Correlation is a dirty word among some Mormons. Or at the very least, in my experience, it is a topic of complaint that often comes up on LDS-related listservs, blogs and Internet fora. The charge usually leveled is that correlation has stripped much of what is interesting, unique and important from official LDS discourse.
The defenses of the church usually break down into three areas.
An international church
A significant (and growing) percentage of the LDS church membership doesn’t speak English. Correlation and the discourse that it produces allow for easier translation of church materials. In addition, content has to be accessible to new and recent members of the church.
Public relations and spreading the gospel
The LDS church has come out of obscurity over the past three decades. It has never had a better nor higher profile among the general public and in the mainstream media. However, a consequence of that is that, like any other major media figure, it has to be incredibly careful about how it handles its image. Everything that it produces in an official capacity (and unfortunately, much that comes out from rogue sources) is broadcast, parsed and taken as an official belief, attitude or doctrine of the church. Correlation is simply part of a needed public relations campaign. And the pr campaign is needed so that we can preach the gospel more effectively — so that doors aren’t automatically shut.
Correlation is the result of inspired leaders
Who cares what the reasons are? The point is that all official church discourse — talks, statements, manuals, magazines and other publications — are approved or in many cases written by church leaders who are inspired by God. The results of correlation are exactly what the Lord wants us to pay attention to right now.
All three of these reasons make sense to me, and I support each of them to a certain degree. At the same time, I admit that I find that some of the critiques of these reasons have some merit as well. And if commenters want to rehash this discussion below, that’s fine with me.
However, I want to explore something that has occurred to me recently.
The problem with official church discourse, as I’ve heard it described and in many cases have even experienced, is that it is bland and boring.
Is that the fault of the reader/listener or the text?
I think the answer is both, but I’m going to argue that we as receivers of the word may be somewhat at fault.
We’re spoiled. We live in a textual world suffering from the effects of modernism (or if you prefer this explanation [and I think I do] — the after-effects of romanticism). A world that values novelty, texture, details, style and sensation. Not only that, but with the explosion in media distribution and modes, we have access to an incredible array of discursive communities. In addition, because of the triumph of history as a mode of organizing facts and creating narratives, we expect a certain amount of depth, and even if we distrust the ability of the facts to get at the Truth, we still want them to be laid out for us. The details are always more scintillating than the spin.
Thus official church discourse comes across as flat, as lacking.
But is that true for all Mormons?
Yes, I too sometimes think many of my fellow church members are rather unsophisticated. I do that little trick of admiring their faith, dedication and humbleness while at the same time decrying their whitewashed view of history, sentimental treatment of what can be complicated, sticky real-life situations, and rather immature explanations and explorations of gospel principles and LDS scriptures.
But am I wrong?
I also do that trick of thinking that many of the general authorities think many of the same things I do and appreciate the discourse qualities that I appreciate, but go along with correlation for the reasons listed above. I believe that they are carnivores who are constrained by church demographics (and, yes, by inspiration) to focus on producing milk for the masses.
But am I wrong?
I’m not prepared to take this too far (thus why it is a minor defense), but it seems to me that it’s quite possible that some of my fellow church members, including some of the general authorities, have developed a way of relating to church discourse where each word, each scriptural citation explodes with meaning. Where each mention of “charity” or reading of, say, Malachi 3:10 opens up a well of experiences, testimony and feeling.
I’m not talking about the sentimental way of approaching things, of being comforted by words that affirm your worldview. I’m talking about listening/reading with charity and intent. Of a state of awareness (a stillness, perhaps) where the words cut deep, slicing open the fruits of the spirit releasing a fragrance that enfolds and sweetens the entire experience. Okay, so that was a little much. But I lapse into metaphor because I’m not sure how to describe it because I’m not sure that I’ve experienced it. I am a restless soul, a discourse junkie, a slave to narrative(s) [as I write this, I'm listening to "Sunday Girl" by Blondie].
There have been glimmers. But I’m trying to describe something I only suppose. In addition, I also distrust this idea somewhat. And I certainly don’t want to set up more categories for us to judge each other. I don’t think that those who complain about official church discourse are necessarily unrighteous or somehow lacking. Nor do I think that those who have no complaints about official church discourse are necessarily righteous. The whole trick (and problem) with what I describe is that it all rests with the internal processes of the listener/reader. Whereas the actual texts produced can be subjected to various forms of analysis.
I also don’t think that this is a primary reason behind correlation (although it may be a bit of an explanation). I think that the initial three reasons above all play a role. And I don’t want to valorize all church discourse. As Nephi and Moroni remind us, the written word often fails us. And, as we know, the Lord speaks to us “after the manner of our language” [D&C 1:24].
I also don’t want to diminish the important role that un-flat discourse can play. After all, one of the passages of scripture I never tire of hearing or reading is D&C 121:34-46, and it honestly seems unlikely that phrases like “kick against the pricks” and “distil upon thy soul” would pop up in an Ensign article if they weren’t found in the Doctrine & Covenants.
But this leads me to the one thing I am definite about. I’m grateful for the LDS canon of scripture. Our discourse — no matter what our proclivities — would all be better if we were more familiar with our scriptures and quoted from them more often and more broadly.