Harold Bloom, the Byrds, and Me

November 30, 2011 | 16 comments
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About a week ago, James posted a reflection on Harold Bloom’s (frankly awful) New York Times op-ed. Rather than directly responding, though (other than expressing his rightful disappointment), James engaged with Dr. Bloom’s allegation that Mormonism and Protestantism are converging. Though concerned about such a convergence, James ultimately (and rightly, I believe) doesn’t think we’re headed inexorably down that path.

That said, Dr. Bloom is right that the Church has changed a lot between 1844 and 2011.[fn1] Change is inevitable and, as Ecclesiastes tells us, is to be expected. And, frankly, there have been a number of changes that, even if they risk our Protestantization, I’m really happy about.

And I’m not talking Official Declaration 1 or 2 stuff—I’m going to assume that most of us are grateful that polygamy is no longer the sine qua non of the faithful member, and that all of us are grateful that we don’t live in the world of a racially-based Priesthood ban. And I’m also not talking about our wishlist of things we want changed. I assume most of us have one or two, even if they’re just wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if kinds of things.

No, I’m talking about less-prominent practices that the Church once had that have left. And there are two that leap to my mind:

Missionary Finances

I’m actually not talking about the standardization of mission expenses, even though that’s pretty nice, too. I’m actually talking about going on missions with purse and/or scrip. See, throughout the 19th century, and even through the first half of the 20th, missionaries would travel without purse or scrip. And that practice undoubtedly helped connect modern missionaries to early Christian missionaries, making the latter-day and the ancient churches that much more connected. But really, I liked having reais in my wallet as I went preaching in Brazil.[fn2]

Come to Zion

I’m also glad that the meaning of Zion has shifted from a literal physical gathering to a broader sense of Zion as being where the Church is organized. Why? Because I liked growing up in California, living in New York, Virginia, and Chicago. Moreover, I like that we’re full participants[fn3] in the world, rather than being cloistered and physically set apart from it. I realize that physical gathering has its power and its place. But I’m glad it’s gone.

[fn1] Between 1992 and 2011, on the other hand, not so much. This is beside the point, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what happened between 1992, when Bloom was gung-ho on Mormonism, and today, when we’re, in his words, on the path to “just one more Protestant sect.” The only major changes the Church has instituted during those two decades that I can think of are (1) the introduction of the mini-temple, (2) the changed logo, and (3) the Perpetual Education Fund. But none of these support the Protestantization of Mormonism. As James points out, the temple is a distinctly un-Protestant institution, and the mini-temples have made temples significantly more pervasive in the Mormon world. The emphasis of Jesus in the logo is mostly cosmetic; it may reflect a renewed emphasis on Jesus, but that’s far from un-Mormon. And the Perpetual Education Fund, while it looks a lot like microcredit (which, as far as I know, isn’t a particularly Protestant institution), also looks a lot like the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which is a particularly and historically Mormon institution.

Or maybe he’s thinking about the How Wide the Divide crowd; while that project seems to have a lot of BYU support, it hasn’t crept into my Church experience in any material way.

That’s not to say that the Church hasn’t changed, and changed significantly, since Joseph Smith’s days. But I can’t think of any material shift between 1992 and today. But again, this is all tangential to the point of the post.

[fn2] Okay, just one more: I’m glad we initiate the mission process, rather than being called during conferences. And that missions don’t last much more than 2 years. And that I won’t be asked to leave my wife and children to go on a mission. I do like a lot about our current mission procedures, especially in light of the way it used to be.

[fn3] I actually probably don’t mean full participants, but I do think that our rhetorical opposition to “the World” is overblown. Sure, there’s bad that we need to avoid (or, better yet, fix). Still, but for the World, we wouldn’t have jazz or iPhones or the Doughnut Vault or a ton of other things that I appreciate on a regular basis. And I’m glad I can both be a faithful and believing member of the Church and eat simply amazing doughnuts in Chicago while listening to jazz on my iPhone, or whatever.

16 Responses to Harold Bloom, the Byrds, and Me

  1. Ben S on November 30, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Change isn’t foreign to the Church or its rhetoric. For example, this idea got pushed very strongly in the Ensign by James Allen back in 1979, which covered at least one unusual (and little known) doctrinal development, adoption.
    http://lds.org/ensign/1979/07/line-upon-line?lang=eng

  2. WillF on November 30, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Don’t we still believe in an eventual literal physical gathering of Zion? At least I assume so because I taught that a couple weeks ago in EQ based on what it says here in Gospel Principles.

    I do agree that jazz music is true.

