Leadership and Self-Flagellation: Sharing Your Sins with the World

July 25, 2010 | 41 comments
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Nate’s thoughtful post inspired a great discussion. Andrew spoke up to say:

…even though Church leaders could and should stress their own imperfection before Church members, they don’t…but instead they play into this paragon of virtue imagery that people put on them.

Wm Morris responded with:

I have no desire to see more self-flagellation on the part of our leaders. And I don’t see the paragon of virtue imagery — when general authorities to talk about themselves as persons, they are very often self-deprecating and even talk about their imperfections.

“Self-flagellation” is is kind of a stretch. Exposing our own imperfections and struggles isn’t akin to beating ourselves silly in the town square. I think Andrew makes a good point. While I’m sure there are examples to support the latter position, I can’t think of many off the top of my head. The most vivid personal example from our general leaders I can remember is the recollection of of one of the general youth auxiliary leaders about lying on the grass in the summer, staring up at the clouds and thinking about Jesus. I remember the story because my thought was, “Wow. I remember doing the same thing at that age — but I was thinking about boys.”

I have seen the positive side of our leaders personal experiences so overwhelmingly expressed that I’ve concluded that either:

  1. These people really are far more perfect than any people I have ever known (OK, except two — my sister (yes, I’m the black sheep) and my stand partner in high school orchestra).
  2. They are explicitly told not to reveal personal failings and sin in public.

Of course there’s a third option, that these leaders are normal fallen souls who just instinctively withhold their juicy life stories, but I like the other two choices better. For the sake of discussion, I’ll assume #2 is correct (because if #1 is correct, then there’s juts not much to talk about). So here’s the question:

When does revealing personal failing or sin help and when does it hurt?

There is rather common sense research that shows how past history influences others. For example, when children know about their parents’ youthful misbehavior, they are more likely to engage in the same things — even when their parents tell them it’s a bad idea. I’m not an advocate of the idea that the principle of “honesty” requires us to tell our kids (or our journals) every single foolish thing we ever did. But there are times when it’s elevating.

Reading Sister Hinckley’s book a few years back, I was absolutely tickled by the story about Gordon, sitting on his porch with friends as a child, and directing the “n” word at a boy walking by. He was immediately disciplined by his mother, who overheard the unfortunate exchange.

Yes! He is human after all!

I wasn’t thrilled at the news because his bad behavior brought him down in my eyes, it was because it made me hopeful that sin and error didn’t completely disqualify me for being seen, by God, as good and worthy to serve.

When I was serving as Relief Society president, our stake Relief Society president asked the conducting member of each ward presidency to close each meeting with a confirming testimony of the lesson that had been given. Good grief. That was the last thing I wanted to do. Being honest with the other sisters meant that about half the time I was confessing that I hadn’t followed the given principle early on, suffered the consequences, learned the lesson the hard way, and then repented. The other half I had to confess that I was still crappy at following the principle taught, but had learned some reasons why it was important and why I needed to correct my behavior. The Sundays when I was able to give a glowing recollection about the benefits of my life-long dedication to the principle were few and far between. If that.

Much to my surprise, these revelations (obviously only revelatory to those in the ward who didn’t already know me really well) didn’t turn the women against me. Instead, it seemed to bring most of us closer. Week after week (after week) women came up to me and said something like, “I’m so glad I’m not alone in struggling with that!” or “I thought I was the only one who felt that way!” Being open about our utter humanness seemed to open up the channels to reveal our struggles and, in turn, to help each other grow and learn from them.

Please share your thoughts on openness and boundaries with regard to sharing past sin with others.

41 Responses to Leadership and Self-Flagellation: Sharing Your Sins with the World

  1. Wm Morris on July 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    “Self-flagellation” is is kind of a stretch. Exposing our own imperfections and struggles isn’t akin to beating ourselves silly in the town square

    —-
    I was using that term in the specific context of its new discursive meaning which ties in to the media cycle I describe later in the comment. I was also using the term ironically. To cherry pick that quote without the context is rather silly.

    But since you bring it up again: it’s one thing to share things within the context of your ward. It’s quite another to do so over a worldwide pulpit and then be subjected to the intensity that comes with the instant commentary, the schadenfreude, the overweening sympathy, the beat-the-issue-to-death-and-then-move-on mentality that is our modern electronic public square. This is not to say that a general authority or officer slipping in a bit of self-deprecation or self-revelation about a struggle now and then is going to lead to a tabloid frenzy.
    But I don’t see a playing the paragon of virtue in conference talks. I do see some attempts at humanizing. But mainly I see the preaching of doctrine and of successful attempts to reach out to people. I think there are very good reasons why this is the major mode of discourse at the moment.

  2. Wm Morris on July 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Or to put it another way: I applaud all attempts by official LDS Church discourse to resist Oprah-fication and am somewhat dismayed by the strong Oprah-ish currents in many of Deseret Book’s products.

  3. Nae Oman on July 25, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Down with Oprah-fication!

    I am not a fan of massively self-revelatory discourse. In part I think that this goes back to Freud, who identified the suppression as a key source of psychosis. Add this to a media culture that is big on voyeurism and we are off to the races. I don’t buy the Freudian myths about the soul, and I think that there is a great deal to be said for a bit of reserve, a concern for propriety, and the stiff upper lip. That said, talking about personal struggles has its place — in my view — when done in moderation. I have seen it, however, become a kind of performance, at which point it seems rather more like an exercise in narcissism.

    For myself, I am not really comfortable with leaders who spend a lot of time talking about themselves, pro or con. I would rather be taught doctrine, called to repentence, or the like. For what it is worth, I don’t see many leaders presenting themselves as paragons of virtue. I agree with Wm. Morris that generally when they talk about themselves they are self depricating.

