For a century and a half, the narrative of the Restoration was told and retold, passed from one generation to the next with little to no professional historical treatment. Like a faith promoting game of “telephone,” as the narrative was passed along, it evolved away from fact. That evolution was fueled by the excited, pure faith of the storytellers, who wanted to present the sacred in the most inspiring light possible. Now, to be sure, the people involved in this narrative evolution did not have nefarious intent. In fact, they did not know about the evolution at all! They just told and retold the narrative that meant so much to them, that had profound, and very real spiritual meaning, even if it had departed from the facts.
By the late twentieth century when professional treatment of Church history began in earnest, a wide chasm had developed between the factual historical record and the narrative that Latter-day Saints were taught around the dinner table, at FHE, in seminary and in Sunday School. Complexities about the Prophet Joseph Smith, airbrushed over for generations, re-emerged. Initially, those blemishes were only known by wonky academics. The average lay member of the Church was completely oblivious to the chasm.
But then the information revolution changed everything.
Suddenly, the previously forgotten messy, contradictory, unflattering and often disturbing elements of our origins were just a few clicks away. The chasm had grown so large for many, that claims about Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives or a 14 year old girl could only be understood as bombastic anti-Mormon lies. Those who kept digging, however, were forced to face a difficult jarring reality- the narrative they had been taught, and upon which they had built their lives, was radically different than the historical record.
This experience has been heart wrenching and anguishing for many Latter-day Saints. Marriages and families were in jeopardy. Spouses who discovered the chasm often faced marital discord, and even divorce. Though the Internet has been commercially available to the masses for twenty years now, until very recently, the Church essentially ignored this growing phenomenon. No resources were developed or offered to those in a crisis of faith. Those who fell upon a crisis of faith were alone.
Until John Dehlin came long.
John discovered the chasm while serving as an early morning seminary teacher. Instead of struggling alone, John created a forum, Mormon Stories, to discuss the chasm issues in depth, honestly and respectfully. That’s what has made John unique. Every topic he has covered on Mormon Stories has previously been discussed elsewhere. However, religion generally, and Mormonism specifically, are extremely volatile and polarizing. Apologists and polemicists offer such charged, diametrically opposite treatments of Mormonism as to be essentially useless to a person struggling in a faith crisis. John’s unique contribution to Mormonism was the one-on-one help he has provided to thousands, as well as the even handed approach to discussing the chasm.
John invited experts on Mormon Stories to discuss, in hours long interviews, the difficult issues carefully and in depth. Unlike apologists and polemicists, John’s agenda has never been to convince his audience to view Mormon issues in a certain way, but instead to provide a forum to discuss the issues openly and understand them better. By having a thoughtful, steady, balanced forum to discuss Mormon issues, many thousands of Latter-day Saints worked through their faith crisis.
Personally, John’s wide ranging interview with “Rough Stone Rolling,” author Dr. Richard Bushman was pivotal in my ability to accept the historical record in Mormonism while finding a way to see the Divine in our history. John pressed Dr. Bushman with the kind of blunt questions that I had. Dr. Bushman responded with brilliant, honest answers. I still distinctly remember driving down 400 North in Logan listening to the Mormon Stories episode where Dr. Bushman bore his testimony of why and how he believed even though he fully understood the disturbing parts of our history. Things finally “clicked” for me. It was a resource that only existed through Mormon Stories. The Church offers no equivalent, sadly.
Of course, John’s work has upset some people. Discussing these difficult issues or even acknowledging the existence of the chasm makes some people feel threatened. After all, these issues raise the possibility that the sacred narrative we have been taught isn’t entirely accurate. That scares some people. So instead of engaging the issues, they project their spiritual fears and anxieties onto and against John Dehlin, the very man who has put himself out there to help people work through their faith crisis.
John’s fate is set. His Stake President wants John to remove all of the Mormon Stories episodes, which address difficult, controversial issues, which are unflattering to the Church. In other words, John’s Stake President wants him to deny the existence of the chasm, and from now on to ignore it.
John is a man of integrity and won’t deny that the chasm exists or that it continues to hurt families, marriages and individuals.
That’s the real reason John is being excommunicated. In a twist of irony, the man who has helped Mormons navigate the effects of proof-texted history is the target of proof-texted accusations. Of ten years of John’s work, the accusers have hand picked, and proof-texted a few Facebook comments as the basis to terminate John’s membership in the Church. These Facebook comments, like any Facebook comments, were not polished thoughts but informal, undeveloped statements. Of course, that’s a flimsy pretext. John is being excommunicated for refusing to deny the existence of the chasm.
John will be excommunicated on Sunday evening, February 8, 2015 in North Logan, Utah.
Excommunicating John Dehlin won’t make the unflattering facts about Joseph Smith’s life or our origins go away.
Excommunicating John Dehiln won’t resolve issues surrounding the historicity of the Scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, Bible and Book of Abraham.
Excommunicating John Dehlin won’t heal the wounds Latter-day Saints have felt in the battle against same-sex marriage.
Good, faithful Latter-day Saints will continue to spiral into faith crisis when they discover the chasm.
And John Dehlin’s work will still be there to help them.
When the sun breaks over the Bear River Mountains in Cache Valley early Monday morning, February 9, 2015, the chasm will still exist.
Eppur si muove.