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The Dynamics of Mormon Stories Communities, Part 1

April 15, 2012

Social networking

This post is the first part of a series. Please find part 2 here and part 3 here.

This summer, I plan to attend Sunstone for the first time. I don’t know when it’ll become official enough to talk about, but chanson invited me to take part in a panel on some of the divisions within Mormon communities online. I’ve written a bit about the fractures and factions of Mormon blogging, and this is still a topic in which I’m interested, so I’m particularly excited to speak about it in person with some of the other blogging regulars from several communities.

In some ways, a series about those fractures and factions can never be complete (and I didn’t even finish what I had planned to write in the series, anyway), because the online networks of Mormon communities changes over time. While I had focused on the various blog aggregators in my post series, the fact is that Mormons congregate (with different atmospheres, tones of discussions, etc.,) elsewhere on the internet. For example, there is a solid faithful LDS perspective on twitter, but not so much so for ex-Mormons (so for example, there are plenty of people who tweet using the #LDSConf tag during General Conference, but as far as I’m aware, there aren’t any hashtags that have really become iconic or standardized among ex-Mo tweeters.) Contrast that with Reddit: r/exmo is large and vibrant, but equivalent sub-reddits for faithful Mormons are either anemic or eventually subsumed in less-than-faithful commentary.

One online space that I hadn’t been paying much attention to (at least, on Mormon issues) is Facebook.

The Mormon Facebook Presence

Feminist Mormon HousewivesThe interaction between Facebook and the blogs is already an interesting one. Feminist Mormon Housewives recently created a new feature on the blog to bring comments and discussions from the related fMh FAcebook group back to the blog. But that came after controversy regarding the fMh brand related in part to Facebook. As barmy stoat commented in that discussion:

As someone who doesn’t participate on the fMh facebook group but solely this here blog, I am wondering if the ‘fMh brand’ is actually more threatened by the diminished dialogue here. The blog is not was; it’s coming off as ignored and/or out of steam. Perhaps that’s just how things evolve on the internet.
I realise that many people enjoy facebook and it’s important to have a safe place to discuss issues ‘privately’ but IMO, ‘Feminist Mormon Housewives’ is losing it’s voice in the bloggerancle, in the public realm.
I would think feminists retreating from the public world and having their voices, in effect, silenced, is a more serious concern. Y’all may not notice this if you’re involved in active discussions on the facebook group but to those ‘out here’ in the world, it’s very obvious. Well, at least, to me.

Perhaps comments like that inspired the “This Week on Facebook” series of posts? Later on, however, mere wrote:

I disagree with Barmy. The bloggernacle itself has moved to Facebook. I see more posts on my regular feed of BCC, Dialogue, exponent, fmh, etc and therefore have more contact with more blogs and more opinions then ever before. I also post things from FMH on my wall, because of the security and strength I receive from the FB group. Its a natural progression of the internet, and one that I think strengthens and lengthens the reach of FMH.

In addition to the fMh group, I know of a Facebook group for “Bloggernacle Friends,” and then Facebook groups for Mormon Stories (both a general group AND different groups for the various local communities of support) and Mormon Expression as well. I know there must doubtlessly be others, but as I said, I haven’t been paying too much attention to the Mormon Facebook communities. UPDATE: I missed a recent Zelophehad’s Daughters discussing Facebook vs. blogs.

But speaking of Mormon Expression and Mormon Matters, that gets me to what I really wanted to talk about today.

Podcast Wars

Mormon StoriesMormon Stories and Mormon Expression have an interesting, tense relationship. Both are communities surrounding the namesake podcasts, and on one level, it seems like there’s enough room for two (actually more, if you consider Mormon Expression Voices, Mormon Matters, etc., as well) podcasts in town, but the discussion that happens between the two podcasts’ Facebook groups suggests that there is tension around the close borders.

I guess here I’ll have to be careful, since another thing about many of these Facebook groups is that they are generally private…so I’ll try only to express information that can be generalized or that can be publicly found.

The Mormon Stories Podcast is one of the primary exports of the Open Stories Foundation non-profit org. But what is it about? What is the purpose? Open Stories Foundation executive director John Dehlin, president (and perpetually popular) Joanna Brooks, and board member Brian Johnston (of stayLDS.*com*) state it as such in the first episode of the new Mormon Transitions podcast…from John:

The Open Stories Foundation was started as an extension to Mormon Stories Podcast and the purpose of the Open Stories Foundation basically is to help Mormons–Members of the LDS Church–in faith transitions. We’re definitely separate from the LDS Church. We’re completely neutral in terms of people’s faith journeys and where they end up. We’re not pro-Church, we’re not anti-Church. We have warm soft spots for the Church. I think most of us would say we love the Church and most of us basically are active or semi-active members of the Church. But we’re committed to looking at Mormonism in a bit of a broader way, sort of as a culture. And our goal is to do whatever we can to provide support for people who are struggling…whether that be someone who has just started a faith crisis, whether they are in a mixed faith marriage and they are trying to work through their marriage, whether they are struggling with various issues related to culture or history, whether they are thinking about leaving or staying or coming back to the Church after they have been away. Whether they are angry or sad or happy. Whether they are completely true believing, but they just want to be a part of a community that celebrates Mormonism as a culture in a way that is a little bit less correlated. These are some of the things that the Open Stories Foundation is about.