    I do see a lot of leaders talking about OTHER leaders as paragons of virtue. I tend to see most of this as folks trying to be generous and grateful to others who are engaged in a difficult task. It does, however, make me uncomfortable at times. When junior members of the seventy spend half their talk testifying as to how wonderful President Monson is, I have been known to roll my eyes. It is not that I think that they are being insincere or the like. They just start sounding a little star struck, as though they are still overwhelmed that they talk to the prophet on a regular basis. I am more impressed when Elder Packer talks about President Monson.

  4. Enna on July 25, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    This reminds me of hearing President Monson share the experience he had when, as a Bishop, I think, had a prompting to go see a friend in the hospital but was too intimidated to leave the meeting early when someone else was speaking. By the time he got to the hospital, the person he was going to see had already died.

    I had often struggled with feeling like I could relate to President Monson’s never ending cheeriness and loved that he shared a moment where he goofed and was human. I wish I heard things like that more often from the GAs and from the local ward.

  5. Alison Moore Smith on July 25, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    I was using that term in the specific context of its new discursive meaning which ties in to the media cycle I describe later in the comment. I was also using the term ironically.

    Wm, forgive me for being “silly.” But if you used “self-flagellation” to mean both tabloid TV presentation of faults AND the opposite of the term itself, then I’d still stick by my description of “a stretch.” No one called for Jerry Springer sacrament meetings and certainly no one called for self-praise, so either is “a stretch” from what Andrew said.

    I agree that revealing things locally differs from revealing things globally. Thus the question. I’d appreciate some specifics on your “very good reasons.” What do you think are the problems that stem from more personal information? I mentioned one in the OP. What are others you’ve considered?

    Nate, please don’t exchange Wm Morris’ hyperbole for the actual question. :) I’m not suggesting “massive self-revelatory discourse” or “leaders who spend a lot of time talking about themselves.” You said that you think it has it’s place “in moderation.” What are your ideas about when it crosses the line into “performance”?

    You make a good point that often the “paragon of virtue” issue comes from leaders speaking about other leaders. I think the impression comes from the lack of countering, humanizing examples. Again, not saying they should be there, just asking the question about pros vs. cons of hearing them.

    Enna, that is a great example! I’m with you that it not only helped me to hear it, but I wouldn’t mind hearing more things like that. When the gospel is all about the atonement, it’s good to see it in practice. :)

  6. Tim on July 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    #3
    “When junior members of the seventy spend half their talk testifying as to how wonderful President Monson is, I have been known to roll my eyes. It is not that I think that they are being insincere or the like. They just start sounding a little star struck, as though they are still overwhelmed that they talk to the prophet on a regular basis.”

    On my mission, we called it kissing up, and those who acted that way towards the mission president always became at least zone leaders.
    Of course, I don’t believe that’s what happens at the top levels of the church. But I wonder if it’s a trait that helps those who practice it move to more powerful leadership positions at other levels (within a stake, for example).

  7. Bob on July 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    I never liked the feeling I get when people talk of their repentance and how they are now more worthy___when they only want us to see them as now more worthy.
    I also don’t like foodball players thanking God for their TD.

  8. Wm Morris on July 25, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    So what are you suggesting, Alison? Where would you draw the lines? What do you want be said that isn’t already? I’ve already said that I think the official LDS discourse as currently practiced is what it needs to be for the time we’re in.

    Speaking of hyperbole — how exactly do our general authorities play into the paragon of virtue that Andrew mentions? Part of the reason I pushed the hyperbole button is that that all read as a bit melodramatic. Oh, these general authorities going around letting themselves be put on pedestals.

    And also: why are you so quick to derive perfect from positive? I can’t think of any people in positions of authority who don’t stress the positive. The only exceptions are those who fall from grace who then have to play the repentant card in order to get back in to the game.

  9. Alison Moore Smith on July 25, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Tim, I get your point, but personally I’m not sure I wouldn’t be a little overwhelmed at talking to the prophet every day either. :) Once I read a story that referenced the periodic general authorities’ wives’ luncheon. My first thought was, “What would it be like to be surrounded by such people all the time?” You know, maybe it’s no different from the really tremendous people who live all around me. But it always seemed like it would be a higher plane or something. Maybe that’s just the thing Andrew was referring to though.

    Bob, do you think that’s usually their point? Sometimes it could be, but it never occurred to me that anyone would tell you how sinful they were last year to make themselves seem awesome. :)

    One of the examples that comes to mind is Alma the Younger. Bad dude reformed and not afraid to talk about it. Of course, a lot of the people he talked to already knew he was a bad dude because he was a public bad dude. But I think that knowing where he was and how he was changing was helpful to many.

    Like I brought up in the OP, however, I have seen the reverse as well. For example, a high percentage of the parents I know who “had to get married” and then repented and later got sealed, had kids follow them by getting pregnant out of wedlock. OTOH, a high percentage of parents I know who had sex as teens (without the outwardly apparent pregnancy), repented, married in the temple, and didn’t talk about their indiscretions, ended up with kids who got married in the temple without the detour.

    Completely anecdotal, but it follows the research I’ve read in the past years. Kids are more likely to do as you DO, not as you SAY, so often telling them everything you did — even if you reformed — isn’t going to help them.

    Wm Morris, I’m not suggesting anything. I’m asking a question. Andrew wants more revelation, you don’t. I pointed out that your “self-flagellation” was an exaggeration — which was apparently correct — and asked others what they thought about the issue. I see some of both sides.

    You said you have “very good reasons” but haven’t specified what they are. If you have nothing more to contribute, so be it.

    how exactly do our general authorities play into the paragon of virtue that Andrew mentions

    Andrew will have to clarify what he meant by that. I gave my impressions in the OP.

