Of all the current apostles, the only one with whom I am personally familiar is David A. Bednar. He has come to the Denver area twice in the past ten years to address the young single adults. Both of these sessions have been set up in a question-and-answer format. His soft-spoken, stoic style combines with an often humorous yet business-like approach to the gospel that makes him one of the more enigmatic general authorities.
(Oh, and I've even shaken his hand--little old me! Can you believe that?)
Recently, Deseret Book (one of the many forms by which we've come to know and love the corporate LDS Church) released a series of videos featuring Bednar and fellow apostle Jeffrey Holland speaking candidly to groups of what I can only imagine are all Mormons.
I'd like to share a couple of the videos--one good, one...not so good--featuring Bednar.
First, the not so good. Or, should I say, shockingly bad. It is unavailable for embedding (small wonder why once you see it) but as of press time, is still up on and running on YouTube. Titled "The Lord's side of the line," it begins with a nervous boy asking our esteemed Elder, "Um... if you like, stop reading the scriptures, what is the best way--how is the best way to get back into reading them?"
Simple enough question, right? The boy, clearly mustering all the courage he's got, wants to know how to get back into reading the scriptures after taking a break--er, I mean, forsaking God--for a time. While there are plenty of acceptable roads the answer to this could have traveled, the boulevard Bednar's goes down is not one of them.
In fact, for the next four minutes, Bednar takes this shy young man right into his very own Nightmare on Elm Street.
Bednar asks the boy to come onto the stage ("Don't be nervous." Ha!), where he proceeds to inflict upon him one of the most awkward and asinine object lessons on church record. He guides the boy on a trip from God's side of the line, represented by a very costly-looking area rug, to the devil's territory, represented by shooting towers of flame. (Ok, not really, but that wouldn't have made it any worse.) The boy--Bryson, we learn at the end--is understandably scared and has tears in his eyes the entire time, but that doesn't stop Sheriff Bednar from showing him the nature of just what is involved when someone stops reading his scriptures and joins the 666 gang.
At one point, once DAB has led Bryson across the line into the devil's territory, he gives him a bear hug from behind to prevent him from returning to God's side. Aside from the general awkwardness of the situation, the principles he teaches are really off the mark as well. For example, he tells him:
Remember what got you over here? You came all the way from back over there to right at the edge of the line by just not doing the things you know you should do. And once you get over here, you're not in control anymore.Not in control anymore? Do we lose our agency because we stop "doing the things (we) know (we) should do"? I probably shouldn't make assumptions, but I'd be willing to bet that young Bryson isn't hooked on crystal meth or in need of sex therapy. Bednar's talking about addiction when the real issue is simple apathy. But such apathy doesn't cause a loss of control.
Finally, Bednar answers the actual question:
So your question was, if you're not praying or reading, what's the best way to get started again, right? You just remember what it was like to be over there. Okay? Does that make sense? You don't want to be there. And you're in charge. You're in control, because of your agency, of making sure that you don't get so close to the line that you'd make a mistake and step over. So, you stay turned this way by choosing the right. And you go deeper over here to where it's safe by continuing to choose the right.Here he acknowledges agency, but by grouping it as an attribute only available to us when on "God's side of the line," it's only logical to conclude that that agency disappears once we "make a mistake and step over." Also, based on the way he says it, all the devil requires is one mistake and we're toast. Bednar's solution appears to be personal perfection, achieved only by shunning the world (earlier he said "I don't even want to see what's over there") and fortifying ourselves from all the evil by following the ambiguous Deseret Book moneymaking mantra "choose the right."
Additionally, this lesson is almost entirely negative reinforcement. The Old Testament approach may have worked on the ancient Hebrews, but in this world, it is not the way to illustrate the God of Love we supposedly revere. While I'm of the opinion that Bednar should have scrapped this object lesson entirely, it would have had at least achieved a better result if he had just started the boy near the edge, talking about the choices we could make to go either way, and then talk about the positive things that would move us towards the center of the rug. Why focus on the negative when the boy is showing a desire to improve his relationship with God? And why use a fear-based approach when it looks like he has the willingness to be faithful? There's no need for fear when there's faith--even a seed of faith.
Oh, and not a single mention of Jesus--you know, the guy who atoned for all the rotten things we do, from forgetting to read our King James Bibles as children to dropping bombs on civilians in the name of war. Because of the atonement, which covers all, Christ is the only reason why "choosing the right" isn't a mere exercise in futility.
I sincerely hope this doesn't damage a young mind in such a way that he will abandon the gospel entirely, because he will remember it his entire life. Bryson, if you ever read this, don't let negative experiences relating to the corporate Church sour your love for the true church of Christ.
Now, just so you don't think I'm being too hard on the poor apostle from California, the answer he gave in this video (magically available for embedding)...
...is actually quite good.
The scriptures say that we are to stand independent as a church. We need to be able to stand independent as members of the Savior's church, dependent upon Him, but independent.I agree with this analysis. While fully dependent on God, we are to work out our own salvation apart from the borrowed light of anyone else, whether that be a friend, family member, bishop, stake president, or...though he doesn't say it, general authority. Ultimately, we each have the opportunity to cultivate an individual relationship with God, through the Spirit. And even when the Lord speaks to his Church as a whole through a prophet (can't say for sure when the last time that was), we are to go to God with it to verify its truthfulness. We are not to put faith in external sources. That's what's known as following after the arm of the flesh, and it doesn't matter if that flesh has a fancy title in front of his name.
He also points out, to the dismay of True Believing Mormons the world across, that attending church isn't absolutely essential to our salvation:
What if you were in a situation, somewhere in the world, by virtue of your employment or whatever it might be, where you couldn't attend church every week? I've been in places in the world where the church was shut down by a government. And you could ask yourself the question, well, what would you do if you couldn't go to church? What if there wasn't Relief Society? What if you didn't have all that stuff? What would you do? Well, you ought to be okay. Your ability to worship, your ability to have connection to the Godhead, through the power of the Holy Ghost, that doesn't go away if the government shuts down a church in a particular country and you can't be there on Sunday.Of course, the implication is that if we have the ability to attend church, then it is an expectation we do so. But the point holds, and it's a point that has been expressed before--Ronald Poelman's phantom conference talk from 1984 comes to mind. The church is not the gospel. It's simply a way to access the gospel, but not the only way.
The primary reason for attending church--besides all the super enlightening meetings filled with clipboard power--is to partake of the sacrament. But remember, this ordinance is simply a renewal of our baptismal covenants. There is no expiration date. We renew them weekly (unless more important business like Stake or General Conference come up) for our benefit, to remind us of our relationship with God and what it means to carry His name upon us. But there's nothing preventing us from continuing to abide in those covenants simply because we haven't renewed them the past 7 days. The Church is not our DMV. It's a place to commune with our fellow imperfect saints and--hopefully--learn something. But truancy is not equivalent to damnation, and Bednar basically grants that fact here.
The reason I titled this post "Mixed Messages" is because these two videos really show the dichotomy of modern LDS ecclesiastical thought. On the one hand, the general authorities have the ability to be quite shrewd and enlightened at times--giving messages that emphasize love, kindness, and acceptance. Yet on the other, their directives all too often devolve into simplistic and absurd talking points that run counter to the gospel and paint our relationship with God to be one of distance and fear, "The Lord's side of the line" being a prime example.
I don't mean to imply that David Bednar doesn't believe in Christ, or that he thinks the atonement is somehow second fiddle to us keeping the commandments, but with object lessons like the one he taught to Bryson and an odiously sympathetic audience...
...it is only natural for one to ask, Is this Church really being led by God?
And do we need for it to be?