and from Joanna:

[The Open Stories Foundation] is a big tent Mormonism. The Open Stories Foundation and affiliated projects are not a church, but they are a space where we can process this really fascinating and significant part of ourselves that is Mormonism. Most of us who are affiliated with this or come to it as podcast listeners or as members of regional communities, we have invested a lot of our lives in Mormonism and we deserve a place where we can, in a supportive environment, sort through the whole range of feelings that Mormonism brings up in us, and that’s what this place is about.

and to round it off, from Brian:

I would just add that one of the key aspects that we try to provide is a much more open environment to discuss pretty much anything on the table. We try to create spaces where you can talk about the things that you can’t talk about at church, that you can’t talk about with your family…this environment that fosters real connection between people.

This all sounds nice, but within the statements of these individuals is a tension. On the one area, Joanna talks about the ideal of being big tent Mormonism. John talks similarly: being committed to looking at Mormonism in a bit of a broader way. And for Brian, it’s about providing a much more open environment.

…but there are costs associated with these things. When Brian says they are trying to “create spaces,” what is the cost to create spaces?

And that’s where the controversy arises.

For all the talk of creating spaces, creating a big tent, or whatever, the fact is that John Dehlin certainly has a track record for banning people, censoring or modifying posts, etc., (In fact, I probably should be careful with what I write here or else I might just find myself unfriended or kicked out of various MS groups.)

To be frank, I believe them when they explain that there are methods to their madness. Various people associated with Mormon Matters and Open Stories have stated that in order to create space, there has to be an inviting, non-threatening environment first. When discussions become too critical (or at least, perceived as too critical), that is uninviting to more faithful members. A “big-tent” Mormonism can’t be a free-for-all, because one party will eventually dominate and drive away others. Since from a first glance, it would appear that at both Mormon Expression and Mormon Stories, there are “spaces where you can talk about the things that you can’t talk about at church, that you can’t talk about with your family,” it seems there must be a different explanation.

The difference I see between ME and MS is that MS bends over backwards to create a space where you can talk about the things that you can’t talk about at church/with your family in an environment that your family members might actually buy into.

Cue discussion of whether this is just a wolf’s attempt of making particularly convincing sheepskins to wear. I’ll write more about it in Part 2.

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  1. You’re going to Sunstone! Yay! I look forward to meeting you in the flesh!

    • Who says I have flesh? I could still be a bird or something.

  2. Jen permalink

    Why don’t John & Joanna just come clean and admit that they are no longer LDS and move on. The game they are playing is tiring. In John’s case, he is not nearly as clever as he thinks he is and people are not as stupid as he thinks they are. As far as Joanna, her balancing act must be taxing on her: posing as a faithful “unorthodox” progressive LDS woman when she is clearly neither faithful or LDS (even under the most broad definitions-though I won’t dispute she can call herself a cultural or ethnic “mormon” if she reeeally feels she must, which is not the same as LDS) to certain crowds while also trying to fit in with the intelligent secular/progressive world (which seems like an uncomfortable fit for her-like her being the only white woman in her cultural studies program or a self-identified mormon in her husband’s synagogue, or straight girl in her LGBTQ circles). To Joanna: IT IS OKAY. Be yourself. People will love you for who you are. Come out and admit you don’t buy the basic beliefs that would make you an actual LDS woman. Be courageous. Stop hiding behind your post-modern language and admit you are smart enough not to buy the LDS bull. Your “Mormon Girl” act is getting old. You have sold all of your Mormon Girl books you need to sell. The market was always limited. You now have an audience. Stop pretending. Be courageous. Proudly join the ranks of the disaffected and former members. The truth will set you free.

  3. Jen,

    Well, not that I’m anywhere near as cynical as this, but their entire enterprise depends on them being LDS for credibility. They obviously wouldn’t be able to push for cultural or unorthodox or uncorrelated Mormonism as a valid way for LDS people to live if they weren’t LDS.

    You say to Joanna: “IT IS OKAY. Be yourself.” But what if being herself entails what to you looks like very “tiring,” “taxing” balancing acts on the fringes of multiple communities.

    In another entry, I quoted Jared Anderson as having said something like: “I do not feel more at home ANYWHERE than fringe Mormonism…” So that is absolutely something to think about. (And the rest of your comment doesn’t make sense in light of that. Disaffected and former members are a dull bunch of folks — almost as dull as unironic TBMs — in contrast to people in the tension of the fringe.

  4. Jen permalink

    “Well, not that I’m anywhere near as cynical as this, but their entire enterprise depends on them being LDS for credibility. They obviously wouldn’t be able to push for cultural or unorthodox or uncorrelated Mormonism as a valid way for LDS people to live if they weren’t LDS.”