    I’m unsure what you mean by “quick to derive perfect from positive.” I didn’t. I said “more perfect than any people I have ever known.” And I posted why I had that impression. It’s because of the glowing stories and reports coupled with the lack of human failing. I personally know some very amazing people, but I also know their struggles and problems, so the picture is more balanced.

    “Repentant card”? Hmm. Couldn’t they actually be repentant?

  10. Ziff on July 25, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    I know in the old purple Missionary Guide that was in use when I was a missionary (early 1990s), there was a section or something explicitly saying that we shouldn’t “reveal past transgressions” when teaching. I would guess that something similar is said to new GAs, consistent with your conclusion #2.

  11. Cameron Nielsen on July 25, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    It still gives similar instructions for conducting baptismal interviews (for the interviewee). I winced in class once when my fellow member of the Young Men’s Presidency specified a major sin he committed after his mission.

  12. Andrew on July 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Yeah I could have been more clear in my first comment.
    What I meant was this: the culture ascribes virtuous lives to GAs. Our current culture prefers the superman type hero (with no weaknesses, well okay kryptonite) to the Spiderman type (who struggles to pay his rent, sustain relationships, etc); in fact there was a post comparing the two types on the ‘nacle a while back. And from the GAs there is no clear refutation of this trend imposed by the culture. I think Nate in #3 hit the nail on the head: leaders talk about other leaders as paragons of virtue. And then leader number 2 refers to leader number 1 as another paragon, and the rank and file then think that all GAs are paragons of virtue (my wife helped me see that). I think they don’t get that the rank and file see them as these paragons, and therefore they do nothing about it. Furthermore, any self-deprecation on their part comes off as Superman trying to relate to the little guy. And so people say “It’s so nice that I can relate to Pres. Monson” but they still say “Man he’s so righteous, I could never be that righteous.” And its that second comment that grinds my gears. The problem for me is this comes off an inauthentic. We relegate the prophets to this role of one-dimensional hero who doesn’t really exist.

    In contrast I’ve seen religious leaders who are open and candid about their weakness (not specific sins per se, but willingly admit their need for Christ), and they come off as so much more relatable. These are people who serve God, and struggle with sin, even today, not 70 years ago when they were little children. Sure Pres. Monson had his little sins when he was a child, but who would say he has moments of weakness like when Peter denied the Savior, or when Paul and Barnabus (two apostles) argued so much that they split up as a companionship. But these glimpses into their weakness make them that much more human, and more hopeful because God still used them as his instruments.

    tl;dr. the culture infuses GAs with this non-existent virtue, and they don’t/are ignorant such that they don’t refute it. And infusing them with this virtue makes them seem inauthentic and superhuman.

  13. Andrew S. on July 25, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    I guess this isn’t the place to cross-pollinate between blogs, but this reminds me of the discussion over at BCC on the “Hypocrisy” thread. One miniature theme of the discussion was the idea of “ideals”…should our striving for an ideal (like, say, daily scripture study) be marred or devalued by the possibility that we are not ourselves perfect in reaching that ideal? Should we be willing to admit, for example, that we only got 2 out of 7 days for scripture study this week…or would this cause damage to our message?

    On the other hand, would mentioning nothing about our poor track record be “hypocritical”…and if someone found out about our failings, would that undermine our efforts to encourage daily scripture study for others?

    (ehh…I guess I’m thinking on far too low a scale, since people here seem to be talking about the GAs, hehe).

  14. Orwell on July 26, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Yeah, all this myth-building regarding GAs both living and dead, whatever its causes, soon descends into notions of infallibility (even as we pay lip-service to eschewing the concept), which is then extended to every word that falls from their lips. That discussion-killing “Elder so-and-so once said…” bomb is impossible to defend against not because it works, but because the person that uses it on you never understands that it doesn’t.

    Anyway, beatifying GAs 1) riddles many people with guilt / discouragement for not feeling like they can measure up, 2) sets people up for major disillusionment when they discover that church leaders are mere mortals after all, or 3) makes those of us that feel the emperor’s-new-clothiness of it all prone to cynicism (not necessarily about church leaders themselves, just about others’ ideas about them).

    Aside from just not giving into it yourself, though, I have no brilliant solutions to offer. The precedent seems so entrenched that I confess that I feel a little hopeless just thinking about trying to wage that cultural war of attrition.

    Half-seriously, though, you can always leave out the middle (or first) initial — that seems to make them sound more human… the problem is that too many interpret such an omission as disrespectful, whether intended to be or not.

  15. Paul on July 26, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Why would we want the GA’s to talk more about their struggles and shortcomings? There seem to be four main motivations: 1) We want to identify with them, i.e. see ourselves in them. The stronger the identification, the more we would be ok with ourselves, 2) for several reasons, we want to feel loved, appreciated, and understood by a group of people we will never meet or talk to in any significantly individual way, 3) we want to feel like they are authentic, and 4) the more normal we think they are, the more comfortable we are disagreeing with them and perhaps disobeying.

    I don’t know if it is good to say that one person is better than another, but I do know that GAs are on average significantly different from me. The most obvious is in executive function, i.e. I am spending my time doing this. Some others such as work capacity, intense emphasis on loyalty, and degree of happiness with church programs, come readily to mind. I am more comfortable with who they are as individuals than I am with how the church as an organization does things. I have known 4 GAs before their call. One of them did something remarkably kind to my father that I will always be impressed by, one made an effort to seek me out and try to help me when I was an 18 year old kid, one was a nice doctor, and one I would not have recommended, but in the last 25 years he could have evolved a lot for all I know. It is ok for them to be significantly different or even to be utterly different from me in some ways. One example is Elder Scott’s discussion of how he dealt with the death of his wife, to be found on the Mormon Channel. Anyway you slice it, I have never met anyone like him.

