The Dynamics of Mormon Stories Communities, Part 2
In the first part of the series, I think I outstretched myself. I was talking about Facebook groups, and Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Mormon Stories, and Mormon Expression…and how do those all relate?
Well, I’ll get to that. But the first thing I wanted to talk about was something that I had only hinted at in my last post. For a refresher, here was the end of that last post:
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 ME 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.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?
I really feel for John Dehlin. He just can’t get a break. He has enemies on both sides of the spectrum — critics and critical ex-Mormons often think that he is holding people’s hands, whitewashing the sheer ugliness of (insert ex-Mormon grip here), or participating in crazy mental gymnastics when he really “ought to know better” about all the ills of the church.
…yet…on the other side, there is as much, if not more, distrust of him. I’ve heard many faithful members critique John’s interview style…he frequently asks leading questions, and while he often pursues additional questions for more “faith-friendly” guests, he is more willing to let critical guests’ comments stand as is with less scrutiny. At the very least, that’s what my most articulate faithful LDS friends say. (Others can be distrustful in a far less articulate way, which is to be expected.)
My own impression is that I think that trying to navigate both sides…trying to be something for everyone and to create a “big tent” — it’s going to make people wonder where you allegiances ultimately lie. The fact is that you can’t speak the same way in ex-Mormon communities as you would in faithful Mormon communities, but when people see someone else traversing both realms, saying one thing to one side and a different thing to another side, that sets off some warning signs.
That being said, I can’t take anything of what he says at face value anymore. I don’t mean this in a bad way…I just think there are more complex flavors to that dish, so I always have to at least mentally scrutinize what’s behind the words. Like, if we sliced and diced the quotation from John from my earlier post:
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.
When John says they are “completely neutral in terms of people’s faith journeys and where they end up,” I think there is fact and fiction to this. I think the fiction is that various elements of the Open Stories/Mormon Stories/Mormon Matters definitely have certain ideas about where they would like people to be. (I mean, every time it comes up in a Mormon Matters podcast, Dan Wotherspoon mentions that he would really like it if people could stay in the church.) I think the factual nature of this statement comes from the fact that John has had to tailor his message over time to appeal to different folks. I think that there was a time when Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters and all of these things that he was creating to try to keep people in, no matter what. (I mean, from where else would stayLDS.com come?) However, between the periods of times when John himself was no longer able to attend and the backlash that he got from a lot of the ex-Mormon forums and community, I think John has had to realize that for some, the church just isn’t going to work out.
John says they are “not pro-Church…not anti-Church…We have warm soft spots for Church.” Again, I think there are facts and falsehoods to this. The fiction (and the reason I suspect that more orthodox Mormons distrust John) is that John doesn’t seem to be pro-Church as an institution. I can 100% believe that John has warm soft spots for Mormonism, but when it comes to taking the church institution at face value, I would definitely think that it swings “anti-Church.” This is a big issue: for Mormons that are trying to reform the church, or who assert that their middle-way or uncorrelated Mormonism is just as Mormon, if not more so than what the church has correlated…they have to come to grips that while they may absolutely be Mormon, they are antagonists with respect to the Church.
I can understand that there are people who grapple with the church and with Mormonism as a religion…and they understand that even though they have reservations with how things are done, Mormonism as a religion places demands on them…but I think the issue here (that more conservative, faithful commenters will point out) is that when Mormonism is reduced to a culture, it loses that binding power.
Not a Church
In her comments, Joanna Brooks said about Open Stories Foundation:
[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.
Even an innocuous statement like “The Open Stories Foundation and affiliated projects are not a church” needs to be processed. Obviously, Joanna has to say this to prevent the church from coming after them. But in another sense, it is correct to say that the OSF and MS aren’t asserting different cosmologies, functional truth claims, behavioral codes, etc.,
Nevertheless, the Mormon Stories Conferences, with their story sharing (read: testimony) meetings, musical numbers, and even programs definitely pay homage to sacrament in the LDS church. And with Mormon Stories groups being organized into local communities of support, there is another dynamic completely. But for discussion on the very subject from which this series takes its name, the dynamics of Mormon Stories communities, you’ll have to wait for part 3.