lot of the people who are struggling with it, but to try and fight off those bees and to try and help with the stings, it may not solve all the problems, but I don’t know, to extend the analogy, sometimes I feel like it’s better than to leaving the person to be eaten by the bees, and that’s sort of the spirit with which I was hoping to have the conversation, but I know it’s not clean, it’s not precise, it’s messy, but I think you’ve done a marvelous job in helping me and many of my listeners.
Because who will stand up and try and answer these question? Most of the feedback I’ve gotten is well, isn’t that–‘oh they solved my problems.’ It’s like I’m inspired by the fact that someone’s willing to stand up, take the questions in an unscripted, uncontrolled forum and take the heat, because that shows a courage and a conviction that this is something worth fighting for versus like on a Sunday morning political talk show trying to not answer the question or dodge the question or avoid even having to go answer the question. So I just can’t say enough how courageous and helpful for many of us your time just so far has been.”
Bushman, “Well let me say something about that group that we seem to be conjuring up here with people who have encountered a lot of problems. They’re disturbed, maybe don’t quite what they believe anymore. Maybe they’re angry and want to dump the prophet entirely.
It’s very easy to feel in a situation like that that you’re outside the Church, that you’ve somehow marginalized yourself. You may even get excommunicated or people cast aspersions on your sincerity or your morality or all sort of other things. One way or another you feel like you’re not in the church anymore. I for one don’t believe that. I think Mormonism is not just home teaching and bishopric meeting, it’s all these individual souls wrestling with the scriptures, with God, with their own souls trying to find out what’s right and true, and doing that in sort of this overall Mormon context. I think people who are struggling may be obsessed with these questions to a certain extent, are showing us a kind of worship and devotion that is deeply Mormon. I mean who is more committed to the Prophet Joseph Smith than Dan Vogel?
Think of the millions of hours that he’s spent with very little reward. On the prophet’s documents, on his life, and even though we think of him as an antagonist, probably an atheist when it comes to religion, still he is engaged to Joseph Smith. There’s a kind of devotion there that I for one think has to be respected. So while the institutional Church may have to protect itself and cut these people off and label them as agnostics, I think looking at it from God’s point of view, there are a lot of these people are really struggling souls. Some may be really evil, some may really be trying to harm and destroy, but I think there are a lot that are just trying to find out what they think is right. So I hope none of them feel like they’re outside of Mormonism. They can’t be outside of Mormonism as long as they think about Joseph Smith. That puts them inside of the Mormon cultural boundaries, and that is of great importance.”
JD, “Yeah, I’m sure that Dan Vogel and others and many of the people who feel that those people have been unduly picked upon will feel will really appreciate those words.”
Bushman, “I had one other thing to say that I’d like to hear discussed, and you’ve referred to it so I have the nerve to bring it up. I’m just wondering. I think it would be good to have a discussion inside your group of what happens to a person sort of morally and spiritually after they’ve gone through one of these combats over Joseph Smith and the gospel?
You know we had this one image that I’m sure is true in lots of instances of people who kind of begin to let up on the standards, they don’t pay tithing anymore, and then they may take a glass of wine, and they may smoke a little bit and maybe have a few brief affairs or what have you. Not that they’re becoming demons, but you just sort of a slackening. That moral rigor that is required of Mormons and upheld by the sense this is God’s purpose and will. Once that’s relaxed, you know everything kind of relaxes. I don’t know whether it ends up that people stop praying or stop thinking of God or not, but that’s one course that I can see people following as a result of this disruption.
But there’ another course that I’ve seen in certain people I’ve known which is quite different. Not so much, I am not thinking so much of moral standards, because I don’t have any evidence of how that works, but spiritually. These people begin to feel like of all the things they learned in the Church, the thing that really registers and seems true and lasting is Christ. It’s the sacrifice of Christ and the promise of forgiveness, and the belief that Heavenly Father is working with his pitiful children to try to bring them along in some way, and Christ becomes very big. I know that there are a lot of these ex-Mormons for Jesus for whom that’s natural, but I’ve seen it even with more intellectual types that sort of stand on the margins of the Church, and they carpet the general authorities and this and that, but they still see Christ as of great importance to them. And these people I think probably pray I don’t know that for a fact, but they have deep spiritual Christian yearnings that still govern their lives. So I’d be just curious to have your people discuss what happens to those who have been beaten up by some of this historical evidence.”
JD, “Yeah. That’s a great topic, and I have some great anecdotal experiences and I definitely think it runs the gamut. I think for many the initial reaction is to just loosen up on the standards, and frankly I’ve met far many unhappy people who have decided to throw it all away, than I have people who have found more joy than they had when they were in. So I for one am a huge advocate of praying, or maintaining membership, of attending and not throwing anything away. I even know of a guy who couldn’t feel good about paying tithing, but he couldn’t feel good about not paying tithing, so he instead picked his five favorite charities and taking that 10% and reallocating it because he couldn’t let go the Law of Tithing even though he was still struggling with the church. But that’s a great question. That’s a really great question.