  16. Carl Youngblood on July 26, 2010 at 3:49 am

    I’m with Alison that the positives would outweigh the negatives and that the current general perception of our leaders is unhealthy. I do think that the comments have helped to clarify better the kind of adjustment she is promoting and rule out certain extremes.

  17. Andrew G. on July 26, 2010 at 5:56 am

    Guess I should add the G to my name to differentiate between other Andrews here.

    After writing my initial response in #12, my wife told me a story. She was at a Conference Center concert last year where Pres. Monson went down near the front and touched peoples’ hands after the show. She described it as akin to a rock concert where people try to touch the band leader’s hand, with the crowd surging forward and struggling to find a place (perhaps embellishment, I don’t know). After he left, a YSA couple a few feet from my wife asked the guard “We know it’s past the cord, but could we just stand where Pres Monson stood, just for a few moments?” The guard acquiesced, and the couple stood there, giddy to stand where the prophet stood. They even got the guard to take their picture. This is the culture I refer to, where the rank and file are excited just to stand where their heroes stand.
    The story they tell then becomes “I walked today where Pres Monson walked.” and not “This is where the Spirit led me today.”

    I’ll grant that Pres Monson is ignorant of such goings on, but he’s got to be aware that this type of thing happens, and he could counsel people against such behavior.

  18. Wm Morris on July 26, 2010 at 8:52 am

    “You said you have “very good reasons” but haven’t specified what they are. If you have nothing more to contribute, so be it.”

    If you want me to contribute don’t be so rude and don’t redefine my position in a post title — extracting a word and identifying me with it — setting up this dichotomous position outside the context of the original flow of conversation. I’m not fond of such practices in blogging. I also continue to think that my hyberbole was well used — both shocking and funny (on a variety of levels).

    But to restate: I think that our current culture has poisoned the well for any meaningful self-disclosure outside communities of trust (where such admissions of struggle or failure are less likely to be broadcast and analyzed to death). That’s the reason why I think that your #2 is most likely in place, and why I think it’s good that it’s in place. That’s why when general authorities are more candid and self-disclosing in stake and area conferences they ask that that those in attendance take notes only for personal use — and to write down their own thoughts and impressions rather than try to make a record of the sermon.

    I’m still not entirely clear on what adjustments you want made and by whom and in what forms of discourse. I’d also be very interested of examples outside Mormondom of leaders in very visible, large organizations that navigate this better than, say, President Hinckley did. Or President Monson does. Or President Uchtdorf. Or President Beck. etc. If you think there needs to be change, what should that be? The anecdote you give about yourself and your Relief Society is great and I”m pleased that your fellow sisters reacted that way. But as I said, I’m also not sure how well that translates outside of a society or quorum or class — although I am willing to change my mind.

    It’s also quite possible that if I spent more time on the Wasatch Front, I’d have the kinds of anecdotes Andrew G. mentions, and I’d see this as more of an issue than I currently think it is (although even there — leaders are always caught in a hard place when it comes to interaction with “followers” and the demands of time and the demands of handlers and security folks, and it has become even more difficult, imo, with the advent of electronic communication).

  19. C Jones on July 26, 2010 at 9:52 am

    “I think that our current culture has poisoned the well for any meaningful self-disclosure outside communities of trust”

    I agree with Wm Morris.

    In our current culture– reality TV shows, personal blogs, etc.– only the most naive would really believe that the GA’s are perfect. But hero-worshiping, pedestal-placing behavior is also widespread in our culture. Ya can’t win.

    I see the expressed desire for Church leaders to stress their own imperfections as just more train wreck rubber-necking. We see the same thing with Joseph Smith. Maybe we thought he was nearly perfect when we were in Primary, but most members get over that with age and experience and common sense. But then there are those who can’t move beyond that Primary-level understanding and freak out when they find out any detail that is less flattering.

    Let the GA’s do what they’re called to do– preach the gospel– and let them keep at least a little of their privacy– even if personal privacy is so old-school. And let the rest of us get over ourselves a little and get past the need to bring someone else down so we can feel better about ourselves.

  20. RT on July 26, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    A few years ago, a brother in one of my former wards stood up in testimony meeting and give a heartfelt testimony about repentance. As part of it, he discussed a pretty serious sin that he had once committed and had that he had since worked through with the help of church leaders. It was a pretty dramatic moment.

    I’d known this brother for several years before this and still knew him until we moved a few years later. As much as I wanted to, it was hard not to think of that testimony–and that sin–when his name would come up.

    I think there’s a potential problem when we reveal past sins to a public audience, which is that the public audience won’t have been privy to the necessarily private experience that is repentance. IOW, the scriptures promise that if we repent, the Atonement will allow us to “forget” those sins. But I’m not so sure that the miracle of forgetting extends to everyone else in the world.

    Put it this way–if an apostle stands up in general conference and admits that he was once a porn addict but has since repented, that image would be permanently affixed whenever we think of him. For those of us who are serious about our faith, it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem–we’d have the maturity to put that knowledge in the context of the atonement. But there are a lot of people who would hear that message who aren’t as serious or mature about their faith. And for them, he’d just become “the apostle who looked at porn,”–an image that would get in the way of his effectiveness and calling.

    Incidentally, Elder Lynn Mickelson gave a talk in the October 2003 conference in which he suggested that we should not to talk about such things in public. He may very well have been expressing a sentiment that GA’s talk about in their own meeting, which would help explain some of the silence about such things at that level.