  3. Adam Greenwood on November 30, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Between 1992 and 2011, on the other hand, not so much. This is beside the point, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what happened between 1992, when Bloom was gung-ho on Mormonism, and today, when we’re, in his words, on the path to “just one more Protestant sect.” The only major changes the Church has instituted during those two decades that I can think of are (1) the introduction of the mini-temple, (2) the changed logo, and (3) the Perpetual Education Fund.

    Those are major programmatic changes. The change on greater emphasis on Christ and his grace probably happened in that time frame. I would say that’s also the time frame for a major de-emphasis on apocalypticism. Why Harold Bloom would care that Mormons look less at the End Times, though, I do not know.

  4. Dave on November 30, 2011 at 11:11 am

    For obvious practical reasons, the Church has increasingly stressed its inclusion within broader Christianity to bolster its right to use the label “Christian,” largely in response to constant if largely incoherent statements by Evangelicals that Mormons are not Christian. [Bloom makes the point that by the standards of historic Christianity, no one is Christian anymore.] But I doubt the Mormon half of that Mormon-Evangelical dialogue is what Bloom is reacting to. I don’t think it is the changed LDS public religious rhetoric — now disfavoring strong statements emphasizing Mormon exceptionalism — he doesn’t like.

    It is more likely Bloom is simply reacting to the prominent role that conservative politics has come to play in LDS culture and doctrine over the past two decades, mirroring what has happened to Evangelicals.

  5. Jettboy on November 30, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Actually, even in 1992 he didn’t much like any of the Mormon leadership past the Brigham Young Era. What did change is they went from boring squares to dangerous theocratic Capitalists.

  6. john f. on November 30, 2011 at 11:44 am

    The Bloom piece is truly bizarre and more internally contradictory the more I consider it. What a fall for a previously notable scholar!

    As for the change between 1992 and 2011, could Bloom be referring to changes in the identity of the Q12 in which they are more heavily skewed towards business types — and perhaps to the further corporatization of the Church in its policies, etc.? That was the other underlying theme of his essay — the plutocracy.

  7. John AC on November 30, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    I wouldn’t say that Bloom was “gung-ho on Mormonism” twenty years ago. He did praise Joseph Smith as a religious genius, but in the context of 19th-century American religion, which is different from praising contemporary Mormonism.

    That’s not to say that Bloom’s piece wasn’t a hatchet job, but I don’t think it’s accurate to characterize it as a change in position, as many people in the bloggernacle seem to be doing. With that said, who the hell cares what Harold Bloom thinks? As a literature professor, I can tell you that other serious scholars stopped taking him seriously at least thirty years ago. He’s a blow hard.

  8. Sam Brunson on November 30, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks everyone.
    Adam, I agree that my examples are significant programmatic changes (except the logo). But they’re not changes that have moved us in the direction of mainline Protestantism. I like your idea about the demise of apocalypticism, but I’m not sure that we were terribly apocalyptic in the 80s or 90s; at the most, my church experience (outside, maybe, of seminary) featured very little discussion of end-times.

    Jettboy and John AC, interesting that Bloom wasn’t so much pro-LDS Church as pro-Joseph Smith 20 years ago. He didn’t link to his prior article (yes, I know, 1992 was basically pre-internet), and his characterization of his prior position implies that he was pro-Church. So even if his position hasn’t changed in the ensuing 20 years, he hints that it has changed significantly. (Also, John, thanks for the color about Bloom’s scholarly reputation. Still, he’s a public intellectual (that is, he teaches at Yale and a lot of us have heard his name), and the NYTimes is a pretty significant organ; I suspect the NYTimes platform, as much as anything, is why the Bloggernacle is taking him so seriously.)

    john f., interesting idea about his focus on the makeup of the Q12; is it really more business-person oriented? (Serious question: in the 80s, I probably couldn’t have named the members of the Q12. My excuse? I was young.) Still, based on the rest of the piece, I’m not ready to give him the benefit of the doubt regarding his knowledge about the Q12.

  9. Sam Brunson on November 30, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Dave, I suspect that you’re right, and he’s trying to couch his opposition to conservative politics in a Mormon-church-has-changed-for-the-worse frame. Which may well explain the awkwardness of his whole endeavor.