    Ummm. Good point. My point is that Joanna would be more authentic and find life less “taxing” if she admitted that she was not LDS. This is because she IS, in fact, not LDS and pretending to be something you are not is always taxing, even if you get short terms results and have a well-meaning rationale for pretending. Why rely on the false credibility posing as a faithful unorthodox progressive LDS woman brings when she can rely on the real credibility that comes from being an actual RATIONAL scholar and on-line journalist who clearly rejects the LDS core belief bull but also is able to freely identify with and discuss real tensions surrounding the LDS faith and take the LDS institution on more directly and honestly? As far as your concern that by admitting that she isn’t really LDS and by admitting that she has already joined the ranks of disaffected and ex members she would somehow become dull . . have you ever listened to her?! Joanna will never be dull, I assure you. She may lose a small following at first, but she would eventually gain a much broader one and be less annoying if she stopped being disingenuous and trying to be everything to everyone and started being honest.

    John probably likes the paycheck from the Open Stories Foundation, has emotional issues and isn’t particularly charismatic, so I’ll give him a pass and won’t criticize his choice to be faux LDS.

    The Jared Anderson quote made me think, but it also made me feel sad for Jared, John and Joanna.

  5. Jen,

    But that’s what I’m trying to get at. For uncorrelated Mormonism to work, then they have to assert that it is a valid way to be LDS. It can’t “just” be Mormon (but not LDS), even though many people would recognize that it doesn’t really mesh with what the institutional church does and says.

    So, I don’t think Joanna is “pretending to be something [she’s] not.” She would be pretending to be something she’s not if she were trying to force herself into an orthodox Mormon mold. But she’s not doing that at all. She’s living a very unorthodox life and is arguing that that is a valid way to be Mormon. The critical part of this (for this to be credible to others) is for her to be LDS as well. And so, she is still a member, no matter how unorthodox or liberal.

    You say:

    Why rely on the false credibility posing as a faithful unorthodox progressive LDS woman brings when she can rely on the real credibility that comes from being an actual RATIONAL scholar and on-line journalist who clearly rejects the LDS core belief bull but also is able to freely identify with and discuss real tensions surrounding the LDS faith and take the LDS institution on more directly and honestly?

    Who’s to say that one of these is “false” credibility and the other is “real” credibility? This is just your bias. Hers is different. I think innovation — whether in art, in scholarship, or in any field — is about pushing against what conventional wisdom says is “real’ or “false” and living a different reality. Your idea of “real credibility…from being an actual RATIONAL scholar” is boring. Everyone’s doing it. There’s nothing unique about it.

    But for whatever it’s worth, what Joanna is doing is certainly unique. It is that uniqueness, in fact, that you try to use AGAINST her. You say, “You don’t fit the LDS mold, so stop pretending.”

    She’s not trying to fit the mold though. She’s trying to redefine and re-appropriate the mold.

    I guess that if you see Jared’s quote and “feel sad” for him, Joanna, and John, then you probably aren’t in a position to understand the rest of the significance of what they are doing. It’s ok, though. I don’t think a lot of people do. I don’t think I do, fully.

  6. Porter permalink

    I think it is a mistake to view John Dehlin and his efforts solely in terms of his religious views, whatever they might be (although I don’t think its much of a mystery). He is also a clinical psychologist by training and has seen the tremendous pain that comes from a faith crisis. He counsels people in this situation all the time and has seen the damage that can occur, and he experienced it himself.

    IMO John is driven as much by his psychological training as his theology. He has a Christlike desire to help people through what is often the most painful thing they have ever done. He has created a safe and supportive place for us to gather and discuss our concerns and to fellowship one another. He readily acknowledges that the LDS church works for many people and is clear that he is not trying to help them. Its the rest of us who need what he has created.

    John does walk a tightrope and perhaps it is at times untenable, but I think he correctly understands that if he was perceived to be “anti Mormon” then it wouldn’t feel like a safe place any more. I don’t think people come to MS or ME to find correlated pablum, they already have a whole church for that.

    Like me, they come searching for answers when their faith in the LDS Church starts falling apart. And with just a few searches on Google they can find a place for support that they desperately need as they transition out of Mormonism. I have immense gratitude for John and the members of the ME and MS Facebook groups who helped me with this difficult transition. I don’t know how I could have survived it without them.

  7. Porter,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I agree that John Dehlin’s clinical psychology efforts adds an interesting dimension to things…both for good and for bad.

    I think a really important line here is the point that he “has seen the damage that can occur, and he experienced it himself.” So I would say that perhaps what drives him even more than his psychological training are his own experiences emotionally and psychologically with his faith transition. I think this has most affected his definition of what it means to “help people” through a faith crisis/transition.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Dynamics of Mormon Stories Communities, Part 2 « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. The Dynamics of Mormon Stories Communities, Part 3 « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  3. Mormon Blogging Safe Zones « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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