  21. Alison Moore Smith on July 26, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Ziff, thanks for the info.

    Cameron Nielson, yea, I understand the wincing. A number of years ago the Laurel advisor in our ward — doing her traditional sit on the classroom floor sharing an enormous bowl of M&Ms lesson — explained the the girls how great oral sex was. She wasn’t revealing some past sin, but it was way TMI. Sometimes sin (and other behavior) certainly falls into the “Isn’t that kind of personal?” realm.

    Andrew, thanks for clarifying your position. I tend to agree.

    But these glimpses into their weakness make them that much more human, and more hopeful because God still used them as his instruments.

    Spot on. :)

    Andrew S., good questions and not “too far below.” :) Do you have possible answers?

    Orwell #14:

    That discussion-killing “Elder so-and-so once said…” bomb is impossible to defend against not because it works, but because the person that uses it on you never understands that it doesn’t.

    Hah, so true! Haven’t we all run across this? It ranks right up there with ad hominem as the defining argument. How do you explain to clueless people that, “You’re just a _____________!” doesn’t prove a point?

    Your three problems with the situation are good. #1 is probably the most obvious, but I’ve seen the other two almost as often.

    Never thought about the way we use their names. Funny, you kind of have a point. I don’t name any FRIENDS that way. “Here’s my dear friend, “Eldress T. Sharon Gordon.” It is rather formal, but I’m guessing that’s just a distinguishing feature, given that we’ve had three prophets names Joseph Smith and such.

  22. Andrew G on July 26, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Another example: I live in downtown SLC. For the 24th we had two historians who live in the ward talk about early pioneers and their examples. One of the speakers said something like “We’re so blessed to live in a ward made holy because Heber J. Grant used to live here.” My wife called it “the most blatant instance of prophet worship I’ve seen yet in sacrament.” And this wasn’t just some young person, the speaker was close to 60 or so.

    And I’ve seen this same phenomenon in Chile where I served my mission. So it might be more overt in SLC, but it is out there.

    Look, I don’t want to hear about their particular sins. But the fact remains that GAs are seen as more righteous than other people, when they’re as human as anyone else.

    As I’ve visited my friends’ Christian churches, the pastors have been candid about their mortal state. They don’t recount individual sins either, but they do speak openly about still struggling with life, and they dispel any notions that they are somehow more righteous than others. Then again, it might be a factor of living in SLC.

  23. Alison Moore Smith on July 26, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Paul, your reasons are pretty exhaustive. I’d qualify the first one (or add another), not so much to be wanting to see ourselves in them, but (like Andrew said) wanting to see evidence that even with our failings we have some hope, that we aren’t total losers, or at least could progress to the point of not being total losers. Someday. Maybe.

    It’s like a diet product testimonial. Before – After. Yes, you’re an obese slob NOW, but you can be slim and trim, too, because I used to be an obese slob, too! (Shout out to Alma the Younger!)

    Sometimes I look at these people and it seems like they were BORN completely pure and holy. They never were at my level, so there’s no way for me to get where they are.

    I have a real life sister like that. She read Jesus the Christ at 12. TWELVE! My entire youth I recall her getting in trouble a total of TWO times. Once when she was 7 and another when she was about nine. Seriously. It’s like “little boy, Jesus, no crying he makes.” She’s older than I am, but I’m guessing that she never cried as a baby, either. I will not be surprised if I drop by to find out she’s been translated. It will just be like, “Oh, yea. I was wondering when that was going to happen.”

  24. Kaimi on July 26, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Every Christmas time, I tell myself that I should write a post titled “the theological irrelevance of little baby Jesus’s adorableness.”

    The sweet little baby, no crying he makes, yada yada. It’s completely irrelevant to any of the church’s significant theological claims. Jesus could have been the ugliest, grumpiest, smelliest, urp-iest, finickiest, most colicky baby in history and it would not change any aspect of his central role in the plan of salvation. Our collective urge to turn him into a divine Gerber baby has no religious grounding — and is really kind of bizarre when you think about it.

  25. Andrew S on July 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    re 21:

    Alison,

    I unfortunately think that it is a double-edged sword, so the questions can’t really be raised in the same way for everyone.

    For example, I am inclined to agree with Wm Morris (re 18) that our culture has poisoned the well too much for meaningful self-disclosure…it will in most places destroy credibility and hinder someone promoting an ideal (regardless of thoughts about the Atonement)…HOWEVER, with response to C Jones (re 19), I think that many people are “naive” with respect to the idea of the GAs (or other leaders) being spotless. I mean, if not our current leaders, then our past leaders. We are raised to believe not in grays, but in whites and blacks…and when we discover that life is all about grays and, even worse, that our church is not above that fray, that ALSO is very damaging.

    I think that self-disclosure of the humanity of the prophets and GAs would be like inoculation to aspects of LDS church history — there are ways it can go wrong and it doesn’t necessarily prevent Bad Stuff(TM) from occurring.

  26. Orwell on July 26, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I don’t name any FRIENDS that way. “Here’s my dear friend, “Eldress T. Sharon Gordon.” It is rather formal, but I’m guessing that’s just a distinguishing feature, given that we’ve had three prophets names Joseph Smith and such.

    I’m sure that’s how it started, just a way to tell all those Joseph Smiths apart, etc… but it’s become something of a boundary marker between the holy and the unwashed masses (in our minds, not necessarily in theirs). By the way, I’m totally the poster child for problem #3, if you can’t tell.

    Sometimes I look at these people and it seems like they were BORN completely pure and holy. They never were at my level, so there’s no way for me to get where they are.

    This reminds me of that Gorbon B. (!) Hinckley bio-film from not too long ago. I never saw the whole thing, but the trailer contains this priceless gem:

    “Before he was an older man, he was a younger man.”

    Wow, what a startling tale of transformation!

    Seriously, no wonder people think they will never measure up. He was born a prophet. Again, I never saw the whole film, but that trailer, for me, really exemplifies a lot of what we’re talking about. (And it goes without saying that I mean all of this without the slightest disrespect to President Hinckley.)