    WillF, notwithstanding the fact that it’s still in some manuals (that, frankly, are pretty old, notwithstanding the recent revisions), I’m not convinced that we continue to believe in an eventual literal physical gathering. I get that it used to be a central feature of Mormonism. And I get that there are people who believe that all Church members (or some sizeable number, or something) will return to Jackson County, MS. And it may be. But over the last long time, the Church has expended a whole lot of effort saying, the concept of Zion has changed, it doesn’t require you to come to Utah, and please stay and strengthen the Church where you are. Moreover, there are temples and meetinghouses and other infrastructure all over; I think the Gospel Principles manual’s vestigial continuance of the idea is basically a result of our inability to explicitly disavow most things that have been taught in the past. Though I acknowledge that I could be wrong.

    Ben, thanks for the 30-year-old reference to continual change. I suspect, fwiw, that this is central to what Bloom doesn’t get: that change is a feature, not a bug, of the Gospel, and that the goal isn’t somehow to return to the church as it was in Kirtland, or Missouri, or Nauvoo, or as it (didn’t actually) existed in Jesus’ time, or whatever your favorite period in Church history was.

  10. Andrew on November 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    @9 A quick observation related to the physical gathering.

    The True to the Faith manual, published by the Church in 2004, mentions in the entry on Zion that members should build Zion wherever they live as well as that Zion, the New Jerusalem will be built in Jackson County, Misouri. And Elder Christofferson taught in the October 2008 Conference that we are preparing for the day when the New Jerusalem will arise. Thus it seems that a physical gathering of some people in Missouri is still expected. But even the Doctrine and Covenants makes clear that not all the Saints will gather to Jackson County but will also gather in stakes, as they are currently encouraged to do. (see D&C 101:20-21). So while there has definitely been a change in emphasis on the topic, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the gathering to Zion is just a thing found in old manuals.

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Joseph Smith emphasized that one major reason for the gathering was to have a critical mass of Saints to build and use temples. Given the unique nature of many of the original doctrines, physical proximity was needed to support communications and a critical level of unity and joint action, for projects like (a) temples, (b) universities, (c) welfare projects,(d) missionary training, (e) production of books, magazines, and training media, (f) family history records and (g) Tabernacle/Conference Center and Tabernacle Choir.

    As membership has grown worldwide, we still have regional centers, like Laie (university, temple, Polynesian Cultural Center) or Sao Paolo (temple, stake center, missionary training center, other offices).

    In a Millenial period, when Christ will be taking the reins of civil government, a new center in Jackson County will oversee the Western Hemisphere. I would expect that many Church HQ functions would relocate there, but in terms of the basic member infrastructure to support it, it should be noted that the growth of the Church in the region around Jackson County, in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas is already about 150,000, more than 10 times what it was when the Church was attempting to establish Zion there in the 1830s. In other words, by following the counsel of the 20th Century prophets, the Saints have already “gathered” a large number of people in and around the future center stake of Zion.

    Additionally, since we can expect a markedly higher conversion rate to the Church when that happens, the dispersed stakes of Zion around the Americas and in the rest of the world will become a leadership cadre for the many new members in every country and region.

  12. WillF on November 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Am I gonna have to check in with the Blogosphere every time I teach priesthood so I don’t lack nuance?

  13. WillF on November 30, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    My assumption was that when they reviewed the manual recently they would have changed things like the following if they were no longer considered doctrine…

    The physical gathering of Israel means that the Israelites will be “gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise” (see 2 Nephi 9:2). The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh will be gathered to the land of America. The tribe of Judah will return to the city of Jerusalem and the area surrounding it. The ten lost tribes will receive from the tribe of Ephraim their promised blessings (see D&C 133:26-35).

  14. Jax on November 30, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    I for one am very disappointed in the “physical gathering” aspect of the church. While I like not having everyone gather together to Utah, I think Saints should be gathering together within their ward and stake boundaries as living as groups (communes?) of saints. This would fit the proclamation of “the gathering place for the Mexicans is in Mexico…” criteria as well as making us able to meet the other gathering requirements/blessings in the D&C and temple.

  15. Left Field on November 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    If we’re going to gather to Jackson County, MS instead of Jackson County, MO, I’m in favor; it’s already in my stake.

  16. EAJarred on December 8, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I think nothing has changed in Prof. Bloom’s opinions wrt Mormonism. That is, I think he simply was describing the process of Mormonism’s birth through his distinct “literary history” lens, neither loving it nor hating it. And, further, observed (at least accdg to my prolly uninformed reading of him) that Mormonism, closer as it is to its origins, is/was more like ancient Abrahamic and other prophetic religions than most other current religious communities. While his more recent piece just happens to touch on politics–and, so, touches on Bloom’s underlying distaste for theocracy/theoconservatism–IMO, his opinion about the religious genius of J. Smith etc. prolly remain unchanged..