  27. Alison Moore Smith on July 26, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks, Carl. I guess I think some balance would be good. Just don’t know when the scales would be tipped to the negative.

    Andrew G., the scene you describe is kind of creepy. Shaking hands I understand. Touching people’s hands seems really odd. (Maybe it was a swine flu thing?) I don’t know what the leaders can/should do about it. Maybe, like you said, just discourage it or let them know it’s not appropriate.

    Wm Morris #18:

    If you want me to contribute…

    It’s not so much that I want you to contribute, I’m suggesting that if you continue to post here you try to do so.

    …don’t be so rude and don’t redefine my position in a post title

    Ah, but you see, the post title wasn’t actually about your position at all. It was about mine. But if I decide to redefine you in the future, I’ll give you the heads up.

    It’s unclear what your big objection is here. You yourself call it hyperbole, but objected that I called it “a stretch.” Hyperbole IS a definitional stretch. I clarified lest anyone think that we were really talking about actual self-flagellation. (Weirder things have happened in the blogosphere.)

    You meant the term to decry tabloid TV representation (that no one promoted anyway) and ALSO to mean the opposite of the actual meaning of the term. Now, that’s rather a semantic twist, but either way it’s not what was being suggested.

    I also continue to think that my hyberbole was well used — both shocking and funny (on a variety of levels).

    I’m not sure which hyperbole you mean — the hyperbole of the specific context of its new discursive meaning which ties in to the media cycle or the hyperbole of the irony. Either way I would never get in the way of a commenter’s self-amusement (on any level at all). Continue to enjoy at will. :)

    I think you make a good point about the current culture of over-analysis. You said you had numerous reasons, so share more if you care to.

    That’s why when general authorities are more candid and self-disclosing in stake and area conferences they ask that that those in attendance take notes only for personal use

    I thought it was just because they were off teleprompter. ;)

    I’m still not entirely clear on what adjustments you want made and by whom and in what forms of discourse.

    As I said, I don’t have an agenda, I’m just asking a question. The interchange on the other thread made me curious about what others thought because I see pros and cons to both. I’d probably like our general leaders to be more publicly human, but I think boundaries are good as well.

  28. Alison Moore Smith on July 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    C Jones, yea, I agree it’s a no win. But I think your assessment of “those who can’t move beyond that Primary-level understanding and freak out when they find out any detail that is less flattering” is unfair.

    Our church history has a boatload of stuff that can’t remotely be characterized as simply “less flattering.”
    We might agree that there may be reasonable explanations for them, but they aren’t yet satisfactorily explained or even acknowledged.

    The fact that people notice such inconsistencies and are concerned can’t be dismissed simply by calling them naive and immature.

    Let the GA’s do what they’re called to do– preach the gospel– and let them keep at least a little of their privacy– even if personal privacy is so old-school.

    I think what the comments have most clearly brought out to me is that the privacy only occurs if leaders do NOT talk about themselves (or each other) in personal terms. If privacy is to be the standard, I think that’s reasonable. But to expose all the PERSONAL good and not expose any bad isn’t impersonal, it’s just selectively impersonal. And that seems to be where the balance problem comes in.

  29. Alison Moore Smith on July 26, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    RT, good example. Years ago a woman in my ward got up in fast meeting and confessed an abortion she’d had. It was a little uncomfortable. But, in that instance, it seemed to be handled well. People really reached out to her to help her and I didn’t hear any gossip about it. (What’s to gossip about when the person lays it all out there?)

    Not advocating that kind of thing at all, to be clear.

    Andrew G, I think I’d really like your wife. :)

    They don’t recount individual sins either, but they do speak openly about still struggling with life, and they dispel any notions that they are somehow more righteous than others.

    That may be the kind of thing that would be good. No specifics (like the porn example), but acknowledgement that struggling is universal.

    Kaimi #24:

    Every Christmas time, I tell myself that I should write a post titled “the theological irrelevance of little baby Jesus’s adorableness.”

    Wah! Kaimi, I spit water all over my screen when I read this. I’m billing you for damages.

    Andrew S #25:

    We are raised to believe not in grays, but in whites and blacks…and when we discover that life is all about grays and, even worse, that our church is not above that fray, that ALSO is very damaging.

    Amen, brother.

    Orwell:

    By the way, I’m totally the poster child for problem #3, if you can’t tell.

    Better than being the poster child for all three. Not that I am. Really. Not. Just saying someone could be.

  30. Wm Morris on July 26, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    “Ah, but you see, the post title wasn’t actually about your position at all.”

    Ah, but it was. Where else did the term self-flagellation come from? You divorced it from the context of the conversation and then used in a post title that does not represent your position at all. There’s a fine tradition of that in blogging, but it’s not something I care for. I also think that the way you trimmed my comment and Andrew’s comment is rather interesting.

    There’s also that most of the time, I’m trying to be both funny and pointed and self-defeating with my language — tone is hard to convey, especially the dry kind.

    But to move on to the hyperbole — “You yourself call it hyperbole, but objected that I called it “a stretch.” Hyperbole IS a definitional stretch.”

    Well, of course it is. Which is why you defining it seriously misses the point. Paragon of virtue deserved some overinflating in order to be punctured. On the other hand, I agree that there’s been some interesting discussion here, and I don’t mind being pushed so it’s all good (except for Kaimi’s odd digression — I mean, come on, the kid had superhero genes. How could he not be completely adorable and preternaturally calm?).

    —–
    You keep asking about other reasons — I’ve already listed the ones that I think are the most important. But now that I look back at my first comment I see that you think I promised more with this “I think there are very good reasons why this is the major mode of discourse at the moment.” whereas I meant that to point back at what I’d already said on the issue. But I always aim to deliver on readerly expectations so here are some more…

    1. People being who they are tend to take what they see in official LDS discourse and take it to the extremes — both the faithful and the critics. Drawing the lines before you get to self-disclosure protects from the temptation of the zealous to take things further. I’m sure some folks will disagree that this is a bad thing, but again considering the way everything from the memoir to reality TV to therapeutic discourse pervades American popular culture and discourse, I think discretion is a good thing. The general authorities and officers have a peculiar balancing act. I do think that we are seeing some instances of relaying imperfection (Elder Bednar’s recent talks in particular).

    2. Related to the previous, because of this pervasiveness, perhaps one of the things we LDS of this generation need to learn is to not demand the humanity, but to demand the doctrine. As mentioned, the cult of personality is already too strong. I don’t know that humanizing diminishes that, actually. Self-disclosure (that occurs through the media) has become a tool of generating sympathy. Perhaps our big test is to see if we are willing to grab on to the words of doctrine and the ideals and take them seriously — and that means, of course, also paying attention to all the talk about love, charity, forgiveness, not taking offense, not judging, etc.

    3. Perhaps, you know, revelation plays a part in this policy and current mode of practice. Yes, it’s a cop out answer — a card that can be played in any bloggernacle discussion, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a factor here.

    4. Perhaps it doesn’t translate well to other cultures. I have no idea if this is a factor or not.

    5. Finally, perhaps virtue (real virtue — the kind that brings with it power) is a factor. Perhaps it causes a particular focus on the good and the positive and the core doctrines of the gospel. And perhaps a demand for humanizing is not just a demand for hope, but is also alloyed with a bit of schadenfreude and rationalization. That’s the problem with any form of discourse and desire through language — it always brings with it delights and dangers and complicates how we relate to each other, to ideals, to stories, to desires, etc.

    I’d also note that the post title talks about the sharing of sins, but it seems no one is really calling for that. So that gets us in to the category of overall imperfection or fallibility. Can we dig in a bit deeper to why those who think that LDS leaders hold themselves up as paragons of virtue have that impression? Because I personally don’t. Perhaps it’s simply a function of personality — or, as I mentioned before, being a Mormon in California (and now Minnesota).

  31. Ariel on July 27, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Alison, as Andrew’s wife, I’d just like to say that I’m sure I’d like you as well :)

    The hand-touching scene was neither “embellished” nor “creepy.” It was very similar to the scene in the Testaments movie where Jesus is walking down the stairs of the temple and everyone reaches out to touch him. He moves his hand through the crowd and touches the outstretched hands of the people. I’ve actually seen Monson do this more than once- this time in person, and another time in some church-sponsored movie/commercial/BYUTV Bio or something like that. It’s a lot faster and less businesslike than shaking hands.

  32. Andrew G. on July 27, 2010 at 1:23 am

    @Wm Morris
    “I think discretion is a good thing. The general authorities and officers have a peculiar balancing act. I do think that we are seeing some instances of relaying imperfection (Elder Bednar’s recent talks in particular).”
    I will take this moment to point out that at no time have I ever endorsed divulging past sins. Rather I promote a general “well we’re all fallen and I struggle with sin just as much as you do.” from the GAs.

    “perhaps one of the things we LDS of this generation need to learn is to not demand the humanity, but to demand the doctrine.”
    But the humanity IS the doctrine (2 Corinthians 4 is one of my favorites on that). It’s precisely because we are human (all of us) that we need the Atonement.

    Wm Morris, you seem to be saying that this humanity of our leaders ought to be underplayed, that we ought to see them as perfect in all practical ways. I don’t see how this is beneficial (or, for that matter, scriptural).

    “And perhaps a demand for humanizing is not just a demand for hope, but is also alloyed with a bit of schadenfreude and rationalization. ”
    There are people who would rationalize their sins if the prophets admitted to having any, although this would be somewhat mitigated by refraining from mentioning any particular sins. While this is sad, I think that the current problem of seeing the prophets as perfect is more significant. People think that Pres Monson will go to Heaven because he’s so good- and I’m sure he will. But in truth it’s that he’s good because Christ changed him, despite his fallen nature. If church members understood that, perhaps they would be motivated to seek for the same sort of change, rather than thinking that Pres Monson is some sort of unique breed who was uniquely able to merit God’s favor and worrying that they are doomed to a lesser kingdom. I want to see progressive sanctification through the atonement of Christ at the forefront of the discussion, rather than the awe-struck hero-worship of leaders who are, in fact, still in the process of becoming perfect. Too many members don’t believe that they can be changed by the atonement unless they put in all the work first, and being fallen, they find that they keep being lazy and imperfect even when they can do better. If there was some kind of acknowledgment that even our leaders find themselves in this position, I think it would enable people to have hope and ultimately work harder, as well as trust the grace of God to help them make it. Instead, we have people who feel hopeless, who can’t truly trust the atonement because they think that the people God finds acceptable didn’t need Christ in the same way they do.

    “Can we dig in a bit deeper to why those who think that LDS leaders hold themselves up as paragons of virtue have that impression? ”
    You might reread my comments #12 and 22 in particular.

  33. Alison Moore Smith on July 27, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Ariel, thanks for commenting!

    To be clear, it wasn’t so much President Monson’s actions that I found creepy, it was the fact that other people were trying to touch him like they might try to touch Christ (as per your example). I admit that I myself am pretty awed by him. But the “just touch his robe” or “just stand where he stood” thing is a bit on the overboard side to me when we’re talking about a man (albeit a really good man), rather than a God.

    Wm Morris #30:

    Where else did the term self-flagellation come from?

    From the early 15th century Latin.:) Yes, I used it because of your hyperbole, but that doesn’t require that use to “redefine your position.” Such a statement is nonsensical. Given that the title also asks “Should you share your sins with the world?” it’s obvious that it isn’t about *you* at all, since YOUR position was already clear. It was, once again, asking the question of OTHERS — whose positions are NOT yet clear.

    To be clear: neither the title nor the question is about you. It simply picked up on contrasting ideas between you and Andrew and developed into a question to see what OTHERS — who had not yet expressed their opinions — thought.

    You keep asking about other reasons

    To be more blunt, I’m trying to get you to talk about the actual question, rather than to insist that I’ve libeled you without actually talking about you. As I’ve said, you are free not to comment, but I’d prefer that your comments move from you to the actual question — which is whether or not leaders should share more personal failings with the masses.

    Drawing the lines before you get to self-disclosure protects from the temptation of the zealous to take things further.

    I agree with your assessment as to how those in our culture tend to react. My thought is that, as I said above, the problem may stem in the fact that the line is NOT drawn “before you get to self-disclosure,” but rather at selective, positive, faith-presenting self-disclosure the vast majority of the time. Thus the unbalanced appearance.

    As mentioned, the cult of personality is already too strong. I don’t know that humanizing diminishes that, actually.

    You may be right about that. Given the starting point, it may make it worse.

    And perhaps a demand for humanizing is not just a demand for hope, but is also alloyed with a bit of schadenfreude and rationalization.

    I’m sure this is true in some instances. I’m not sure extreme reactions can be avoided on either side, though.

    I’d also note that the post title talks about the sharing of sins, but it seems no one is really calling for that.

    That *is* what I’m talking about, but I like Andrew G’s take on it — not exposing explicit events, but just generally acknowledging that we all struggle with righteousness.

    In some instances, however, I can see how specific counsel and support can be derived from explicit stories, but it would require care to do so appropriately.

  34. Alison Moore Smith on July 27, 2010 at 1:37 am

    Andrew G, we were posting at the same time. Sad, because I could have just said “ditto” to your comment and my response would have been better. :) Spot on.

  35. Wm Morris on July 27, 2010 at 7:18 am

    ” it’s obvious that it isn’t about *you* at all, since YOUR position was already clear.”

    Not at all. In the blogging world, when you bait with a title like that and call out an actual commenter (and selectively present your interpretation of their position outside the flow of the original conversation), you make it about them. You didn’t have to use the word self-flagellation in the post. You didn’t have to quote from my comment in your original post. You could have title the posted “Do Leaders Present Themselves as Paragons of Virtue?” And in spite of your veneer of reasonableness, it was clear from the outset whose position you preferred. Also: I don’t appreciate the use of all caps. Either you are shouting or talking down to me. Or at least that’s what is the case in most online communities. I expect you’ll say that it’s just for emphasis, in which case, I’d say, thanks, but I don’t really need it in spite of that fact the clearly you feel that I do.

    That’s all fine — that’s the rough and tumble world of online discourse. But don’t pretend that it’s otherwise.

    ——

    “Wm Morris, you seem to be saying that this humanity of our leaders ought to be underplayed, that we ought to see them as perfect in all practical ways.”

    No, I’m saying that your perception of their humanity may not be what the correct perception of humanity is to present to the world at this point in time. I’m also saying that deriving perfection of the leaders from their words is making a logical leap that isn’t borne out by what they are saying, why they are saying it, and why they are authorized to say it.

    As for the creepy anecdotes — that’s fine. That’s your experience. Mine hasn’t been the same.

    As for the pastor speak — in my experiences with that sort of thing, it’s just as emotionally coercive if not more so as any other form of leader-to-flock discourse.

    And I continue to maintain that we actually get moments of humanity from our leaders.

  36. Andrew G. on July 27, 2010 at 8:17 am

    (got work in a few so i’ll be brief)

    “No, I’m saying that your perception of their humanity may not be what the correct perception of humanity is to present to the world at this point in time.”
    it’s the kind of perception of leaders I find in scripture.

    “I’m also saying that deriving perfection of the leaders from their words is making a logical leap that isn’t borne out by what they are saying, why they are saying it, and why they are authorized to say it.”
    and yet church members as a whole do make that logical leap.

    “And I continue to maintain that we actually get moments of humanity from our leaders.”
    true, it’s just not counteracting the culture enough, sadly.

    try this little experiment: next time you’re in SS, EQ, or Sacrament, note how many times Christ is mentioned (let alone trusting in Christ) as compared to how many times the Prophet is mentioned, and then watch this trend for a few weeks.

  37. Wm Morris on July 27, 2010 at 8:33 am

    We live in very different wards, apparently.

  38. Bob on July 27, 2010 at 8:57 am

    #35: “And I continue to maintain that we actually get moments of humanity from our leaders”.
    I think political leaders-U.S.Presidents, when that want to look human, show themselves on TV eating a big hamburger. Maybe instead of openly telling of possible sins, GAs should just show themselves eating a hamburger?

  39. Wm Morris on July 27, 2010 at 9:09 am

    And not in winter!

  40. Paul on July 27, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Our prophet not only shows his humanity by talking about stuff that ticks off his wife, but he also prophetically knows what she will say to him after his excursion from the written text of his remarks. This shows lots of humanity but also lots of prophetness. I think he balances the issues pretty well here, better than our theoretical discussion.

  41. Stephen Hardy on July 29, 2010 at 9:15 am

    This post makes me think of one of my favorite “truisms.” Most of you have probably already heard this:

    What is the difference betweens Catholics and Mormons.

    Catholics are taught that the Pope is infallble. But no-one really believes it.

    Mormons are taught that the Prophet is fallible. But no-one really believes it.